Sunstoning: The Borderlands

I recently had occasion to make a business trip, and one of the things I took with me to read on the plane was the current issue of Sunstone. Most readers of this blog will be familiar with this publication, but for those who are not, Sunstone is the closest thing there is to a liberal Mormon journal. It explores issues that everyone knows are there (in the Church), but are rarely if ever discussed in official circles or publications, and it certainly addresses these issues in a way and from a point of view that one would never find in an official church publication.

There were several stories and articles in the current issue of this journal that I found interesting and meaningful. I decided to write about a few of them on my blog, and this is the first of these posts.


One of the highlights of the current issue was the inclusion of the complete script from Eric Samuelsens play Borderlands. In his introduction to the script, Samuelson shared some of the thoughts that went into the writing of this landmark play:

We Mormons face tremendous pressure to conform, to fit in, to obey, to define ourselves in certain quite limited ways. It is, for many, a religious culture of public orthodoxy and quietly whispered rebellion. And so we carve out spaces for ourselves, and we meet in those spaces [borderlands], and we come out to each other So I wrote a play about coming out about death and God and sexual desire. And a space where we dare to tell ourselves the truth and where we are appalled to find how little it sets us free [emphasis added].

There were many things about this statement that struck me, the first being Samuelsons comment that we as Mormons face tremendous pressure to define ourselves in certain quite limited ways. One of the most damaging aspects of cultural Mormonism, I think, even beyond the feeling that one has to conform to a prescribed imposed code of conduct, is the feeling that one must define oneself in accordance with this external code, through an external lens through which one not only sees oneself, but also portrays (but not reveal) oneself to the world.

It occurs to me that this is one of the primary reasons that gay Mormons have such difficulty in coming to terms with their sexuality: they are taught from a young age to look to the Church and to their parents and family for a sense of personal identity. They define who they are by reference to an idealized code of conduct that is taught to them from infancy a code that imposes, particularly in the case of gay Mormons, a built-in conflict.

Gay Mormons are conditioned to look to others for approval, for affirmation, for identity – but never to look inward, or even to God (because He himself is defined through the lens of the Church, which also defines the self). They rarely are able to gain a strong sense of self in the face of this external definition process, and are thus unable to muster the strength to acknowledge, let alone accept, who they really are. In fact, they often have no sense of self apart from this external definition process.

In the words of Rev. James Alison, the gay Catholic priest and theologian about whom I have recently written, we are spoken into being by this external definition process, and it takes a concerted effort to look into ourselves:

Just remember that we are all spoken into being by those who are other than us. The ‘I’ of every one of us is a multiplicity of voices, more or less stably held together, but sometimes we can hear little faint echoes, can’t we, of the voices of our fathers or our mothers or schoolteachers or politicians, speaking through us. And part of the life of prayer is sitting in a place where we sift through, not being run by those voices any longer, and find that God our Father is able to talk a new ‘I’ into being.

I very much like Alisons image of prayer being a process of sifting through voices, looking for and ultimately finding Gods voice, a voice that affirms who we truly are, the Self He loves with an intensity that can sometimes frighten but, if embraced, releases the divinity in us and thus ennobles and sets us free.

This brings me to the other phrase in Samuelsons quote that struck me: of being appalled to find how little [the truth] sets us free. I would like an opportunity to ask Professor Samuelson what he meant when he used this phrase.

What I think Samuelson may have meant, at least in part, is that, even when we allow ourselves to go into the Borderlands to look for and to speak truth, we cannot take (at least not without great difficulty and pain) that truth back out of the Borderlands into the Church: it does not set us free. Rather, it can even further enslave and conflict us if we try to live in the Church by the truth we find in the Borderlands. A realization of this appalls us, demoralizes us, depresses us. Once one has come to see and acknowledge that the emperor is wearing no clothes, one can never quite look at the emperor in the same way again.

A substantially similar version of this post appears today on my blog at

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9 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    Actually, having a well-defined role and destiny can be incredibly liberating.

    It frees you of the tyranny of indecision, purposelessness, and open-mindedness that afflicts an ever increasing portion of the American population. Too many options is actually a paralyzing state of affairs – and being constantly pushed around by whatever external fads and expectations float past you is tiring and oppressive.

    Being a Mormon means I know what I am. Which means I can flip the bird to everyone else’s expectations of me and live truly free.

  2. Seth R. says:

    Weird… where did my avatar go?

    So much for my identity….

  3. Ms. Jack says:

    You probably entered your e-mail address wrong. If one of the moderators corrects it, your avatar in that post will revert back to normal.

  4. Parker says:

    I remember years ago missionaries in what was then the Southern States Mission were required to wear black ties. One of the missionaries said to me that if nothing else he didn’t have to decide what color tie to wear each day. If that is someone’s idea of freedom, then I can really give them a huge helping of freedom.

  5. Buffy says:

    Freedom is Slavery, etc, etc…

  6. profxm says:

    Seth, fixed your email address. You added “.com” twice. Avatar is back.

  7. chanson says:

    What I think Samuelson may have meant, at least in part, is that, even when we allow ourselves to go into the Borderlands to look for and to speak truth, we cannot take (at least not without great difficulty and pain) that truth back out of the Borderlands into the Church: it does not set us free.

    I think you’re right that that’s what he meant. I have this issue of Sunstone on my dresser at home, and I’m planning on reading the play — sounds really interesting.

  8. The play is/was wonderful. I wrote on my blog about seeing it in Salt Lake City:

  9. chanson says:

    Now I’ve read the play — it’s great!! You’re lucky — I’d love to see it performed. Not as much as I’d like to see “The Book of Mormon”, but, well, I’d love to see them both. 😀

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