Modern writers, readers, and movie viewers know that flawless (human) characters are boring, not inspiring. So why do we portray our church leaders this way?
Like Gordon, I have had my stint at seminary teaching. 4 years for me. Yes, it was grueling. So much preparation, such early hours, so little positive feedback. But what took most energy was finding a way to hold on to my own firmly held convictions about pedagogy despite CES counsel to the contrary.
Already this raises a question: Who am I to hold my “own” convictions when “those whom the Lord has chosen” say otherwise? Isn’t it expected that I would abdicate my judgment whenever there’s a conflict?
Take the example of hero worship. One of the reasons the biography of Spencer W. Kimball was such a success was because of its portrayal of a gracious, humble and human prophet of the Lord. It was the first biography to have been written while that prophet was still alive and had some say in the book’s content (his son and grandson wrote it.) One of the most memorable bits in that book to me was when he came home from a long day and snapped at his daughter who was playing with his hat. Hardly the sin of the century. But here was someone who, like I, got irritable on occasion, was NOT perfect, had the odd foible. How much more approachable he seemed! How much more inspiring to me to see that even a person with imperfections like me could be an instrument in God’s work. This was a message of faith, forgiveness and empathy. This told me there was hope for me yet!
On the other hand, here is a passage from a talk entitled, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect” by Elder Boyd K. Packer from 1981 which we seminary teachers were given to study:
That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weakness and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith – particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith – places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities.
Maybe I’m safe under this definition because I don’t “delight” in pointing out weaknesses. Or do I? Isn’t that example of President Kimball barking at his daughter a delight to me? Well, only in that it leads me to faith, not detracts from or destroys my faith. I do not support destroying faith, but I do believe that acknowledging flaws is valuable to the growth of healthy faith. I also believe that constant white-washing is theologically damning. Am I in trouble here?
Elder Packer used as support a quote from a book called Where is Wisdom by President Stephen L. Richards (published in 1955):
If a man of history has secured over the years a high place in the esteem of his countrymen…and has become imbedded in their affections, it has seemingly become a pleasing pastime for researchers and scholars to delve into the mast of such a man, discover…some of his weaknesses, and then [expose] alleged factual findings, all of which tends to rob the historic character of the idealist esteem and veneration in which he may have been held through the years…If [someone] has made a great contribution…and his deeds have been used over the generations to foster high ideals of character and service, what good is to be accomplished by digging out of the past and exploiting weaknesses…?
So what do we make of scrubbed clean leaders and history? What do we do when our approach (won by prayer, effort, confirmation and common sense) is fundamentally different from instruction we’ve been given by leaders we are taught to respect? Building faith is the goal for both approaches. Destroying faith is the complete opposite for both. But the styles are incompatible. What is to be done?