A scholar’s ‘love letter’ to wonderfully imperfect, struggling — but still striving — Latter-day Saints

Author Melissa Inouye says members “can breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t look perfect, because that means that we have real communities with real people” trying to love others as God does.

Latter-day Saint scholar Melissa Inouye has endured more than her share of heartache.

She inexplicably lost her hair at a young age and then, at 37, the marathon-running mother of four, was diagnosed with colon cancer, an affliction she has been suffering from and through ever since.

But as Inouye reminds herself and fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in her new book, “Sacred Struggle: Seeking Christ on the Path of Most Resistance,” a carefree, trouble-free world is not what humanity signed up for.

(Deseret Book) Latter-day Saint scholar Melissa Inouye's new book. "Sacred Struggle: Seeking Christ on the Path of Most Resistance."

An easy earthly existence, under Mormon theology, was Satan’s plan, not God’s. Divine design, Inouye writes, calls instead for agency, personal growth, compassion and caring for others, and “living a life full of life” — the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the hopes and the hopelessness.

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s recent “Mormon Land” podcast with Inouye.

What has cancer taught you about suffering?

(Courtesy) Melissa Inouye, author of "Sacred Struggle: Seeking Christ on the Path of Most Resistance."

In the past and currently, I’m on this two-week chemo cycle, which is like a mini-cycle of death and resurrection. I’ll do the chemo and feel myself getting more and more tired and sick for the first couple of days. And then, over the course of the next 12 days, I’ll get better and better and feel stronger and stronger. Then I’m ready to go for the next one. It’s not actual resurrection, but it teaches me that things have beginnings and ends, that you can take a lot, that change is constant. And that nothing horrible lasts forever.

Why do you say the church is not a refuge for all people?

I used to think about the church as a refuge from the world’s problems. But now I see it as a sort of “central problem hub,” connecting us to the problems of all humanity. When I was growing up in this very idyllic (for me,) very loving and close-knit ward (congregation) in Costa Mesa, California, I just felt like nothing was ever wrong, everyone was always awesome; I felt completely safe and loved. …Then, as an adult who had lived in different places, different countries, I noticed how in different places there are different aspects of the gospel that are emphasized. … From that point of view, any group of Latter-day Saints in any place will be subject to the same pressures that are in society at large, susceptible to the same temptations and abuse of power, corruption, just like anyone else. But I don’t think this is a deal breaker. Indeed, I think it’s part of the genius of [church founder] Joseph Smith’s inspiration and organizational vision. Because the Latter-day Saints are in these communities that are based on geography. We don’t really choose each other. We’re just stuck with whoever we’re stuck with, including people who are different, and we just have to learn how to love them, which is key. …We’ve made these covenants [to bear one another’s burdens no matter how different we are] and I think that’s beautiful and sacred.

How can Latter-day Saints deal with statements or policies from the past that are at odds with current teachings — for instance, Brigham Young’s racist remarks?

(Tribune file photo) Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Scholar Melissa Inouye addresses some of the racist remarks the early church leader made.

As a historian, I feel a responsibility to people in the past, who can’t defend themselves because they don’t talk anymore. And as a person of color, I see how statements made even more than 100 years ago can still have wounding implications for people like me today. But, in general, we have the duty to not compare our strengths with someone else’s weaknesses. Some of the things that people in the past saw dimly — like the value of people despite the color of their skin — we now see clearly, but some of the things that we see dimly, they saw clearly. And in another 100 years, we’re going to find out what it was that we didn’t see. Would we like the people of the future to just throw us out, just say, our lives weren’t moral or valid or useful in some way? … As Latter-day Saints, we have a really strong view of kinship, and this idea of everyone being connected to each other, eternally. …If we take those kinship networks seriously, we can think about our ancestors who said things that were really hurtful in a kind and compassionate way, and we can help them. We do a lot of things for ancestors — proxy baptisms and proxy sealings. Maybe we can offer them proxy repentance by understanding the things that they did that were hurtful, and trying to make amends in the present.

You describe the church as being “true” and “living.” Why is that important?

Something that’s living is organic, connected to these natural processes and subject to natural elements and forces. That also means that there’s always going to be irregularities and imperfections. As a historian of modern China, I’m highly suspicious of anything that looks perfect because that stuff is usually not real. So Latter-day Saints can breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t look perfect, because that means that we have real communities with real people and that we’re really going about this project that our Heavenly Parents gave us, which is to love one another, despite massive differences, and, in so doing, to allow our hearts and our spirits to kind of encompass the whole of humanity.

But didn’t Jesus admonish his followers to “be perfect”?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Rescue of the Lost Lamb, 1939", from an exhibition of Minerva Teichert's work at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City in July 2023. Scholar Melissa Inouye notes that the biblical Jesus reached out to the marginalized.

The question is: What does Jesus mean by perfect? I’ve always been an overachiever. Always wanting to get 100% or five out of five. Sadly, when I got cancer, or when I became bald, or all the various things that happen in life, I thought now I’m not five anymore. But when you think about it, this idea of a five-out-of-five-star review is like Satan’s plan — nothing ever going wrong, never making mistakes, never having to go way down and then climb way back up. A really great life is a life with big ups and downs that ends up maybe somewhere around 2.5 out of five. When you look at Jesus’ life, was that a life that totally avoided any setbacks? No, he came from a marginalized situation, in a place [Nazareth] that people laughed at. Then, when he started his ministry, he just kind of jumped into all of his society’s stickiest, most difficult situations and reached out to people who were alienated and marginalized. Then he ended up being captured by the local imperial power and executed. So I’d say, if we had to kind of give Jesus’ life a score from an Amazon review point of view, it definitely would be around one. But that’s what made him the Savior. For us to follow Jesus, I hope it doesn’t mean we don’t have to be physically crucified, because that sounds terrible. But I think it means we have to descend below some things that are really bad.

What are your desires for women in this patriarchal faith?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The "Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote" from an exhibit at the Church History Museum in 2019. Scholar Melissa Inouye would like to see Latter-day Saint women have "more opportunities to be in the room of people who are making decisions."

It would be wonderful if Latter-day Saint women can have more opportunities to be in the room of people who are making decisions. The church itself has realized this as an institutional priority, which is why they’ve started to include more women in those rooms. But we have to grapple with the reality of patriarchy, which is everywhere. It’s not just in our church; it’s just a kind of fact of human civilization.…But we suffer a little bit from a mindset in which we only look at administrative hierarchies, as a sense of a place where there’s power…Vertical hierarchies of structures of power are not the only places of power; they’re not the only sources of energy. We’d be remiss and, indeed, disrespectful of Latter-day Saint women, if we didn’t acknowledge their power. They don’t have power to proclaim doctrine in the way that the Quorum of the Twelves [Apostles] and the First Presidency, who are all males, do — but in terms of the local life of the congregation, [who created] that magical feeling that I had in the Costa Mesa First Ward of being in this community that took care of everyone. That power is not insignificant, and it largely comes from Latter-day Saint women.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) "One by One" by Caylee Murdock appeared in the Triennial Exhibition of International Artists at the Church History Museum in 2022. Scholar Melissa Inouye sees her latest book as a "love letter" to Latter-day Saints.

“[The book is] like a love letter to the Latter-day Saints. It points to the power that I found through my faith, and through the community, and through the theology, to deal with really hard things in life….Even though we’re a really tiny community, the Latter-day Saints have persisted and have expanded, and are still trying, struggling with this big problem, honestly, of holding together.”

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To receive full “Mormon Land” transcripts, along with our complete newsletter and exclusive access to Tribune subscriber-only religion content, support us at Patreon.com/mormonland.

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