As a former LDS missionary myself, I’ve read or perused a number of books on the subject. Before I went on my mission, there were some I read through to try and get a handle on what I was getting myself into. After the fact, I’ve read responses and reactions to missions online and in books. I’ve watched movies that try to depict missions, to varying degrees of success.
So when I first moved to Maine and started working at the University of Maine at Farmington, I was surprised to be approached by one of the professors and discover he was working on his own book on Mormon missionaries. He wasn’t Mormon, for one thing. Was this going to be some sort of smear campaign? (It wouldn’t be the first.) But Rob Lively seemed like a nice enough fellow, and I was willing to talk to just about anyone about the church, so I agreed when he asked to interview me for the book.
Through the course of the interview, I discovered just how serious he was about this. He’d sat down with over 200 missionaries. He’d interviewed President Hinckley twice. He’d gone to multiple MTCs and gotten permission to sit in on classes. He’d spoken to Elders, Sisters, Mission Presidents, Senior Missionaries, General Authorities. He was really doing his homework on this one.
Why was he doing it? I asked him. He said it was because he felt like so many people casually dismiss the Mormon missionary experience, unable or unwilling to look at missionaries as actual people with desires and dreams, instead content to classify they as nuisances to get rid of when they show up at your door. He wanted to write an unbiased, outsider’s view book on the subject so that people who aren’t Mormon can find out more about them in a non-threatening way.
Eight years later, the book is out at last.
I was quite surprised to see the final version. It’s much thicker than I expected. Most of the Mormon missionary books you see at Deseret Book or the like are brief affairs. Maybe two hundred pages, filled with quotes from church leaders and some basic advice for how to succeed on a mission. Rob’s book, The Mormon Missionary: Who Is That Knocking at My Door?, is 576 pages. It’s a tome, people. I hefted it in my hand and thought he’d really gone overboard. How in the world could anyone write that much about Mormon missionaries and keep it interesting for the whole of the book?
It’s a good thing I didn’t say that out loud, because Rob proved me very, very wrong.
I started the book Friday night. I was mostly finished by the end of Sunday. And I wasn’t reading anything I didn’t already know. I’d been on a mission, after all. Why would 576 pages on the experience be so captivating to me?
Because it’s accurate. More accurate than any book or movie on missionaries that I’ve come across. It covers every single aspect of the experience you can think of, from preparing for a mission, getting the call, going to the MTC, learning a language, getting companions, transfers, teaching, baptizing, service, coming home. You name it. Even more surprising, he easily and fluently uses mission lingo. Accurately. You can tell he’s been talking to missionaries for decades. He’s also attended church services here in Maine many a time. I’ve since gotten to know Rob and respect his approach. He really did set out to depict a mormon mission without any other agenda. There’s no anti-Mormon undercurrent, but neither is there a “you all better go on a mission because they’re doing God’s work and this is all true!” overtone either.
He doesn’t paint things too rosy or too bleak, but he also doesn’t shy away from the good times or the bad times of a mission, and almost all of it is rooted in actual missionary experiences and quotes.
Who would I recommend this book to? Just about anybody. Mormon, non-Mormon, missionary or ex-missionary or pre-missionary. If you want to understand what it is those guys in white shirts, ties, and name tags are going through, or the girls in dresses and name tags, then this is the book for you. If you’d like to think back on your own mission experience, this will touch on it in many ways, even while recognizing that each mission is unique and different.
I’m definitely giving the book to my kids to read once they’re old enough. I think it’s the best mission prep book that can be written, and I don’t say that lightly.
Before I left on my mission, the best piece of advice anyone gave me was this: “If you can think of it, a missionary has done it, and is probably doing it right now.” For good or bad, I found that to be true. This book encapsulates that in a way only a 576 page book could. Is it too long? Not at all. It covers the whole of the missionary experience, and it does so accurately and completely. It turns out that missionary experience is a whole lot more complex than I initially thought it was.
(*Full disclosure: as I mentioned above, I was interviewed for the book, as was Denisa. Both of our experiences ended up in various places in the book, though we’re not mentioned by name. (Rob keeps things fairly anonymous.) Still, if you’re looking through it and know Denisa and me well, you can usually pick out what we said. Denisa’s the only person from Slovakia interviewed for the book, and while there were a couple of missionaries interviewed who served in Germany, my pieces were easy for me to recognize. In each case, he treated my interview fairly and accurately. Did I like the book more because I liked seeing what I had said? Maybe. But I don’t think that really made a huge difference in my opinion of the book in the end.)
Well, now I’ve prattled on about this book for over 1,000 words. Have I gushed enough? Bottom line is that I encourage you all to go and read this book. If you have any questions after you’ve read it, I’m happy to answer any I can. Rob’s also going to be speaking locally about the book on May 14th, I believe. Should be good.
After you’ve read it, let me know what you thought.