Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Snopes, Saints, and Santa

Recently I received a phone call from Sam's Club in which I was informed that through a store promotional I had won six months worth of free gas for my car.  I was thrilled at the news and listened eagerly as the representative explained the details of my winnings.  Ten minutes into the call, as part of the information needed to complete the transaction, I was asked for my credit card number. "Dang!" I exclaimed.  "And I TOTALLY thought you were for real! How disappointing."  Laughing, the man hung up.

A skeptical generation, we have been taught to disbelieve.
There are signals that we are being lied to, or being taken advantage of -- and being asked for personal financial or identification information is one of the big indicators.  No longer do we believe every piece of information that passes through our email, and there are places to go to check out stories that seem a little fishy.  Snopes is a popular website used to confirm or disprove rumors, stories or urban legends which circulate in American popular culture, and there is a Mormon version of the site as well.  No longer must we fall prey to the false belief that John Taylor was saved by his pocket watch, or that a missionary Zone Conference was planned at the World Trade Center on September 11. is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," we are taught in Hebrews.  And the Book of Mormon clarifies that "if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

Yet despite the modern emphasis on evidence and truth, Mormons have a great desire to believe.  Perhaps because our foundational story, the First Vision, is impossible to prove, we hold a place in our hearts for the magical world view.  It is a place where seagulls save the day, where oxen are cured by the touch of a faithful woman's hands, where faces are transfigured into the image of a dead prophet.  Tell me, if you will, if these apocryphal stories are an aid or a detriment to a Latter-day Saint's faith.  Will the discovery that they are historically questionable bring down the rest of one's belief like a house of cards?  How should the teacher or parent approach these Mormon legends?

I am of the opinion that just because these great Mormon stories have been debunked does not mean that they hold no value.  They are the great myths and touchstones of our unique heritage.  I think they should be taught as such.  Let us simply preface the retelling with the words, "the story is told that..." and end it by explaining the symbolism, the meaning it holds for faithful Latter-day Saints.  I believe, for example, that early Saints told the story of Brigham's transfiguration to reinforce the idea that the Lord had approved President Young as the next prophetic leader and that the mantle of Joseph's calling had fallen upon his successor.   It holds the powerful symbolic meaning that the people had a spiritual manifestation of Brigham's call.  Our children may not recognize the distinction when they are young, but as they mature there is no need to obscure the fact that in this case there are no contemporary eyewitness accounts and that some of the later accounts come from people who were not even present at the event.  We need not manufacture evidence to support a literal interpretation of this story.  Faith can be kindled whether or not this story is presented as strictly true.  Lavina Fielding Anderson does this spectacularly in her Dialogue article "Mary Fielding Smith: Her Ox Goes Marching On."

I think this gives us an option for dealing with the Santa question.  I see no harm in the story being told.  I do prefer, however, that it is presented as a myth, a legend, a fun tradition.  At first, small children will not distinguish the subtleties, but as they grow, I disagree with those who would lie, plant "evidence" of Santa, or perpetuate the mistaken impression that there exists an actual and tangible fat man in a red suit who comes down the chimney to deposit candy in stockings.  As many have pointed out, there is magic in the spirit of love and giving. Santa can be used to teach the deeper wonder of symbolism and myth.

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