A God-obsessed mother gone mad. A once-devout father turned cynical. The only thing as challenging as growing up in a faith-fractured home is carrying your devotion into adulthood. Especially if you happen to be Mormon.
Unlike Nathan and his family, we weren't heading for uncharted territory. The first Saints arrived in Denver in 1897, back when it was front-page news. "Mormons Are in Denver.... Genuine Latter Day Saints." That was the headline in the Rocky Mountain News. Today there are over 50,000 Latter-day Saints in the Denver metro area. It is a thriving community, and my wife and I gladly joined it. By this point I had taken a proprietary interest in the doctrine of Jesus Christ's Atonement, the possibility, that is, of at-one-ment. I'd begun to see my religion, with its emphasis on serving others and emulating Christ, not as a simple means of being but as a rather long becoming. I embraced the experience most commonly called "conversion." To the skeptic, of course, this can only be called nonsense, a particularly contagious brand of wishful thinking. I understand this view, though I cannot agree with it. Neither, however, can I adequately refute it. Though it may seem a cop-out, language cannot really explain the experience, because the experience depends precisely on the absence of language. It is the product, as St. Augustine once put it, of "what the truth saith inwardly without noise of words."
This is all very strange to at least half of my friends, the almost uniformly agnostic group of intellectuals, editors, and writers with whom I associate on days other than Sunday. It was with some measure of exasperation that one of them recently turned to me and said, referring to Joseph Smith's early visions: "I mean, come on!" Usually, they politely accept my faith as a belief in some sort of fairy tale, even if it's one I should have outgrown long ago. Increasingly, however, I have been asked to justify my beliefs, to explain how a semi-intelligent person can buy any of this. Taken with the recent round of Mormon bashing, it all feels remarkably familiar, a verbatim replay of conversations, both real and imagined, with my father. Once again, I find myself straddling two divergent worlds.
A few years after Mom's disappearance, one of my junior high school teachers handed me a copy of Lost Horizon, James Hilton's exquisite story about the mystical mountain lamasery Shangri-La—a repository of truth, wisdom, and everything that will endure when all else fails. The book struck me like a revelation, my family history writ large. The main character, whom I identified with Dad, is Hugh Conway, an enigmatic castaway who must decide if he'll remain in his newfound oasis or return to the "real" world of wristwatches, wars, and decay. Conway determines that he must leave Shangri-La. Looking back from the edge of his lost horizon, he sees that "a dream has dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality." In a particularly pertinent moment, Conway wonders "whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and was now mad."