Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ether 15: The End of the World As We Know It

The moment we've all been waiting for is finally upon us—the ultimate destruction of the Jaredites.

Numerical Escalation
In the process of coming to his senses in verse 2, Coriantumr realizes that two million Jaredites have been killed in this ridiculous war.  Two million.

Two million people died by the sword.

Surely battles on such a vast scale would have left prominent archaeological traces—especially since the previous chapter states that they were basically leaving the dead where they fell without any kind of burial.  Shouldn't there be hundreds of thousands of skeletons and swords (and shields, and breastplates, and head-plates as described in verse 15) littering a field somewhere?  

Also, the numbers of casualties in these battles seem to be getting more and more impressive to the point of absurdity.  Back in the earlier pages of the Book of Mormon, deaths were counted in the tens of thousands (and, more recently, hundreds of thousands).  But the escalation as the narrative progresses seems less reminiscent of a historical record and more reminiscent of a storyteller's efforts to keep his audience interested.

Turning Over a New Leaf
Coriantumr starts to understand that, just maybe, having everybody slaughter each other may not be a good idea.  In verse 3 he makes this realization:
He began to repent of the evil which he had done; he began to remember the words which had been spoken by the mouth of all the prophets, and he saw them that they were fulfilled thus far, every whit; and his soul mourned and refused to be comforted.
He even goes so far as writing a letter to his nemesis, Shiz, and offer a truce.  But twelve verses later, he's arming children to help fight against the continual depredations of Shiz's army.

What the hell kind of patty-cake, taffy-pulled repentance is that?  If he were really repentant, he would have made a stand and fought defensively against Shiz to buy time for some of the families to escape into the wilderness, or the land northward, or to the narrow neck of land.  You know, instead of directly introducing children to the horrors of war and essentially guaranteeing that they were all going to die.

But yeah.  He's totally seen the error of his ways and he's a good guy now.

Never Tell Me the Odds
I fully understand what a brazen statement this is, but the story of the Jaredite apocalypse may be one of the most absurd things in the entire Book of Mormon.  This chapter essentially follows the civilization as they kill each other, move to a new place, kill each other some more, flee somewhere else, and then—you guessed it—kill each other until there are hardly any each others left to kill.  This culture has apparently evolved past such trivial things as a sense of self-preservation.

At no point does anybody say, "hey, we went from millions to less than a hundred, let's stop and think about this."  At no point does someone say, "I'm getting out of here to live on my own before these animals destroy everyone."  At no point does anyone say, "Maybe the fact that we keep fainting from the loss of blood doesn't bode well."    It's just continuous fighting, with occasional breaks for sleeping and for fleeing to other made-up place names between battles.  When did they have time to prepare and ingest food to fuel more fighting?  How is it that one side didn't win by attacking while the others slept? 

None of this makes sense.  None of this feels like the behavior of real people—although, admittedly, it would make one seriously badass action movie (Jason Statham IS...Coriantumr.  Coming summer 2018).  No one is this obsessed with victory or vengeance, but even if there are people like that, what are the odds that the last hundred or so warriors of a nation numbering in the millions would ALL be that kind of person?

But you know what's even more ludicrous?  After these millions of Jaredites have hacked each other to pieces, the last two combatants after every single other person has died are the two leaders of the armies.  The final inning is a showdown between Shiz and Coriantumr. 

Gimme a break. 

I mean, everybody loves a good macho squaring off between Skywalker and Vader, Neo and Agent Smith, or Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, but that's generally something that happens in fiction.  FDR did not trade blows with Hitler.  Grant and Lee never crossed swords.  And even if they had, they'd have needed to miraculously survive in the heat of battle while every single one of their soldiers fell dead around them in order for the end of Ether to be historically analogous.  Assuming that each of the Jaredite rulers possessed an army of one million combatants, the probability of Shiz and Coriantumr being the last two survivors comes in at around one in one trillion.

One in one trillion.

Let that sink in.

Considering these were both wicked men, I don't think it's fair to say that this was a miracle.  I think it's fair to say that it was a complete fabrication.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Eclipsing the Truth

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to view a total solar eclipse.  My sister happens to live right in the path of the totality, so a bunch of us drove to her house and made a weekend out of it.  It was pretty fantastic and pictures don't really do the firsthand experience justice.

But the reason I mention that is because this was the first occasion in a very, very long while that I spent an extended period of time surrounded primarily by Mormons.  And there were some interesting conversations.  The one that irritated me the most was between my sister and her friend.

Her friend mentioned that the moon's orbit is slowly changing and that in thousands of years, total eclipses won't happen.  The moon will be further away from us and it will appear smaller to our view, which means that instead of totally eclipsing the sun, the moon will only be able to blot out most of it.  This is a fascinating comment to make, and it was, up until that point, an engaging discussion.

And then...

Since this is only going to be a problem in thousands of years, he continued, by then it won't matter to us.  Finishing his thought, my sister agreed that, by that point in time, we'll just be able to design our own solar systems to make eclipses happen exactly how we want.

Which made me immediately think of this infuriating entry in the Mormon Newsroom's frequently asked questions:

It's a flat-out "no" on the whole becoming-gods-and-designing-planets thing, huh?  

For a church that seems so obsessed with controlling information and standardizing its teachings, it seems kind of weird that so many lifelong, doctrinally educated members don't realize that, apparently, they won't become gods or get their own planets.  The church leadership has sent letters to local authorities to make sure members know what kinds of sex they're allowed to have and to appeal for members to combat specific laws that may go into effect.  And Elder Nelson used his fifteen minutes in the last general conference of the church to deliver a semantics lesson.  But somehow, in the last 187 years, the prophets have never bothered to clarify exactly what will happen to us if we attain exaltation in the afterlife. 

That makes no sense.  Clearly the leadership is not doing a good job of prioritizing the information it chooses to share with the faithful.  It is, however, carefully prioritizing the information it shares with the public, downplaying teachings that are embarrassing or off-putting and obfuscating things that cannot be safely denied.

That is not being very honest in your dealings with your fellow men.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ether 14: Countdown to Extinction

We're witnessing the death throes of the Jaredite civilization, folks.  

Ain't Happy Without a Good Curse
The chapter begins with a description of a curse that befalls the people.  This is one of the more peculiar ones I've heard of (verse 1):
And now there began to be a great curse upon all the land because of the iniquity of the people, in which, if a man should lay his tool or his sword upon his shelf, or upon the place whither he would keep it, behold, upon the morrow, he could not find it, so great was the curse upon the land.
The people were so wicked that they kept losing things?  It makes more sense to me that they'd become so wicked and so violent that they slept with their hands on their weapons out of a necessary paranoia.  And maybe people would steal the good weapons and tools from their sleeping neighbors.  Or maybe it was a mystical curse.  I guess that works too.


Not As Good As Vantage Point
Here's a verse, that, quite honestly, requires no context (verse 9):
And it came to pass that his high priest murdered him as he sat upon his throne.
Again!?  I'm starting to think that if the FBI developed a time machine and used it to track American crime statistics back a few thousand years, they'd discover that about 80% of all homicides in this country prior to European invasion took place on either a throne or a judgment seat.  It's literally the most dangerous place for any character of the Book of Mormon to be at any given time.

Or maybe Joseph Smith just wasn't that creative when it came to dreaming up scenarios for the assassination of government officials (luckily for Lilburn Boggs).

The Great Schism
After a whole lot of fighting and killing, apparently every single person in Jaredite society chooses a side—either Coriantumr or Shiz.  Nobody strikes out on his own.  Every single Jaredite is now a member of an army.  This makes perfect sense to me.  The phenomenon likely shares a sociological explanation with why it's common to see elections in which only two candidates receive votes and no eligible voter abstains from the process.

Blood for the Blood God
In verse 25, we get a nice, straightforward, told-you-so just to make sure we understand that these people got what was coming to them:
And thus we see that the Lord did visit them in the fulness of his wrath, and their wickedness and abominations had prepared a way for their everlasting destruction.
Okay, so the moral of the story is pretty roughly shoved down the reader's throat.  But there's a serious lack of self-awareness in this chapter.  Because just three verses earlier, we were taught this:
And so swift and speedy was the war that there was none left to bury the dead, but they did march forth from the shedding of blood to the shedding of blood, leaving the bodies of both men, women, and children strewed upon the face of the land, to become a prey to the worms of the flesh.
Being punished with destruction for wickedness is something that I don't necessarily agree with, but I can understand the cold logic behind it—at least when it applies to able-minded adults.  But what exactly did those children do to deserve this brutal vengeance from God?  This chapter goes from gruesome depictions of child corpses to gloating about God's execution of justice with frightening speed.  Why did God deem it necessary to punish children for crimes they should not have been accountable for?  Why is it so important to God to use senseless violence as a teaching tool?

And thus we see that God is a bloodthirsty asshole.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ether 13: Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

There's some nice little mumbo-jumbo in this chapter about the New Jerusalem being established on the American continent, but I think the most interesting and most central verses here revolve around a meeting between Ether and Coriantumr.

Ether is essentially the only righteous person remaining in the Jaredite society, so he's apparently God's only option when it comes to selecting a prophet.  Ether is staggeringly unpopular because of his preaching, so he's been living in a cave somewhere to avoid being beaten to death.  But then God tells him to go and speak with the wicked king Coriantumr, so Ether dutifully relays the following prophecy:  if Coriantumr repents, his life and his people's lives will be spared—but if he does not repent, Coriantumr will live to see his family and his entire society die, and he will be the last Jaredite left.  Is it just me, or does this feel like the premise of a classical tragedy more than the premise of a book of scripture?  I mean, if it had been three witches talking instead of just gloomy old Ether, it could have been Shakespeare.

But if we're following the pattern of a theatrical tragedy, it should come as no surprise that Coriantumr refuses to repent, tries to kill Ether, and then gets embroiled in an absurd, over-the-top war that fulfills the horrific prophecy.  The next two chapters will go into painstaking detail about how all that comes to pass.

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?