An offhand comment of mine on the recent Word of Wisdom thread prompted a request from a BCC reader for more on Paul H. Dunn. No problem—I can whip up a good Paul Dunn story on the spot! But seriously, does anyone else miss him? Can you think of a Conference session you’ve seen in the last ten years that wouldn’t have been given a badly needed shot in the arm by a talk from a storyteller-entertainer like Elder Dunn?
First, some links for those of you saying “Paul who?” Here is a short bio of Paul H. Dunn. It includes his 1991 open letter of apology to the Church. For a mercifully short summary of the messy details about Elder Dunn’s penchant for enhancing his own personal stories well beyond poetic license, see here. It’s worth remembering that he didn’t rob banks, do drugs, or run off with a secretary. He just got carried away telling stories and let his narrative outrun his facts. In public. For many years.
Benefitting from Elder Dunn’s unfortunate experience, LDS leaders seem to have tightened up their citation and attribution habits in published talks and speeches. Even Ensign articles give sources in footnotes now. This appears to be Elder Dunn’s positive legacy to the Church: an expectation that cited statistics and illustrative stories have sources and references. Those making public statements are more careful about what they say, I think, than was once the case. Elder Dunn has made the Church a better place.
What else can we learn? The Dunn experience shows how little good humor there is in extended Mormon circles. Most commentators could express nothing but horror that Dunn would tell tall tales about his adventures during WWII or in sports. Some people are just too damn serious. What kind of war stories do they expect? Real war is hell; there are no entertaining stories. Go watch Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. It won’t take long to figure out why Dunn enhanced his stories.
Shall we chuck out stories altogether? Is that solution preferable to the risk that storytellers exaggerate? Shall we make all talks a mix of scripture quotes, moral exhortation, and teary testimonials? We’re almost there now and it gets dull fast. It makes me pine for the lost era of great LDS storytellers, of whom Paul H. Dunn was one of the giants. No doubt he’ll have some great stories to tell about Purgatory when we all get together in the hereafter.