Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Helaman 5: Prison Charlie Foxtrot

The people grow wicked, they elect a wicked chief judge, they are ripe for destruction, blah blah blah, you know the drill.

Helaman Preaches Selfishness
When speaking to his sons, Helaman explains that he named them Lehi and Nephi because he wants them to accomplish great things just like those ancient guys they're named after.  And why does he want them to accomplish great things?  In verse 8, he explains:
And now my sons, behold I have somewhat more to desire of you, which desire is, that ye may not do these things that ye may boast, but that ye may do these things to lay up for yourselves a treasure in heaven, yea, which is eternal, and which fadeth not away; yea, that ye may have that precious gift of eternal life, which we have reason to suppose hath been given to our fathers.
I'm with him all the way through the "don't be awesome just so you can brag about what you've done" stuff, but then Helaman completely misses the point.  Do good things so that you can have eternal life?  Lame.

Shouldn't he be telling his kids that the best reason to do good works is to help the people around them?  Shouldn't they be passionate about caring for their fellow human beings?  Isn't the best reason to do good works to just simply, purely, genuinely want to do them regardless of whether there's a reward?  Those who try to make the world a better place out of a sincere desire to alleviate the suffering of humankind strike me as being much better people than those who only behave like altruists because they want a pat on the head, a belly rub, and a doggy treat from a supreme deity.

Don't be selfish.  Help because help is needed, not because you want to be rewarded.

A Little Proofreading, Please?
After Lehi and Nephi make the mistake of preaching to the Lamanites, they get thrown in prison.  Here's what verse 22 shares about these events:
And after they had been cast into prison many days without food, behold, they went forth into the prison to take them that they might slay them.
Seriously?  You can't use the word "they" to refer to two distinct and opposing groups of people in the same sentence without giving any explicit delineation between the two.  The first time I read this verse, I thought it was saying that Lehi and Nephi were so hungry that they went and tapped the guards on the shoulder to beg for the sweet release of death.  Then I finished the sentence, got confused, and had to start over.  It seems that the second and third theys are referring to an unspecified group of Lamanites, while the thems indicate the original subjects (Lehi and Nephi).

And still we're expected to believe that this kind of clumsy prose was directly inspired of God?  This is the most correct book on the face of the earth?

(Too Many  Problems To Give Each One Its Own Title)
The basic story here is that Lehi and Nephi are protected from the murderous Lamanites by a ring of fire, which is followed by a cloud of darkness over the whole prison, a few earthquakes, and a heavenly voice telling the Lamanites to repent.  I have a lot of problems with this story.

First, this just happens to take place in the exact same prison where Ammon and his brothers were once held captive.  How often does that kind of narrative symmetry actually occur in real life?

Second, what exactly whipped the Lamanites into a lather?  Lehi and Nephi had been in prison for "many days" and suddenly this horde of three hundred bad guys marches into the jail all at the same time to murder them?

Then let's talk about fear.  After the would-be murderers are afraid to approach their flame-ringed targets, Lehi and Nephi tell them not to be afraid because it's just God showing them something cool.  But if God doesn't want them to be afraid, why does he follow up the fire with earthquakes and impenetrable darkness?  The Lamanites become so frightened that they can't even run for their lives.  Did God really think that by basically blinding them and making the ground shake he'd soothe their terror?

One guy, Aminadab, finally manages to see through the darkness to where Lehi and Nephi are glowing and apparently communicating with God.  He alerts everyone around him and provides them the solution to their problem:  repentance.  But, of course, the first thing we learn about Aminadab—before we even learn his name—is that he was born a Nephite and used to belong to the church.  So that's kind of a racist, believer-centric development.  Of all three hundred guys trapped in that dungeon, why couldn't the first one to figure out what's going on be an actual Lamanite or someone who had never subscribed to the "true" religion?

Fifth, the solution to this problem is completely different from the current practices of Mormonism.  Repent and God will lift the cloud of darkness!  See, I always thought that repentance was a pretty big process, especially for murderous, loathsome savages.  You know, you confess and forsake your sin, you fast, you pray, you read the scriptures, you check in with your bishop every week or so, and eventually you're granted absolution.  But these Lamanites practically flip a switch to repent.  They spend a few minutes praying from a place of fear—as opposed to having genuine remorse and a sincere desire to do good—and apparently that's good enough for God.  They've repented, God lifts the fog, everyone lives happily ever after.  That is not how things work in the modern church.

Next, the voice returns to congratulate the Lamanites for their faith.  What God doesn't seem to grasp is that they didn't really have much in the way of true faith.  They just didn't want to die and with all the crazy stuff they'd just seen, there wasn't another option that made more sense than praying for forgiveness, so they just went for it.  That's not strong faith, that's fear and desperation.  But they're blessed with the sight of the hosts of heaven anyway.

Seventh, this chapter is bold enough to use the word evidence.  After the murderous gang from the prison repent, they go out and share what they saw with their friends.  And their friends, apparently, are convinced about God and stuff "because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received."  Missionaries teach in spiritual, emotional terms, not by laying out a list of evidences and expecting their investigators to simply arrive at the logical conclusion that the church is true.  And any Mormon apologist worth his salt would remind you that a testimony is about faith, not evidence.  It's about personal confirmation, not big miracles and historical facts.  This is because most historical and sensory and logical evidences point to the church being a fraud.  The only way to supersede that is to focus on the spiritual, the emotional, and the unquantifiable—things that can be very meaningful to the people who experience them, but can't exactly be entered in as reliable evidence.

And lastly, this is the cheesiest cop-out ending I've seen in a while.  After these three hundred witnesses basically convert their entire civilization, the Lamanites decide to abandon their "hatred and the tradition of their fathers," so they give up their weapons and they give the Nephites back all the land they'd conquered.  Apparently, thanks to yet another miraculous event that scared the Lamanites into submission and triggered another hive-mind mass conversion, everybody lives happily ever after (until the next Seldon Crisis, anyway).  Lehi probably became filthy rich and Nephi probably got the girl.  It's like the end of a Disney cartoon.  It doesn't seem particularly reflective of human nature, human behavior, or non-fictional narration.

But hey, I guess that's just one guy's opinion.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Helaman 4. Things Fall Apart Again

War continues in true Book of Mormon fashion.

That's Some Great Diagnostic Work
After Nephite dissenters swell the ranks of the Lamanite armies, the Nephites are driven out of much of their territory.  Under the leadership of Moronihah, they manage to regain about half, but this chapter has a few things to say about why they lost it in the first place (verses 11-13):
  • their wickedness and abomination
  • the pride of their hearts
  • exceeding riches
  • oppression of the poor
  • withholding food from the hungry and clothing from the naked
  • smiting their brethren
  • mocking that which is sacred
  • denying the spirit of prophecy and revelation
  • murdering
  • plundering
  • lying
  • stealing
  • adultery
  • contention
  • defecting to the Lamanites
  • boasting in their own strength
So there you have it.  It's that simple.  The Nephites are killed and driven out of their homes basically for every reason ever.  Of course, that still doesn't explain why the Lamanites, who are supposed to be guilty of most of this stuff on a regular basis, are made the instrument of the Nephites' destruction instead of being visited with destruction themselves.  Sure sucks to be God's favorites, I guess.

With God Almost All Things Are Possible
Though the Nephites manage to retake some of what the Lamanites conquered, they give up once they've hit the halfway point.  Verse 19 explains why:
Therefore they did abandon their design to obtain the remainder of their lands, for so numerous were the Lamanites that it became impossible for the Nephites to obtain more power over them; therefore Moronihah did employ all his armies in maintaining those parts which he had taken.
Because it was impossible!  Isn't one of the bigger lessons of these war chapters supposed to be that "with God all things are possible"?  Isn't that why the stories of the Stripling Warriors and Captain Moroni victorious against superior numbers and long odds are supposed to be so inspiring?  The Nephites repented of their iniquities four verses ago and they're led by a righteous man, so what's stopping God from giving them the ability to defeat their wicked enemies?

I guess it doesn't serve the plot this time.  Tough break for Moronihah and company.

A Timeline of a Fickle People
In the previous chapter, a "continual peace" was established in the 49th year of the reign of the judges.

In this chapter, it's all gone to hell a mere eight years later.  And even before actual war breaks out, dissention and contention are rampant in Nephite society by the 54th year of the reign of the judges.  That's only five years.  That's hardly continual.  (Although it's hardly the first time I've made this point.)

But even disregarding the poor word choice, these events reek of improbability. Yet again the Book of Mormon peoples are depicted as behaving as a fickle hive mind.  When's the last time a whole population did a moral one-eighty in less than a decade?  These people went from righteous and prosperous to wicked and homeless fast enough to give the whole civilization whiplash.  Even now, as some bemoan the backward slide of modern America into godlessness and amorality, it happens slowly and with great resistance from large portions of the population.  Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges are separated by forty-two years.  People pointing to the corruption of American society can't reasonably claim that such a phenomenon isn't gradual and fiercely contested.

Yet the Nephites' moral waffling is repeatedly shown to be swift and unanimous.  But that's just not how large groups of people work.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Little Research Goes a Long Way

I usually try to avoid partisan politics on this blog, so please bear with me for a minute...I swear that the following politically-charged rant does tie into my usual musings on Mormonism.

One of my Facebook friends is an older lady I worked with several years ago.  A while after we stopped working together, she found me on Facebook.  Fast forward a few years, and she's basically my best source of maddeningly absurd, frothing-at-the-mouth, right-wing, liberal-hating news.  Every morning she goes online, reads a bunch of awful websites, and then shares a dozen of her favorite links to Facebook.  I don't put much stock in this stuff, but when I come across a headline that makes a particularly shocking claim, I usually follow the link just to make sure it's full of crap.  If some of this stuff is true, I'd definitely want to know about it.

Here's an excellent example from earlier this week:

Immigration continues to be a hotly contested issue in the USA, and if this article was accurate, I felt that I should allow the information contained therein to play a part in shaping my opinion on the subject.  So what the hell.  I clicked on it.

Sweet Jesus.

Rife with bad writing, poor punctuation and baseless accusations, this article has about as much journalistic integrity as the Weekly World News.  Anyone reading it should be able to figure out that it's not a reliable news outlet.  At'd hope so.

Discrediting this story took me about thirty seconds.  I googled Raul Portillo, which was the name the article provided for this illegal immigrant (whose membership in the National Guard is implicitly blamed on Obama) who aided the drug cartels.  There wasn't much, but I found a DOJ statement about it and a far more reputable news item.  And here's what I learned:
  • Portillo was a member of the Arizona Army National Guard long before Obama was elected
  • The crimes in question were committed between 2002 and 2004...during Bush's presidency
  • Nothing indicates that Portillo was an illegal immigrant
  • The photo of the soldier with the eyes covered as though to protect his identity is almost certainly not of anyone named Raul Portillo
There apparently was a guy by that name in the Arizona National Guard who did a lot of shady stuff to help out Mexican drug cartels, but basically nothing else about the article—most notably who was at fault and what the implied time frame was—is true at all.

What I found extremely disheartening was the comment section on Facebook.  It was full of people who hadn't seemed to notice any of the red flags and hadn't bothered to spend those thirty seconds googling:

Apparently, this 75% bogus article is further evidence that the Obama administration has gotten away with too much, that Obama himself is the Antichrist, that he's an idiot, that he's guilty of treason, that he's a liar and a piece of crap and (this last one is possibly my favorite) he was only elected because too many people voted along racial or partisan lines.

Except that Obama has basically nothing to do with this.

That seems fair.

I guess it's a reminder that too many people see what they want to see.  We like to have our deepest convictions confirmed.  We interpret new information in a way that will fuel our preexisting passions.

Personally, I'm terrified of being like that.  I don't ever want to be so sure that everything I believe is correct that I can't be objective about something.  I don't like Mormonism, but I don't want to be so blinded by my anger that I can't admit when the church accomplishes something good and so stubborn in my hatred that I'm willing to believe any slanderous statements against the church without first doing a little rational thinking and a little research.  I don't want to be like these Facebook commenters in any context—political, religious, or even when discussing who's the best character from Firefly.  

This is the laziest kind of bias.  It's confirmation bias on steriods.  It's the easiest way to lie to yourself.  I hope that next time I'm guilty of it, I can catch myself and put a stop to it.

Can't we all be a little more objective?  Don't we owe it to ourselves and to the world to look at as many sides of an issue as we can and to subject our own closely-held beliefs to scrutiny before we speak, before we act, and before we vote?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Oh, FairMormon...Never Change

Because of some crazy masochistic compulsion, I decided to spend a little time browsing FairMormon's website.


I wasted way too much time perusing their rebuttals to the CES Letter.  While plenty of their points are reasonable, too many of them are annoyingly obtuse.  For example, in the section addressing the problematic presence of chariots in the Book of Mormon, Fair's response makes this statement:  "Conspicuously absent is any role of the chariot in the many journeys recorded in the Book of Mormon."  But if you scroll up about half an inch, you'll see that, in the summary of every mention of chariots, in Alma 20, a "Lamanite king uses horses and chariot for visit to neighboring kingdom."  That's not a journey in which chariots were used to transport either goods or passengers?  And even if chariots aren't connected with travelling in the Book of Mormon, that doesn't address the central issue, which is that chariots (and draft animals to pull them) did not exist in America during Book of Mormon times.

Surely it's this kind of flawless reasoning and impeccable scholarship that give FAIR its reputation for integrity.

The argument against anachronistic references to steel is mind-blowing in its ability to ignore the crux of the issue:
Jeremy Runnells says that ancient America didn't have steel and Fair says he's made a mistake because...wait for it...places that weren't America had steel at around the same time.  This, of course, still ignores the central problem that, even if Old Worlders were making steel, there's still zero evidence that it was available to the civilizations depicted in the Book of Mormon.  And zero evidence seems like a pretty big deal considering the millions of Jaredites who killed each other with their steel swords.

But when it comes to addressing the Limited Geography model, Fair outdoes itself:

So when Mr. Runnells discusses where the events of the Book of Mormon might have taken place, what does Fair do?  They zero in on what they apparently perceive as an offensive verb tense and throw multiple detailed resources at us only to make the point that the Limited Geography Model is not a new concept.

First of all, Runnells used the present progressive tense, which doesn't necessarily mean that he thinks the Limited Geography Model is new.  It just means he considers it to be currently developing, which is completely true.

Secondly, Fair does nothing to address the final sentence of Runnells's quote:  "This is in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught."  Remember that time Joseph Smith came across some bones in Illinois and declared them to be from a Lamanite warrior named Zelph?  This is the kind of thing Runnells was talking about.  So while Fair zeroes in on the wording and proclaims Runnells to be disseminating false information, the Zelph thing goes totally unaddressed.

The biggest problem with FAIR's rebuttals is that a lot of them rely on compartmentalizing the arguments.  For example, when Runnells suggests that the direct quotes from the Bible in the independently translated Book of Mormon constitute evidence that Joseph Smith was copying from one book of scripture to create a new one, FAIR says that none of the scribes ever mentioned him having a KJV Bible during the translation process and scoffs at the possibility of memorization.  But when the presence of the italicized words from the KJV in corresponding sections of 2nd Nephi and 3rd Nephi, FAIR claims that whether Smith consulted a Bible "isn't really relevant."  These arguments are reasonable on their own but don't jive with each other.

When FAIR swats down the statement that sheep, though mentioned in the Book of Mormon, were not native to the Americas by providing the example of Bighorn Sheep, they seem to contradict another one of their arguments.  In a different section, FAIR uses a quote from Daniel Peterson to support the Limited Geography Model, but the problem is that Bighorn Sheep only live in the mountainous regions of western North America.  Each argument is reasonable on its own but they don't jive with each other.  If the Limited Geography Model is correct, there should not have been sheep in the Book of Mormon.  If there were sheep in the Book of Mormon, the Limited Geography Model is unlikely.

Compartmentalizing the arguments is kind of missing the point of the CES Letter.  The CES Letter's strength is the sheer tonnage of individual problems coming at the reader all at the same time.  As church members, we tend to notice these things one at a time.  It's easier to dismiss problems or take things we don't understand on faith when we're presented with them in small doses.  But the CES Letter brings so many contradictions and errors to light simultaneously that it becomes much harder to brush them off.  I'm badly paraphrasing Runnells when I say that not any individual argument in the CES Letter should be the nail in the coffin for anyone's testimony, but collectively they can crush the illusions.  When FAIR goes through and tries to argue against it line by line, they've demonstrated a remarkable ability to miss the point on a broad, conceptual level.