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Former Mormon Missionary Describes The Experience Of 'Elders'

As a Mormon missionary, Ryan McIlvain spent two years ringing strangers' doorbells, even as he experienced doubts about his own faith. He left the church in his mid-20s. McIlvain's debut novel, Elders, tells the story of two young Mormons carrying out their missions.




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Other segments from the episode on April 4, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 4, 2013: Interview with Ryan McIlvain; Commentary on the word "marriage."


April 4, 2013

Guest: Ryan McIlvain

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest spent two years as a Mormon missionary based in Brazil. As he rang the doorbells of strangers, hoping to convince whoever would listen to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he was experiencing doubts about his own faith. Ryan McIlvain continued to experience doubts, and he left the church in his mid-20s.

Now he's written his debut novel, and it's based on his experiences as a missionary. It's called "Elders." Elder is the term used for a young Mormon on his mission. The novel has two main characters: Elder McLeod, an American who's 18 months into his two-year mission and longs to return home; and Elder Passos, a Brazilian who has only recently begun his mission and is passionate about it.

Ryan McIlvain is from a six-generation Mormon family. He was born in Utah and grew up in Massachusetts. He's now living in L.A. and pursuing his Ph.D. in literature at the University of Southern California. In 2009 he was granted a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Ryan McIlvain, welcome to FRESH AIR. This novel is inspired by your time as a Mormon missionary. Is it obligatory for young Mormon men to become missionaries?

RYAN MCILVAIN: Not quite obligatory, but it's certainly strongly encouraged for young men particularly, but more and more nowadays young women too. It's seen as a rite of passage. It's seen as an opportunity to give a tithe of your young life, 19, 20, 21 years, to the Lord. And if it doesn't happen, there are certain taboos and raised eyebrows and cold shoulders that can greet you. So we'll say it's a culturally enforced but not obligatory rite of passage.

GROSS: So talk a little bit more about what the purpose is supposed to be for the missionary and also for the larger church.

MCILVAIN: Well, the church uses the missionaries to spread the gospel, to meet certain commandments and injunctions that Jesus and the New Testament lays out. So the church is very literalist in taking the gospel to all the world, as Jesus says at the end of the Gospels.

But for the young men and women themselves, I think it's an opportunity for them to grow their own testimonies, to use some of the parlance, and to try and find their faith in the exercise of it or to try and find their testimony in the bearing of it. So you go out and you bear your testimony, and only after the fact will you discover whether or not you had one. I think that's the experience that a lot of missionaries have, and it can be very nerve-wracking at moments for that reason. You feel like you don't know the Gospel or the culture that you are officially tasked with representing, and that can be very anxious for people.

GROSS: Well, it almost sounds like part of the point is for the young missionary to talk himself or herself into believing more deeply by - like through the act of convincing somebody else to believe.

MCILVAIN: I think that's absolutely part of it. I don't know if that was, you know, if someone who's not me would describe it in that way, and I'll have that same hesitation throughout this interview, I'm sure. But that certainly was one of the reasons that I chose to serve a mission. I was a doubter almost as soon as I became aware of what I believed.

You know, I became aware at maybe 13, 14, that I'd been drafted onto this team called Mormonism that was distinct from the Catholicism that was the norm where I grew up in Massachusetts. And I started to become aware of those differences, and instantly I was doubting them, at first privately, and then by the time I was in my late teens quite vocally.

But some of the people who were very close to me, my parents, certain friends in my congregation or ward, as it's called, their example meant a lot to me. And I thought: What do they know that I don't know? And so the mission for me became a chance to kind of make a large commitment commensurate to the large amount of grace I felt I needed in order to believe what seemed on the face of it unbelievable things.

So that was - yeah, that was certainly the purpose for me.

GROSS: What is an example of an unbelievable thing that you needed to test yourself to see if you were capable of believing?

MCILVAIN: Well, at 17, 18, it started with first things, first causes, just the prospect of God or an afterlife, these things that are common to so many religions. But then as you get into sort of the nitty-gritty of Mormon history, particularly the Joseph Smith story, there are some things that happened recently enough that we have documentation in and around that time.

And so for these really supernatural, outlandish stories to crop up, it kind of seems a little embarrassing. It seems like that, you know, the scientific method was around to either check or to verify or refute these things. And so, yeah, the idea that Joseph Smith by the power of God was able to translate the Book of Mormon, these plates that he claimed to find in Upstate New York, and the fact that, you know, very few people ever saw those things, and those people who did see the plates and, you know, bear witness of them would later sort of cast doubt on their own testimony, and they'd say things like, well, I didn't see those golden plates literally the way I see you, rather I saw them the way you would see a mountain through mist.

And I just started to realize that these sort of early 19th century men and women saw the world much more magically than I did. But I was expected to, you know, to take on faith the very same claims that they did. So that became increasingly difficult.

GROSS: So on the cover of your novel, "Elders," there's a picture of a young man in a white shirt, a black tie and black pants, which is kind of the uniform for Mormon missionaries. And just like how that become the uniform? And, you know, in the novel like everyone knows when the missionary, when the Mormon missionary is coming because they can recognize them by their clothes.

MCILVAIN: This will be speculation on my part, but for young men and young women, I think you want a modest look but also one that sticks out, you know. I think missionaries are intended to stick out like sore thumbs, and their uniforms, their outfits, are supposed to be eye-catching and supposed to be a sort of visual part of the hey, we're - I guess we're set apart, or we're different, we're different people, and notice us, come talk to us and vice versa.

GROSS: How did you feel in that? Did you feel like you were wearing a uniform?

MCILVAIN: I did, but I have to say I really appreciated it because I was far from home, I was speaking a language that was foreign to me, and I was wearing an outfit that was foreign to me. So it was easy for me to slip into kind of missionary brain, whereas friends of mind who had been raised in Massachusetts, as I was, and then called to a mission in, say, Nevada, I think they had psychologically a much greater challenge.

They were seeing people that looked very familiar to them. They were speaking a language that was familiar to them. But all of a sudden they were expected to put on this entirely different mantle and this entirely different set of responsibilities. So I imagine that serving stateside, as we say, would have been much harder for me.

Going to Brazil, everything in my life felt so foreign. So this was just an outgrowth of that. My missionary work was just an outgrowth of that foreignness.

GROSS: How was Brazil chosen for you? You don't have any input into that, do you?

MCILVAIN: I don't. When you're filling out your papers, you know, an application process, you mention whether you'd be willing to learn another language, whether you think you have facility with another language. I said I was both willing and I thought I would have facility with another language and spoke a little Spanish. And that may have influenced it.

But the leaders of the church in Salt Lake City prayerfully consider the crop of names that come up that particular week, and I'm told they look at a map and they make decisions based on a mix of, you know, logistics and inspiration, as they see it. So I remember, you know, I grew up in a somewhat moderate, sort of lukewarm Mormon family. And I know my mother and sister would perhaps regret that, but my father, I think, is more like I am.

Anyway, the balance of the family was less than completely devout, and I remember opening my mission call, it's a letter that comes from Salt Lake City, I think it was like at a Chili's in Massachusetts on a Sunday. And my sister read ahead, and she said: Oh, it's a good one. You know, so the great fear is that you're going to get sent to, I don't know, Boise, Idaho, or something, with due respect to Boise.

But yeah, if you're going to do this and sacrifice two years of your life, you at least want some interesting (technical difficulties) excited when I opened my call and saw that I was going to Brazil.

GROSS: My guest is Ryan McIlvain. His new novel, "Elders," is based on his two years as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Ryan McIlvain, and his new novel "Elders" is based on his experiences spending two years in Brazil as a Mormon missionary. He left the faith after his mission was done. One of the things you had to do in Brazil as a missionary was knock on doors and preach the faith and, you know, try to get people to convert to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.

And I think, you know, many of us have been on the other side of that door and have, you know, not answered the door or just like said no thank you. So what's it like to be the person knocking on the door, knowing that a lot of the people at home will consider this knock an unwanted intrusion?

MCILVAIN: It's nerve-wracking. It can be emotionally very taxing, especially when those doors close again and again and again. It starts to mount. I personally tried not to be too apologetic, but at the same time I never wanted to be that missionary who was too in your face. And my experience as a missionary and knowing a number of missionaries is that they tend not to be too pushy, I hope.

But yeah, you tell yourself that the message you have to bring is an altruistic one. There's no kickback. There's no financial incentive for a missionary to be doing this. And so I told myself that I was going to be kind of annoying people for a good cause in the same way I told myself that I was going to be annoying people for a good cause when I went canvassing for Obama, you know.

And I think that's what helped to withstand all those doors in your faces. And for the most part you're right, people were very polite, especially in Brazil, which is an exceptionally kind country, I found. But even when they're not, they're not polite, you try and take that in stride and keep the message in perspective.

GROSS: So how often would a door actually open, and how often would somebody invite you in to talk?

MCILVAIN: Well, more often in the reality of my mission than in the novel that I based off it. I didn't want the novel to balloon into this vast town of characters. I didn't think I had the chops to handle that big a cast. So it's fairly infrequent in "Elders," but in my own experience and given how sort of open to religion Brazil is, compared to Massachusetts certainly, I'd say, geez, maybe one in 10, one in 15 doors.

GROSS: That's not bad, not a bad ratio.

MCILVAIN: It's not. Now, what happens once the door opens is a different story. For the most part people say, oh, you know what, we're all set, but we appreciate what you're doing, go with God. Again, that was the message in Brazil. In Massachusetts it would be more curt. But - so yeah, it wasn't a totally humiliating, debilitating rate of success, quite the opposite on some days.

Certain friends who served in Europe or a friend of mine who went to Germany became deeply depressed after a while because the - you know, you just seemed like you were - you felt like you were wasting your time for two years. So few people were interested in hearing what you had to say.

GROSS: There's a passage I want you to read from your novel "Elders," based on your experiences as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. And this is - there's two missionaries in the story. One of them is from Massachusetts, and the other is a Brazilian. And in this scene, Passos, who is the Brazilian missionary, you know, is talking to a couple who has opened the door for the missionaries, and he's explaining the Mormon faith to them.

And so I'd like you to read that passage.

MCILVAIN: The Lord came to Earth and established his perfect church that we may know how to live worthy to return to him. But what happened to this church? My friends, there is a but. Here, sadly, tragically, there is a great and terrible but. It came in the form of wicked men who drove away the pure, simple truth of that church and replaced it with the philosophies of the day, the corruptions of the day.

I'm sad to testify that the very truth forked away into paths choked with thorns and thistles, covered in mists of thick darkness. Every man began following after his own light, and not the Lord's light, not the light, until soon, and it was very soon, it was only a few generations after the Lord's ascension, soon the saving truth and all its purity and grace was lost, and the world lay in darkness for long centuries.

Elder Passos paused. He let the world lie in darkness for several seconds. He felt his companion's eyes move to him, a curious smile too, he thought, though he couldn't be sure. Passos was looking straight ahead at Josefina and Leandro, their faces arched, waiting. But we have come with good news, he said softly. We have come with the good news.

GROSS: That's Ryan McIlvain, reading from his new novel, "Elders." So did you give that speech a lot, and did you deliver it with conviction?

MCILVAIN: Well, I gave to Passos a certain temper and a certain way of speaking that was - that would have been unfamiliar to me. Passos grew up in a charismatic Catholicism that had that very much sort of - sort of Southern American, sing-songy approach to preaching; whereas my style would have sounded more like your average CPA.


MCILVAIN: A lot drier and, you know, I tried to speak it with conviction, because as I said at the outset, one of the things I believed, one of the premises I accepted was that the testimony is found in the bearing of it. So certainly for the first half, the first two-thirds of my mission, I was filled with conviction, even if I was waiting for that foundation to be built under it, you know, build your testimonies in the sky, I suppose you could say, and wait for the foundation to build under them.

But you know, by the end of the mission my mind hadn't fundamentally changed. My intellectual temperament was the same, and that was disappointing to me. I suppose I had expected some kind of graceful change, and when that didn't happen, I started to readjust the horizon of my expectations and started to think, well, maybe it's not literally true, but there have certainly been a number of religious people before me, and there will be many after who have come to the realization of the maybe metaphorical or mythical quality of the religion and stuck with it for other social reasons.

And so I tried to inhabit a sort of secular space within Mormonism. And there isn't much of one, you know, unlike, say, Catholicism or Judaism, where I think a secular approach to a religious tradition can be valid. Maybe Mormonism is so young that that space has yet to be adequately cleared. So after a few, few years, I found it harder and harder to stay even a secular Mormon and ultimately parted company with the church.

GROSS: So I want to get back to the proselytizing that the character Elder Passos did in the passage that you just read. And so he talks about in these latter days, referring to 1820, when the Lord saw fit to raise up a new prophet, Joseph Smith. So is the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, is the latter days referring to the fact that the life of Joseph Smith took place in fairly recent history, it's the latter days, it's recent? Is that what it means?

MCILVAIN: I think so, and it's officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But the latter days refers to, well, the fact that it did happen in recent history, but I think in a larger sense it's that in the scope of creation, this is the last dispensation or the last try before the Lord will come back as prophesied. And we sometimes forget how millenarian Mormonism is.

Now it's a little tamer in its rhetoric, a lot tamer in its rhetoric, than it was during the time of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. But when they said these are the latter days, I think they fully expected the millennium, the return of Jesus Christ to rule and reign over the Earth, I think they fully expected that to happen sooner rather than later, just like the early Christians, you know, who were I think fully expecting the messiah to, well, ascend into heaven but then come back pretty soon and start the kingdom of heaven.

GROSS: Did you grow up believing that these were the latter days, that the end times were near?

MCILVAIN: I didn't personally. As I said, my family is a little more grounded than that. We - I don't think - my family didn't believe quite so literally in those kind of prophecies. I know my dad didn't. And, you know, when I think of my mom's faith, I think she believes in goodness, I think she does believe in a God. I think she believes in an afterlife. The millenarian rhetoric was always strange to me.

And sometimes it would just smack you in the face, and you'd be singing a hymn and realize, oh, that's right, that is what we're meant to believe. And within this congregation of doctors and lawyers and teachers and housemakers, there are people who really do expect the rapture, you know, within their lifetimes. That would be very, very strange to contemplate.

GROSS: Ryan McIlvain will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "Elders." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ryan McIlvain, author of the new novel, "Elders," which is based on his two years as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. McIlvain is from a sixth-generation Mormon family, but he left the church when he was in his mid-20s. He's now pursuing his PhD in literature at the University of Southern California.

So let's talk practically a little bit. You describe in your novel "Elders" a missionary handbook that forbade a lot of things. What were some of the things a missionary was forbidden to do?

MCILVAIN: A missionary couldn't read newspapers, magazines, the secular press in general. Couldn't listen to the radio, couldn't watch television, and they're also cut off family and friends. You can write letters home to family and friends once a week, but otherwise, your life is sort of constrained by the mission boundaries. Also, missionaries aren't allowed to make sort of social phone calls. It has to be business-related. It has to be relating to proselytizing. So it's very militaristic. The social life of a 19-year-old - or in the case of a young woman, a 21-year-old - becomes radically interrupted for those two years.

GROSS: And do you know what the point of that is, cutting you off from everything?

MCILVAIN: Well, at the risk of betraying the full extent of my cynicism, I think there's some mortification of the flesh that's involved. But I also think it's a focusing mechanism. If you're meant to focus 100 percent on missionary work by cutting away all those distractions, it becomes easier to do that. In fact, it becomes difficult not to do that without breaking rules, so long you're following the missionary handbook to the letter, "your eye and your mind are single to the glory of God," to quote a familiar scripture.

GROSS: It's also guaranteeing a certain insularity. There's no one from the outside culture who can influence you: no news coverage, no television shows, no radio, nothing with a message that might be considered subversive or taboo, or just an alternative to what you believe.

MCILVAIN: I think that's true. I think that's true. That being said, the missionaries are still in the world, so, you know, after 9/11 - I left on my mission shortly after 9/1,1 and missionaries were still deeply curious and concerned about what was happening back home. And so when a new crop of missionaries would come from other parts of the world and come into the mission field in Brazil, you would hear missionaries exchanging news. And so there was word of mouth, and there was certainly a curiosity. But, yeah, officially you weren't allowed to turn on the evening news and see what was happening in the run-up to war or to see what your favorite soccer team was doing. So, yeah, you were insular. You were cut off.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read a short passage. You quote from the "Guide to Self-Control." And I imagine this is the guide to self-control for young Mormon missionaries. Yes?

MCILVAIN: Yes. I mean, it's a loosely fictional document. I'm happy to elaborate on what that means. But...

GROSS: Oh, it's fictional. Oh, OK. I thought you really had this guide.


GROSS: But - so this is a loosely fictional document, but is everything in it things that you were told?

MCILVAIN: No. No. This is something I fictionalized. If you look online, you can find a very similar "Guide to Self-Control" that was supposedly distributed to missionaries in the '70s or '80s in the missionary training center. You hear avows and disavows on both sides. But a Mormon historian I respect, a guy named D. Michael Quinn, claims that this was something that a Mormon leader wrote and distributed to mostly young men. And so I wanted to borrow it for the fictional purposes of my novel.

GROSS: OK. Would you read the first three parts?

MCILVAIN: Sure. "The Guide to Self-Control." (Reading) One, never touch the intimate parts of your body, except during normal toilet processes. Avoid being alone as much as possible. Two, when you bathe, do not admire yourself in a mirror. Never stay in the bath more than five or six minutes - just long enough to bathe and dry and dress. Three, when in bed - if that is where you have your problem, for the most part - dress yourself for the night so securely that you cannot easily touch your vital parts, and so that it would be difficult and time-consuming for you to remove those clothes.

GROSS: OK. So what you wrote there is fictional. That's just for your novel. But were you basically given similar advice?

MCILVAIN: I wasn't personally, but I certainly became aware of missionaries who were struggling with sexual temptation, as they would describe it. And there was a kind of a circuit of leaders who would come through a mission and often drop off a tip or two about how to avoid masturbation. So it was obviously a common enough thing within a mission, and it wasn't the kind of sin that was going to have you sent ignominiously home. But, yeah, so those were real tips, I think, that were circulating through my mission that you kind of heard about through sort of whispered, smirky voices.

GROSS: So, speaking strictly as an outsider who doesn't really know the literature of the Mormon Church, it seems to me that Mormons get something of a mixed message about sexuality. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, must have had a hearty sexual urge. I would assume that he did, because he had multiple wives. One would assume he had a pretty hearty sexual drive that he gave into with different women. And yet, young people like you are taught to be very wary of any kind of sexual feeling, even masturbation. Did you ever feel like you were given, looking at the history of the church, a very mixed message about sexuality?

MCILVAIN: I did feel that I was given a mixed message, and toward the end of my time in the church, I started to feel that it was a sort of double-standard. Now, I think the Orthodoxy would have me say that Joseph Smith's sexual relationships were all within the context of marriage, even though it was plural marriage, and some of those marriages were done in secret, and some of them would be deeply embarrassing to most members of the church. And I don't mean to say that most members of the church don't know about them, but if the fact that Joseph Smith had married, say, a 14-year-old, which is documented, if that were a common topic of conversation, it would be embarrassing to members of the church. So you had Joseph Smith's sexual behavior contrasted with the expected sexual behavior of the average young man or young woman, and you do start to see a chasm. And it can feel frustrating and little disorienting, to be honest.

GROSS: Can I ask, what is sacred underwear? I think a lot of us have heard references to it, but don't really understand what it is, what it's meant to symbolize.

MCILVAIN: Well I - when friends ask me, I often will relate it to - and actually, I won't know the name of a garment that Orthodox Jews sometimes wear, but you have those strands that you'll sometimes see hanging out. From what I understand, the purpose of Mormon garments, temple garments, are somewhat similar. There are markings on the garments that remind Mormons of covenants they've made with God, of certain promises they've made within the temple.

And it also enforces a kind of modesty. If you're wearing the garments at all time, and you don't want them hanging out - which, of course, you don't - then the clothes you wear need to be at least as long as Mormon garments. And so this is particularly a way to enforce female modesty. So the garments go down to your knees. And on your sleeves they go about, I don't know, a third of the way down your upper arm. So, in that way, Mormon women are discouraged from wearing sleeveless outfits and short skirts and shorts, and so on. And, you know, to be fair, Mormon men are expected to not wear sleeveless shirts or short shorts, either. So, to me, it serves a double function: a guard against immodesty, and also a reminder of covenants.

GROSS: Did you wear the sacred underwear?

MCILVAIN: While I was a missionary? Yes. Yeah, I did.

GROSS: And did it make you feel any more, you know, connected to God, any more loyal to promises that you had made, or whatever?

MCILVAIN: I think so. At least when you would stagger out of bed in the morning and you'd get in front of mirror, you'd just be wearing your garments, as Mormons call them. And there were certain symbols that you'd see in the mirror, and they remind you of particular moments in a Mormon temple ceremony. And that does remind you of promises you've made. But for the most part, once you put them on and then you put clothes on over them, they just become indivisible, except on a particularly hot day. And then you think, yeah, why am I wearing an extra layer of clothing? It's a bit of a cross to bear.

I remember my dad, when I was a teenager, he started to be more open with me about his feelings about the church. He said, you know, I'll believe what you want me to believe, but just let me be cool and ventilated.


MCILVAIN: You know what I mean? When he went through the Mormon Temple, it was just one garment. It was like a jumpsuit. And nowadays, it's just - it's more comfortable than that. It's just kind of like boxer shorts, basically, or boxer briefs and, you know, just an undershirt. But at the time, I think in the '70s, when he went through, it was a single garment.

GROSS: My guest is Ryan McIlvain. His new novel, "Elders," is based on his two years as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan McIlvain, and we're talking about his novel "Elders," which is based on his two years as a Mormon missionary in Brazil in the early 2000s.

In your novel "Elders," the American Mormon missionary's father is a bishop. And, you know, he knows that the son is having doubts. And so the father, the bishop, tells the son: There's nothing special in doubting. Some of my colleagues at the office are devout atheists. I think the real courage is in trying to believe. Doubt comes easy for a lot of people. But do you know what doesn't come easy? Faith, obedience, humility, self-denial, self-sacrifice - there's your courage. Were you told that?

MCILVAIN: I think I was - not by my father, but by a number of different people, and then I kind of synthesized it for the purposes of that particular scene. But, yeah, you were told that you weren't special in your doubting, and that if you did think you were special, that was an expression of narcissism. So you're told that doubt is kind of the natural state. That's the natural man that the Apostle Paul tells us we need to overcome, and that the more elevated, impressive way of being is the way of faith. If it felt natural, then it wouldn't be God's way. It wouldn't be sort of the higher, more difficult way. So it's almost like a challenge to believe, you know.

GROSS: So did you have a turning point, at which time you decided, this is it, I'm leaving the Mormon faith? Or was it just a very gradual falling away, until you realized you were just no longer in the church anymore?

MCILVAIN: Well, I suppose it was un-dramatic and how gradual it was. It was sort of like a vessel filling drop by drop. And all of a sudden, you realize it's overflowing, but that specific moment is hard to mark.

I had stopped wearing my garments. I was no longer praying. I self-described as an agnostic, as I still do. And, you know, at a certain moment, I realized that I didn't - I really didn't have anything holding me to the church anymore. And when certain relationships in my life crumbled, the social glue that had held me to the church was gone, as well.

And so I - yeah. I parted ways. I did find - I still do find that I miss certain aspects of the church. And so when my wife - also an ex-Mormon - when my wife and I go back to visit family, we'll take in a service and really enjoy the music and see old friends and appreciate that. But I can tell you that when we decided to get married, we chose not a Mormon service, but rather a more poetic, somewhat neutered Episcopalian service. So we were comfortable being, sort of, outside the church, but still connected to it in some ways.

GROSS: Did you see the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon"?

MCILVAIN: You know, I haven't seen it. I have heard a number of the songs and I've read a number of reviews, but I haven't seen it.

GROSS: How do you feel about what you've heard?

MCILVAIN: Well, it's so tonally removed from my book that, in a way, I'm not really qualified to comment on it. But it seems in more or less good fun, good spirit. From what I understand, it kind of points out the absurdity of all religions, which is sort of an ecumenical message that people can get behind.

But it does seem that, you know, something like that wouldn't work as a realistic story. So it works as comedy, but, you know, a missionary would never sing something like, you know, I believe that God has a plan for all of us, and that plan involves me getting my own planet. Like, I mean, it's funny.

GROSS: Right.

MCILVAIN: Because of the juxtaposition between something that we recognize as, more or less, standard Christianity and something that's just off-the-walls bonkers. Someone who's really trying to be serious about his faith would feel somewhat conflicted about that contradiction.

GROSS: After all the years of exerting so much self-control, because that was preached to you as being so important as a young man and as a young missionary, once you actually left the church did you go through a period of, like, abandoning self-control and giving into extremes because it would have been more permissible?

MCILVAIN: You know, I thought about it. I imagined it. I think I fed some of that into my fiction. But in my life I was still very well behaved. And I think the, kind of, Pavlovian conditioning that I spent in the first 20-odd years of my life engraining was not going to go away overnight. I can leave the church but I am still going to be, essentially in my being Mormon, at least in the way I behaved.

For you know, the few years following my resignation from the church I was still very skeptical of alcohol. It frightened me. I was afraid I would become - I mean, I say this with something of a smile, but I think I was worried that I would fall instantly into addiction if I were to start drinking. And that was certainly an outgrowth of certain indoctrinations from my youth.

And, yeah, there were other - I'm sure there are other vestiges of my religion that I'm not even aware of that are still very much a part of my life. So there wasn't a period of abandon. If anything, when my current wife and I met, we would ask each other, OK, now what is the secular thing to do here?


MCILVAIN: We love each other. We should get married. And we'd say, no, no. We have to live together for a while. And then we lived together for a while and I proposed and she says yes. Then we say, OK, so now we should wait a year, right? Isn't that, you know, engagements are supposed to be pretty long, right? Well, no. Let's just do six months.

And we were - I think we've held fast to what we still like and appreciate about the culture we were raised in and we've jettisoned the rest. And that's a play on one of my favorite scriptures from the New Testament. Paul says that to hold fast to all good things and essentially get rid of the rest.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

MCILVAIN: Well, I'll just say in closing, that when I was writing this book, you know, with my mix of crazy ambition and ego, I would sometimes practice my Terry Gross interview in the bathroom.


MCILVAIN: Well, Terry, I would say to the kitchen sink. So to actually do it is a bit of a bizarre dream come true. So thanks again for the chance.

GROSS: Oh, I really appreciate hearing that. That's really nice to say. That's fun. Ryan McIlvain is the author of the new novel "Elders." You can read an excerpt on our website The debate over marriage equality is leading to discussions about the definition of marriage. Coming up, we hear what our linguist Geoff Nunberg has to say. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:The national debate over marriage equality has gotten our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, thinking about the changing uses of the word marriage.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: It's a funny thing about dictionaries. First we're taught to revere them, then we have to learn to set them aside. Nobody ever went wrong starting a middle-school composition with: According to Webster's... But that's not a phrase you'd use at the beginning of an op-ed commentary about terrorism or racism. When it comes to the words that do the cultural heavy lifting, we're not about to defer to some lexicographer hunched over a dusty keyboard.

Except, of course, if the word is marriage. Now that even a lot of Republicans are accepting civil unions as a fallback position, what opponents of same-sex marriage object to most strenuously seems to be just its name. As a tactical move, thumping the dictionary has replaced thumping the Bible. As Rush Limbaugh recently put it: By definition, same-sex people cannot be married. You had the feeling that that by definition was really a stand-in for by God.

So lexicographers know they're on the hot seat as they confront the changing uses of the word. When Merriam-Webster revised their definition a couple of years ago, they went with what I think of as a two-state solution. They kept an older definition for marriage as: The state of being united to a person of the opposite sex.

But they added a second definition as: the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of traditional marriage. Not surprisingly, that triggered headlines like "Webster's Redefines Marriage" on conservative websites. Merriam's said they had no political agenda, they were just describing the language as it was actually being used. But the definition is a train wreck, which is what's apt to happen when you try to move forward you're while looking over both shoulders at the same time.

That second meaning doesn't describe the way anybody uses the word. Gays and lesbians aren't claiming the right to a recognized relationship like traditional marriage, as Merriam's puts it. They're talking about marriage without an asterisk, which is one reason why public opinion has shifted so rapidly in their favor.

And the cultural right isn't about to sanction any use of the M-word for same-sex couples. The one thing both sides agree on is that whatever definition you give to marriage, there had better be just one of them. That's how the most recent edition of the Encarta Dictionary deals with the word, with a single definition that eliminates any reference to gender: A legally recognized relationship between two people who intend to live together as sexual and domestic partners.

That's a redefinition of marriage, all right. But redefining a word isn't always the same as giving it a new meaning. Sometimes you're just trying to pare it down to the core concept that people missed the first time around. Dictionary definitions of camera used to mention film and plates; now they just refer to a photosensitive surface. But the meaning of camera isn't different; it's just that now technology lets us see what its essence has been all along.

Changes in social attitudes can prompt those reevaluations, too. Until just a couple of years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary defined the romantic sense of love as: A feeling of attachment based upon difference of sex. But the English language has never precluded describing a romantic attachment between two men or two women as love. It's just that those relationships were officially invisible to the OED's Victorian compilers.

And other definitions would have led you to conclude that only men could have girlfriends or pay court to someone. In fact, the OED still defines a couple as a man and a woman united by love or marriage. No doubt they'll get around to replacing a man and a woman with two persons, but not because couple has a new meaning, but because we can finally see what was really basic to the old one.

You can read Encarta's de-gendered definition of marriage in the same way: A legally recognized relationship between two people. That does what a good definition should. It crisply describes everything that's in the category and nothing that isn't. And like the redefinition of camera, it extends to the past as well as the present. That's not just what marriage has come to mean; it's all the word has ever meant, even when not everybody had the right to it.

It can take people a while to get that. Marriage is more than a label to both sides. Words tend to pick up the flavors of the broth they've been steeping in. They're surrounded by customs and prescriptions that seem to infuse their very meanings. When I hear somebody using a word in a new way, it can sound more like a usage error than a challenge to my unexamined notions.

I had to do a little mental stutter-step the first couple of times I heard a gay friend talking about his husband. Until I realized, oh, yeah, it's just the guy in a marriage, the same as it ever was. But there has never been an age that was so quick or adept at making these adjustments. We spent the 1990's tacking virtual and cyber onto the names of what seemed like new kinds of things.

Then we spent the next decade taking the prefixes off again, as we realized that the new things were basically the same as the old ones. I have to get some e-money from my virtual bank so I can play cyber-poker - that sounds so 1997. How long before gay marriage sounds equally quaint?

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.


GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our website And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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