Jerry Earl Johnston: Prodigal Son not a real party animal

Published: Saturday, Jan. 8 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

I think I know why the Prodigal Son eventually headed back home. It wasn't out of guilt or sorrow. It was because he didn't know how to party. He realized he was just no good at worldliness. He was a second-rate high-lifer, a third-rate reveler. When it came to things of the world, he was worthless. His only worth lay in the eyes of his father.

And his complete failure became a victory of sorts. It displayed, at last, the true nature of his heart.

I see that same little drama played out around me, every day — sometimes in small ways, sometimes larger. Time and again, religious souls will lunge to grab that brass ring of worldly acclaim and come up short. And their failure always speaks well of them.

To their everlasting credit, when most LDS playwrights and novelists try to create a debauched, disgusting character, they fail miserably. They get it all wrong. It doesn't ring true. But it does show what's right with them as people. Their mothers and teachers have ruined them for the world. They've been compromised. At some point God put his seal on their hearts and — try as they might — they can't break it. The world laughs at their attempts to blend in. They are doomed to be good.

I once saw a sweet, religious mom portray the gritty mother in "The Glass Menagerie" as a cookie-baking worrywart. Her performance would have driven Tennessee Williams screaming from the theater. It was roundly panned. But the woman won the day in the end.

Seeing her struggle left me a sweet feeling with me. I hated her performance but loved her as a person. Her failure was a badge of honor. It showed what was in her heart of hearts.

I remember attending a version of "The Will Rogers Follies" in Ogden. They got the Will Rogers part right, but the showgirls were covered with so many feathers and rhinestones they could hardly move. Even then they looked embarrassed.

It made me smile. As showgirls, they were losers. As people, they won.

The little community theater near my home plans to take its own run at that same show. Given the community standards there, I'm expecting showgirls in burqas.

Over the years I've read LDS novels that tried to be edgy but came off as adolescent. I've watched Christian rock singers try to rebel on stage, but only call to mind "bad boys" who talk during Sunday School.

I've seen Bible-minded dancers try to move in erotic ways but only generate a feeling of vulnerability.

The question is why do they even bother? Why do they even try?

The answer is they try because glory and glamour are more seductive than goodness. They try because the little devil perched on the left shoulder of befuddled cartoon characters is always more witty and interesting than the sad-sack angel perched on the right.

They try because, like the Prodigal Son, they can't resist the world.

And when they fail and return, like the prodigal son, when they "come to themselves" and realize how badly they mimic the world, the father gives them that rave review they've been longing for. As they walk back up the path home — heads bowed, hearts in their hands — they receive, at last, the standing ovation that never came their way when they dabbled in the "follies" of the world.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com

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