Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ether 12: Faith-uh Faith-uh Faith-ahhh

Finally we're nearing the exciting conclusion of the Book of Ether.  You can tell because the prophet who gave the book his name is now in the mix—as well as a badass figure named Coriantumr.

A Treatise on Faith
For you former seminary kids, we have our first of two scripture masteries in this chapter (verse 6):
And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.
Oh, shut up, Moroni, just let Ether tell his little stories.  But let's look at some individual pieces of Moroni's unwelcome interjection.  First, faith is things which are hoped for and not seen.

I don't like this definition.  Because "hope" doesn't really connote belief, it connotes desire.  Many people hope they'll win the lottery, but an extremely small percentage of those people would say they have faith they'll win the lottery.  By Moroni's definition, I have faith in God, because I kind of hope that there is one and that there's a method to the madness...but I don't see much in the way of evidence that any such entity exists.  By a normal person's definition, this attitude does not constitute faith.  Also, I think an important aspect of faith should be a basis in something.  You could have faith that your mother loves you because she's told you so many times, even though love is intangible and not "seen."  You could have faith that your country will recover from political upheaval or economic distress because you've seen it do so in the past, even though you can't "see" the future.  But believing that a meteor will land on the house of your least favorite coworker isn't actually faith because you have nothing to form a realistic basis for that belief.  So not only does Moroni's definition include what it shouldn't, but it's also incomplete.  So what good is that kind of definition?

Next, dispute not because ye see not. I'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that Moroni is using the broader, metaphorical sense of the word "see" because even Joseph Smith realized that "dispute not because ye see, hear, smell, touch, and taste not" is a terrible turn of phrase.  So really, what it seems to me that Moroni is saying is "dispute not merely because you have no direct evidence."  But then where do we draw the line at things that we believe and things that we dispute?  Because I have no direct evidence that the government is covering up a crashed flying saucer from Roswell.  I haven't had the chance to examine any wreckage or palpate any alien corpses.  So does that mean that I should not dispute when someone asserts that there are spaceships in hangars and aliens suspended in liquid-filled tubes somewhere in Area 51?  Surely Moroni isn't suggesting that we believe everything we're told even if we're told things that have no supporting evidence.  But if you live by a credo of dispute not because ye see not, you'll be sucked in by every scam and cult you come in contact with.

Third, ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.  I think the Book of Mormon has pretty well demonstrated that this is not the case.  Remember Alma the Younger?  Laman and Lemuel?  Korihor?  Or the gang who tried to murder Lehi and Nephi in their prison cell?  There are plenty of scriptural examples of people who had zero faith who were still provided with a powerful witness of the things they did not believe in (and many of these instances are mentioned later on in this same chapter to demonstrate that miracles cannot be performed without faith, completely disregarding the fact that these miracles were witnessed by those who had no faith or whose faith had not yet been tried).  If this much of the verse is obviously false, why should we place any value on the rest of it?

Faith in Christ
Moroni continues (verse 7):
For it was by faith that Christ showed himself unto our fathers, after he had risen from the dead; and he showed not himself unto them until after they had faith in him; wherefore, it must needs be that some had faith in him, for he showed himself not unto the world.
How, exactly, was it by faith that Christ appeared in the Americas?  I think it would be more accurate to say it was by virtue of a religious purge that Christ appeared in the Americas.  He only descended from Heaven after God had brutally murdered the masses of unbelievers with a series of floods and fires and storms and earthquakes and other assorted calamities.

It's also a little weird that, with such a high premium placed on faith, God would even allow the resurrected Jesus to appear to anyone.  By Moroni's definition, faith is things which are hoped for and not seen.  So when thousands of people touch the wound's in Jesus's hands and side after watching him float down from the sky while a booming voice announced him as the Son of God...none of those people have faith anymore.  They've seen it.  They have knowledge.

Apologists' Adage
Verse 26 contains the phrase "fools mock , but they shall mourn."  My mom brought this up one day after church because she'd heard from someone that one claim against the Book of Mormon's legitimacy is that it lacks the pithy truisms found in other scripture.  My mom pointed to this verse as a wise, memorable quote that could contradict that claim.  In retrospect, this is a pretty weird argument against the Book of Mormon because it's so weak and there's such a surfeit of more powerful approaches.

But it's also such a non-specific adage that, taken out of context, it can be used by anyone.  A Mormon can say it to an ex-Mormon, a Democrat can say it to a Republican, North Korea can say it to South Korea, a Yankee can say it to a Met, and a DC fan can say it to a Marvel fan.  And vice verse, in every single case.  It's meaningless.  And if this is the best example of a profound proverb that my mom could come up with...then maybe the Book of Mormon doesn't have very many.

Weak Sauce
Our second scripture mastery today, verse 27, is an old favorite of mine:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
I loved this concept because I felt weak.  But this verse made me feel better by explicitly stating that God gave me weaknesses, so it wasn't my fault that I was such an awful, spineless wimp.

More importantly, this verse also taught me that if I remained humble and had faith in God, I could stop being weak.  But looking back, it seems that I was happy to shift responsibility for overcoming my shortcomings away from myself.  I liked this verse because I didn't just feel weak—I felt powerless to change.  Trying was too hard.  This verse made me feel justified because it indicated that I didn't need to summon the power to change from within—it could be provided to me from a benevolent, external source.  It was a vindication of my complacent, hopeless self-image.

I'm still weak in a lot of ways, of course, but I think I've made much greater strides in self-improvement as an ex-Mormon than I ever did as a faithful follower of the Brighamite sect.  Holding the opinion that I'm the one that has to make changes if I expect any changes to happen is daunting, but it's also empowering and motivating. 

Change is more meaningful when it's earned rather than bestowed.  And I never really experienced any strong evidence that the promise in verse 27 worked for me anyway.

Deleted Scenes
Something extraordinary is casually dropped in during this chapter's continued musings on faith (verse 30):
For the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved; wherefore thou workest after men have faith.
When did this happen??  This is a big deal!  Literally moving a mountain?  If this is such a momentous testament to the power of faith, why is it mentioned so briefly?  Why didn't we go into detail about that event instead of providing a punishingly repetitive and numbingly generic history of kings, lineages, reigns, schisms, and usurpations?  If the whole purpose of this book is to provide another testament of Jesus Christ, why did we spend pages and pages learning names of monarchs we wouldn't need to remember two verses later instead of focusing on the didactic miracles of Christ's prophets?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Ether 11: More Jaredite Nonsense

The uninteresting, unimaginative history of the Jaredite people continues just as uninterestingly and unimaginatively as before.

Continuity Error
Considering that this whole book is supposed to be another testament of Jesus Christ, it's pretty weird that this chapter seems to forget a huge event in the Christian narrative (verse 7):
And they hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord, because of their wicked combinations; wherefore, there began to be wars and contentions in all the land, and also many famines and pestilences, insomuch that there was a great destruction, such an one as never had been known upon the face of the earth; and all this came to pass in the days of Shiblom.
Just in case you weren't keeping track, the days of Shiblom were pretty long after the days of an insignificant Old Testament prophet you may not have heard of.  He was called Noah.  He presided over the greatest destruction ever recorded in scripture.  No matter how great the destruction was during Shiblom's time, it was clearly not as great as the destruction during Noah's time, when the entire earth was flooded and only one family survived.

Good to Know
A strange and unnecessary detail crops up in verse 17:
And it came to pass that there arose another mighty man; and he was a descendant of the brother of Jared.
Why is it important to know that this guy is a descendant of the brother of Jared?  He's never named and neither he nor his ancestry are even mentioned again.

And this is especially weird considering that everybody in Jaredite society can trace their lineage back to a relatively small group of people who survived in those wooden submarines together.  After scores and scores of generations, how many of these people wouldn't be descendants of the brother of Jared?  We could have learned that this "mighty man" was right-handed too and that would have been just as significant.

Crime and Punishment
So I probably should have complained about this much sooner in the Book of Mormon, but since this chapter kind of showcases God's attitudes on this point, I'll whine about it here.  Look at verse 20:
And in the days of Coriantor there also came many prophets, and prophesied of great and marvelous things, and cried repentance unto the people, and except they should repent the Lord God would execute judgment against them to their utter destruction;
This is an obvious reference to the arrival of Lehi's family around 600BC.   Lehi's descendants, of course, would split into two camps, the Nephites and the Lamanites, who would war with each other for centuries.  They received many reminders over the years that God would destroy them for their wickedness, and the Nephites were essentially exterminated by the Lamanites.  The Lamanites received their punishment (ostensibly) by surviving just long enough for Europeans to come in and slaughter them—although not to extinction, at least.

But what I don't understand is why God threatens the Jaredites, Nephites, or Lamanites with destruction in the first place.  I mean, the whole Plan of Salvation is set up in such a way that we receive eternal rewards (or punishments and withheld rewards) for our obedience (or disobedience) to God's laws.  So the system is already integrated with penalties for the wicked.  Why, then, does God think it's necessary to enact temporal punishment for violation of spiritual laws?  Especially when those punishments are often visited generations after the fact, when the originators of the iniquities have long since died?

If you murder someone, then you're breaking both societal and spiritual laws.  So society will discipline you by throwing you in prison, and God will discipline you by not allowing you access to the highest degrees of eternal glory.  Doesn't God killing you because of this constitute some kind of spiritual double jeopardy?  And isn't it especially cruel of God to do so, considering that death will deny you any opportunity for repentance or redemption?  After all, according to Alma, "that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world."  This is precisely why he exhorted us not to "procrastinate the day of [our] repentance."  So if God controls how much time we have to procrastinate anything and chooses to cut that time short as a punishment for wickedness even though he's planning to punish us for our wickedness anyway during our post-mortal does that not make God an unjust, overzealous, vindictive asshole?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ether 10: King-Mart, Kings R Us, Kingboxes Etc.

The woes of the Jaredites continue, but they continue in an imperceptible blur of genealogical summaries.

Father of the Year

King Shez has a son who apparently did not inherit the righteousness gene from his dad.  Take a look at verse 3:
And his eldest son, whose name was Shez, did rebel against him; nevertheless, Shez was smitten by the hand of a robber, because of his exceeding riches, which brought peace again unto his father.
Okay, the first and simplest problem is that this verse does a terrible job of differentiating between Shez Sr. and Shez Jr.  You'd think if it were really the word of a perfect God, he would have had Joseph play around with the phraseology a bit so that we didn't need to rely on context halfway through the sentence to figure out which Shez got mugged.

But the bigger problem, of course, is that when his son is apparently killed—or at the very least robbed, injured, and traumatized—this brings peace to Shez.  Yet, in the sentence immediately preceding this one, Shez is described as "[walking] in the ways of the Lord."  So this is a righteous guy.  A good guy.  A guy relieved that his rebellious son has been brutalized?

Listen, if that's your definition of righteousness, then...well, I guess that does kind of fit the theme of the Book of Mormon so far.  Righteous Nephi decapitated a guy, righteous Ammon cut off a bunch of people's arms, righteous Alma calmly let hundreds of people burn to death without even attempting to raise a finger, righteous Captain Moroni relied on battle strategies designed to inflict maximum death upon his enemies and liked to require unreasonable terms for surrender that resulted in more get the idea.

But those situations at least involved strangers.  This one involves family, which makes it just a smidge more heartless.  The scriptures don't say that this brings peace to the society or stability to the government or tranquility to the church.  Peace to the father.  This man is comforted by the fact that his son was murdered, even considering that his son died in his iniquity and probably has no good prospects for the afterlife.  That's not righteousness.  That's depraved indifference.  If that's walking in the ways of the Lord, then we have a terrible Lord.

Weirdest Government Ever
King Kim gets overthrown by his unnamed brother in verse 14, but instead of killing Kim or driving Kim out of the land like all the other usurpers in Ether, the brother sets him up as some kind of puppet instead.  Because, in the next verse, Kim's son Levi succeeds him and "[serves] in captivity" for forty-two years.  And then Levi overthrows the king, which is kind of weird, because it sounds to me like Levi was the king.  This puppet regime or suzerainty or potemkin monarchy or whatever the hell it is doesn't make a lot of sense.

What also doesn't make much sense is that, four generations later, somebody else does the same exact thing.  Hearthom has his throne "taken away from him" and "[serves] many years in captivity."  In this particular instance, the wording seems a little more vague about whether or not Hearthom was still some kind of king or figurehead or whatever.  But it still uses the word serve, which hearkens back to verse 15, which states that Levi "did serve in captivity after the death of his father."  (Emphasis is mine, of course.)

If the service starts after the death of his father, that doesn't sound to me like serving a sentence in prison.  It sounds like public service.  Like he inherited a job only upon his dad's demise.  And the use of the same word in Hearthom's case leads me to believe that Hearthom too was a puppet king.  It's weird that this should happen twice, especially since it backfired so horribly the first time.

And, what do you know, it backfires the second time too.  In verse 32, Hearthom's great-great-great-grandson steals half the kingdom from his overlords, bides his time, and then goes to war and steals the rest of it.

It's not just a weird government with weird writing.  It's lazy storytelling.

Not a Good Drinking Game for Ether
By my count, there are fifteen rulers named in this chapter as well as a handful who aren't.  This chapter is only thirty-four verses long, so there's a different monarch every two paragraphs or so.  Do not take a shot every time a new king is crowned.

And this is really one of my biggest problems with the book of Ether as a whole.  This is a (purportedly) historical summary.  We learn nothing from this chapter that we can't learn from other parts of the Book of Mormon.  The only doctrine here is that when you're not righteous, God gets pissy.  This is essentially the mission statement of the whole book, and if you haven't learned that lesson by the time you get to Ether, then you're never going to learn it.  Honestly, you can just read the chapter summary written wayyyy after the fact and not miss a single important item:
One king succeeds another—Some of the kings are righteous; others are wicked—When righteousness prevails, the people are blessed and prospered by the Lord.
See what Bruce R. McConkie did there?  He kept everything that you needed to know but condensed it down to a much shorter bit of text.  It's brilliant!  But wasn't abridging the scriptures originally supposed to have been done by someone else?  Man, that guy really sucked at his job.

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'm a Crackpot Lately

During a recent bout of insomnia, I turned on the TV and browsed through my Netflix account to find that the Fox special about moon landing conspiracy theories was available for streaming.  I remembered watching it in eighth grade and I figured it would be an amusing little flashback.

It was not that amusing.  It was honestly kind of scary.

See, I believe that we landed on the moon.  I've always believed that we landed on the moon.  But the way the documentary was framed was so vividly reminiscent of the critic-versus-apologist format I've become so familiar with that it kind of felt like watching a televised summary of the CES Letter interspersed with snippets from FAIR's rebuttal.  And in that sense, I was on the side of the apologists.  I was the one stubbornly clinging to a long-held belief in the face of mounting evidence against it.  And the whole time I was watching Bill Kaysing explain why NASA must have faked the moon landing, I was this how crazy we look to Mormons?

I'd been spectacularly mistaken about my long-held religious beliefs.  If I was wrong once, why should I assume I was right when it came to the moon landing?

Of course, there are a few logical reasons why this show elicited these reactions from me.  For starters, it was about the conspiracy theories, so much of the time was devoted to explaining the reasons why it may have been a hoax.  NASA representatives were interviewed, but in most cases their explanations simply boiled down to "That's just absurd!"  And some of the explanations for these apparent clues would have required some technical scientific background that a 45-minute show would not have had time to include.

Additionally, I'm not well-versed in physics and astronomy.  I don't know much about radiation belts and launch craters and how things behave in a vacuum.  So while I instinctively scoffed at almost every argument made by conspiracy theorists, I couldn't directly refute them.  I just knew that they, for one reason or another, felt wrong.  And how could I be sure that the reason they felt wrong wasn't merely because I really wanted them to be wrong?

I'm far more knowledgeable about Mormonism.  Though I can't tear every single apologist's rebuttals to pieces, I've studied a lot of the issues in depth for myself to the point where I feel pretty confident that my dismissal of most apologetics is founded in solid reasoning.  And I'm continuously discovering more issues that would require some truly earth-shattering context to be fairly interpreted in any other way.

Rest assured, I did some Googling after the show ended and I decided that the NASA apologists had responses that, to my lesser scientific mind, seemed plausible enough and exhaustive enough to support my lifelong belief that an American flag has flown from the moon since 1969.  So I'm still firmly in the it's-not-a-hoax camp, at least when it comes to NASA.  When it comes to Mormonism, I'm still decidedly of the are-you-kidding-of-course-it-was-a-hoax school of thought.  I guess one man's crackpot is another man's crusader.  And I'm still not sure what would have been more troubling—discovering that the moon landing really was a hoax or discovering that I didn't have the intellectual honesty to consider and research a compelling idea that threatened my worldview.

Luckily, the truthfulness of NASA is not essential to my salvation.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ether 9: Good Kings, Bad Kings, Sane Kings, or Mad Kings

The lengthy string of kings and crises in the Jaredite record continues.  

The Creative Juices are Not Flowing
Verse 3 provides a familiar scenario to even the most casual scriptorian.  King Omer is warned by God in his dream that he and his family need to pack up and leave for their own safety.  This is something we've seen before with Lehi way back in the beginning of the book and also—more famously—with Jesus's stepdad.

I guess I'm a little disappointed that God couldn't be more creative.  He did produce a universe out of nothing, after all, so creativity should be one of the ultimate divine characteristics.  Obviously, God is more than welcome to continue using methods that have worked for him in the past.  And obviously, the fact that plot devices have been reused doesn't prove anything about the origins of the Book of Mormon.  But I do think that recycling bits of stories from earlier scripture is exactly the kind of thing we should expect to see if some guy is making this up and trying to get people to think it's from the same source as the Bible.

And speaking of a lack of creativity, the king Jared is killed in this chapter in a tired fashion.  Why is it that so many ancient American monarchs get murdered while literally seated on a throne?

The Curelom Conundrum 

I fully realize that this point is easily among the least original issues I've brought up.  But it still demands an answer so I'm gonna bring it up anyway.  Elephants—that's problematic.  Maybe we can pretend that New World elephants are really mammoths or something.  Any way you look at it, it's a stretch.  But cureloms and cumoms?

The only reason I can think of for an animal in the Book of Mormon to have a nonsensical name in what is supposed to be an English translation is that these animals became extinct before European settlers arrived on this part of the globe, so there never was an English name for them.  But considering that these things were supposed to be particularly useful, probably domesticated, and quite populous, shouldn't there be a pretty blatant archaeological record of them?  Shouldn't American school children be learning about the beasts with three legs and prehensile snouts (or whatever the hell a curelom is) when they study the Native Americans and adobe huts and coup sticks and tumuluses and buffalo?

Maybe Joseph forgot for a moment that he was supposed to be writing a scriptural historical epic and he let a bit of fantasy sneak in.  If he hadn't caught himself and course corrected, maybe we would have seen Coriantumr of the Sky Elves go to battle against the Wizard Clan of Shiz at the end of Ether.

You Old Dog
Coriantum is anointed king in his father's stead.  Emer, his father, is so wonderful that he sees "the Son of Righteousness," which sounds really important but is only mentioned in passing.  Coriantum is described as following in Emer's footsteps, which should mean that he is also righteous. But when his wife dies, this king marries "a young maid" in his twilight years (a little wish fulfillment sneaking into Joseph's writing?).  To be fair, I guess that, depending on the nature of the relationship and the level of the young maid's maturity, this may not be technically wrong, but it's still kind of creepy.  I'd have been a lot more comfortable seeing Coriantum marry a girl a quarter of his age if he were depicted as wicked.  At least then it wouldn't be so easy to interpret this kind of nuptial union as totally normal and totally fine.

Oh, and Coriantum also lived to be one hundred forty-two years old.  I can't decide if that's more difficult to believe than the barges that brought his ancestors to America.

Creating a Problem, Selling the Solution
After society casts out the prophets, bad things happen—drought, famine, a bizarre prevalence of hyperintelligent venemous snakes.  Verse 35 sounds like a happy ending if you don't think about it too much:
And it came to pass that when they had humbled themselves sufficiently before the Lord he did send rain upon the face of the earth; and the people began to revive again, and there began to be fruit in the north countries, and in all the countries round about. And the Lord did show forth his power unto them in preserving them from famine.
Listen, if all God has to do is "send" rain to end the crisis, then he caused it. He allowed the drought to happen by permitting it to continue. The difference between one sunny day and a full-fledged famine is how long God waits to sprinkle some precipitation.

Verse 33 explicitly states that God is the one who sent the serpents that terrorized the people and sent their livestock stampeding off.  This whole thing is God's fault.  He did this.  He didn't "preserve" them from anything—he almost chose to destroy them. He used his unmatched power to coerce the people into behavior he approved of (I wonder how that affects their free agency) and only then did he decide to stop being a sadistic, power-tripping asshole.

This is unrighteous dominion.  This is manipulation.  This is not something a benevolent god would do.  This is not something that someone worthy of our worship would do.