Friday, May 15, 2015

Alma 59: Moroni Screws the Pooch

Moroni is ecstatic upon receiving the news of Helaman's heroic war efforts and spreads the word that the Nephites should rejoice in their recent military victories.

Appealing to a Lower Power
Eager to maintain their progress, Moroni quickly fires off a letter to Pahoran requesting reinforcements for Helaman's paltry forces.  This is a peculiar move.  Why Pahoran?

Moroni, as stated in Alma 43:16, is the "chief captain over the Nephites," meaning that he "took command of all the armies of the Nephites."  So why is he contacting Pahoran, the chief judge, to request backup?  Shouldn't Moroni have subordinate captains posted all over the country?  Shouldn't he just contact the guy in charge of the Army of Northern Zarahemla and order him to send a few thousand troops to Helaman's aid?  He's in command of all the armies of the Nephites.  Especially during a time of war and way before instant communication was even a possibility, it seems stupid for Moroni to feel the need to request reinforcements from a government official instead of just taking care of it himself.

What Happens When You Assume
Spurred by the recent success at Manti, Moroni begins hatching a plot to regain more territory from the invaders.  To his shock and dismay, however, the Lamanites conquer the city of Nephihah while he's busy scheming.  Verses 9 and 10 explain why Moroni had not anticipated this possibility:
And now as Moroni had supposed that there should be men sent to the city of Nephihah, to the assistance of the people to maintain that city, and knowing it was easier to keep the city from falling into the hands of the Lamanites than to retake it from them, he supposed that they would easily maintain that city.
Therefore he retained all his force to maintain those places which he had recovered.
So he, the cleverest of all Book of Mormon military commanders, simply supposes that somebody is going to reinforce Nephihah.  Well, they're your armies, pal.  Did you tell anyone to reinforce Nephihah?  You have nobody to blame for this but yourself.

Moroni Blames Everyone Other Than Himself
Instead of confronting his own incompetence and admitting culpability for the fall of Nephihah, Moroni chooses to hold basically everybody else responsible (verses 11 and 13):
And now, when Moroni saw that the city of Nephihah was lost he was exceedingly sorrowful, and began to doubt, because of the wickedness of the people, whether they should not fall into the hands of their brethren.
And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.
In a moment of quiet introspection, Moroni reasons that maybe he's losing this war because the Nephites are so gosh darn wicked.  Or maybe it's the government's fault.  It's certainly not due to the fact that he's unqualified for his job because he's only lucked into success thus far by managing to go up against stupid opponents.  It's definitely not because he has no mind for strategy at all.  And it absolutely isn't because he's shown a lack of leadership and simply expects stuff to be done without him lifting a finger or even bothering to delegate important responsibilities.  It's either the people or the government.  They're to blame.

I'll concede one point to Moroni, though.  The Nephite government has demonstrated indifference concerning the freedom of their country in one big way—they haven't bothered to can his ass and replace him with someone intelligent and capable.  I don't care who it is.  Lehi.  Teancum.  Just about anybody has a better chance of actually winning this war than Captain "Everyone's a Scapegoat" Moroni.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Alma 58: The Manti Stratagem

Helaman's army hits the doldrums as they plan to retake the city of Manti.  Receiving hardly any supplies or reinforcements from the High Nephite Central Command, they begin to flounder in the face of the superior Lamanite forces.  Morale drops.

There's a Reason Godmode is Considered a Cheat
As Helaman's meager forces spiral into despair before the "innumerable" army opposing them at Manti, they pray to God for deliverance.  And here's what happens (verse 11):
Yea, and it came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him.
That's not fair.  God just gives them faith?  Isn't that helping his children cheat on the test of life?  I thought the whole point was for us to exercise faith on our own.  If these guys are provided with faith during their time of distress, how come I wasn't provided with faith during my time of distress, when I was starting to fear that the church I was raised in was a fraud?

That Mormon God.  Always playing favorites.  Not cool, man.  Not cool.

Helaman Must Have Been Taking Lessons from Moroni
Here's the scheme Helaman comes up with to win back the city of Manti.  First, he camps his army between the city and the wilderness.  Then, he lets the Lamanite spies circle around and discover how small his army is.

Next, while the Lamanites eagerly get ready to come out of the city and stomp him, Helaman splits his men into three groups, two of which hide in the wilderness.  Then when the Lamanites come out to fight, Helaman has the main body of his army retreat and lure the Lamanites into pursuit so that his other two groups can swoop in, take out the spies, and hurry back to Manti to overpower the tiny amount of troops left guarding it.

When the Lamanite armies worry that if they follow Helaman too long he'll lead them into a trap at Zarahemla, they turn around and head back to the city.  While the Lamanites make camp for the night, Helaman marches his men through the night and beats the bad guys back to Manti.

Chancellorsville it's not.

Much like Moroni's stratagems, this relies on the enemy making some really bad calls.  First, the reason the Lamanites come out of the city is because they're worried Helaman will cut off their supplies.  That seems silly considering Helaman is parked next to the wilderness, which is on the wrong side of the city to stop any deliveries.  Second, despite having vastly superior numbers, the Lamanites still feel the need to send like ninety-five percent of their goons out to fight Helaman's little band of brothers.  Third, when Helaman immediately retreats directly into the wilderness, the Lamanites don't smell a trap.  Fourth, once the Lamanites finally think they're being tricked, they don't instantly remember that they left the city poorly guarded and consider that maybe that was the trick, so they settle down for the evening instead of double-quicking it back to Manti.

That's some fantastic strategic planning, Helaman.  I couldn't be prouder if you'd outfoxed a piece of driftwood.

Helaman Tells a Little Red Lie
In verse 28, our current warrior-prophet tries to pull a fast one:
And thus it came to pass, that by this stratagem we did take possession of the city of Manti without the shedding of blood.
Really?  Without the shedding of blood?  Let's back up like eight verses:
And it came to pass that when the Lamanites had passed by, or when the army had passed by, Gid and Teomner did rise up from their secret places, and did cut off the spies of the Lamanites that they should not return to the city.
Okay, so it doesn't specifically state that there was any blood spilled here.  But the only way this plan works is if the spies are cut off from the city and from their own army.  Which means they were either killed or captured.  Which means there was likely some kind of scuffle.  And there's no mention of Gid or Teomner lugging any prisoners with them when they went back to Manti, which makes me think the spies are dead by that point.  But just to seal the deal, the following verse lays all doubt to rest:
And it came to pass that when they had cut them off, they ran into the city and fell upon the guards who were left to guard the city, insomuch that they did destroy them and did take possession of the city.
Yep.  No shedding of blood.  Just falling upon the guards and destroying them.  Helaman is a liar.  But I guess that sets a pretty good precedent for the prophets of the restoration era, right?

Still receiving hardly any support from the higher ups on the chain of command, Helaman expresses frustration with the state of Nephite national defense (verse 32):
But behold, our armies are small to maintain so great a number of cities and so great possessions.
Aw, gee, buddy, are you guys spread too thin?  If only some idiot hadn't decided to just build a bunch of cities for no reason during a time of tense relationships with the warlike neighboring culture.  Then you'd have fewer areas to patrol and defend.  Wouldn't that be nice?

Considering these guys are supposed to be a righteous people with access to a prophet, you'd think maybe they'd have gotten some kind of divine forewarning that building too many cities like that could become problematic at some point down the line.  Or they could have just, you know, used common sense.

Beating a Horse That Merely Fainted Because of the Loss of Blood
Remember those two thousand or so of Helaman's soldiers that he won't shut up about?  Well...they're all still alive.  This is the third chapter in a row in which Helaman has harped on the fact that his untrained, super-young, uber-righteous, taught-by-their-mothers, covenant-loophole-exploiting Stripling Warriors have all successfully eluded death.  Because of their faith, of course.
The fact that the GIF loops is very fitting, considering that this KEEPS HAPPENING.
Yeah, dude, we get it.  It's a friggin' miracle.  Can you stop?

Not only is the miracle itself a little more absurd each time these guys escape a battle unscathed, but it also provides another unrealistic example of Book of Mormon groupthink.  Remember when the converts of the sons of Mosiah broke down almost perfectly along ethnic lines?  Or when every last one of Korihor's followers realized they were wrong and reconverted to the church? we have a group of more than two thousand soldiers, every last one of whom was righteously awesome enough to survive an entire war.

Not one of them doubted?  Not one of them caught a stray arrow to the throat?  Not one of them had been taught less perfectly by his mother and lost faith in the face of battle?  Come on.  How does this not read like amateur fiction?

Monday, May 4, 2015

To Anyone Experiencing a Faith Crisis

An article entitled My Letter to Anyone Experiencing a Faith Crisis was recently shared on Reddit.  In its well-meaning but misguided attempt to defend the church's claims without demonizing those who struggle with them, the author of this piece makes several notable blunders.  The first of these is an assumption that he can adequately understand a deeply emotional process which he admits he's never undergone:
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I have never experienced a faith crisis myself.  But don't worry—it's not that I have buried my head in the sand, ignoring the critics who challenge our beliefs.  Instead, I have read voraciously and have tried to examine all the issues, old and new.
Right.  Because examining the issues in an academic mindset qualifies someone to discuss the heartrending and often traumatic effects it can have on those who have experienced these things firsthand.  While I laud him for admitting his own superiority of redoubtable doubtlessness, it's a little disappointing that he doesn't realize that his research and others' faith crises are worlds apart.

Moving on:
Don't forget that misery loves company, and be careful about your sources.  Be especially wary of professional skeptics; there are plenty of those out there today.
I'm assuming by "professional skeptics," he's referring to anyone from Richard Dawkins to John Dehlin—anyone who makes money by voicing an opinion of skepticism toward Mormonism or toward religion in general.  However, if we're being careful about our sources, we should also be wary of professional believers.  In addition to their "modest stipend," how much money do the members of the Quorum of the Twelve make by writing books that encourage people to believe in the religious organization they govern?

That's not to say, of course, that anyone who makes money from speaking his mind can't be trusted or that anyone who doesn't make money by voicing his opinions is inherently more honorable.  But if you're not willing to admit the reality of priestcraft, your warning about skeptic-craft rings a little hollow.

I have noticed that the arguments against religious faith haven't changed at least the last two thousand years.  There isn't much coming from our critics that is new, even though they often try to repackage old ideas.
This is an infuriatingly common complaint among amateur apologists.  I've read of similar statements coming out of loved ones' mouths in countless exit stories.  My own father used it on me more than once.  It's such a flimsy, dismissive comment that it has no place in a useful discussion.  Just because a criticism has been in heavy rotation for a long time, I'm supposed to assume that it's invalid?  

And besides, most of the damning evidence that I can think of against, say, Mormonism comes from the past two hundred years.  And the church keeps giving us new material to whine about, too, what with Proposition 8 and the City Creek Mall and now this religious freedom nonsense.  You can't tell me people have been criticizing that stuff for the last two thousand years.  Or maybe it's just a repackaged idea, considering the vast real estate holdings that Jesus had during his mortal ministry, right?

Remember the importance of historical context.  If we view a particular story or event from Church history through the lens of our current customs or culture, there's a good chance we'll see a distorted image.
Oh, okay.  So in the nineteenth century it was perfectly acceptable to marry dozens of women, some of whom were already married to other men, without the permission or even knowledge of your wife or the current husbands of your brides?  It was also perfectly acceptable to violate the First Amendment of the Constitution by using your authority as an elected government official to order the destruction of a newspaper that was printing unfavorable truths about you?  I think the fact that there was no angry mob running around trying to kill Joseph Smith speaks volumes to how acceptable his behavior was within its historical context.

Many of the critics you have encountered like to suggest that if believers knew half of what the critics know about our history or our beliefs, we would all end up in a faith crisis, too.  They are simply wrong.
That explains the countless exit stories of people who felt the church had lied to them about varied accounts of the First Vision, the method of translation for the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's involvement in polygamy, the cause of Joseph Smith's martyrdom, the origins of the Book of Abraham, edits to the Book of Mormon and any number of other troubling issues that the church has been considerably less than forthcoming about.  The church teaches that its members should read the scriptures and follow the prophet, but it does not teach that its members should embark on an in-depth research project concerning its origins and history.  Many members don't know about a lot of these issues.  Will everyone who learns about them suffer a faith crisis?  No, of course not.  But a lot of these problems and many others (Mark Hoffman, Adam-God theory, blood atonement, Masonic temple ceremonies, the church's many business ventures, etc.) may elicit some completely reasonable questions concerning the veracity of the religion.

The Book of Mormon is amazing and there is no credible alternative explanation for its origin.  ...  I am also a writer, and there is simply no way the Prophet Joseph Smith could have written that book.
How's this for a credible alternative explanation for the origin of the Book of Mormon:  It was written by a human being, maybe with some help from another human being or two.   If you'll talk to writers who pen historical epics or fantasy epics or any kind of epic, you'll probably hear a common thread:  Before any of them really set to work writing the physical manuscript, many will spend months or years coming up with ideas, characters, plot points and settings in their heads.  We know that Joseph Smith liked to tell lots of stories about ancient America, and if you don't believe that he was actually digging up gold plates and receiving instructions from an angel, it's pretty reasonable to assume that he was simply starting to shape the framework of his debut novel before anyone put pen to paper.

Furthermore, the writing is atrocious.  He had a little talent and managed to turn an awesome phrase here and there, but the majority of the Book of Mormon is a mess of scriptural borrowing and clumsily-related stories pasted together with sloppy pseudo-Biblical diction.  I'd be much more impressed had Joseph cranked out The Old Man and the Sea on his first try.

Beyond his divine calling, the Prophet Joseph Smith was an honest and decent man. 
Okay, well, I already covered the Nauvoo Expositor and the deceptions that went along with polygamy and polyandry, so I'll just leave this useful Wikipedia link here.  Joseph Smith had a lot of run-ins with the law.  Some of it could be exaggerated or trumped up (after all, he was a pretty unpopular guy after all the shady stuff he'd done), but I'm seeing an escape from prison to flee the jurisdiction, threatening a judge, a couple of counts of treason...yeah, a really stand-up guy.  A guy so honest that he lied about practicing polygamy and did nothing to contradict so many of his friends when they publicly denounced it as well. 

The presiding officers of the Church are good.  They are selfless.  We can trust them.
How can someone who quickly runs through eight "brief encounters" with only some of the many presiding officers expect such a bold claim to have any credibility?  He doesn't offer any reason for why we should trust these men other than, basically, he met a few of them on the street and they seemed like nice guys.  He knows nothing about their private personas and what their true motives are.

I'd suggest that maybe falling back on that old adage "by their fruits shall ye know them" (who was it that coined that one?) is a good idea.  We know that the leaders of the church have some nice houses and we know they built the multi-billion dollar City Creek Center with church funds.  What about their charity?  The number doesn't seem to be found anywhere on official church sites anymore (maybe they realized it was something to be ashamed of), but thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can see that the church's self-reported humanitarian cash donations between 1985 and 2011 totaled a mere 327.6 million dollars.  That works out to roughly one dollar per member per year.  That's not a lot of humanitarian aid for a church estimated to have 30 billion dollars in assets halfway through that timeframe.  That's some bitter fruit.

Are we really sure that they are selfless and trustworthy?

The restored gospel is ennobling and liberating.
Ennobling, perhaps.  There are people who have done some wonderful things because of their faith in Mormonism, though I definitely wouldn't argue that the gospel is inherently more ennobling than any other system of belief.   But liberating?
It's liberating to allow a religious organization to funnel your behaviors and beliefs into what is approved by their leadership?  I was taught in church that following the commandments is more freeing and more liberating than choosing from a wider selection of worldly options, and I never really understood why that was supposed to be the case...but I believed it.  I think the usual rationale is that sinful behaviors limit the amount of choices you'll have further down the road.  What a lot of people who have never ventured outside of the church don't seem to realize is that not all forbidden choices restrict the breadth of future ones.  And many of these "sinful" acts don't restrict our moral agency, just our practical agency.  If you mess around with drugs and get thrown in jail, you might not have the freedom you used to have, but there's nothing to stop you from choosing to be a good person.

The restored gospel is restrictive.  It's not about liberation.  The whole point is control.

The Church doesn't have anything to hide.  I admire how openly the Church has addressed questions about its history.  The Church recently published a series of candid "Gospel Topics" essays that provide detailed discussions about several events in our history.
Are we talking about the same church here?  The church has not openly addressed questions about its history.  It very quietly published a series of semi-candid "Gospel Topics" essays attributed to and signed by exactly none of its prophets, seers or revelators.  These essays provide semi-detailed, semi-skewed discussions about several events in its history.  And when did it publish these essays?  Depending on what events we're talking about, sometimes one hundred fifty years after the fact.  Making some candid, unpleasant information available with plenty of spin after enduring decades and decades of criticisms and questions concerning these issues does not qualify as being "open" about anything.  When this stuff winds up in church lesson manuals and Mormon Newsroom press releases, I'll be impressed...but it will still be way too late to counteract a century and a half of whitewashing.

And if the Church doesn't have anything to hide, why does it keep its finances private?  If you expect someone to believe you have nothing to hide, wouldn't it make sense not to hide anything?

If the Church is ever true, it is always true.  
This is allegiance to the organization, not the doctrine.  It's interesting to me that the author always capitalizes "Church" but never "gospel."

I don't think people should be so loyal to their religions, I think they should be loyal to their beliefs.  It shouldn't be the church that's true, it should be the gospel that's true.  If Jesus dying for our sins was ever true, it will never stop being true.  But a church run by a hierarchy of imperfect men can stop being "true," in the LDS sense of the term, at a moment's notice.  Once a church starts aggressively indoctrinating children, shaming and demeaning women, preaching un-Christlike intolerance under the guise of religious freedom and demanding mandatory monetary donations to fund unrelated business ventures, it's effectively ceased to be a positive force in the world.  Even if the church were "true" before, it certainly isn't now.

I wish people would cling to their faith instead of to their faith in their leadership structure, because what a person passionately believes should be more important to him than the organization that happens to preach it.

No amount of logic or reason or history can ever provide the same and lasting conviction that comes through the witness of the Holy Ghost.  Never hesitate to ask in prayer for the spiritual reassurance you seek.  You have the Lord's promise that "by the power of the Holy Ghost, [you] may know the truth of all things."
Here the author demonstrates, again, that he doesn't understand faith crises.  A lot of people who go through them aren't looking for the lasting conviction from the Holy Ghost.  They're looking for the truth.  They aren't looking for reassurance.  They're looking for the truth.  If the promise in Moroni 10 fails them, what do you expect them to do?  Of course they'll have to fall back on logic and reason and history, because there's so little else the church can offer.  If they don't receive a spiritual witness of the truth, they are either supposed to take it on faith or keep trying again, indefinitely.  For a lot of us, that's not a very satisfying answer.

Not that logic and reason and history should be a fall-back.  But when you're crawling out of the cognitive cocoon of Mormonism, that's probably how you'll see it.  Those three things are often referred to with disdain in the church.  There's nothing wrong with logic and reason and history.  But all three are a threat to Mormondom, and the leadership has culturally conditioned its members to be skeptical of them.

So here's what I have to say to anyone experiencing a faith crisis:

Do you.  Don't let people like me tell you to leave and don't let people like him tell you to stay.

Take in as much verifiable information as you can, decide what feels right to you, and make the best decision you can for yourself.  If you have a family, make the best decision you can for you, for your spouse, and for your children.  There's no shame in staying in the church and there's no shame in leaving the church.

It's as simple as that.