Friday, December 03, 2010

On hagiography

hagiography (ˌhæɡɪˈɒɡrəfɪ)
— n, pl -phies
1. the writing of the lives of the saints
2. biography of the saints
3. any biography that idealizes or idolizes its subject
Joseph Smith as he really looked and as portrayed by Mormon artist Del Parson

Hagiography is one of the things that used to bother me even when I was at my most believing as a Mormon. I guess there's a philosophy behind Mormon hagiography. Boyd K. Packer (who else) touched on it in his now-notorious speech, "The mantle is far, far greater than the intellect":
Some time ago a historian gave a lecture to an audience of college students on one of the past Presidents of the Church. It seemed to be his purpose to show that that President was a man subject to the foibles of men. He introduced many so-called facts that put that President in a very unfavorable light, particularly when they were taken out of the context of the historical period in which he lived.

Someone who was not theretofore acquainted with this historical figure (particularly someone not mature) must have come away very negatively affected. Those who were unsteady in their convictions surely must have had their faith weakened or destroyed.
The idea is that if people -- weak people -- learn inconvenient truths about Mormon history, it will Destroy Their Faith (even though the church, of course, is True). The solution, therefore, is to not tell people about these truths.

The specific motivation for Mormon-style hagiography seems to be something like this (from the same speech):
What that historian did with the reputation of the President of the Church was not worth doing. He seemed determined to convince everyone that the prophet was a man. We knew that already. All of the prophets and all of the Apostles have been men. It would have been much more worthwhile for him to have convinced us that the man was a prophet, a fact quite as true as the fact that he was a man.

He has taken something away from the memory of a prophet. He has destroyed faith.

...he devised a way of collecting mistakes and weaknesses and limitations to compare with his own. In that sense he has attempted to bring a historical figure down to his level and in that way feel close to him and perhaps justify his own weaknesses.
There are two reasons I strongly disagree with that. First, any Mormon has been told hundreds of times that the man is a prophet. What they haven't been told is that prophets are just like us; that they're human beings, with everything that means, both good and bad.

Instead, they get hagiography. Prophets always do the right thing, even when they're children. They never make mistakes without immediately understanding and correcting them. They always succeed. They always know what to do. No problem is ever too big for them. They always overcome everything. Because that's what all Mormons are supposed to do.

I remember once I was talking to a missionary, and he was telling me about some problem he had (I don't remember what it was, but just some minor thing, not a big rule-breaking deal or anything).

I said, "Yeah, I always struggled with that too."

[Expectant pause] "So, how did you overcome it?"

[Longer, puzzled pause] "I didn't; I just always struggled with it."

As a friend of mine later put it, I'd run afoul of an "expected narrative." Stories of Mormon struggles are supposed to go like this: I had this problem; I prayed/read the scriptures/talked to a church leader/etc.; my problem was solved; my faith was strengthened. Even the personal stories Mormons tell about themselves are expected to be hagiographic.

But my own stories never seemed to go that way. My stories always seemed to boil down to: I made a mistake; I learned something very important from it; my faith was strengthened. The destination was the same, but the journey was very different.

I could never relate to the hagiographic stories I was told about prophets in church. They just seemed like plaster saints to me, not real people. Of course they could overcome their problems. They always did everything right. What does that have to do with me?

I mean, I could relate to Peter in the New Testament, the way he was always rushing around impetuously and talking and acting before he thinks. Not that I'm impetuous at all, but I could relate to him because he was a human being who made mistakes.

And Jonah in the Old Testament. God tells him to preach in Nineveh, and he runs away. That's totally the kind of thing I might have done. (And totally not the kind of thing any latter-day prophet would have dreamed of doing, or so we're told.) God has to make a giant fucking fish swallow the guy for three days before he'll agree to come back and preach. Then after he preaches, all the people repent and God doesn't destroy the city after all.

And Jonah is pissed. He's like, "See, I knew you weren't going to destroy the city anyway. So why'd we have to go through all that shit with the tempest and the fish-swallowing and the coming back here to preach?" Then he goes and sits under a shady tree and God kills the tree so there's no more shade and then Jonah is all like, "Dude, just kill me now. I've had enough of your bullshit." (Then God finally explains everything. He always gets the last word. The End.)

See, now that's the kind of prophet I can relate to and learn something from. I bet a lot of other people could too. It's not a matter of "justifying weaknesses." It's a matter of identification. If Jonah could be a prophet despite his weaknesses, well, maybe there's still some hope for me. Not to become a prophet, of course, but to get to know God and live a better life.

And that doesn't take anything away from Jonah, it adds to him. It adds humanity. It adds the idea that being a prophet was something he (with God's help) achieved, not something that just happened to him because God made him special (so what else could he have been?).

But if Packer had written the story, it would probably be something like, "God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh. He felt a little nervous, but of course he did what God commanded. (He was a prophet!) The people repented and God blessed everyone. The End." That would be so much better, you see, because everyone could have faith in a prophet like that. He was more than just a man, he was a prophet!

I mentioned that there are two reasons I disagree with Packer. Here's the second: information wants to be free. It's always been hard to keep things secret from people, and it's just going to keep on getting harder. The church's choices aren't between people finding out inconvenient information and not finding it out. The church's choices are between people finding out inconvenient information from sources that care about the church's perspective and try to put the information into that context or from sources that don't care about those things.

And it seems to be the people who've been indoctrinated with hagiography, the ones who've been taught that prophets are always exemplary in every way, that have the most problems handling it when they glimpse some of the gloriously messy humanity that's always a part of real history. The church's hagiographic approach isn't protecting those people; it's setting them up to lose their faith some day.

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1 comment:

  1. As a parent or a teacher I think the best route to take would not be to follow either of Pres. Packer's extremes, but to teach the good, the bad, and the ugly, "warts and all" as Spencer Kimball asked for. People also need to be taught how to handle paradox - not even just in one's religion or history but with oneself and one's friends or family. I have very close friends that have views that at the core are wrong IMO. At the same time, I love them and value the relationship. Obviously that's not the same as a church leader, but a similar feeling I think.


What do you think?