“He was gripping the steering wheel very hard. The levity had gone out of his voice. The intensity of his remembering frightened her a little. His face, in the glow of the instrument panel, was set in the long lines of a man who was traveling a hated country he could not completely leave.”

Stephen King, ‘Salem’s Lot

Never mind the plot of Stephen King’s novel. The above quote is me wandering back through the Mormonism of my childhood: McConkie Mormonism—in other words, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it existed in the 1970s and ‘80s. Especially through the sermons of apostle Bruce R. McConkie, it was a sometimes stern and often outspoken religion. With no internet backlash to worry about, it tended to lay things on the line.

There was much sincerity and homespun beauty in McConkie Mormonism, but there was also darkness. From the pulpit in general conference, murder and homosexuality were placed side by side in a line-up of most grievous sins. Native American equaled Lamanite, and make no mistake, black skin meant Cain’s curse.[1] Growing up white and straight in the suburbs, I took these teachings for granted. To this day, I occasionally miss the bold testifying of McConkie Mormonism, though not the above doctrines. Being Mormon felt invigorating, a manly mix of the spirit of prophecy and the spirit of 1776.

McConkie Mormonism was a religion I proudly took to New England on my mission, only to realize it was as human and fault-ridden as any other faith system. Yet in the dark night of that realization, Mormonism somehow became even more precious to me. I clung to it, and still do sometimes for nostalgia’s sake. For me, Mormonism has come to feel a bit like a small Maine town in a Stephen King novel—haunted, yet strangely charming.

“There’s little good in sedentary small towns. Mostly indifference spiced with an occasional vapid evil…”

King is being harsh with this quote, but he has a point. Beginning with my mission, I’ve spent significant amounts of my adult life in small towns. Some folks lift them up, claiming they exhibit a purity big cities lack. That’s just rural chauvinism though. Small towns lack purity, and they exhibit all the dangers of cities: crime, addiction, unemployment, homelessness, and abuse of power.

I’m not saying rural towns are inferior. Compare any given small town to any given big city, and the small town may be a much better place overall. Or it may be much worse. There is no fundamental superiority to be had. Wherever we abide, we’re only human. We can be quite wonderful; we can also be rotten.

“For the first time in his life he felt the slow, terrible beat and swell of the ages and saw his life as a dim and glimmering spark in an edifice which, if seen clearly, might drive all men mad.”

From any vantage point—the small town, the metropolis, or a kingdom of god on Earth—the universe proves too big and too complicated for us to make sense of it all. We cannot make it stable, nor answer for every fault which appears. So, we try to avoid the darkness, at least to put it off for another day. Many times we have built a holy of holies, limited entrance to a chosen few, and told ourselves this would keep the monsters out.

A Disclaimer

If the above reads too dreary, please keep in mind the novel I pulled the quotes from depicts a small group of New Englanders fending off vampires. ‘Salem’s Lot is a horror story and a pretty good one. The tension is purposefully heightened, but the underlying dynamics are real and relevant.

[1] For the clearest example of Elder McConkie closely associating homosexuality and murder, and also for his connecting the Priesthood Ban with Cain’s descendants, see his April 1980 General Conference address: The Coming Tests and Trials and Glory.

Questions for Discussion

Think of a book you’ve read which creates a mesmerizing sense of place. Why did it mesmerize you?

Think of a place you cherish, even though you know it has serious problems. Why do you cherish it?