Inouye, Melissa Wei-Tsing, Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures Through Life, Death, Cancer, & Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order) (Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2019.) ISBN 9781944394806. 275 pages.

I picked this book up at random and was captivated by it. Melissa Inouye is alternately serious, funny, and introspective, all the while telling her story and her family’s story, along with an explanation of her testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it grew. Many of her comments deal with challenges in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its history, for example over polygamy, as she came to learn about them. The book seemed to be an ideal choice for a SquareTwo review.

Melissa Inouye grew up in Costa Mesa, California. Her mother’s family was Chinese; her maternal great-grandfather, Gin Gor Ju, and his wife, Gor Shee Ju, came to the United States in the early 1900s and settled in Utah, where they joined the LDS Church, later moving to California. Her father’s family were from Japan. Her paternal grandparents, Charles Inouye and Bessie Murakami, both well educated, met at a Japanese interment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. After release they settled in Gunnison, Utah. Inouye’s parents, Warren Inouye and Susan Lew, met at BYU.

Inouye received her Ph.D. in Eastern Asian Languages and Civilizations, from Harvard University, writing a dissertation on a sect called the True Jesus Church in China. While working on it, she and her family lived in Xiamen, China and she was an affiliate of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. She has lived in California, Taiwan, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Massachusetts, Utah, and New Zealand. Inouye servedincluding as associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review and is a frequent contributor on matters of religion. This is her second book.

Inouye was diagnosed with colon cancer in May 2017, and that has informed much of her writing. After the diagnosis, friends encouraged her to write this book and helped her put it together. It is not a continuous narrative, rather, it is a collection of letters to her children, students, Christmas letters, thoughts on faith and getting along in the LDS Church. She says that she wrote the book so that her children would have something to remember her by.

Because of Inouye’s wide-ranging travels and homes, she has a varied, cosmopolitan view of life. She is a committed Latter-day Saint, but acknowledges the varieties of cultures in the world and the truth to be found everywhere. She openly discusses our strengths and weaknesses, our parochialism, our patriarchy, but also the soaring truths and the commitment to love others that we have in the Church.

Growing up in Costa Mesa, Inouye participated in many Church activities. Because of their facial features and hair, her family knew they were different. While faithfully observing LDS customs, they also retained some of their Chinese ones. For example, they recognized the Chinese New Year. In spring, they observed the Tomb-Sweeping Festival by going to their great-grandparents’ graves, where they set boiled chickens on the graves, burned sticks of incense, and poured rice in the grass.

Inouye now professionally studies both of her backgrounds, Latter-day Saint and Asian culture. She first studied East Asia, including Buddhism and Daoism, as an undergraduate and then served a mission in Taiwan, where she met her husband, and where she matured in her religious understanding. When she returned, she took a religion course at Harvard that included early LDS history. While she was shocked by some of the things she learned, her teacher, David Hall, kindly helped her through the rough spots.

Part One

Inouye speaks first about her experiences in China as an exchange student. From her earliest years in southern California, she was fascinated by the outside world. At age 19, she went to China with her parents’ approval, although they cautioned her to be careful. She says she was a stranger; while she looked Chinese, she did not speak the language. Who were these people that looked like her but were so different? She was motivated by curiosity, but also by a sense of cultural affinity.

Tienanmen Square was occupied by people flying kites of all kinds. She thought of her parents, letting their daughter out like a kite. She thought of how they loved her and so she always tried to make sure she came back, even though year by year her interests drew her further from them. She thought of her great-grandfather, leaving China at age 19.

Later, on her mission in Tainan, Taiwan, tracting was often met with angry voices, slammed doors, or simple disinterest from persons who couldn’t be bothered. She would ask, “How do you feel about God?” The answers would vary. “Your Western god is different from our Eastern gods, but they’re all the same.” “I saw God the other day. It was really amazing!”

Through these experiences, she came to feel that,
“Joseph Smith, the prophet called by God to enact a divine work, was the same person as Joseph Smith, the flawed and fallible human being. Radical and empowering Latter-day Saint doctrines on the divine potential of women and the existence of a Mother in Heaven coexist with a conservative and patriarchal organization…In the face of human reality itself characterized by contradictions, the Latter-day Saint tradition was not undone by contradictions, by reinforced by them. The tensions within itself were what made it vital, real, and—for me—worthwhile.”

The third part of Part One is entitled “Faith is Not a String of Christmas Lights,” the meaning being that the failure of one part of experience—unlike a Christmas light string—does not mean that the whole experience (or string) fails. She sometimes had big, terrifying questions about the Church. She went to her Uncle Charles, a Professor of Japanese Literature at Tufts University. He, too, had had doubts when he was a student, and he went to another LDS professor for help. That professor had said, “There are a lot of stories in the world, but Mormonism is the story that I want to be true. To the extent that it is not, I will make it true.” At the time, Inouye saw this answer as sort of a Santa Claus story, wishful thinking, but as time went on, she grew to accept his answer, incomplete though it sounds. She had felt the Spirit’s witness, not all the time, but enough times to make a difference.

During one summer she participated in a research seminar at the Smith Institute of Church History at BYU. It was the first time she had studied our history in depth. As she delved through history books and primary sources, she says,

“I was alternatively inspired, impressed, intrigued, and shocked. I began to see that the early Saints had been flawed, human beings like all of us. I learned that early leaders such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had made missteps in the course of their leadership. I learned that church culture, organization, policies, and even doctrines have been subject to shifts over time. I learned more about the Church’s…practice of plural marriage, which is a very difficult subject for nearly all Latter-day Saint women, not matter how orthodox. Finally, I confronted the reality that in terms of its formal doctrinal and administrative structure, the Church was a patriarchal and very conservative organization. This was a challenge for me…”

In her Ph. D, studies she learned about many world religions. She discovered that they all had leaders who made mistakes, that they were patriarchal and conservative, and found that the Latter-day Saint tradition was not exceptionally problematical, although she knew members who had been terribly disillusioned when they found that our leaders had blemishes. They might say, “Joseph Smith lied to his rank-and-file followers and most importantly to his wife Emma about his practice of polygamy—therefore he wasn’t a prophet, and therefore the religion he founded is all bogus.”

This faith-unraveling syllogism (Joseph Smith was a fraud and therefore the religion he founded is bogus) is the reverse of a faith-promoting syllogism (if the Book of Mormon is true, then everything that Joseph did was divinely inspired), which conveniently ignores his faults. Both views are flawed; they are like the string of cheap Christmas lights that go bad if one light fails. She says, “I’ve seen the kinds of mistakes people make, including errors in our own church history, and declaring that God has willed or caused these mistakes or errors to occur is really throwing God under the bus.”

Inouye has a different metaphor for the Church instead of Christmas tree lights—a sourdough starter. She likes to make artisan bread from sourdough. The starter is a wild mix of yeasts, bacteria, and starch. There is nothing pure about it; it verges on the decayed. Yet with flour, water, and salt, this can be the catalyst for making delicious bread. To Inouye, religious traditions are like sourdough. They are complex and are susceptible to corruption. Yet they produce goodness.

She says that maybe when Uncle Charles said, “I will make it true,” he was simply making the effort required to exercise faith, or of our responsibility to exercise initiative in addition to faith—to do our part to build up the Kingdom. She suggests:

“Here, within this church, I find evidence of God at work, the prophetic nature of Joseph Smith’s founding revelations and the divine validity of the covenants we make in our sacred spaces…I have witnessed the Spirit working in people’s lives…I am grateful that my life as a Latter-day Saint has helped me to want to follow Christ and has defined the scope of my relationship to deity in such marvelously limitless ways…There are still many things I don’t completely understand…and yet my experiences have led me to treasure the fruits of the restored gospel as rare and valuable…as Alma says, ‘Is not this real?’ (Alma 32: 35).”

Part Two

This section deals with Inouye’s family life; it consists of a series of letters and observations, accompanied by her pencil drawings of her children. At the beginning is a “Mother’s Poem,” written collectively by twelve women to be read to a sister about to give birth, as comfort and help, a contemporary version of the older practice of LDS women laying on hands for a blessing. Subsequent sections are letters to her children (“Bean, Sprout, Leaf, and Shoot”) and family.

These reflections are often poignant. For example, she learned that a family friend in Shanghai suddenly of heart failure. This friend was in her mid-thirties and left four children, the oldest one being eight years old. Inouye couldn’t believe it.

It’s times like this, she says, when one wonders about the meaning of life and the reality of death. If God is real, then why is this (whatever this is) also reality? “I don’t understand why a God who cares enough to help someone find their keys, or to help a missionary find someone to teach…doesn’t take up the task of saving the mother of young children.” God allows a world full of atrocities. “I suppose it has to do with God respecting the laws of human agency and of nature.” But sometimes He allows these laws to be bent. Why? How? When? … There may be some grand design in this but I don’t know.”

Inouye describes her pains at the birth of the Leaf, comparing them to the constant pain her mother felt during the last months of her life, dying of cancer of the bile duct. While the birth pains ceased upon the baby’s emergence, her mother’s did not; she was constantly on drugs such as morphine. One time in the middle of the night, her mother’s call button rang. Inouye got up and gave her a dose of morphine. “Seeing her suffering, I want to stay up to keep her company. But although my spirit was willing, my flesh was weak.” Her mother sent her back to bed, and relieved and ashamed at the same time, she went. How that resonated with me! How often is our flesh weak!

Part Three

In considering the changes that have come in the Church, Inouye muses about what has happened. Where once names like Bennett and Frandsen were the norm, now names like Zhang and Rajaratnam and Malabi can be found. “Reorienting to our global reality is exciting, but also stretching…Is there a way to bridge the differences and contradictions that exist between God’s children in global situations without creating sterile uniformity? There is a world of difference between universality and uniformity…”

Inouye reflects on the Church structure in Hong Kong. When general conference comes to the 12-story Wanchai building, the elevators and stairwells are stuffed with people making their way between rooms where the talks are broadcast in Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, English and Bahasa Indonesian. Sometimes things go haywire; in a session in October 2012 Relief Society General Counselor Linda S. Reeves suddenly began speaking in Korean, necessitating some impromptu hymn singing until she could be reacquired in English.

Because of different work schedules, church meetings may be held on Tuesday, Wednesday…even Saturday. In the overwhelmingly female branches, the Relief Society president has stewardship over almost everyone, and the executive secretary and mission leader are women.

This leads Inouye to reflections on gender equality in the Church. She begins with a remembrance. Listening to Julie Beck’s October 2007 conference talk, “Mothers Who Know,” she made a derisive comment, presumably because she was herself a professional woman. Her mother heard her and was offended. Inouye was consumed with guilt; she had hurt one who loved her. Actually, she agreed with what President Beck had to say—she herself believes that motherhood is imbued with a spiritual power—but she was instinctively reacting because of concerns about gender equality:

“Current conversations in the Church regarding gender equality and sexual orientation are frequently characterized by such partisan approaches. In these wars of words, casualties occur on both sides…we must by all means keep working through these conversations…within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

A chapter entitled “What Ana Said,” is a response to a cousin who reported that eleven-year old Ana (not her real name) blurted out in Primary, “But girls don’t get the priesthood. The men are in charge of the women.” This is an important question deserving of an answer. Various Church members would answer it in different, often contradictory, ways. Inouye supplies a set of responses reflecting her life experiences as a mother, Primary leader, Young Women leader, and university professor who frequently interacts with bright young women. She says, “if we want our children to desire to nurture the seed of faith in the twenty-first century, we have to start doing some things differently.” As she grew up, Ana’s question was never a concern to her. Men were in charge and that was OK. But now girls like Ana ask questions. The percentage of LDS women who are bothered by the fact that women do not have the priesthood has increased noticeably. (Inouye makes it clear she is not advocating for women to hold priesthood office.)

There is reason for this ferment among women. The old answers given to these questions, such as that women are naturally spiritual giants and men need help to become so, no longer work for the younger generation. Young women notice that their judges are all men. This may be problematic in many ways, for example, in domestic abuse cases where the problem is the fact that priesthood leaders—who are often friends with the perpetrators—will excuse them and blame the victim. There are LDS women who have been denied temple recommends because of opinions they expressed on the Internet or in social media. They have little recourse because their judges are men.

There are also cultural conventions that the younger generation of women are right to ask about. In sacrament meetings the highest ranking priesthood leader present is always served first (even if, say, the General Relief Society President was in attendance). (I understand that this is to ensure that the sacrament has been blessed properly, also that may not be necessary; the bishop usually stops a priest if he has made a mistake and asks him to do it over.) In General Conference the members of the First Presidency and apostles always enter and exit in order of seniority. Male leaders are addressed as “Elder,” “Bishop,” or “President.,” while female leaders are always addressed as “Sister,” in contrast to the nineteenth century practice; Emma Smith was called “President Emma Smith,” local Relief Society presidents were called “President,” and the general president was called for life, like apostles. (I note, however, that in a recent Church News (March 2020), the current general president was designated as “President Jean B. Bingham.”)

Inouye suggests that the best answer may be, “You’re right. That’s how things are now, and I’m not sure why. However, we believe in continuing revelation, so we are always gaining more understanding, line upon line. Also, recently President Oaks taught that because the priesthood is the power of God, when both women and men serve at church, they are acting with priesthood authority.” There is still a difficult follow up question: “Why must women always ask to use someone else’s keys?” Women are not given priesthood keys (though perhaps they are given priestesshood keys that men are not given, which have not yet been acknowledged as such?)

The good thing about this answer to Ana is that it acknowledges that her concern is legitimate, validating her thoughts on the matter, and it notes the incomplete nature of our current understanding. There is revelation yet to come. We know God is good and can have faith in that. This is His kingdom on earth, with imperfect leaders to be sure. As Elder Holland famously said, “We’re all He’s got, but He deals with it.”

Contributing to our improved understanding of women’s role in the Church is our knowledge that there is a Mother in Heaven. It used to be that the only reference to her was in Eliza R. Snow’s hymn, “O My Father.” But in recent years there has been an acknowledgement of her in many conference talks, as well as in the Proclamation on the Family. A 2011 article in BYU Studies by David Paulsen and Martin Pulido noted that there were over six hundred refences to Mother in Heaven in Latter-day Saint literature. Inouye rights asserts, “If we take the cue from our leaders and embrace this renewed teaching, I believe it will make a tremendous difference toward a more balanced understanding of spiritual power in our culture.”

Having said all this, Inouye warns that we need to make sure that our girls, like Ana, need to have their questions answered fairly. There exists still a tremendous amount of male control in the Church. If we do not help our girls understand that they are valued equally to boys, many will leave. She has seen this happen (as have I.) We need to teach that “all are alike unto God.” She was heartened by Bonnie L. Oscarson’s April 2018 conference talk, in which she called on bishops and other leaders to “see the young women as valuable resources to help fill the many needs within our wards.”

One chapter deals with religious change. As a human being grows, changes, and matures, so do various churches and religions, including our own. Inouye lists five significant changes in its history.

  1. Abandoning plural marriage. For half a century plural marriage was preached from our pulpits as the will of God. But toward the end of the 1880s, many Saints had begun to wonder whether it was time to abandon it. There was the conflict between trying to obey the civil law—which we are counseled to do in the Article of Faith 12 and other scriptures—and obeying God’s law. (This conflict is poignantly described in an article I remember reading, called “The Good Guys vs. The Good Guys.”)

  2. Allowing contraception. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, contraception was regarded as immoral. George Q. Cannon spoke of it as “devilish” and said women who practiced it would be cursed. But current Church policy is that it is up to the married couple to determine how many children to have.

  3. Administering the sacrament. The original policy, written by Joseph Smith, states that teachers and deacons may not administer the sacrament. Furthermore, the Aaronic Priesthood holders from 1851 to 1877 were all adult men. After 1877, boys were permitted to serve with the men as apprentices. Only when a General Priesthood Committee was formed in 1908 was the policy established where boys could serve as Aaronic Priesthood holders, with the duties about what they are today. Boys became teachers at age 15 and priests at age 18, as it was when I held the Aaronic Priesthood; additional age changes came later. Interestingly, women used to prepare the sacrament tables in some places as late as 1957 and were referred to as deaconesses.

  4. Blessing the sick. For over a century, Latter-day Saint women gave blessings to the sick by the laying on of hands, invoking the power of the priesthood. Inouye does not say whether any women actually said, in those blessings, anything like “by the power of the priesthood, which I hold.” Joseph Smith Sr., as Church patriarch, regularly gave blessings in which he authorized women to perform healing rituals. Church presidents down to Wilford Woodruff encouraged women to use the gift of healing. An official 1880 statement said that they could give blessings by virtue of their faith in Christ, though not by virtue or authority of the priesthood. Until 1968, the Relief Society handbook carried a letter from Joseph F. Smith saying that it was sometimes permissible for women to perform healing rituals.

  5. Race, temple, and priesthood. The early Church was inclusive of all individuals of all races. Blacks were welcomed, even though some members held slaves. The prophet himself had varied views on it. But opinions which seemed in accord with society’s racist views developed in the Church. Brigham Young taught that black people were cursed and should be banned from priesthood authority. Only in 1978 did Spencer W. Kimball reverse the policy. In 2015 the Church published a statement entitled “Race and the Priesthood,” explicitly disavowing theories of the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor and condemning racism in any form.

Inouye remarks that while God’s commandments and moral standards never change, changing societal circumstances require or result in different ways in which Church members live. A speech by George Q. Cannon clearly states that Church leaders were not omniscient and that they had to seek the mind and will of the Lord like everyone else. President Uchtdorf said recently, “to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders have simply made mistakes.”

There is the temptation to conceal past or present mistakes. But the Savior does not work in darkness. The Church is publishing early documents, noting the changes over time, supporting the view that we need not edit or hide our history. Our standard for change should never be “going along with surrounding society.”

Parts Four and Five

In the final parts of her book, Inouye tells of her diagnosis of colon cancer, her treatments and surgeries, and of the support she received from many individuals. She received priesthood blessings and participated with a group of women who took turns praying for her. That gave her peace.

Still, though, thinking of her mother who died of cancer eight years before, she feels grief for her mother and fear for herself. Her righteous mother was not granted any special medical miracles. The possibility of leaving her young children fills Inouye with pain. But she is not depressed. She is preparing for the worst while hoping and praying for the best. She compares going through chemotherapy to running a marathon. It is stressful and painful, but there is a sense of satisfaction at having completed it.

Inouye has written letters to her children and others, preparing somewhat for her possibly early death. Indeed, that is one of the reasons for her book—for them to have a concrete object to hold, rather than a bunch of manuscript pages. She has always felt in control of her life, but it is frightening now to be confronted with her fragility and insecurity. She realized that she is not entitled to health and longevity just because she is awesome, even if she were.

She speaks about distance running, which is both enjoyable and painful. It has given Inouye strength to wrangle her kids and to work through the trials of her cancer. She recounts a conversation she had with her uncle Charles, when she was venting about abuses and unkindnesses she had seen in the Church. He said, “So walk away. Or look for the pattern.” What pattern? That found in the scriptures in what Jesus did, how he interacted with people and what He taught. In later life, she sees people she wants to emulate. They are not just “right,”, or righteous,” or “correct.” They are good. To be good one must grapple with realities and problems that thrust themselves upon us. “The Church is not the only place one can find God. But, you can find God here.

“Some people would prefer for me to respond to a faith crisis with an exhortation like, ‘Don’t leave, or else you’ll never be truly happy!’, or ‘Don’t leave, or else your life will always have a gaping void!’” But, Inouye says, this life is crisscrossed with many train tracks, thoroughfares, high voltage wires. “At a certain point, people have to learn to navigate sensibly and explore new territories, all by themselves. We’re not in Primary anymore…The only truly satisfying responses to your urgent and valid concerns must come through the witness of the Spirit…” She concludes by recounting two instances in which Primary songs moved her to tears through the Spirit. “A life touched by the Spirit of God…is a life worth hanging on to.”

A letter entitled “On Fear” is written to her children. The fear of cancer is not only facing the memory of her mother’s death and possibly her own, but the fear of leaving her children motherless. She says that fear is real, but it offers opportunities to be kind. It can be paralyzing, but it can also be a stimulus to something worthwhile. And she says, “At the end of each day, I check in with God. I say, ‘Thank you for this wonderful day. I hope you like what I did with it.’”

She expresses worries she has as she walks past the open door of death every day. “Will I be brave like my mother? Do I have faith to be healed? “Will I be around when the Shoot graduates from high school? Though I have hope, and determined reliance on God’s promises, I can’t know for certain how much time I have ahead of me, whether years or decades. But I will give thanks for each new day.”

Reviewer’s Conclusion

I found Inouye’s thesis--that the Church is true and that we can benefit from diversities within it and that we can get past the mistakes of members and leaders--to be clearly explored and justified. In the process, she speaks of her family, her joys in living, and her struggles and fears as she faces cancer. One of the best things about the book are the various, thoughtful, and understanding answers she gives to young persons struggling with their faith. It is a fascinating autobiographical picture of the life of a brilliant and literate Latter-day Saint woman. I am so glad to have read it, and wish Melissa Inouye all the best.

Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, B. Kent (2020) "Book Review: Melissa Inouye’s book Crossings," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 1 (Spring 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonCrossingsInouyeReview.html, accessed <give access date>.

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