The Accidental Terrorist, Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, William Shunn

Over the month I took to read this book, I recommended it to twelve people. My husband was the first, and he’d finished it before I got through the third chapter. Two of the people I told were former Mormons themselves, and they not only wanted a copy but also told me they were going to pick it up for a few of their family members and friends back in Utah. The fact that I spread the word far and wide makes an odd kind of sense given this was the memoir of a questioning young man striking out on his mission in the great white north.

accidental-750pxI grew up with several Mormon friends (the Church of Latter Day Saints shared a parking lot with my high school, so we had maybe more than the average number of Mormon students for a small town in New Hampshire). Every single one of them could be described as the nicest person I ever met. Unfailingly friendly, kind, and considerate, I was never prosthelytized to or even subject to any conversation about God while with them.

Looking back, I don’t know whether it’s just that teenagers – even those growing up in a religion that expects generous time to be spent on the topic of conversion – just want to blend, to survive those four years without being labeled or judged, or if it’s that the specific people who would be friends with me were a little less devout. All I knew about them then was that we had fun goofing around in class and at play practices, and that they belonged to a church that required a lot more time than mine did.

It wasn’t until I started reading this book that I had any real concept of the history of the Mormon church. Shunn’s perspective is fascinating because he grew up loving and fearing his religion in equal measure. He had a great respect for those in authority and accepted the lessons he was taught until adulthood. I suspect that some of the information he shares in the book is considered sacred to Mormons, and his writing about it prompted a two-fold reaction in me.

On the one hand, I was incredibly curious about the secret rituals of the church. Ever since I first went to a service with one of my best friends, who’s Greek Orthodox, and was told women were never permitted to go behind a certain screen in the sanctuary, I’ve known I have an obsession for peeking behind the curtain. What could possibly be so sacred? A part of me burns to know, I’m sure in part because my own church is the complete opposite – everything on the table, free to access for anyone regardless of where they might be on their journey with God.

On the other hand, I have a deep respect for all religions, and although I don’t agree with every element of every faith, I do believe people have a right to practice with a sense of safety. People should be able to relax into their faith, to feel secure enough that they can explore a relationship with God, if they so choose. To make naked another faith against the will of its members makes me uncomfortable.

Shunn does an admirable job of balancing this, at least for me. That being said, I’m not a Mormon and have no concept of the history or tenets taught to members, so I recognize that I’m speaking about this as a wholly unaffected outsider. In that position, I found both his personal journey and the extensive history of the church and its founders to be fascinating. He pokes a little fun at the forefathers of the church but is respectful of his contemporaries. Both his story and Joseph Smith’s were absolutely captivating, and I intentionally only allowed myself to read a bit at a time so I could process what I was learning.

I realize it would be in poor taste to make a joke about bringing this book from door to door, but it’s truly been impossible not to want to share it with as many people as I can. If you’re looking for a book to rev up for fall after an indulgent summer, this is it.

3 thoughts on “The Accidental Terrorist, Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, William Shunn

  1. I also grew up with Mormons and am in fact married to one who is terribly lapsed. I am Wife #3, serially, definitely not polygamally. I have also done some background reading about the religion in the hopes of feeling a little closer to the rest of the family that I married into. I didn’t get there, but I’ve always loved and generally felt comfortable with them anyway. On the basis of your review, I looked up a bit about the author and other reviews of the book, which I found, at least on Goodreads to be mostly biased in the author’s favor. Having said that, you may already know that Shunn mostly writes science fiction, left the Mormon Church in 1995 and developed one of the earliest ex-Mormon web sites. One review said “Oh lord, I read about this book on John Scalzi’s website feature “The Big Idea”. Somehow I thought it was fiction and included an alien invasion along with the Mormon missionaries. (A book I would still like to read.)” I myself first misread the title of your review and thought you meant The Accidental Tourist.

    “It reminded me of my time in the Peace Corps. It cemented my thought that the Mormons would be wise to change the nature of the mission. If it were community service I bet they’d attract a lot more converts, keep more members and just generally be more inspiring.” From personal experience with some of these more zealous folks, I agree.

    1. An alien invasion with Mormon missionaries would be fabulous! Maybe we can convince Shunn to write it – he seems like he would be the perfect candidate – unless you want to take a stab at it first, that is?!

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