The Stories We Tell

Hawkgrrrlapologetics, apostasy, Asides, christianity, church, Culture, curiosity, faith, history, Mormon, questioning, testimony, thought 30 Comments

Joseph Campbell said:  Read myths. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts–but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.  So, what are the myths of Mormonism? a way all storytelling is myth-creation. In re-telling the story of how you met your spouse, how you got your job, how you aced a test, or whatever, you are creating a myth with lessons for yourself or others of how the world works. The same is true of stories in the scriptures, and also true of the historical myths of the church. (I’m using the term “myth” here to refer to its universal value rather than implying “fictional.”) We all create myths. They tell more about us than about what actually happened. Myths can grant us self-knowledge, and can help us understand how the world works.
(“Myths” (as used here) are stories that have themes with universal application, not as an indicator of stories being factually correct or incorrect.  Certainly, some stories are more factual than others, but it seems obvious, too, that when we are trying to stress the points of a story with universal application, the facts come secondary to the theme and application.)  So, what are some “Mormon Myths” or stories that I hear people tell at church?
  • Divine proof.  These are stories that provide evidence that the church is true or that God had a hand in someone’s life (e.g. answer to prayer or divine guidance).  They are designed to reinforce the value proposition of living the commandments.  Here are some examples:
    • Answers to prayer
    • “Promptings” to do or say something specific
    • Looking back on a situation and seeing the hand of God
    • Prophetic statements or policies that are “proven” later
  • Persecution.  These are stories that illustrate that members of the church will be picked on by those outside the church.  They are designed to reinforce tribal behavior (if inwardly focused) or missionary work (if outwardly focused), depending on the plot.
    • Pioneer stories often fit this category (and some fit the first, too)
    • Prophets are usually cast out or killed
    • Stories that illustrate social evils (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, promiscuity, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc.)
  • Seek and Find.  These are stories about someone seeking for something and then finding it.  Several parables are like this.  The BOM experience, which is the foundational story of Mormonism, is one big “seek & find” story.  So is the First Vision, although what is being sought differs slightly from version to version.  The emphasis seems to be on the need for each person to seek out and find his/her own way spiritually.  Examples:
    • Testimonies
    • Answers to prayer
    • Conversion stories
    • Scripture experiences (finding answers or inspiration)

What other myths or stories are there that you hear at church?  What myths or stories do you hear repeated in the b’nacle?  Are they the same or different?

Are any of the myths more or less useful than others?

Can you hear these myths at church in the stories people choose to tell, the quotes they choose to share, or the way they talk about their lives?

What do our myths say about us?  Are these the same myths of all Christianity?  How are they the same or different?


Comments 30

  1. I suppose the big myth for me is that if you keep commandments you’ll get blessings. You know, “There’s a law irrevocably decreed…”. The more commandments you keep the more blessings you’ll get. That way you’re entitled to be protected from hard times and you’ll be rich, have a great family without problems, and be happy in every sense of the word.

  2. “I suppose the big myth for me is that if you keep commandments you’ll get blessings.” That’s probably an example of #1, but it’s a pretty self-serving one if the storyteller is saying that the outward blessings are manifestation of their inward righteousness (it’s also not a Christian tenet). So, the story actually boils down to: “I’m righteous, and I can prove it because I got blessings.” The problem is that some people are righteous but have adversity and other people are prosperous without being righteous. So, the storyteller is making a self-serving claim that is impossible to prove. If the storyteller says “I’m righteous, but I didn’t get the blessings I deserved,” maybe that’s more an example of #2.

    The story always tells more about the storyteller.

  3. GB Smith:

    That’s actually a not-so-Mormon myth. It is more along the lines of the Weberian Protestant Work Ethic aka Calvinism. The belief is that since God literally knows everything about the future (which, incidentally, is not a foregone conclusion in Mormon theology, at least according to Blake Ostler), he also knows whether we’re saved or not and there’s not a danged thing we can do about it. Classic.

    But the fact is that we *don’t* know. But, according to Calvinism, the way we come to find out about our salvation is if we produce good works (which involves monetary blessings as well). The anxiety we experience over not knowing, according to Max Weber, pushes the Calvinist to try to find evidence of their salvation through their good works. When s/he succeeds, the Calvinist can say to him/herself: “Ah, I must be saved. Look at all of my prosperity, etc.” It’s circular and self-serving. But it most decidedly is not “Mormon.” If anything, classic Mormon theology calls this “work ethic” into question with the persecuted people narrative.

    And D&C 130, though often cited as a proof text for this, is nothing of the kind. We often read it as though it supports a universe of well-oiled laws according to which we must abide in order to acquire any number of blessings as though we could just reach up and grab them. And indeed, we do receive blessings, but they are hardly predictable (people who don’t pay a cent of tithing are rolling in wealth, etc.). But the verse in 130 says “a commandment,” probably referring more to the process of revelation rather than the nature of universal laws.

    In any case, don’t blame the “I keep the commandments ergo I’m righteous” narrative on the LDS. We can thank our Calvinist cousins for that.

  4. “‘Myths’ (as used here) are stories that have themes with universal application, not as an indicator of stories being factually correct or incorrect.”

    Just to make sure we’re all on the same page… when you say “What are Mormon myths?” you’re not asking “What have you heard that isn’t true?” You’re asking, “What kind of stories do we tell to convey a moral, in which the actual truthfulness of the event is secondary to the moral?”

    That’s a big distinction, to me, and “the more commandments you keep, the more blessings you get” might be getting off track a little.

    For me, the entire book of Genesis is an example of one of those myths (and one that we share with other faiths, so it’s not simply a “Mormon myth”). If I were to find out that everything from Adam to Abraham and maybe Moses is just an allegory, I wouldn’t be surprised.

    I would say that, in this context, the persecution myths are much more common in Kentucky, though I’ve heard most of them first-hand.

  5. #3 We can thank our Calvinist cousins for that.

    But we have taken it on board and perpetuated it within our own tradition, so it is ours to a certain extent, although I do acknowledge that it is not unique to Mormonism.

    One of the features of myths and their re-telling is an ability to re-cast them in a different light. The myth of the restoration, of the first vision, of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon etc. can all be reappropriated by the individual. Yet, one interesting trend is the way our tradition, and it seems to a similar extent other religions (although I am not an expert), want to control how this reappropriation occurs. So there are certain versions of the first vision which are orthodox and some that aren’t. I think this becomes a problematic position when one of our other myths is the process of making sacred history personally meaningful in the present. Perhaps this is one of the other features of myths, that they are paradoxical and that we need to work at reconciling them to make them redemptive and life-changing.

  6. I think “trials” are another of our myths. At least, there is an expected narrative form for stories of our trials: “I had this problem, and by applying this Gospel principle, I overcame it in this way.”

    I tend to miss things like expected conversational forms sometimes, but I figured it out after a missionary in my ward happened to tell me about some minor problem he was having. I tried to express sympathy/solidarity with him in his “trial,” but he was expecting a “How I overcame my trial” story. It made for an awkward conversation.

    I said, “Yeah, I always struggled with that on my mission too.”

    [Pause] “So, how did you overcome it?”

    [Longer pause] “I didn’t. I just always struggled with it.”

    [Even longer pause] “Oh.”

  7. I’ve spent some time in LDS church. Honestly these are the myths that quickly come to mind. Kinda like David Letterman’s top ten.

    1) I will be married to my wife in Heaven
    2) I must marry in the temple to have any chance to keep my family together in the afterlife.
    3) Burning in the bosom is an accurate test of truth.
    4) The church is true.
    5) Joseph Smith was a prophet.
    6) I can have spirit children (and even sex) in the afterlife.
    7) The pre-existance of spirits.
    8) Jesus visited the Americas.
    9) The BOM is actual history.


    10) Men can become gods!

  8. Joe,

    “(”Myths” (as used here) are stories that have themes with universal application, not as an indicator of stories being factually correct or incorrect. Certainly, some stories are more factual than others, but it seems obvious, too, that when we are trying to stress the points of a story with universal application, the facts come secondary to the theme and application.)”

  9. Joe, while failing to miss the point of the post entirely, does point out one story that differs greatly between many Christian sects and Mormonism: “10) Men can become gods!” This specific distinction creates a narrative for mainstream Christianity that one critic reduced to “it’s a religion for losers.” Being capable of such unlimited progress, recognizing the seeds of Godhood within us, renders that narrative impotent in Mormon theology–or at least adds to it considerably. Mormonism creates a narrative based on one’s potential to grow and progress with a much stronger emphasis on personal accountability to foster growth, a very different story indeed. Chapter two, if you will.

  10. There is an interesting mythical paradox in the persecution category: If you stand up for what you believe, you will be admired/reviled for it. The beauty of this mythical paradox is that it cannot help but come true!

  11. …I’ve seen that smile somewhere before, I’ve heard that voice before, it seems we’ve talked like this before…

    It seems that church leaders have tried to “de-emphasize” the soulmates myth, but it made for good musical theater plot and teaches in a fun way the concept of the pre-existence and the eternal nature of the family.

    Am I getting the point of the post????

  12. My parents had a soulmates “myth” with each other that is quite convincing, and have passed that idea on to their children. I don’t think any of us (siblings) think that we have a “soulmate” out there necessarily but we all believe that Mom and Dad had an “understanding” in the Pre-existence.

  13. Rico,

    We’re talking here about storylines that can be clearly distinguished as ‘Mormon.’ Our borrowing from Calvinism might suggest that we’re porous in our ideology. However, we can hardly identify ourselves by our belief that righetousness brings blessings (esp. of the monetary kind). As I noted, we actually betray our own heritage by believing that, esp. given the persecuted people narrative that holds such currency among us.

    As much as I loathe doing this, I must do a shout-out to that affront to human reason and art, Saturday’s Warrior. Love it or hate it, that storyline has *tremendous* cachet amongst our people. I’ve even heard of “Saturday’s Warrior babies” (granted, it was a random blog that mentioned some exist…this group might just consist of a crazy couple in Parowan) who were conceived in response to the moving storyline of the premortal life in the show. But rightly or wrongly, there’s a reason that BYU bishops and esp. religion instructors come down so hard on the idea of premortal love…they wouldn’t unless this idea had great appeal.

    Incidentally, even this idea was known in Joseph SMith’s day (though I don’t side with those who assume that Joseph absorbed this idea). A Reverend Eramus Stone from upstate New York, according to journalist William Dixon, had a vision of a “mighty host of men and women.” There seemed to be a “great pain, an eager want written on their faces.” He interpreted the dream as meaning that most marriages were wrongly paired. Therefore, married men, according to Stone, should go in search of their spiritual “soulmate.” Now obviously, this is not what we teach today. But this scene does seem strikingly familiar to Julie and what’s-his-name-convert looking off into the distance, longing for their premortal love…

  14. “Myth”, as defined correctly in the post, means “great narrative story of epic proportion / universal application” – or something similar. It has nothing to do with rightness or wrongness. Let’s not confuse this post with Stephen’s False Doctrine and Speculation posts. They are different things entirely.

    So, a couple of uniquely Mormon myths that I love:

    1) “The Garden of Eden is in Missouri – and, by extension, wherever any temple is built.” LOVE IT; LOVE IT; LOVE IT!! Since I view the Garden of Eden narrative as figurative anyway, making it portable means I can visit Eden on a regular basis. I really love that myth – and missing the link to our temples eliminates much of why I have no problem with the Missouri myth.

    2) “I Am a Child of God.” – I believe that one to be literal in a real way, but it still is a myth as defined here. It is epic; it is inspiring; it is tragic and noble and ridiculous and sublime. This one definitely is my favorite Mormon myth.

  15. Ray,

    Lets focus seriously on #2. Please confirm whether or not you believe the following two things:
    1) We were all born in heaven, prior to earth, as literal spirit children of God and his wife. Jesus and Lucifer are our older brothers.
    2) Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 589. Pre-existence is the term commonly used to describe the pre-mortal existence of the spirit children of God the Father. Speaking of this prior existence in a spirit sphere, the First Presidency of the Church (Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund) said: “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity”; as spirits they were the “offspring of celestial parentage.” … From the time of their spirit birth, the Father’s pre-existent offspring were endowed with agency and subjected to the provisions of the laws ordained for their government. They had power to obey or disobey and to progress in one field or another. … Christ, the Firstborn, was the mightiest of all the spirit children of the Father.

    Assuming you do believe those things how do you reconcile that the bible says we are spiritually adopted as children of God at conversion, as in the following two verses:
    1) John 1:12 – But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
    2) Galatians 3:26 – For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.

    Why would we need to be children of God by faith (as stated in Galatians 3:26) if we were already literal “children of God”?

    I respectfully await your response.

  16. Joe:

    I’m certainly not Ray, nor am probably even as dashing as Ray. But I will say this…

    Have you ever read/been familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work, the premise of this post? The Hero With a Thousand Faces, etc.? You seem to be approaching this as someone who is trying to hold one “myth” over another’s head: “Why doesn’t your myth match my myth in every jot and tittle” (though I think that they match quite well). That approach does tremendous violence to the spirit of Angela’s post…she wants to see how the Mormon tradition serves as a literary tradition. You’re approaching it like a fundamentalist who is still assuming the tradition of inerrancy. Take a little detour with us and see what our tradition has to offer. Try it. You’ll like it.

    Plus, if you want some real scandal, read section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “the inhabitants thereof are born sons and daughters unto God.” Try Alma 15 where the followers of Christ “become” his seed. Sordid stuff, this business is.

  17. I can see that I missed the point of the post assuming that myth was something repeated and believed but wrong as opposed to what Hawkgrrl and Ray said above. That said I’d have to say my favorite myths when I was growing up were three nephite stories. They were all basically the same and were repeated by older relatives with an absolute conviction of truth. They seemed to say that God was always watching out for us and if things went really bad or if you were in a scrape that it was real possibility that someone would come to your rescue.

  18. Joe, I’m not engaging you in your threadjack. Please understand why and respect that decision.

    Another myth I love is encapsulated in, “Behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” The idea that God’s entire purpose and glory is to raise his kids and give them his kind of life is similar to the “I am a child of God” mythological phrasing, but it puts the focus on what God gets out of it, not on what we get out of it. It is exactly what Jesus and Paul teach in various places in the Bible, but Mormonism puts a unique meaning to it that I really love.

    GB, I also love the myth of John the Revelator and the Three Nephites. Just the idea that we can have even the most audacious of our desires if they are righteous and selfless is really cool – even if they are polar opposites (returning to God immediately upon death and lingering on earth until the end).

  19. WARNING: Very blunt and direct threadjack response coming. My apologies to everyone else in advance. Please do not respond. Joe asked a direct question; this is a direct answer.

    Last word, Joe. The questions you ask aren’t “tough”. I’ve heard them and answered them for so long and so often they are BORING to me. I mean that in total seriousness. There is NOTHING you’ve asked here – ever – that I haven’t heard asked multiple times, in FAR more sophisticated ways than you have asked them. I’ve had the same questions you ask posed to me by Divinity School students and professors, and I’ve answered them patiently and thoroughly. There is a difference. They were respectful and sincere and actually wanted to understand my answers; you don’t. You are sincere, but you are neither respectful nor seeking to understand. I have no interest in that type of cat fight. I just don’t. It’s literally not worth the time to me. If others want to answer them, fine; I just am not interested, when you obviously aren’t trying to understand my point of view.

    Here’s the kicker:

    Just as in this thread, they usually are totally and completely irrelevant to the discussion and the point of the actual thread. They are, in the clearest definition of the word, threadjacks. Almost every time you ask a question, it totally destroys both the flow of the conversation and the tone of the discussion. The threads grind to a halt and are replaced by circuitous and never-ending volleys – and you never resolve anything in your responses. It used to bother me; it no longer does.

    I used to be frustrated continually by your comments. I’m not frustrated anymore. I understand that you are here to pick theological fights, not to listen to anything anyone actually is trying to say, so I no longer am disappointed and frustrated by them.

    I do not dislike you, Joe. I believe you are a good, sincere person. I mean that. I just don’t think you realize how your comments come across here.

    Everyone else, I apologize for this comment – since it is in the middle of an excellent post. Please ignore it and don’t respond. I don’t want this to derail the rest of the discussion. I’m not going to address it further, and I only addressed it because Joe asked directly. He deserves to read my honest response, but it doesn’t need to continue.

    Please, let’s get back to the conversation Hawk envisioned when she wrote this post – the unique myths in our religious tradition.

  20. Well said Ray. I agree completely with everything you said to Joe.

    Now back to the topic at hand.

    Pioneer stories are a great source of myth. “We paid our tithing and were blessed” is a frequent myth. Missionary Homecoming talks are another source of myth. Myth often becomes folklore.

    Of course the purpose of myth is to build testimony, and conviction. I think our myths do a pretty good job of accomplishing that.

    Are these the same myths of all Christianity? How are they the same or different?

    I used to listen to Catholic/Mormon podcast on iTunes. (It is now inactive.) The author used to have a segment called “Obscure patron saint of the day.” Catholics have patron saints for everyone. I remember one particular saint was known at the patron saint of flight attendants. He told the story of a woman who was instrumental in helping catholic pilgrims to the Holy Land in the middle ages, I believe. She was killed on one of these pilgrimages. I don’t remember the whole story, but I remember that it was a very interesting story (my wife is a flight attendant), and I did find her story inspirational. I was amazed how many of the obscure saints there are in Catholicism–literally thousands.

    Their purpose is to build testimony, faith in God, prayer, helping others, etc just as in our church. And of course, the parallels to Mormon pioneer stories was evident.

  21. Not to kick up a hornet’s nest, but to kick up a hornet’s nest…

    The reasons for the priesthood ban is a remarkably anemic myth for me. I am the only individual in my family who has not lived a day during which the Priesthood ban was in place. I have never had to deal with *my* prophet using wrong-headed rationales about the origin of the ban. I may have heard a story or two about blacks being the descendants of Cain, but given the reality that the blacks did indeed hold the priesthood, that “myth” never had a very long shelf-life for my. My first real exposure to racial strife was the Rodney King riots in 1991 (I found out later that Rodney King actually does have a pretty sordid life, but i’ll spare our humble readers from such irrelevance). I came away thinking: “Why can’t we all just get along?” rather than “Look at those brute African-Americans and their shenanigans.” The oppressive structures, storylines, rationales that existed for the priesthood ban were, at the very least, severely weakened if not entirely dismantled by the time I entered high school.

    And I lived in a tiny Mormon settlement with lit. one African-American guy that everyone liked…mostly because he was different.

  22. This is definetly not faith promoting but we taught that Polygamy was necessary in early Utah because there were more women than men.

    The fact is, there were more men than women in early Utah when polygamy was being practiced. Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe wrote on pages 390-391 of his book entitled Evidences and Reconciliations,

    “The most common of these conjectures is that the Church, through plural marriage, sought to provide husbands for its large surplus of female members. The implied assumption in this theory, that there have been more females than male members in the Church, is not supported by existing evidence. On the contrary, there seem always to have been more males than females in the Church… The theory that plural marriage was a consequence of a surplus of female Church members fails from lack of evidence.”

  23. James: “we taught that Polygamy was necessary in early Utah because there were more women than men.” I had always heard that too growing up. I think it’s an example of applying the wrong mythical narrative to the polygamy story (although I’m not sure what the right one is, to be honest). There are a few different polygamy “explanations” that are really just mythical narratives:
    – God takes care of the outliers through the service of human beings (e.g. “feed my lambs”). That’s the narrative you describe, and it rings true because it’s so often repeated in Christianity, and when we look around us at church, we see people who go out of their way to help others and provide service, so it seems logical.
    – God tests his people to make them stronger. That’s one that’s a popular view of polygamy, and it certainly fits into the stories of early saints. Perhaps my biggest problem with it is that I no longer feel particularly tested, tried, or picked on. Sorry, but being asked why I don’t drink alcohol at work events doesn’t really feel like a trial to me.

    Those are only two of the possible narratives around polygamy, and as you can see, they can subvert the facts in an effort to render the story meaningful to people of that faith.

    MH – the homecoming talk is a classic myth in every sense. It’s the myth of the hero’s journey. The hero sets out on a call to adventure, sees what others do not, finds value in what others overlook, and as a result inherits the kingdom. I’m not aware of other religions who create an opportunity for almost all their young people to have their own highly personalized hero story all tied up in a bow from beginning to end. Youth camps are just not the same. JW proselyting is also different.

    The stories of the patron saints are very mythic. Good example! Also, stories about founders such as Martin Luther, and even stories about Gallileo, Darwin, DaVinci, and others whose vision was too grand for their lifetime but who were ultimately vindicated are the stuff of a specific kind of religious myth.

  24. Another source of the kinds of stories I think are being referenced here is Wallace Stegner’s book of essays, “Mormon Country”. There’s a chapter about Jesse Knight that has a story that I think I’ve included in lessons over the years more times than I can count.

  25. GB, that’s a very good Mormon myth – the redeemed bad boy. It’s not unique to Mormonism (Saul/Paul, Jonah, Samson, etc.), but we certainly have our modern share.

  26. That’s a very good point, hawk. We do have a “hero-making” tendency in the missionary work. While it’s not *anything* like it once was, even in my day (and I’m twenty-something) there were times where the bishop would openly say that the program belonged to the family of the missionary.

    Does anyone know of such a hulabaloo that surround mainstream Christian missionaries departures and returns…to the extent that it is reified into a ritual?

  27. Have you ever read/been familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work, the premise of this post? The Hero With a Thousand Faces, etc.?

    And how the core myth of Mormonism is a flavor of the heroquest? I was hoping for more of a discussion on that point, though this is an excellent post.

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