Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ten Years of Apostasy

This month marks ten years since I officially stopped attending LDS church services.  Sometime during the preceding year I'd decided I no longer believed, so I spent the summer miserably attending my parents' ward because I didn't know how to tell them how I felt.  Then my bishop told me he was going to give me a home teaching assignment.  As bad as it was to participate passively in church meetings, I couldn't stomach the thought of actually teaching false doctrinal principles to families.  So at the next sacrament meeting, early in September of 2008, I was not in a pew.  In an act that demonstrated a peculiar mixture of cowardice and courage, I had written a letter to my dad explaining my position, left it in his office during the week, and barricaded myself in my bedroom on Sunday morning.  I've attended one solitary sacrament meeting since then, and that was only for one of my nephews' baby blessings.

A lot has changed in ten years.

I recently had to explain to a friend via text message why I don't drink alcohol, and I felt like my answer reflected my attitudes on a lot of things in my post-Mormon existence.  "I like the idea of choosing my vices," I told her.  "When I left Mormonism, I decided to try some things that were forbidden (tea, coffee, sex, working on Sundays, non-homophobia) and there are some previously forbidden things I decided I didn't want to try (cigarettes, alcohol, body piercing, meth).  The whole point is that it's my choice now either way.  Maybe someday I'll try some of those other things if I choose (not meth though) but for now I like that I've never had alcohol."  I can take responsibility for policing my own behavior, whether it's about moral decisions or lifestyle options.  That's something I never really felt I had the power to do within the constraints of the LDS church.

I relish the liberation that came with tearing up the road map of Mormonism.  Life is more enjoyable when there isn't some pre-approved checklist of tasks for you to complete in some pre-approved order by some pre-approved means.  You can make your own checklist or choose to operate without one.  After all, men are free according to the flesh.  They are free to choose the liberty of self-sovereignty or the captivity of conformity.  It's surprising to look back on how hollow following each behavioral procedure of Mormonism was.  It's bizarre to realize that I was utterly miserable but considered myself happy because of my belief that the only way of living I'd ever experienced was the only way to have joy.  It's incredible to realize what potential for happiness really exists in the broader world of broader experience and broader investment.

Life isn't wonderful.  I don't know that I'd say I'm happy without the church, but I'm certainly less unhappy.  And I think it's an important distinction that, regardless of my current level of joy, I can now allow myself to become immersed in the full spectrum of emotion.  I can be miserable when I'm miserable and happy when I'm happy instead of pretending to be happy when I'm miserable and pretending to be ashamed of myself when I'm happy—because, honestly, most of the times I felt any kind of abiding existential bliss as a Mormon were the times when I flirted with the temptation to defy my programming by actually being myself.

It's been a long decade.  But I don't regret the changes I've made.  And the fact that I am now required to look inward for moral direction and the fact that I can struggle with the weightier matters of life to come to my own conclusions and to pursue my own paths are both very empowering.  Despite any ups and downs tempering my reality, my sense of emotional strength and my feeling of inherent worth are so much higher and so much steadier than they were when I considered myself a child of God and a follower of prophets.

My life is my own now.  My choices are my own now.  My triumphs and failures are my own now.  It's a lifestyle that I find pure and delightsome.  And I desire all to receive it.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Sam Young and Common Coercion

The ex-Mormon world has been ablaze recently because Sam Young may be facing excommunication.  For those of you who don't know (to borrow an oft-used Mormon phrase), Sam Young is the man behind Protect LDS Children, a movement that wants the church to implement safer guidelines for worthiness interviews so that the risk of sexual abuse and sexual shaming among Mormon youth can be significantly decreased.

As Mr. Young posted on his blog, here is why he's being summoned to a disciplinary council that may result in—and, to my mind, likely result in—his excommunication.
Of course, I believe in what Sam Young is trying to achieve and I agree that the prophets and apostles have showed a lack of moral fortitude by neglecting to directly address his concerns or even to acknowledge the existence of the problems he's raised.  But, oddly enough, the authoritarian paranoia, the blame-shifting, and the pathological avoidance are not what irritate me the most about how these events are unfolding.  What really makes me grind my teeth is Sam Young's first cited offense in the letter above:
Encouraged others to vote opposed to church leaders.
The way I'm reading this summons, the Houston Texas South Stake has just helped muddy the already turbid waters of official church policies.  Let's take a quick trip to the Doctrine and Covenants, section 20, verse 65:
No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church;
And for good measure, I'll throw in Doctrine and Covenants, section 26, verse 2:
And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith. Amen.
Just about any location of the modern church in which a sustaining vote is conducted is a location in which there is a regularly organized branch or ward or stake of the church.  Of course, votes are conducted after the fact to sustain the leadership which has already been installed, which means we weren't really following the practice of common consent the first place...but according to a divine, scripturally canonized revelation given to Joseph Smith himself, a vote should be required prior to anyone receiving a Priesthood position.  Official LDS doctrine has been twisted and perverted and watered down and redirected to the point at which it's become an abusive mockery of the word of God.

Why do I bring this up?  Because Sam Young's foremost crime in the eyes of his stake presidency is encouraging people to vote against the established power structure.  Not only can Mormons not vote before officers are ordained, but if Mormons vote against officers after they've already been set apart in their positions, it's somehow a terrible thing punishable by formal disciplinary action up to and including losing all their ordinances and blessings for eternity.  So, essentially, the prophets grant the members the ability to cast a non-binding, wholly cosmetic vote and become furious when that powerless gesture is used in a way that displeases them.  How much pettier could the apostles be, even if children's psychological, sexual, spiritual, emotional, and sometimes physical health didn't all hang in the balance?

I suppose there's an argument to be made that the operative phrase in the first offense is "encouraged others."  I suppose you could say that the problem isn't voting against the leaders, the problem is influencing your fellow members to follow suit.  But I'd argue that this would make the sustaining vote even more of a sham if only the dissenters are expected not to share their opinions with those around them.  This is not voting and this is not consent.  If the event at which this crime is committed is pure pretense, how should violating the fake procedure matter enough to merit a disciplinary council?  

The votes are not real votes if there's only one acceptable way to cast a ballot.  The consent is not real consent if it's only granted after the deed.  The voting, instead, is used to reinforce the need for controlled conformity and to engender a false sense of common consent, which is all terrifyingly authoritarian and blatantly non-scriptural.  I've been reading George Orwell's Nighteen Eighty-four for the first time in about fifteen years and all this is sounding chillingly familiar.  The church is not following its own rules and is instead modifying those rules as it wishes so that it can disparage, discredit, and discard something it perceives as a threat.  Truth goes out the window, integrity goes out the window, and the need for the system to perpetuate itself drives every inelegantly unscrupulous decision.

I think it's also worth noting that, in my country—the country where Mormonism originated and is headquartered—if any administration of any party were to deport or denaturalize a citizen for merely campaigning for an opposing candidate, it would be a massive scandal, even in this particularly unusual political climate.  And that's even if the administration in question weren't tacitly condoning isolated but extremely serious cases of children being groomed for sexual abuse by its own officials.

This should be a no-brainer.  Child abuse should be one of those rare issues that everybody can agree needs to be addressed.  But the church seems to be more concerned with maintaining its authority over its followers than it is with protecting its followers' children from sexual predation, from psychological trauma, and from unwarranted shame and guilt.  And it will continue to twist and retcon its own doctrine to do it.  In the meantime, Nelson and his apostles continue to lose moral credibility because they're more worried about informal nicknames and marijuana legislation.

That's fucked up.  Plain and simple.  And if Sam Young gets the spiritual noose, he'll be far nobler a martyr than Joseph Smith ever was.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Baptizing the Brainwashed

Last week, I attended my nephew's baptism.  I didn't particularly want to see an eight-year-old initiated into a cult, but it was important to me to be present at landmark events for my sister's family.  But the baptism was actually even more uncomfortable for me than I'd predicted.

I spent the night on my sister's couch, and when my nephews woke up on the oldest one's birthday, I could hear them talking in hushed voices outside their bedrooms when they thought none of the adults were awake yet.  The birthday boy was excitedly telling his younger brother about what he was looking forward to the most—he theorized about which family members brought which gifts and what kind of frosting he should have his mom put on his cake.  He was going to be baptized that day, too, but he didn't mention it at all.  He expressed no excitement, apprehension, reverence, or awe concerning the covenant he was about to make with the all-powerful creator of the universe.

This, to me, was a pretty clear indication that he did not understand the importance of the commitment he'd be making.  Not through any fault of his own—he's a kid.  Kids get excited about all the trappings of birthdays.  But that also means kids don't really focus on the weightier matters that don't provide the same gratification.

At the chapel that afternoon, the ward held a joint baptism.  There was a girl who'd turned 8 a few days earlier, so the service was combined for the two families.  The other initiate was a restive, intractable goofball who struggled to focus on anything other than the large stuffed My Little Pony she carried with her.  (I wish I were making this up.)  She was traipsing around the relief society room in her baptismal whites with a bright purple stuffed pony tucked under her arm.  The pony's mane had glitter in it.

After the invocation and opening hymn, this girl's grandmother got up to give a talk.  She requested that both initiates sit front and center because she was about to speak about what baptism means and these two needed to hear it more than the adults.  My thought process was that they'd already interviewed with the bishop and they should know what baptism means way before the eleventh hour, but maybe we were humoring the grandmother.  But I was about to find out that, regardless of any bishop's interviews, these two kids were almost clueless about their in-progress rite of passage.

The grandmother began by directing a series of blatantly leading questions at her granddaughter and at my nephew—questions they still couldn't answer correctly.  She asked her granddaughter why she wanted to be baptized.  Clutching her pony and sucking her thumb, the girl replied, "because I want to."

"Is that what Jesus wants you to do so you can live with Heavenly Father forever?" her grandmother clarified.  "Isn't that what you want?"

I shit you not, this girl flat-out said, "No, because then I won't be able to live with Sparkles anymore."  She was, of course, referring to her stuffed animal.  People laughed.  They seemed to think it was cute.  I was grinding most of my molars down to nubs.  

Then the grandmother went on to try to explain more about baptism and what it means.  She involved my nephew a few times, asking him questions as well.  After an explanation of the age of accountability, she inquired of my nephew why he had to wait until he was eight to be baptized.  He precociously replied, "I don't know, but I know you have to be at least eight or older to be baptized."  This, of course, was honest and accurate, but demonstrated a complete lack of understanding regarding the underlying theological principles.

A little later in her discussion of baptism, the grandmother decided to quote some scriptures relating to the topic.  She cited Revelation 1:5:
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood....
Immediately after the verse ended, the little girl squirming in the speaker's arms blurted, "That's weird."  And both her parents shushed her.  Nobody cared why the girl thought it was weird.  Nobody cared that she wasn't demonstrating any comprehension.  Nobody cared that she wasn't behaving with reverence commensurate with the gravity of the eternally binding divine contract she was about to sign.  Her childish priorities were a source of amusement and her nonexistent grasp of fundamental doctrine was something she was encouraged to keep to herself.  And when it was her turn to enter the baptismal font, the girl would have walked right into the water still clutching her beloved Sparkles if her mother hadn't managed to finally snatch the toy away.

How many more indications that these kids did not properly comprehend what they were doing would have been enough to make their families stop, think, and reconsider whether this was the right time for the ordinance?

Obviously, the fault for this nauseating display of brainwashing does not lie with the kids. My nephew and the girl in his ward couldn't really follow the importance and the scope of what was happening to them.  And I'm not convinced that much fault really lies with their parents either.  After all, what parents wouldn't baptize their kid at eight if they could?  You don't want your child wandering around purportedly knowing the difference between good and evil but not having the protection of the Atonement, would you?  And how humiliating would it be to have to tell people that you had intended to have your son baptized, but he clearly had no idea what that meant and you were going to defy the established Mormon Childhood Timeline by postponing the ordinance for a few years?  That poor kid would experience a similar social stigma to returning from missionary service without serving the full two years, only this would happen to him a decade early.

The doctrine and the culture of the church combine, then, to coerce parents into coercing their children into signing their lives over to a religion they don't yet understand.  High stakes of eternal consequences and a stifling atmosphere pressuring members to conform both mean that it would require an extremely rare level of audacity for a mother and father to avoid subjecting their children to this shameful ritual.  It's the beautiful rinse cycle of brainwashing and I got to see the results firsthand.  And it was even more unpleasant than I expected.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The True Message of God's Not Dead 2

I recently had the opportunity to view God's Not Dead 2, the sequel to 2014's masterpiece of thematic insight.  I was pleased to see that, not only had the storytelling and acting improved, but the first movie's legacy of accidentally making perceptive points outside of its professed purview had been preserved.
See, if you can get past the hamfisted drama of martyrdom, the contrived feelgood nature of the uber-Christian triumphs juxtaposed with the equally contrived woeful nature of the uber-Christian persecution complex, the fact that every character is defined first and foremost by religious beliefs alone, and the black-and-white atheist-and-Christian depictions of almost every single major player in this jumbled tale of tested faith, circlejerk vilification of different belief systems, manufactured threats, and implausible victories, there's actually a sparkling gem of wisdom a the bottom of the box of tasteless cereal—that blind fear begets unfavorable outcomes.

(That's not quite as long as the sentence I wrote last time.)

Just as a little background here, Melissa Joan Hart plays a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley.  One of her students, Brooke Thawley, asks a question in class about possible ideals that Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. may have shared with Jesus.  Miss Wesley fields the question pretty well and quotes a bit of scripture, while referring to the religious topic in more clinical, academic terms than she would outside of school.  Brooke's parents then file a lawsuit because Miss Wesley was supposedly proselytizing to public school students.  And a bunch of characters, many of which have returned from the first movie, are swept up in a frenzy of persecution paranoia as Miss Wesley and her charming atheist public defender Tom Endler lock horns in court with a bitter, scheming attorney whose last name is a homophone for Christianity's first murderer.  I think it's also worth noting that a TV role as the devil is among the most recognizable credits for the actor portraying that bitter, scheming attorney.

But now that we've covered the basics, let's delve through the first few malodorous layers of this thematic onion.

Case Study 1:  Brooke's Parents
When the legal team of Pete Kane visits the Thawley home to speak with Brooke's parents, the cunning lawyer pretty easily manages to coax them into filing a suit against Miss Wesley.  First, he mentions that colleges Brooke will be applying to the following year won't be able to resist her if she's a part of a "landmark constitutional case concerning the separation of church and state."  His associate also mentions the financial windfall from a successful settlement.  These are the two arguments that win over Brooke's parents.

See, Brooke's brother has recently died, and this has understandably rattled her. Her parents, however, advise her to move on, because she's a junior and it's her "make-or-break year" as far as her future options are concerned.  Her mother in particular, is adamant that she "stay focused."
State schools don't give legitimate educations, honey.  And you should feel
shame about grieving for your brother and not attending an Ivy League school.
Brooke admits later in the film that her parents think the lawsuit will get her into a better school and provide them the funds to pay for it.  Although the parents' doomsday scenario—Brook not attending an Ivy League university—isn't really much of a doomsday, it's their unwavering belief that their fear is becoming a reality that pushes them to not only embroil the family in a controversial court case, but also to steamroll their daughter's wishes and, in the process, utterly disregard her emotional distress over her brother's passing.

Case Study 2:  Brooke Thawley Herself
Pretty much everything that happens in this movie is a result of Brooke's struggle to cope with whatever happened to her brother.  Early on, she approaches her history teacher, Our Noble Martyr Grace Wesley, and asks her how she always remains so positive.  Since this is in a coffee shop and not a public school, Grace answers honestly that her faith in Jesus gives her hope and strength.  While pondering on that later, Brooke learns that her departed brother was a devout Christian and she begins reading his personal Bible.  This is what led her to ask Miss Wesley in class about the similarities in non-violent approaches between Jesus and other historical figures.  This is what gets everybody in trouble.

It seems that Brooke is driven by a fear that she'd let her brother slip away from her and that she hadn't appreciated him or loved him the way she should have when he was alive.  "The only thing that I really want," she tells Miss Wesley in the coffee shop, "is five more minutes to tell my brother how I really felt about him."  She later confides in a complete stranger (Chinese Exchange Student from the first movie) that, while studying and embracing her brother's religion, she felt like she was given those five minutes.  Equating Christianity with her relationship with her brother, she becomes an ardent advocate of her new faith.  Armed with the sword of righteousness and scared that her compassionate teacher was becoming a martyr, Brooke bursts into the courtroom to loudly inform the judge that Miss Wesley hasn't anything wrong.  She manages to then get herself called as a witness and accidentally reveals the religious discussion in the coffee shop to the jury.  The sinister lawyer Kane jumps on this as evidence that Grace Wesley was being dishonest and really had been trying to encourage students to join her faith.  Brooke later admits that, because of her testimony, she'd "ruined everything."
I'm not afraid of interrupting public court proceedings to inject my opinion,
but apparently I was afraid to privately tell my brother I loved him.
And none of this would have happened if she hadn't been so terrified that her brother didn't know she loved him.  Her fear may not be as irrational as some of the other fears that fuel characters' foolish decisions, but odds are that her brother knew she cared for him.  Especially considering how emotionally tone deaf the parents are, the love between the two siblings was probably the purest, most rewarding relationship in the Thawley household.  Had Brooke not been so deeply afraid that she hadn't shown proper appreciation for her brother, Miss Wesley would never have been suspended without pay and put on trial for her supposed proselytizing and we'd have never had this masterpiece of modern cinema.

Case Study 3:  Reverend Chill Dude
A peripheral protagonist here is the same reverend who accepted Kevin Sorbo's dying confession at the end of the first movie.  He's called as a juror for Miss Wesley's trial and, adhering firmly to the theme of the film, he becomes convinced that he's the vital finger in the dam that's holding back the flood waters of religious persecution.  So certain is he of his role in preventing the doom of Christianity that he refuses to leave the jury when he develops a stabbing pain in his side because he "really needs to be here."  He endangers his own health by avoiding treatment for a potentially life-threatening condition and even collapses on the floor of the courtroom—all because he fears the worst and acts as though his predictions are certainties instead of conjectures.

Reverend Chill Dude also becomes wrapped up in a side story about some nameless government entity requiring an undetermined number of pastors in an unspecified geographical area to hand in their recent sermons for undisclosed nefarious purposes.  This story unfolds in three scenes, the first of which involves a group of clergymen discussing the impending crisis at a luncheon.  The second is Reverend Chill Dude's receipt of the subpoena.  And the third is Reverend Chill Dude's bold refusal to comply with the subpoena.

The subplot begins with some kind of senior priest (played by the late, great Fred Dalton Thompson) explaining the "subpoena that just came down demanding that [they] submit copies of [their] sermons from the last three months for review."  The assembled men of the cloth then discuss the implications of this revelation.  One of them asks, "So now the government can determine what we can and can't preach at our churches?"  And the voice of reason, a character who is tellingly not even given a name, pipes up with, "Let's not overreact.  I'm sure there's no ill intent here."  Fred Dalton Thompson doesn't appear to give the voice of reason even a moment of consideration.
Not overreacting is for suckers!
And for people who haven't starred in seminal police procedural dramas!
After a bit of doom and gloom, another voice of reason—who is also unnamed—references the silent majority that can successfully oppose such gratuitous overreaches of government.  Reverend Chill Dude hops on the Fred Dalton Thompson bandwagon and steamrolls both voices of reason, explaining that pressure today will be persecution tomorrow.  When asked for reasons, Reverend Not-So-Chill-Anymore answers, "Speed of change, viciousness of the opposition."  He speaks of making enemies because powerful people oppose the gospel and declares, "Whether we admit it or not, we're at war."  And in a matter of minutes, we've gone from an ill-defined subpoena to an armed conflict.  The war may be metaphorical, but the rhetoric used closes these clergymen off to the complexity of the situation and reinforces the ideas that there are two clearly drawn sides that can never coexist peacefully.  In the context of this narrative, that may be true, but it's a uselessly naive oversimplification when this mentality is applied to the real world.

But what are the consequences of Reverend Chill Dude and his buddies entrenching themselves further into their spiritual warmongering?  What is it that their shared fears make them do?  We don't get a conclusion to this storyline (I'm assuming it may continue in the third film), but what we do see is a macho posturing and a stretching of the ideological gulf between the two sides of this fictional battle.  When Reverend Chill Dude turns in not his sermons but a written statement explaining why he refuses to hand them over, he has a tense little standoff with whoever's manning the desk at the district attorney's office.   Apparently offended by the reverend's refusal to comply, this man looks him straight in the eye and, with overwrought menace, warns him, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

So when one group involved in a conflict of ideas decides to treat it like a war, even if they're justified in feeling attacked, it can help escalate that conflict.  It's also interesting that this is the only scene in which we see this district attorney or legal clerk or whoever he is.  We don't know who he is or why he seems so dead set on making the reverend suffer.  Maybe if we could see more of his backstory and hear his reasoning, we would understand his apparent enmity for religion better and we might realize that he's not as villainous as he appears.  Maybe he's held just as captive by his own fears as the pastors are, and maybe that's what helped this whole stupid dispute ramp up to this oxygen-starved elevation.

Case Study 4:  Pete Kane
Kane is the lawyer who's rabid to see Grace Wesley burned at the stake for daring to mention Jesus in a public school (okay, maybe that's a little bit of exaggeration on my part).  He is brazenly and unabashedly opposed to Christianity.  When he convinces the Thawleys to file the lawsuit, he references the case's importance because of other children "being subjected to [Christians'] repressive belief system."  His legal opponent, Tom Endler, tells Grace at one point that, to Kane, "your beliefs are like a disease whose time has come and gone, sort of like small pox or polio or the Plague."  It is repeatedly and obviously established that Pete Kane has nothing but contempt for Christianity.

But, cleverly, he's the opposite side of the same coin as our more pious characters.  He makes the same kinds of ridiculous assertions and paints the same kinds of apocalyptic caricatures as the Christians do...but from his own twisted perspective.

The first example of this is his opposition to a particular juror during voir dire.  He removes a possible juror from the pool on the sole basis of his status as a former Marine because, in his mind at least, this would make the man a devout Christian who would be biased in favor of the defendant.
All Marines are Christians and all Christians are incapable of impartiality:
the gospel according to Pete Kane, Esq.
But, because Kane is so convinced that the Marine will spell disaster for his case, he unwittingly lets an even more disastrous candidate into the jury—Reverend Chill Dude.  By nixing the Marine, he uses up his final challenge so that when he tries to remove the ordained minister, he's stopped by the opposition counsel, who successfully reminds the judge that Kane has exhausted his peremptory challenges and that removing a Christian juror is discriminatory.  Kane is then stuck with Reverend Chill Dude, someone decidedly even more pious than the dreaded lay Marine.

In his opening argument a few scenes later, Kane clearly reveals the terror that fuels his ardor.  "If we grant Miss Wesley the right to [preach in the classroom], and by extension, everyone else, to violate the law based soley on our own private beliefs," he tells the jury, "then our society will crumble.  I believe that.  So implore you, please do not set this precedent.  Do not.  The future of our republic depends on it."  Maybe if this lawyer would take a deep breath and reflect with a little less fear, he'd realize that Miss Wesley answered a question posed to her from a student and did so with surprising deftness considering the awkwardness of the setting.  Maybe he'd realize that if she'd intended to preach she would have answered the question much differently.  Maybe he'd realize that her lifestyle is not so incompatible with his and that the strength of her beliefs does not lead down a logical, inevitable path toward the destruction of the republic.

Case Study 5:  Grace Wesley
As the hero of our story, Grace is the only major character who emerges triumphant despite brushing with the same tendencies to poison her decision making with panic.  An early scene in the teacher's lounge identifies her as an endlessly optimistic person, and that could be the characteristic that allows her to escape the clutches of fear and avoid shooting herself in the foot the way everybody else seems to.

She does, admittedly, shoot herself in the foot a little bit by refusing to apologize for what she said in the classroom—but this isn't motivated by fear.  It's motivated by philosophical purity and conviction and, of course, by her love for Jesus.
I'd rather embrace a false dichotomy and hold my head up high
than embrace my head and hold a false dichotomy up high...or something like that.
Grace's mastery of the fear so many others fall prey to is showcased in the climactic scene in which her own lawyer appears to turn against her in the courtroom.  Endler goes on what is clearly intended to be a heroically ironic rant about how "in the name of tolerance and diversity," the jury should hold Grace Wesley accountable for her actions because deeply held religious beliefs that color the way people act in the public square mean that these public servants are clearly untrustworthy.  It's designed to be a powerful illustration of the absurdity of those who oppose Christianity, and perhaps it's supposed to serve as some clever reverse psychology for the jury as well.  But in order for Endler to make this argument, he first has to demonstrate that Grace believes she has a personal relationship with God—a feat he accomplishes by bullying her into sharing, under oath, a personal story she'd told him in private about hearing Jesus's literal voice speaking to her.

Sobbing on the stand and insisting that the jury won't believe her—and also not privy to the supposedly brilliant bit of lawyering Endler is doing—Grace finally manages to push her fears of ridicule and scorn and unemployment aside to tell the truth.  Had she behaved as if the negative consequences of telling the truth about her spiritual experience were set in stone, she'd have clammed up and Endler's gamble of arguing against his own client in the courtroom would have been a complete failure.  For Grace Wesley, not only was limiting the credence she gave her fear the reason she was victorious, but doing the opposite would have guaranteed her defeat.

And that is, perhaps, the tragic genius of God's Not Dead 2.  Because as it tells this tale of the damage we can all do to our own lives when we entertain our worst anxieties and act upon our deepest dreads, it completely fails to understand its own point.  Because of course the filmmakers weren't telling a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions and treating fear like fact.  They were telling a cautionary tale about the persecution of piety and the suppression of faith.  The continuation of the warlike metaphors from the first movie speaks to their lack of perspective to the point of celebrating the absence of their own objectivity.

So terrified are Brooke's parents that she might not get into a top-tier university with a solid scholarship that they try to deprive her of her legitimate grief and wind up widening the emotional and religious gulf in their parent-child relationship.  So convinced is Brooke that her brother didn't know how she felt about him that she almost single-handedly starts a community uproar over the role of religion in public service and then she nearly torpedoes her beloved teacher's case with her testimony.  So paranoid of persecution is Reverend Chill Dude that he stops being chill, refuses to listen to reason, endangers his own health, helps escalate the conflict between the religious and the irreligious, and probably causes himself some legal woes down the road.  So convinced is Pete Kane that his anti-Christian vendetta is the direly required salvation of democracy that he makes some errors in judgment that do not befit his character's level of legal acuity.  And Grace Wesley comes so close to crumbling beneath the weight of myopic horror herself, only to escape unscathed when she sticks to her guns, does what she feels is right, and doesn't have to compromise her principles.

The moral of the story then, dear filmmakers, is that we don't need to spend so much time painting the landscape around the modern-day American Christian with the color palette of Mordor.  Sure, there are jagged rocks and slippery slopes here and there, but there are no volcanoes, there are no patrols of hideous orcs, and there are no relentless all-seeing personifications of undying evil.  Maybe we should keep our fears in check as best we can, at most let them passively inform our behavior as we do what we believe is right, and stop treating people who don't share all of our principles like enemy combatants.  Because—let's be honest—there are so many better movies we could be filming right now.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Tender Mercies

I've been going through an interesting transition over the last few weeks. The center where I was employed was shut down, laying off me and every one of my coworkers.  During the last two months before our final day, we all were scrambling to find new jobs.  Only three of us, including me, were able to do so before our final day of employment.  What I found was basically the same job for a better company with nearly identical pay and better hours.  I also have about a month off between jobs, during which I'm receiving severance equivalent to a paycheck for a greater length of time than I'll actually be unemployed.  Obviously, it sucked to be laid off, but when something negative with so much of an upside happens, I find myself thinking about the "tender mercies of the Lord" mentioned by Nephi and popularized by David A. Bednar:
As we learn in these scriptures, the fundamental purposes for the gift of agency were to love one another and to choose God. Thus we become God’s chosen and invite His tender mercies as we use our agency to choose God.
Had identical events happened to me while I was a faithful member of the church, I'd have credited them to the "tender mercies" God blesses us with.  I may have even somewhat callously concluded that the reason I have a comparable job lined up when the majority of my coworkers do not was due to my membership in the church.  But, in retrospect, those kinds of attitudes make no sense.

It reminds me of the "faith not to be healed" article in which Bednar basically explains that the reason the Priesthood doesn't work is because the Priesthood works.  See, because this is exactly the kind of thing I'd consider a tender mercy but for the fact that I'm a filthy apostate who's essentially voided his covenants and blessings, this never should have happened to me, right?  The whole thing appears to be a crapshoot.  It leads me to several possible conclusions:
  1. Being eligible for tender mercies does not require belief or the keeping of any commandments or covenants.
  2. There is no such thing as a tender mercy of the Lord and some people just get lucky.
  3. This is not a tender mercy and I just got lucky without divine intervention.
All of these really point to the complete superfluity of God's true church—at least when it comes to day-to-day life.  It obviously can still be argued that I'm screwed as far as my postmortal life is concerned, but as far as getting by in our second estate, why do we need the church?

If I can get tender mercies while actively opposing the church, why should Mormonism be a necessary component of my life?  If there's no such thing as a tender mercy, then why bother being a temple-going, tithe-paying member if it comes down to luck anyway?  And in regards to the third possible conclusion, why should I spend all that time being a pious Mormon if I can still get this lucky without all those blessings I supposedly need?

Obviously, my assessment of all this is that there are no tender mercies and that most of the things that are claimed to be such are really the results of luck, coincidence, charity, or hard work.  In my case, I was really lucky to find the job opening and really lucky with the time frame of my application, and the reason I got the position was because I interviewed well and because my resume is stronger than that of most of my competitors for the spot (not that my resume is really anything to brag about in most contexts).

But the bottom line is that, just like a Priesthood blessing that doesn't heal its recipient, a tender mercy is an imaginary thing.  Whatever was going to happen is still going to happen, regardless of Mormon theology's claimed role in determining the outcome of the situation.  And to me, it's fascinating—if somewhat predictable—the way a diametrically different perspective on the same kinds of situations changes our interpretations of the way events unfold.