Top critical review
Perspective from a Latter-day Saint: the book was engaging but problematic
Reviewed in the United States on June 30, 2021
Recently I was gifted a copy of Passport to Heaven by Micah Wilder. At the outset, I'll say that it was a well-written book. Micah has a gift for words that serves him well. The book does an excellent job creating and releasing tension and getting the reader personally invested in the outcome. It would be wrong to disrespect Micah's personal journey, concerning which he seems passionate and sincere.
But my greatest praise for the book may double as my primary criticism of it: just like the portraits in the LDS stake center that give Jesus a veneer of beauty but leave Micah feeling that they are hiding a shallow, unhappy truth about the religion (pp. 51-52), Micah's book may be a so well written that it hides some of its deep flaws. Readers who harbor false negative stereotypes about the church (who I'm guessing are the vast majority of them) will have their biases reinforced and won't be challenged to look deeper into what Micah is saying. He presents his former beliefs as wooden, mechanical, superficial. To be fair, there is some evidence to support that point of view, but I suspect being wooden, mechanical and superficial from time to time is a universal problem, even when we engage in activities that we are genuinely passionate about. Certainly Micah's message that "God is love" should be taken into the heart of every Bible believer, whether LDS or not, and that's precisely the point: the implication that being a faithful member of the LDS church strips you of your love of God and man and that such love is to be found only in the tenets of Evangelical Christianity is factually incorrect. Such a presentation, whether intentional or not, misrepresents the church in ways that create division between Latter-day Saints and other Christians, and may have the effect of drawing a person away from rather than toward the God he wishes to show us. As a statement of his personal experience within the church, I can respect his point of view. As a general description of the church, I found much of what he says to be misleading.
There are three key relationships that lead Micah out of the LDS Church and toward mainstream Protestant Christianity. The first is with a Pastor Benson, a Protestant minister with whom Micah meets and whom he aspires to convert to the LDS church along with his entire congregation. Where to begin?
I got the impression as I read through the chapters describing this meeting that Micah suffers from delusions of grandeur. His lofty goal sets him up to be devastated from the outset. It is not an indictment of the message he shares that Pastor Benson is not persuaded. Sometimes powerful messages are received lightly or even with contempt. Yet Micah seems so shocked that Pastor Benson doesn’t bow to the truth he presents that the pastor's reaction itself appears to be the catalyst to instilling doubt in Micah. While Micah's zeal is beyond question, his methods do not reflect his MTC training. Missionaries are not instructed to barrel through the message of the Restoration while never pausing to see how the message is received until the very end of the presentation (pp. 80-84); Micah should have known to stop and get feedback from Pastor Benson early on (hence why missionary lessons are called "discussions"). Yet as it is, only after giving his whole spiel about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the sticks of Ezekiel 37, and so on, does it occur to Micah to stop and seek the pastor's opinion. At that point, he feels obligated to sit back quietly and politely as the pastor presents his point of view (p. 86), and I can't help but think that that contributes to the frustration that makes Micah feel defeated.
Contrary to the impression left by Micah, everything Pastor Benson shares has a reasonable answer from the viewpoint of the Restored Gospel. For example, the pastor quotes John 1:12 and says that he believes God adopts his children, not that we are all children of God from birth (p. 87). The LDS position is nuanced, but we essentially agree. There are at least a dozen passages in the Book of Mormon that reference the doctrine of John 1:12, and a few of them (e.g., Mosiah 5:7, Moroni 7:48) declare directly how we may become the sons and daughters of God. Micah attempts to counter the pastor's position on grace and works by reference to James 2:26 (p. 92), to which of course Benson replies by admitting that while “faith without works is dead,” what that means is that works always follow faith. A better approach would have been for Micah to back up four verses to James 2:21-22, that show that Abraham was justified by works, and that his faith was perfected by his works, which in both cases means that works had to precede both justification and a complete saving faith. Some of the points that Pastor Benson introduces are simply open to interpretation, such as that Heb. 1:1-2 has to be read to say that God no longer calls prophets as mediators (p. 88). John 20:23, Matthew 10:40, and the entire Book of Acts depict the apostles acting in exactly that role, and at least leave the interpretation of Heb. 1:1-2 and 1 Tim. 2:5 open for debate. Had Micah been aware of how to respond to Pastor Benson in the moment, how would the conversation have ended? Probably the same way it ended in reality: with an argument. This should be expected when you try to do what Micah was trying to do. But instead of coming away wounded, he would have come away vindicated, and the events that led to writing the book may never have transpired.
Pastor Benson's final advice to Elder Wilder is to "read the New Testament as a child -- with an open heart seeking for truth" (p. 98). I personally have received this recommendation before, and find it to be problematic for a number of reasons. First, no person I know under the age of 12 (and few over the age of 12) has the capacity to navigate the complexities of the Bible -- the history, the symbolism and allegory, the seeming contradictions, the cultural barriers -- and come away with a thorough understanding of what he or she reads. In order for certain aspects of the Bible to even seem coherent, education is required, and that immediately begins to compromise a person's childlike approach. Second, the mere suggestion that the best way to approach the New Testament is as a child, without preconceptions, BEGINS with a preconception: that the Bible is the word of God. Why should I assume that it is? The suggestion necessitates throwing out my reasons for believing the New Testament to begin with and starting fresh. What reasons exist to assume the Bible is authoritative and not spend my time reading Douglas Adams instead? I've asked this question of people who issue the challenge to me, and no adequate answer has been forthcoming. Third, the suggestion to “read the New Testament as a child” leaves out a full two-thirds of the Bible. Why not start by setting aside the New Testament and reading the Old Testament as a child? The implicit answer seems to be that it will lead you to the wrong conclusions, and you'll end up becoming a Jew rather than a Christian – again, evidence that it really is difficult to lay aside all preconceptions. Finally, I usually find little to no evidence that people who recommend reading the New Testament as a child have actually done so themselves. If they have, then they have independently and miraculously come to the same conclusions about which Bible passages to ignore, which to emphasize, and that they should all be interpreted as modern, Western, Evangelical Protestantism says they should, which differs from how the earliest Christians interpreted them (the book Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up by David Bercot is a great primer on this topic). I find it more likely that the exercise didn't actually produce the miraculous consistency that it is purported to have produced, but rather that it wasn't even conducted the way it was presented at all, and that people who claim to be stripping themselves of bias and preconceptions are actually taking a great deal of feedback from each other on how the New Testament should be read. Micah Wilder certainly is no exception.
Micah's inability to counter the pastor's points sends him on a path of discovery and eventually out of the church, but his misconceptions about both the teachings of the Book of Mormon and even how to counter a Christian's viewpoint through the New Testament become the first steps of this journey, which is unfortunate, because it also puts him on the path of deemphasizing the Book of Mormon, the greatest book in existence for upholding, witnessing of, and vindicating biblical truth. Had he decided to give as much attention to the Book of Mormon from that point as he did the Bible, he would have found them inextricably bound to each other, and I am convinced his journey would have ended very differently.
The second key relationship of this book is with a man named Erik, the owner of the Edgewater hotel in Winter Garden, Florida. I have conflicted feelings about Erik. His mantra is "it's all about love, Kid" (p. 146), and from all appearances he lives his life that way. He is generous with his time and money, giving the missionaries free daily breakfast in his hotel (p. 147). At one point he puts himself in danger to head out into a hurricane and retrieve a valuable keepsake of Elder Wilder (pp. 166-167), all of which seems admirable. But he also joined the LDS church, not because he believed it was true, but because he wanted to persuade people away from it (p. 170), which seems far LESS than admirable. His belief was that God had led him to do so; God will be the judge. Micah and Erik form a deep friendship during the time that Micah is in Winter Garden. Erik is a clairvoyant of sorts, prophesying that Micah would 1) leave his mission early (p. 267), 2) start a band (p. 134), 3) write a book (pp. 282-283), and 4) be influential in uniting the disparate denominations of Christianity into one in preparation for the second coming of the Lord (p. 268). It is perhaps remarkable that by the end of the book, three of the four prophecies come to pass, although it didn't escape my attention that they were the three that Micah had the most direct influence over, opening the possibility that they were all influenced by the interactions Micah had had with Erik and thus were self-fulfilling. As to #4, while it doesn't appear that much movement has been made in that direction in the last 15 years, it is perhaps too early to cast a final verdict. Since I have been branded as part of a Pharisaic organization anyway, I will assume the role of Gamaliel, sit back and allow the events transpire without further comment.
Every good story needs a villain, which brings me to a discussion of Micah's third significant relationship. In this book, the villain comes in the form of Mission President Sorenson, and briefly (after President Sorenseon exits the stage and can no longer be used as a punching bag) Stake President Hansen. Whether Sorenson or Hansen fills the role makes little difference though, because the caricature drawn of them is the same. If there is anything in the book that calls into question Micah's insistence that pure love is his guiding principle, it is the treatment he gives these two men. The book interleaves chapters about Micah's final interview with President Sorenson with the rest of the story in a flash-back-flash-forward narrative, and paints the most unflattering picture of his mission president he can. He is innately cynical of the motives of his president, indicating that the only reason Sorenson tries to bring him to repentance is to "salvage his [own] reputation" (p. 110). There is no acknowledgement here that the calling of mission president, as well as the leadership roles that undoubtedly led to becoming a mission president, would have seen Pres. Sorenson spending countless hours in ministering, counseling, and providing for the spiritual and/or temporal needs of the missionaries and members of his wards and stakes, all without compensation and with comparatively little recognition. This is the sort of love (it would SEEM) that Micah is preaching, yet he can make no allowance for the possibility that the president has unselfish motives, despite providing no real evidence that the opposite is true. One of these chapters is called "The Holy Inquisition" (ch. 12), reminiscent of the Catholic purge of heterodoxy in medieval Europe. Of course, if Micah had been subjected to the actual Inquisition, he might have been placed on a rack and stretched until one or more of his limbs popped off. As it is, the only implement of torture brought into the room by Pres. Sorenson is the authority to release Micah from a position he no longer wants anyway, so he can elope with his girlfriend in Disney World a few days later and begin making early plans for the band he wants to form (pp. 313-314). To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the meeting with President Sorenson wasn’t taxing for Micah; it absolutely would have been for me. But there has got to be emotional middle ground between “theme park” and “torture chamber,” especially when the latter leads more-or-less directly to the former.
Chapter 25 describes a zone leader meeting in which President Sorenson confronts Elder Wilder for challenging the mission's "Standards of Excellence." Here the president is depicted as trying to counter everything Micah says about the need to love the people (p. 209). While I don't doubt that a conversation along these lines took place, something about the president's response strikes me as just too out of character for any mission president. I'm sure Sorenson was concerned about tamping down the subversion of his authority and of mission rules that he perceived Micah to be instigating, but any statement in which a mission president would simply swat away the suggestion that the love of Christ should motivate missionary service would be inexplicable. If that's truly what the president was saying, then Elder Wilder should at least have acknowledged that it was not aligned with long-established church doctrine, policy and precedent. On the contrary, Micah seems to portray these episodes as a fair representation of what the church actually teaches. Context -- probably immediate but definitely cultural -- is missing from the dialogue. I found that mischaracterization troubling on its own, but there was something else that struck me about this narrative. In the midst of his exchange with President Sorenson, Micah "reached down and retrieved my missionary quad" (p. 209). He then proceeds to read from Matthew 6 -- from the English Standard Version of the Bible. The problem? The church has never published a quad with the ESV; they're all KJV. This may seem like a minor point, and wouldn't be worth mentioning, except for one vital fact: it proves Micah is not being meticulous in recounting what actually took place during the conversation. If he's taking liberties here, what other liberties might he be taking? It is unfortunate that no transcript of this conversation -- or any other conversation in the book -- exists, so that the record could be corrected if necessary.
While the depiction of President Sorenson seemed unfair to me, things become truly bizarre right after the final interview, when Micah reads a letter from Erik. Comparing himself to King David, Micah says on p. 270: "The church I had served and loved with all my heart -- which had groomed me and found great favor in me -- was now the very entity, Saul, that would seek my destruction." This statement left me wondering what Micah feared the church was going to do to him. He doesn’t admit for several more pages that he doesn’t fear any PHYSICAL danger (p. 298), but essentially wants to avoid the humiliation of being excommunicated. The only way he feels he can do that is by running away. He drops his companion off with another set of missionaries, who inform the president what he is up to, and begins to flee with Erik (chs. 32-33). President Sorenson eventually discovers his whereabouts and arranges to meet him at the Edgewater Hotel. The president ultimately persuades Micah to return home to Utah and report to President Hansen, on the condition that President Hansen will release Micah from his mission honorably, something that President Hansen agrees to (p. 287). Erik convinces Micah that President Sorenson and President Hansen are setting a diabolical trap for him that will end badly if he returns to Utah (p. 287), and though Erik, from all appearances, is incorrect, Micah seems eager to vindicate his friend's prophetic abilities by making the final meeting with President Hansen sound as ominous as he can. Micah tries to depict President Hansen's testimony of the "five pillars of the church" and his last-ditch effort to convince Micah to rethink what he is doing as a breach of promise all on its own (p. 306). Where is the persecution? It seems it is to be found in the stake president's crescendo as he testifies of Joseph Smith and the Restored Church (pp. 303-305), in his (I admit offensive and unnecessary) comparison of Micah to the Book of Mormon figure Nehor (p. 306), and in his (likewise offensive and unnecessary) suggestion that Micah is corrupting his LDS girlfriend (p. 307). To Micah's credit, he doesn't try to fabricate any evidence that President Hansen ACTUALLY breaks his promise to release him honorably, but the reader should be careful to evaluate what Micah is saying, because that's certainly the impression he leaves. He declares that being invited to report to the high council the next morning "was indicative of their plan all along to break their promise and excommunicate me" (p. 311). In fact, reports by returned missionaries to high councils are fairly standard procedure, and I have very strong doubts that they would or could have convened a disciplinary council a mere twelve hours later, in a Sunday morning meeting where other business was already on the docket, and without so much as notifying the member that his membership was to be on trial. Apparently neither Micah nor any of his readers will ever be able to confirm that he would have been excommunicated that morning, because he doesn’t attend the meeting (p. 313). Whatever trap is laid for Micah's "destruction" he ends up avoiding, not by fleeing, but simply by not showing up. Presumably, a short time later he removes his own name from the records of the church, with the exact same end result as if the high council had done it.
In summary: Micah's journey was certainly transformative to him, and that can be very compelling to an outside observer. What should be remembered is that many Latter-day Saints have had transformative experiences as well that convince us of the truth of the Restored Gospel. Given the verifiable misconceptions that seem to exist in Micah's mind about the Book of Mormon and other aspects of his former religion, I have a hard time believing that his conclusions are sound. He can certainly find and emphasize examples in Latter-day Saint living that cast the church in a negative light, but I also believe he could do the same for any Christian movement including his own. Maybe I'm wrong -- but I doubt it. I will add, though, that the closest I've come to having a daily transformative experience of my own is when I'm immersing myself in the Bible AND the Book of Mormon TOGETHER. Neither would be sufficient on its own to bring me as close to God as I've become. It's a perspective that Micah apparently never saw, but that doesn't diminish its reality.
Final note: I find myself continuing to chuckle at the water pipe incident in chs. 17-18, but I won't include any additional spoilers.
I give the book three stars.