Are Prophets Superheroes?

January 27, 2014 | 19 comments
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2014-01-27 SupermanSuperheroes are a different breed. For a lot of them, this is literal. Most of the well-known superheroes in the Marvel Universe (Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers, etc.) are mutants. One of the central themes is the tension between ordinary humans and those genetically gifted with extraordinary mutant powers.  Other superheroes start out as perfectly normal human beings before something happens to set them apart. Peter Parker is consecrated by the bite of a radioactive spider. The Green Lanterns are called and chosen by an ancient alien race at the center of the Universe and endowed with power rings that let them fulfill their duties as Guardians.

It’s no coincident that one of the oldest superheroes, and perhaps the archetype of the entire genre, is defined in contrast to human beings: Superman. Quentin Tarantino, cribbing from earlier work by Jules Feiffer, included a monologue in Kill Bill that gets to the heart of this:

Superman stands alone. Superman did not become Superman, Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he is Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red S is the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses the business suit, that’s the costume.

The villainous Bill (in the movie) interprets this to be Superman’s condemnation of a weak humanity, but others have suggested a more optimistic explanation for the Clark Kent persona as “Superman’s love letter to the human race in general and to Jonathan Kent in particular.”

In either case, the central point is that superheroes are different, and that a major aspect of what sets them apart is some special or unique ability that is as easy and natural for them as breathing is to us, and yet is totally beyond our abilities. Superman flies without any real effort. The Wolverine regenerates automatically. Rogue effortlessly sucks the life force out of anyone she touches. (Yes, I watched a lot of X-Men cartoons when I was a kid in the 90’s.) What is impossible for a mere mortal is not only possible for a superhero. It is natural.

Which is exactly how many Mormons view prophets.

While we celebrate the idea that anyone can receive revelation, we also emphasize the unique calling of the President, his counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and the General Authorities. There is often an implicit assumption that revelation + authority is a qualitatively different thing than the kinds of revelation we can have access to as mere civilians, but I think that is wrong. Authority, in this case, is kind of like a God-given version of the conch from Lord of the Flies: folks are supposed to pay attention to you when you hold it, but they don’t have to. More importantly: it doesn’t change who you are or what you have to say.

If revelation is a difficult, murky, and evolving process for ordinary members, why should the actual process be any different for those called as leaders? And yet we tend to assume, especially in the midst of difficulty or controversy, that the prophets have only to ask and then all will be revealed. This despite the fact that “ask, and ye shall receive” is a promise to all of us, and we all know form our own experiences that it’s never as simple as ordering something from Amazon. Sill, when we grow impatient with the Lord’s servants, we tend to assume that they could get more revelation faster and clearer if they just tried.

Some of this is understandable. The scriptures often present a narrative in which revelation plays a key role, and the difficult work is not always apparent. When Lamanites attack in Alma 43, the newly appointed Captain Moroni simply asks Alma to ask God “whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves against the Lamanites.” In vs 24:

And it came to pass that the word of the Lord came unto Alma, and Alma informed the messengers of Moroni, that the armies of the Lamanites were marching round about in the wilderness, that they might come over into the land of Manti, that they might commence an attack upon the weaker part of the people. And those messengers went and delivered the message unto Moroni.

2014-01-27 Stripling Warriors Movie PosterIt’s no wonder we get the impression that prophets are super heroes from stories like this. But the story doesn’t say how hard it was for Alma to get this revelation or how sure he really was in it. Do you always know when you receive revelation? I have, at least a few times in my life, received revelation. But when I lay my hands on someone’s head to give a blessing, the cacophony of inner voices tends to be as distracting and confusing as ever. Seeking out the Spirit has never been easy for me and I’ve very rarely been really confident that I have succeeded. I imagine that full-time prophets get much better at it then I am, but then again: they are often asking bigger questions. (Of course if revelation comes with some more extreme manifestation, like an angel or a heavenly vision, it might be easier to be confident. Those kinds of revelations are possible for ordinary members, however, and don’t seem to be run-of-the-mill even for prophets. I’m sure it would have helped Wilford Woodruff or David O. McKay overcome the difficulties Nate Oman outlined yesterday if it were otherwise.)

If Alma’s revelation was really so quick and effective, why didn’t Captain Moroni rely on that trick all the time? Why go to the bother of building fortifications across the entire border if he could just ask Alma to have God send an angelic memo with the time and date of the next incursion? If you condense 1,000 years’ worth of miracles (not counting the Jaredites) into a single volume of text you’re going to get an appearance of ease and plenitude, but careful reading reveals it is not so. Enos spent all day praying for his own, personal witness and I think it would be a mistake to chalk that up merely to his own spiritual ineptitude. Moving beyond just the question of revelation, the superhero motif fails utterly when we consider Alma and Amulek’s awful roles as mere witnesses at the place of martyrdom, and Jonah—pining to watch an entire city be consumed by fire—is surely the Hancock of superheroes: the power and mission are there, but the moral code is not. (The definitive statement in this regard, of course, is D&C 9:8.)

The lack of superheroes is also a key facet of pop culture. The original superheroes of the 1930s were an evolution of the masked avengers like Zorro and the Phantom who had no superhuman abilities. Bruce Wayne as Batman (created in 1939) is one of the last vestiges of this pre-superhero error. He manages to keep up with the supernatural abilities by tapping an exorbitant R&D budget and a bottomless well of morose revenge.  Tony Stark as Iron Man is much the same, another supergenius billionaire able to use technology to hang with the superhero crowd. In their case, however, esoteric technology available to know one else works much as the bite of a radioactive spider or the gift of a power ring to set them apart from mere mortals.

2014-01-27 Kick-AssBut more recently comics like Watchmen (1986-87) and Kick-Ass (2008-2010) have featured plain old humans who want to be superheroes, but who fall painfully short. Kick-Ass is a teenager who is so severely beaten when he attempts to stop a crime that he loses the ability to feel pain, which is only marginally a special ability. Watchmen is filled with misfit costumed crime-fighters who lack any powers at all (with one exception), who bicker and squabble with nothing like superhuman gravitas, who are overcome by paranoia or alcoholism, and who are spurned and rejected by society.

These stories are pervaded by an intense sense of loss and mourning that show how acutely we wish our mythology were true. Given the disparity between how ancient Greek philosophers talk about God and the well-known Greek pantheon of gods, I wonder if we’ve been misreading stories about Zeus and Hera all wrong. (Not just Plato and Aristotle, either. I’m thinking of B-listers like Anaximander and Xenophanes.) I wonder if they filled a social role more similar to our superheroes than to what we think of when we think of “religion”. (It’s by no means clear to me that the distinctions between our houses of worship and our movie theaters would be as clear cut to an archaeologist two or three millenia hence, and there’s little doubt which would appear to have had the greater prominence in our society.)

The reality is that we want there to be superheroes among us. We want our prophets to all be supermen. We want it to be easy for them to know God’s will, so that we don’t have to. So that we can just ask them, instead, and have them to the work for us. We want to be led, but we do not always want to follow. We want to be rescued, but we do not always want to accept salvation.

We want prophets to be a different breed, set apart, so that there can be superheroes among us. But there are no superheroes down here today. There’s just us, all of us, together.

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Note: I’m not recommending a work just because I cite it in a post. More info on that statement here.

19 Responses to Are Prophets Superheroes?

  1. Steve Martin on January 27, 2014 at 9:10 am

    God’s Prophets were just regular guys whom God used to speak to His people.

    They had all the fallibilities that we have. It was God’s Word that contained (s) the power.

  2. Dave on January 27, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Interesting as always, Nathaniel. I agree with your main points: LDS members tend to think LDS leaders get revelation quickly and easily, whereas actual accounts suggest revelation happens slowly and painfully. The two revelations that happened in the 20th century (the Second Manifesto of 1904 and the Priesthood Revelation of 1978) certainly confirm this view.

    Maybe painful is the right word. Superheroes are not depicted as happy people, but rather as tortured souls. Revelation doesn’t seem to be a happy process, but rather a painful one.

  3. Howard on January 27, 2014 at 10:47 am

    If revelation is a difficult, murky, and evolving process for ordinary members, why should the actual process be any different for those called as leaders?

    Well if not, what function do they serve? I can receive my own revelation as I am encouraged to. Wasn’t Joseph a superhero when it came to revelation? If TSM isn’t doesn’t that make him significantly different from Joseph? Yet since the 1950s we conflate they two by calling both prophets, seerers and revelators! One was a Great Prophet, the other is a caretaking prophet. Don’t you agree?

  4. DavidH on January 27, 2014 at 11:53 am

    In Joseph Smith’s life, in his earlier years revelations seemed to flow fast and furious. But in the later years they were less frequent and further apart. This can be seen by reviewing the D&C chronology of revelations. Many of the later sections of the D&C were not even styled as revelations, but are excerpts from letters or sermons.

  5. Howard on January 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    And that compares how with the flow of revelations during TSM’s life?

  6. Kristine on January 27, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Let’s just note, for the record, that Nathaniel and I agree on something: http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/10/04/boyd-k-packer-and-prophetic-despair/

    This is not quite as rare as the Haglund-Greenwood convergence, but still unusual enough to be noteworthy ;)

  7. Frank Pellett on January 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    Extrmely minor, geeky quibble – The Fantastic Four and most of the Avengers weren’t mutants, they were altered humans. Rather than being born with what they had, they had to deal with what was thrust upon them (or made, in Iron Man’s case).

    We do, sometimes, try to stuff Prophets into the category of mutants (or people born that way) when they really should be treated like people who have been given (or had thrust upon them) a gift they aren’t always comfortable with but nonetheless need to work with. How many times do we conflate stories of prophets as children, making their decisions into an obvious display of how they had always been prophet material? Every one of them would have chosen someone else for the job, given the choice. Every one had times when they didn’t listen to the spirit, made the wrong decision, or were just too tired to do everything expected of them.

    I think that’s why I prefer our current system. No one, not even the Q12, looks forward to the day they are in charge of the whole Church. It’s amusing to think that Pres Packer would agree with those who hope he’s not the next President.

  8. Nathaniel Givens on January 27, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Howard-

    If revelation is a difficult, murky, and evolving process for ordinary members, why should the actual process be any different for those called as leaders?

    Well if not, what function do they serve?

    If you didn’t have such a myopic focus on your particular notion of Spirit to the exclusion of all else from your vision, I think you’d be ably to handily answer this yourself. For starters: why should human beings specialize in anything if we’re all capable, more or less of doing what the other guy is doing? Can I get revelation? Yes. Would I be more in tune if my life was dedicated to that purpose as opposed to squeezing revelation in with everything else? Most likely, yes. That alone is a sufficient answer to your question, but there’s another obvious and important one: order. While prophets may not have easier access to revelation, they do have exclusive access to authoritative revelation. This makes their job unique and important, but not hard or fundamentally different from what the rest of us do.

    Wasn’t Joseph a superhero when it came to revelation?

    No. He spent a lot of time honing his revelations, reworking them, trying to get them right. That’s emphatically not the kind of night and day difference between someone who can fly and someone who cannot. He didn’t possess any gifts or abilities not common to all of humankind, although he did have a unique role in history that required someone with great talent and/or greater gifts.

    If you want to go out on a limb, you could say folks like Joseph Smith and Isaiah are the Michael Jordan of revelation, which makes them incredibly gifted, but still emphatically not superhuman when compared to Superman.

  9. Howard on January 27, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    How many times do we conflate stories of prophets as children, making their decisions into an obvious display of how they had always been prophet material?

    Apologetic revisionist history? I’m shocked!

  10. Nathaniel Givens on January 27, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Kristine-

    Let’s just note, for the record, that Nathaniel and I agree on something.

    So let it be noted! :-)

  11. Nathaniel Givens on January 27, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Frank-

    Extrmely minor, geeky quibble – The Fantastic Four and most of the Avengers weren’t mutants, they were altered humans.

    Could we be true geeks, and yet not have minor quibbles? In truth, I’m not a real hard-core comic geek, but as soon as I read that I was like “Doh!” Luckily, I did cover the “altered humans” as well, but I’m really just showing the fact that the X-Men comics were my first and most lasting introduction to the world of superheroes.

    How many times do we conflate stories of prophets as children, making their decisions into an obvious display of how they had always been prophet material? Every one of them would have chosen someone else for the job, given the choice. Every one had times when they didn’t listen to the spirit, made the wrong decision, or were just too tired to do everything expected of them.

    Yup. The unrealistic expectations we have are poisonous for everyone. Poisonous for members because it threatens to make us bitter when the unrealistic expectations are inevitably dashed and poisonous for leaders who can’t hope to live up to those expectations but have to try and poisonous for all of us because it creates an us vs. them dichotomy that is contrary to the nature of Zion.

    That’s why I want to reinforce the humanity of prophets. Not to take them down a peg, but to get the rest of us to take a step up.

  12. Howard on January 27, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    So you see modern prophets as more than common members but less than superheros? Or is it all about the authoritive part for you? Thank you for at least likening Joseph to Michael Jordan though I doubt either would appreciate it.

    No. He spent a lot of time honing his revelations, reworking them, trying to get them right.. Humm, I wonder if TSM has tried this approach?

  13. SilverRain on January 27, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    This goes to the “Watchmen on the Tower” analogy in scripture. Prophets are human like the rest of us, perhaps with particular gifts and certainly with authority and gifts honed by their callings, but still human. They have, however, been called to stand on the tower and keep watch. With that, I’m more likely to listen to their word of warning than any other.

    I compare it to my missionary service. I was more open to listening to the Spirit in the mission work sense because I was able to dedicate my full time and attention to it. It’s not that I was any more righteous, or any more skilled than I am now, simply that my focus was more directed.

    When I have met those men who have been called of God to serve as His Apostles, however, there is no doubt in my mind that I am in the presence of servants of God. They are not perfect. They have humor, and make mistakes. But they love God and know Him. I can see Him in them, and I revere that service. I have met others not called as Apostles who affect me similarly, of course.

    I agree. We shouldn’t see them as superhuman because it gives us an excuse not to reach higher, seek a finer relationship with the Spirit. When we know that we can all gain revelation for our stewardships and enjoy a personal relationship with the Savior no less than theirs, we have no reason to sit back in the work of the Kingdom.

  14. Howard on January 27, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Great comment SilverRain!

  15. Robert R on January 28, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Nathaniel, I know too little about comic books to either quibble or add insight. But I do agree with the crux of your analogy: we should restraint our hagiographic impulses both during a leader’s life and after.

    @Dave (#2), I’d also add D&C 138 as one of the seminal twentieth-century revelations. The personal circumstances in which JFS received the revelation were, in fact, quite painful, so that may support your thesis.

  16. Henry on January 29, 2014 at 11:09 am

    God talks to imperfect people, of course. Further, imperfect people make mistakes and “prophets” make mistakes. However, if you must rely on personal spiritual manifestations in order to find out whether the “prophet” is speaking as one or as a mere person, what’s the point of having a prophet in the first place? One shouldn’t have to be a prophet in order to detect prophecy. So the answer has to be time, logic and reason. If the so called “prophet” comes up with crazy doctrines or contradicts himself, or back-dates “revelations” then he isn’t a prophet.

  17. Jax on January 30, 2014 at 12:17 am

    Interesting as always, Nathaniel. I agree with your main points: LDS members tend to think LDS leaders get revelation quickly and easily, whereas actual accounts suggest revelation happens slowly and painfully.

    Are only the big church-wide changes considered revelation? What about the more mundane things like calling Stake Presidents, assigning missionaries, calling mission presdients, use of funds, etc. Do decisions like those qualify for revelation? because I think they get revelation quite regularly. Go re-read the GC talk outlining the process of assigning missionaries and then tell me that revelation is slow and painful.

    Prophets/apostles make mistakes. They forget birthdays, make math errors, they give offense unknowingly, etc. They are imperfect, not all-knowing. They don’t know everything, but they know what God has revealed and they continue to do things the way He wants them done.

  18. Xenophon on January 30, 2014 at 1:27 am

    Superman wears Chuck Norris underwear. Prophets watch over Chuck Norris through Urim and Thummim. The Church is in good hands.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 4, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    The superhero that most resembles the prophetic leaders of the Church is Professor Xavier, whose power is the ability to perceive information that is not accessible to others.

    Does Thomas Monson receive revelations? His life is replete with instances in which he has learned to listen to the Spirit, even when it tells him to do something that is not part of the regular program or agenda. He goes where he is needed, when he is needed, because he listens. He changes the topic of his talk in General Conference, and it responds to the needs of a person in the audience. He departs from his scheduled travel, and fulfills a prophecy of a young girl that he would come. He announces that a particular person will be the next speaker at a meeting, even after being told that the man is at another place, and the speaker walks in just in time, responding to a similar inexplicable impression.

    One of the interesting things about the new biography of Henry B. Eyring is the many experiences he relates of the Brethren demonstrating knowledge beyond their human abilities. When he was in the Presiding Bishopric, and told the Brethren that the universal belief in the business world was that stock prices would continue to climb, they expressed concern that the market was overvalued and the church should be cautious. After he gradually reduces the church’s exposure in the markets, a sudden crash occurs, and a Japanese investment banker asks “What did you see? All our other clients did not foresee this. You are our only client who was not hit by the crash.”

    Maybe these are not the revelations you are looking for. But they are real, and deal with the real world, and are ongoing. The Brethren have faith in the revelations they receive. President Eyring’s biography shows that he learned to do that, and it invites us to be willing to accept the miraculous into the mundane of our lives.