Monday, March 31, 2014

Alma 16: Continual War

Suddenly, without warning, we're back into war mode.  Even though we're fresh off a block of missionary chapters, by the end of verse 1 there is "a cry of war heard throughout the land."

Pre-Modern Revelation, Or Why Alma Prays For Other People
The Lamanites attack the Nephite nation suddenly, swooping in to level a city and take a bunch of suburbanites captive.  Nephite commander Zoram and his two sons hurry over to Alma, who is still the church's high priest, to beg for his help:
...therefore they went unto him and desired of him to know whither the Lord would that they should go into the wilderness in search of their brethren, who had been taken captive by the Lamanites.
Alma prays about it and returns with the location of the Lamanite army.  Zoram uses this information to surprise the Lamanites, rout their forces, and rescue every last one of the captives.

And that's all great.  Except that's not how revelation is supposed to work according to Mormonism.  Zoram should have been able to pray for his own answers.  After all, God is no respecter of persons, so Alma's prayer should have had no greater effect than Zoram's would have.  Why run to the prophet, especially considering Alma's stewardship was over the church, not over the military?

You Keep Using That Word...
Take a look at verse 12:
And the Lamanites did not come again to war against the Nephites until the fourteenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi.  And thus for three years did the people of Nephi have continual peace in all the land.
This is the eighth usage of the phrase "continual peace" in the Book of Mormon so far.  The earliest chronological mention of "continual peace" was in Mosiah 10, which was at most 110 years before this.

Furthermore, this is the third usage of that same phrase so far in the Book of Alma alone, which means that, over the course of just fourteen years, the people of Nephi have enjoyed three separate periods of "continual peace."  If you ask me, it's not very continual if it only lasts a few years.  And I feel like the eternal God that supposedly inspired this book would have agreed.

Justice, Sweet Justice
The big story in this chapter is the destruction of Ammonihah.  When the Lamanites attacked, they started with Ammonihah, the city that had rejected the gospel, burned the righteous, and kicked out the prophet:
...and the people of Ammonihah were destroyed; yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed, and also their great city, which they said God could not destroy, because of its greatness.
That sounds to me like:
...and everybody in Ammonihah was slaughtered.  The city, which Nehor's followers had claimed was indestructible, was also obliterated.  And thus we see that those arrogant godless dicks got what was coming to them.
Rejoice!  God is good!  He doles out harsh blanket punishments on large groups of people like they're all identical!  He destroys the wicked by the hand of the even more wicked!  He wreaks vengeance upon those who test his power!  Truly he loves us all!

Why Not Ammonihah?
Following Zoram's victory over the Lamanite armies, the Nephite civilization lapses back into another period of continual temporary peace.  The gospel was taught, the church grew, and the people were excellent to one another.  And this happens:
...the Lord did pour out his Spirit on all the face of the land to prepare the minds of the children of men, or to prepare their hearts to receive the word which should be taught among them at the time of his coming
That they might not be hardened against the word, that they might not be unbelieving, and go on to destruction, but that they might receive the word with joy... 
If God can manipulate the masses so easily by simply pouring out his spirit so that they don't reject his word, why couldn't he have done that to the people of Ammonihah?  If he'd just "prepared their hearts" properly, God could have spared those people physical death and spiritual doom.

Sure, maybe there were a lot of wicked people in Ammonihah who wouldn't have received the spirit, but considering how many Alma and Amulek were able to win over, he could have at least softened the soil a little bit so that there wasn't such a violent backlash against the believers.  With God all things are possible, right?

Nope.  Let's just let a whole bunch of people die instead.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Alma 15: Sanctuary in Sidom

Alma and Amulek leave Ammonihah for the more gospel-friendly city of Sidom, where they meet up with some inexplicable and not aforementioned survivors of the Chief Judge's purge.

Zeezrom:  Worried Sick
One of the refugees our missionary dream team encounters is Zeezrom, the lawyer who'd stood up to them during their address to the masses in Ammonihah.  Zeezrom has assumed that Alma and Amulek have both been killed "because of his iniquity."  His guilt has thrown him into a terrible fever, and when he hears that they are alive and well, he sends for them from his sickbed.

Alma then asks him about his faith in Christ, and pronounces a blessing upon him because of the strength of his testimony.  He immediately "[leaps] upon his feet and [begins] to walk."  It is heavily implied that he has been healed by God because of his firm belief.

Assuming this is a true story, though, it seems more likely that his psychosomatic symptoms disappear because he is confronted with a reality that absolves him of his guilt.  This whole time he's been thinking he's somehow responsible for the deaths of two of the Lord's prophets and here they both are, standing front of him, not a scratch on them.  What a relief!  His feverish sweats abate because he's no longer suffering under a crushing sense of guilt for crimes that have eternal ramifications.

But yeah, sure.  A God who just let a whole bunch of his devotees die in a fire cares enough to cure this one self-flagellating guy of his physical afflictions.  That makes perfect sense too.

Ammonihah:   A Portent of Things to Come
The story of Nehor and the effect he has on Ammonihah may be the wisest, most prophetic thing contained in the Book of Mormon.

Nehor was a bad guy who started a religious movement back in chapter one.  He began the movement to gain status in society and amass a following.  His success led him to bolder acts and he eventually had some trouble with the law, resulting in his untimely death. But years after he died, his influence persisted, especially in one pocket of the country where the people and the government were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the movement he founded.  Horrible crimes were perpetrated by those who took up his mantle.  Long after he was gone, the damage that one power-hungry con man could do was still felt across the nation.

Sound familiar?  It's true—the Book of Mormon does prophesy of Joseph Smith after all. Kind of.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Alma 14: Death, Death, and More Death

Now that Alma and Amulek's speeches are over with, the plot can finally progress a little.

You Can't Search What You Don't Have
Verse one is a little problematic:
And it came to pass after he [Alma] had made an end of speaking unto the people many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent, and to search the scriptures.
Search the scriptures?  What scriptures did they search?  Considering that the preferred form of record-keeping according to this book is etching things into metal, I highly doubt that there were a lot of copies of the scriptures lying around.  It's also my understanding that, archaeologically speaking, paper was far from ubiquitous in pre-Columbian America.  And the printing press hadn't been invented yet, so mass-produced copies of the New Testament were a long way off.  I doubt there were many copies of the scriptures available in a town as wicked as Ammonihah.

Saying that a large amount of people "search the scriptures" sounds a lot like something you would write if you had never lived in an age without easily printed books.  It sounds like the phrasing you'd use if you grew up in a modern, literate, industrialized society and you had a copy of the Bible in your home.  It doesn't sound like something you'd say if you were an ancient American prophet and you understood that the limited availability of the scriptures severely curtailed people's ability to pore over them personally.

We Need MOAR Witnesses!
Then we move on to the most controversial event of the Book of Mormon since Nephi cut off Laban's head.

In response to the waves Alma and Amulek have made, the Chief Judge of Ammonihah rounds up all their followers (including children) and throws them into a big fire.  He also makes our two heroes stand on the sidelines and watch as all the righteous believers are burned to death.  Amulek turns to Alma and asks:
How can we witness this awful scene?  Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
To which Alma shrewdly responds:
The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing...that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.
If that isn't a load of bull, I don't know what is.  God, who knows the deepest desires of our hearts, requires witnesses?  He needs people to die so that his judgments will be just?  Come on.

If your mind is made up to throw hundreds of people into a massive bonfire, you're evil.  If God saves them from being burned alive, you're just as evil as you were before...and both you and God know it.  Sparing all those people pain and death doesn't diminish the depravity of the Chief Judge's actions.  And besideshow many witnesses do you need before it's enough to condemn the man for his crimes?  After he throws one guy into the fire, he's a murderer. If God really needs a witness that badly, why can't he use the first poor schmuck's innocent blood as the evidence and let all the other people miraculously escape the flames?

So much unnecessary death.

The Chief Judge is an Idiot
Following that grisly scene, the Chief Judge does something stupidhe throws Alma and Amulek in prison.  I have no idea why.  He'd just murdered all of their followers.  What's to stop him from murdering them too?  Especially considering that, due to the public uproar the two of them had created, he probably had more legal reason to punish them than he did to punish all those people he just burned.  But, like a poorly-written fictional character, he decides to imprison them.  It's kind of a "No, Mr. Bond, I'm not going to kill you, I'm going to let you live so that you have a chance to escape my evil clutches and defeat me" moment.  Alma claims in verse 13 that the reason they weren't burned with the rest is because their "work is not finished."  How convenient.

He taunts them.  He beats them.  He starves them.  He sends in a bunch of people to question them, but they refuse to answer.  In his rage, he asks them:  "Know ye not that I have power to deliver you up unto the flames?"  In Alma's shoes, I would have responded, "Are you kidding me?  I just watched you burn a few hundred of my friends in a huge fire and you're asking me if I realize you can burn me in a huge fire?"

The Chief Judge is an idiot.  After all, he was a follower of Nehor, who was a murderer.  Although I guess it's fair to say that the pupil outstripped his master on that one.

Violence is Next to Godliness
Finally, after "many days" of imprisonment and abuse, Alma prays for "strength according to [their] faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance."  That's when he and his sidekick hulk out, break their bonds, and scare the crap out of the Chief Judge and his cronies.

Oh, and also the entire prison is reduced to rubble and everyone dies except Alma and Amulek.

This story sends two messages.  First, it's that God plays favorites.  If you start messing with his chosen prophets, God will obliterate you.  But if you start throwing the less important lay people into bonfires, he'll just let it happen so he can punish you for it later.

Second, it's that God isn't any better than that dick of a judge.  The Chief Judge's body count is probably a lot higher (although specific numbers of the bonfire deaths and prison deaths are oddly absent).  But the two of them did pretty much the same thingthey purged the opposition and they did it with theatrical overkill.  They both left some collateral damage, too.  The Chief Judge burned the believers' children and God killed everybody else in the prison who had no connection to the Chief Judge's crimes.

Who wants to worship a God that has so much in common with a despicable villain?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Alma 13: Alma Was Born a Ramblin' Man

Alma continues his pontificating before his enthralled audience in Ammonihah.

Design Flaw or Depraved Indifference?
Our hero makes a compelling statement in verse 3:
And this is the manner after which they [God's priests] were ordainedbeing called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.
Here Alma has boldly proclaimed that the leaders of the church were foreordained to their callings because of the faith they had not yet demonstrated and the good works they had not yet done.  God's omniscience allowed him to predict what kind of person these people would be on the earth and foreordain them for his purposes.

But that begs the question:  If God has that kind of foresight, why is this life even necessary?  He already knows who is going to turn out good and who is going to turn out bad.

And that also begs the question:  Does that mean that God sent some of us here to fail?  He knew from the beginning which of us would live worthy of exaltation but, as a loving Father, he still put us on earth despite knowing that many of us could not succeed?  That's pretty messed up.

Pointless Fanfiction Tie-In
Alma continues discussing the priesthood at length.  His rambling should have bored his hostile audience and he probably should have focused on more central doctrines that were likely to win over the hearts and minds of Ammonihah, but for some reason he was permitted to continue his discourse.

He throws in a pointless story about Melchizedek to link up with his priesthood theme.  The story is simple (but deceptively lengthy) and not particularly enlightening.  All it really does is point back to the Bible so that Joseph Smith could claim that his manuscript aligned with the teachings of that much more universally revered text.  It contributes nothing else other than an unnecessary historical anecdote relating to the topic.

Which means that it may demonstrate Alma's ineptitude when it comes to public speaking and persuasive argument.

I'd Like My Plainness with Extra Plain, Please
In verses 22 and 23, Alma discusses the spreading of the "glad tidings" of the gospel across the American continent.  He says:
And they [the glad tidings] are made known unto us in plain terms, that we may understand, that we cannot err; and this because of our being wanderers in a strange land;
Alma's point here is that because of the Nephite civilization's distance from a land steeped in Old Testament teachings and cultural heritage, it's of vital importance that the gospel be disseminated with clarity.  I buy that explanation, considering that the only thing Lehi's family brought with them to tie them to the gospel they learned in Jerusalem were Laban's plates.

But my problem is thisaren't we all, metaphorically speaking, wandering in strange lands?  We've been cut off from the presence of our God, who is incidentally our only recourse for achieving exaltation.  We passed through the veil before birth, losing any memory of him or his plans for us.  We're even more directionless than the Nephites.  So, using Alma's logic, shouldn't it be one of God's highest priorities to make sure that, in our state of isolation, his truth can reach us with plainness and lucidity?

But, assuming for a moment that Mormonism is true, these truths are not plain.  Church doctrines and policies get reversed, altered or discarded.  Prophets contradict each other.  Scriptures contradict each other.  And at every level of leadership, members can get sucked into teaching about things that really aren't that important to our salvationwas Noah the angel Gabriel?  Is the fast offering a commandment?  Was Jesus married?  Will polygamy and the United Order be reintroduced in the millennium?  Who returns in the morning of the second resurrection?

If this were really God's church, the prophets and the lesson manuals would all proclaim the same things:  the essentials.  They'd teach the plain and simple truthsbe a good person, have faith in Christ, do your temple work, keep your families strong, study the scriptures, pray daily, spread the gospel and you can return to live with your Father in Heaven.  No frills, no contradictions, no unnecessary fringe doctrines.  True prophets of God would teach plain principles.

So perhaps Alma the Younger and our current church leaders are not true prophets of God.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The World With Which We Are Presented

The Truman Show is a fantastic movie.  I loved it as a Mormon, but my appreciation for its premise, its protagonist, its symbolism and its wisdom have only grown since my departure from the church.  I find this line, spoken by the creator and director of the contrived world Truman inhabits, particularly poignant:
"We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.  It's as simple as that."

It is, in many ways, just that simple.  So many different human behaviors can be explained as natural reactions to acceptance of perceived realities.  The things we're taught as children, before we're able to properly parse the information, shape the way we begin to understand our world.  Flawed information leads to flawed understanding.  

For example, as an American, I was raised on a strong diet of nationalism, allegiance and superiority.  In school (and church) I learned that the United States was the best country in the world.  I heard that our government was better than other systems of government (even though I didn't really understand much about how any government worked).  I recited the pledge of allegiance in school every morning and my parents taught me to remove my hat and put my hand over my heart when the American flag went past during Independence Day and Memorial Day parades.  I didn't really know what was going on, but I knew that America was better than everybody else.  

I eventually began to learn that, despite what had been reinforced in my youth, my country wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  I'm very grateful to live in a country with a high standard of living.  I'm glad that my country is able to defend itself and has guaranteed me a lot of rights.  But that doesn't mean that my government's functions aren't frequently foiled by gridlock.  It doesn't mean that my society has enough freedoms or acceptably extends the rights that I have to everyone else.  And it doesn't mean that my elected leaders make the best decisions in domestic or international arenas.  And it doesn't mean that the country's flaws can be fit comfortably into the space of one paragraph.

It takes a long time to deconstruct the reality I'd once been presented with and accept a world that's a little closer to the truth.

My upbringing as a Mormon was more deeply ingrained and even more damaging than my upbringing as an American.  I learned from my parents that I belonged to a true church and that we were lucky to be some of the few who did.  The leaders and teachers at church said pretty much the same thing, so I had no need or inclination to question it.  Meanwhile, I was singing "Follow the Prophet," "Do As I'm Doing," and "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission."  

I learned from my parents that the church leaders spoke for God and that I needed to do what they said.  The local leaders and teachers at church said pretty much the same thing, so I had no need or inclination to question that either.  Meanwhile, I was singing "Joseph Smith's First Vision," "Book of Mormon Stories" and "I Love to See the Temple."

I learned from my parents that the world was wicked and that anything I learned from outside the church was unreliable.  The leaders and teachers I'd listened to for years said pretty much the same thing, so I had no instinct or desire to question any of this.  Meanwhile, I was passing the sacrament, trying to reactivate members of my quorum and singing "Hope of Israel."

And so on and so forth.  I was hammered and pummeled and bombarded incessantly with church dogma warning me not to break ranks.  I'd been conditioned to sit in a cage and stare out with pity upon those who walked free.  Because I'd accepted the reality of the world with which I had been presented, I gladly sat in that cage.  It took me twenty years to even realize there were bars.

Well...not just meI had millions of cellmates, I just didn't see them either.

It's an ironic testament to the power of Mormonism's brainwashing infrastructure that I loved The Truman Show as a faithful follower of the LDS church.  Here was a movie which so boldly suggested that the way the world has been shown to us might not reflect its true nature.  Here was a film that told its viewers to take a closer look at their surroundings and challenged them to scrutinize things that they'd simply assumed were true.  I noticed, understood and even enjoyed those aspects of The Truman Show as a member of the church but somehow I never tried to apply them to my membership.

Because I'd accepted the reality of the world with which I'd been presented.  And that reality had taught me that the one thing I never needed to question was the one thing that I needed to question the most.

And that does not seem right to me.