Monday, August 29, 2016

3 Nephi 20: More of that Jesus Stuff

Jesus is now in danger of overstaying his welcome and committing a serious ancient American faux pas.


Sacrament Redux
For some reason, unlike the practice of the modern LDS church, Jesus feels it necessary to perform the sacrament ordinance for the second consecutive day.  Perhaps he wants to make sure that everyone in the crowd who wasn't present the day before has the chance to receive it.

But in stark contrast to the last time Jesus did this, he does it miraculously (verses 6 and 7):
Now, there had been no bread, neither wine, brought by the disciples, neither by the multitude; 
But he truly gave unto them bread to eat, and also wine to drink.
This feels a bit reminiscent of the two escapes two chapters apart way back in Mosiah.  The first instance is a straightforward story with a dubious explanation.  The second instance is a strikingly similar story that is directly ascribed to miraculous sources.

Why didn't Jesus do the miracle both times and save those guys the trouble of searching their broken city for sufficient bread and wine?


The Native American Revolution
Jesus goes off on a lengthy, ostensibly precognitive rant about the future of the Nephite people.  It certainly sounds like the game plan was for God to allow the Gentiles to slaughter the Nephites' descendants, and then, if the Gentiles didn't repent, the Native American people would rise up and destroy them to retain the country according to their divine inheritance.

I'm baffled as to why this hasn't happened yet.  European settlers did awful things to the native inhabitants for a long time.  Generations, even.  And it's not like the United States government's dealings with the Native American tribes today are ideal.  So why, exactly, has Jesus's violent prophecy still not come to fruition?

I mean, it's not quite as pointless as one of his recent threats, but it's definitely in the same vein.


Jesus Plagiarizes
A lot of this chapter is almost straight from Isaiah, with a few other biblical quotes mixed in.  Linguistically, it doesn't make sense that after being translated through a couple different languages, Jesus's wording would so closely match Isaiah's.  It also doesn't make sense that Jesus, who preferred to teach plainly and only got fancy by resorting to parables, would prefer to adopt Isaiah's inscrutable, densely poetic approach.  And besides, this stuff is still readily available in the King James version of the Bible.  Why, like all those other Isaiah chapters and the Sermon on the Mount, does it need to be repeated?  Couldn't this space have been used for more important, previously unknown doctrines like eternal marriage and baptism for the dead?


Divine Favoritism
Verse 26 is infuriating to me.  Take a look:
The Father having raised me up unto you first, and sent me to bless you in turning away every one of you from his iniquities; and this because ye are children of the covenant—
So because their ancestors made a covenant, God intervenes to turn them away from their iniquity?  If God can simply choose to make people less prone to sin, why the hell doesn't he all the time?  Is it because that compromises our free will?  Is it because that sounds more like Satan's Plan of Salvation than his own Plan of Salvation?  Then why would he do it at all, even a little?

And being children of the covenant is a really flimsy excuse to give preferential treatment.  What did these people do to deserve preferential treatment?—they were born into a lineage originating from someone to whom God made a promise a really long time ago.  We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and rewarded for the deeds of their ancestors, apparently.  Because that's eternal egalitarianism, right?

As the Book of Mormon progresses, it's sounding less and less like God is the same yesterday, today, and forever and more like God's just making up the rules as he goes along.
Maybe the divinity is in the certainty, not in the action itself.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

3 Nephi 19: In Which Jesus is Terrible at his Job

Jesus's second coming among the Nephites is imminent and the people are getting excited.


Nonchalant Miracle
We're about to list the apostles whom Jesus appointed for the American church.  Let's begin (verse 4):
...Nephi and his brother whom he had raised from the dead, whose name was Timothy, and also...
Whoa, hold up there.  You can't just drop some earth-shattering miracle into the middle of a sentence like it's no big thing and then steamroll on through a list of names that we'll never need to remember.

I mean, sure, if Nephi raised his brother from the dead, that's awesome.  It bears mentioning.  In fact, that kind of faith-promoting story should have its own chapter.  Maybe they could have made space for it on the gold plates by skipping an Isaiah chapter or two.

This feels like the amateurish stories I used to write as a small child.  My heroes were so wonderful and so perfect that I was prone to mentioning previous heroic exploits in passing without any explanation or exposition whatsoever.  It was like there was too much one-dimensional greatness to be contained in one character, and it would leak out all over the page.

We get it, Joseph.  Nephi was really righteous and his priesthood power was mighty.  Stop trying too hard to prove it to us.


Nothing Varying
The disciples split the crowd into twelve groups and begin teaching them (verse 8):
And when they had ministered those same words which Jesus had spoken—nothing varying from those words which Jesus had spoken—behold, they knelt again and prayed to the Father in the name of Jesus.
Interesting.  They recited the precise words that Jesus had used.  After all, why change what came straight from the horse's mouth, right?  In that case, why bother with continuing revelation?  Couldn't God have given Joseph Smith all the essential doctrines to publish at the same time?  Then, in an era where books are abundantly mass-produced, we could have everything we need to know, word for word.  And it would be much easier to remember if nothing varied from God's exact phraseology.

But instead we have countless General Conference addresses taking slightly different approaches to the same tired concepts ad nauseum.  If the gospel is so simple, as many Mormons have suggested, wouldn't one book of scripture with no convoluted variations or apostolic interpretations be the best way to disseminate it?


Nephi Pulls an Alma
Everybody decides they want the Holy Ghost, and then this happens (verse 11):
And it came to pass that Nephi went down into the water and was baptized.
That's a very suspicious use of the passive voice.  Who baptized him?  It really sounds like no one baptized him.  But Jesus isn't here yet and Nephi's the first one in the bunch to get baptized, so he must have, somehow, magically gotten the authority to baptize and used it on himself.

Which is basically what Alma did, much to my annoyance (see A Broken Line of Authority). 

What's the point of having ordinances, anyway?  If you don't need official priesthood authority to perform them, why can't everyone baptize themselves?  And if the Holy Ghost "did fall upon" the multitude after their baptisms, why do we need the official laying-on-of-hands confirmation for modern members?  How is any of this doctrinally consistent?


Dude, Where's My God?
So then we have angels show up and minister unto the people.  Then Jesus pops in for another visit and ministers to the people.  At some point, these people are going to become overministered.  Next, Jesus orders the crowd to kneel and pray, so this is what happens (verse 18):
And behold, they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.
Whoa...let's roll things back a couple of pages to 3 Nephi 18:19.
Therefore ye must always pray unto the Father in my name;
When did Jesus ever tell them to pray to him?  When has any modern prophet extolled the benefits of praying to the Son instead of the Father?  And why are we giving further ambiguity to the godhead's identity and division of labor?  Jesus is their Lord and their God?  Isn't that what the Father is?  But Jesus is about to go pray to the Father, so they have to be different people, except they're both Lords and Gods, capital L, capital G?  What is going on here?


Reusing a Cop-Out
Does verse 34 sound familiar?
Nevertheless, so great and marvelous were the words which [Jesus] prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man.
Was God going to strike one of the Nephites dead if he attempted to transcribe Jesus's prayer?  If it was really that great and marvelous, shouldn't it be exactly the kind of thing we should be taught about?  Or are we still sticking with the bizarre implication that no language can properly capture what Jesus used a language to communicate?


Jesus Doesn't Understand Faith
After wandering off to pray to his Father in Heaven a few times, Jesus confers with his disciples (verse 35):
And it came to pass that when Jesus had made an end of praying he came again to the disciples, and said unto them: So great faith have I never seen among all the Jews; wherefore I could not show unto them so great miracles, because of their unbelief.
This is such a bizarre thing to say. If Jesus had destroyed most of the Jewish civilization with a series of unprecedented natural disasters, beset that part of the world with three days of impenetrable darkness, been introduced by the booming voice of God before publicly descending in a beam of celestial light, let huge crowds touch the wounds from his crucifixion, healed every sick person within the sound of his voice, and brought down hosts of angels to minister unto them in the midst of heavenly fire, the Jews probably would have been just as enthralled by him.

This is not faith.  This is merely a totally reasonable belief in marvelous miracles that these people have witnessed personally.  You'd think the guy who demands faith from us would know when it's legitimate and when he's manufactured it himself.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The C Word

I hired an ex-Mormon.

I can't remember how this came up, but recently one of my newer employees mentioned that he had a lot of Mormons in his family.  I'd harbored suspicions of a Mormon background for a couple of weeks, but for the sake of professionalism, I was not going to be the first one to bring it up.

Well...it turns out my suspicions were right and my Mormon-dar is in excellent working condition.  This guy's family apparently left when he was pretty young, which is obviously great for him.  The revelation of our LDS connection started a chain reaction of discussions of Mormonism, Utah, and our personal backgrounds in the church.

He asked me if I still get Mormons knocking on my door, because he's still on a list of inactives somewhere and his family periodically gets bothered by members of the church who are trying to reach out.  So I told him that when I first moved out of my parents' house, my family provided the church with my new address.  I specifically instructed my parents not to share my address with the church the next time I moved, but a few years later I got a Christmas card from a man I'd never met who was the Elders' Quorum President of a ward I'd never attended and I had to send a nasty email to a Bishop I'd never even heard of to make sure this wouldn't become a regular thing.

Another coworker, after listening to our exchange about the various ways the church tries to track people down, offered us a sage nod and the simple conclusion:  "Yeah, that's a cult.  You guys were in a cult."

Like it's just that obvious.

It took me a long time, even after I'd stopped believing in the church's doctrine, to classify it as a cult.  Maybe it was processing time or decompression or something, but it's continually astounding to me how clearly evident it is to outsiders (so to speak) that there are some policies, behaviors, and cultural values in Mormonism that are seriously not okay.  Or, as this other coworker termed it, creepy.

And this was without mentioning the creepier aspects like the baptisms for the dead and the so-sacred-it's-secret temple rituals and the crushingly insular mindset and the whispering public testimonies in toddlers' ears and the hero worship and the temple garments and the regular inoculations against apostasy and the frequently disparaging mischaracterization of ex-members.

As much as I don't think that using the word cult is constructive when discussing the church with faithful Mormons, that doesn't change the church's status.  It's still a cult.  Some of us were just lucky enough to get out of it before it locked us in for life.

Monday, August 15, 2016

3 Nephi 18: Compare and Contrast

Jesus continues to be rampant in ancient America.


An Understated Miracle?
At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus requests that bread and wine be brought to him so that he can perform the ritual of the sacrament.  The disciples dutifully scurry off to return with the requested refreshments.  Jesus then proceeds to feed everyone in attendance.

But these people had just survived the most potent cocktail of natural disasters the western hemisphere has ever seen.  How many containers of wine hadn't been smashed in all the destruction?  How much bread had escaped falling into the muck and then remained unspoiled after three days of darkness?  How much ready-to-eat bread and wine could there have been?

We all know Jesus has a unique ability to stretch small quantities of sustenance to feed huge crowds.  But considering the probable scarcity of resources in this post-quasi-apocalyptic setting, you'd think it would at least bear mentioning that he performed another miracle as he demonstrated the sacrament ordinance.


Jesus is Above the Law
As he distributes the bread and wine, Jesus explains their significance to his audience.  He uses similar phraseology to the familiar modern-day sacrament prayer, but it's not identical by any means.
Yet in any LDS congregation today, the presiding authority is charged with ensuring that the blessing on the bread and the blessing on the water are both recited perfectly.  If the poor priest makes a mistake, the prayer must be repeated correctly.

But when Jesus performs the sacrament, he can do it however he wants, apparently.  He can just kind of summarize the themes of the blessing without sticking to any official wording.  A god that is the same yesterday, today, and forever is perfectly happy to accept Jesus's bullet-points rendition but cannot accept a sixteen-year-old's accidental substitution of the word "this" for the word "it"?

And, of course, there's the whole wine-versus-water thing too.


Open Arms
Verse 22 doesn't sound like the modern church:
...and ye shall not forbid any man from coming unto you when ye shall meet together, but suffer them that they may come unto you and forbid them not;
Okay, just to get this out of the way, God should definitely have a tighter grasp on English grammar than this.  At the beginning, he's using "any man" as the direct object.  Without warning, he uses the plural pronouns "them" and "they" to refer back to the singular "any man."

But more importantly, "forbid them not" is hardly a slogan the current church leadership subscribes to.  Excommunication and disfellowshipping shouldn't exist in a religion founded upon a book in which Jesus reminds his church to welcome every single person to their worship services.  And last year's policy that essentially requires children of gay parents to repudiate their loved ones' lifestyles would be utterly unfathomable to Joseph Smith's depiction of Christ.

To be fair, I'm not aware of situations in which ex-Mormons or gay people are actually barred from attending sacrament meetings.  But while that may adhere to the letter of the law, it has no regard for the spirit of the law.  It's my understanding that, ideally, churches should be places where sinners can come together and find peace as equals.  While all kinds of sinners are ostensibly permitted to attend church functions, singling out certain types of "sinners," demonizing them for their differences in philosophy or lifestyle, and driving massive wedges between them and their families is a pretty effective way to implicitly make them unwelcome in the chapels.

Forbid them not.  Nobody's perfect.  What right does a church claiming to represent a god of love and mercy have to drive people away with guilt and shame?


The Numbers Don't Lie
In a similar vein, verse 31 sounds a bit more like the Monsonites, warning that the unrepentant sinner should be "numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people...."  The next verse clarifies that this sinner should not be thrown out of the house of worship and that the church should continue to minister to him.

Because apparently numbers are just magical enough that a sinner is only a threat to the congregation if he's counted as a member in the formal church statistical report.  I guess that means I'm doing everything I can to tear the church down by remaining stoutly apostate but not removing my name from the official rolls.


One of my Least Favorite Verses
Verse 29 straight-up screwed with my head when I was a teenager:
For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul;
Hey, guess what?  Overwhelming cultural pressure at odds with divinely unequivocal condemnation is a recipe for disaster!

I struggled with masturbation all through high school.  I confessed it to my bishop (who was, by some sick twist of fate, also my father), but I later lied about having stopped when we had one of our follow-up chats on the subject.  I hated taking the sacrament because I knew I was unworthy, but I couldn't bear the embarrassment of skipping it or the thought of being an unrighteous disappointment to my parents.  This scripture made me feel like I was basically fucked either way.  No wonder I was beset with such inescapable ontological despair as a kid.

I usually make an effort to tone down some of my conversational profanity on this blog, but this scripture reminds me of so much of the unnecessary suffering of my youth.  Fuck this verse.  It has no doctrinal purpose, but it sure does a lot of damage.

Friday, July 29, 2016

3 Nephi 17: Overblown Nonsense

Jesus, being awesome, realizes that he's speaking truths beyond the comprehension of his poor audience.  He advises them to pray about it, sleep on it, and return in the morning for further edification.


Occasional Mercy
Apparently moved by the people's desire for him to stay a little longer, Jesus makes this statement in verse 7:
Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.
I mean, that's cool and all.  I like that Jesus heals the sick and afflicted. But it's weird that this is kind of a humanizing moment for him—he was busy being all godly and then the puppy-dog eyes of the Nephites stirred him to compassion.  But he's not a human.  Compassion shouldn't be a transient state for him, it should be a permanent aspect of his character.   No amount of adoration from his followers should have elicited any extra measure of mercy from him because he should have already been optimally merciful.

This scene also illustrates a frustrating paradox of the godhead's behavior.  Why does he decide to be merciful to these people and heal their sicknesses, but plenty of his other devout followers die of awful afflictions on a regular basis?  How is Jesus a personification of the same cosmic governance that deemed it necessary to permit the mass burning of the faithful converts of Ammonihah?

In the following verse, Jesus explains that these Nephites' faith is of an adequate magnitude to permit them to be healed, which kind of adds insult to injury for every pious person who's been forced to suffer any serious ailment.

God likes to claim that he's a god of mercy, but his son's actions as a resurrected being serve to highlight that mercy is not one of his most enduring priorities.


Trust Me, it was Great
During this chapter, Jesus prays publicly to his Father in Heaven.  But we have no idea what he said (verses 16-17):
The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father; 
And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.
These are empty hyperboles designed to make the content of the prayer sound wonderful without forcing the author to actually come up with something wonderful.  This is the kind of writing that finds its most comfortable home in fantastical fiction.
Here's one example that comes readily to mind...
What doctrinal truths does this story relate, other than the already well-established scriptural claim that Jesus is awesome?  What's the purpose of mentioning this at all if the magnificent specifics are going to be completely glossed over?  I mean, if Jesus's prayer was so powerful that his audience was filled with such prodigious joy, isn't that exactly the kind of thing the scriptures should preserve for our benefit?

And also, if "tongue cannot speak, neither can there be written by any man...so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak," I think it's fair to ask what language did Jesus speak these things in and what words did he use.  Because clearly the words exist, otherwise how could Jesus have spoken them?  The description of the Savior's prayer doesn't even make logical sense, but it definitely sounds cool—which I suppose was probably its primary purpose.


Redundant Ministry
At the close of this chapter, Jesus speaks the epic line, "Behold your little ones" and the Nephites look on in awe as this happens (verse 24):
And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.
Again, this definitely sounds cool.  But what exactly were the angels doing when they were ministering unto the children?  Jesus had just healed every single sick person in the whole multitude.  And not three verses earlier, he'd just blessed and prayed for each child, individually.  What possible physical or spiritual needs could these kids have still had that a mere angel could have provided?

I mean, how would you react if someone ceremoniously (and pyrotechnically) presented you with your kindergarten diploma after you just finished framing your doctorate?