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Faith-Promoting Fibs

LDS apostle Paul Dunn was a popular speaker, author, and church educator from the 1950’s until he quietly stepped down in 1989. I have two of his books, Ten Most Wanted Men and You Too Can Teach! He offered very sound advice on subjects like leadership and decision-making. Some of his spiritual advice would be good advice for Nicene Christians as well.

But Paul Dunn made the mistake of stretching the truth in some of his inspirational talks. He claimed to have been a professional baseball player with the St Louis Cardinals; it turns out that he played less than a month, at the minor league level. He also told numerous combat stories that were either not true or that were falsely told as if they’d happened to him (see https://www.deseretnews.com/article/147438/ARIZONA-PAPER-ALLEGES-MANY-STORIES-WERE-EXAGGERATED.html?pg=all)

This leads me to wonder about the passage in Ten Most Wanted Men (page 108) where Dunn claims to have known and pitched to baseball hero Lou Gehrig during batting practice. Dunn was 17 when Gehrig died of ALS in 1941. The story is not impossible, but becomes harder to believe in light of Dunn’s reputation for stretching the truth elsewhere.

Dunn believed that combining stories and altering names was OK because his intent was not to deceive, but to make points about God that remain valid, and to do so in ways that would be most effective for reaching his audiences. But aren’t such points undermined when the audience finds out the truth about what really happened? And doesn’t the phenomenon lead us to wonder about testimony stories told by others?

Nicene Christians are also guilty of stretching the truth in similar ways: healing stories and conversion stories that prove to be exaggerated, embellished, or totally fabricated. Every time this happens, it weakens our confidence in stories of faith that do deserve to be believed. Did God miraculously provide for that children’s home to stay open? Did that hippie kick his drug habit with no withdrawal symptoms? We are afraid to celebrate, for fear that the story has been stretched.

But why should it matter? Can a fib be faith-promoting? If we ask the question this way, the answer is obvious. While fiction does have its legitimate capacity to inspire, even fiction depends for its inspirational power on how faithfully it has depicted reality. And when lives or livelihood hang in the balance, none of us wants to be ripped off by a lie, no matter how inspiring it may be.

Mark Hofmann, the document forger who bombed two people to death in Salt Lake City in 1985 to cover up his web of deceit, successfully deceived the LDS church into purchasing numerous fake Mormon historical documents that had been pronounced genuine by the experts. These included the famous “Salamander Letter” (where an angel appears to Joseph Smith in the form of a salamander), and a blessing by Joseph Smith declaring his son Joseph III to be his successor.

As told in Naifeh and Smith’s book The Mormon Murders, in his confession, Hofmann says he did not believe he was cheating a customer by selling them a forgery that could not be detected by the experts. When he was a boy, he says he electroplated a mint mark on a US coin which the Treasury Department later pronounced genuine. Hofmann believed that if the experts say such an article is real, then it is worth whatever the buyer wishes to pay for it. “My feeling is, it’s not so much what is genuine and what is not, as what people believe is genuine.”

To illustrate his point, Hofmann says, “My example would be the Mormon Church…I don’t believe in religion as far as that Joseph Smith had the First Vision or received the plates from the angel Moroni or whatever. It doesn’t detract from the social good that the Mormon church can do. To me it is unimportant whether Joseph Smith had that vision or not as long as people believe it. The important thing is that people believe it.”

Sound familiar? How many people believe that it doesn’t matter whether any religion is true, as long as it produces nice results? To what extent is the human race benefitted by lies?

Look at it this way. Does it matter to you whether a document that cost you $10,000 really came from the pen of the named author? Or are you just as happy with an amazingly accurate fake?

What about the books and articles that quoted or cited the documents forged by Mark Hofmann as if they were true? Does it matter whether any effort is made to set the record straight? Joseph Smith may or may not have declared his son Joseph III to be his successor, but we can no longer cite Hofmann’s document as evidence.

The issue of faith-promoting fibs is what stands behind our need to know whether the Biblical documents, or the LDS canonical writings, are genuine or fabricated. We may dismiss the issue by professing that we’re OK with inspiring fiction, but deep inside, we know better.