Book Review of The Silence of God by Gale Sears

Book Review: Gale Sears; The Silence of God

The Silence of God

By: Gale Sears

Publisher:Deseret Book

Published: June 15th, 2010

ISBN#978-1-60641-655-6

Hardcover: 400 pages

I’ve been waiting since mid June for The Silence of God to finally become available on Kindle. Every time I’ve entered the BYU bookstore I’ve eyed it with great interest. I will be serving my mission in Russia and so of course Russia is of particular interest these days. I also took a course on Early Russian History a few years ago which focused on Russian Literature along with Primary source letters written to the Tsars by Peasants and other petitioners. The course went right up to the events of the Russian Revolution and we spent a lot of time looking at the build up and social ferment for the revolt. I have long therefore been fascinated by the particular period described by Gale Sears in her new work of Historical Fiction.

Sears story focuses on the Lindolf Family. The Lindolfs were the only Latter Day-Saint family known in Russia during the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Specifically, the story focuses on one of the Lindolf daughters Agnes and a fictional best friend named Natasha Ivanovna Gavrilova. Natasha is a devoted Bolshevik and daughter of a well-known professor. The story looks at the tension between Agnes’ faith and the ideals of the secular soviet state that emerged. Most of the story actually centers of Natasha’s crisis of faith as she is challenged by a copy of James Talmadge’s Articles of Faith given to her by Agnes’ father.

I purchased the book this afternoon and basically read it in one sitting. It is a very readable work filled with (some) well-developed characters and lots of great historical details. I certainly recommend it as work of Latter Day Saint Fiction that does not shy away from difficult emotional situations. Some of the scenes are heartbreaking and the fates of characters you love and care about do not always end up for the better. This is a rather bleak novel at times, as characters prayers go unanswered and tragedy is heavy (though hardly as bleak as real events perhaps would dictate). Yet, this is also a work of incredible faith through the most difficult times. The Lindlof family is kept alive through unspeakable tragedy due to their deep devotion to God.  I loved that Sears portrays faith as deeply impacting the lives of her religious characters. The outward manifestations of faith are apparent: The Lindlof’s administer blessings when faced with hardship or sickness, while her Russian Orthodox characters cross themselves. Perhaps more importantly, her characters speak a language of faith, which permeates their dialogue. This is a quality often missing in novels written by secular authors and it was much appreciated.

The characters of Agnes and Natasha are particularly well developed. Natasha’s inner thoughts as she struggles between disbelief and the possibility of a forbidden faith are vivid and well illustrated.  Additionally, some of the other characters turn out to be more rounded than one would first expect. Natasha’s parents, for instance, appear at first to be simple caricatures of faith versus reason, but both display a very human depth at various parts of the novel.

Intellectually, the book presents interesting questions about the ideal society. Sears shows the passionate appeal of Soviet ideals as she presents impoverished peasant conditions contrasted with the opulence of the Romanovs. About midway through the Book, a house that had been lived in by Lindlofs is given to four impoverished families to live in. It is clear that there is something unjust about such an unequal wealth distribution. Yet, Agne’s father also powerfully argues that the revolution and its ideals are bound to fail because “You cannot change a man’s nature or behavior by outside means. There must be a change of man’s heart, and only God can do that.” We see examples of this as Sears describes corrupt Bolshevik officials getting personal gain through the confiscation of the property of the wealthy. Yet, while Sears clearly rejects the Soviet ideology and even has one of her characters describe it as counter to the will of an Apostle, she allows us to feel its intellectual vibrancy and to understand its appeal. This is quite an accomplishment for an LDS author.

Yet, the book is not without its flaws. The facts of the Lindlof’s story would have been fascinating in and of itself, but Sears feels it necessary to insert the Lindolf characters into every conceivable event of Russian history in the period.  Early on, one of the sons is injured in the events of Bloody Sunday. After that, two of her sons fight in the Russian army and desert right before the final defeat of the Russian army. Still later, the family happens to be present in Yekaterinburg right as the Tsar and his family is brutally murdered. Sears twists the real life history of this family to put them conveniently in the path of historical events. Also, several worthwhile historical events in the lives of the family such as repeated visits from Swedish mission presidents to the family are left out of the novel. The novel thus focuses on grand historical events at the expensive of authentic events that could have given it more character.

Additonally, Sears is not content with real life drama and so structures very contrived plot devices. For instance, when Agnes and her family is in trouble, she leaves Natasha with a series of riddles, which lead her on a treasure hunt across Petrograd/ St. Petersburg. These devices strain credulity and are likely unnecessary.

More significantly, Natasha’s intellectual struggle, while mostly gripping, is also a bit contrived and convenient. She is able to interact with Soviet leaders such as Trotsky and to be such a renowned propaganda writer that she gets invited on a Red Train, ( Train that went throughout the countryside spreading soviet ideals) but also susceptible to the impact of a single book and a single powerful idea from Mr. Lindlof. While her high profile position certainly makes things more interested and lends itself to certain plot devices, it takes away somewhat from the credibility of what we are reading.

Ultimately, I think that Sears would have created an even tighter and more powerful novel if she stuck closer to historical fact. Her contrived situations make the powerful intellectual and emotional conversion she describes feel less than real. It is a shame, because Sears really gets the inner intellectual struggle of someone considering the God for the first time in a very difficult and unwelcoming setting. Her well developed characters deserve better than such artifice. Yet, the book is still a very worthwhile look into an incredible family and a period of history that often is misunderstood and underappreciated.

PEW Mormon study analysis- Intolerance and room for improvement

I wrote this analysis with the northeast in mind, in particular my University Ward in Cambridge, MA, but I think what I write is equally if not more true elsewhere…

Reflection on the PEW study of members–An opportunity for Improvement
Daniel Ortner
7-26-09

In Honor of Pioneer Day, the Pew Forum has released a study entitled

A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S.

http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=427

There are some very encouraging facts about LDS members on the whole. It’s a pretty glowingly positive statistical portrait. In terms of religious attendance, faith in a personal deity, rates of in faith marriage etc., we stand above most faiths in our diligence. However, there are some negatives that i feel prudent to discuss. I write this with a special focus on applicability to the University Ward in a northeast setting. All of these findings should be tempered by the fact that members outside of Utah are less likely to be guilty of these faults.

“Geography appears to play a role in patterns of religious commitment among Mormons as well. Those who live in Utah differ from Mormons in other areas of the country in several ways. Utahans are much less likely than Mormons from other states to share their faith with others at least once a week (13% vs. 37%), they are more likely to say theirs is the one true faith (63% vs. 51%) and they more heavily favor preserving traditional beliefs and practices (77% vs. 63%). On many other core religion measures, however, there are few geographical differences.”

Additionally…

“There also are some political differences between Mormons in different geographic areas. In particular, Mormons in the western region of the U.S. are significantly more likely than Mormons from other regions to identify as Republican (68% vs. 55%). They also are more likely to say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases (72% vs. 62%; the figure among Mormons in Utah is 78%). There is no significant difference on other issues, such as the size of government and the best way to ensure peace.”

With that in mind, I still think that an exploration of some of the findings could really be beneficial in helping bring to light some of the challenges that our ward and wards in the northeast might face in regard to reaching out to potential members and ensuring that they are find fellowship and remain active once they become members.

“On most measures of religious commitment, Mormons under age 50 do not differ significantly from those aged 50 and older. The one exception is on the question of religious exclusivity. More than six-in-ten younger Mormons (62%) say theirs in the one true faith, compared with roughly half (48%) of Mormons 50 and older who say the same.”

Earlier in the study when this question first comes up, they mention that this question also included the notion that their faith was the only way to achieve salvation. I don’t like the idea that the youth is becoming more exclusive in their belief in the sole value of the LDS church. It goes against so much of what I think the beauty of the Plan of Salvation is. While we certainly hold that our faith is the most complete and the ultimate way for individuals to reach heaven ( or else we would not focus so much on missionary work), it is also vital for the value that other faiths play in the lives of their members. Those faiths do an enormous amount to build individual members up towards Jesus Christ and God. They lay a foundation upon which we later may grow. I worry that this statistic suggests that members are not approaching interfaith dialogue as an opportunity to learn from those with other views but instead approaching merely with the desire to convert.

Fortunately, members continue to participate in wonderful examples of interfaith dialogue and continue to build bridges between our faith and the faith of others. (Rachel Esplin’s words at the Personal Quests for A Purpose forum at Harvard are probably the best example of this. http://hillel.harvard.edu/media/videos/550)
More members should be encouraged to reach out with not just missionary hands

“Mormons also tend to be strict interpreters of their own religion. A majority (54%) says there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion, with 43% saying there is more than one way. Among the affiliated population overall, more than two-thirds (68%) say there is more than one way.”

This measure is not discussed in Geographic terms and I assume that those living in the northeast might be more likely to disagree with this statement, considering that they are living a lifestyle (Geographic, educational) that some Utah Mormons might already consider different from their idea. Still, this is an example of pretty breathtaking and very insidious arrogance. It is true of course, that we do have General Authorities and a church of continuing revelation in order to minimize conflict and discord, but holding this views ignores the prolific disagreement even among General Authorities on many gospel questions, and presupposes error in the views of everyone else. This attitude is clearly not healthy if we look to expand and reach out to potential converts from difficult backgrounds and with divergent world views. Of course, we need to emphasize the value of certain gospel basics, but we can not expect everyone to conform in all of their peripheral beliefs as well. Moreover, when we assume that our own lifestyle is correct, we ignore opportunity to learn and to take the good from the perspective of others. We risk leaving people feeling excluded.

“Two-thirds of Mormons (68%) say homosexuality should be discouraged rather than accepted by society. This is comparable to the figure among members of evangelical Protestant churches (64%) and Muslims (61%) but significantly higher than among members of historically black Protestant churches (46%). Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most likely to say homosexuality should be discouraged, with 76% expressing this view. Among the general population, only 40% say it should be discouraged, with half saying it should be accepted.”

I hope that this does not translate into open intolerance, but I am sure that it unfortunately does. It is clear we need to do a lot more to discourage homophobic and hateful attitudes and mores among members. Those struggling with homosexual tendencies and attractions are likely to become depressed, withdrawn and inactive because of these views. Living, working and attending church in Massachusetts, the first state in the nation to allow Gay Marriage, also provides some unique challenges that I am not sure that members are properly being prepared to face. We need to determine effective ways to reach out to LGBTQ members of our community and to invite rather than condemn. Our strong stance as a church against Same Sex Marriage needs to be given context by the fact that we live in a state that has openly allowed the practice for 6 years now. How are we as members supposed to reach view the committed long term marriages entered into by those of the same sex? How do we reach out to them in a non-judgmental fashion? These seem like difficult questions where I am sure that many members ( myself included) could use a bit more direction.

“Mormons are distinctive in their views on the origins of human life. When asked about the theory of evolution, only 22% of Mormons say it is the best explanation for human life, with three-in-four (75%) disagreeing. Only among one other major religious tradition – Jehovah’s Witnesses (90%) – does a higher proportion disagree that evolution is the best explanation for human life. The general public is more evenly divided on this question, with 48% saying it is the best explanation and 45% rejecting that position.”

This might have to do with the poor wording of the question, but I was taken a bit aback by this answer I know that BYU students learn about evolution in science courses so this cynical view of evolution is quite striking. I would like to see a question reworded to suggest that evolution is a good explanation for human life rather than the best. I think many more members probably believe it played a substantial role in the formation of life but is not THE BEST explanation. When trying to reach out to University students in the liberal northeast, however, I wonder if we can’t do more to build some kind of common ground. Our focus on naturalism and our disbelief in supernatural miracles (all acts of God are manipulations of natural forces) could perhaps be emphasized? I don’t offer any answers in this regard but bring up the question as an area deserving more exploration.

This is most disturbing of all…

“Political and social views are linked with church attendance among Mormons, as among the general population. Those who attend services at least once a week are more than 30 percentage points more likely than Mormons who attend less frequently to be Republican (73% vs. 39%) and oppose legal abortion (78% vs. 44%). In fact, among those who attend church less often, majority opinion leans in the opposite direction on these two items; pluralities of those who attend church less than once a week are Democrats (40%) and favor legal abortion (49%). The same is true with regard to opinion on the size of government; among weekly attenders, 61% support a smaller government while 31% prefer a larger government, and among less-frequent attenders, just 37% prefer a smaller government while 53% prefer a bigger government.

The link between church attendance and ideology is less pronounced than with party affiliation, but it is still substantial. Two-thirds of weekly attenders (66%) say they are conservative, compared with 40% of those who attend less often. There is also a significant difference when it comes to the question of the best way to ensure peace. Nearly twice as many weekly attenders (41% vs. 24%) say a strong military is more important than good diplomacy in ensuring peace.”

I find the idea that liberal members are much more likely to be inactive and non-attenders disturbing. Of course, those that view Liberal Mormons as illegitimate members ( a view that I have unfortunately heard uttered by members time and time again) could say that this just shows that Liberals are bad Mormons, but to me this seems to be glaringly false. It seems obvious, from my many talks with liberal mormon friends, that liberal views are treated with such intolerant criticism as to make liberal members actively uncomfortable. I actually quite enjoy political discussion and so I enjoy the challenges to my faith and the need to assert that for me liberal values and mormon values are equivalent, but I wonder how many visitors, investigators and members are turned away by these displays of intolerance.

Is there some hope for change in this study? The answer is tentatively yes. In a church that is becoming more and more convert heavy, a greater tide of liberalism is possible and even probably.

“There also are some differences between Mormons depending on whether they are converts or lifelong members. While majorities of converts and nonconverts alike identify as Republican and say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, converts are considerably less likely than nonconverts to do so (52% of converts are Republican vs. 69% of lifelong members, and 59% of converts oppose legal abortion vs. 74% of nonconverts). On other issues, such as size of government and best way to ensure peace, however, there are no significant differences between converts and lifelong Mormons.”

This is tempered by the finding that Converts are also much less likely to be active, marry in the temple etc…

“Converts to Mormonism also differ somewhat from lifelong Mormons in terms of religious commitment. Converts are less likely to attend church at least once a week compared with nonconverts (68% vs. 79%) and less likely to say theirs is the one true faith (46% vs. 61%), but are more likely to share their faith weekly (38% vs. 19%). On other measures of religious commitment converts tend to resemble non-converts.”

This study seems to me to show that as members we need to do a lot more to ensure member activity and retention among two specific subgroups. We need to ensure that we are providing fellowship for new converts. Many deal with family difficulty and opposition and if they do not feel that they have a family at church that they can be comfortable with they are more likely to fall away. We also need to ensure that church is not a hostile environment for those that hold differing political views. In the Northeast, these two goals are inexorably interlinked and this is especially true in Massachusetts one of the most partisan blue states in the country. Especially in Suffolk county ( Boston, Cambridge etc), we find an exceptionally high party affiliation index leaning towards the Democratic party ( 54.46 %!)

(http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/elepdf/st_county_town_enroll_breakdown_08.pdf)

With more and more of the young generation identifying itself as Liberal as opposed to Conservative ( http://people-press.org/report/517/political-values-and-core-attitudes), and those holding especially true in our region, in order for us to have success as a ward with missionary activity, we need to begin thinking of strategies to ensure that politics does not become a stumbling stone in the lives of potential converts.

I offer these reflections and thoughts humbly in prayer and with the sincere desire that they may be of some use to the ward or the stake in coordinating, training and planning missionary activity both by members and full time missionaries. I am so thankful for the role of the gospel in my life and hope to be able to contribute in some way to helping the gospel be more efficiently in the lives of those around me. It is because I truly believe that this church is true and could be such a poignant force for good in the lives everyone, that I offer this in the name of Jesus Christ

Amen