Many Church members consider Johnny Lingo to be the zenith of kitschy Mormon culture (for the uninitiated, you can see it here). When I was at BYU 15 years ago, I often ran into “wild and crazy” RMs sporting “Mahana, You Ugly” or “Wanted: Eight-Cow Woman” T-shirts. But for me, while Brother Lingo and his island crew hold a special place in my heart — along with that kid from the “Cipher in the Snow” — they pale in comparison to the granddaddy of all Mormon cheese: Saturday’s Warrior. For the sake of brevity, I will refrain from a detailed plot description; suffice it to say, it’s a dramedy about a young man’s struggle with temptation, that features wild-eyed teenaged representatives from the local chapter of the “Zero Population” movement, a wheelchair-bound dancer, an extended mediation on the size of the father’s nose, dozens of “friends,” and the most devastating “Dear John” letter ever written. It’s quite a ride!
For me, what sets “Saturday’s Warrior” apart from other Mormon entertainment is that, for better or worse, it has spawned several quasi-doctrinal ideas that still hold sway today. “Johnny Lingo,” “My Turn on Earth,” “It’s A Miracle” — they all preached generalized Christian messages, such as treat others kindly, don’t judge a book by its cover, etc. Only “Warrior” had the chutzpah to craft its own unique theology, courtesy of the Flinders clan.
Before getting to the nitty-gritty, I feel compelled to demonstrate my bona fides on this subject. When I was a teenager, my father, along with a couple of like-minded friends, started a small community theater company, dedicated to the idea of presenting wholesome family fare. Given that the founders were all active LDS and hoped to tap into the large Mormon community in Las Vegas, they spent the first several years of the company’s existence staging LDS-themed plays. Part of my duties as the oldest son included spending nearly every weekend night for the next 2 years running a spotlight, manning a soundboard or selling frozen yogurt at the playhouse (yeah, I was really popular with the ladies back then). As a result, I have seen “Saturday’s Warrior” more times than I care to count. (I was also subjected to dozens of performances of “Starchild” (the sequel) and “My Turn on Earth,” neither of which have any redeeming value whatsoever and are best forgotten altogether). All these years later, if you were to put the music on, I could probably belt out 95% of the lyrics before collapsing into the fetal position.
Here are four doctrinal/cultural issues that, by my reckoning, were spawned by “Saturday’s Warrior”:
1. My Wife, My Soulmate: At the beginning of the show, set in the pre-mortal plane of existence, a young couple in love promises to find one another in the next (Earth) life no matter what it takes. SPOILER ALERT — by the close of Act II, they run into one another in a park, feel an instant (eternal?) connection, and fall madly in love. The message, sounded loud and clear, is that righteous couples who marry in the Temple are living up to promises made prior to birth, i.e., they are soulmates. I still hear talk of soulmates all the time in Church settings. Romantic, right? Well, the problem is, Pres. Kimball debunked this notion over 30 years ago:
“Soul mates” are a fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.
Notwithstanding this counsel, the idea of pre-ordained lovers still gets much lip service in Church meetings. Perhaps that’s why Kimball’s quote is still the centerpiece of the YM lesson on “Choosing An Eternal Companion.”
2. Let’s Do The Eternal Time Warp Again: This is my favorite one. Much of the play’s narration comes through the voice of littlest sister Emily Flinders, who is waiting patiently to be born. Oddly, when oldest sister Pam Flinders dies, she immediately sidles up to, and strikes up a conversation with, the still-unborn Emily. Put another way, when we die, we all return to the exact same place we were before we were born. So much for eternal progression!
3. My Kid Was A General In Heaven: The chorus of the title track includes the lyric: “These are the few/the warriors saved for Saturday/to come the last day of the world/these are they, on Saturday.” The main plot point is the journey of troubled teen, Jimmy Flinders (he’s the crestfallen swordsman in the picture above), to overcome temptation (“Who can survive? Who can survive?”) and realize his place among the Lord’s chosen in the latter days. The notion that we are members of the most awesomely righteous generation that has ever lived — in your face, baby boomers! — certainly has its appeal. Indeed, it is so pervasive that Pres. Packer actually made a public statement against it ont too long ago:
We continue to receive reports of the distribution of a quote attributed to me which begins, “The youth of the Church today were generals in the war in heaven,” and ends with the statement that when they return to heaven “all in attendance will bow in your presence.” I did not make that statement. I do not believe that statement. The statement, on occasion, has been attributed to others of the First Presidency and the Twelve. None of the Brethren made that statement.
4. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s A Missionary: OK, this one is not exactly doctrinal, but it certainly is an idea that has become ingrained in Mormon culture. The comic relief in “Saturday’s Warrior” is provided by Elders Kestler and Green, who are the most pompous asses imaginable. Working in their own “humble way,” they serve proudly but with few tangible results. While missionaries have always held a special place in the Church, the last few decades has seen the rise of a sort of hero-worship of those young men (sorry ladies, you don’t seem to get the same respect) who leave house and home for the mission field. Goofy as it may sound, in my mind, the treatment of Kestler and Green in the play set the stage for this trend. Granted, they are presented as slightly dimwitted, but the show placed them on the same pedestal we still reserve for elders today (are your chapel walls lined with shiny plaques for the missionaries serving from your ward).
So, 35 years on, at least some of the the “folk doctrine” borne of “Saturday’s Warrior” still holds sway today, despite official repudiation. For better or worse, that play still has prominent place in popular culture. Am I the only one with love in my soul for the Flinders family? Am I overstating the case about their influence on modern Mormon culture? If forced to choose, would you rather spend eternity listening to “Will Wait For You?” or “Everybody Ought To Have A Body” (from “My Turn on Earth”)?