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Imagining a New Religion
A review of Mission to America: A Novel by Walter Kirn (Doubleday; October 11, 2005; pp. 288; $23.95).
By PUNEET SINGH LAMBA
The Sikh Times, Oct. 20, 2005
Photo: Walter Kirn
Walter Kirn was on National Public Radio yesterday, discussing his new novel Mission to America with Terry Gross, the legendary host of the long-running interview program Fresh Air.
Kirn's semi-autobiographical novel, his fourth, centers on the tale of two apostles on a mission to find new converts for their flagging religion, Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles (A.F.A.).
As Kirn reveals during the candid interview, door-to-door missionaries converted his then-troubled-and-isolated family to the Mormon faith when he was twelve. Having, therefore, grown up a Mormon, he originally started writing the story in the context of Mormonism. However, somewhere along the way he tired of Mormonism's idiosyncrasies and invented A.F.A., a religion he could actually believe in. The Baha'i-like A.F.A. recognizes the divinity of several others along with that of Jesus Christ.
To this day, however, the author remains ambivalent about his theological status as a Mormon. On the one hand he critiques Mormon theology: the human body is at once a glorious gift from God and the greatest source of temptation; believers must get down on their knees to access the sweeping forgiveness that Jesus Christ supposedly already earned with his sacrifice; and the Garden of Eden is apparently located in Missouri! On the other hand, almost inexplicably, Kirn willingly retains his nominal Mormon citizenship. His name is still on the church books, but he no longer attends church and admits to his six-year-old daughter that no one knows what happens after we die.
Kirn has deep insights into the functioning of organized religion. He says that critiques of religion are useful only if they begin by recognizing that religions serve critical human needs, such as that of community. Missionaries, he says, have a keen eye for folks who are too busy picking themselves up off the ground to preserve their faith.
I don't read much fiction. However, Kirn's interview was intriguing enough to convince me to consider reading this manifesto-like work of fiction.