As a kid I read a lot of comic books. I enjoyed studying the intricate character storylines consisting of their origin stories, their many adventures and their overlapping histories with other super heroes. The result was an impressive creation, a universe akin to the corpus of classical Greek and Roman mythologies. As I grew older my interest in comic book mythologies waned, only to be replaced by an obsession with religion, Mormonism in particular. I found myself replacing my earlier zeal for the study of comic book heroes with an intense engagement with the characters of the Mormon universe, their origin stories, their many adventures, their overlapping histories with other characters, in essence, the mythologies of Mormonism.
I’ve noticed that in considering the mythologies of comic books and Mormonism, the origin story seems to loom large in the imagination. How a comic book hero obtained his/her powers was always a riveting read. Likewise, so was the calling of Joseph Smith and other Mormon figures (including those recounted in Mormon scriptures). And the frequent retelling of these stories for new audiences and new eras held the highest fascination of all.
Batman’s origin story has been told numerous times, and, with each retelling, his character gets “rebooted.” Originally, in the late 30s, he was launched as a pistol-toting, caped crusader against crime, much like the Shadow, but the gun was soon dropped to minimize the character’s dark side. Later, to make him more appealing to children, he got a less fearsome side-kick named Robin and his bat ears got less … intimidating. By the 50s Batman was more likely involved in outlandish science fiction-styled adventures than fighting crime. By the 70s, Batman was again rebooted to focus on his roots as a detective. By the 90s, he was yet again transformed, this time as the psychologically troubled “dark knight” we know today.
The most fascinating origin story of Mormon Myth is that of Joseph Smith. In his many accounts of his own origin story, “The First Vision,” Joseph reboots himself on each occasion (for a fair summary, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Vision). In his earliest tellings (circa 1830 and 1832), Joseph’s story is a personal account of how he received forgiveness of his sins. In the later 1835 account, while noting his forgiveness of sins, he focuses more on the power of satan attempting to thwart his path and the competing truth claims of various religions and God’s answers about religious claims. By his 1838 account, which became the canonical version in the LDS scripture, The Pearl of Great Price, Smith has an expanded account that better reflects his own understanding of the Godhead, his growing religious movement and his own place in it as prophet.
Among Mormons today, Joseph Smith’s First Vision is not just considered the origin story, or prophetic call, of Joseph Smith, but the origin story of Mormonism itself (at least in modern times). It is usually the starting point for explaining LDS beliefs and history and is often the model for Mormon converts in recounting their own conversion stories, but this was not always the case. In fact, according to James Allen, the focus on the First Vision is a later development in Mormon thought, a reboot (see James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 1 (Autumn 1966).)
The First Vision is not the only facet of Mormon myth, history or thought that has been reconceived since 1830. Consider Book of Mormon geography, LDS racial doctrines, polygamy and many other polices, practices and doctrines that have been rebooted. In fact, Mormonism itself can be considered an attempted reboot of Christianity, just as Christianity was a reboot of sorts of Judaism.
Do you see any impending reboots of Joseph Smith or of our collective Mormon Myth? How would they be shaped?