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Courageous LDS scholar whose life and writings exemplified — and expounded on — earthly struggles dies at 44

Autor: The Salt Lake Tribune

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, a Harvard-trained scholar in global religion, did not start her academic career expecting to write about her own faith and the challenges of human existence.

But as the generous scholar delved into various religious traditions — including a Chinese Christian group, the True Jesus Church — she could see parallels to her upbringing in California as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And since Inouye’s colon cancer diagnosis in 2017 at 37 — with four young children — spiritual questions became more urgent and personal to the marathon-running mom in colorful knit caps.

“In the past and currently, I’m on this two-week chemo cycle, which is like a mini-cycle of death and resurrection. I’ll do the chemo and feel myself getting more and more tired and sick for the first couple of days,” the Asian American Latter-day Saint writer said last year on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “And then, over the course of the next 12 days, I’ll get better and better and feel stronger and stronger. Then I’m ready to go for the next one.”

It’s not “actual resurrection,” she said, “but it teaches me that things have beginnings and ends, that you can take a lot, that change is constant.”

That cycle ended early Tuesday, her husband reported, when Inouye died in his arms while her brother held her hand.

She was 44.

As news of her death washed like a tidal wave over social media, friends from across the Mormon universe commented on the loss of the petite, sharply observant and deeply compassionate thinker most knew simply as “Melissa.”

She was “a once-in-a-generation mind and a once-in-a-generation human being,” a friend commented on social media. “A lodestar of intellectual generosity.”

Melissa, wrote another, “truly represented the very best that Mormonism has to offer.”

She was “someone I loved and respected so much, now dancing in the skies,” Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez said. “[I am] brokenhearted, but so grateful to have known this most unique, clear-eyed, loving soul.”

Inouye, a historian for the state’s predominant religion, maintained friendships across the spectrum of belief and practice, doubt and devotion, inside and outside of faith communities.

She “exemplified and inspired courage,” wrote Farina King, professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma, “especially courage to be yourself and share your story, your voice.”

That voice, all agreed, will be sorely missed but will resonate in her writings for years to come.

In the bosom of a community

Inouye grew up in what she described as a “very idyllic and close-knit ward [congregation] in Costa Mesa, California. I just felt like nothing was ever wrong. Everyone was always awesome. I felt completely safe and loved.”

From there, the precocious student went to Harvard, where she earned a degree in East Asian studies.

She took 18 months off, though to serve a full-time Latter-day Saint mission in Taiwan, and married a former missionary, Joseph McMullin, who was her teacher at the Missionary Training Center and had also served in Taiwan. Together, they have four children.

Inouye graduated from the Ivy League school in 2003 and went on to complete a doctorate in 2011 in East Asian languages and civilization, writing her dissertation, “Miraculous Mundane: The True Jesus Church and Chinese Christianity in the 20th Century,” while living in Xiamen, China, and teaching at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

She taught in Hong Kong and was a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. In 2019, her family moved to Utah, where she landed a job in the church’s history department.

Inouye helped create the Global Mormon Studies research network and was an advisory board member of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

Five years ago, Inouye published a series of essays, “Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures Through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood.”

(Amazon) Melissa Inouye’s 2019 book, “Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures Through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood.”

All this research and travel gave Inouye an evolving appreciation for her Latter-day Saint community — beyond what she had experienced as a child.

“As an adult who had lived in different places, different countries, I noticed how in different places there are different aspects of the gospel that are emphasized,” she said on a “Mormon Land” podcast. “From that point of view, any group of Latter-day Saints in any place will be subject to the same pressures that are in society at large, susceptible to the same temptations and abuse of power, corruption, just like anyone else. But I don’t think this is a deal breaker. Indeed, I think it’s part of the genius of [church founder] Joseph Smith’s inspiration and organizational vision.”

Memorable metaphors

Laurie Maffly-Kipp, the new chair of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, described Inouye as a master of metaphor.

Case in point: a 2012 piece she wrote for Religion News Service.

“If a person looks at faith like a string of Christmas lights, they demand that ‘light’ leap from one point to another along a single string of connections,” Inouye wrote. “If one junction along the string is flawed, then the whole string is dysfunctional. Or, if the whole string is functional, then every single junction must be perfect.”

But that simile, she said, is inadequate. One bad light — a troubling fact, person, policy or practice — need not darken a whole faith. At the same time, a glistening religion may yet have a bad bulb in the mix.

Sourdough bread, Inouye stated, is a more apt comparison.

“It begins with the starter, an unruly colony of wild yeasts and bacteria swimming together in starchy soup. There is nothing lovely or pure about sourdough starter. Its exuberance makes it sour on the verge of stinky, fermented bordering on decayed,” Inouye wrote. “Yet, when introduced into a properly balanced supply of flour, water and salt, the starter is a catalyst for building a complex, living community that results in heavenly bread.”

Religious organizations are “shaped by time and their environment,” she concluded, which can either lead them to corruption or to producing goodness. “Appreciating this goodness, and engaging productively with the complex processes that create it, is a project of intellect, not ignorance.”

A Zion society

(Deseret Book) Latter-day Saint scholar Melissa Inouye’s latest book. “Sacred Struggle: Seeking Christ on the Path of Most Resistance.” She died Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

Inouye’s final book, “Sacred Struggle: Seeking Christ on the Path of Most Resistance,” taught that a carefree, trouble-free world is not what humanity signed up for.

An easy earthly existence, under Mormon theology, was Satan’s plan, not God’s. Divine design, Inouye argued, calls instead for agency, personal growth, compassion and caring for others, and “living a life full of life” — the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the hopes and the hopelessness — as God’s children learn to be more like their Heavenly Parents by following and finding Jesus.

That’s what makes the Latter-day Saint structure so effective, she said in her last Tribune interview.

“Such a beautiful thing about Mormonism is that it creates these really strong communities where people take liberties with each other because they assume a kinship, which one doesn’t normally assume in secular society,” Inouye said. “And because you just spend so much time with people — these mutual, entangling interactions that help you get to know people and support them in different ways.”

These sentiments echo notions she included in her essay for “A Book of Mormons; Latter-day Saints on a Modern-Day Zion.”

Life on Earth “is not a virtuoso operatic performance of angelic hosts, but a homely production in which a divine director is stuck with a troupe of second-string musicians and amateur actors who are always botching their lines,” Inouye said. “In the Mormon section of the orchestra pit, we stumble on, season after season: learning to play new instruments as needed, struggling to stay in tune, loyally attending rehearsal, folding and unfolding an endless array of chairs.”

Such building and rebuilding “is not merely a means to an end,” she concluded. “It is Zion itself.”

And now, as hundreds, maybe thousands, mourn Inouye’s death, there is one less sonorous instrument in the Mormon orchestra even as the faith’s symphony plays on.

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