Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Alma 3. Curses, Works, and Eternal Fates

In the aftermath of the battle, the Nephites return to their homes to size up the extent of the devastation that war has wrought on their society.

Questionable Mark
For some ill-explained reason, the Amlicites, having joined with the Lamanites, decide to mark their foreheads with a red color.  I guess they got their hands on some magenta permanent markers and went to town on themselves.  I suppose it could have been a tattoo of some kind.  But it seems pretty strange to me that every person in this splinter group (implying men, women and children) would mark themselves.  Of course, this was all done, apparently, to fulfill the word of God, who cursed the Lamanites with a darker skin and extended this curse to any who allied with them (assuming that the alliance included some kind of skin marking).

The most delicious irony of this chapter is contained in its explanation of how the Amlicites, by marking themselves and joining up with the Lamanites, effectively cursed themselves:
Now I would that ye should see that they brought upon themselves the curse; and even so doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation.
Whoa, whoa, back up there.  Every man that is cursed has brought it upon himself?  That must mean that all Lamanite children were born white and received their dark skin some time after reaching the age of accountability.  Surely they could have done nothing in their infancies to deserve their curse.  After all, the curse was originally placed on their distant ancestors.  Their ancestors may have brought it on themselves. The adult Amlicites may have brought it on themselves.  But baby Lamanites were innocent of any wrongdoing.  So, according to verse 19 (quoted above), how could they have been born bearing the curse of dark skin?

Rough Concept Rolling
Verse 26 is a little peculiar:
And in one year were thousands and tens of thousands of souls sent to the eternal world, that they might reap their rewards according to their works, whether they were good or whether they were bad, to reap eternal happiness or eternal misery, according to the spirit which they listed to obey, whether it be a good spirit or a bad one.
First of all, it seems kind of weird to mention works and the eternal destinations of souls in the same breath without mentioning grace or the atonement in some way.  But what really caught my eye was the implication that the afterlife is a binary affair.  Happiness or misery.  Heaven or Hell.  Exaltation or damnation.

But the Mormon concept of the afterlife is far from binary.  There are three degrees of glory, the highest of which is subdivided into three sections of its own.  In addition, there is Outer Darkness for Lucifer's original followers and the Sons of Perdition.  In Mormon doctrine it's not so cut-and-dry as "bad people go to hell and good people go to heaven."

So...if the Book of Mormon contains the fullness of the gospel, why is it that its purported authors didn't know the details about the afterlife?  The most logical answer, of course, is that the book was written by Joseph Smith, who hadn't finished constructing his personal conception of postmortal existence (or many other aspects of his religion) at the time of the book's publication.

The Book of Mormon was published in 1830.  Doctrine and Covenants Section 76, which outlines the degrees of glory, was written in 1832.  The King Follett sermon, in which Joseph Smith introduced the doctrine of eternal progression, was delivered in 1844.  The Book of Mormon's simplistic treatment of the afterlife is indicative of its status at the beginning of Smith's doctrinal evolution.

And if the doctrine evolves, how can it be said to be the doctrine of a god who is the same yesterday, today and forever?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Alma 2: Alma, Warrior-Monk

Now, five years into the reign of the judges, the good people of Zarahemla have to contend with a new Book of Mormon villain, Amlici.

Almost the Easiest Coup of All Time
Amlici is a former follower of the recently-executed Nehor who has gained support from many of the Zarahemlites.  As an adherent to the religious movement started by Nehor, Amlici is of course evil and wicked and in favor of all kinds of iniquities like destroying the true church and persecuting its members.  Amlici's play for power is described in this chapter:
  1. Amlici's followers want Amlici to become king of Zarahemla (verse 2).
  2. Righteous people don't want Amlici to become king of Zarahemla (verses 3-4).
  3. People from both sides gather in groups, informally vote on the matter, and bring their opinions to the judges (verses 5-6).
  4. The judges, following the will of the majority, proclaim that Amlici can not, in fact, be the king (verse 7).
This chain of events is unusual and illogical.  A man without any legal claim to leadership pretty much asks to be appointed a supreme ruler in the place of a lawfully designed network of democratically elected officials...and the government actually takes him seriously?  

If I sent a letter to President Obama telling him not that I want to be President and plan to run for office, but instead that I should be President right now, he's not going to run the letter over to Justice Roberts and say, "What do you think...should my whole administration step down so this guy can run the country?"  That's what a stupid person would do.  So I guess that means either the Nephites were stupid or the person who made them up was.

Alma Has Entirely Too Much Power
As Amlici breaks his people off of the society, sets himself up as their king, and plans a war with Zarahemla, let's examine Alma's responsibilities:
Now Alma, being the chief judge and the governor of the people of Nephi, therefore he went up with his people, yea, with his captains, and chief captains, yea, at the head of his armies, against the Amlicites to battle.
So not only is he the high priest and prophet, but he's also the chief judge and the governor—as well as a military leader.  Seems to me that, despite all King Mosiah's preaching, the Nephites have given way too much power to just one guy.  The system of judges seems like simply King Alma's cabinet of advisors.  The only real difference between Amlici and Alma now is that Alma isn't a bloodthirsty jerk.

How Righteous Men Fight
Or maybe Alma is a bloodthirsty jerk.  Let's look at his performance in the second battle, after a huge army of Lamanites have inexplicably allied with the Amlicites:
  • He prays for his life to be spared so that he can be a (bloody) "instrument" in God's hands, although he claims it's so that he can save his people (verse 30).
  • He kills Amlici himself and then tries to kill the king of the Lamanites too (verses 31-32).
  • His army throws the bodies of the dead Lamanites in the river to make a bridge so they can cross to the other side and kill the rest of their army (verse 34).
  • His men continue killing the Lamanites and Amlicites as they retreated over a great distance (verse 36).
  • The Nephites chased their enemies so far from civilization that many of the Lamanites died from their wounds or were killed by wild animals (verse 38).
Yeah.  This Alma guy is a great role model.  Not only is he power hungry, but he has an inexcusable lust for battle, no respect for the dead and little restraint to speak of.  

Friday, November 8, 2013

Alma 1. Nehor the Horrible

Alma the Elder is now dead.  King Mosiah II is now dead.  A new government of elected judges is ushered in across the land of Zarahemla.  Welcome to the Book of Alma.

A Little Proofreading Goes a Long Way
The Book of Alma starts off...poorly:
Now it came to pass that in the first year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, from this time forward, king Mosiah having gone the way of all the earth, having warred a good warfare, walking uprightly before God, leaving none to reign in his stead; nevertheless he had established laws, and they were acknowledged by the people; therefore they were obliged to abide by the laws which he had made.
That is one looooong sentence fragment.  It never explains what came to pass in the first year of the judges.  Instead, this verse goes off on this long tangential review of Mosiah's life and his arrangements for the government following his death.  The basis upon which the sentence begins is never resolved.

If this is, according to Joseph Smith, the most correct book on the planet, then why does it seem to have such a loose grasp on the language of its first publication?

What if I Plead to Priestcraft in the Second Degree and Serve 25 to Life?
This guy named Nehor starts preaching stuff that doesn't jive with God's Zarahemlatopian church. He tells the people that church leaders should become "popular" and make their living from their followers instead of from their own vocations.  This, which of course is common practice for the top leaders of the modern church, is later condemned by Chief Judge Alma the Younger as "priestcraft."  In fact, when Nehor is brought to be judged after he kills Gideon during a religious argument, Alma seems more miffed about the priestcraft than about the murder:
But Alma said unto [Nehor]:  Behold, this is the first time that priestcraft has been introduced among this people.  And behold, thou art not only guilty of priestcraft, but has endeavored to enforce it by the sword; and were priestcraft to be enforced among this people it would prove their entire destruction.
Yeah, but murder doesn't destroy people, right?  Just make sure those priests keep their jobs and don't rely on the church and their celebrity to make money!

Black and White—or Black and Red
The remainder of the chapter paints a starkly contrasting picture of the divergent factors of Zarahemlan society.  There are the faithful members of God's approved church, who are peaceful, who don't persecute those of other faiths, and are humble and altruistic.  Because of their righteousness, they are blessed with financial success.  Then there are those who do not belong to God's church, who are into idolatry, the occult, conflict and pride.  They persecute members of the true church and do all kinds of other no-nos, including theft, whoredoms, and murder. And they did not prosper nearly so much as the members of God's congregations.

This paints a false picture of reality for modern Mormons.  It makes things out to be black and white—members are good people and will be wealthy but non-members are bad people and will be poor.  Of course, the text doesn't explicitly promise this scenario, but it explains how it worked out for Zarahemla and implies that it was because of the same God that modern Mormons now worship.  So why wouldn't it be the case in the Latter Days, right?

But church membership, goodness, and tax brackets don't break down that simply.  There's plenty of church members who are terrible people and commit terrible sins.  There's plenty of non-Mormons who are wonderful people and accomplish a lot of good for the human race.  And I'd like to see statistics on the economic situation on members versus non-members, because I have hunch that a claim that Mormons are more financially prosperous than their non-Mormon counterparts would have no statistical backing whatsoever.

But despite reality, this chapter tells faithful Mormons that they'll be rich and all those evil adult filmmakers are going to live in cardboard boxes and wear rags.  Which seems pretty absurd to me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A New Milestone for Women

Good morning, brothers and sisters.  It fills me with joy to see all of you gathered here today, eager to be edified by the Spirit.  I only hope that my talk doesn't keep you from being edified for too long.  (pause for polite laughter)

When the Bishop asked me to speak to you today about the recent announcement concerning the new General Women's Meeting, which was tagged by as a "milestone," I was pretty excited.  I was also pretty out of breath, too, considering that I sprinted all the way from the bishop's office to the cultural hall when he gave me that look.  (pause for polite laughter)  You guys know the look!  (pause for scattered laughter)  That look that says, "you can either come accept a speaking assignment now or I'm going to call you as nursery leader."  (pause for awkward silence due to overselling the punchline)

Anyway, I have to tell you, I think it's just wonderful that we have a living prophet today, even Thomas S. Monson, who speaks for the Lord and dictates the marvelous press releases of our loving Heavenly Father.  Here's an excerpt from the latest one:
As the women of the Church gather together--sisters, mothers, and daughters--they, their families, and the Church will be strengthened and blessed.
Isn't that fantastic?  I'll just take a moment and let those words sink in so you can feel how palpably inspired they are!  (pause for silent contemplation)

So what the Church has done, in order to better demonstrate the equality of women within our membership, is consolidate the annual Relief Society broadcast with the annual Young Women meeting and move them into General Conference Madness.  Now, twice a year, all the women of the church are invited to a special meeting just for them--except that, obviously, it will be presided over by the male leadership.  They'll be taught about their important womanly duties, such as getting married, being mothers, and supporting their husbands in the priesthood.

Now, according to, a milestone is defined as "a significant event or stage in the life, progress, development or the like of a person, nation, etc."  Just look at all the significant progress being made in the development of our nation of righteous women!  Now they have twice as many broadcasts intended for a non-Y-chromosomal audience instead of being targeted at two age groups!  Truly the prophets and the apostles physically converse with God the Father on a daily basis!

I'd also like to take a moment to address the issue of gender equality directly.  (pause for it to dawn on the ward that shit just got real) I know there's been some murmuring among us--probably because of taking the world's values too much to heart--about how women are not treated as equals in the church.  I think this demonstrates pretty clearly that women are on the same plane as men--if not higher!  After all, the scheduling of this new meeting places it precisely one week before the Priesthood General Session of General Conference.  Not only do the ladies get to go a whole week before the men (implying deference to their higher virtues and duties) but they are also encouraged to bring all sisters age eight and up (as opposed to twelve and up for the priesthood session).  The Brethren are clearly more eager to teach to the Daughters of God than to our Priesthood Holders.

Speaking directly to the women, now...I know that some of you may feel tempted at times to wear pants to church.  And I know some of you feel that it is within your rights to try to get into certain priesthood meetings to which you were not invited.  And I know some of you feel the urge to point out the disparity in leadership between men and women.  And I know some of you may even start to think that women should be given the priesthood.  But to those of you who may struggle with Gender Inequality Dissent Addiction, or GIDA, I exhort you prayerfully consider the pattern the Brethren have laid out for us with their meeting schedules.  They've designed independent but equivalent special meetings for the men as well as the women in which each sex can receive divine counsel--and, hopefully, personal revelation--concerning their stewardships as mothers or priesthood holders.  A leadership responsible for creating such a balanced, if occasionally partitioned, method of preaching the word of God cannot, in good faith, be criticized for sexism.

And besides--it's the worst-kept secret in the Church that the women are really the stronger spirits.  Gordon B. Hinckley once said that behind every great prophet of this dispensation was a loyal wife--reminding him to read his scriptures.  (pause for yawns)  And I can tell you from personal experience that even though I've given a few stressful anointings of the sick in my time, I tremble in fear at the thought of staying home with my two-year-old like my wife does every day while I'm at work!  (pause for laughter on the off-chance anyone is still listening)

In closing, brothers and sisters, I'd just like to say that, not only are the separate roles of women as nurturers and men as priesthood holders divinely established, but so is this landmark new meeting schedule.  I'm actually excited for my wife to go to this new meeting! I think it will be great for the sisters to get together twice a year and have obnoxiously perky, administratively impotent middle-aged female figureheads whose supervisors are all men tell them how blessed they are to be women in the church.

I say these things in the name of our Lord and Savior, even Jesus Christ, who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, who knows all that we have suffered, including crazy fantasies of gender inequality, amen.

(pause to grab a tissue from the podium before sitting down)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mosiah 29: No More Kings...Eventually

Mosiah is getting old and his sons have all been bitten by the missionary bug, and so the Land of Zarahemla is rocked by a succession crisis.

Mosiah II:  Almost as Stupid as Limhi
Marvel at the spectacular process Mosiah goes through when he decides upon whom he should confer his kingdom:
  1. He asks the people who they want as their next king, and they apparently overwhelmingly want his son Aaron (verses 1-2).
  2. Mosiah realizes that neither Aaron nor his other sons will accept the throne because they're too busy spreading the gospel (verse 3).
  3. Mosiah reasons that appointing someone other than Aaron could result in Aaron changing his mind and trying to usurp the throne, leading to a great schism that would ultimately lead to lots of war and bloodshed and iniquity among the people because that's totally a likely outcome (verses 7, 9).
  4. The people have no right to "destroy" Aaron by appointing someone other than him to be the king and permitting the possibility of the above scenario (verses 8-9).
  5. Mosiah unilaterally opts to appoint an ill-defined group of judges to rule in his stead, but only after he's dead (verse 11).
  6. He reasons that, if only kings could be relied on to be wholly good and just, then monarchy would be a perfect system of government.  Sadly, not all kings are righteous, so monarchy is a bad idea (verses 13-24).
  7. Mosiah touts his own righteous management style, probably as a way to try and justify keeping power for the remainder of his life despite preaching against the risks of monarchy and coming up with a supposedly better system (verses 14-15).
Not only does this whole thing paint Mosiah as kind of a hypocrite ("I just reigned for thirty years, but I'm here to tell you that kings are bad news, so as soon as I'm dead you guys need to stop having kings!") but it also makes him look kind of bad at problem solving and critical reasoning.  The important problem here appears to be that monarchy is too risky, but he wastes a whole lot of time worrying about who to appoint as king, predicting doom should he choose the wrong person and assuming that his children will be complete screwups.

It's also worth mentioning that Alma doesn't seem to weigh in on the matter, despite being arguably the second most powerful official in Nephite society and having addressed the same issue a few chapters earlier.

Democracy is apparently very important to KING Mosiah, which is why he's so excited for it to be instituted after his death.  He fails to mention the vital fact that his proposed oligarchy would limit the amount of power given to an individual, thus diminishing the government's capacity for corruption.  Instead, he suggests that the judges be elected by the voice of the people and sings the praises of majority rule:
Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.
By this reasoning, it's probable that the LDS church is not the true church and that premarital sex is right.  After all, the majority of people on the planet worship someone other than the Mormon version of God and (at least in Western societies) premarital sex has become far more widely accepted than it was a few generations ago.  But I doubt you'll find any Mormons preaching nondenominational Christianity and free love.  Maybe the next verse explains why:
And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time tha the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.
The basic principle here is to trust the people—but use God as a fail-safe.  If the people start making poor choices en masse, then God will just visit them with vindictive discipline.  We can clearly see how this pattern has played out repeatedly in American history.  The country went into a period of deep economic depression following the expulsion of the Mormons from the midwest.  After Roe v. Wade, there was a massive earthquake that caused a good chunk of Los Angeles to fall into the sea.  And every state to legalize gay marriage so far has reported twice as many cases of avian flu than the more righteous states.  

It's so obvious what's going on.  And it was all prophesied in the Book of Mormon.

So the people of Zarahemla get all psyched for this new system of government.  And they elect their judges.  And they choose Alma the Younger as the chief judge—despite the fact that he is also the high priest.  After all of Mosiah's pontificating about how too much power in too few hands can run horrible risks for a society, the people immediately make the highest ranking religious official the highest ranking government official.  Congratulations, Alma, you just did what the papacy spent a few centuries of the middle ages trying to accomplish.

You.  Nephites.  You're all morons.