Christians across the theological spectrum declare that they have been saved by grace. Sealed: An Unexpected Journey into the Heart of Grace (Thornbush Press, 2021) by first-time book author Katie Langston may well be the most thorough and personal contemporary treatment of how that grace is experienced.
First of all, my disclaimers: I know Katie. I have known her virtually for around a decade; although I have spent only an afternoon with her in person, I am well-acquainted with her through her writing, mostly through social media and blogs with several instances of personal correspondence. I think of her as a dear friend. She provided me with an advance review copy of her book but did not ask for a positive review. When we met virtually, we were both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I continue to be an active member of the Church (although I have a more inclusivistic view than many), but thank God, and I mean that sincerely, she chose a different path. These days, she’s a pastoral intern with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This book can best be described as a memoir. Katie makes no obvious effort to score theological points nor even to persuade the reader that her path is the best one. Instead, with sometimes painful detail, Katie straightforwardly and sequentially tells us her life story as she sees it. It is her life that tells the story of grace, not her theology.
Katie grew up in what was a typical, in some ways stereotypical, Mormon home. (Although the term “Mormon” is frowned upon these days within the Church, it was commonly used during nearly all the time period this book is about, so I’ll use it here.) She followed the traditional Mormon path, probably to a fault. She even served a full-time proselytizing mission, to Bulgaria, when such a venture wasn’t nearly as common for young-adult Mormon women as it is today. She married in a Mormon temple and got pregnant shortly afterward. From the outside, she seemed to be living a glorious and even ideal Mormon life.
But all was not well in Katie’s Zion, for Katie had not found grace, nor did it find her, in the Mormon church. From the earliest age, she had learned that to reach the highest level of the Mormon heaven it was necessary to follow God’s checklist, and Katie knew she couldn’t measure up. She learned, in particular, that her female body couldn’t be trusted. Her decision to go on an year-and-a-half mission comes across as more of an attempt to escape her angst than to share the joy of Mormon life. Eventually she learned that her mental patterns fit the pattern of scrupulosity, a mental disorder often described as a obsessive-compulsive distortion of religious faith.
Katie’s conversion out of toxic Mormonism didn’t come in an instant, and I’m not going to give away the details here. Suffice it to say that Katie came to see that this Jesus she had known all her life, but didn’t really know, was the source of an unconditional love she didn’t have to constantly strive for. Katie tried to make a go of living her transformed Christian faith within Mormonism but eventually felt God calling her in a different direction.
Even more so after reading this memoir, I don’t doubt that call was real.
I admire Katie’s vulnerability in the way she wrote this book. I now know things about Katie I don’t know about my own wife, the book is that intimate. If you what to know something about how the mind of a person with scrupulosity (or even obsessive-compulsive disorder in general) works, you’ll find it here. You’ll also see how well-meaning parents and church members can make life more difficult, often causing lasting harm.
I also applaud Katie for not to succumbing to whatever temptation there may have been to make this an anti-Mormon screed such has become popular among the Church’s critics. She lets the Church’s culture and actions speak for themselves. When given the perfect opportunity to detail troublesome aspects of the Church’s history, for example, she mentions them in only briefly. She doesn’t avoid telling how the Church failed her, nor does she overlook how Mormon practice tends to substitute a master checklist for grace. But neither did she respond to that failure by making ex-Mormonism a religion of its own.
As much as anything else, Sealed makes grace more than a theological concept; it treats grace as something to be received and lived more than to be studied or preached. Thank you, Katie, for making grace come alive.
Photo by Evi Odioko via Unsplash.