A Spartan mother would reputedly tell her son to come back from battle with his shield or on it. If he came back with it, the shield meant he hadn’t fled from the enemy. Shields were too heavy to scamper with. If he came back on it, the shield was his stretcher or his hearse.
In States of Grace, after Elder Farrell has slept with the girl he was ministering to, he talks to Elder Lozano about when he left for his mission. His father told him then he would do better to return dead than to return dishonored. “Your father’s a jerk,” Elder Lozano says. Elder Farrell then tries to kill himself.
Is Farrell Sr. a jerk? Is he denying the atonement? The film pretty clearly wants us to think so. Earlier in the movie we are exposed to a parallell set of parents who refuse to even answer their daughter’s phone calls because of her sin though she’s long repented. Elder Lozano, who calls him a jerk, is in many ways the character we most identify with. And Elder Farrell tries to kill himself apparently because of what his father said. (Though the film does introduce a complicating factor–Elder Farrell’s mother comes to bring him home and says his father wanted to come to but couldn’t. The implication is that Farrell Sr. still wants his son but is too distraught at the moment).
In my opinion, though, it doesn’t hold up. Holding that death is preferable to dishonor does not deny the atonement. The atonement is what happens after we’ve dishonored ourselves. Saying that some sins are such a thing that death would be better makes the atonement that can overcome those sin even mightier. In some ways the atoning acts themselves send the message that death (Christ’s) is better than our dishonor.
Now, you don’t have to deny the atonement to be a jerk and Farrell Sr. might well be one. But I don’t think we have the evidence in the film to say so. We have no reason to think that Farrell Sr. wanted his son to add dishonor to dishonor by killing himself. We have no reason to think that Farrell Sr. is going to be brutal or unforgiving to the boy, since Elder’s Farrell’s mom says he wants to see him. And the statement itself isn’t intrinsically wrong. If my dad had said it (he didn’t, he’s not dramatic), it would have been awesome. It would have been fierce. I would have been on Cloud 9 for weeks and relishing it today.
For a different take, see, e.g., here:
It seems to me fairly transparent that Dutcher wanted to bring out the evil in the attitude of “I’d rather have you return in a box than in having fornicated.” That is indeed a pernicious view that also fails to recognize the possibility of repentance and change.
Update: see also East Coast’s take–
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen this movie. I’m not going to see it.
That said, I want to take issue with the point about better dead than dishonored.
1. Do people really say that? I grew up in a ward that had 15-20 missionaries serving at any given time. I attended seminary and heard all sorts of weird Mormon stuff there. I served a mission, spending time in the missionary training center and almost 18 months in Europe associating with many missionaries and a couple of mission presidents. I knew a lot of people at BYU who were either going on missions or recently returned. I never heard that sentiment until I saw it here.
2. The use of that statement is bad parenting. It’s like the story of the mom who upon leaving the house tells her kids, whatever you do, don’t put beans up your nose. You can imagine the results. Since missionary-age kids don’t have mature brains yet and often lack the concept of their own mortality, feeding them that statement seems to be introducing “dishonor” as a real option for their missionary service since “dead” has limited meaning.
3. If I actually heard someone telling a kid that, I would probably dissolve in helpless laughter. But that’s just me. I’m not a dad, nor will I ever be. (My kids call me “Mom.”)