Elders: A Novel by Ryan McIlvain (London: Hogarth, 2013. 304 pp)
Ryan McIlvain was born in Utah and raised in Massachusetts. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals, including the Paris Review. A graduate of the Rutgers MFA program and a recipient of the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, he currently lives with his wife in Los Angeles.
Even though I’ve grown up in the Christian faith and continue to hold to the basic tenets of its tradition, I’ve always felt a little uneasy about the Evangelical push toward proselytizing. There’s a sense in which your work holds value only as much as you are able to convert others to the faith. The gospel mandate to share the good news becomes a heavy hand of dominance over any conversation.
The people around you no longer carry importance because they are friends or colleagues; they, instead, become numbers or opportunities to build the kingdom. The wealth of culture and the differences between people become obstacles at best and sin issues at worst.
The general strategy in these instances is the shotgun gospel. You’re not there to make friends or to have understanding about their positions. The strategy is to raise your metaphorical Bible shotgun and shoot with full force. It’s not the Christian’s fault when feelings are hurt. Truth has been spoken.
Given my wariness within my own tradition, I found Ryan McIlvain’s debut, Elders, a fascinating look into the Mormon missionary field.
Set in Brazil in the early 2000s, Elders follows the Elder McLeod and Elder Passos as they work toward the finish line of their 2-year mission in Brazil.
McLeod is a New England American and son of an influential bishop. In many ways, McLeod is the stereotypical “Doubting Thomas.”
“But McLeod knew so little, he believed so little, and he wanted to know everything, believe everything, now” (17).
At the behest of his father, McLeod enters the mission with a leap of faith, under the idea that action or will would be the answer to his doubt.
“What did it mean to will belief? He wanted to be effortless; he wanted God to compel it in him. He wanted the doctrinal earth to feel solid underfoot, but it didn’t, and maybe it never would” (78-79).
McLeod encounters much difficulty with those around him due to his citizenship. He quickly becomes a stand-in for the rancor Brazil holds for his U.S. President.
At the other end of the Elder’s shared apartment resides Passos, a Brazilian convert to the Mormon Church. The zone leader, Passos plays by the book—your standard straight-laced missionary.
Passos struggles too with identity. But his difficulty lies more along the nationalist front. As much as he’s convinced about the truth of his faith, it is at odds with his culture. The Copa Libertedores sits in the background throughout the novel and Passos resists the temptation to take rooting interest in the national soccer team; such things are unbecoming of a man of faith. But most of all, the trouble with Mormonism is its American roots. With the War on Terror commencing, all things American aren’t too popular.
“Passos felt another stab of dislocation, and he couldn’t help thinking—the idea breached despite him—that he’d given up something of himself, something important, to be a member of what was still an American-controlled church, on an American-controlled mission, under an American mission president, a man who could look at an entire culture and see a game, merely, who could look at a countrywide community and see a crowd” (132).
McIlvain seamlessly transitions point of view between these two characters as they fall apart at the seams and turmoil in the relationship comes to a boil. Yet at the same time, this struggle with identity connects these characters, even if they choose not to admit it.
Asking Tough Questions
Elders asks some tough questions about the usefulness of faith in the modern world. It touches on the sometimes-absurd position it requires in response to sin, as well as the gray areas that exist within any faith. Elders is a quick read, recommended for anyone interested in asking deeper questions about faith.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5