Wednesday, March 30, 2016

3 Nephi 8: Let the Bodies Hit the Floor

So the proverbial crap is about to hit the cataclysmic fan in ancient America.  Cue the epic montage of tragedy and destruction on a massive scale.

Wavering Credibility
This chapter begins by going out of its way to reiterate that all this stuff actually happened:
And now it came to pass that according to our record, and we know our record to be true, for behold, it was a just man who did keep the record—
Yet, in the very next verse, there's apparently some room for error:
And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away;
If there was no mistake? Is the record true or not? And if there's a possibility that the prophet was wrong about the historical timeline, what else is it possible he's wrong about?  Is God getting his dates mixed up while he's delivering his inspiration to his chosen mouthpieces?

Time is Relative
To signify the crucifixion of Christ, the American continent is hit with storms and whirlwinds and earthquakes.  What stands out to me is the folkloric way the timeline of these events is related (verse 19):
...for behold, they did last for the space of about three hours; and it was said by some that the time was greater; nevertheless, all these great and terrible things were done in about the space of three hours.
That's a lot of bad stuff in a very short time.  But now compare that description to the description of the length of the mist of darkness following these disasters (verse 23):
And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen.
And that's it.  It was three days, period.  I'm pretty sure a lot of people would be able to guess the duration of a three-hour disaster with relative accuracy...but three days with no light whatsoever?  How can anyone be expected to have any sense of the passage of time when spending the better part of a week in impenetrable darkness?  How come this time there's no comment about how some say it was four days?

Because Jesus was dead for three days, right?

Well, probably not.  Mark puts his time of death at 3:00 in the afternoon.  The empty tomb is discovered on the third morning.  Christ might not have even been out of commission for two full days.  All of which makes the Book of Mormon's rigid allegiance to the three-day darkness seem to me more like fictional symbolism intended to support popular theological misconceptions rather than a sign to the Americas of the duration of Jesus's temporary incapacitation.

Just Why?
Halfway around the world, a bunch of Romans have murdered the son of God—which was exactly according to God's plan anyway.  How does it make sense to visit such destruction upon a completely separate society in the aftermath of the murder?  I mean, reading this chapter's description of all the awful stuff going on in America sure makes it sound like this was God's most violent temper tantrum since the great flood.

Mormonism spends so much time talking about how much God loves his children.  But this is not loving and it's not good parenting.  Sure, the Nephites were mostly wicked, but they didn't crucify anybody.  And sure, maybe they needed some kind of big sign that the Savior of the world had just died, but a bright star sufficed as a sign of his birth, so why does his death require so much carnage?

Even the three days of darkness on its own, without all the earthquakes and storms, would have been an unmistakable sign.  How loving can God really be if he repeatedly chooses to disregard the value of human life?

Monday, March 28, 2016

3 Nephi 7: The Return of Nephi

The shocking development that I spoiled in my discussion of the previous chapter comes to pass:  the chief judge has been murdered by wicked members of yet another secret combination!  Cue the downward spiral of iniquity, tribalism, and political turmoil.

Yeats, Tennyson, Eliot...and Smith
Our favorite farm boy from Vermont allows his poetic prowess to leak into the scripture in verse 8:
And thus six years had not passed away since the more part of the people had turned from their righteousness, like the dog to his vomit, or like the sow to her wallowing in the mire.
These are some powerful similes.  What cracks me up—other than the gross vomit thing—is that a turning away is compared to two kinds of turning toward.  I don't enjoy the taste of grapefruit juice, but you won't catch me telling anyone that I dislike grapefruit juice in the same way that I love limeade.  Unless I happen to be caught in a poor attempt at channeling Oscar Wilde or Douglas Adams at that particular moment.

Oh, and also, pigs were introduced to the Americas by European settlers, so I'm not sure where the sow imagery is supposed to have come from.

Vague Pronoun Alert!
Okay, try and make sense of which group (or groups) of people is (or are) being discussed starting in verse 9:
Now this secret combination, which had brought so great iniquity upon the people, did gather themselves together, and did place at their head a man whom they did call Jacob;
Okay, so we're talking about the bad guys who helped murder the chief judge.  They've formed their own little clan and put a guy named Jacob in charge.  Following so far?  Okay, now verse 10:
And they did call him their king; therefore he became a king over this wicked band; and he was one of the chiefest who had given his voice against the prophets who testified of Jesus.
So far, so good.  We're still talking about the same "they" as we were in the previous verse.  Moving on:
And it came to pass that they were not so strong in number as the tribes of the people, who were united together save it were their leaders did establish their laws, every one according to his tribe; nevertheless they were enemies; notwithstanding they were not a righteous people, yet they were united in the hatred of those who had entered into a covenant to destroy the government.
Nope, I'm lost.  Since no new group of people has been explicitly named here, it stands to reason that the subject of this verse would be the same as the last two—the wicked band led by Jacob.  But once you get through all the unnecessary and unhelpful semicolons, you realize that we're talking about somebody else, because suddenly whoever we're discussing hates the people who destroyed the government.  But it was Jacob's guys who destroyed the government.  Jacob's guys aren't united in the hatred of themselves.

Any attempt to follow this grammatical shell game is further muddied by the use of plural pronouns to indicate both individual tribes and groups of tribes, all within the same sentence.  My best guess is that this verse begins by using "they" to refer to Jacob's tribe, abruptly shifts to using "they" to refer to both sides of the Jacobite-versus-everybody-who's-not-Jacobite animosity, and concludes by using "they" to refer to only those who were opposed to Jacob's tribe.

This is not the most correct book.  If God couldn't get his translator to comprehend the English language properly, maybe it's because God had nothing to do with the production of this messy, meandering tome.

Nephi Comes Off the Bench
You remember Nephi, right?  Prophet of God?  Helped Encyclopedia Brown solve the Mysterious Case of Another Dead Chief Judge?  Well, he's still around, and I guess he's had enough of this bull-hockey.  He finally decides to start testifying to his people of "repentance and remission of sins through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ" because he's so "grieved for the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds."

I want to know what took him so long.  The society has become overwhelmingly wicked, it's murdered its own leaders, and it's descended into less stable forms of government.  Multiple prophets have been stoned to death. Why does Nephi wait until after all that has happened to get off his ass and start trying to turn hearts and minds?  His apathy and torpor make his grief seem kind of disingenuous.
Or, more aptly, if you hadn't just admitted you sat idly by while your friends were murdered.

Hey, Look!  A Glaring Contradiction!
Verse 17 explains why Nephi's latest ministry is glossed over:
And he did minister many things unto them; and all of them cannot be written, and a part of them would not suffice, therefore they are not written in this book.
So I guess Nephi's adventures in proselytizing are so awesome that they won't fit in this book (although plenty of preexisting Isaiah chapters will), and only relating some of these experiences simply won't do his work justice.  Except...look at verse 19:
And in the name of Jesus did he cast out devils and unclean spirits; and even his brother did he raise from the dead, after he had been stoned and suffered death by the people.
Uh, okay.  So, you can't tell us any of the things that Nephi did because "a part of them would not suffice," but you are willing to tell us that he cast out devils and raised his brother from the dead?  How is that not a part that would not suffice?

What about the fact that it was impossible for people to disbelieve his words because angels ministered unto him daily (verse 18)?  What about the sick he healed and the signs and miracles he showed unto the people (verse 22)?  What about the baptisms and the ordinations of leaders (verse 25)?  How is a brief summary of an insanely accomplished missionary effort not a complete contradiction with verse 17's claim that none of Nephi's ministry is written in this book?

Friday, March 18, 2016

3 Nephi 6: Trouble in Paradise

With the Gadianton threat destroyed, the Nephites spread out in their reclaimed territory and return to their normal lives.

Robber equals Lamanite
So what did the Nephites do with the Robbers who had surrendered to them (verse 3)?
And they granted unto those robbers who had entered into a covenant to keep the peace of the land, who were desirous to remain Lamanites, lands, according to their numbers, that they might have, with their labors, wherewith to subsist upon; and thus they did establish peace in all the land.
Forty acres and a mule, basically.  But my problem with this is that Lamanites effectively didn't exist anymore.  The old Lamanites had become righteous and united with their sister society under the broadened moniker of "Nephite."  It wasn't Nephites versus Lamanites anymore, it was Nephites versus Gadianton Robbers.

Another problem is that the Gadianton Robbers were also composed of Nephites.  There's no mention of how the victorious Nephites may or may not have assimilated vanquished Robbers of similar lineage into their society, and that absence kind of conflates Gadianton Robber with Lamanite in a way that is entirely unfair—especially since this whole organized crime mess originated in the Nephite community.

The Non-Prosperity Gospel
Verse 5 pretty clearly equates poverty with transgression:
And now there was nothing in all the land to hinder the people from prospering continually, except they should fall into transgression.
So the only thing that can make the people poor is sin?  Okay, now compare that to what Dallin H. Oaks declared in General Conference just last year:  
Those who believe in what has been called the theology of prosperity are suffering from the deceitfulness of riches. The possession of wealth or significant income is not a mark of heavenly favor, and their absence is not evidence of heavenly disfavor.
Which one is accurate?  The depictions in the Book of Mormon or the platitudes of a modern apostle?

Convert Retention
In the 28th year, everything was fine.  By the 30th year, the church has been dismantled except for a pocket of righteous Lamanites.  What the hell happened in two years?  Has there ever been such a rapid period of apostasy in a closed society in recorded history?  Even for the Nephites, the speed of vacillation between wickedness and righteousness is record-setting.

In fact, Google and the CES Letter, with all their insidious non-faith-promoting materials, haven't managed to get within light-years of dealing this kind of damage.

Who's Running This Country?
Following the mass exodus from the church, a few random guys get inspired to start preach the gospel, much to the anger of government officials who had probably been among the believers just two years prior.  Verse 21 states that "those who were angry were chiefly the chief judges, and they who had been high priests and lawyers."

Since when is there more than one chief judge? A few chapters ago, Lachoneus was introduced as the "governor" of the Nephite society that had absorbed the righteous Lamanites.  What happened to "chief judge" as the title of the highest government office? When did it become some kind of plural subordinate position beneath the governor?

Anyway, these angry chief judges resorted to secretly executing the proselytizers because it was "contrary to the laws of the land, that any man should be put to death except they had power from the governor of the land," who is the presumably righteous son of Lachoneus (who is also named Lachoneus, in true unimaginative Book of Mormon fashion).  Either this is a plot hole or it's is a law that the Nephites created in response to Captain Moroni's rampant, indiscriminate, and indemnified executions.

These angry chief judges proceed to amass a following intent on destroying the righteous and establishing a monarchy.  And in the first verse of the next chapter, they'll set off a political crisis by murdering the chief judge—singular, with a definite article.  There's no mention of any "governor" and the government breaks up into little tribes without a unifying figure of centralized power.

What is a chief judge? Why does the definition keep changing? What is a governor?  Why does the office crop up with no explanation and later suddenly cease to exist?  How is this divinely inspired scripture and not the product of an imaginative guy dictating stories by the seat of his pants?

Friday, March 4, 2016

3 Nephi 5: B-Movie Dialogue

Now that the Gadianton Robbers have been effectively destroyed, the Nephites enter a kind of reconstruction era.

Expediency, Exschmediency
There's some weird word selection in verse 2:
And they knew that it must be expedient that Christ had come, because of the many signs which had been given, according to the words of the prophets; and because of the things which had come to pass already they knew that it must needs be that all things should come to pass according to that which had been spoken.

Why is the word "expedient" thrown in there?  This has nothing to do with Christ's coming being expedient.  It only concerns whether or not it happened.  And speaking of expediency, it doesn't seem expedient for these extra words to be thrown into a perfect document which was abridged by an ancient prophet.  If the words "it must be expedient that" had been removed and similarly clunky phrasing had been omitted throughout this sizable tome, how much time would that have saved poor old Mormon?

Mormon Interjects
Partway through this chapter, Mormon cuts in with a needlessly lengthy and circuitously verbose explanation of his abridgment.  He cites his primary sources and announces that he will also speak to the events of his own era.  And then he says this (verse 18):
And I know the record which I make to be a just and a true record; nevertheless there are many things which, according to our language, we are not able to write.
First of all, why does he need to bear his testimony about his eyewitness account?  Later, Moroni will tell us that we need to pray over the Book of Mormon to learn of its truth, but here Mormon is swearing on a metaphorical Bible that his words are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  He doth protest too much, methinks.  It also brings to mind Dave Barry's oft-used catchphrase for when he was about to blatantly make something up:  "I am not making this up."  Going out of your way to reassure us of its justness and its truthfulness alerts us to the fact that lying about it was a possibility.

Secondly, I'd like some further detail on this language problem.  There are at least a couple of different ways "according to our language, we are not able to write" can mean, but neither of the ones I can think of really work for me.

It could mean that there aren't words in Reformed Egyptian that can accurately describe the events that took place.  But considering that we've already tackled astronomy, complicated military campaigns, a detailed monetary system, and ethereal Trinitarian concepts, I find it hard to believe that the language is too limited to even attempt articulating whatever messages Mormon is omitting. 

Or maybe it's a reference to spatial constraints, as in, "we can't write these characters without running out of space on the plates."  But if that's the case, all those near-perfect copies of Isaiah should have been skipped to make room for more unique, more edifying scripture.

Bad Writings of Great Joy
This chapter contains a few examples of weird writing.  Verse 14 is a good example of how not to construct a straightforward sentence:
And it hath become expedient that I, according to the will of God, that the prayers of those who have gone hence, who were holy ones, should be fulfilled according to their faith, should make a record of these things which have been done—
Okay, so in case you were having trouble following along, let me point out that the phrase "who were holy ones" is an aside within an aside. This sentence is riding the grammatical Inception rabbit hole all the way down into limbo.

Complex sentence structure, much like God's go-to catchphrase in the early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, is sharper than a two-edged sword.  I know that it's simultaneously one of my strengths and one of my weaknesses as a writer.  But this verse serves a great example of how stuffing your syntax with too much cream filling can backfire—if you're lucky you'll wind up with a dangling modifier or two and if you're unlucky you'll confuse the hell out of your audience. 

But let's move on to a different passage that seems to possess a diametrically opposite problem.  Instead of aiming for elevated prose and miserably missing the mark, verse 25 lazily blunders through phrasing that perfectly meets its own low aspirations:
And as he hath covenanted with all the house of Jacob, even so shall the covenant wherewith he hath covenanted with the house of Jacob be fulfilled in his own due time, unto the restoring all the house of Jacob unto the knowledge of the covenant that he hath covenanted with them.

I count five uses of the word "covenant," four versions of "with," and three references to "the house of Jacob," all in one sentence.  This is generally considered bad writing—by modern standards, of course.  Even as an exercise in chiasmus, it's unimpressive.  And if Mormon really was talking about brevity in verse 18, then all this repetition is kind of self-defeating.  Consider a more concise version:
And as he hath covenanted with all the house of Jacob, even so shall that covenant be fulfilled in his own due time, unto the restoring all the house of Jacob unto the knowledge of that covenant.
See?  So much better!  These issues, combined with similar problems I've already pointed out (see God is a Bad Editor, Everyone Loves a Run-on, and Witnessing a Convoluted Sentence), are indicative of the Book of Mormon's true identity—an unedited first novel by a neophyte novelist.

That's by a neophyte novelist as opposed to by its Nephite namesake.