Recently on Meridian Magazine, Colleen Harrison published a raw and open-hearted account of how her perceptions of what it means to be a faithful member of the Church actually led her away from Christ and — she believes — led her children away from the Church.  The interesting thing about her description of her former views is, it is a list of activities and responsibilities that, I believe, is shared by probably the majority of active members of the Church:

My children knew, believe me, where I stood, when it came to activity and dedication to the Church. Dead center. Rock of Gibraltar . We never missed a jot or tittle of Church involvement. My husband and I both held multiple callings in every ward we ever lived in. Weekday primary. Weekday Relief Society. Weekday MIA activities. Sunday moratoriums on anything but the most exemplary, faithful activities.

And the work ethic ruled supreme in our home. All allowances were either earned or forfeited. Family Home Evening was mandatory—the only family argument that (as the old saying goes) began and ended with prayer. I’m afraid I didn’t smile when someone would pop that “joke.” It wasn’t funny to me. It was true.

She goes on to quote from her book He Did Deliver Me From Bondage:

In 1981 I tipped the scale at over 300 pounds. Believe me, I was the most miserable “active” Latter-day Saint I knew. Of course, I didn’t know many people, Latter-day Saint or otherwise, because of the isolated, imprisoned lifestyle I lived. I walled myself in with cleaning, cooking, canning, sewing, even with children and husband and, of course, with eating. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with cooking and cleaning—they are the necessities of life. Sewing and canning are worthwhile activities too. They are good basic skills that every person should know to be prepared for hard times when life might be scarce instead of abundant…
And what was I doing to sustain this concentrated pretense of perfection? Was I pursuing a course of daily personal prayer and scripture study to receive God’s direction and power in my own life? Heavens, no! After all, I had no life outside my husband and children—cleaning for them, cooking, sewing, canning; thinking, planning.

Sister Harrison then chronicles her decision to join a 12-step recovery program. She doesn’t say exactly what for (addiction to food? extreme attachment to false ideals?), but she goes on to express the profound lessons she learned from the program:

Before I awakened to the need to seek the Savior’s Spirit for my own sake, my older children were already convinced the gospel was only a lot of rules and not a place to find love or spiritual strength. Because I didn’t know Him, obviously I couldn’t introduce them to Him. Several of these children have chosen to leave the Church. I have wept many heart-wrenching tears over this reality.

The answer to the title of my post is a complicated one, because obviously there are differences in opinion of what it means to be a Christian. If you define the word Christian as meaning someone who accepts the prophets’ witness of Christ’s divinity and mission, then the answer is that most of us are Christian — we accept that witness — while others of us are either undecided or outright skeptical (see DKL) of Christ.

Sister Harrison’s account argues for a different definition of Christianity, one that involves surrendering all of one’s other concepts of salvation and redemption, whether careerism, perfect-housewifeism, excessive devotion to good ideas, or reliance on anything but the Spirit for understanding that can only come through the Spirit. By that definition, I’m not sure that most Mormons are Christian in practice, on a day-to-day basis. I think I personally fall short of that standard, which is why I found sister Harrison’s article so challenging and useful to me personally.

In my personal experience in the Church, I did not understand the atonement until I was in my teens, and sadly, I did not come to really understand the reality of Christ until my mission. It was many years after my mission, after having read the Book of Mormon more than 20 times over the years, that I was sitting and reading it on a DC Metro train and it dawned on me that Christ is the main character and the whole purpose of the Book of Mormon.  If you accept the Book of Mormon’s divine origins, then you are painted into a corner on the issue of the divinity Christ, and all of the higher criticism of the Gospels — useful or not — cannot settle that central question for you.

In any case, I think sister Harrison’s article should be required reading for Church leaders wondering why members often lack enthusiasm for missionary work, and also for leaders wondering why so many of our youth are deciding to leave the Church.  Her story, with its insistence upon experiential understanding of Christ, is the most important kind of story we can tell each other in the Church.