Holding out for a (recognizable) hero

[soundtrack]

Bonnie_Tyler_Holding_a_Hero

Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods?

The need for heroes seems to be a human thing, but the type of hero desired seems more generational. See the hand-wringing over the new Captain America films, for instance. Maybe this hero phenomenon gives us another way to think about current discussions about “faith-promoting” versus “warts and all” history. Perhaps the sort of heroes people prefer today differs from the sort of heroes older members of the Church felt a need for. I struck on this probably-obvious idea while reading a book about gone-too-soon author David Foster Wallace.

Wallace half-joked that his deep love for the film Braveheart was due to familial connection. But he also explained that he couldn’t really connect on a gut-level with his famous forefather:

wept as he cried “Freedom.” Which I’m sure from the outside looks so cheesy. [...] He was perfect though: he was never weak, he was never cowardly, he was never . . . There was no, there was nothing in there—I couldn’t recognize myself in him at all, you know?1

Consider this phenomenon alongside Elder Oaks’s description of the Church’s tendency to put its best possible foot forward, historically speaking, and his owning up to some of his own discomfort with it:

It’s an old problem, the extent to which official histories, whatever they are, or semi-official histories, get into things that are shadowy or less well-known or whatever. That’s an old problem in Mormonism — a feeling of members that they shouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that this or that happened, they should’ve been alerted to it. I have felt that throughout my life.

There are several different elements of that. One element is that we’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything that’s unfavorable, and we’re coming into a period of “warts and all” kind of history. Perhaps our writing of history is lagging behind the times, but I believe that there is purpose in all these things — there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they may be now.

On the other hand, there are constraints on trying to reveal everything…

OK, wait a sec before we get to the other hand. This is what Wallace’s Braveheart experience evinced—that it seems a time has come when simplistic heroes aren’t so plausible or maybe meaningful to people anymore, that people want something more, and that if the way we tell our Church histories doesn’t change accordingly we’re setting people up to be completely turned off by the stories we do tell. As I’ll discuss in a minute, there’s still plenty of  institutional inertia preventing much attention from being directed to fallibility, but keep in mind this hero phenomenon is not unique to Mormons.

In the same interview, Elder Oaks also responded to a question about his statement to the effect that “Not everything that’s true is useful”:

…I said that people ought to be careful in what they publish because not everything that’s true is useful. See a person in context; don’t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area — especially from their youth. I think that’s the spirit of that. I think I’m not talking necessarily just about writing Mormon history; I’m talking about George Washington or any other case. If he had an affair with a girl when he was a teenager, I don’t need to read that when I’m trying to read a biography of the Founding Father of our nation.

So on the one hand, he senses a need to be more forthright than ever with regard to our history but on the other he still feels there are some things that don’t deserve a hearing. We seem to be stuck between acknowledging mistakes without actually exploring them. You can see this in-between circumstance in some of Elder Maxwell’s addresses, who more than once showed awareness of the hero problem by reminding people that JS was imperfect, but did not follow up with much in the way of specific imperfections:

Whenever we talk about the Prophet Joseph Smith, it is important to remember what he said of himself: “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.” He was a good man, but he was called by a perfect Lord, Jesus of Nazareth! [...] Lorenzo Snow said he had observed some imperfections in the Prophet Joseph Smith, but his reaction was that it was marvelous to see how the Lord could still use Joseph. Seeing this, Lorenzo Snow—later President Snow—concluded that there might even be some hope for him!2

It isn’t that you won’t find any quotes from General Authorities to the effect that leaders aren’t perfect. It’s that the ones you can find are few in number compared to statements about their greatness or follow-worthiness. But in fact we do have some quasi-canonized leader-mistake stories to draw on. Consider the object lessons of Symonds Rider (sp?) or Thomas B. Marsh (whom Elder Maxwell mentions specifically in the above-referenced address). The difference between them and other leaders like JS is that their goofs have become part of the story lexicon whereas JS’s and others’ haven’t. So even though many members of the Church might acknowledge that leaders are not perfect, they’ll be hard pressed to come up with a single pertinent example.

Think of the template the Marsh and Rider stories follow: A leader gets ahead of himself, thinks he knows better than another leader, and goes astray as a result. The lesson is follow your leader. And these stories for the most part lack some sort of redemption. The type of narrative—the screwing up warning story—usually ends in a comeuppance or an “isn’t that a shame we must do everything to avoid ourselves” typething.

So perhaps we need a new story template. In fact, one has already emerged (and has been available for longer than the current generation even knows; and here’s my “not-so-fast” rhetorical maneuver, since you’ve probably been rooting me on so far. Or if you’ve been resisting, here’s your breath of fresh air). The story template that has become quite popular is the fallen hero/disillusionment story, and it’s just as homiletic as the faith-promoting leg operations of daring-do. People who relate these stories do so from an “A-HA! They used to fool me but now I know better” position.

And this is the danger. I think Elder Oaks’s urged caution is very wise indeed because here’s the kicker: Seeking for imperfections can lead to overemphasizing or privileging them (look for dirt, you’ll find it, etc.) More strangely still, people can get taken in by faith-demoting rumors as much as by the -promoting type—only with the faith-demotion you also get the added bonus of that sweet morally-superior buzz. We get a buzz off the fallen hero.

ONE EXAMPLE: The Kirtland Safety Society, the banking fiasco of the late 1830s. It’s easy to take up a simplistic understanding of it (like some popular podcast folks have been prone to do) in order to champion the fallible without redemption. It isn’t these champions of the fallen would show the weaker side of William Wallace in a revised Braveheart script, but that they’d change the entire plot to make him look like a cynical opportunist. The legal data (outlined in a new book called Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters) suggests strongly that JS intended well, that he lost more in the venture than many, that he tried to make up for problems he inadvertently contributed to. But it’s a lot easier to fit the story into a frame in which a cynical man dupes his followers out of their money. Where JS’s greed or stupidity or both is manifest. I think the available data here can be understood more to JS’s advantage in certain respects, but complexity isn’t the strong-suit of faith-promoting/demoting stories.

So it looks like a balance has to be found where the weaknesses of people (including leaders and prophets) can be acknowledged and treated candidly—perhaps even usefully for homiletic purposes—without slipping down the other side of sloping cynicism. Maxwell also exemplified this, though without the concrete details that make stories really stick, our “clinical material” as Maxwell often called it:

One of the realities of the kingdom is that we work with each other in the midst of our imperfections. We see those imperfections as well as the traits and talents that God has blessed us with. And during this process of life together in the community of Saints, we watch each other grow.3

Noticing the foibles of our heroes can help us understand that life is difficult, that people aren’t perfect, that God can be found working in the mud and muck of Church history as well as in our very own personal lives. What if, to use Elder Oaks’s example, George Washington’s (hypothetical) early affair was mentioned in terms of helping a person avoid something like that? Or in terms of helping people who have done similar things become aware that all is not lost for them? Or that we ought not so harshly judge people who do such things because hey, even George did it? Call it the “Mormon 9:31 schema.”

Overall, I think Elder Oaks put his finger on the problem (one of several, really) that I’m trying to dance around here—that times change, and the sorts of heroes that speak to us deeply change, too. For the most part I think he says it right especially here:

And so there is no way to avoid this criticism. The best I can say is that we’re moving with the times, we’re getting more and more forthright, but we will never satisfy every complaint along that line and probably shouldn’t.

Just try to remember that we’re not so unique in our hero-worship and the problems it causes. Just look at cultural phenomenon available in popular TV shows and movies. If our heroes look too one-dimensional and statuesque we might echo Wallace’s assessment of Wallace of old: “There was no, there was nothing in there—I couldn’t recognize myself in him at all, you know?” But how to do that without simply conceding way more than the actual data suggests should be conceded? Because it can be taken too far. And to this point the taking-too-far has been done by folks online in one direction as much as it has been done in another direction by folks in the Curriculum department.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1. David Lipsky, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (New York: Random House, 2010), 168–169.

2. Neal A. Maxwell, “A Choice Seer,” BYU Fireside (March 30, 1986). See also Elder Maxwell’s “Joseph, the Seer,” October 1983 General Conference address; But for a Small Moment (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986), 127; “Sharing Insights from My Life,” BYU Devotional (January 12, 1999).

3. Neal A. Maxwell, Sharing Insights from My Life,” BYU Devotional (January 12, 1999). Elder Oaks raises important considerations: “You don’t want to be getting into and creating doubts that didn’t exist in the first place. And what is plenty of history for one person is inadequate for another, and we have a large church, and that’s a big problem. And another problem is there are a lot of things that the Church has written about that the members haven’t read. And the Sunday School teacher that gives ‘Brother Jones’ his understanding of Church history may be inadequately informed and may not reveal something which the Church has published. It’s in the history written for college or Institute students, sources written for quite mature students, but not every Sunday School teacher that introduces people to a history is familiar with that.”

Comments

  1. I think you are right to think about a lot of this. I also think it’s sort of like walking a tight rope. I am not the same person I was 20 years ago and I would hate for people to see me as that 28 year old for the rest of my life. But there are plenty of people who will look at one mistake and then discount anything else good that was ever done because of it. There has to be some balance.

  2. Speaking personally, I don’t get a high off of finding out leaders are imperfect. What it does for me is that it not only makes them someone I can relate to, but someone whose positive traits I can aspire to. It gives me hope that I can overcome my foibles and move on to doing meaningful things. Because I have what are, to me, glaring imperfections. I have (relatively minor) skeletons in my closet, as do we all.

    Isn’t it possible to just stop calling and treating anyone or looking up to anyone (besides Christ) as a hero and start looking at everyone, regardless of title or stature or prophetic mantle as what they are? A human being. Then we can take the good with the bad and not overemphasize either. We can be true to history without allowing history to overshadow the present.

  3. melodynew says:

    I love this! Well done, BHodges. Leaving the Garden of Eden is messy and disorienting. Every time. I think it is precisely what the church as a whole is doing right now with regard to our Mormon Hero – Mormon Folklore traditions.

    And I agree with you that in our leaving, “We seem to be stuck between acknowledging mistakes without actually exploring them.” God grant us the courage to acknowledge, explore, and move ahead. It’s a good time to be Mormon.

  4. The LDS church has a serious problem with truth. There is a huge difference between adoring and seeking to deceive. Adoring is achieved through spin an tone. Portraying Joseph as if he were monogamous is simply lying.

  5. Jason K. says:

    You had me at DFW, but this is a really great post. DFW himself is an example: someone much admired by many (including me), but who also did some kind of deplorable stuff. I say we try to admire the good, acknowledge the bad, and learn from all of it.

  6. I think President Monson realizes this–this conference talk regarding a very dumb thing he did as a kid–starting a field fire in Vivian Park–was given in part, I think, because he wanted to make sure the listeners knew he wasn’t perfect, and that he hasn’t lived a perfect life, stories about widows notwithstanding.

  7. Just last night our family was reading the scriptures and talking about why, if the apostle Peter was the head of the church, the gospels (which were written later) all talk about him denying Christ three times–a major screw-up if ever there was one–and other failures of faith.

    I enjoyed Pres. Monson’s field fire story as much as the next person, but if he really wanted to show folks that he hasn’t lived a perfect life, he might have picked a story about a mistake in judgment that he made when he was more than eight years old. :)

    Great post.

  8. Brilliant. Amen.

    I admit that I struggle against an overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude. I’m not proud of it, but I do try to watch it. If we can all whiteknuckle our way through life avoiding the promoting/demoting dichotomy of faith I think Mormonism will be much better off for it.

  9. Unfortunately, madhousewife, our past inability to accept weaknesses and mistakes in leaders led to our creation of theories or folklore about Peter that saves him from that mistake — President Kimball mused that Christ commanded Peter to deny him three times rather then merely prophesying that he would do so.

    Great post Blair. I think you are exactly right — our generation has moved on from the need to have anti-septic heroes. We neither need nor want the hagiographies of our past and current leaders that the twentieth-century served up to us and our parents and grandparents under the direction of Correlation.

  10. john f.: Really interesting example with the Peter thing. I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand, I like seeing someone like Pres. Kimball really engage closely with a biblical story. He doesn’t just declare his position as fact but provides reasons, including citation of other NT verses. And President Hinckley has offered the more traditional take, that it was a moment of weakness for Peter. I’m personally more drawn to the more traditional view (especially because it makes Christ’s thrice-questioning of Peter after the resurrection an awesome redemptive moment), but I like the fact that a discussion can happen around that story, different viewpoints and opinions, which suggests we Mormons have more leeway on these things to not think identically. But yeah, as you point out, it isn’t free of problems…

  11. Wow, this just came up on my Facebook page in a discussion I started about Moses Thatcher. I had jokingly stated that maybe the Conference Center display of deceased apostles should no longer include his portrait as he had become so symbolic of rebellion and so championed by ex-Mormons (speaking of symbols, here–he was more penitent and faithful than he is often painted to have been) and that the portrait of deceased female general auxiliary leader (Emmeline Wells or Eliza Snow) of a more steadily faithful nature should be substituted for him. I was mostly joking, but even some of the feminists among my friends were up in arms defending Moses’s right to remain on the wall as a symbol of the cranky and rebellious among us, and rejecting Emmeline and Eliza as substitutes because they were too much symbols of obedience, as if they were two-dimensional people with no flaws and therefore un-useful heroes. It was interesting to watch it play out. I agree that the middle ground is what we need and aren’t getting in many of our discussions, in or out of church.

  12. Ryan Mullen says:

    What a great post. And while my long-term take-away from warts-and-all histories is akin to “the foibles of our heroes can help us understand that life is difficult” I will also admit to feeling the “sweet morally-superior buzz!” in the short-term.

    Probably my favorite line in this post: “complexity isn’t the strong-suit of faith-promoting/demoting stories.”

  13. Old Geezer says:

    John F.,
    It has been years since I read President Kimball’s talk on Peter, but I believe that Pres. Kimball was attempting to convey that Peter was placed in a horrible and very human dichotomy. Jesus knew Peter and he knew that Peter was going to have a “growing experience” to say the least. But you know why a loved that speech when it was given? It showed SWK as a passionate, articulate and intelligent human being, who was willing to look at a topic from a variety of perspectives. No wonder he was my hero!

    I also agree with many of the above comments which imply that students of church history need to look at context and growth. Heroes need not be flawless. And the accounts of flawed individuals can certainly as faith-promoting, if not more so, than the artificial constructs.

  14. J. Stapley says:

    Solid post, BHodges. The bit Elder Maxwell was referencing was, interestingly enough, the legendary GQC diary, which has been locked up in the FP archives (though as I understand it, for not much longer):

    I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which He placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weaknesses and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball, but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfection. (GQC, Dairy, January 7, 1898, quoted in Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 4)

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Also, I’d like to see Bonnie Tyler and Tina Turner duke it out in Thunderdome.

  16. I just remembered Mormon 9:31 is a great scripture to invoke:

    “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”

  17. BHodges, really enjoyed this. Without framing it in quite these terms, when I have tried to use stories which highlight the failings of a particular prophet I have tried to include a redemptive component. JS’s falling out with the 12 in Kirtland, and subsequent reconciliation. BY and JT slightly difficult relationship but also deep sense of apostolic fellowship. The notion of shifting archetypes is particularly useful here because we your redemptive heroes/heroines can reach people who might be the outliers in both modes, i.e., those who still yearn for hagiography and those who cannot relate to those hagiographic portraits.

  18. Angela C says:

    This reminded me of a post done by my husband a few years ago: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/09/18/superman-vs-spiderman/

    Superman was a hero born in 1938 of the black & white worldview of WW2 era (an era very familiar to the majority of our top leaders). He was a hero for his day: a perfect man with superhuman qualities redeeming a world being taken over by evil forces. Contrast that with Spiderman first published in 1962: a down on his luck teenage kid dealing with unpopularity, physical weakness, girl trouble, and even weakness of character. Much more palatable to later generations.

  19. Well done sir. This is another side of the coin (well, maybe “another side of the die” as it seems to have multiple sides) of what I’ve tried to enumerate here and here.

  20. This has nothing to do with this exceptional post, except that it gave me an in to showcase Bonnie Tyler’s epic “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Literal Version for those few who have not seen it yet:

  21. Great post, I love these quotes in this context. One of the things I’ve tried to do is talk to my family and friend about how our leaders are imperfect and make mistakes (quoting Uchtdorf). Their response? Elder Uchtdorf was only talking about bishops and stake presidents. There is such a hero worship of the General Authorities of the church we cannot admit that they make mistakes sometimes. It’s like everyone thinks they are Jesus Zombies (sorry for the blasphemy) being controlled by the Spirit that every choice and word spoken is exactly what Christ would say. I love messy, complex heroes. They are the best ones, and we have 15 great ones right now.

  22. I’ve gotten the exact same response regarding Elder Uchtdorf’s talk. I guess people hear what they want to hear. Really, though, if he only meant “local leaders” he would have said “local leaders”….

  23. An excellent, well-thought out essay, Blair. You might be interested in a post I wrote a while back that argues that we should rid ourselves of the concept of “heroes” (though that’s probably impossible).

    http://lettersfromthevineyard.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/the-meaning-of-mandela/

  24. It’s like everyone thinks they are Jesus Zombies (sorry for the blasphemy [apology unnecessary]) being controlled by the Spirit that every choice and word spoken is exactly what Christ would say.

    I love that statement. I think we have less of that attitude in this outlying area than they might in areas closer to central SLC, or perhaps as an independent thinker I am merely oblivious to it, but it does exist – and I am always completely gobsmacked when I encounter it. I mean, what do people expect? I understand the need for heroes, and I even have some, but all of mine are flawed. Not only am I more comfortable with those people, I realize there aren’t any other kind.

    This is a great essay. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that the notion that leaders and prophets are humans with human foibles who make human errors should give us all hope in the redemptive power of repentance and the Atonement.

  25. sidebottom says:

    I must be too young to have encountered the “commanded to deny Christ” talk, but there are plenty of NT stories that make Peter out to be a flake. His heart’s in the right place but he seems a little slow to see the big picture. I think Elder Holland’s take on Peter squares best with scripture : “We have talked with, prayed with, and labored with the very Son of God Himself… He has worked out His salvation and ours. So you ask, ‘What do we do now?’ I don’t know more to tell you than to return to your former life, rejoicing. I intend to ‘go a fishing.’”

  26. “Symonds Rider (sp?)”

    Ha! This is hilarious!

  27. oops, i meant simynd ridor.

  28. ” . . complexity isn’t the strong-suit of faith-promoting/demoting stories.”
    So, so true.

    Thanks for the great post, Blair.

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