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Jana's journey from minister-in-training to Mormon-in-motion

Published October 28, 2011 11:21 am

Writer recalls her leap from minister-in-training to Mormon-in-motion.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As a child, Jana Riess could not have imagined herself as any kind of saint, let alone a latter-day one.

She was reared in a purely secular Illinois home by a nonreligious mom and an angry atheist dad.

But step by inexorable step, God beckoned her, Riess says, toward belief in Jesus Christ, degrees in religious studies, a possible career in the ministry and, ultimately, Mormonism.

Like a flowing tributary, Riess said in a 2007 speech at the annual Sunstone Symposium, "my faith is in flux … usually moving forward, spilling over such obstacles as it may encounter in its wake. It contributes to the river that is the LDS Church — also constantly in motion — which in turn has something to offer to the wide and salty sea that is the worldwide body of Christ."

Today, Riess is the author or editor of nine books, including What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, The Spiritual Traveler: Boston and New England and Mormonism for Dummies. She worked for nearly a decade as a religion editor at Publishers Weekly and now is an acquisitions editor at a Midwest Christian publishing house and a frequently quoted blogger at beliefnet.com.

She has just published a book, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor, about her attempt to follow a dozen religious practices.

Riess' spiritual quest began, she explains in a phone interview from her Cincinnati home, when her mom sporadically took 9-year-old Jana and her older brother to a Quaker meeting.

"It was my first exposure to organized religion," she says. "I have wonderful memories of it and people who were sincere about living out their witness of peace."

At 14, Riess joined the Presbyterian Church, partly so she could attend a weekend spiritual retreat. During that outing, she says, she felt strongly pulled by God and became a Christian.

"For the first time, I had that sense of total humility that God cared for me, that God knew who I was," she says. "I felt I had experienced God's love in a real way."

At Wellesley College outside Boston, Riess read the Bible seriously for the first time, studied religion and made her first real Mormon friend, Tona Hangen, who was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Nobody could meet Tona and not be impressed by her intellect and warmth," Riess says. "She was clearly living her Mormon standards, yet very tolerant and open-minded."

Riess wrote her senior thesis on Mormonism and American politics and found herself drawn into a scholarly study of the Utah-based faith. But she resisted thinking there was anything personal in it for her.

That is, until she spent the summer after college in Vermont, near the birthplace of Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

Upon visiting that site, an elderly "sister missionary" challenged Riess when she said that she had read a bit of the Book of Mormon but wasn't impressed.

"You have no right to judge our religion until you've read the whole book," Riess remembers the Mormon missionary saying somewhat belligerently.

And, Riess thought, she's right.

And it came to pass

So Riess embarked on a focused reading of Mormonism's signature scripture and, she says, the experience was transforming.

"The Book of Mormon spoke to me in a very deep way," she recalls. "I felt I was encountering God in its pages in a very personal way."

She attended a Sunstone Symposium in Washington, D.C., where she met Mormons who were educated, thoughtful and engaged in serious discussions of religious issues of patriarchy, feminism, poverty and how best to follow Christ in contemporary society.

Soon, she married Phil Smith, an MIT student, and enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary to pursue a career as a Presbyterian minister.

While there, she says, "I kept finding excuses to do all my papers on Mormonism."

She finally had to concede a real conversion had begun. She came to believe, she said at Sunstone, that Joseph Smith was a "prophet of God — not in the cheap and triumphant manner of [an LDS] Church video, but in a hard-won, Old Testament way, where a frustrated God chooses one who is willing to serve despite personality flaws and limited understanding."

Having lived with alcoholism and drug use in her family, Riess came to embrace the LDS Church's health code, which eschews alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. She liked Mormon theology's balance of faith in Christ with ethical behavior. And she found LDS teachings about Adam and Eve deeply satisfying.

"I felt damaged by the Catholic and Protestant misunderstanding of Eve as a temptress and the sole source of human ruination," she said. "In the Mormon story, Eve is a courageous inductor of humanity."

This newfound religion was appealing, Riess says, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually.

It had to be, says Phyllis Tickle, a Christian author and lecturer in Tennessee. "The Almighty knew if Jana was going into [a particular faith], it had to go through her brain."

Tickle, Riess' boss at Publishers Weekly, believes it was "the power of the Mormon narrative" that proved so persuasive.

In September 1993, during her last year of seminary, Riess went down into the waters of Mormon baptism.

That same month, the LDS Church disciplined six high-profile Mormon feminists and writers, which deeply troubled the fresh convert.

"I was joining a church that seemed to be excommunicating people just like me," she says. "It was quite a leap of faith for me."

No matter, Riess says, such a jump was the right move.

Ripple effect

Her friend's move stunned Hangen.

"It was astounding in an amazing, joyful way," Hangen says. "I considered her as part of my religiously diverse community of friends. To join me on my side was a real strength to me."

Riess worried that her mother, a strong advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment, would object to her new faith, noting LDS involvement in blocking the amendment. But her mother, who has joined a Lutheran church, has come to appreciate Mormonism's strengths and what the community has given her daughter.

But what about her marriage?

Within two years of their wedding in a Presbyterian church, Riess had joined this new faith.

Husband Phil Smith knew little about Mormonism beyond what he had heard in Protestant circles — that it was strange, cultlike and monolithic. But as he met more members through Riess, he grew comfortable with her involvement.

Because of her background," Smith, an engineer who attends an Episcopal church, says, "she's always had respect for people of all faiths, Christian and non."

It wasn't, he says with tenderness, "a challenge for us."

Still, his wife is a risk taker, Smith says, and her Mormon conversion was "a brave act."

It took her down a decidedly different path than the one on which she initially embarked. Yet, in the 18 years since Riess became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she has continually tapped into those skills she learned at the seminary.

"Jana has been well-received as a teacher and speaker," Smith says. "She has more pastoral background than most [Mormon] bishops or lay leaders."

Riess also has offered her wide-ranging scholarship, closely observed religious insights and wry sense of humor to any and all within the LDS world and beyond.

"Her ecumenism is amazing," Tickle says. "She's a true Abrahamic, to say the least, who can move comfortably within Mormonism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam without offending and yet be true to her voice."

Riess has contributed to the communal life of local Latter-day Saints, the global church and the national conversation about Mormonism. She has addressed Brigham Young University's annual Women's Conference and helped explain the church to questioning journalists.

She would have made "an amazing pastor," Hangen says. "But she has found a pastoral calling within Mormonism in a way very few others have been able to, speaking authentically and authoritatively on an array of topics."

Given her background, Riess also can speak "non-Mormon."

Her faith journey did not end with her baptism, Riess says. "It is ongoing."

She hopes, she said at Sunstone, that her tributary of faith will contribute something to the river of Mormonism and to the sea of Christianity.

Many would say those ripples already have.

pstack@sltrib.com

Book signing

P Jana Riess will read from and sign copies of Flunking Sainthood at Benchmark Books, 3269 S. Main, South Salt Lake, Nov. 2 at 5:30 p.m. —

About hernew book

Jana Riess' book, Flunking Sainthood, began as a lighthearted attempt to read spiritual classics and experiment with faith-related practices such as fasting, sabbath keeping, chanting and the "Jesus Prayer" by trying them herself.

How hard could it be?

After all, the Jesus Prayer — "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" — is 12 words long and takes only seconds to recite.

From the start, there were a few sainthood observances she refused to try — such as living at the top of a pole as St. Simeon Stylites did for 37 years, being devoured by lions like the Christian martyr Felicitas, or plucking out her eyes for God.

Beyond that, Riess was open to almost any practice of what she calls "radical spirituality."

For 12 months, she writes, her life would be about "walking with God and taking a leap with spiritual experiments."

By year's end, though, Riess reports that she failed at every exercise. And thus the experience evolved into an exploration of what it means to fail.

Falling short offered the overachiever a lesson in humility, she writes, and a chance for serious introspection.

"I may have spent a year flunking sainthood, but along the way I've had unexpected epiphanies and wild glimpses of the holy I would never have experienced without these crazy practices," she writes. "I claim that s-word [saint] for myself even with all my letdowns."

The book ends with an unexpected call from her father, who had abandoned the family 26 years earlier and emptied the bank account. Now he was dying.

Riess goes to his bedside and discovers that even her less-then-perfect spiritual disciplines had helped her develop a crucial skill: the ability to forgive.

"I found the book mind-boggling," says Phyllis Tickle, former religion editor of Publishers Weekly. "It has such honesty and candor."

Riess, Tickle says, is a dedicated Mormon, but she has the education and disposition to be a universalist, finding truths in every faith and tradition.

Peggy Fletcher Stack