The Broken Shelf
By Bill Fountain
Posted December 11, 2020, 11:48 pm
Jack Benson was seated at his desk scrolling through Facebook, unable to shake the feeling of wanting something more from life. Most of his free time, as well as all of his time at work, was spent in the very environment he found himself in now- his unkempt bedroom, or his palace of peace, as he liked to call it. Jack built websites for a living and loved what he did. He was good at it and felt it inspired his creativity. He also loved having a job where he didn't have to socialize.
Jack did have a social life. He was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, going to Single's Ward every Sunday and participating in various activities every Wednesday, which due to COVID were now mostly Zoom hangouts. He had good times with his church community but never gravitated toward any female in particular. It occurred to him that he should have had a girlfriend by now at his age of 25, but felt he didn't have much chemistry with any of the women at church.
Jack continued to scroll through his Facebook newsfeed quite rapidly as if he was scanning for a particular post, but in actuality was in an existential crisis-fueled daze. That is until a meme caught his eye and his scrolling middle finger stopped in its track as Jack jolted awake. He saw an image of the Book of Mormon, and at the top the words "Did you know?" displayed in white text across a black background. The person who posted the image was someone he went to high school with, who Jack regarded as being exceptionally intelligent, but not someone he would've predicted would make a post about the Book of Mormon.
He read the text at the bottom of the meme with extreme curiosity.
"A devout Mormon set out in 1955 on an archaeological expedition to prove the Book of Mormon's claims. After 15 years, he instead found nearly every claim in the BOM was wrong and the papyrus Joseph Smith claimed was written by Abraham was actually just a page ripped out of the Egyptian Book of the Dead."
Jack chuckled. He had never heard this one before and immediately figured it to be bogus. Underneath the meme, Jack's old friend had posted a hyperlink claiming to confirm the credibility. Jack clicked the link and found himself on a page from an organization calling themselves the Institute for Religious Research. Jack rolled his eyes. He had spent two years of his life in Florida as a missionary and felt he had plenty of experience with pushback and arguments against the merit of his church, but found this tidbit of a meme to be unusually agitating.
He read the article and the problem was- the story checked out. Jack googled the name of the archaeologist and found several more resources substantiating the claim. Okay, so one guy lost his faith- that doesn't necessarily prove anything. Jack continued to read some online forums about the excommunicated member and his attention was directed toward even more suspicious church history. He proceeded to spend the next several hours going down a rabbit hole of information that he never knew existed.
Sunday arrived, and Jack was nowhere to be found in the church cultural hall. One of the currently-serving missionaries texted Jack asking if he needed a ride to church. On the contrary, Jack was beginning to feel betrayed by the abuse and lies that he's had to endure his whole life as an LDS member. He wanted to ignore the text but knew that the missionaries would come over to his apartment if he didn't respond. He texted the missionary back, explaining that he is not feeling well but doesn't think he has COVID.
Jack continued to spend the entirety of his free time digging deep into Church history. He becomes completely convinced that all of these dark details were absolutely truthful and that going back to church was out of the question. He revealed the news of his departure decision to his parents while visiting them at their house, and to his surprise, they were actually quite understanding. Jack's dad gave him three books to read regarding the spiritual questions he found himself asking. Jack took the books in stride but knew there wasn't any chance of him actually cracking them open.
Now that church activities were out the door, Jack filled in his new time by creating YouTube videos about his newly formed beliefs about Mormonism. Most of them consisted of him discussing a negatively portrayed experience and the specific facts that turned his beliefs, while others were documentary-style productions about the history he wished he would've been taught as a young Mormon. He called his channel Broken Shelf Media, referencing a popular joke about the metaphorical shelf where Mormons stash questionable Church history, until the shelf itself eventually breaks and they leave the Church.
He had 27 videos posted in 2 months the day the cookie-carrying, masked missionaries arrived at his doorstep. His eye backed off the peephole as he opened the door, expecting imminent conflict surrounding his latest online content. But the two young men had not seen his videos. In fact, nobody in Jack's inner circle had seen his videos. Probably because he had not advertised this hobby to anyone. He was hoping he would just become a hit and they would find his videos after he became popular.
Jack let the masked missionaries inside his living room and the three proceeded to discuss Jack's crisis in faith. Jack attempted to egg them on with controversial questions but continued to get what he felt was the run-around and evasive answers. Eventually, Jack just reformed back to a friendly tone, feeling he was unable to break the missionaries. They asked him if he was willing to meet with the bishop to which Jack politely declined. After 30 minutes of futile endeavors to draw Jack back to the chapel, the missionaries were on their way and Jack returned to creating Broken Shelf Media videos.
A month went by and Jack opened up his channel dashboard to see that most of his videos still had under 100 views. His most popular video had a mere 380 views and Jack began to question whether or not he should quit entirely. He was glad he made the videos to express the thoughts he wasn't comfortable sharing with his family. But now that he was past all of that, this whole YouTube venture didn't seem to be giving Jack the fulfillment he thought it would bring.
He speculated about what would happen to him if the Church discovered his videos. It's something he never really thought about because deep down he felt he was doing the right thing. Jack realized that he would almost certainly be excommunicated. This was something that didn't quite sit right with Jack and was the seeded thought that eventually led him to delete all 47 of his videos and terminate his channel one lonely night. After clicking all the confirmation buttons and closing all the YouTube Studio windows, Jack began reading one of the books his dad had given him.
Jack spent five months away from the Church before he finally decided he wanted to stay a Mormon. Even if it was all a hoax, he appreciated the good that the Mormons brought to the world and wanted to stay close to his family. Jack returned to Single's Ward with enthusiasm, but it wasn't long before he found he had drifted back to his old routine of church, work, and escaping undesirable emotions in solitude. At first, he welcomed the familiar atmosphere of the Church and was excited to meet the new girls in the ward, but once again found no spark when spending time with them. It seemed no matter what path he took, it only led him to disappointment.
It was a tranquil winter night and a full year had passed since Jack had stumbled upon the tale of the devout Mormon archeologist who found no evidence. He was scrolling through Facebook in his usual daze until he lost interest and opened YouTube. It was just another algorithm for him to distract himself from doing anything to improve his life, but he was fine with doing that at this moment. Jack searched "#exmormon" to see if what that community was up to these days. Subconsciously he wanted to study popular videos on the topic to discern where he went wrong in his own videos.
Jack lightly scrolled through the search results until a thumbnail of a beautiful girl attracted his cursor. The video was titled "My family found my channel", had 40k views, and was posted 6 months ago. Jack watched the video as the girl described her distraught family's reaction to her anti-Mormon videos. Jack was fascinated by the story, as what she was describing was near exactly how he envisioned his own family's reaction had they ever found his old videos. The YouTube girl, who called herself Florencia, explained her mom had called her up crying, saying someone from Facebook told her about her daughter's channel. This is what Jack dreaded would happen to him.
He looked at Florencia's subscriber count to see that she had over 100,000 interested fans. Despite disagreeing with the majority of her left-leaning arguments, Jack continued to watch all of her videos, finding out that she had a lot in common with Jack, one of which being she grew up in Jack's hometown. He became inspired by her energy, passion, and willingness to continue making videos despite her family's response. Usually, when Jack heard arguments that he disagreed with, he would become upset and annoyed. But in this case, since he was in her shoes not long ago, didn't feel any negative emotions when watching her videos.
He picked up on a few production tricks that Florencia had implemented in her videos and began to see where he may have failed. Sure, Florencia was hot, but she was also utilizing some smart marketing strategies that Jack felt certain he could easily use as well. Jack used this inspiration to create a new YouTube Channel called Intact Shelf Media, this time asserting the opposite views as his original videos.
After three months of steady uploads, Intact Shelf Media went viral and Jack found his new channel at 115k subscribers and was starting to bring in some real money. His content was appealing to LDS members all over the world and was also drawing in non-LDS conservatives. This was exciting for Jack but what was most important to him was that his content appealed to his family. In reality, his family was the reason he found himself going back to church. In his mind, his journey outside the faith represented a decayed relationship between him and his family.
Jack awoke one Sunday morning to see 103 new text messages and 32 missed calls from his friends and family. His feet quickly hit the floor of his bedside as he tapped his text messages icon with shaky fingers, thinking somebody in his family was dead. He scanned his inbox until he let out a sigh of relief as he saw a text from his mom. He opened it to see that she was asking if Jack had watched Florencia's newest video. Jack audibly laughed before reading a few more texts. He confirmed it was only Florencia that caused his phone to blow up.
He opened up the YouTube app on his phone and didn't even have to make any searches- it was the first video recommended to him on his feed. There was a screenshot from one of his videos as the thumbnail that he didn't immediately recognize. Jack tapped the video, feeling nothing but reeling excitement at this moment. He was confident he had nothing to hide and welcomed this incoming battle with Florencia.
After sitting through five seconds of an insurance commercial, Jack's smile was rapidly shut off as he gazed upon an old clip of himself verbally slaying the church he now so vehemently defended. It was footage from one of his deleted videos from his now-deleted channel, Broken Shelf Media. He continued to watch on as Florencia cut in with her own commentary, largely consisting of roasting Jack and his hypocritical, flip-flopping views, and his awkward, amateur delivery.
Even though he always had a bad feeling this moment would someday come, it had felt much more embarrassing and shameful than he'd thought it would feel. He had to admit he was caught off guard and mystified as to how she could've been in possession of that footage. It takes him about an hour before he regains his composure and begins drafting out a rebuttal video.
Jack completely owned up to everything in his fourteen-minute response video, showing no shred of guilt or remorse. He used his time to defend himself as well as bite back at Florencia, compiling times she had contradicted herself. It turned out to be his most popular video to date, and surely enough, Florencia had her own comedic response video and an online beef ensued.
Jack started his YouTube journey expressing his personal thoughts but, as of more lately, found that he had morphed into a character that he felt matched best with his audience. He wasn't even sure what he really believed anymore, but he did know he was having fun getting all this attention from Florencia. He was scrolling through Facebook with vitality and gratitude and decided he was going to direct-message her. Though he was mostly putting up a front of having disdain for her, Jack felt he would be eternally grateful for her. After all, it was Florencia's content that inspired him to start making videos again. If he had never found Florencia that tranquil winter night, he may still be in the same funk he found himself stuck in for intolerable intervals.
Jack offered up a truce in his message to Florencia. After leaving the message on Read, Florencia eventually responded back with a phone number. Jack retrieved his phone from his pocket and dialed up the number without hesitation. Florencia responds on the first ring.
"Who's this?" the feminine voice asked.
"Jack Benson. Who's this?"
"Why are you trying to destroy what I have?" Florencia asked.
Jack paused as he took a deep breath. "I don't want to do that, Florencia. I want to offer a truce. We can't just keep making these videos dissecting each other's content. Don't you think we should move on?" Jack plead.
"I can't do a truce," Florencia responded, "You said the only reason I left the church is that I couldn't find a boyfriend. That's fucked up."
"Okay, I apologize for that one. Honestly, that's just me projecting my own reason for leaving the church."
"You left the church because you couldn't find a boyfriend?"
"I left the church for a lot of reasons but lack of boyfriend was not one of them. Please tell me where you got those videos of Broken Shelf Media. I deleted all of that stuff way long ago, I'm so confused about how you found it."
"Ancestry.com," Florencia replied.
"What? I don't get it," Jack said.
"I'm just kidding. Listen, Jack, I'll be real with you for a quick minute. Back when you made videos for your Broken Shelf Media channel, I was one of your two subscribers. At first, I just thought you were hot but then I started listening to all stories about your awkward Mormon experiences and I loved them! I didn't understand why you weren't more popular. If I'm being totally honest with you, Jack, you're the reason I started making videos in the first place. Before I found your channel, I was just making memes too afraid to show my face. I wanted to make YouTube videos but was always too scared I wasn't going to get views. Once I saw how you just kept making videos even though nobody watched them- it truly inspired me. I decided that if you could get through that, I could, as well. So thank you for all that you've done for me, Jack."
Jack and Florencia meet up and find that they each are the person they have been longing for their whole lives. Despite their polar opposite political points, they found one another to be engaging and excitingly challenging, bringing them both the spark of joy that they were missing before finding each other. They decided to continue the charade of their online beef just a little longer in order to drive more advertising money before finally announcing their relationship to their followers, and eventually, their plan to get married.
Jack stayed in the church, while Florencia stayed out of the church, and for most of their friends and family, it was believed their relationship would not last. Both were persuasive and neither one seemed to want to budge on their moral viewpoints. What kept their relationship together was the fact they weren't interested in changing one another. They both strived to express themselves to a partner who accepted them unconditionally. They were happy in their relationship and deep down they were just grateful for what the other had done for them.