Spirit 3: the Holy Books

Humans need stories. We have always needed stories. And stories can take many forms, from fables to myths to fairy tales.

I could tell a bedtime story to my children this evening, something about a llama prince in love with a crab princess, and they would laugh and smile, and that story would exist for that moment only, then forever be forgotten. Or perhaps I could tell them this story every night, until it becomes an unforgettable part of their childhoods, something they remember forever, and then they could re-tell it to their own children, and it could take on a form of its own as they alter the details and change it just so. Or I could even write it down, with or without pictures, and then it becomes more permanent, something read and re-told exactly as I wanted it, and then in future generations, it is re-interpreted, given its own life by those who read it. And if I published this story, well, it takes on a life of its own.

I’m much more likely to tell my kids a story I already know. The Three Little Pigs, perhaps. Someone made that up along the way and it became an American staple, this story of pigs being pursued by wolves. The basic details stay the same: houses of straw and stick and brick, but many parts change. Sometimes the pigs have a mother. Sometimes the pigs are eaten by the wolf. Sometimes the wolf is scared away and other times he falls into a boiling pot down the chimney. The story exists in the American consciousness, it is given life by a shared psychic energy, an astral reverence among millions of people. And it all depends on which version is used.

But then imagine they believed the 3 Little Pigs was true, based on real events…

Even stories that are written down are interpreted and absorbed differently by the public. Think of the world’s most famous works, told and retold and retold again. The Wizard of OzRomeo and Juliet. Moby DickLittle Women. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Manchurian Candidate. The Handmaid’s Tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huckleberry Finn. Pride and Prejudice. And even more recent works: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey. These stories are revered, held sacred, they are frozen in time and reinterpreted, examined and taught in classrooms, sometimes they are even forbidden. They’ve taken on a life of their own. Humans need these stories to latch on to. They give us a shared reality, something to think over and whisper about. But we still see them as fiction–what if these were believed to be real, any one of them?

To make it even more complex, humans tell stories frequently about real events and other humans. But the stories change in the retelling… they take on new forms as events shift. Minor characters become major, certain things get forgotten, and we remember events as they were told to us, taught to us. They become fiction in the retelling, yet we often believe them as fact.

And then there is the greatest story ever told, the long epic of the Bible. Some humans, long long ago, gathered stories and put them in a book, and that book came to be revered as mythological canon, as human historical events. The book told of the creation of earth and man, it conjured a loving god who would destroy civilization when crossed wrong. It told of angels and devils, floods and famines, plagues and enslaved races. The book outlines strict laws, harsh commandments, and the laws of god that will lead to salvation if followed or damnation if set aside. And then there is a savior, the son of god himself, who saves all mankind and dies for their sins. Miracles abound for those who follow the rules. This book has shaped the human consciousness for centuries. Wars have been waged in its name, people put to death over it, entire races subjugated or even wiped out in genocide by those who profess to follow it. It’s been rewritten, reinterpreted, and reissued millions of times. It’s stronger than government, than family bonds, than human history. It is sheer power. While the other mythologies of gods have faded away (Norse and Egyptian and Celtic and so many more), the Bible has cemented its place firmly. There are around 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 3 billion of them believe in the Bible in some form or another. Something around 40 per cent of human revere this historical book and interpret it as fact, in some form or another. But there are another 2 billion or so who identify as Muslim and believe in different books and mythologies. Another 500 million or so lean toward Buddhism, and another 900 million toward Hinduism. And every one of them can be divided down and down into different sects and branches. There are thousands of ways to be a Christian, for example, from Methodist to Lutheran to Amish to Catholic. And they all, every one of these groups, say they have it right.

And one of the newest and smallest Christian groups is the one I was born into. Mormonism. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced multiple new books of scripture, words on pages that would take on their own life in the human consciousness. The Book of Mormon (a supposed record of the ancient Americans), Doctrine and Covenants (supposed revelations given to Smith from God), and the Pearl of Great Price (a supposed record of the words of Abraham, Moses, and others). Smith and the Mormons reinterpreted all the rules, put a new spin on it, and said they had everything correct and the others didn’t.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 15 million Mormons on the earth, though clearly not so many active in the faith. An astounding number, it seems, until one does the math. 15 million out of 7.5 billion. Mormons make up… ready? 0.002 per cent of the world’s population. Not even half of one per cent. Not even half of a half of one per cent.

These books, these religious stories, held such a sway over my life, such a thick and heady force they were in my brain, that they shaped my entire psychology, biology, and spirituality for the first three decades of my life. It was only at age 32 when I allowed my doubts to take form and I chose to step away. As with all things, I look back at the things I used to believe and my brain curdles. I’m an educated man, yet I believed in two humans in a garden who were immortal until they ate an apple after being tempted by a snake; the appearances of angels with swords who destroyed cities; an entire planet wiped out by flood waters except for one man and his family who put two of every land animal on one boat; about the righteous white tribe conquering the evil dark tribe; about unseen buried golden plates; about immaculate conception and one man bearing the sins of billions. While I respect the rights of others to believe in their mythos, I see these events as nothing more than stories now. Powerful stories, yes, but not powerful enough to make me sacrifice my own happiness.

I love telling stories. I love reading stories. I love sharing stories with my children. But I will never again teach them that fiction is fact, and I will never place stories above their well-being and my own.

Fairy Tale Fears

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I grew up expecting a bit of fear in my stories. All stories would be boring without a sense of anticipation and adventure. And every ounce of that tension was completely worth it because I absolutely knew that there was a payoff in the end, a happy ending. The heroes would definitely triumph, the villains would definitely be defeated (and sometimes killed).

When the giant chased Jack down the beanstalk, Jack chopped it down and the giant perished. The Big Bad Wolf was burned in the chimney, Goldilocks was sent running, Cinderella got the prince, and Frodo threw the ring into the pit. I loved these adventure stories and from my youngest possible age, I began writing my own. I’d plan sequels to my favorite movies, and I knew immediately, as young as ages 2 and 3, that every good hero needed a great villain to face.

I saw these same elements in the scriptures we read together as a family every week. The stories were sometimes deadly, sometimes gruesome, but they always ended with the people of God winning, after periods when it seemed all was lost. Nephi cut off the head of Laban to get the brass plates, and he constantly overcame the terrible things his brothers did to him. Even though no one listened to Noah as he preached to the wicked people, he built the ark and saved the animals and God killed every other human outside Noah’s family with floods. Abraham almost killed Isaac with that knife, but God stopped him at the last possible second, just to teach him the lesson.

And so, as I grew, I saw the world in black and white, in terms of hero versus villain. There were no shades of grey present. I was the hero. My family were the heroes. Mormons and our leaders and those in our history were the heroes. And the villains were bullies and criminals and those who stood against the things of God. It was Jesus on one side, Satan on the other.

But those terms of hero and villain, they applied inwardly as well. When I was good, following the commandments and the things of God, I was the hero, following Jesus. And when I was bad, not listening to the carefully established rules or allowing myself to be tempted, I was bad, there was something wrong with me, and Satan and his followers had a bit of a hold on me. God expected nothing less than perfection, and I realized very early on that that was going to be a big, big problem moving forward.

Even in early childhood, I began to realize that I was not like the kids around me. And it made me… well, afraid. Afraid that I would never be good. And that would mean I would have to pretend to appear good always, even though on the inside I knew I wasn’t. The evidence was all around me. My dad was sad all the time, my mom was stressed all the time. My brother was a bully and sometimes he locked the door of my room and… did things to me. My back hurt every day. I didn’t like the things that other boys did, like sports, instead I liked writing stories, reading, and creating things. And while other boys had crushes on girls, I had crushes on boys, and that, I knew, was the worst thing of all.

So if I was born broken, what did that mean? Was I a villain? Was I a flawed hero? Was I inherently bad and trying to be good, or was I so good that God saw it to give me extra challenges so that I could prove to him how good I really was? Could it be possible that I was both, hero and villain, even though since I was born Mormon I was supposed to be just the hero?

It was only later that I realized, perhaps in my late teens, that early childhood was supposed to be consistently about play, and learning about the world with curiosity. I was supposed to learn independence, answer questions about what I wanted to be when I grow up, and to begin learning. Instead, all of those childhood things happened, but under the weight of learning how to hide, how to keep secrets, how to feel broken, and while consistently wondering if I was good, or if I was bad.

As I look back, I realize how much the suspense of stories I was reading, those with the heroes and villains I sometimes hated to love or loved to hate, they allowed me escape. They let me out of my life and into an interior world of fantasy, imagination, and wonder that let me be free, be someone else. The heroes weren’t so complicated, and the villains were easy to identify. In time, that would turn into a deep and abiding long-term love affair with comic books, one that would bring me well into adulthood. Childhood story books turned into Saturday morning cartoons, and those turned into action figures and kids adventure stories.  As a teenager, I developed a love for drama, stories more about human relationships, parenting, and working through trauma. We are always adapting what we love, what we pay attention to, but they all represent escape, full of complex emotions that are not our own.

And all of them full of fear and suspense. But nothing like the fear that I was turning inward on a more constant basis, the fear that I would never be whole, never be healed, never be like the other boys. And it would take me a long time to realize that those very traits, the things that made me me, made me different, those are the very traits that would make me a hero. First, I had a lot of years of feeling like I was the villain.

First, I had to get very good at feeling afraid.