Monday, December 28, 2015

Shyamalan's Signs from a Post-Mormon Perspective

I've gotten some flak for this opinion in the past, but I don't think The Sixth Sense was the peak of M. Night Shyamalan's now-derided career.  I think the peak was Signs.  

For a long time, Signs was my favorite film.  But when I visited my family for Thanksgiving and one night we decided to watch a movie, the best prospect from among their mostly PG-rated collection was my old favorite.  I hadn't seen it in years, and it was interesting to watch from a decidedly ex-Mormon vantage point.

Signs uses a mysterious alien invasion as a backdrop for the story of how a country ex-reverend regains his faith in God.  The movie's title refers both to the crop circles in his cornfield and to the content of one of its most poignant scenes:
This scene is, in my non-film-savvy opinion, a brilliant masterwork of cinematic genius.  The dialogue is crisp, the hushed, somber tones of the conversation provide a strong sense of atmosphere, the way it's shot so that the television lights up only half of Graham's face to indicate his struggle with the dichotomy he explains, Mel Gibson's and Joaquin Phoenix's performances...I love basically everything about these few minutes of skilled storytelling.  Here, as Merrill and Graham watch news footage of an alien presence, Merrill expresses concern that these events could spell the end of the world.
MERRILL:  Do you think it could be?
MERRILL:  How can you say that?
GRAHAM:  That wasn't the answer you wanted?
MERRILL:  Couldn't you pretend to be like you used to be?  Give me some comfort?
Merrill wants his brother to behave the way he did when he was a reverend.  He wants wise, optimistic Graham instead of cynical, hopeless Graham.  When I was a teenager, I loved this scene because it illustrated how belief can provide comfort.  But what I never realized is how this scene also indicates that the belief in question is based in comfort instead of in truth.  Merrill doesn't want Graham's honest answer, he wants his comforting answer.  He doesn't care whether everything is actually going to be okay, he just wants someone to tell him it will be.  Notably, the impending end of the world isn't altered in any way by how honest or how reassuring Graham's statements are.

But because he cares about his brother, Graham attempts to give the kind of advice he would have given when he was a man of faith:
GRAHAM:  People break down into two groups.  When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence.  They see it as a sign, evidence that there is someone up there watching out for them.  Group number two sees it as just pure luck, a happy turn of chance.   
I'm sure that the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way.  For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty...could be bad, could be good.  But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own.  And that fills them with fear.  Yeah, there are those people.
But there's a whole lot of people in group number one.  When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle.  And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there'll be someone there to help them.  And that fills them with hope.  
So what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you?  Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles?  Or do you believe that people just get lucky?  Or, look at the question this way:  is it possible that there are no coincidences?
Merrill responds with an amusing anecdote that made him a believer in miracles and then asks his brother, "Which type are you?"  Graham attempts to bat the question away gently at first, but the scene culminates in this grim bit of dialogue:
GRAHAM:  There is no one watching out for us, Merrill.  We're all on our own.
And that's where a touching display of brotherly compassion takes a turn for the worse and Graham allows his personal opinions to threaten Merrill's hope.

The remainder of the film attempts to demonstrate how wrong Graham is because a string of impossible coincidences saves his family.  When an alien releases a poisonous gas in Morgan's face, his asthma keeps him from inhaling the toxin.  The apparently non-sequitur dying words of Graham's wife from months earlier give him the idea for Merrill to attack the alien with a baseball bat.  And Bo's idiosyncratic paranoia about funny-tasting water has resulted in glasses full of the alien's biggest weakness all over the house. Merrill defeats the intruder, Morgan survives the poison, and the heavy implication is that, had God not taken Graham's wife and arranged every bizarre detail, the entire family would have perished in the invasion.


While the climax does an excellent job of transitioning the belief from mere hope to evidence-based understanding, I think the movie contradicts itself on two fronts, microcosm and macrocosm.

As far as the big picture is concerned, Graham apparently decides that God was watching over him all this time, but doesn't seem to be bothered by all the people that God wasn't watching over.  The entire planet is ravaged by this alien incursion, and even though the attackers fail, the body count is heavily implied to be staggering and worldwide.  Why did God protect almost all of the Hess family but permit thousands of other families around the world to be killed?  And why did God need to ensure the death of Graham's wife to do it?

It brings to mind the "God of Lost Car Keys" complaint.  Why does God answer a prayer for something so trivial when there's so much war and starvation and disease and suffering around the world?  Why does God expend so much effort to protect one family in rural Pennsylvania when people all over the globe are getting slaughtered?  Does he not care about all those other people?

For the small-scale contradictions, it's difficult to see God's hand in anything except the ending.  Who decided to board up the house?  Graham.  Who decided to go down to the basement?  Graham.  Who realized the aliens might be trying to get into the basement through the old coal chute?  Graham.  Who guided Morgan successfully through an asthma attack without medicine?  Graham.  It was the faithless one who relentlessly defended himself and his children while his brother, who's clearly more open to a belief in God, mostly just followed his lead.  That can be interpreted as an endorsement for skepticism, as it seems to coincide with leadership and action and realistic solutions.

And in the end, we're still left with one family's series of impossibly lucky coincidences as the best manifestation of God.  It's convinced Graham to put his priest's collar back on.  It reaffirmed my beliefs as a Mormon viewer.  But as an ex-Mormon, I find the ending much more ambiguous than I ever realized.  God never comes down and says "you're welcome for setting all this up."  There's no overblown, explicitly religious to epilogue to cheapen the ending. We simply see the seasons change, and Graham get dressed with his collar on, grinning sentimentally to the sounds of his children in the house.  The protagonist has made up his mind about the cause of all these events, but the film presents it in such a way that it doesn't seem to expect that every viewer should come to the same conclusion.  Because even if we disagree with the movie about God and such, it's still a satisfying ending because the family whose struggles we've followed for the last ninety minutes are whole and happy.  I can connect with the characters' emotional journeys even if I don't particularly care for their ecclesiastical ones.

And I think that makes me like Signs more than I did before.  It's difficult to write a narrative that manages to bring home a strong moral to the story without alienating those who disagree with it (Get it?  Alienating?  I couldn't resist).  My dad disliked the ending of The Dark Knight because Gordon and Batman agree to lie to the public.  My mom dislikes Mr. Holland's Opus because there's too much liberal preaching.  But here I am, an agnostic who has zero interest in organized religion, watching a guy regain his faith in extraordinary circumstances, and I still love this movie.

Shyamalan's later work has tapered off and I, like many others, have questioned whether he was ever a good writer or if he just got lucky with a couple of screenplays.  I'm not sure if he did this on purpose, but there's a lot more nuance to Signs than immediately meets the eye.  It makes its own point, but intentionally or not, it leaves plenty of avenues open to almost the exact opposite of its message.

And I find that fascinating.  It makes me want to go back and re-watch The Village to see how spot-on his depiction of a modern-day cult may or may not be.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Helaman 14: Another Prick on the Wall, Part II

Still perched precariously atop the wall like a dark and loathsome Humpty Dumpty, Samuel the Lamanite bravely expounds the details of the Savior's imminent arrival.

Samuel Stumbles Through the Plan of Salvation
After explaining the astronomer-confounding signs of Jesus's coming, our favorite minority preacher details the importance of His birth (verse 17):
But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
Except that it doesn't.  When, exactly, will all mankind be brought back into God's presence?  As far as I understand the Plan of Happiness, it's never. Only those who reach the Celestial Kingdom will be graced with the physical companionship (or neighbor-ship) of the big man himself.  And while I suppose the casualties from the War in Heaven might not technically count as "mankind," I don't think we should be rejoicing about any kind of broad, sweeping redemption while a third of our spirit siblings still languish in some cosmic gulag.

Perhaps sensing that he may have misspoken slightly, Samuel tries to walk back his statement in the following verse:
Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.
So maybe all mankind is redeemed from spiritual death, but the people who aren't on the Celestial track are subjected to a second spiritual death.  Which, apparently, is a teaching that is supported by, which states that our resurrection reunites us with God so that we can be judged. Personally, I think it's pretty disingenuous to claim that we're being rescued from our spiritual death if the purpose of said rescue is merely to determine whether or not to return us to our previous state of being spiritually dead.

Ignorance is Bliss
Samuel the Lamanite also demonstrates here that he's a presumptuous little turd who takes wild risks with other people's eternal fates (verse 19):
Therefore repent ye, repent ye, lest by knowing these things and not doing them ye shall suffer yourselves to come under condemnation, and ye are brought down unto this second death.
Why would you publicly declare this stuff knowing full well that the knowledge you're imparting to innumerable strangers is inherently fraught with severe risk? And why would you mention the risks when you're forty verses deep instead of putting them in a disclaimer at the beginning?  Why is it okay to assume that everyone within earshot is totally fine with the terms and conditions to which they haven't agreed?

Miracles, Free Will, and All That Nonsense
Samuel transitions into an explanation for why so many crazy and terrible things are going to happen in America when Jesus dies (verses 28-29):
And the angel said unto me that many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe that these signs and these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land, to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men— 
And this to the intent that whosoever will believe might be saved, and that whosoever will not believe, a righteous judgment might come upon them; and also if they are condemned they bring upon themselves their own condemnation.
There's so much interlacing, overlapping, underpinning wrongness in here that I'm not even sure where to begin explaining how wrong the levels of wrongness are.  But here's an attempt:

First of all, we have Samuel explaining that the purpose of God's powerful displays is to convince anyone who might be an unbeliever.  This flies in the face of the famous Mormon adage "faith precedes the miracle" and also contradicts the common Mormon teaching that the reason Laman and Lemuel never converted despite the miraculous events they'd witnessed is that faith can't be built on miracles.  So I don't know why God thinks knocking over a few mountains and letting a few storms run amok is going to create conditions that allow "no cause for unbelief," since his chosen servants have explained many times that this kind of thing doesn't work.

And it shouldn't have worked anyway in more grounded terms.  At least when an angel appears to someone and claims to be sent by God, things are a little more obvious.  But how is a cascade of unattributed natural disasters supposed to irrefutably imply the presence, identity, and gospel of this particular deity?  What's to stop people from assuming that The Great Spirit or Zeus or Chthulu isn't the one behind all this devastation?  And why isn't God intelligent enough to realize that, if he expects to be understood, he needs to be more direct and more specific?

On top of that, however, doesn't trying to remove the cause for disbelief kind of contradict the stated goals of the Plan of Salvation?  Aren't we supposed to be confronted with many options from which we need to choose the correct one?  Big cosmic displays that are designed to whittle our reasonable choices down to one utterly defeat the purpose of our mortal estate.  Whatever happened to free agency?

And then there's the whole "you make your own bed and you lay down in it" sentiment at the end.  Isn't it good to know that after a lifetime of being buffeted about in a maelstrom of confusing choices, we'll possibly have brought our own condemnation upon ourselves?  This comment is not the mark of a benevolent, compassionate being.  For one thing, God hasn't made his case nearly as compellingly as he thinks he has, so he should be a little more understanding of those who haven't accepted his divinity.  And if he wants to convince us that he's a truly loving paternal figure, he should be a little more gentle and dispense with the "you did this to yourself, you stupid bastard" kind of mentality.

Plus, it's easy to argue that we only brought this condemnation upon ourselves under duress.  I mean, in the War in Heaven, what were our realistic options?  We could have sided with Lucifer and gotten kicked out of Heaven for good, or we could have sided with God and agreed to his sadistic little plan of free agency and no guarantees.  If we went with Lucifer, we'd be totally screwed.  If we went with God, we might wind up totally screwed, or it could totally pay off.  That wasn't exactly a fair choice, and I don't think it's just to be punished so harshly for being railroaded into accepting the Plan of Salvation.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Helaman 13: Another Prick on the Wall

Brace yourselves for another iconic tale of Book of Mormon lore:  it's time for Samuel the Lamanite.  He gives preaching among the Nephites the old college try only to find they're not particularly receptive to his message.  At God's behest, he returns to Zarahemla, climbs up on the wall, and shouts portents of doom at them.

God Turns from Apathetic to Spiteful
Samuel tells the Nephites that if they don't repent, they'll be wiped out in four hundred years, which understandably doesn't faze them, considering there will be plenty of future generations to handle the repenting and everyone alive now will be spared the prophesied destruction.  However, the method by which God will bring about this destruction is a little concerning (verse 8):
Therefore, thus saith the Lord: Because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of the Nephites, except they repent I will take away my word from them, and I will withdraw my Spirit from them, and I will suffer them no longer, and I will turn the hearts of their brethren against them.
Whoa, whoa, whoa.  It's not that God is going to withdraw his protection and simply allow the Nephites to be overrun in the event of an attack—God's actually going to change the hearts of the Lamanites and make them violent on purpose to carry out his threat.   Why would God incite war?  I get that he's disappointed with his chosen people and all, but actively taking steps to ensure a society's destruction shouldn't match the definition of love in anybody's lexicon.

Lamanite Health Care is Top-Notch
While prophesying the bloody terminus of the great Nephite civilization, Samuel says something that's either really stupid or really impressive (verse 10):
Yea, I will visit them in my fierce anger, and there shall be those of the fourth generation who shall live, of your enemies, to behold your utter destruction; and this shall surely come except ye repent, saith the Lord; and those of the fourth generation shall visit your destruction.
Four generations?  The very last thing he said was that it would be four hundred years before this all happens.  What's the average life expectancy for a Lamanite?  They're a pre-germ-theory, pre-penicillin, pre-pasteurization society that often revels in bloodshed.  Are we really supposed to believe that enough of them are going to hit triple digits to allow some from the fourth generation to live through the imminent apocalypse four centuries away?  And the survivors from that generation are going to be physically capable enough in their twilight years to personally visit destruction on their enemies?

I mean, I've heard some tall tales in my time, but that's a special kind of whopper.

Yes, it Goes On and On, My Friends
Much of this chapter is devoted to needlessly repetitive descriptions of how God is going to cause the wicked Nephites' wealth to become increasingly unsustainable.  See what I just did there?  In merely one sentence, I said what it took Samuel the Lamanite about twenty minutes to explain.

In verses 17 and 18, he introduces the concept of a curse on the land and explains that righteous people who hide stuff in the ground "up unto the Lord" will continue to have access to these things, but wicked people who hide stuff won't be able to find them again.  Which actually settles the argument once and for all about where the Book of Mormon takes place, because with weird crap like that, there's only one possible location:
Tagline:  Two thousand years before the Dharma Initiative there was...
The Zarahemla Project
Wednesdays on ABC
But then verse 19 simply summarizes the previous two paragraphs, and verse 20 embellishes this summary, adding that when the wicked people try to find their treasures when they're running away from their enemies, they'll be smitten instead.  Which really isn't anything we didn't already know, because it's reasonable to assume that utter destruction will at some point involve becoming the recipient of some serious smiting.

Verse 21 condemns materialism really quickly before reminding people that God is the one who provides people with riches.  This is kind of a dick move because God knows damn well that riches very easily lead to pride and therefore wickedness and eventually destruction, all of which he intimates in his next breath.

Then in verse 23 God reminds us what he's already told us:  because the Nephites are wicked, he's going to curse them and curse their riches—which, believe it or not, we've already covered.  Finally God and his mouthpiece Samuel take a little breather to discuss how people kill prophets but they shouldn't, but by verse 30 we're back on our favorite topic again, and by 33 we're combining both subjects into one for an epic mashup of don't-murder-prophets-you-will-be-cursed-for-your-riches.  34 through 36 constitute a semi-dramatic rehashing of the idea that—wait for it—God will curse the land so that the Nephites won't be able to find their treasures.

And then at long last we seem to have put the concept to rest for a while.  But let me tell you, it definitely earned a nap.  I'd be tired too after all that exercise.

I find it really hard to believe that at no point during the abridgment process did Mormon realize that it wasn't entirely necessary for him to inscribe the same basic principles over and over in immediate succession using a good chunk of the same words in multiple iterations.

That's a Bold Move, Cotton
Samuel closes the chapter thusly:
And I pray that the anger of the Lord be turned away from you, and that ye would repent and be saved.
Dude, were you even listening to yourself?  God was pretty unequivocal about this destruction stuff.  Praying that he'll stop being angry isn't going to do any good because the guy's clearly made up his mind.  Praying that the Nephites repent, sure, that's a good idea.  But the first thing you prayed for is a waste of time.

If a Mormon woman catches her husband watching porn, does she pray so that God will decide porn isn't a sin anymore?  No, she prays that her husband will be able to repent, because that actually makes a little bit of sense.

Maybe Samuel is reaching the tail end of his record-shattering Lamanite life expectancy and the senility is starting to set in.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

5 Non-Policy Reasons to Dislike Trump

I usually try to avoid directly talking politics on this blog because it's supposed to be about religion, not government.  But this election cycle is turning into so much of a slow-motion train wreck that I decided I had to weigh in on my own tiny little corner of the internet.

By most definitions, I'm a liberal.  But I'm a big believer in absorbing different ideas and in accepting that one's preconceived notions should never be assumed infallible—that's something my departure from Mormonism taught me.  And even though I almost always disagree on a policy basis with the bizarre drivel that routinely spills out of Donald Trump's mouth, I wish a greater portion of his own party would denounce him.  I say that not because he wants to build a wall on the Mexican border, not because he wants to keep Muslims out of the country, and not because he opposes raising the minimum wage—because so many things that have nothing to do with his policies all indicate that he's just a lousy fit for the job.

1. His Behavior is Childish
Trump is constantly delivering insulting and often uncalled for verbal barbs that I find very reminiscent of an elementary school playground.  During a debate, he went out of his way to insult Rosie O'Donnell, who was neither present nor a topic of discussion at the time.  Although the candidate seemed pleased with the response his joke elicited, I don't think a mature adult in the midst of a nationally televised political discourse should humiliate another person by bringing up an irrelevant personal squabble for a cheap laugh.

In a later interview about that debate, Trump made several disparaging comments about Megyn Kelly, the panelist who'd asked him to address concerns that he was a sexist and a misogynist.  He explained by condescendingly expressing his lack of respect for her as a journalist, theorizing that she was pretending to appear tough, and then concluding with the controversial comment about how she had "blood coming out of her wherever."  Do we really want our next president's standard reaction to discerning criticism to be a literally below-the-belt ad hominem jab?  Do we really want someone of this temperament to be negotiating peace agreements and dealing with heads of state from countries with which the US maintains a tenuous relationship?

Another of my favorite third-grade-style retorts of his came from an exchange with Rand Paul during another debate.  After Paul astutely observed that there was a "sophomoric quality...about his visceral response to attack people on their appearance, short, tall, fat ugly," Trump shot back by asserting that "I never attacked him or his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there."  Because clarifying that you could have called him funny-looking but graciously chose not to is so much more polite.

I disagree with Bush and Rubio and Cruz and Paul and all the others to varying degrees, but at least they're willing to debate each other on substantive grounds.  They argue with ideas instead of hurling insults at one another, and they only cease to present themselves as adults when they take Trump's bait, sink to his level, and debate in the language of nuh-uh and I'm rubber, you're glue and I know you are but what am I.

2. We Need a Unifier, not a Polarizer
Though I want to see my country make an overall shift to the left, I think what we might actually need right now is a really moderate president from any party.  Debates raging so hotly across the country about gun control, health care, terrorism, Syria, income inequality and gay marriage are giving hardliners from both parties more excuses to dig in and assume the opposition is plagued with an incurable outbreak of stupidity.  A charismatic leader who takes a little from both sides and tries to help us move forward together instead of focusing on our ideological disparities might be just the medicine America needs.  But Donald Trump is not that guy.

He has amassed an admirable army of acolytes among conservatives, but in the very small and totally not statistically significant sample of liberals I've talked to, Trump is the last choice of the broad Republican field.  Some polling data suggests that, of the GOP frontrunners, Trump would fare the worst in a general election against Clinton—and Clinton has somewhat of a polarizing effect herself.

Despite all the backlash Obama's healthcare crusade has brought, it would pale in comparison to the response if Trump were to somehow win the general election.  Even my lifelong Republican parents think he's a jerk.  They're scared that he'll win the nomination because then they won't have anybody to vote for.

3. Being Rude is Not the Same as Eschewing Political Correctness
Trump is lauded by many for being an anti-establishment candidate because he's not from Washington's political elite and, in his own words, he doesn't "frankly have time for total political correctness."  He's seen as somebody who speaks his mind and speaks the truth.

And that's a good thing.  I'm all for cutting through the bull and getting to the point.  But that doesn't give someone a free pass to say awful things.  Saying what you think doesn't mean what you think is right.  It just means your thoughts are unfiltered.  And I think it's safe to say that just about everybody has some thoughts they know they should keep to themselves—except maybe for Donald Trump.

For example, at an appearance in Iowa around the time when Ben Carson was closing in on him in the state's polls, Trump criticized a scene from Carson's book in which a stabbing was foiled by a fortuitously located belt buckle.  Trump scoffed, "How stupid are the people of Iowa?  How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?"

Sure, that's not politically correct at all.  But regardless of whether the events in Carson's book actually took place, what Trump said was a vicious lashing out against a political threat and an insensitive insult to a huge cross-section of the electorate.  It was mean and vindictive, and not the kind of public statement that should engender admiration from anybody.

Trump's supposed real-talk on issues like the Islamic faith and Mexican immigration is little more than racism and xenophobia couched in a stance of devil-may-care anti-establishment bravado.  Do we really want someone with such naked disdain for those around him and such a useless filter between his hateful ideas and his barbed tongue to be the one to lead the country through the wake of a national tragedy?

4. He Doesn't Admit When He's Wrong
Maybe I've just seen The West Wing too many times, but I want the leader of my country to be in touch with his (or her) fallibility.  I want him to surround himself with aides who challenge him and force him to carefully review his positions before he acts.  I want him to be able and willing to, if shown the error of his ways, make adjustments to his administration in order to improve it.

Unfortunately, Trump has a habit of doubling down on his claims when they face resistance.  When discussing immigration with CNN's Erin Burnett, he admonished her for being naive for believing that illegal immigrants pay taxes.  In an argument that involved lots of interruptions, he slyly criticized her for not being given accurate numbers—and to support his claim, he promptly made up his own statistics about how many illegal immigrants actually pay taxes.  When someone asserted a differing viewpoint, he batted it aside and in an exercise of seamless hypocrisy, he doubled down with a complete guess (which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is way off).

Another example would be Donald Trump's ire-raising claims about thousands of Muslims cheering as the Twin Towers came down on September 11th.  When he cited an article to support his assertion, the author of the article came forward to debunk it.  Trump responded by publicly mocking the reporter.  When he faced further criticism for his seemingly crass parody of the reporter's disability, Trump opted to deny rather than apologize.

Even Hillary Clinton, plagued by scandals and potshots and suspicions, has made a very notable admission that her vote to invade Iraq was a mistake.  I have yet to see Donald Trump make any similar acknowledgements for his own missteps.  Do we really want to give someone that deliriously convinced that he's right the power to issue executive orders?

5. He Thinks This is a Game
And this is what frustrated me enough to bother writing this all down.  Trump's behavior during the most recent debate highlighted what, to me, is perhaps the most toxic aspect of his approach to the campaign.  When Jeb Bush attempted to rile Trump up and attack his tactics, Trump uttered this completely irrelevant remark during their shouting match:
I'm at 42 and you're at 3 so, so far, I'm doing better.
"Oh my God," I actually said out loud as I watched.  "He really believes this is a game!"

This is far from the first time Trump has used poll numbers to bat down criticism.  In fact, he mentions polling data frequently on the campaign trail as some kind of social proof.  He's pretty much obsessed with them.  But the way he keeps using them to belittle his opponents makes me think he regards polling data less as a metric for his progress and more as a scorecard.  I'm worried that he's not taking things seriously enough.  I'm worried that he's prioritizing the thrill of the competition over the gravity of choosing a victor.

This is not a game.  This is the future of the nation we're hashing out here.  I want the candidates to focus on ideas and policies instead of on who's winning and dismissing each other's arguments for ideological reasons instead of for numerical ones. Returning to my comparison to an elementary school playground, Trump's comment to Bush is basically the equivalent of the bigger third graders telling the scrawny second grader he can't play with them because he's too little and he's funny-looking.

But this isn't a game of red butt or boxball or whatever kids play during recess these days.  It's a presidential election and it's the ideas and the talents and the leadership qualities that matter, not whether the candidate is funny-looking or behind in the polls.  Trump should be ashamed of himself for thinking that a put-down about estimated support is either warranted or constructive.

To be fair, I do agree with Trump on a few points.  It's not like everything that tumbles from his mouth is garbage.  He's in favor of campaign finance reform and he wants to improve VA facilities.  Those are both things I can definitely get behind.

But he doesn't have the character or the disposition to ascend to the highest office of authority and responsibility in this country.  As much as I believe that any citizen can theoretically be the president, I am waiting with bated breath for the moment when the tide of public opinion finally washes over him and topples the monument to absurdity that his campaign has become.  His viability as a candidate is an embarrassment to the country and to the Republican party.

And that's why I think we need to stop supporting Trump's bid and focus on choosing our next leader from among the many realistic, practical candidates.

Friday, December 18, 2015

My Exit Story

While struggling with some particularly frustrating computer maintenance issues today, I pulled out a flash drive that I hadn't used in a while to assist me in my efforts.  I double-checked to make sure there was nothing valuable on it before I wiped it, and I stumbled across a Word document from October 2012 with the simple file name of Dad.

I opened it to find a lengthy, unfinished, unsent letter to my father that was basically my own little CES Letter.  I summarized my journey from belief to disbelief and then began listing all the problematic issues I'd found since leaving.  And since I've never actually shared my exit story here in any complete or cohesive format (which is surprising to me, considering this blog is approaching its fourth birthday), I thought it would be a good idea to quote myself here.

The general membership of the church is made up of mostly decent people. With the possible exception of a completely inept bishop I had at BYU, nothing any individual member has done to me would have come close to making me leave the church. 
The problem for me is not the membership, it's the leadership—the people I've never met. Among many things that I dislike about the church leadership, foremost is their manipulative policies designed to perpetuate the church. The church promotes brainwashing. I think the decision to lower the missionary age is evidence of this. If young men can serve straight out of high school, they will have much less opportunity to mix with the general population and possibly encounter different viewpoints before heading into a two-year-long intensive indoctrination program. I think the church is hoping that they can hook kids from the nursery, and execute a decades-long full-court press. From the moment the nursery leaders start to teach the toddlers about Jesus, it doesn't stop. Primary, Priesthood, seminary, mission, marriage—there's always some new church-based goal to drive kids to until long into adulthood. I think the church leadership hopes that the kids they pushed into nursery won't wake up and think until they're 25, married, with two children, home teaching assignments and two which point it seems too late to abandon the lifestyle that's been drilled into them virtually since birth. 
It almost happened to me. I want the first twenty years of my life back. 
Think about how the church discourages dissenting opinion and exploration of differing belief systems. How many general conference talks have you heard that warn you not to look at anything that could be considered anti-Mormon? How many times have you heard opinions that differ from official church stances called "hateful" or perhaps "tools of the adversary"? Has the prophet ever advocated exploring Islam and Buddhism and Unitarianism and Scientology and Catholicism before making a decision about which religion is true?

Let's be honest—there's thousands and thousands of religions and belief systems out there. What do you think the odds are that you'd just happen to be born into the only one that's correct? I don't think the church wants you to believe the truth—they only want you to believe what they say is the truth.

But, of course, those are the things that occurred to me long after I'd begun the process of deconstructing my beliefs and discovering them to be wrong. The fact that I'd felt brainwashed may have been the thing that tipped the scales, but it didn't create the initial doubt or fuel the "faith crisis," so to speak.

So here's what did make me leave, in (mostly) chronological order. I'm sure you've heard many of these things before as a bishop and a stake president. And even though I'm sure you'll disagree, please think before you respond. Don't just use the same responses you've used on other people. I'm your son—I was lucky enough to inherit a certain mental capacity from you and mom. Give me a little credit for reasoning skills before you frame your answers. 
1. Blacks in the Priesthood
This is probably not a surprise. I know a lot of people have problems with this issue. When I was a faithful, believing member in good standing, I heard a lot of teachings that I may have initially disagreed with (polygamy is a prominent example) that I managed to explain away. But I never received an explanation for why blacks were denied membership in the priesthood.

It always just sounded racist to me. And I always thought it was suspicious that the "revelation" lifting the ban came in 1978, when the civil rights movements in the US had made clear and irrevocable progress. It seems like the church was simply run by a bunch of racists who eventually threw up their hands and said, "Well...I guess we can't fight this any longer. Might as well let them in or we'll just look bad." 
Since my inactivity, I've come across numerous quotations from past church leaders that are simply racist. Brigham Young said that intermarrying with "negroes" should be punishable by death. That really doesn't sound like something a loving god would advocate. Of course, he also wouldn't advocate punishing countless generations by denying them blessings simply because their ancestors were evil. 
Imagine my shock when I read some of these quotes and saw them attributed to books that I know are on your shelves. Books I know you've read. Of course, I don't own these books, so I guess I can't be sure the quotes are correct. Just because something's floating around the internet doesn't mean it's accurate. But I've come across enough stuff on the church's website since then that makes me believe that, if I were to look up Brigham Young's racist remarks in the Journal of Discourses, I'd find them just as they're written on the internet. 
2. Praying about the Book of Mormon
I know I've told you this part before.

In my first year at BYU, I began to realize that the time was quickly approaching when I'd be expected to serve a mission. I didn't want to. It sounded to me like I'd spend two years in a foreign (possibly third-world) country sacrificing the comforts I was used to in my first-world, middle-class home to bother a bunch of people who'd prefer I leave them alone. Even if I found success, I'd wind up teaching someone something that I didn't have much of a testimony of. I realized that any testimony I had was more out of habit than true belief.

So I decided I needed to take Moroni up on his famous challenge. I prayed about the Book of Mormon—repeatedly. Over a few weeks, I literally spent hours on my knees begging God for a confirmation that the Book of Mormon was true. I never got one. I began to look for signs in my daily life that might be a delayed but perhaps more illustrative answer to my prayer. I never found any. Eventually, I gave up. 
It came down to this—the Book of Mormon promised me something. I met all the conditions necessary to receive this promise, and I received nothing. I'd hoped that, if I had a testimony, my apprehension about serving a mission would dissipate with the knowledge that I was going to do the right thing. Instead, I began to realize that I really, really didn't want to go. I couldn't teach people something I didn't believe in—especially since it had just failed me. I began to think that maybe I didn't just lack a testimony—maybe my belief was misplaced. Maybe the church wasn't true at all. 
3. Mormon Culture
During my second year at BYU I encountered the social stigma associated with an apparent lack of piety. I was nineteen and not on a mission. This made just about every personal introduction awkward. A lot of people were very understanding. My roommates didn't judge me—Ethan in particular was very gracious. He seemed to consider it a personal decision, a matter between me and God, and after that brief awkwardness upon our meeting, he never brought it up again unless I did so first. I never, ever felt judged by Ethan, and as a result, he became one of the truest friends I've ever had.

But others weren't so understanding. Because I was so clearly different from the Mormon ideal, people considered it their responsibility to push me in directions they thought were right. And, of course, I was undateable. I never even bothered attempting, because the social atmosphere made it clear that my chances of finding any girl on campus who was willing to enter into any kind of relationship with a missionary-age non-missionary were almost nil.

It is often said that the church is perfect but its membership is not. But I think that the church leadership implicitly encourages certain aspects of Mormon culture in an effort to force more young men on missions and propel them into indoctrinated adulthood. The social pressure is very strong. If you aren't living up to the standards, your best bet is to act like you are, just to avoid having that imaginary scarlet letter stamped on your forehead. You have to conform as a matter of survival. It's not an environment that's healthy for anyone to grow up in, but it does help the church create lifelong tithe-paying members. 
4. The Inept Bishop
Going into that second year at BYU, I didn't really know what to do. I knew that I didn't have a testimony, but I also hesitated to commit myself fully to the idea of leaving the church. I couldn't fathom leaving behind the only lifestyle I'd ever known. I couldn't bear the thought of the inevitable familial fallout—which I imagined as ten times worse than when I decided not to go on a mission. Plus, there were some good things about the church that I didn't really feel it necessary to distance myself from.

But I also resented the culture and the people around me.

My bishop had decided he wanted to meet with every new member in his ward boundaries and had encouraged all of us to set up an appointment to meet with him early in the school year. I didn't want to meet with him, because I really didn't feel like going through an awkward meet-and-greet. I was content to simply attend church and I didn't want to be his friend and I didn't want him to give me a calling. So I avoided him.

He eventually emailed me, and I ignored him. But then he cornered me at church one Sunday about six weeks into the school year and suggested we have a quick talk right then. So I reluctantly accompanied him to his office, where he proceeded to demonstrate how much of a jerk he was. He clearly was not acting with any divine guidance whatsoever. 
He began with the basic questions about where I was from and what I was studying. He asked why I'd avoided him, and I responded that I was just a private person. Then he expressed regret that my church attendance had been, in his words, "pretty spotty."
I'd been sick a few weeks earlier. I'd missed only one week. I told him so. I don't think he believed me. I think he'd assumed from the start that since I didn't want to talk to him, I was probably an emotionally damaged individual with tons of problems that it was his job to alleviate. So he started probing for my "issues" with all the subtlety of an atomic bomb.

He asked if my parents were still together. Because obviously my reluctance to talk to my bishop is because I'm so messed up over my parents' messy divorce. 
He asked me if I kept the law of chastity. I said that I did. His follow-up question was even worse: "And do you resent that?" 
That made me pretty angry. He said he was just trying to figure out "what made me tick," but it was clear to me that he thought there was something wrong with me because he didn't see me as the Mormon ideal, and he was guessing until he found the correct ailment. 
I'm not sure I've ever wanted to punch someone in the face so much in my entire life. After I left (wordlessly), I managed to pull off some mental backflips and decide that I could respect his position as bishop without respecting him as a person. I avoided him even better after that. I don't think I ever spoke a word to him again, even though I continued to attend his ward every week. 
In retrospect, he was just a bureaucratic jerk trying to do his job. He was just a guy (and not a very good guy) doing his supposedly divinely-appointed duty without any actual connection to anything divine. I know that bishops make mistakes like anybody else (and that's what I kept telling myself) but later I recalled this experience as a small piece of evidence (but not enough for proof) that the church and its leadership structure were not inspired of God. 
5. Acting Pious
I entered a long period of simply going through the motions. I went to church, but I approached the lessons more appraisingly. Instead of soaking it all up as the truth, I began to assess each piece of information on its own merits. Slowly, I began to uncover more things that didn't make sense or didn't seem right. A scripture here, a Talmage quote there, and I began to come up with plenty of reasons to question the veracity of the church. And I began to transition from simply not having a testimony to actively doubting. 
There was a time when I decided to take a step back and actually consider what it meant if the church wasn't true. I began to consider what I would believe if I didn't believe in Mormonism. This was a revolutionary idea that I'd never considered before. All the things I'd been taught in the church were written on some massive blackboard in my head. Over the previous months I'd crossed a couple things out, but what would happen if I just erased everything and started over completely?

This happened before I came home from BYU for the last time. By then, I'd mentally given up on the church, but I didn't know how to leave it. I didn't want you guys to worry about me even more than you already did, so I attempted (poorly) to continue attending and acting pious until I could figure out how to extricate myself with minimal damage.
Following this was a collection of evidences against the church that I'd discovered only after I'd mentally checked out of Mormonism.  I had sections for Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Church History, Brainwashing, and Finances.  The document ends with another section header that said "Homosexuality," but apparently that's the point at which I realized I'd never have the balls to give my dad this letter and I gave up.

I don't agree with all of the stuff that I wrote more than three years ago.  Most notably, I don't think it was fair of me to characterize that bishop as "not a very good guy" purely based on my single unpleasant interaction with him.  In fact, maybe I should thank him for giving me the strongest evidence I'd yet come across for a lack of inspiration among church leaders.  But he was trying to help, even though it was completely unwanted and pretty insulting.  For all I know, he was a devoted father who volunteered every weekend at a homeless shelter.

But that's basically the chronicle of my shift in beliefs.  The first time I remember doubting or feeling uncomfortable with something I learned church was when I was taught about the priesthood ban.  My habitual piety mixed with inner ambivalence became a big inner conflict during my freshman year at BYU.  Returning to BYU after not serving a mission because I wasn't sure if I had a testimony kind of helped seal the deal for me.  And then I tried to attend church for the sake of appearances for a while, and that was absolutely miserable.

What I didn't mention in this letter was what finally made me stop attending.

All the doubting and the questioning of the faith I'd built my identity on took a heavy toll on me emotionally.  I spent my second and third years at BYU hating Mormon culture more passionately than ever before and wondering if I really didn't believe in any of it.  I was miserable, I felt pretty much alone (good thing Ethan was around though), and I had no idea what I was going to do.  It was difficult to motivate myself and my already shaky grades plummeted.  Eventually I just didn't bother going to most of my classes.  I decided that it wasn't worth even attempting to continue my studies and about a week later I received a letter from BYU informing me that I'd flunked out anyway.

So when I came home from BYU for the final time and hung out at my parents' house going nowhere and not having any clue where I'd want to go anyway (geographically, religiously, professionally and mentally), things didn't exactly get better for me.  Especially since I tried to appease my parents by pretending not to completely hate going to church every Sunday.

But once the normal school term started up again, my bishop realized that I hadn't left for BYU again and he learned that I was going to stay put for a while.  And that's when he called me into his office to talk about maybe getting a calling and definitely getting set up with a home teaching assignment.

I thought about the families I'd helped my dad home teach when I was in the Aaronic priesthood and I couldn't stomach the thought of preaching something I wholeheartedly disagreed with and contributing to the indoctrination of a new generation.  I couldn't bear the thought of subjecting someone's children to the same brainwashing I objected to.  I gave the bishop some vague, noncommittal answers because I couldn't bring myself to tell him (a man I'd known for a while and still have great respect for) that I wanted nothing to do with any of this.

So he suggested that we talk again later.  I shook his hand, left his office, and never attended his ward again.  Since I'm a wimp who's never been good at confrontation or important, emotionally-charged discussions, I typed up a summary of why I didn't want to go to church anymore, printed it out late one night, and left on the desk in my Dad's office.

And then I slept in on Sunday morning.

And that's how I left the Mormon church.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Helaman 12: God Hates Us All

The Nephites continue gleefully ripening themselves for destruction and the Book of Mormon takes a time out from its narrative to preach directly to its reader.

And Thus We Make Unfounded Assertions
This chapter begins by reminding us how crappy people are and how unassailably wonderful God is.  But the phrase "and thus we see" is used more than once to introduce an idea that has had no contextual support.  Verse 2 claims God spares the lives of those who trust in him and delivers them out of the hands of their enemies.  Considering that God rather notably refused to spare the lives of his followers in Ammonihah, for example, I don't think it's fair to say that these traits are immutable aspects of his character.  But then the same verse makes the even wilder claim that God has been responsible for "softening the hearts of their enemies that they should not declare war against them."

Keep in mind this is in the middle of a long list of God's self-evident magnanimous deeds.  When has the Book of Mormon claimed that God has softened the heart of an enemy of the righteous, thereby avoiding a declaration of war?

This chapter has lots of awful things to say about human beings.

Apparently, people are just too darn false, unsteady of heart, prone to trampling under their feet the Holy One, foolish, vain, evil, delivish, quick to do iniquity, slow to do good, quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, quick to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world, quick to be lifted up in pride, quick to boast, quick to do all manner of that which is iniquity (again), slow to remember the Lord their God and give ear to his counsels, and slow to walk in wisdom's paths to be of any use to anybody.  And the icing on the cake is that we are less than the dust of the earth.

Now, I can sympathize with this litany of complaints.  People are scum.  But not all people are scum and pretty much no person is all scum all the time.  There's a lot of good stuff to balance out the bad stuff we do.  Yeah, humanity is to blame for homophobia and the atomic bomb and country music, but we're also responsible for Habitat for Humanity and pacemakers and Jason Bourne.  The only remotely positive thing this chapter has to say about homo sapiens is that those of us who repent and listen to God will be blessed and saved.  That's kind of a skewed vision of our species.

Generally, people who refuse to present a balanced argument are usually trying to get their audience to believe what they're being told and trying to keep them from making individual judgments.  And this chapter seems to be pretty blatantly trying to get its readers to feel like worthless pieces of crap so they'll believe that they desperately need God.  But people aren't worthless pieces of crap.  And if people need a god, I don't think they need one who's decided they need to be told how worthless they are in order to amount to anything good...which brings me to my next point.

God is Brutal by Design
Immediately after the many virtues of our Father in Heaven have been extolled, this awkward claim bubbles to the surface (verse 3):
And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him.

God created us and he created the world in which we reside.  So why the hell would he set everything up so that we'd be so stubborn as to completely ignore him unless he's making us suffer?   Why would he design a system like that unless he actually wants to visit us with death and terror and famine and pestilence?  Maybe he could try being a little more visible in our lives so that it's not easy for us to forget he exists.  That might help.

But instead God sits up there on his throne pretending to whine about how he has to torture us for our own good.  He should be in control of the universe.  He should be able to devise a plan for our redemption that doesn't involve putting us under a magnifying glass and watching as we burn up in the glare of focused sunlight.

The Science Checks Out
In its hyperbolic discussion of God's power, this chapter makes an unnecessary and scientifically modern comment (verses 14-15):
Yea, if he say unto the earth—Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—it is done; 
And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.
Yes, that is correct:  the earth circles the sun as opposed to the other way around.  But why is this little aside even necessary?  I realize that the following theory is wild and largely unsubstantiated, but this is what it sounds like to me:

As Joseph was dictating this chapter, he got a little carried away with his descriptions of God's theoretical omnipotence.  Suddenly, after he'd already spoken verse 14, he realized that he'd made a mistake—the Europeans wouldn't come up with a heliocentric model of the universe until almost sixteen hundred years after this chapter takes place...or at best twelve hundred years as this chapter appears to be an editorial commentary.  Joseph couldn't tell his scribe to scratch out the previous verse without risking the credibility of his supposedly divine inspiration, so instead, he made sure that the next verse explained that, apparently, the Nephites were more than a millennium ahead of the rest of the world, at least in the field of astronomy.

Because if nobody was worried about looking anachronistic, why bother mentioning that "surely" the earth goes around the sun?

That's my guess anyway.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


A coworker of mine was recently given a religious pamphlet, which, out of a kind of morbid curiosity, I read voraciously. My favorite part was this hopelessly circular reasoning:

The first reason that we can believe what the Bible says, it would seem, is because the Bible tells us we can believe what the Bible says. Even though this was not an LDS pamphlet, I immediately thought of Moroni's Promise.

The way that we can know that the Book of Mormon is true is by following the Book of Mormon's own instructions for learning of its veracity. If you're wondering if someone is lying to you, asking him if he is won't help. If he was lying, he can just lie again. But if you talk to someone else who knows him well, maybe that person will have some insight that can help you make an informed decision.

The fewer resources you use in your quest for truth, the more likely it is that you'll be fooled. And with something so important as your eternal welfare supposedly at stake, it should be a priority to avoid being fooled.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Helaman 11: God's Hunger Games

Things go from worse to even worse in the land of the Nephites under the watch of prophet Nephi III.

Suffering Fixes Suffering
Nephi is so distressed by the wickedness of his people that he decides to cash in on that promise God made him in the previous chapter (verse 4):
O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee.
So Nephi wants famine instead of war?  He prays to God to stop his people from killing each other by making them starve to death instead.  How is this a good solution?

There's also the problem of using starvation as a way to "stir" people "up in remembrance" of God.  It speaks more to desperation than faith.  Why does Nephi want people to be so hungry that they cry out to any supernatural being for assistance?  Doesn't he want real conversion so that there can be a lasting positive effect on his society?  And it looks as though God actually works in mysterious ways after all—by starving thousands of children in order to manipulate their parents' moral choices.

The weird part is that this strategy apparently works, at least in the short term.  Because when everybody's hungry, I guess they don't have the energy to rape and murder.  The impossibly influential, unspeakably evil Gadianton Robbers are basically sidelined by a bad harvest season.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Kolobian Overlord
After Nephi makes a needlessly verbose prayer entreating his Father in Heaven to relieve the people from their punitive famine, God finally acquiesces and sends some much needed moisture.  And what do the Nephites do?  Verse 18 explains:
And behold, the people did rejoice and glorify God, and the whole face of the land was filled with rejoicing; and they did no more seek to destroy Nephi, but they did esteem him as a great prophet, and a man of God, having great power and authority given unto him from God.
They rejoiced in their God and they esteemed Nephi as a powerful prophet.  Do these people not realize that God and Nephi were both responsible for their suffering?  Nephi asked for the drought, and God made it happen.  These guys are cruel and manipulative.  They don't deserve the accolades of the masses.  You don't get to soak in the admiration of your peers for solving a problem you deliberately created in the first place.  Especially if the cure is worse than the disease.  After all, that had to have been an extremely, insanely, absurdly corrupt government for the Nephites to have been in worse shape under the Gadianton puppet regime than they were when everybody was on the verge of death from malnutrition.

The War on Terror
A mere four years after God ends the famine in response to universal penitence, everything's gone to hell again.  All the prosperity and baptizing that has graced the Nephites and Lamanites over the previous forty-eight months is dissolved by dissension from the church, a fresh declaration of war, and a resurgence of the infamous Gadianton Robbers.This chapter's Gadianton Robber narrative, however, seems to defy logic.

After Nephite apostates join the Lamanites, whip some of them into a frenzy, and convince them to attack the Nephites, they take up the mantle of Gadianton and begin a long conflict with the established society.  These ancient American terrorists lived in the "mountains," the "wilderness," and "secret places" from which they would emerge to attack and to which they would return for refuge.  Verse 25 explains that their ranks grew with recruits on a daily basis.  I wonder how such a large group of people could survive outside of civilization while remaining undetected.  It doesn't sound like a lifestyle that lends itself to planting crops or herding livestock.  Unless we're expected to believe that all of their necessities came from their plundering.  But it seems to me that the smaller the group is, the more likely it is that they could successfully hide in the mountains.

Except the group is clearly numerous enough to challenge the might of the Nephite military.  In this chapter, the Nephites send their army out to put an end to the threat of the Gadianton Robbers, only to see them return in defeat...twice.  Such defeats could only have come at the hands of a large and well-supplied force.  But considering that verse 33 mentions the Robbers' habit of kidnapping women and children, their apparent ability to keep themselves fed, clothed, sheltered, armed, and hidden becomes even more far-fetched.

It just doesn't add up for me.