Mormon Mission Impossible: William Shunn’s “The Accidental Terrorist”
Funny thing about Mormon missions: even though they’re voluntary, you can’t leave. Even though Mormon missionaries are adult volunteers, they can’t just say, “Sorry, this isn’t working, I’m going home now.” Have you ever wondered what happens if you try to leave? It’s rather surprising.
In The Accidental Terrorist, William Shunn recounts the exciting tale of how the Mormon mission machine mobilizes when a missionary attempts to escape — and the lengths they’ll go to stop him.
I don’t want to give any spoilers because this is suspenseful book, but I’d like to discuss (in vague terms) what I felt was the most interesting theme of the book: Mormon mission ethics. The author portrays the mission as a sort of alternate reality in which the normal ethical rules don’t apply. Or rather, they mostly apply, but the imperative to do what’s best for the mission and for the church trumps everything else.
There’s a sort of amazing sequence in the middle of the book in which the Mission President and other church leaders blatantly lie to Elder Shunn and manipulate him. Not only do they do it unapologetically, it’s like it doesn’t even occur to them that there are limits to what it’s OK to do for the sake of their higher purpose. Elder Shunn apparently internalizes this lesson, and later commits a felony himself (on his own initiative, but with the intention of helping the mission), and the shocking thing is how the entire Mormon community closes ranks around him — using every means, ethical and unethical — to smooth his path through the criminal justice system and minimize his punishment.
The author interweaves the parallel tale of Joseph Smith’s life with the primary narrative to illustrate the early influences that led to the formation of this remarkable community.
The Accidental Terrorist is an enjoyable read — far more action-packed than the typical mission memoir. You can find out how to order it from the book’s website where you will also find information about the author’s Science Fiction books and awards and his podcast.