Book review: “Bruder” by Roger Terry

Bruder is the second Latter-Day Saint mission memoir I have read, the first being Craig Harline’s Way Below the Angels that takes place in the countryside of Belgium. While that one was already a nostalgic read, Bruder hit even closer to home because Roger Terry served in the exact mission as me but 33 years earlier: Hamburg, Germany. Bruder Terry had his first meal in the same exact mission home as me. He took Bus und Bahn (but a lot more biking and walking by the sound of it) through German Doerfe und Staedte. He spend his first few months as a Golden (the phrase unique to German missions for new missionaries, rather than “Greenies”) and peppered his English with German words like “Wohnung” for apartment, or “geschafft” for accomplished. But some things have changed. For instance, referring to Elders by “Elder” rather than “Bruder”, an alternate approach to avoiding the direct translation “Aelteste” that just doesn’t jive in German. But still, I really hit the nostalgia goldmine here.

Mission memoirs are an interesting bunch. For one, they cover an experience so unique that they are beyond niche. But secondly, the events recorded one the mission have likely changed in meaning over time for the author. Terry records in the first few paragraph: About thirty years ago, when I first had the idea of writing an MMM, I pictured this narrative as a triumphant, majestic remarkable retelling of the most glorious two years of my life. But that was thirty years ago. How the author balances these two perspectives: how they viewed the mission in the moment and how they view it now. Terry does something very unique in this one and separates the two completely by talking about his mission self in the third person. It’s not only for literary effect: a big theme in the book is that his mission self really is a different person: the experiences of a mission can’t be reconstructed once you leave, no matter how hard you try.

Missions in Europe are notoriously difficult, and it sounds like it was the same case thirty-some years ago. Present-day Terry reflects that none of his work directly contributed to the growth of the Church in Germany: the thirteen individuals who were baptized by his efforts either stopped attending or left the Church eventually. Combined with some wisdom of thirty years though, he has some important takeaways from it:

It seems to me that God’s Church should be a reflection of his heaven, but if this is so, then Mormonism reflects a heaven that does not appeal to many of his children. I’m not sure what to make of this. Maybe heaven is not as demanding or corporate or imperfect as our pale reflection here in mortality.

I had just been thinking on this very thing. In our elders quorum a few weeks ago, our stake high councilman repeated some numbers from the stake, and he mourned how it is shrinking. Less people are coming. His conclusion was that we need to work harder. But I chimed in that it is also equally important that we make our wards a place people actually want to be. It should be something they look forward to. They shouldn’t be dreading feeling judged, or being absolutely bored to death, etc. Part of that is certainly personal growth, of course. But I think we could offer a lot more as a Church. The Book of Mormon isn’t “chloroform in print”, as Mark Twain once said, but our meetings certainly can be sometimes.

One disadvantage of the third-person narrative is sometimes it is difficult to keep track of which timeline you are on. Terry will begin with a narrative from his mission, perhaps give the details of a lesson they taught, and then fast forward to the present day to let you know how it turned out. Then he may end with a “but that’s another story”, and quickly rewind back to the lesson again. Too many of those in a row get your head whirling. Some of his present-day asides take you for quite a loop (the present-day Terry says about himself I study Mormonism for a living. I have no illusions about it anymore. I am an editor. My mind is trained to find inconsistencies). For instance, his speculation on how a heaven with imperfect people could be run without conflict:

Is it even possible to keep perfect amity and tranquility without depriving people of the ability to be disagreeable or the capacity to create conflict? I see only two options. Either the hereafter is not so tranquil as we presume or Heavenly Father maintains peace through external control. Is such peace managed through the Spirit, which acts not only as a medium of hypercommunication but perhaps also as a heavenly palliative or sedative? It will be fascinating to find out. Maybe.

The theme throughout Terry’s memoir is that the us-versus them mentality that pervades the mission experience– and all of Mormonism– isn’t a net positive. He gives this outline of early Mormon history:

Let me just say that the early Mormons seemed to have come up with a perfect recipe for alienating others– and all this, I might add, is separate from their unconventional and controversial doctrines. The recipe?

  1. First, they declared themselves to be God’s chosen people, so all who didn’t join them were, by definition, God’s not-chosen people. And they were often not shy about rubbing non-Mormons’ noses in this. Mormons often came across as arrogant, victims of a startling superiority complex.
  2. Second, they were cliquish. They tended to gather in large groups (by command, actually) and do business as much as possible only with their fellow Mormons.
  3. Third, because they gathered, they rather quickly accumulated economic and political power… Mormons now (as then) trumpet their belief in the U.S. Constitution as an inspired document. But for all their lip service, every time they have built up a society, they have ignored the very essence of the Constitution, which can best be described as a document that details how to break government into different branches that check and balance each other’s tendency to seek too much power… They never claimed to be building a federal republic. They were building the kingdom of God.

Looking back on my own mission, it was when these us-versus-them moments flared up in myself that I am most ashamed. Whenever I met a believing Catholic who was willing to engage us in conversation, you could time how long it took me to rake them over the coals with indulgences. If I did try to minimize my Bible bashing, it was because “contention is of the devil.” I had no way of productively interacting with people of other faiths other than try to convert them or move on. I can’t say every single experience was like that, because I had some meaningful relationships with Germans that likely weren’t going to result in baptism. But you were always wary that you would get accused of wasting time by doing so. We had older German lady, Frau Frerichs, in my mission who we went grocery shopping for every week, because her health prevented her from leaving the house. Every week after shopping, she would cook us up a lunch made with questionable good that were 100% past their expiration date, and reminisce about her life, including events from WWII. I was just a Golden, my German wasn’t very good, and she had a strong accent, but I was fascinated by what she had to say. The Frau Frerichs of the missions I think can be some of the most meaningful because they are (at least, partially) devoid of ulterior motives, and I am grateful for these moments in my mission as much as any other. Bruder has many such stories, and they all bring my own experiences to the fore.

I loved reading this book, and I don’t think you have to be a German RM to enjoy it either.

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