Mormon LitCrit: You’re not my father; then again…

We all love the young hero who challenges the provincial, narrow, and oppressive conventions of previous generations to create a new and better world capable of dealing with new challenges. We like to see innovative thinking and the creation of new, hopeful solutions to replace the cynical and often corrupt institutions currently in place. As often as not that seems to require violent overthrow of the establishment and the death of the hero’s father by his own hand.

As an aging father of six, I’ve become increasingly less intrigued by that plot line. I identify more and more with dad, and find myself defending some of his choices as responsible stewardship rather than priggish stupidity. He may be wrong, but he’s not actually evil despite what his children think.

Oddly, this came to a head for me recently after a week of movie watching that started with Fiddler on the Roof and ended with How to Train Your Dragon (in 3D).

Once I got past the Vikings with Scottish accents, I found myself progressively annoyed by a father who made no effort whatsoever to understand his own son. My own experience suggests that dad at least tries, and while he may not have the tools to understand it’s usually not from a lack of interest, concern, or effort. When dad did finally come around, it required a complete rejection of his own assumptions. No meeting of the minds here–dad was simply, completely, and irreconcilably wrong on all points, and happiness came only when father fully capitulated to the dictates of his son and utterly turned away from prior wisdom.

I understand that it’s a little more complex than that. It turns out there was a fundamental assumption that could not continue, and in following the Disney taxonomy wisdom came first to the animals, then to the children, then to the other adults, and only lastly to dad. And dad did finally come to real understanding and conversion to a new way of thinking.

Contrast that with a Tevye who struggles greatly to both understand the next generation and reconcile his own history, understanding, and tradition with a changing world. He not only considers the other hand, he capitulates as a matter of both faith and compassion based on a considered approach to the questions. He grows and changes, but builds upon his own foundation of wisdom rather than being required to utterly reject it to move forward. Even his one firm stand on his own sense of right is softened so that his daughter knows her father still loves her even if he can’t follow her path.

Fundamentally different approaches there–in one, father evolves while in the other, father is defeated. I want to touch on two reasons I see for that essential difference.

First is simple generational differences of the storyteller. Fiddler on the Roof is at least two generations (and possibly three) older as a story, and works from an older presumption that even when father didn’t know best, he was still a character to be respected as part of a line of authority that extends back and will extend forward through the current and future generations. It recognizes massive social upheaval beyond their control as a context, and respects current (and ancient) tradition as worthy if sometimes inadequate to newer contexts. Personal identity is a combination of the new and the old.

Not so for Dragons, which works from a newer trope that tradition is just old and that the next generation is fundamentally disconnected from prior generations. There is no need to respect tradition because it’s demonstrably wrong and often embarrassing, and we need to jettison it wholesale and move to the next thing. Identity is created explicitly as a rejection of prior history.

(A broad overstatement, but not entirely unfair.)

Second is the religious foundation that ties cultural identity to a long history independent of theassumptions of either the individual or the community. Governance of religion is outside the scope or control of local leadership, and as such changes at a much slower pace than the immediate context.

This is born out not only in Mormon story, but in Biblical story as well. Lehi was guided by both history and direct communion and the next generation had to choose evolution as an extension of that history with acceptance of current authority (Nephi), or as either a replacement of current authority (Laman) or a rejection of both history and authority (Lamanites). It was a conflict among siblings about the direction to take, with respect for authority and tradition as the crux of the conflict. Change and evolution happens anyway, but the question is where the starting point is.

Arguably the same is true of Noah and his children. Noah retained his authority and one branch respected that authority until it passed naturally to the next generation, while the other wrested the authority away and rejected the established order. Likewise Jacob and his sons, Adam and Eve’s sons, and even Joseph Smith and his son vs. existing hierarchy (brothers in the gospel). And of course the archetypal conflict between God and two of his sons–one of whom wanted to respect his father’s authority and one who sought to replace it with his own.

Story told from a religious assumption leaves that core question in place: Will we continue the tradition and recognize the continuing authority of the previous generation, or will we wrest it from them?

As Mormons we carry that religious foundation when we approach story, and as such we tend to focus on our relationship to the established institutions (family, church, nation)–just as others do. But the difference is that we still allow for the possibility that those institutions are not corrupt and wrong as we seek to evolve them in light of new contexts. We don’t require revolution in order to change and grow, and we don’t need to reject current wisdom to embrace new wisdom.

It’s one of the many apparent paradoxes of Mormon thought that we expect the next generation to change the institution–we believe in eternal progression and the acquisition of both knowledge and wisdom through line upon line, precept on precept development. We expect to know more and understand more as the generations progress, and we are at peace with that as a continuum.

And that comes through in our stories, in both subtle and overt ways. It’s one of the many reasons Mormons do so well in international market epic fantasy–we directly honor the idea of power coming from ancient sources and the belief that old people are fonts of useful wisdom. But it also shows in modern tales and settings where we sometimes allow for peace within the establishment at the same time that we evolve that establishment.

We don’t have to hate our fathers as a matter of foundational identity, though we reserve the right to do so as situation demands. That flexibility is both subversive and conformist at the same moment, and it creates an opportunity for Mormon authors to jar readers and help create exactly the cognitive dissonance that leads to the sort of deep exploration and consideration that modern readers claim to want.

By proving contraries, truth is made manifest. And nowhere more evident than the stories we tell both to ourselves, and to others.

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23 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: You’re not my father; then again…

  1. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Great insights, Scott. I worry about the tendency toward throwing out what is proven and worthwhile in favor of what is new and innovative without considering that dear, old Dad may know something after all. Tevye is a wonderful example of an old dog who really can learn new tricks, even if there are some tricks that are just beyond him.

    I hope I can grow and incorporate the new while trying to figure out what is still valuable about the old, and I hope to see characters in the stories we tell who can show me ways to do that.

  2. Wm Morris says:

    I really like stories that deal with the "what happens after." What happens after the quest, the revolution, the marriage, the war, the coup, the kiss, the victory, the defeat.

    [i]Speaker for the Dead[/i] is a good example.

    However, I don’t entirely agree with this: [quote]We don’t require revolution in order to change and grow, and we don’t need to reject current wisdom to embrace new wisdom.[/quote]

    That’s partly true and may be very true for our current epoch. But Joseph Smith was pretty revolutionary. So was Jesus. And Moses. And Ammon. That we see it as Restorationist rather than Revolutionary doesn’t mean that the restorations aren’t quite radical in relation to the dominant culture.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    William–

    I see those people as evolutionary, not revolutionary. Yes, they changed their worlds significantly, but did so within the framework of existing authority (Joseph tried until he discovered there was no existing authority).

    Your point about restoration being functionally indistinct from revolution is an interesting argument, but I think plays directly into my thoughts–restoration only seems revolutionary to those who have already rejected prior wisdom. Those who honor the value of existing authority tend to see restoration as such (or are quickly educated to it).

    The words permit a great deal of flavor, but the idea remains the same–we specifically and intentionally build on the foundations of the past even as we evolve toward a more correct and more perfect destination, even as we replace or fulfill practices that no longer have value. Not slavish devotion to old things, but respectful extension.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Commenting on this from Scott: "But it also shows in modern tales and settings where we sometimes allow for peace within the establishment at the same time that we evolve that establishment."

    I’m curious to hear you comment on a specific work that does this. (Don’t consider me challenging you or disagreeing. Just curious to see what you would pick and how you follow it through.)

    I finished [i]Rift[/i] not too long ago. I mostly enjoyed it–until it became mysogynistic and I could no longer recognize my people in it. Suddenly all the women (save I think one very minor character–someone’s wife) in this little Mormon town turn on a pregnant girl, hunt her, harrass her, stalk and demean her–and any men who are nice to her, which is all of them. It struck me as unrealistic; In fact, I found it as unrealistic a take on LDS women as some of the characterization (of either gender) I’ve seen in fluff books like [i]Baptists at My BBQ[/i] (or whatever that was called). I mean Peterson no disrespect: [i]Rift[/i] is a well-written tale with one of the most lovable protagonists I’ve read, but the Mormon women I know wouldn’t behave a) like a pack of wolves, or b) without compassion for a girl in this situation, especially when she’s the daughter of their Bishop.

    Anyway, [i]Rift[/i] has a main character who is both at peace with authority and in opposition to authority, and I can say he helps nudge authority into evolving. But all this nudging and evolving only deals with the male patriarchy. As does this post. (Which is okay.) Certainly, Peterson sets his women up as having a certain level of trite authority, which the protagonist does not evolve. In fact, I had the distinct impression reading [i]Rift [/i]that the women who populated this Mormon enclave were to be considered immature, unevolved children whom the lovable protagonist patiently endured. The women are a bit like the father in [i]How to Train Your Dragon[/i]; at least in the sense that they are, to quote Scott’s assertion about the Scottish Viking Papa, "simply, completely, and irreconcilably wrong on all points." I don’t recall any evolution, revolution…or restoration. If ever an LDS text screamed for a feminist reading, its [i]Rift[/i].

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Clarification (and again, its been a few weeks since I finished [i]Rift[/i]):

    "All women" in my former post refers to all the LDS women in the town who have not already been identified as characters; or the general LDS female populace. Of course, as I recall, the women who are married to the men who push against authority are okay. Its just the rest of the LDS women who are vultures, provided they aren’t insane with loneliness after being left man-less via the death of a spouse.

    And by the way, [i]Rift[/i] was definitely worth the read and deserves to have won its many awards, IMO. But it isn’t flawless (nothing is)–and I’d say it isn’t fair to LDS women. <shrug> Fiction is fiction.

    So, back to Scott’s post (my apologies if this seems a hi-jack). I, like most of us I’d imagine, end up missing many LDS lit novels, so I would enjoy some conversation about titles that specifically evolve (as opposed to revolt against) authority. Of course, the gallery may chime in.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    So, a couple of random thoughts that have no real deep thinking behind them.

    1) I heard this somewhere (I wish I could remember!): "A boy does not become a man until his father dies." I don’t even know if that’s true for anybody (my husband says no and my FIL vehemently protests the idea). Now, I’m not a boy, but because my dad kind of raised me like a boy, I *do* understand that sense of competition, the constantly rising expectations that you’re never going to meet, the quest for approval and… So I get that expression. Completely. Is it an overthrow of a philosophy/way of life/wisdom or a fight to get out from under the father’s shadow?

    2) The "dad is an idiot" thing is something every sitcom in the world has done a gazillion times post Ward Cleaver. Hawt wife, awesome house, savvy kids, and… dumpy loser dude (on all fronts). Our culture is inundated with devaluing the father’s contribution and the church isn’t far behind, if one were to take what happens (or doesn’t) on Father’s Day into consideration. The last sitcom I can remember where the dad ISN’T an idiot is The Cosby Show and Bill Cosby has made his feelings about the subject more than clear over the years.

  7. Wm Morris says:

    I think your criticisms need to be made, Lisa. I haven’t read the final version of Rift yet so I don’t know how fair they are to the final product, but I had similar thoughts with the version I read. I think I used the word nuance at some point.

    I do think, though, that the over-the-topness is supposed to be funny and/or deeply ironic. How that funny operates and whether it lapses in to misogyny is a good question to ask. I’d be interested in hearing other responses.

    I also don’t know how well those scenes track with classic Mormon small-town gendered socio-cultural politics. But there are hints from my childhood that things can get rather ugly (whether we’re talking male or female responses).

  8. Wm Morris says:

    [quote]Yes, they changed their worlds significantly, but did so within the framework of existing authority[/quote]

    No, they asserted a different authority. That’s revolutionary — that’s revolt against the dominant cultures and structures of the time. Ammon completely changed the structure of Lamanite civilization. Moses overthrew the social framework that kept the people of Israel slaves (and living in Egypt). Joseph Smith threw off centuries of Trinitarian dogma. Abraham rebelled against the pagan traditions of his father. Sure, there were threads that were kept, but that’s true of any revolution.

    If by existing authority, you mean the dispensationalist authority of the priesthood, then I agree, but that’s very rarely been establishment and very rarely been kept intact as true authority. Thus the need for restorations.

    I think that the hard time I’m having — because I agree with many of your points, especially of the tiresome repeated reenactments of the rebellion against the father — is the use of the word evolve. How does that really work in the socio-cultural sphere? How far does it get us? What kind of works does it produce? I mean, so much of cultural production is doing battle with the forefathers, the influencers (although I do think that Harold Bloom overstates things there).

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    I hesitate to comment on [i]Rift[/i], because I haven’t read it (yet), but in general, I might be tempted (while reading) to chalk it up to small-town-ism. There’s a whole ‘nother cultural dynamic or six going on in small towns that has nothing to do with LDS church culture–and if there is a church tone to it, it’s either Catholic or evangelical, which each have their own cultural overtones.

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Wm, I’m glad you pointed out that the pack behavior of the ward females is supposed to be humorous. That’s why I made the comparison to [i]Baptists[/i]. But in order for humor to work, it has to be basically true. So I don’t think this worked. The writer would have served his story better to maybe have a couple women behave this way–a nod to the reality that busy-bodies exist–but left the larger female population of the novel clear of it.

    Maybe the existence of Peterson’s few well-behaved female characters allow women readers to indentify w. them. But that identification comes at the expense of other women. Sort of: [i]Sure women are like [u]that[/u], but not me[/i].

    As to the small townish-ness of [i]Rift[/i], well, I’m not buying that. I admit to being a city girl, born and raised, but I lived several years in a couple small Utah towns and now in a relatively small (though admittedly affluent) Texas (evangelical Christian) town. The behavior of the women in [i]Rift[/i] would never happen. The world is much more sophisticated than we sometimes give it credit for, thanks to our mass media, etc.

    Again, read [i]Rift[/i] if you haven’t. It is quite funny–genuinely funny. Just women, be prepared to forgive this aspect of the novel.

  11. Wm Morris says:

    [quote]The world is much more sophisticated than we sometimes give it credit for, thanks to our mass media, etc.[/quote]

    That same mass media has a way of fomenting pack mentalities and overblowing differences and scandals. But I suppose that manifests itself these days more in e-mail forwards than stand-offs with husbands.

    [quote]The behavior of the women in Rift would never happen.[/quote]

    Perhaps. I thought part of the issue isn’t just the scandal of the bishop’s daughter, but of all the cranky old men coming under her influence. I had the same reaction to those scenes and included that in my response to Todd so I’m not a strong defender, here. I just wonder how unrealistic it really is. And where that un-realism comes from (although clearly there are at least two readers who reacted to it).

  12. Th. says:

    .

    [i]Rift[/i]‘s war between men and women did some damage to my suspension of disbelief as well and a feminist reading of the book would be healthy. But I think the book is trying to tell a masculist story vaguely of the sort Scott is talking about.

    http://www.motleyvision.org/2009/theric-reviews-rift-by-trp/

  13. Wm Morris says:

    That’s a great review, Th. I should have remembered to link to it. And looking at my comment there, it looks like I lied — because what I say about not experiencing the straining of credulity doesn’t match up with the e-mail I sent Todd responding to the novel. Interesting (well, not really, but it was weird to backtrack over everything I’ve said [privately and publicly] about [i]Rift[/i]).

  14. Scott Parkin says:

    Lisa–

    I wrote a reply to your initial note this morning that apparently never got posted. It’s probably sitting on my home computer with a timeout error (I was already late for my carpool).

    While the conversation has moved on a bit, I will send that out later when I get home again because I’m way too lazy to recreate it here.

    William wrote:

    [quote]No, they asserted a different authority. That’s revolutionary — that’s revolt against the dominant cultures and structures of the time.[/quote]

    Okay. But I still think we’re talking about slightly different things.

    Moses discovered that his true(er) father was someone other than the pharaoh who raised him. While he absolutely revolted against his borrowed culture and society, his intent was not to replace that society with a new idea created out of his own mind, but rather to restore something of the culture that had been stolen from him and his people–a society that needed to evolve, but that was founded on a deep and extended history.

    (And he would happily have left that borrowed society alone if it had allowed him to; he never set out to destroy it, only to free his newly discovered people. Ultimately being true to his restored history required separation, but he would just as soon have simply walked away from the newer in order to re-engage the older. Destruction was the result, not the intent.)

    In other words, the authority he invoked was a patriarchal authority that he received from his father-in-law and extended through his own engagement with his god. He did not create the authority in himself; he built on an existing authority.

    Maybe that’s just a hair-split, but I think it’s important. So much of recent literature requires that father be replaced with a new thing created from the mind of the child; Moses replaced a false father with a real one–not as an act of rebellion, pique, or creation of a unique self, but as an act of restoration.

    Abraham was similar in that he returned to an original (aka, ancient) order that had been corrupted. In other words, respecting (building on, evolving) the wisdom, authority, and institutions of the past instead of wiping it all out in favor of *my* idea.

    Besides, I never said we don’t believe father should never be destroyed. I suggested that we don’t require father’s erasure in order to establish ourselves. We always reserve the right to revolt as needed, and kill dad as required; we just don’t take it as a necessary given.

  15. Scott,

    I think you’re saying that as Mormons, we may reject a particular father, but we don’t reject the concept of a father’s authority. Instead, we attempt to identify the righteous father and connect with that. Is that correct?

    I’m not sure I’d call the resulting mindset evolutionary, however, either with respect to the larger culture (which we often reject) or the "true" culture that we attempt to connect to. If the sources of authority are dispensationary and based in revelation, where does evolution enter in? Inheritance, definitely. I think, though, that as a Mormon culture we are uneasy with the idea of evolution in doctrine or behavioral standards, and perhaps reasonably so.

    Please note that I’m not disagreeing with the main effect you’re describing. Rather, what I’m doing is quibbling some over the language used to describe it–and what model best fits that phenomenon.

  16. Scott Parkin says:

    It appears that I have some repenting to do, because several people have now gone to special effort to point out that they’re not disagreeing. Apparently I’ve been too prickly during conversation in the past.

    Sorry about that. Disagree away. Please. My posts are rarely the result of heavily researched or deeply held opinions; they’re just ideas that occurred to me as the deadline approached.

    A couple of clarifications on this particular post and some of what I was thinking as I wrote–

    First, I think I’m making less of a grand statement than it might appear, though I suppose I am at least partially challenging Joseph Campbell at least a little.

    All I was originally thinking about was that Mormons don’t require that dad be overthrown (though we can certainly allow for it). We tend to believe in generational continua and the idea of stable community based on shared values. We don’t *have* to go out into the wide world to establish our own identity (though we may choose to do so if we wish); we can choose to stay home without loss of honor or identity.

    I suppose that was an overreach, but for a brief moment I thought I perceived religious cultures as respecting that continued community more than the secular world. This idea of multi-generational commitment to a common cause seems like something that *could* color the kinds of stories we tell, even if it doesn’t necessarily do so.

    Second, I was making oblique reference to the ideas of line upon line and precept on precept, and the idea that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom.

    I think we do believe in cultural evolution, as evidenced strongly by changing programs and practices within the Church (including polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc.). And while evolution is not the right word for describing how we receive additional light and knowledge (the truth doesn’t change, only our access to it), the outward effect is that of a progressing font of truth to draw from.

    Again, I think the idea that we continue to receive revelation and more of the complexity of the gospel as we move from grace to grace suggests that we can be (should be) open to reasonable, incremental, and intentional change over time. We can and do change both the broader culture and our own individual responses to it.

    ===

    How that reveals itself in literature is not something I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating. I think LDS stories require less revolutionary conflict, and can accommodate a more evolutionary approach by its characters. We tend not to require destruction of existing institutions in order to deal with the complexities of a changing world–we believe that an ancient institution can remain relevant and vibrant despite (and often specifically because of) and rapidly changing world.

    FWIW.

  17. Scott Parkin says:

    My response from earlier in the day. Sorry if it’s no longer topical; my computer apparently crashed before this got posted.

    ===

    Lisa–

    Please challenge or disagree to your heart’s content. One of the purposes of the blog is to facilitate vigorous discussion. The best I can hope for is to be understood, not agreed with.

    I haven’t read Rift, so I can’t speak to Todd’s concepts or characterizations. In fact, I’m having a generally hard time coming up with explicitly Mormon titles that demonstrate my allegedly Mormon storytelling concept. Fiction by and for Mormons tends to express subversive thought in the form of direct challenges to the institution–an inversion that passively illustrates my point. When a Mormon wants to be bold, they destroy the institution (or at least identify it as irrelevant). The most obvious example there is The Backslider by Levi Peterson.

    Still, (with apologies to authors who may not want to be used as examples) let me start with our own Jonathan Langford’s recent No Going Back. Rather than trying to tear down the institution Paul attempts to find a place within in it, in the process educating (and evolving) a number of other people within that institution.

    Back when he was writing for LDS audiences, Richard Dutcher tended to illustrate the idea fairly aggressively. Thinking specifically of Brigham City, Dutcher told a story of a community’s evolution toward greater compassion specifically within its own boundaries. Both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities (represented in a single person) were specifically held in place despite a horror that could easily have destroyed the basis of communal trust that underpins both institutions.

    Orson Scott Card’s first two Ender books deal specifically with the poles of that concept. In Ender’s Game young Ender attempts to destroy the institution from within using its own rules–but does so at least partially because he’s been consistently and intentionally lied to. In the second book, Speaker for the Dead, Ender himself has evolved and spends the entirety of the story attempting to evolve the society of Lusitania from within itself as an explicit act of repentance for the wrongs he committed in Ender’s Game.

    While those ideas were not subversive to LDS audiences, they were shocking to a cynical SF audience that loves the violent overthrow of corrupt institutions. That dissonance engaged readers directly.

    On feminism and my post…

    Not much I can say. I wrote a short article on Fathers, and referenced the two patriarchal stories that spurred the thought. No intent to leave out feminist ideas, just not in the two films I commented on.

    In general, feminist literature has tended to follow the idea of inside-out evolution of societies, hasn’t it? I’ll have to think about that some more…

  18. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    On [i]Rift[/i]: Theric, I haven’t read your review of [i]Rift[/i]. I must. You nail it, though, when you say the women-thing in [i]Rift[/i] damaged your ability to suspend disbelief. Precisely. Because the book stopped being realistic. Wm,for me the protecting-their-husbands POV isn’t really much better, considering the women would be protecting their crusty, old (ancient to the girl) husbands from what? Her seductive hand-holding while she gives a manicure? Such sexual jealousy over a non-issue isn’t exactly flattering. Heck, LDS women would probably start going to the barbershop because it’d be cheaper to get a manicure there than at the salon. (This post is completely hi-jacked now.)

    And Scott, surprisingly, I don’t disagree with you. I think most of us probably agree that this tendency to evolve authority rather than destroy it is prevalent in LDS lit. Its just easy to find holes in any argument that can’t be universally applied.

    And FWIW, I think that this tends to be common in mainstream literary writing as well. We seem to get more "Kill Dad" in genre fiction than in lit fic where the emphasis tends toward internal growth. What’s interesting is to hear about genre lit by LDS writers that evolves authority. I’ve read Ender, but not much else in SF/F so that’s intriguing. If anyone else can give me genre titles that do this–that bust the norm in this way–I’d be interested

  19. Wm Morris says:

    Lisa:

    Good point.

    Scott:

    I like it when you use examples. That really helps. Although I think that things flag in the end, I have defended the middle Alvin books in the past (Alvin Journeyman and Heartfire) because they do show an evolution (see you’ve forced me to use that word) of Alvin’s powers or rather his application of his powers. Once you’ve discovered your awesomeness and defeated the great evil, then what? Well, then the stubborn-ness of society and the learning how to change hearts and minds and not just impress, that hard grind of teaching and leading and serving, come in to play. And that’s why those two Alvin books focus on trials and lawyers (even if OSC does lay on the evil of lawyers a bit thick) — it’s not the big bad father that gets in the way of revolution or evolution or restoration, it’s the bureaucracy and the hedges of the law, the machine of the existing order.

  20. Th. says:

    .

    Hey.

    Wait a second.

    [i][b]I’m[/i][/b] a father!

  21. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Amen, Theric. A billion years ago, I watched as my 4 year old daughter sat glued to the screen, championing Ariel as she told her father, the King of the Sea, that he knew nothing about love and then set out to disobey him. I can still feel the shiver down my spine as she was proven right and he was humiliated. I wanted to destroy Disney.

    So yeah, I like Scott’s idea of evolving the father, rather than killing him.

  22. Scott Parkin says:

    Maybe it’s just a flavoring thing, but I think William hit it fairly squarely with the idea that father doesn’t have to be irretrievably wrong–like Ariel’s dad (though not like Purdy and Pongo’s…uh…dad/owner/landlord).

    It’s a social truism that a young man struggles to find individual identity in the shadow of his father–whether because the father is great or terrible (does that truism hold for young women; it seems less prevalent to me). The easy way around that it to leave home and establish your own identity in a place where you are disconnected from your father’s notoriety and influence (sounds like a mission to me).

    In traditional story, the young man then comes back to displace or destroy the existing authority structure–at least partially because father is a fixed and ossified institution that cannot be repaired, and thus must be replaced.

    In a more LDS tradition, the returning (prodigal?) son has 1) learned that father was not completely goofy, and some of what he did (even the wrong stuff) makes sense in light of new knowledge and experience; 2) returned to rejoin that society and complement/supplement it; 3) may bring radical new knowledge, but is not expected to do so. The return is recognized as a transition; a rite of passage to independent social and spiritual identity precisely because of independent experience.

    (Sounds vaguely like that whole plan of salvation thing–gain individual experience to help you establish yourself as an independent authority working *with* God in shared hope and vision.)

    I think Judaism has a good thing in the bar mitzvah; draw a clear and bright line that says today you are yourself, and not just a child in your father’s house. Today we recognize you as equivalent in kind if not equal in standing to all fathers in the community.

    Secular society tends to mistrust the aristocracy, the continued line of authority, the strengthening establishment. So secular tales emphasize destruction and replacement rather than extension and evolution.

    The end result is the same–a newer (and hopefully better) society more capable of dealing with new threats and challenges. It’s just that one method builds on the ruins of the previous society, while the other identifies itself as version 1.1 of the previous society.

    And yeah, Theric, becoming a father was when I started to go goofy and question whether dead dad was really the answer. Not just as a matter of self preservation, but as a realization that I had turned a corner.

    Oddly, it was a Disney movie when the realization struck me hard. My wife was eight months pregnant with our first child when I saw The Lion King, and that end scene where Simba’s child is presented to the pride quite literally took my breath away because it culminated the progress from child to father within a consistent social institution in a way that reached me directly. It took until the very end of the credits before I could speak again.

    Thank you all for helping me clarify my own thought in my own mind to myself, if to no one else.

  23. Wm Morris says:

    I very much like your take on the prodigal son storyline — that’s not the only one available to Mormon storytellers, but it’s a good one and one that I’d like to see more of.

    One thing that’s fascinating and somewhat alienating about secular society (a society, btw, I don’t fully reject because gospel culture is always a blended entity — or at least that’s what the scriptures seem to suggest) is how we’re now in this cycle where the goal seems to be to lionize and enthrone and then tear down the idols over and over again (and if celebrities or politicians can manage the comeback then we love them all the more for it). It seems to me like a huge waste of energy and mind space. Somebody does something unique or shows an interesting voice, there is buzz, there are accolades and wealth and then the backlash starts, and even better is where there can be a scandal as well.

    I’m still not in love with the word evolution (I have mixed feelings on the concept of progress across generations — although I’m a firm believer in progression in individuals, couples and families), but I like the idea of continuity and succession. Especially, the somewhat democratic way Joseph Smith set up.

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