Do you know how embarrassing it is to be caught crying during a kids movie? Let me tell you about it.
Besides being one of the top movies of 2014, the LEGO Movie is—if you’re paying attention—kind of a deep philosophical examination of truth.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the movie)
Emmet is our unwitting hero – a character who is so bland and conformist that hardly anyone can remember he exists, let alone his name. Nevertheless, through a series of comical and seemingly random events, Emmet stumbles upon and takes possession the “piece of resistance,” a relic foretold of by the prophet/wizard Vitruvius that will identify “The Special,” or the one destined to free Legoland of the evil Lord Business.
As the movie progresses, Emmet proves to be not quite what everyone was hoping for in terms of “The Special.” He can’t build massive and complex Lego structures with his mind like other master builders, he’s not a great leader and he lacks in courage and gumption. But, the Piece of Resistance is glued to his back, and Emmet’s band of cohorts seem to be fixated on the prophecy so much that they still follow him, even as Emmet displays signs of being just another ordinary citizen of Legoland.
At a moment of great peril for our heroes when it seems like Lord Business is destined to unleash his evil plan on the world, Vitruvius is killed and makes a startling deathbed confession to Emmet: confession:
Vitruvius: My sweet Emmet, come closer. You must know something about the prophecy.
Emmet: I know. I’m doing my best but… I don’t-I don’t.
Vitruvius: The prophecy… I made it up.
Vitruvius: I made it up. It’s not true.
Emmet: But that means I’m just… I’m not the special?
Vitruvius: You must listen. What I’m about to tell you will change the course of history…
And then, suddenly, Vitruvius croaks.
Emmet is, of course, devastated. Since coming in contact with The Piece of Resistance and being told of the prophecy, he has felt his calling, in spite of his weaknesses and his shortcomings, was to save Legoland. Now it turns out it was all made up.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Rather than folding and walking away, our hero does something surprising. He doesn’t react with anger. He doesn’t react with shame. He doesn’t react with disgust. He actually embraces the difficult and seemingly fraudulent nature of Vitruvius’ confession. Talking to Lord Business at the climax of the movie and urging him to abandon his plan of destruction, Emmet says wisely:
You don’t have to be the bad guy. You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us. Right now, it’s about you. And you… still… can change everything.
The prophecy is made up. But it’s also true.
I remember hearing that line in the movie theater and just losing it. Openly weeping at the complex beauty of that statement and how it applied to my then-nascent faith crisis. This was in February, just two months after my shelf completely collapsed under the weight of the Race and the Priesthood essay and my acceptance of real, tangible, demonstrable prophetic infallibility.
I was drowning.
Searching for something, anything to make sense of the abyss I had fallen into. The fact that it came from a movie about kids play toys come to life was so jarring that it turned on the waterworks. And there I sat, a grown man crying through a movie that had as much product placement as it did one-liners.
It’s now the end of 2014, and as I have spent the last year combing through all the things I was never taught in church, examining the tidal wave of historical evidence about Mormonism and Joseph Smith, my mind buckles under the weight of evidence that points to it being just as made up as the prophecy of Vitruvius. I’ve come to realize that coming to that realization isn’t the hard part. It’s where you go from there. Is there really no other choice than to call it all a fraud and cast Joseph Smith aside into the gutter, along with his theology? If we’re hanging our spiritual hats on historicity, you’d be hard pressed to find a whole lot more of it in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon.
It’s time for me to get comfortable with the idea that a lot of scripture is likely mostly “made up.”
Made up by well-intentioned people doing their best at grasping toward this thing we call “God” and attempting to put it in relatable, human language. People who have the audacity to reach up toward the moon and the stars to try to touch the hand of God. Trying to bring a piece of the divine down closer to within our grasp. And writing most times in a completely different social, political and religious context than our post-modern minds can relate to.
Embracing the notion that Mormonism is made up actually helps me makes more sense of history, not less. It helps me feel more comfortable with Mormonism. It gives me more hope and less anxiety. Can you believe that?
This is a concept hermeneutics calls “breaking the myth.” The loss of literal/historical belief in something (such as scripture) or doesn’t have to necessarily mean we must or even should abandon all value in that thing. I can still find great value in the Book of Abraham, even though I may come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith created it out of whole cloth. Just as I find great value in the story of the Good Samaritan, even when I can accept the fact that it most likely has little to no historical value. In that way, it remains “true.” Myths, while not fully historically accurate, can still hold great value in our lives.
The funny thing is, this isn’t just true of Mormonism. Or even religion. This is a process humans continually go through. We place value in things we find to be literally true. Then we find out they are not literally true. We can either abandon them and give up on the value they can have in our lives, or we can re-work them and retain the values that ring true to us.
While some — especially Mormons who fall on the more literal end of the spectrum — might see this approach as an affront or threat to faith, it has actually strengthened my testimony. Because, in light of new knowledge about the truth claims of the church, it helps me make spiritual sense of things in a new way, or at least helps me re-order things in a way that allows me to still embrace Mormonism.
It helps me accept Joseph Smith’s incredibly flawed nature and of all the skeletons in Mormonism’s past, as well as the blights that are a part of Mormonism’s present, and of the uncertainty of Mormonism’s future. I can finally make sense of the Book of Mormon when I read it not as a historical text, but as inspired (and inspiring) fiction. I can make room for fundamentally flawed leadership of “modern prophets” when I understand that they’re grasping at straws just as much as I am. As much as we all are.
So, Mormonism may all just be made up. But it’s still true.
I don’t mean that flippantly. And I certainly don’t mean it to diminish the pain caused by Mormonism turning out to be not quite what someone thought it was. Believe me, I recognize the pain there.
But I also can’t escape the fact that, for me, the essence of what Mormonism is, when you strip away the dogma and the rote practices and the cultural baggage, still rings true. Truth used to be a fixed recitation of testimony tent poles. But now, with a new view of the universe and of life, truth is much more complex, much less tangible, and much more beautiful. I find truth in certain symbols, because they speak to me. Even if those symbols turn out to be constructed by man, not God, I can’t deny the power they have in pointing me toward divinity. I can’t shake off the pull they have over my spirit. I continue to find value and goodness and meaning in many of the symbols and practices of Mormonism. Not because they are based on historical facts, but because they point me toward truth and goodness if I allow them to. In that way, they are true. To me.
It’s still true because it’s still my language.
It’s still my culture. It’s how I am most comfortable reaching through the vastness of eternity and space and time to try to communicate with the divine.
Mormonism is about you. It’s about me. It’s about our relationship to each other. Our relationship to the universe. It’s about believing and acting like we are more than just our current surroundings. That we existed long before this life and we will continue to exist long after it. That this world and our existence in it is an opportunity to not just live, but to progress and become better. It’s about believing that we can all call down the powers of the divine on our behalf.
It’s about believing in a God who weeps for our sorrows and is bound by our agency.
It’s about working under the assumption that we are all God’s children, interconnected by eternal bands of brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s about believing that forgiveness and becoming better is always possible and redemption is a door never closed.
Mormonism can be as true as I allow it to be, even despite problems with historicity and translation and prophetic mantles.
You can call that new-age, touchy feely or even “pastoral apologetics.” It may even not make Mormonism as “unique” as it used to seem. You can say “well that’s not the way the church sees it.” You see my truth as a double-decker couch. A silly idea that lacks in both functionality and utility.
You might look around with your view and see a mess.
For you, that mess may be too much to make sense of. It may not be worth trying. It may even be too painful to try and pick up the pieces.
But for me, for now, I look at that double-decker couch and I see the one thing that could just save me. I look around me at Mormonism and see the same thing Emmet saw:
What I see are people inspired by each other, and by you. People taking what you made and making something new out of it.
I see so much hope in Mormonism. I see great possibilities. And I want to be around when those possibilities turn into realities.
Mormonism may be made up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take the bricks of truth that lie all around us and make something new and wonderful out of it.