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:
I 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.
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.”