Nephi, Alma, Batman, Superman

Photo by Yulia Matvienko on Unsplash

Eric Hachenberger comes originally from Austria. He served his mission in Barcelona, Spain, studied Peacebuilding at BYU-Hawaii, and lives with his wife and daughter in Berlin now. He loves writing and everything outdoors.

I can tell you the exact moment I stopped liking Nephi. It was when the church released the Book of Mormon Videos. Laman and Lemuel were just so much more relatable than Nephi. Their response to Lehi leaving Jerusalem was human. Nephi’s response was that of an unfeeling robot. Most people I talked to during that period of time about the videos felt the same. We all felt much more like Laman and Lemuel than like Nephi. 

And therein lies a problem. Nephi in his perfectionism becomes unrelatable. His youthful zeal borders on fanaticism, his treatment of his brothers lacks empathy or at least evinces an inability to read the room. Although Nephi is the first ‘hero’ we meet in the Book of Mormon, he becomes somewhat stale over time.

We turn to Alma the Younger as the one whom we like most, right? Why is that? 

Let me illustrate this with what is sometimes referred to as the Superman Problem. 

The creators of Superman ran into an issue. Their superhero was just too strong. He was faster than a bullet, invulnerable, unkillable, and frankly, no villain or challenge posed any real threat to him anymore. As a result, he became boring. Unrelatable. 

His counterpart Batman never suffered such a fate. The millionaire turned vigilante was, at the end of the day, human. Despite his expensive equipment, underneath the mask we could always see Bruce Wayne. A man. A mortal. His vulnerability, his tendency to get injured, the real threat of opposing forces. As a result, he never became boring and we still can relate quite well to him. 

The same goes for Alma. He lets us in on his weakness. He allows us to see his darker moments. Even his sins and mistakes, his fears and sorrows. Unlike Nephi, Alma is beyond forthcoming on these more delicate parts of his mortal experience. And because of that, we relate to him more than maybe to any other prophet in the scriptures. He is like us. Not some superhero prophet aloof of the masses, but a leader who is very much a mortal being like the rest of us. 

Sadly, this tendency to vulnerability is rare in leaders generally, but also within the Church. Times when leaders acknowledged their own sins, when they admitted that they were also human and frail, subject to temptations, and as much in need of Christ and his redemptive power as everyone else, are rare.

But how they stick in my memory when they do happen! 

Elder Marlin K. Jensen relating the instance of when old friends came to visit and he grew impatient, hoping they would leave soon so he could get back to writing his talk about friendship.

Elder Holland telling us of how he lost his temper with his son. Wow, suddenly, Elder Holland is not just an eloquent voice, but a sometimes stressed father much like myself. 

Elder Uchtdorf sharing how on bike rides he tends to competition, and his wife reminding him that it is about the journey, not about winning. 

Elder Uchtdorf in particular seems to be very open about his own shortcomings and more frequently incorporates them in his talks and messages. Maybe that’s the reason why everyone loves him and can relate to him much better than to some other church leaders who have never shared a tinge of their lives, as if to uphold a perfect superhero reputation. 

To me, the most troubling line in Preach my Gospel is where it tells missionaries to not share past sins or mistakes with the people they teach. In essence, this takes away a vital connecting power. Again, the missionaries are to be good-looking and young superheroes, but at the end of the day a bit fanatic and aloof from the people they teach. 

We don’t need more robots in church. We need humans. Humans who need Christ. And if we want to bring others to Christ, one of the most effective ways in doing so might be showing, like Alma, how we need Christ and how he healed us even though we might not deserve his tender mercy. 

We need more of these vulnerable teachings.  Not less. 

That way, we open a door for Christ to enter.

* * *

P.S.: I know I do Nephi a disservice here. He is more open about his pains and afflictions at the end of his life (See 2. Nephi 4), yet he wrote the small plates that include 1. Nephi later in life as well. Either he chose not to edit on his youthful extremism, or he was still not really able to see through it. 

Comments

  1. I listened to a talk within the past few weeks by a man, a youth leader, who kept telling the young men “don’t be like me!” as he rehearsed some of the things he had done as a teenager. “I was wrong! Be better than me!” But as he told story after story to illustrate how bad he had been and how the young men should not repeat his mistakes, it became quite clear that he had been the coolest guy in town, with exciting exploits, never getting caught, enjoying ill-gotten gains, having the time of his life. “Don’t be like me!” carried little weight when the congregation laughed along at all the fun he had had as a cool young lawbreaker.

    I imagine that’s the kind of story Preach My Gospel wants to discourage.

    Other than that, I’m whole-heartedly in agreement with you. When someone tells how he learned the value of following a certain principle, or a woman tells how she came to know the truth of such-and-such a doctrine, personal experiences, usually shortcomings, are persuasive and interesting and indicate that I, too, can know what they know. “Humans who know Christ” make the gospel real and I love to hear and read what they say. Otherwise, it’s just a book report about what-I-found-when-I-looked-up-Topic-X-on-churchofjesuschrist.org.

  2. Monson was always telling stories about how mischievous he was as a boy. It was nice for me who was always a people pleaser and obedient to hear that.

  3. I think Eric got it wrong about Nephi. He needs to read 2 Nephi 4:17-35. Nephi is relatable as he expresses his fallen nature and how he relies on God.

  4. lastlemming says:

    Two things to keep in mind, which may or may not be compatible with one another:

    1. Nephi is managing his own story, while Alma’s story is filtered through Mormon’s agenda.
    2. A strong subtext of Nephi’s story is a desire to establish his political legitimacy. It is his line that becomes the Nephite royal lineage, while Jacob’s line becomes the custodians of the plates. Royalty has never been the place to look for self-deprecation. Alma, in contrast, has abandoned any political aspirations when he starts sharing stories about his wayward youth.

  5. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    Sorry, but Nephi’s Lament doesn’t seem all that genuine. It feels like a preacher getting up to say how awful he was until he found Jesus; it’s not really relatable. It’d quite easily fit in over any Christian pulpit.

  6. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    At last I don’t feel so alone! Thank you Eric for expressing your real feelings about Nephi. I, too, have struggled with him since the very first time I read the Book of Mormon at the age of 13, and felt like he came off as a “humble bragger”. The very few times I dared to express these feelings out loud when I was much younger I was immediately called on the carpet and castigated for having such outrageous thoughts and then was called to repentance. My many subsequent readings haven’t changed my mind. Every time I’ve read 1 and 2 Nephi I can hear the words from the Mighty Mouse theme song “Here I am to save the day!” playing in my brain. Sure, there’s that chapter where Nephi talks about his faults, but that’s not much compared to the rest of the story he tells. I’ve always wondered, too, if Laman and Lemuel were really as thoroughly and irredeemably bad as Nephi makes them out to be. Alma the Younger, on the other hand, actually UNDERSTOOD what repentance actually was and as a result he was not only more humble, in my opinion, but he comes off as being more understanding of others who struggled, too. I realize that these thoughts and feelings probably brand me as a heretic. I’ve wrestled with them for a very long time but haven’t yet found any compelling reason to change them. So be it.

  7. I agree with lastlemming,

    Nephi literally starts by saying how swole he was despite most definitely being a teenage boy or even a tween when the narrative beings, it’s not a stretch to think that he would just omit any major shortcomings or mistakes that he made in his life. He doesn’t even hesitate to take a dig or two at his mother and father.

  8. Bro. B. says:

    A lot of good points here. Alma the younger and Paul surely wouldn’t have been the missionaries they were without telling their full conversion stories. I too definitely relate to a speaker more, from ward to general conference who is a little vulnerable about their own foibles. Isn’t that part of the purpose of giving a talk, teaching, or leading in the Church, “showing what His grace imparts?”

  9. Hate to be that guy, but here it is: first quote is actually from Marlin K Jensen, not Ashton. But I only know that because I followed the link you helpfully included and enjoyed the talk! I miss his contributions to conference.

    One other thought I had in reading both the article and subsequent comments. My Dad, a stalwart Church member who has slaved away – without complaint (at least to me) – in a difficult calling for 20 years (and one that, in many ways, is beneath his abilities and is not making use of all he can offer), once told me that if I expected the Church alone to fill every need I had in life, disappointment would be the inevitable result.

    I would extend that here. Not every writer in the scriptures will be all things to all people, nor should we expect them to be. Think about the difficulty in condensing a story – or a lifetime – into a handful of verses. And then the laborious effort of putting those verses onto plates! I personally know people who really connect with Nephi, and while my go-to prophet is someone else, I also gain value out of his two books. No need to agree with him 100% to find wisdom in his writings and teachings.

  10. Loursat says:

    Less than admirable qualities in ostensibly heroic Book of Mormon figures are a feature of the book, not a bug. Being able to say that you’d rather be more like Alma than Nephi is a useful response to a complicated book, and all the more reason to study it seriously.

  11. When I read the first two books of the Book of Mormon as written by a middle-age man trying to make sense of his early life as a younger son thrust into leadership and haunted by the difficulties of immigrant status, I find much to relate to. He seems very human, including that Nephi is the hero of his own story. However self-deprecating I think I might be when I eventually put pen to paper, I’m sure my story will cast me as hero.

    As for how we teach and how we speak, I remember reading JFK’s Profiles in Courage when I was in my teens and being inspired. Somewhere in my early college days I grew out of heroic stories and tuned to anti-heroes and complicated characters. With that personal journey in mind, I hear almost all of General Conference and almost all CES materials as pitched to my teenage self. I’m not convinced it’s all good or the best it could be for its purpose and intended audience–now my grandchildren–and that’s an important conversation we should have. But I don’t expect General Conference talks to be conformed to my 66-year-old expectations and interests. In no way am I the intended audience.

  12. @christiankimball – I believe you didn’t intend it this way, but the conclusion of your comment seems pretty dismal. If you aren’t in any way the intended audience, then Conference weekend would be a chore at best. Assuming that lens, then – that Conference messages are largely intended for the younger group – how do you get personal value out of Conference?

    (Please don’t misconstrue – it’s a curious question, not an attacking one.)

  13. Benson, I listen to a talk, try to dissect the key point, then write my own. It’s not a bad learning technique in general.

    I remember listening to President Nelson’s “Come, Follow Me” (April 2019) and observing to my brother sitting next to me at home that I could think of three or four ways to teach that lesson and I would have used a different one. That can sound presumptuous. I like to think it’s active listening.

  14. Sorry, Bensen not Benson.

  15. I think you mean Marlin K. Jensen, not Ashton. It was Marvin J. Ashton anyway, not Marlin. But your link goes to Marlin Jensen’s talk.

  16. @christiankimball – gotcha. You just described how I “listen to” at least 30-50% of sacrament meeting talks. :)

  17. Carolyn says:

    (As a mod I just fixed the Marvin K. Jensen error – thanks to those who pointed it out.)

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