Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Church on Defense

Radio Free Mormon's most recent podcast features some interesting clips from a Salt Lake Tribune interview with Elder Steven Snow, the Executive Director of the Church History Department.  In it, Snow acknowledges that some members were confused about the legitimacy of the Gospel Topics essays and expresses regret that there was no way to specify that these essays were in fact approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (approximately 9:40):
It's interesting...I guess...I wouldn't have expected that people would have thought that a rogue history department would go do something like this, certainly in the church—that would be impossible.  And every step of the way, they [the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve] were reviewing it and reviewed it and approved it—what was published ultimately.  So it was unfortunate that we couldn't in some way indicate that....
Radio Free Mormon, of course, immediately points out the obvious:  you can add a notation in the byline or at the bottom of the page to alert readers that their leaders have signed off on these essays.  If the church really wanted to indicate that the material was approved by the prophet, it very easily could have.

But I think that Elder Snow's interview is indicative of a pervasive and ultimately flawed strategy of church leadership:  they're playing a lot of defense.  Many decisions and many speeches demonstrate a focus on retaining the loyal membership base instead of reaching out to those who are on the fence, those who are critics, and those who could be welcomed in from outside.  Big Tent Mormonism is not a thing, at least not anymore.  Today, it's Exactly This One Size Tent Only Mormonism.

The reason the unsigned essays feel like defense to me is because an obviously simple solution that could help members who are more aware of or more interested in troubling issues was avoided—because doing so makes it easier for members who aren't as aware or aren't as interested in troubling issues to ignore them.  If an apostle didn't say it or didn't even seem to approve it, why should we feel the need to absorb this information?  This focuses on preserving the faith of the core membership to the detriment of the faith-related inquiries of those who are no longer part of that core.

A similar issue arises later in the Elder Snow interview—Peggy Fletcher Stack makes the point that the essay on the priesthood ban stops short of calling Brigham Young a racist or even of an explicit acknowledgement that the policy was wrong.  This way, if you aren't having doubts about the church and you stumble across the article, you're not forced to grapple with questions of how a prophet's policy that was upheld by several subsequent prophets could have been wrong and how that might shed light on the possible failings of today's prophet.  But those glaring omissions certainly are not going to smooth things over with doubters or progressives who believe that an important step to healing racial issues in the church is an acknowledgement of and an apology for past wrongdoings.  It's still playing defense—protect who's in, but make no effort to reach out to who's not in or to who's not in enough.

The church's strategy here strikes me as defeatist and limiting.  It's like a soccer team that only puts defenders in the field.  They'll never score, but it's unlikely they'll allow any goals.  Notably, if all of your players stay in your backfield, that means the best possible outcome for you is a draw—zero to zero.  If you put some attackers on the other half of the field you may weaken your defense, but you'll actually open up the possibility of winning by giving yourself the opportunity to score.  An argument can be made that the church has chosen this strategy because it knows it can't score—it knows that its doctrine and its history and its scripture are uniformly incapable of converting the skeptics and the doubters.  So the church focuses exclusively on defending its core of brainwashed, all-in, dyed-in-the-wool, wholly committed members.  They've packed their lineup with ten fullbacks and they're all milling around inside the penalty box.  And honestly, that's just as likely to allow a goal by obstructing the goalkeeper's sight lines as it is to prevent a goal, but I think I've taken this metaphor far enough already.

Plenty of other examples of this defense-centric approach crop up in the recent past.  In Ballard's "Stay in the Boat" General Conference address, though he mentions that questions are fine and that the church will help rescue those who have fallen out of the boat, he doesn't provide any specific questions.  He certainly doesn't provide any specific answers, either, and instead opts to spend the majority of his time telling us to wear our life jackets and not to get distracted.  He pays lip service to those who are no longer in the boat but imparts no reasons or methods to return.  It's all about retaining the people who are already there, safely aboard the Good Ship Zion.

Ballard revisits this strategy a few years later, asking those who are struggling with their faith, "Where will you go?"  Though he acknowledges that some have left the church, he doesn't discuss where they have gone.  Nevertheless, he is quick to imply to those who are still invested in the church that there really is nowhere else to go.  This, again, discourages the attrition of faithful members while providing nothing that assuages the concerns of doubters, progressive Mormons, fringe members, or the people who are, theoretically, drowning in the sea of nothingness beyond the hull of the boat.

And perhaps no recent example of this attitude is quite so callous as the announcement that the policy of exclusion for LGBT children had been reversed.  Notice how this information is framed by the First Presidency, as reported by the faceless Newsroom:
  • Nelson talks about how exciting it is that this is a real-life revelation, but offers no explanation and no apology for the original policy and provides no sympathy for anyone hurt by it.
  • Oaks focuses on Christ's love and says that the "very positive policies...should help affected families," but also offers no explanation or apology for the original policy.  He mentions that families have been "affected," but does not describe what those effects may have been.  "Affected" is a neutral term.  You can be affected positively or negatively.  Saying someone was affected is not an acknowledgement of the marginalization and bigotry that was inflicted upon them.
  • Eyring explains that revelation has helped the church adapt to changing circumstances, implying the policy didn't change because the church did—it changed because the circumstances did.  And he also does not offer an explanation or an apology and also does not express sympathy for those who were "affected" by the three-year exclusion.
All of this is geared toward those who weren't particularly bothered by the policy.  In fact, reading the news release doesn't alert anyone who was not already aware that this was enacted less than 3 years prior.  To a casual observer, this sounds a little like the way the lifting of the priesthood ban is framed—it used to be one way, but now it's another way, and now look at how wonderful it is for us to be moving forward!  

This is still playing defense.  Rather than acknowledge some uncomfortable things that will win them integrity points with critics and doubters and attempting to explain the reasons for those uncomfortable things (which would risk generating doubts among the membership base), the church leaders gloss over and obfuscate the more emetic information and turn their focus to comforting, positive talking points that the general membership is likely to digest.  There's nothing proactive here.  There are no strikers on this field.  This is just a way to prevent shots on their own goal, and they accomplish this by refusing to take shots at the opposing goal.

But beyond the sports metaphor, this behavior shows a hypocrisy in Jesus's shepherd metaphor.  Because by safeguarding the testimonies of the faithful while sacrificing the testimonies of those most at risk to faithlessness, the church is essentially sacrificing one group's salvation in favor of safeguarding another group's salvation. It is leaving the one and expending all its energies on the ninety and nine.  We should expect more from a church that claims to uphold the restoration of the same gospel taught by Jesus himself.  But many of us have learned to expect disappointment.  We've learned that, when the church is at a crossroads between the Christlike decision and the businesslike decision, it will rarely choose the right.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Chiasmus in Twilight

Chiasmus has long been cited as one of the evidences that the Book of Mormon is of ancient Hebrew origins.  I first learned about this during a special fireside given by a member of my stake who'd recently visited Central America.  I was about 14 at the time, but he was what I would refer to today as an amateur apologist.

It's pretty impressive to think of what complexity Joseph Smith was able to work into the Book of Mormon using Hebrew poetic devices that he would not have been academically aware of.  But what didn't occur to me in the midst of that tour de force of turn-of-the-millennium apologetics was that, in a lot of cases, you can find chiasmus if you squint really hard and look at the text just right.  Although the concept has been covered by church magazines, BYU researchers, and apologists, I was recently reminded of the more implausible branches of issue by stumbling across one particular site that claims the entire book of First Nephi was written as one giant chiasmic narrative.

So I took the methodology I felt had been employed in this particular case (starting with the conclusion and working backwards to find the supporting data) and applied it to some famous pieces of the written word to see if I really could force something to be chiasmus just by wanting it badly enough.  It was a surprisingly amusing exercise as I opted to revisit Lewis Carroll's masterpiece of silliness, The Jabberwocky:

please excuse my amateurish formatting
Sure, some of those things are a stretch, but that's what makes it fun.  And I do see a lot of Book of Mormon analysis citing things that are thematically chiasmic, even if they aren't syntactically chiasmic.  So even if similar words aren't used, as long as we can find some connection between the two ideas, we can decide that they match up.  And in this particular case, I think we can learn that something doesn't have to claim Hebrew origins or contain any kind of solemnity in it to have the framework of a chiasmus.

But since Lewis Carroll is a minor literary monument (I mean, he's not on par with Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but he's celebrated as a classic writer), maybe he had the wherewithal to consciously structure his poetry this way—assuming it wasn't just the opium talking. So I decided to try a larger piece of writing, in much the same way that the aforementioned website tackled the full breadth of First Nephi.  I went to someone who, though popular, is not a celebrated as a wordsmith.  I went to someone who I perhaps take too much pleasure in ridiculing.  I went to Twilight.

I can make an argument that the sparkly-vampire-high-school-melodrama-adventure that took the world by storm a little over a decade ago is laid out in that sort of nested, mirrored, symmetrical structure that we've been examining.  Some of it takes a little work to dig up, but I think that this is every bit as rickety and every bit as defensible as the claim that Nephi recorded his own story as a giant Hebraic Easter egg.

Observe, chapter by chapter:

1. Bella attends gym class, where she stresses about her clumsiness
2. Bella says she moved to Forks so her mom could travel with Phil, who plays minor league baseball
3. Edward saves Bella’s life by stopping an out-of-control van
4. Bella is surrounded with people and attention after surviving a life-threatening situation
5. Bella leaves school early
6. Against advice, Jacob tells Bella about werewolves
7. Bella makes plans to travel from Forks to Port Angeles
8. Bella is targeted by a group of dangerous men
9. Bella learns the supernatural aspects of vampires in conversation with Edward
10. Bella’s instinct is to lie by denying she’s scared of Edward
11. Edward drives Bella to her house
12. Bella pretends she’s not going to the dance to deceive Mike
13. Vampires sparkle in the sunlight
14. Bella pretends she’s asleep to deceive her father
15. Edward drives Bella to his house
16. Bella’s instinct is to lie by keeping her father from knowing she’s involved with Edward
17. Bella sees the supernatural aspects of vampires at the Cullen’s baseball game
18. Bella is targeted by a group of dangerous vampires
19. Bella prepares to travel from Forks to Arizona
20. Against advice, Alice tells Bella how someone becomes a vampire
21. Bella plans to leave Alice and Jasper
22. Bella isolates herself and James corners her in a life-threatening situation
23. Edward saves Bella’s life by sucking venom out of her wound
24. Bella’s mother reveals that her husband Phil was signed with a Phoenix minor league baseball team.
Epilogue: Bella attends the prom in the gym, where she stresses about her lack of dancing ability

It's not airtight, obviously.  But I think it's roughly on par with the analysis of First Nephi.  And more importantly, I think it demonstrates that the chiasmic construct can be a construct in more than one sense of the word.  It can be a post hoc fabrication that does not necessarily reflect the reality of the composition or the intent of its author.

I mean, unless Stephanie Meyer had some kind of seer stone we don't know about.

Monday, August 19, 2019

When is Protection Not Protection?

The big news in Mormonism last weekend was that the church has created its own training material to prevent abuse and identify signs of abuse among children and youth.  At least, that's the ostensible purpose behind the rollout of the webinar.  I'm sure just about everybody can agree that stopping sexual abuse and reporting abusers is extremely important, but there are a few things about this particular development that leave a sour taste in my mouth.

Firstly—and perhaps I'm-wearing-a-tinfoil-hatly—it's the URL.  As shared in the Salt Lake Tribune article, the simple web address the church chose to share is ProtectingChildren.ChurchofJesusChrist.orgprotecting children.  There is no way that during the preparation of this new training course, no one said, "Hey, that's kind of like the name of the organization whose founder we excommunicated last year for raising this issue in the first place."  Sure, it's a different form of the verb "protect" and it doesn't have the name "LDS" in it (because using that as an identifier for a member of the church is a victory for Satan) but it's strikingly similar.  It could have been called "preventing abuse" or "child safety" or even "stewardship safeguards" for a more citrusy Mormon flavor.  They could have called it "please God don't let us get sucked into an international scandal the way the Great and Abominable Church has" if they thought it would have been a memorable enough URL.  But no, they went with "protecting children."

And it's troubling that it's similar because (and maybe this is even more tinfoil-hat-esque) this is only being done as an answer to Sam Young and his Protect LDS Children wave-making.  I think the name was an intentional choice so that the church can point to this and say, "Look, we're taking this seriously and we've made appropriate changes."  Well, no, I actually don't expect them to say that, but I think they're hoping that any faithful Mormons who were bothered by the issues Sam Young raised will make that connection on their own and be satisfied that the problem has been solved.

Moving on to more substantive arguments, this demonstrates yet again that the church refuses to admit when it's wrong.  After making an incremental change that nodded in Sam Young's direction, they excommunicated him for his efforts and they are now making flourishing, meretricious dance steps across his spiritual grave.  This does seem to continue a pattern of the organization's brutal authoritarianism when it's confronted with its most blatant flaws.  After the CES Letter went viral, the church started releasing Gospel Topics essays on its website.  Then they went after its author in a disciplinary court and continued pumping out Gospel Topics essays that confirm many of the accusations leveled within the pages of that damnable, curs├ęd CES Letter.  Shortly after Kate Kelly formed Ordain Women, the first woman gave a prayer in General Conference, but Kate Kelly was excommunicated a year later (and now we sometimes even have women's events in which men don't do any of the talking).  This behavior is paranoid, childish, manipulative, and heartless—and yet, somehow, it's exactly what people have come to expect from our loving Father in Heaven's only officially recognized religion.  

And, of course, this new training thingamajig doesn't actually address the crux of Sam Young's crusade anyway—the one-on-one interviews with bishops that can cover sexual topics.  It's carefully calculated lip service.  The standing policy of the church is still—with the small concession made last year—that the child being interviewed may ask that another adult be in the room.  Church policy does not require another adult to be present and it does explicitly take explicit sexual questions off the table.

Even more troubling is the disparity in how suspected abuse should be reported by people in different callings—as pointed out by a Redditor who took the training course:
Bishops and Stake Presidents should call their hotline, which goes to Kirton McConkie.  Everybody else should call the police.  This is one hundred percent not okay.  If someone is molesting a child, call whoever you think should be alerted, yes, but the police should be at the very top of that list—exactly the way it works in the "Other Leaders and Teachers" section of the image above.  If you find a dead body, you call the police.  If you see a drug deal going down, you call the police.  But if a child tells you they're being sexually abused, you call your church's law firm?  Your religious organization's desire to insulate itself from lawsuits and bad press does not supersede your responsibilities to the abused child and to the public.

I also want to say that this business of having an online training course that certifies your completion and has to be renewed after a set period of time really helps drive home just how corporate the church has become.  This is perhaps not a fair criticism, because I have to admit that if you want to make this training available to as many of your people (with the appropriate login credentials) as possible and you need a good way to keep track of who has and has not completed it, this option seems very efficient.  But it's still strongly reminiscent of the standardized training I've taken at every large company I've ever worked for.  And it fits very neatly into a corporate hierarchy with a patriarchic oligarchy at its head pushing out pilot programs and surveys and mission statements and ad campaigns and branding initiatives to help them smoothly navigate through every shift in policy and every projected market downturn.  I have no ideas for how else they could have accomplished what they're doing.  But I suppose a divinely inspired religion could fairly be expected to have some more out-of-the-box solutions than what your typical 200-year-old multibillion-dollar company would come up with.

Just sayin'.

Anyway, in conclusion, this was a weak attempt overall, guys.  Try it again, only be more sincere this time.  There could literally be lives at stake.

Friday, August 16, 2019

I Love to Work the Temple

My parents are both temple workers.

My mom sends out emails on a daily basis to talk about whatever is happening in her life.  It's a nice habit that makes it easy for us to keep ourselves updated on the family.  But lately, a lot of her emails contain large chunks of text that are all about her temple shift that day.

It's kind of disturbing how much of the terminology she uses is exactly the kind of terminology people use at...well...jobs.  Places of employment.  Locations that provide you with money in exchange for your time and your labor and your expertise.

It's even weirder how so much of what she says about her temple work is reminiscent of my time in the fast food industry.  She'll talk about snacks in the break room, sore feet from standing for long hours, the confusion of working in a different position than the one she normally fills, colleagues who don't pull their own weight, and unreliable people who arrive late to their shifts.  There are entire paragraphs that make perfect sense as fast food stories if you substitute "sandwich station" for "initiatory" and "ground beef" for "family name cards."  

One of my nephews is getting baptized soon.  While I visited my parents recently, I had the pleasure of sitting through an entire discussion about which other temple workers they could switch shifts with so that they'd be able to attend the event.  It felt eerily similar to conversations my old burger joint employees would have as they texted their colleagues to try and find a replacement on short notice.

So, essentially, my retirement-age parents have a part-time job.  It's a part-time job that they spend more than an hour driving to.  It's a part-time job that they don't receive monetary compensation for.  It's a part-time job that they actually pay ten percent of their retirement income to just for the privilege of maintaining it.

If my parents were a little older and possessed less mental acuity, I think this would be a pretty straightforward example of elder abuse.  They are spending their time and money during their retirement by doing busywork for a wealthy multinational organization.  Their hours in the temple make no discernible positive impact on the world outside the walls, but the church has them convinced that they are performing a vital service for countless souls.  What they're not doing is enjoying their retirement and relaxing a little after long years of raising a family and working real jobs.  Meanwhile, my mom sends out emails about how stressful it is at the temple when it gets busy.  

It would be really terrific if the church could just go ahead and implode so that my parents can be freed from all of this.  It can't happen soon enough.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Presentism Fallacy Fallacy

Lately, I've been noticing that a number of rebuttals to criticisms of the church seem to revolve around presentism—the idea that it's neither fair nor honest to examine yesterday's events through the lens of modern biases. FAIR seems to like to point this out, and it was an LDS blog post about why people leave the church that made me start to think a little bit more about it.  And it's important to mention, before I dive too far into this, that presentism is also used as an excuse in official church settings, such as Elder Cook's devotional last year, in which church historian Matt Grow said
It is really easy to play gotcha with the past.  To pull an incident or a quotation out of its context and make it look alarming.  As a historian, I try to follow the advice of a British novelist—and I love this—he said, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."  And to me, that means that when we visit the past, we don't want to be an ugly tourist.
Presentism, of course, is a real thing. Imposing our 21st-century values on the historical record can lead to a twisting or misinterpretation of the historical narrative. This is why we shouldn't hold it against MLK for calling people Negroes—it wasn't offensive then, but it can be very offensive today.

Presentism isn't a magic eraser of personal or cultural culpability, however. It doesn't mean that anything in the past is on untouchable moral ground. Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee nation on the Trail of Tears during the same decade that saw the rise of Mormonism, but you don't see a public backlash against people who condemn his actions.  Sure, a lot of people in the 19th century "didn't know any better" when it came to the treatment of Native Americans. Sure, there were probably people who would have been even more brutal if they'd been in Jackson's position. But there were also people who knew better and who raised their voices in protest. The fact that it happened two centuries ago doesn't absolve its perpetrators of moral responsibility—what it does mean, however, is that we should be willing to admit from our modern perspective that, had we been part of that culture and that environment, we may not have made the right decisions either.

This is why I think that, in a discussion of presentism, a distinction needs to be made between custom and morality. Let's apply that couplet our church historians love to quote: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." If you visit a foreign country and the people there find a gesture to be offensive even though it's innocuous in your culture, that's fine. If you visit a foreign country and they execute children for disobeying their parents, that's not fine.

Similarly, if we apply a presentist approach to the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor (as I have in the past), we may miss the fact that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Bill of Rights was generally applied to federal law only.  This meant that the legality of the Nauvoo City Council's actions was more dependent on Illinois state law than on the First Amendment.  Though today's Americans tend to see the Bill of Rights as something so sacrosanct that state governments are explicitly bound to uphold it, this wasn't legally codified until 20th-century Supreme Courts began ruling on what is now the widely accepted interpretation of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment.  All of this means that presentism can exaggerate the egregiousness of the Nauvoo Expositor incident by overplaying its illegality. In contrast, a presentist approach to the priesthood ban doesn't change whether it was wrong. It may merely confirm that racist prophets were in step with the bigoted zeitgeists of their time. Oh, wait, except the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there, so everything's cool, right?

What we should learn from being aware of our presentism is not that things were different then and therefore the church is still true—it's that because things were so different then, we shouldn't necessarily kid ourselves into thinking we would have stood against problematic policies if we'd been 19th-century Mormons. The wrong things that past church leaders did are still wrong.  But we probably shouldn't be so quick to get on our high horses and decide we would have done better.  

Society has evolved and some of our moral sensibilities have improved, so it's a lot easier for us to make better decisions on certain issues because we were born into a culture that already believes that black people aren't property and that women aren't property and that using divining rods to find hidden treasure is an absolute absurdity.  We should also hope that our grandchildren will grant us similar latitude when the things that our society handles poorly are examined through a lens of possible future biases.

And regardless of all that noise, there's a certain cross-section of Mormonism that should, theoretically, be insusceptible to presentist attacks: divinely revealed doctrine. It's one thing to say Joseph Smith did bad things but doesn't deserve judgment from modern standards, but it's a completely different thing to give God a free pass.  Why did God do or permit so many things that don't line up with modern standards—including standards that the church has raised in order to catch up with the broader culture? You can say a church leader's actions were reflective of the culture he inhabited, but  that doesn't explain why would God allow his chosen mouthpiece to preach what is clearly reprehensible. Prophets can, arguably, be vulnerable to presentist criticism, but God should be immune. The God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever should behave in a way that would be impervious to presentist accusations. You can't character assassinate someone who by definition has no character flaws, right?

But instead, we have a God who permits prophet after prophet to be products of their times. We have a God who allows their awful sayings to be canonized in official church materials and promulgated as official church doctrine. This should be, from both a historical and a presentist perspective, a grievous sin of omission. He could have made sure that the horrible things Brigham Young said about black people were only in his personal interactions, not spoken in general conference or parroted by future apostles or distributed in the church's publications. But he didn't—even though, as God, he should have known better.  We can write off Brigham Young's mistakes as human failings in a deeply racist historical culture. God doesn't get that excuse because he isn't human, he's not supposed to have failings, and he wasn't a product of that culture.

Is presentism a real problem for us when we analyze church history? Of course. Does it absolve the church from every ugly thing in its past?

Not even close.