Bring me your vegan monks, your glittering Scientologists, your thirsty cult members yearning to drink Kool Aid. Send these, the Wiccans and the tempest-tost televangelists to me. I lift my remote to the glowing screen, and I watch all of their documentaries on Netflix.
In the spirit of confession, I think most of us fascinated by other people’s religions are more interested in the oddities and the outliers than any real understanding. Yet sometimes in spite of our snoopy intentions, we find ourselves in the midst of a deeply human story. Thank God for that.
In The Accidental Terrorist, author William Shunn recounts the time he spent as your friendly neighborhood missionary in hilarious, exacting detail. The result is a funny, fast-paced memoir that keeps you engaged through to the last pages. By the very end, the disastrous decision that inspired the title seems almost logical. Almost. But not quite.
For the young Shunn, a budding science fiction writer in the midst of Mormon country, mission work came soon after finishing high school. Against his better instincts but in line with his obligations, he makes his way to the city of Brooks, in exotic Canada. The car ride in which this is decided is the first of many times the reader will have the urge to jump into the binding and free our dear protagonist.
That being said, it’s not always clear if he would take you up on the offer. Shunn writes honestly about the spiritual whiplash between desire and duty, and any reader thinking back to their own college days will look upon our sober ex-pat with no small amount of sympathy. A vivid cast of Brothers and Sisters keep him company and keep up the ol’ teaching quotas as best they can, but the nagging need to escape refuses to let up.
I felt his portrayal of his younger self was somehow more compassionate than I’ve read in other coming of age memoirs. When I finished this book, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s advice that we are “well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” Shunn resists the temptation to paint himself as either naive or savvy, opting instead for the kind of even-handed description that had me wondering pretty far into the book whether the author was still a practicing Mormon.
In between chapters, the narrative jumps back into history, taking an academic tone to tell the fascinating and strangely recent origin story of the Mormon faith. These mini history lessons were really informative, and added a great layer of variety to the book. The history of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon get a respectful treatment, with thorough explanations and not a hint of irony. Shunn’s storytelling, honed in science fiction and fantasy, make the big names like Brigham Young and Joseph Smith seem real, and small.
One of the most intriguing themes of this book is the way that religion weaves back and forth between the public and personal realms. The same commandment lies at the core of both missionary work and art, it seems. Take what’s in your heart of hearts, and tell it to every stranger who might listen.
In the pages of The Accidental Terrorist, the reader will find the some of the iconography that makes the Mormon faith so ripe for embrace or for parody, depending on which side of the door you stand. You might find the plastic nametags, the chastely separate twin beds, and the crisp white shirts made famous by a certain musical.
But thanks to the sharp writing and heartfelt detail of author William Shunn, you will not forget for a minute that this is a true story, and a faithful account of a boy sorting out his loyalties. You should buy this book, and a few extra copies too. In fact, keep a stack by the front door. You never know when a friendly visitor might come knocking.
4/4 Releases November 10th, 2015
The Accidental Terrorist