Review: Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, “Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer & Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order)”

A couple of years ago I spent an afternoon digging weeds from my lawn, sweating into a soupy heat with podcasts for company. The talk-worn topics of online Latter-day Saint discussion skated past–power and privilege, margin and center, faithfulness and critique, one familiar beat after another. In a moment, it dawned on me that this guest was speaking with a rare candor and originality. On issue after issue, she delivered incisive analysis together with warm, but never sentimental, description of the immersive quality of a Latter-day Saint ward. I had never heard my own soul-grounding experience of lived religion articulated with such light.

I dropped my spade immediately and checked the show notes. It was Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye. I went inside and wrote her a fan letter. I never did finish the weeds. 

I recognized Melissa’s name when I saw it. I had read several blog posts under her byline, each tackling a problem in church life with compassion and expertise and a common-sense realism about the work of making community. Now, with her voice in my ears, I took the time to place her professionally and personally. Distinguished academic pedigree, historian of Chinese religion, university professor in New Zealand. Like me, Melissa combined PhD and childbearing; like me, she has four children. Unlike me, she has an acclaimed book in her field and a lauded teaching career. 

Her surname led me to suspect that our connections go further. I grew up hearing my Utah-farm-boy-turned-attorney father tell us about his childhood in Gunnison, Utah. I knew of his brilliant friend Inouye, a multi-generational Japanese American whose unusual family journey brought him to rural Sanpete County. Certainly this must be Melissa’s extended family.  It was. Melissa’s parents, like my own, eventually found themselves in Southern California, where they raised large families in the Mormon communities nestled between the San Anas and the Pacific. Melissa grew up just a few years younger and a few interchanges south on the Golden State freeway.

It’s probably coincidence that I share roots in these places, the mountain-ringed Gunnison valley and the coastal chaparral of southern California, with a person whose love for our common faith is rooted in the same emotional soils as my own. But it doesn’t feel like it. The delight of singing with children, the satisfaction of sweeping a gym floor after a ward dinner, the oxygen of sisters who give and receive one another in trust–these are humble substances of my religious life. To encounter them in her writing still warm with the plain grace of life, I took as the gifts of her faith and her art. 

In the time since that memorable introduction to Melissa’s voice, our lives have come together professionally through involvement with the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, where we each serve in advisory roles. This year Inouye published a book under the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith imprint: Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer & Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order) (Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company, 2019). It is to praise this book and its author in the highest terms that I review it here. (I refrain from exclamation, adverb, and tap-dancing only under the influence of Inouye’s stoic-comic prose style.) As its lengthy subtitle suggests, the book is a kind of memoir, a series of brisk essays following Inouye’s life across transits personal, geographical, medical, and conceptual. It is as wry and lively on the travails of parenting as it is wise and poignant on life in the shadow of death–what’s more, it’s wise on parenting and lively on death. Above all, the book, like its author, is formidably, effortlessly smart. 

Its intellectual center of gravity lies in a set of exploratory chapters on challenges in the contemporary church.  “How Conference Comes to Hong Kong,” based on Inouye’s experience as a religious scholar/practitioner in China, addresses the tension between hierarchy and community in the Church’s global expansion, seeking a balance of cultural difference and uniformity capable of holding together a worldwide church. In “Toxic Religion? The Parable of the Pan,” Inouye acknowledges the messy human fingerprints on Restoration history, contextualizing the emergence of the new religious movement in larger sociological patterns. She finds redemptive community in, precisely, the humanness of it all. “Conversations Are like Casseroles” argues for dismantling the discursive taboos that inhibit discussion of hard topics in Church settings, and showcases the author’s uncommon gift for compassionate, inclusive speech as a form of Christlike service. She does not shy away from the most painful topic of all, the marginal position of LGBTQ Saints in LDS communities, in her essay “Electric (Mutual) Joy.” “What Ana Said” tackles the uses and misuses of patriarchy in the Church, arguing urgently for changes in LDS gender culture if we are to cultivate the fellowship and future leadership of young adult women (and men). Inouye takes up this question of institutional change, its costs, its historical inevitability, and its promise, in “The Problem We Want to Have.” 

This group of essays, organized topically and speaking to the concerns of battle-weary church members young and old, shares much with a raft of recent publications aimed at a similar audience.[1] Inouye’s aim is transparent: to shore up Latter-day Saint community and strengthen the body of Christ for the twenty-first century. But Crossings represents a new achievement in this burgeoning new apologetic literature. 

In a recent review essay for the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, I called for an apologetic literature that acts on readers’ desires and souls, not just their minds.[2] I suggested that a “performative” dimension is a crucial supplement to the “semantic” content of any defense of faith. Bare statement of meaning, however unassailable its accuracy, rarely speaks to the existential centers of human love, hope, and imagination–the deep sources of our human experience of God. Some ineffable quality of literary invention, of authorial subjectivity, of transcendental vision must rise above meaning and work within the reader. 

Crossings, I do not hesitate to say, embodies for me the most powerful performance of God-in-community I have encountered in Latter-day Saint letters. Inouye’s achievement lies in the book’s inventive techniques of writerly self-giving. Quite simply, Crossings gives the reader its own writer, indelibly and in full. With a lightness that hides its skillful construction, the book grounds its intelligence in the crackle and hum of a particular human life. Inouye includes snapshots both photographic and literary of her family histories in China, Japan, and the United States, together with incidental writings of all kinds clipped from the scenes of her peripatetic life and embellished with whimsical illustration. Vivid conjury of the tastes and odors of her mission in Taiwan. Earnest musings of college and graduate school. Christmas newsletters from the mad trenches of early-stage parenting and career development in Hong Kong. Nursery rhymes and children’s games. Letters to her infant child composed at her mother’s deathbed. Valedictory lectures delivered to her university students.

Without exception, these ephemera arise from ordinary relationships of loyal, selfless care–between parent and child, aunties and cousins, teacher and student, sisters in faith, far-flung friends. Inouye renders them with the flush of life and the unmistakable vigor of the real. From these relational headwaters, Inouye siphons the ineffable quality of togetherness that enlivens her intellectual analysis. It’s just love, actually, with no trace of the maudlin. But partnered with the intelligence of her observation, and offered to the reader with such extraordinary freedom, she turns this love into a particular kind of agency–the power, often but not always and not only found in art, to act directly on human yearning over and above any detour through meaning. Inouye does not merely observe the character of Latter-day Saint community, though she does so with precision. Beside and below and inside that analytical work, she calls community into being. For those of us who find God in that place, Inouye’s book is a temple.  

Inouye is an historian, and she would disavow any theological intent in her book. Indeed, the heavy sound of theology runs counter to her flotsam-and-jetsam style. Despite its lightness, however, Crossings represents a serious literary and theological achievement. Indeed, I suggest that it contains the most compelling figurative exploration of grace represented in contemporary Mormon letters. This assessment would likely surprise the author, who names no such intent in the book itself. Nevertheless, the book’s sophisticated figurative treatment of China–as opposed to its sociological and historical treatments–constitutes, I would argue, a potent expression of the new theology of grace. 

Recent currents in Latter-day Saint thought have taken up the fundamental immanence of the Restoration’s vision–the ways in which it grounds its ultimate values and narratives in the ways and means and places of this world, instead of in a separate heavenly realm.[3]  From the place, condition, and means of salvation[4] to the nature of the divine parents[5] to speculative questions of metaphysical grounding[6]–the Latter-day Saint tradition makes this world the blueprint for heaven, not the other way around. Grace, in this immanent view, is a property hardwired into the ontological structure of reality. Immanent grace is not (only) the warm emotional attachment of heavenly parents for their wayward mortal children, though it shares with that view the notion that grace works independently of human will and merit. Grace is what guarantees that life, if we will receive it, gives itself to us in ways stranger, harder, and more beautiful than ever expected. Grace is rough and bracing, not soft and fuzzy, but it opens tiny windows to the world outside our own locked skulls. Grace is the gift of life’s fullness, but life takes as much as it gives–it takes away our treasured vanities, conveniences, autonomies, efficiencies. In return, it gives us, in a thousand frustrations, setbacks, and minor revelations, a real life.[7]

In Crossings, Inouye builds China as a model world. China is both origin and destination–the place from which she distantly descends and to which she travels to become herself. Echoing Latter-day Saint teaching that human souls depart a premortal existence for earth life to experience testing and growth, Inouye makes China a model of this earth world, the cradle of mortality and our ultimate home. In her book, China is huge, unwieldy, stinky, delicious, inconvenient, sweaty, generous, incomprehensible, overflowing, broken, fertile, ancient, modern, available, resistant–that is, China is replete with the immanent grace that is the irreducible property of what is real. 

Inouye captures the essence of grace in the refrain “China giveth, and China taketh away” (60). The theme is developed with deft humor–and sometimes, in its contemplations of death, with unbearable poignancy–in all of the book’s variable guises, but is perhaps best captured in the short chapter “The Sweaty Sprout,” which recounts a train journey she made with her newborn child from Nanjing to Shanghai. A cheaply-made carry-on bag makes a misery of the journey, defying her intentions at every sweaty, precariously-balanced turn with a sleeping newborn strapped to her chest. 

Disgust for this worthless piece of junk raged within me as the Stupid Bag lurched this way and that, despite my considerable efforts to heave it upright with my left hand, all in sweltering heat, caught up in the surging sea of people, strapped to a sweaty Sprout [her child]. China taketh away!

At the top of a ramp leading off the platform, a lady offered to help me, and I gratefully gave her the rolling suitcase. Then a man walking behind me came up and took the Stupid Bag. These two strangers carried the bags all the way down the ramp, out of the station, over to the subway, through the subway station to Line 1, and through the interchange station to Line 2. They went down elevators and up escalators, down stairs and up stairs, waited for trains, pushed their way through thick crowds. Altogether they accompanied me, hauling the bags, for at least half an hour. The man carried the bags all the way to the train on Line 2, even though he was eventually going to take Line 8. He waited for the train to come and put the bags into the car. I thanked him profusely and he just smiled and said, “Yinggai de,”… which means something like “it’s what one ought to do,” or, less precisely, “I could do no less.” 

China giveth. (61-2)

It almost seems a shame to weigh down this airborne narrative kite with abstract analysis. But make no mistake: this is theology, and it is a serious achievement all the more impressive for its perfect lightness. Here Inouye’s picture of China elegantly distills the world’s peculiar combination of excessive generosity and utter indifference to personal convenience. Implacable China makes life available in excess from moment to moment–in shining loops of road-flattened rat intestine, in bursts of ginger-and-scallion dumpling between the teeth–but it resists the face-tuned fantasy-grams of the tourist. It offers up a thousand cheap bags in which to carry the accoutrements of self on our journey to the grave; what’s better, it promises that every zipper will fail and every wheel will run askew. But there will be fellow passengers on that grave-bound journey, and some will accompany us. As China, life gives; life takes away. This is immanent grace.

In her expertly crafted picture of China, Inouye has given Latter-day Saint letters an indelible image of what I believe is our tradition’s foremost contribution to Christian theology. This for me, is a greater achievement than the book’s apologetic content, though that work is also compelling. Despite its immersion in particular personal and political moments in the second decade of the 21st century–or, more likely, because of the completeness and faithfulness of that immersion–Crossings is a book that will speak to readers for decades to come. This is because its alchemy of intelligence, generosity, and relationality achieves a quickening effect which I only know how to call art. 

 

 

[1] See, for instance, Ash, Michael R. Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt. 2nd ed. Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 2013.; Givens, Fiona and Terryl Givens. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2014; Hales, Laura, Harris Hales, ed. A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book Company, 2016. Mason, Patrick Q. Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book Company, 2015. McConkie, Thomas Wirthlin. Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis: A Simple Developmental Map. Self published, 2015; Miller, Adam. Letters to a Young Mormon Deseret Book Company and Neal A. Maxwell Institute (January 2, 2018).

[2] “How to Do Things with Doubt,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 28, 2019.

[3] See, for instance, Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines, Joseph Spencer’s For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope, and Jonathan Stapley’s The Power of Godliness, which I reviewed here. For more on this recent turn in Mormon theology, see my review essay in the Mormon Studies Review, “The New Mormon Theology of Matter,” Mormon Studies Review: Vol. 4 : No. 1 , Article 6.

[4] Earth, in embodied relationship, and through the localized sacramental performance of sealing, respectively

[5] Ontologically delimited beings who exist in time and space

[6] Serially networked realities built into and out of one another, rather than a single grounding Ideal from which derivative and inferior realities emanate.

[7] Immanent grace theology was pioneered by Adam Miller. For technical philosophical treatments, see his books Badiou, Marion and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Bloomsbury Press, 2008) and Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (Fordham University Press, 2013).

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