A Weekend with the Mormons

This weekend, a group of students will be stepping out of their classrooms and into a Mormon temple for a “Study of Mormonism” Avodah excursion. I sat down with Justin Bleeker, the head of the Avodah program, and asked him what was in store for the weekend, and why this study is important for students.

“How did I get the idea?” Justin Bleeker, reflects, “Well, part of the idea of the Avodah program is to interact and become familiar with other cultures and people, and religion is a major building block of culture. With the elections, and Mitt Romney’s devout Mormonism, it has been brought to the forefront as a topic in pop culture and it’s something that would be beneficial for students to understand.” The timing was also right, as it coincided with the acclaimed yet controversial play “The Book of Mormon” currently playing in Hollywood.

Setting up the tour of the temple was not challenging; Mormons are known for being extremely welcoming. Within five minutes of calling, Bleeker had the tour scheduled as well as a meeting with one of the elders. “I think [the idea of works based righteousness] does make people nicer,” Bleeker admits, “I mean, they’re human of course, and Mormonism has had its scandals, but when it comes to outer workings they try hard to be good examples, whereas the grace-based nature of Christianity can sometimes be used as an excuse.”

To bring a group of Christian students into contact with a religion they disagree with can be an intimidating undertaking, and one that is difficult to carry out well, but Bleeker is no stranger to the challenge. On past excursions, students have researched other religions such as Islam and Judaism. “We try to tell to students that this is not a time to try to convert people,” he explains. “We want to live as a testimony to our beliefs in that situation, but we want to be gracious and not confrontational. We are there to put a human face on Mormonism and understand the tenants of their religion, not convert them. That usually happens through building relationships. We can’t do that in the two hours we are touring.”

The second part of the day will be more controversial; attending the critically acclaimed musical The Book of Mormon, written by equal opportunity mockers of any topic personal, political, or sacred, the writers of the TV show Southpark. Students have been forewarned of the musical’s insensitivity. “I think everyone will be offended on some level,” Bleeker admits, “It is crass and crude at parts.”

So why see it? First, it is critically acclaimed for its music and deliberate artistry within the medium, making it the winner of nine Tony awards, on par or even above other shows students have attended. But far more important is the implications the musical has for what it means to live in the world. “I think people need to understand that when you are in the world, you are not automatically ‘of’ it,” Bleeker clarifies, “To reach people, we must understand them better than they know themselves. When we feel uncomfortable and are challenged, we ask new questions. That’s where education happens.”

In preparing to lead students through this intellectual and spiritual battleground, Bleeker researched online and in books. The students will attend a preparatory session, a new part of the Avodah program, before embarking. According to Bleeker, this is one of the first Avodahs done under this new model, and it requires more preparation than before. “We’re still in transition. I’ve of course listed intended outcomes and put a lot of thought into it, but a lot of it I still get to experience alongside the students.” And what an experience it will be!