Saturday, November 21, 2015

Helaman 10: Nephi Becomes Omnipotent

Cleared of all criminal charges relating to the death of the chief judge, Nephi heads home, depressed because of how wicked his society is.

Poor Choice of Words
My old seminary teacher's adoration for Nephi comes in large part from what God tells him in verse 5:
And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.
Nephi is so righteous that God gives him a blank check.  God promises to give Nephi anything he asks for because he knows Nephi's not going to ask for anything God opposes.  Or at least...that's how I used to interpret the verse.

Except why does God say "thou shalt not ask that which is contrary" to his will?  That makes it sound like a commandment rather than an expression of confidence in Nephi's virtue.  Seems like some form of the word "will" would have worked better.  God saying "thou wilt not ask that which is contrary to my will" is more reflective of how this story was taught to me in seminary.

Phenomenal Cosmic Power
God then enumerates a list of things he's going to give Nephi the power to do.  He can summon the wrath of God to smite his people (because he's going to be really excited to kill everybody whose wickedness he was just lamenting), he can cause famine and pestilence, and he now has what the chapter heading terms as "the sealing power."  That seems to be drawn from verse 7:
Behold, I give unto you power, that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and thus shall ye have power among this people.
But is that really the sealing power, as in the power to marry spouses and unite their families for eternity?  It's kind of difficult to say, considering that this is really all that the chapter has to say about the subject.  The biggest support to the claim that Nephi was given the sealing power is that the chapter heading says so.

What's weird about this is the parallel promise that, in addition to that sealing stuff, whatsoever Nephi shall "loose" on earth will also be "loosed" in heaven.  It baffles me as to why tearing things asunder for eternity would be an important power to grant a prophet and what righteous purposes this kind of ability could be used for.  It sounds to me like a poetic addendum to the promise of sealing power, which makes me think that it's not the same kind of sealing power.  I think the whole passage is an exaggerated, poetic illustration meant to indicate the breadth of the promise God is making to Nephi as opposed to a literal reference to any specific abilities he's granting.

Also, it's not 1843 yet and Joseph Smith hasn't needed to come up with a weird doctrinal excuse for polygamy.

Divided in Unity
Spurred by some seriously intense divine promises, Nephi immediately begins preaching to anyone who will listen—which is pretty much nobody.  In fact, the people he's calling to repentance get so fed up with him that they try to throw him in jail.  Luckily, he has some backup (verse 16):
But behold, the power of God was with him, and they could not take him to cast him into prison, for he was taken by the Spirit and conveyed away out of the midst of them.
But even stranger is that, as Nephi is whisked from multitude to multitude, things take a turn for the worse (verse 18):
And it came to pass that they would not hearken unto his words; and there began to be contentions, insomuch that they were divided against themselves and began to slay one another with the sword.
So the Nephites seem to universally label Nephi as an obnoxioius kook, yet for some reason they get so angry about it that they split into two apparently different anti-Nephi camps and started slaughtering each other.

Uh, what?  That's kind of weird, right?  Especially since the previous chapter gave the impression that a decent number of people were convinced of his prophetic calling following his assistance in bringing the murderer of the chief judge to justice.  Now, however, everyone is against him yet they seem to take him so seriously that being against him in a slightly different way incites violence.

That doesn't make much sense to me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Helaman 9: Nephite Noir

Yup.  The chief judge is dead, just as Nephi predicted.

Stop Falling to the Earth!
Apparently the Book of Mormon seems to think that people of Native American heritage are genetically predisposed to fainting when confronted with any kind of religious truth or divine power.

Alma the Younger slipped into a coma when an angel appeared to chew him out for persecuting the church.  King Lamoni similarly lost consciousness when he got the full force of Ammon's point blank range testifying.  And when Lamoni finally woke up, he talked about his catatonic visions of Christ before zonking out again and taking his entire royal household to dreamland with him.

Oh, yeah, and I also forgot about the time the same thing happened to Lamoni's father a mere three chapters later.

Now, upon arriving at the judgment seat, the five guys from the crowd in Nephi's garden who have been selected to test out his prophecy pass out from shock.  But not the regular holy-crap-a-government-official-is-dead-and-his-blood-is-everywhere kind of shock.  According to verse four, it's the holy-crap-that-crazy-preacher-dude-totally-called-it-maybe-he's-right-about-stuff kind of shock.

Not one of these guys grimly stares at the crime scene and admits, "Well, guys, looks like Nephi was right.  Maybe we should rethink some things."  All five of them simultaneously experience a realization so acute that their conscious minds literally can't handle it.

Seems a little too dramatic to be realistic, if you ask me.  Although, after the way this trope was totally abused in the King Lamoni story, it's not that dramatic at all.  So it seems like it's a little too repetitive.  My suspension of disbelief was shot the instant Lamoni went for round two.

Law & Order:  Pre-Columbian Victims Unit
Shrewdly enough, some of the judges posit the theory that Nephi's foreknowledge of events could indicate his complicity in the crime.  They arrest him and badger him in the hopes that he will reveal his co-conspirator.  How does Nephi respond?
But Nephi said unto them: O ye fools, ye uncircumcised of heart, ye blind, and ye stiffneckedpeople, do ye know how long the Lord your God will suffer you that ye shall go on in this your way of sin?
Um...listen, these guys are just doing their jobs, man.  It's completely reasonable to assume that someone who predicted the exact nature of a crime may have been involved in its commission.  They're not sinning. They're just wrong.  But Nephi continues (verse 22):
O ye ought to begin to howl and mourn, because of the great destruction which at this time doth await you, except ye shall repent.
That's all well and good, but are you going to actually help with the crime, or are you just going to stand there predicting doom instead of answering their questions with anything useful?

Finally, after he's said his piece, Nephi gets around to explaining what happened.  He instructs the officials to visit Seantum, the brother of the murdered judge, and ask him if he's committed fratricide.  Then Nephi makes the bold prediction that Seantum will deny the accusation.  But just about anyone, guilty or innocent, is going to deny an accusation of involvement in a political assassination.  Especially since Nephite society is pretty big into capital punishment.

But Nephi instructs the officials to check the hem of Seantum's robe and find blood, which will make the suspect practically wet himself with fear.  They are then supposed to claim to know that Seantum is guilty based on "the paleness which has come upon [his] face," which will elicit a full confession.

So the judges did as Nephi suggested and it all played out exactly as he said it would.

If this were a crime procedural television show (which, obviously, it is not), I wouldn't be satisfied.  Seantum broke pretty easily for such a cold-blooded power-hungry killer.  It seems reasonable to consider that there could be someone else behind this clown, pulling the strings.  And what guy seems to have been pulling a lot of strings, engineering the discovery of the body and even the confession of the perpetrator?

It's also worth pointing out that Seantum only said that Nephi wasn't involved before he was bullied into giving his confession.  So he was still lying about stuff when he denied the prophet's culpability.

Maybe Nephi III actually got away with murder.  He'll probably be back next season as one of those supremely evil yet impossibly slippery recurring villains.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Standing with Paris, Standing for Peace

Scrolling through my Facebook news feed the morning after the horrific terrorism in Paris, I found myself both encouraged by my fellow human beings and a little disappointed in them.

The number of people who have changed their profile pictures to be superimposed on a French flag is nice to see.  The various hashtags being plastered across the internet (#PrayforParis, #JeSuisParis, #solidarity #StandwithFrance, etc.) are inspiring.  In the wake of such an abhorrent and senseless tragedy, I feel proud when I see so many of us from so many different backgrounds send our condolences to those affected by the violence.

But there have been other kinds of reactions.  There are some people, also from various backgrounds, that are a little too eager to insert their own ideologies into what should be a time of mourning.

I'm not religious.  I don't believe in a god.  And even though I don't think praying accomplishes anything directly, I don't think we should pretend that it doesn't show support to the families and the countrymen of the victims.  The number of people on social media proclaiming their intent to pray for Paris is truly staggering, and I think it's a respectful acknowledgement of Parisians' suffering.  I don't think it will solve the problem, but it's pretty much the same as saying, "you're in our thoughts" or "you have our condolences."  While hateful religious ideology seems to be the cause for these crimes, telling people not to pray and not to express support in a way that is meaningful to them and to many of those affected seems like focusing on the wrong thing.

No religion is wholly a religion of peace for the sole reason that every group has its extremists who take things too far.  Yeah, it was Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center and Muslims who attacked Paris last night.  But Christianity perpetrated the Crusades.  My own religious heritage, Mormonism, was responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, which resulted in the deaths of at least 100 civilians.  But I'm not about to say that Mormons are bloodthirsty or Christianity is a religion of violence.  The actions of a few followers of Islam should not be used to extrapolate the beliefs and behaviors of all Islam.  There are some violent things in the Quran.  There are some violent things in the Bible.  There are some violent things in the Book of Mormon.  But Muslims, Christians and Mormons aren't universally violent people.  

It's blind hatred that drives this conflict.  Stoking the fire of hatred in the immediate wake of an act of hatred will only lead to escalation.  What we need is compassion and empathy, not vitriol and rage.  Compassion doesn't win wars, but it does inspire peace.

What matters most about all this is that we're all human beings.  Those of us outraged by the violence, regardless of our religious background, should stand together, support France, and do our best to find justice.  Pointing at Muslims and telling them their religion isn't peaceful isn't going to help anyone—especially since a lot of Muslims will agree that the attacks are tragic and that terrorism needs to be stopped.

And this is the worst image I've seen all day.  It's true that we've been at peace with Japan since 1945.  But that came at a heavy cost.  Almost a quarter of a million people, mostly civilians, were killed by the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Arguments can be made that more people would have died had the war not been ended so decisively, but I for one would rather not repeat one of the most uncomfortable decisions in my nation's history.  Nuking the crap out of "Islam" instead of targeting the terrorists who happen to believe in Islam would be a mistake.  Glorifying the deaths of thousands upon thousands of Japanese and suggesting the same should be visited on Muslims is cruel.

Let's focus on this kind of thing.  Let's focus on the good.  Let's observe how well those of us who oppose the violence can unite.  There will be a time for arguing over what foreign policies may or may not have allowed these awful things to happen and how those policies should be adjusted.  But for now, this is what I hope to see from my species:

Let us not be so involved with our own beliefs that we can't appreciate the good intentions of others' beliefs.

Let us not feel so wrapped up in our own country's problems that we can't help but to politicize tragedies in another.

Let us not be so angry that we aren't careful about how constructive our anger is and discerning about who it's directed against.

Let us not get so carried away in our grief and our indignation that we become eager to inflict similar grief and indignation on our perceived enemies.

Let's just...stand with Paris.  Let's offer them our support.  Let's pray for them.  Let's mourn with them.  Let's show respect for the families who have lost loved ones.  And then let's help the peaceful peoples of the world find a way to put a stop to the violence.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Helaman 8: On Proof and Prophets

Nephi discovers firsthand that there can be negative consequences of self-righteous anti-establishment demagoguery.

Good Guys and Bad Logic
As the evil government officials on Gadianton's payroll try to whip the crowd into a frenzy of hatred toward Nephi, a few of the bystanders speak in his defense (verses 8 and 9):
Yea, behold, all the judgments will come upon us which he has testified unto us; for we know that he has testified aright unto us concerning our iniquities. And behold they are many, and he knoweth as well all things which shall befall us as he knoweth of our iniquities; 
Yea, and behold, if he had not been a prophet he could not have testified concerning those things.
This is a terrible means for determining whether this guy is a prophet.  If they're talking about the iniquities Nephi discussed, all he did was share his observations.  By that metric, Jerry Seinfeld is a prophet.  If the society is as wicked and corrupt as it sounds, the things Nephi condemned everyone for are hardly secrets.  And if they're talking about the judgments Nephi foretold, it seems premature—just because you agree with the guy doesn't mean he's a prophet.

A coworker told me the other day that if Hillary Clinton is elected President of the United States, the country is going to fall apart.  If she wins the election, we'll have an opportunity to see if that's true.  But at this point, proclaiming him a prophet just because his prediction supports my political opinions (which, to be clear, it doesn't) would be absurd.  These guys in the crowd who are decent enough to oppose the hatred and the violence are foolish enough to declare someone a prophet merely for speaking prophetically, regardless of whether events have proven anything he's foretold to be accurate.

Bad Prophets and Bad Logic
Nephi's allies keep the crowd from arresting him, and, spurred by his success, he begins to admonish the unfaithful for not believing in prophets.  What examples does he use to demonstrate that God's servants speak truth about the future?

He points out that many prophets have foretold of the coming of Christ, which hasn't happened yet.  Why would anyone be impressed by a prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled?

He explains that many prophets predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened after the founders of this civilization escaped.  There's no evidence or cultural understanding about the matter except for the prophecies themselves (he cites Lehi and Nephi to support his point).  No one in the crowd has visited Jerusalem to confirm that it was ransacked.  Who's going to be swayed by a prophecy whose fulfillment is unverifiable?

But, despite the flimsiness of his arguments, Nephi rips his audience a new one, proclaiming in verse 24 that anyone who rejects these prophecies "not withstanding so many evidences which ye have received," is a liar and has sinned.

That's really not fair.  If you want to make such bold indictments against those who do not share your beliefs, make sure you provide them with unassailable evidence instead of some five-hundred-year-old predictions that can't be fact-checked.

Why Didn't You Lead With That??
Nephi concludes this chapter by actually making a prophecy.  He announces in verse 27 that yet another chief judge has been murdered and that if the multitude goes to the judgment seat they will find the judge laying in a pool of his own blood.

This is exactly what we needed—a verifiable prediction.  At least if Nephi winds up being right, that narrows down the conclusions to be drawn from the situation.  Either he's a prophet, he's somehow involved in the murder as a witness or an accomplice, or he just got insanely lucky.  Before, he could have been delusional or just talking out his ass or any number of other things.  But now, he finally gives his audience something they can use to better gauge his prophetic credentials.

Which begs the question, why the hell wasn't this one of the first things he said?  Why waste all that time bloviating about Jerusalem and the Messiah when he could have simply told them about their latest political assassination and gotten instant attention?  If the people discover their dead chief judge, they might think Nephi is a prophet and immediately approach him for help.

Or maybe they could have even prevented the murder.  Although considering both the victim and the perpetrator are, according to Nephi, members of the Gadianton Robbers, I guess we don't really care about stopping wicked people from killing or being killed.  Philip K. Dick and Tom Cruise are disappointed, I'm sure.

But I guess we can't be sure yet if Nephi's prophecies are the real deal because this chapter ends on a bit of a cliffhanger—we don't know if the judge is actually dead yet.

Dun dun dunnnnn...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Helaman 7: Nephi Works the Crowd

Now we get into the next dude named Nephi, who I'm pretty sure my old seminary teacher had some kind of a crush on.  Some Mormons rave about the original Nephi or Captain Moroni or Ammon, but her favorite Book of Mormon character was hands-down Nephi III.  I can't remember why, but maybe his story will jog my memory.

Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?
While admonishing his wicked neighbors, Nephi makes this interesting statement:
O repent ye, repent ye! Why will ye die? Turn ye, turn ye unto the Lord your God. Why has he forsaken you?
Here we have a prophet of the Lord admitting that God has actually abandoned some of his children.  That's really not cool.  It also doesn't evoke the benevolent, long-suffering, loving, my-hand-is-stretched-out-still God that we learned about in Sacrament Meeting (although it is pretty consistent with Jacob's Allegory of the Olive Tree).

Nephi Doesn't Follow Current Events
Our current hero demonstrates how out of touch he is in verse 20:
O, how could you have forgotten your God in the very day that he has delivered you?
How is this the very day that God has delivered them?  They haven't been invaded by the Lamanites in a while because the Lamanites are righteous now, and basically their entire society has gone down the tubes over the last few years, what with the murdered judges and the wickedness and the corruption and the Gadianton Robbers running the place like the mafia on steriods.  So why is Nephi referring to the very day that God has delivered the Nephites when he's admonishing them?

Sick Burn, Nephi
This chapter's long-winded divine representative deals the ultimate insult to the Nephite people by explaining how the Lamanites are now actually better than they are (verse 24):
For behold, they are more righteous than you, for they have not sinned against that great knowledge which ye have received; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them; yea, he will lengthen out their days and increase their seed, even when thou shalt be utterly destroyed except thou shalt repent.
What interests me is that Nephi is implying that the Nephites have received a knowledge that the Lamanites haven't.  He feels the need to specify that he's talking about the knowledge ye—his audience—have received.  If the Lamanites had this knowledge too, there would be no need to clarify.  He could have just said "they have not sinned against that great knowledge" or "they have not sinned against the knowledge of God."  This seems to be something the Nephites have been provided with that the Lamanites haven't.

But the Lamanites have the gospel now and they appear to be living it.  What's this secret bonus doctrine that their sister civilization has yet to share?

Kinda Secret, Only Not Really
Nephi spins more tales of doom and dismay for his people (verse 25):
Yea, wo be unto you because of that great abomination which has come among you; and ye have united yourselves unto it, yea, to that secret band which was established by Gadianton!
Listen, if we know the name of the organization's founder and we're accusing the general population of being in league with said organization, can we really call it secret?

Although, I have to say, a few months ago I spent way too much time watching some so-terrible-they're-magnificent videos from a completely off-the-charts crazy Mormon YouTuber (who in no way exemplifies the average member of the LDS church), and I guess I wouldn't put it past that guy to call, say, the Democratic Party a secret combination.  Somehow in Mormon jargon, secret has inched closer and closer in connotation to the word evil.  Unless, of course, we're talking about the temple, in which case it's become almost synonymous with the word sacred.

There's an interesting dichotomy of cultural vernacular for you.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Washington Post, 5 Nov 2035

Mormon Church makes doubting couples apostates, excludes children from blessings and baptism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a new policy in its handbook stating that children living in an skeptical or inactive family may not be blessed as babies or baptized until they are 18.

The policy change, which also states that those in a semi-active household are to be considered apostates, was confirmed Thursday by church spokesman Orson F. Packer.

"Church handbooks are policy and procedural guides for lay leaders who must administer the church in many varied circumstances throughout the world," Packer said in a statement.  "The church has long been on record as opposing non-Mormon lifestyles.  While it respects the law of the land, and acknowledges the right of others to think and act differently, it does not condone or accept doubt or halfheartedness within its membership."

The LDS Church, popularly known as the Mormon Church, teaches that the Church is an institution created by God to facilitate complete and unquestioning devotion.  Before this week's change, the church's policy was that doubt or inactivity may require discipline.  Now that evidence of the Book of Mormon's fraudulent claims is readily available throughout the internet, the church decided to identify those who lend any credence to anti-Mormon criticism as apostates, or people who have renounced their faith.

Mormon children are normally blessed as infants and entered into the LDS Church records.  Most Mormon children are baptized around age 8, an act that Mormons believe is a covenant with God and essential to salvation.

The new policy says that once natural or adopted children living in a skeptical, scholarly, "New Order Mormon," "cafeteria Mormon," or any otherwise incompletely committed household reach 18, they may disavow the practices of anti-Mormonism, non-Mormonism, and casual Mormonism and stop living within the household.  If the individual follows those two rules, they may request approval to be baptized, confirmed, ordained to the church priesthood and recommended for missionary service with the permission of the faith's highest leaders, the First Presidency.

The LDS Church has been vociferously active on issues related to skepticism, secularism and anti-Mormonism.  Earlier this year, Church Apostle Neil L. Andersen even went so far as to proclaim, "Everything you have ever been told by anyone about Joseph Smith that didn't make him sound like he was the greatest man to ever live other than our Savior was an irresponsible and bald-faced lie hissed forth by the amoral, bitter, and loathsome enemies of God's church."  Later, in the same address, he added, "Give the Book of Abraham a rest."

The church, which has expressed fears that cultural secularism could trump traditional brainwashing, received national backlash after it fought to remove courses covering logic, critical thinking, and analytical research from public universities in California in 2028.  Last month, David A. Bednar, the President of the Church, said that "the more we teach our children to weigh so-called evidence and find their own so-called solutions to modern-day issues, the more we teach them to ignore the tried and true methods of living that have satisfied generations of righteous tithe-payers."

Salt Lake City, where the LDS headquarters are based, just elected Ronald Domitrowicz as the city's first openly anti-Mormon mayor this week.  As religious groups, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists and Mormons are the most opposed to different lifestyles.  About 54 percent of Mormons oppose having non-Mormons in their neighborhoods while 16 percent favor it, according to Pew Research's 2034 Landscape Study.

The changes to the LDS handbook were first published online, but Packer reluctantly sent the same changes to the Washington Post.

[The article this post is based on can be found here.]