Image result for white washing fenceRecently Happy Hubby asked if white-washing is still happening today. He referenced two embellished faith-promoting stories: one related to missionaries miraculously saved from the tsunami, and another about a fire in a stake center in California. Both stories were portrayed in an idealized manner to promote their miraculous nature, but in so doing, details that didn’t match the faith-promoting narrative were scrubbed away. Happy Hubby referred to this as “white-washing.”

  • To whitewash is a metaphor meaning “to gloss over or cover up vices, crimes or scandals or to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data”.

I tend to think it’s more about mythologizing.

  • To convert into myth or mythology; make the subject of a myth. To create or promote an exaggerated or idealized image of.

In an excellent post about the types of heroes and heroic stories that appeal to different generation, Carter Hall wrote:

Everyone knows Superman.  He is simply the most powerful superhero ever created.  Invulnerable to almost everything, his list of abilities includes flight, speed, strength, heat vision, x-ray vision . . . the list goes on.  His private life also seems pretty sweet.  He was raised by two stead parents (although in some versions Pa Kent dies when Clark is young), has a good career, and in recent years is married to the love of his life.  Director Richard Donner went so far as to present Supes as a Christ figure in the 1979 film, with Jor-El (God the Father?) sending his only son to earth to help mortals realize their potential for good.

Many early DC heroes are also larger than life:  Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess, with powers, weapons and gifts from the Greek Gods themselves (plus she can really fill out that costume!).  Batman, despite his psychological issues and lack of super powers, has seemingly unlimited financial resources.  Others were similar:  rich, with god-like powers and very heroic.  Practically too good to be true.

Then there’s Spiderman, a decidedly less perfect hero.  Peter Parker’s parents are gone, and even his Uncle Ben dies early on, leaving him with only Aunt Mae.  He gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains powers including strength, speed, agility, wall-climbing, and “spider-sense.”  Depending on the version of the story, he may also shoot web from his arms (in others he creates the web mechanism and materials).  Impressive abilities, to be sure, but nothing compared to Superman.  He also struggles with issues like unemployment, unpopularity, and girl problems to a much greater degree than his DC counterparts.  He’s a real person, dealing with real problems, plus he fights crime.

Other Marvel heroes are similarly flawed.  The mutant X-Men are freakish pariahs.  The Fantastic Four bicker.  And the Hulk is essentially a monster with an anger management problem.

These heroes reflect the eras in which they were born.  In the late 1930s, the United States was exiting the Great Depression and entering World War II; out of this vulnerability came these perfect DC superheroes to confront the evils of the world (Hitler, poverty, and corruption to name a few).  In the 1960s, when the country had become skeptical of the establishment and technology, everyday down-to-earth superheroes like Spiderman emerged from more humble backgrounds, exhibiting a more reluctant heroism.

So, what does all this have to do with the Church?

The individuals who have run the Church for years are, for the most part, members of a more black and white generation that created more perfect, less subtle heroes in comics and movies and even in the news.  Individuals of this generation not only led the Church, but also ran the departments and programs.  Did the way they viewed heroes impact their presentation of historical figures?

Image result for sign seeking religiousHappy Hubby and Carter Hall both correctly identified problems with mythologizing: 1) it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny which can leave people feeling disillusioned (Paul H. Dunn effect), and 2) larger-than-life heroes are less appealing than “flawed heroes” in generations from Baby Boomers onward; there is much less trust in authority than in prior generations, and that’s a trend that shows no sign of changing any time soon.

There is, however, psychological value in mythologizing our own lives according to Psychology Today:

Another advantage of mythologizing your actions and of giving them a heroic quality can be seen in the work of the religion scholar Mircea Eliade. He observed that for people to have meaningful lives they must put their lives into a narrative, a story, a myth. For example, because I love my family, I want to make sure they have enough food to eat and a place to live, so I, alas, must work for a living, which means that I have to drive to work. This means that I have to keep my car maintained, which means that I have to call to make an appointment with the service department. The receptionist puts me on hold and I am stuck listening to music that is dull enough to lull a young otter to sleep. Even though attending to the insipid music is a fifth-order derivative from my prime motivation of taking care of my family, my putting up with it is motivated by my deepest values. Knowing this makes tolerating it, well, tolerable. Mythologizing your actions helps to sensitize you to what poet May Sarton has called “the sacramentalization of the ordinary.”

As I recall, when I was a young missionary in the MTC, this “sacramentalization of the ordinary” played into motivating missionaries to clean the bathrooms. We weren’t cleaning bathrooms–we were fighting Satan by keeping the bathrooms clean so missionaries could learn without getting sick, or something like that. It’s like the story about the janitor at NASA headquarters who said he was putting a man on the moon. Tying mundane tasks to a higher purpose can make them not only bearable but can improve our performance of the tasks.

See yourself as a hero in a story and every obstacle, rather than bringing you down, can draw out greater qualities of your character.

And yet, this is not really what’s happening in the examples shared in Happy Hubby’s post or in the fabricated stories of Paul H. Dunn. These stories are not sacramentalizing the mundane, but are scrubbing away counter-mythologizing material to fluff up a story. Why do this? Personally, I think it’s a type of sign-seeking.

One problem with sign seeking is that it’s fraught with confirmation bias. People who already believe love miraculous stories as a way to prove they are right and skeptics are wrong. Disbelievers love signs because they can debunk them, proving they were right to doubt. Other people look for a sign due to their own indecision about the right course of action. They want to know what to do, and they don’t want to figure it out for themselves, so they let a “sign” decide for them. But ultimately, signs don’t create lasting spiritual skills and probably undermine personal growth by replacing faith and character with superstition. Some people seek signs because they think they are “cool” or thrilling, and they want to witness the inexplicable.

Although the concept of sign-seeking is also found in the Bible, it’s bolstered by modern-day scripture in both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants. As a result, it’s a religious topic that is more often discussed in Mormon forums than other Christian sites.

And he that seeketh signs shall see signs, but not unto salvation. D&C 63:7

What do you think?

  • Do you think mythologizing is sign-seeking? Why or why not?
  • Do you think church members tend to seek signs? What examples have you seen?
  • Is mythologizing important to help us stay motivated or is it dangerous because it’s dishonest?