“Whatever choice you make, make it the right choice.” — Dee Winterton
Havelock Ellis said, “It is only the great men who are truly obscene. If they had not dared to be obscene, they could never have dared to be great.” I think the word “obscene” here denotes not mere prurience or crudeness, but more generally the will to defy social expectations. It is in this sense that the title character in Cool Hand Luke is obscene, with his Nietzschean will to power.
Last week’s gospel doctrine lesson on Jacob and Esau reminded me that our great spiritual forbears did not have gospel blessings handed to them. Many of them were required to act obscenely in order to grasp the gifts of God. Jacob exploited Esau and deceived Jacob to obtain a birthright and a blessing when neither belonged to him. Was that sin? I cannot say. But it was effective in establishing his birthright? Yes — it is to the “god of Jacob” that we pray, not the “god of Esau”.
I see a similar situation with Brigham Young’s succession to the presidency of the church. Occasionally I will hear discussions about which of Joseph’s would-be successors was the “right” one. These discussions presume that God had preselected one of them to fill Joseph’s position and take over the leadership of the kingdom. Perhaps, however, the presidency was more like a fumbled football, and the right one was whichever one effectively grasped the role and delivered on it.
In fact, the pattern of the obscenely confident agent becoming a spiritual leader is repeated often in scripture. Nephi, Abraham, Elijah, Ammon, Joseph Smith, and many others acted in ways that are not easily justified by the moral expectations held among us rank and file adherents. They were ambitious. They were dangerous. They defy our milquetoast expectations of what holy men should look like. They lied, fought, and some even killed. And we revere them as exemplary moral characters.
Perhaps the archetype of the obscene prophet are Adam and Eve. They received a contradictory religion, yet rather than whine to God about it, they acted with confidence to interpret that religion in the light of wisdom and experience. And we, their children, thank them for it.
So why the pattern of the obscene prophet? Perhaps it ensures effective leaders. I’ve often wondered why Joseph wasn’t clearer about who should succeed him. However leaving the issue unresolved ensured that his successor would necessarily be an effective leader, since only an effective leader would be able to unite the fractured church. In this way, whether or not Brigham began the contest as the rightful heir, he became the rightful heir by successfully obtaining the position. Whether or not Jacob was the rightful son, he became the rightful son by obtaining the blessing. Whether or not Adam was the rightful father, he became the rightful father by his transgression.