Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Trouble with Hero Worship, or, How Mel Gibson Ruined my Childlike Naïveté

One characteristic that has reared its odd little head more and more in my life is a distinct mistrust of "popular" people or ideas. I like to think this isn't some sort of personal hipster-like revolution (though it's hard to justify that, as I'm sitting here typing this with black rimmed glasses, an ironic pop culture t shirt, and, you know, a blog), but rather a symbol of my strong will and principles. Yeah. That's it.

This subject actually came up when my girlfriend and I passed a billboard advertising "The Making of Jimmer" dvd. That sparked a good conversation between us on whether or not hero worship was a good thing. The result of our conversation was basically that it's a tricky business hero-worshiping someone--you never know enough about him or her to truly pass judgment on her or his overall moral character. For me personally, I think, in some way, this notion stems from a personal experience from my youth when I admired a person greatly, only to be later disappointed in them. Yes, that's right, I, like most children my age, was an avid Mel Gibson fan.

I...wasn't alone in this, right?

At the time, I thought he was cool as ice. Here he was, one of the big names in Hollywood, and at the time he was well known for being: a. A faithful and devout Catholic, b. A former alcoholic-turned-teetotaler, c. A loyal husband who had seemingly overcome the Hollywood marriage curse. Not only that, but he made Braveheart.


Pictured: Braveheart.

Great guy, right?!

Too bad that personal image didn't really remain true.

I like to think that that was a pivotal moment in my life, watching my personal hero devolve into an angry, adulterous, alcoholic, anti-semitic, aggressively misogynistic crackpot. I learned a valuable lesson: not even Braveheart is above basic human fallibility.

Now, I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but...well, actually, yeah, I probably do. I don't believe in hero worship (with the exception of, you know, Jesus). It bothers me when someone tries to model their life on Michael Jordan. People like to have idols; we like to believe that there are other people who, through their gumption and perseverance, overcame their (to use an LDS term) fallen natures and became more than just a person. We like our heroes to be bigger than life, so big that no person could possibly live up to that.

I suppose this is where the notion of heroes being an idea rather than a person comes up. This is, of course, the power of martyrs. If a person dies nobly for a cause, then no one really cares if that person was behind on an alimony payment, or she or he didn't like [insert racial/religious/other minority group]. The person his or herself isn't what's important; it's the idea behind that person, the behavior she or he exhibited--even just that one time--that transcended his or her humanity and proceeded onto a higher plane.

That, of course, leads one directly to disappointment should one ever discover the martyr's "dirty little secrets."

Now, I'll beat everyone to the chase and let you all know that I am, still, a hypocrite to my own rant. I still hero worship, and I still look the other way whenever I hear something contrary to the imagined attributes I created for this person. I like to think that my current heroes are more heroic than, say, Mel Gibson, but I'm sure that, ten years from now, I'm just as likely to think about them what I now think about Mel.

Sometimes, it's not so important (for example, my worldview wasn't shaken when it turned out Mel Gibson is pretty much a jerk). Sometimes, though, it becomes very important, like when a close personal friend questions the church after discovering certain questionable attributes of Joseph Smith. How do you handle something like that?

For me, this whole issue raises certain questions, and I suppose that's the real reason I wrote this post. I invite anyone who reads this to answer any or all of my questions. For convenience sake, I'll even number them.

1. Does the good of a mostly imaginary hero outweigh the bad of ignoring that person's very real flaws and replacing them with fiction?
2. What happens if someone you hero-worship goes all "Mel Gibson" on you and turns into someone you don't look up to anymore?
3. Does setting someone up as a overly-fictionalized hero character marginalize his or her actual accomplishments? Or, put another way, do you believe that a person is more "heroic" if you take into account her or his flaws rather than if you abandon them and assume he or she is perfect?
4. Perhaps most pressingly, what should a person do if her or his faith in the Church is shaken after hearing about some of the less-than-appropriate-for-Sunday-School attributes of important Church figures?

I invite your answers.


  1. So I have to admit, the first time I read this, the thing that stood out to me the most is the parenthetical that mentions Jesus. I understand the sentiment: Jesus is a hero which many of us quite literally worship. What struck me is that He (or he, depending on how one might feel) seems just as susceptible to the very critique that you're exploring with Mel Gibson or Joseph Smith. The nice thing about Jesus is that it's a lot harder to come across some account of his life that disrupts hero narratives centuries of believers have put around Him.

    And yet that's something I actually like about Mormonism, at least what section 93 leaves room to do. Some Christians take issue with Mormons, considering them gnostics for believing that Christ grew "from grace to grace." I'm a fan of the idea that Christ was the Son of God by virtue of being the Son of God, but also that there was this experiential development by which He became the Son of God. Both/And. That then becomes the exemplar narrative which we reflect into our own conceptualizations of our relationship to a paternalistic deity, a fraternal deity, and a deity that is within. Hopefully, that will also lead to a contemplation of communal and shared deity, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

    I understand why some Christians would take issue with this interpretation of Christ. It undermines His inherent infallibility. It also creates room for a Christ who might not only repent, but might need to repent. It becomes possible to consider a Christ who was without sin but may not have necessarily been perfect in all things. That line of thinking disrupts basic tenets that have come to be assumed givens for mainstream Christianity and Mormonism. But yeah, I was struck that the same process of reassessing hero worship could also apply to Jesus as well as other mortal heroes.

    And for me, because I believe that deconstruction is not the same as destruction, is valuable and potentially faith promoting. When I question Jesus as a hero that I worship, it creates the possibility of the choice to cease worship, but it also engenders a process by which I reevaluate who and what I worship, who and what I am as a person who worships, and how I go about my mode of worship. Deconstructing the narrative unravels familiar patterns of thought so that new knots may be formed; knots that will one day be unraveled again. It becomes cyclical and experiential rather than definite and universal.

  2. I speak as someone who is becoming comfortable with saying that I don't think I need to believe the events in the Book of Mormon ever "historically happened" (and we don't need to get into the can of worms that is discussing the theoretical implications of history), but yeah I don't think I need to believe that the event is true to believe that the book is a testament of and to truth. Your post is speaking very much to dealing with our experience with individuals or ideas about individuals. So it's not exactly the same, but I think about the last question about what a person should do and I'm struck with a humility that I don't know that I can say what others besides me should do. I understand that many people don't like and literally could not live with a postmodern sensibility; it reeks of relativism to too many. But it's also that very principle of humility that is at the heart of why the both/and approach as well as the pomo plurality speaks to me: it necessitates an acquiescence to the unknowability of all things. And that to me is faith.

    Shaken faith is the very moment of faith. I know you, Brett, have touched on this, but faith is not this thing that exists, it's not a tree: it's a principle. It's a thing that happens or that we exercise when there is a lack. I was listening to an episode of Mormon Matters where someone said that doubt is not the opposite of faith; unrelenting conviction in one's idea of an absolute knowledge of a Truth is more akin to an opposite of faith.

    Mormons are not really good with apophatic theology or a theology of negation. I find this ironic since I think the origins of Mormonism are far more apophatic than they're not. Anyway, I think there's room to recognize the quivering step, the shakiness of faith, as itself not the antithesis to spirituality or holiness but rather part of the divine relationship with God. I'm still wrapping my head around this myself so if it's not making sense I apologize. But I wonder if in addition to humility that I mentioned, one thing to do when any of us experience a shaken faith is to take a moment and celebrate that uncertainty and fear and confusion as itself revelation, rather than immediately trying to fix it. Does that make sense?

  3. I've been really drawn to the idea that doubt is an integral element of faith - that faith is a personal choice, and one made in full awareness of reasons not to have faith. So it's in considering the evidence for and against faith, examining everything, and then choosing to believe in spite of opposition that real faith is forged.

    And yet that can be taken too far. If my faith rests on the notion that the universe is geocentric, and I choose to reject mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary then I'm not faithful so much as foolish. Where and how to draw that line is difficult to say, but I'd suggest that has to be rooted in some genuine evidence, even if that's only as nebulous and uncertain a concept as personal revelation. I think the faith/foolish is something like what Paul had in mind when he said we are fools for Christ.

    To answer Brett's questions, I like what Malcom Reynolds said: "It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another". The trick, I guess, is just like it is for faith: weighing the evidence, choosing for yourself how the good stacks against the bad, and deciding what that means for you. For some people, Joseph Smith is and must be a paragon of virtue and unwavering Goodness in order for them to have faith in him. Some who accept that binary paradigm and then learn about his flaws are likely to lose faith.

    Even rejecting the binary and going for a more nuanced approach is filled with complications. For example, I accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, but as I also believe he was, well, kind of a philanderer. If I had a daughter, I'd have kept her away, is all I'm sayin'. Some view his forays into polygamy more or less charitably, but there's always tension. For me it's holding some views that are outside the LDS mainstream while situating myself within the mainstream in practice and activity. If you view the polygamy more positively that alleviates some tension, as does moving away from LDS practice. Since I do neither, I accept the tension as a price to pay, evidence on the scales of faith. And I think we all do that to some extent on different issues.

    I also have scattered thoughts on Heroes and the value of Myths in creating our identities, which I'm not sure how to put together. Definitely, though, since we're operating with incomplete knowledge and within our biases we're never going to see the world "undistorted", if there even is such a thing. So in a sense we mythologize everything just by forming thoughts and opinions - what we imagine is never the thing itself, but only our perception of it. So we can disentangle and try to understand our biases, but can never truly escape them. In that way, I guess creating heros and villains is part of how we work.

  4. Well, I'm not half as deep (or smart) as Allan, so here goes.

    2. Now, while you all may find this hard to believe, I am super female at times and I had a hero-worship go "Mel Gibson Crazy" as the search engine says: When Brad cheated on Jen and then got divorced. Okay, make fun of me all you will! But. At a time in my life, I believed that one day I would be famous somehow (I didn't care how, I just wanted to be famous is all) and I wanted to know that famous marriages could last too. Brad and Jen were my shining example! They were the best, they got along, tabloids had pictures of them on dates and stuff! And then... Angelina. I was shattered, but eventually realized that what happened to them had absolutely nothing to do with me personally. I can be my own person. I can have an awesome marriage (and I do) that will last forever (got the temple print-out to prove it!).

    4 is one I have been trying to figure out for a LONG time, because I have had a lot of friends leave the church for varied reasons, and it just kinda makes me sad. I always want to know what to say when they don't want to hear it, but I've learned that at least for now, the best way is to live by example. It's the Primary answer, but I'm really good at those right now (CTR 6 will do that to you), and showing your friends that you can still be happy by living the Gospel is all I can do sometimes. That's all I got for now...