Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ether 12: Faith-uh Faith-uh Faith-ahhh

Finally we're nearing the exciting conclusion of the Book of Ether.  You can tell because the prophet who gave the book his name is now in the mix—as well as a badass figure named Coriantumr.

A Treatise on Faith
For you former seminary kids, we have our first of two scripture masteries in this chapter (verse 6):
And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.
Oh, shut up, Moroni, just let Ether tell his little stories.  But let's look at some individual pieces of Moroni's unwelcome interjection.  First, faith is things which are hoped for and not seen.

I don't like this definition.  Because "hope" doesn't really connote belief, it connotes desire.  Many people hope they'll win the lottery, but an extremely small percentage of those people would say they have faith they'll win the lottery.  By Moroni's definition, I have faith in God, because I kind of hope that there is one and that there's a method to the madness...but I don't see much in the way of evidence that any such entity exists.  By a normal person's definition, this attitude does not constitute faith.  Also, I think an important aspect of faith should be a basis in something.  You could have faith that your mother loves you because she's told you so many times, even though love is intangible and not "seen."  You could have faith that your country will recover from political upheaval or economic distress because you've seen it do so in the past, even though you can't "see" the future.  But believing that a meteor will land on the house of your least favorite coworker isn't actually faith because you have nothing to form a realistic basis for that belief.  So not only does Moroni's definition include what it shouldn't, but it's also incomplete.  So what good is that kind of definition?

Next, dispute not because ye see not. I'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that Moroni is using the broader, metaphorical sense of the word "see" because even Joseph Smith realized that "dispute not because ye see, hear, smell, touch, and taste not" is a terrible turn of phrase.  So really, what it seems to me that Moroni is saying is "dispute not merely because you have no direct evidence."  But then where do we draw the line at things that we believe and things that we dispute?  Because I have no direct evidence that the government is covering up a crashed flying saucer from Roswell.  I haven't had the chance to examine any wreckage or palpate any alien corpses.  So does that mean that I should not dispute when someone asserts that there are spaceships in hangars and aliens suspended in liquid-filled tubes somewhere in Area 51?  Surely Moroni isn't suggesting that we believe everything we're told even if we're told things that have no supporting evidence.  But if you live by a credo of dispute not because ye see not, you'll be sucked in by every scam and cult you come in contact with.

Third, ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.  I think the Book of Mormon has pretty well demonstrated that this is not the case.  Remember Alma the Younger?  Laman and Lemuel?  Korihor?  Or the gang who tried to murder Lehi and Nephi in their prison cell?  There are plenty of scriptural examples of people who had zero faith who were still provided with a powerful witness of the things they did not believe in (and many of these instances are mentioned later on in this same chapter to demonstrate that miracles cannot be performed without faith, completely disregarding the fact that these miracles were witnessed by those who had no faith or whose faith had not yet been tried).  If this much of the verse is obviously false, why should we place any value on the rest of it?


Faith in Christ
Moroni continues (verse 7):
For it was by faith that Christ showed himself unto our fathers, after he had risen from the dead; and he showed not himself unto them until after they had faith in him; wherefore, it must needs be that some had faith in him, for he showed himself not unto the world.
How, exactly, was it by faith that Christ appeared in the Americas?  I think it would be more accurate to say it was by virtue of a religious purge that Christ appeared in the Americas.  He only descended from Heaven after God had brutally murdered the masses of unbelievers with a series of floods and fires and storms and earthquakes and other assorted calamities.

It's also a little weird that, with such a high premium placed on faith, God would even allow the resurrected Jesus to appear to anyone.  By Moroni's definition, faith is things which are hoped for and not seen.  So when thousands of people touch the wound's in Jesus's hands and side after watching him float down from the sky while a booming voice announced him as the Son of God...none of those people have faith anymore.  They've seen it.  They have knowledge.


Apologists' Adage
Verse 26 contains the phrase "fools mock , but they shall mourn."  My mom brought this up one day after church because she'd heard from someone that one claim against the Book of Mormon's legitimacy is that it lacks the pithy truisms found in other scripture.  My mom pointed to this verse as a wise, memorable quote that could contradict that claim.  In retrospect, this is a pretty weird argument against the Book of Mormon because it's so weak and there's such a surfeit of more powerful approaches.

But it's also such a non-specific adage that, taken out of context, it can be used by anyone.  A Mormon can say it to an ex-Mormon, a Democrat can say it to a Republican, North Korea can say it to South Korea, a Yankee can say it to a Met, and a DC fan can say it to a Marvel fan.  And vice verse, in every single case.  It's meaningless.  And if this is the best example of a profound proverb that my mom could come up with...then maybe the Book of Mormon doesn't have very many.


Weak Sauce
Our second scripture mastery today, verse 27, is an old favorite of mine:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
I loved this concept because I felt weak.  But this verse made me feel better by explicitly stating that God gave me weaknesses, so it wasn't my fault that I was such an awful, spineless wimp.

More importantly, this verse also taught me that if I remained humble and had faith in God, I could stop being weak.  But looking back, it seems that I was happy to shift responsibility for overcoming my shortcomings away from myself.  I liked this verse because I didn't just feel weak—I felt powerless to change.  Trying was too hard.  This verse made me feel justified because it indicated that I didn't need to summon the power to change from within—it could be provided to me from a benevolent, external source.  It was a vindication of my complacent, hopeless self-image.

I'm still weak in a lot of ways, of course, but I think I've made much greater strides in self-improvement as an ex-Mormon than I ever did as a faithful follower of the Brighamite sect.  Holding the opinion that I'm the one that has to make changes if I expect any changes to happen is daunting, but it's also empowering and motivating. 

Change is more meaningful when it's earned rather than bestowed.  And I never really experienced any strong evidence that the promise in verse 27 worked for me anyway.


Deleted Scenes
Something extraordinary is casually dropped in during this chapter's continued musings on faith (verse 30):
For the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved; wherefore thou workest after men have faith.
When did this happen??  This is a big deal!  Literally moving a mountain?  If this is such a momentous testament to the power of faith, why is it mentioned so briefly?  Why didn't we go into detail about that event instead of providing a punishingly repetitive and numbingly generic history of kings, lineages, reigns, schisms, and usurpations?  If the whole purpose of this book is to provide another testament of Jesus Christ, why did we spend pages and pages learning names of monarchs we wouldn't need to remember two verses later instead of focusing on the didactic miracles of Christ's prophets?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Ether 11: More Jaredite Nonsense

The uninteresting, unimaginative history of the Jaredite people continues just as uninterestingly and unimaginatively as before.


Continuity Error
Considering that this whole book is supposed to be another testament of Jesus Christ, it's pretty weird that this chapter seems to forget a huge event in the Christian narrative (verse 7):
And they hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord, because of their wicked combinations; wherefore, there began to be wars and contentions in all the land, and also many famines and pestilences, insomuch that there was a great destruction, such an one as never had been known upon the face of the earth; and all this came to pass in the days of Shiblom.
Just in case you weren't keeping track, the days of Shiblom were pretty long after the days of an insignificant Old Testament prophet you may not have heard of.  He was called Noah.  He presided over the greatest destruction ever recorded in scripture.  No matter how great the destruction was during Shiblom's time, it was clearly not as great as the destruction during Noah's time, when the entire earth was flooded and only one family survived.


Good to Know
A strange and unnecessary detail crops up in verse 17:
And it came to pass that there arose another mighty man; and he was a descendant of the brother of Jared.
Why is it important to know that this guy is a descendant of the brother of Jared?  He's never named and neither he nor his ancestry are even mentioned again.

And this is especially weird considering that everybody in Jaredite society can trace their lineage back to a relatively small group of people who survived in those wooden submarines together.  After scores and scores of generations, how many of these people wouldn't be descendants of the brother of Jared?  We could have learned that this "mighty man" was right-handed too and that would have been just as significant.


Crime and Punishment
So I probably should have complained about this much sooner in the Book of Mormon, but since this chapter kind of showcases God's attitudes on this point, I'll whine about it here.  Look at verse 20:
And in the days of Coriantor there also came many prophets, and prophesied of great and marvelous things, and cried repentance unto the people, and except they should repent the Lord God would execute judgment against them to their utter destruction;
This is an obvious reference to the arrival of Lehi's family around 600BC.   Lehi's descendants, of course, would split into two camps, the Nephites and the Lamanites, who would war with each other for centuries.  They received many reminders over the years that God would destroy them for their wickedness, and the Nephites were essentially exterminated by the Lamanites.  The Lamanites received their punishment (ostensibly) by surviving just long enough for Europeans to come in and slaughter them—although not to extinction, at least.

But what I don't understand is why God threatens the Jaredites, Nephites, or Lamanites with destruction in the first place.  I mean, the whole Plan of Salvation is set up in such a way that we receive eternal rewards (or punishments and withheld rewards) for our obedience (or disobedience) to God's laws.  So the system is already integrated with penalties for the wicked.  Why, then, does God think it's necessary to enact temporal punishment for violation of spiritual laws?  Especially when those punishments are often visited generations after the fact, when the originators of the iniquities have long since died?

If you murder someone, then you're breaking both societal and spiritual laws.  So society will discipline you by throwing you in prison, and God will discipline you by not allowing you access to the highest degrees of eternal glory.  Doesn't God killing you because of this constitute some kind of spiritual double jeopardy?  And isn't it especially cruel of God to do so, considering that death will deny you any opportunity for repentance or redemption?  After all, according to Alma, "that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world."  This is precisely why he exhorted us not to "procrastinate the day of [our] repentance."  So if God controls how much time we have to procrastinate anything and chooses to cut that time short as a punishment for wickedness even though he's planning to punish us for our wickedness anyway during our post-mortal existence...how does that not make God an unjust, overzealous, vindictive asshole?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ether 10: King-Mart, Kings R Us, Kingboxes Etc.

The woes of the Jaredites continue, but they continue in an imperceptible blur of genealogical summaries.


Father of the Year

King Shez has a son who apparently did not inherit the righteousness gene from his dad.  Take a look at verse 3:
And his eldest son, whose name was Shez, did rebel against him; nevertheless, Shez was smitten by the hand of a robber, because of his exceeding riches, which brought peace again unto his father.
Okay, the first and simplest problem is that this verse does a terrible job of differentiating between Shez Sr. and Shez Jr.  You'd think if it were really the word of a perfect God, he would have had Joseph play around with the phraseology a bit so that we didn't need to rely on context halfway through the sentence to figure out which Shez got mugged.

But the bigger problem, of course, is that when his son is apparently killed—or at the very least robbed, injured, and traumatized—this brings peace to Shez.  Yet, in the sentence immediately preceding this one, Shez is described as "[walking] in the ways of the Lord."  So this is a righteous guy.  A good guy.  A guy who...is relieved that his rebellious son has been brutalized?

Listen, if that's your definition of righteousness, then...well, I guess that does kind of fit the theme of the Book of Mormon so far.  Righteous Nephi decapitated a guy, righteous Ammon cut off a bunch of people's arms, righteous Alma calmly let hundreds of people burn to death without even attempting to raise a finger, righteous Captain Moroni relied on battle strategies designed to inflict maximum death upon his enemies and liked to require unreasonable terms for surrender that resulted in more killing...you get the idea.

But those situations at least involved strangers.  This one involves family, which makes it just a smidge more heartless.  The scriptures don't say that this brings peace to the society or stability to the government or tranquility to the church.  Peace to the father.  This man is comforted by the fact that his son was murdered, even considering that his son died in his iniquity and probably has no good prospects for the afterlife.  That's not righteousness.  That's depraved indifference.  If that's walking in the ways of the Lord, then we have a terrible Lord.


Weirdest Government Ever
King Kim gets overthrown by his unnamed brother in verse 14, but instead of killing Kim or driving Kim out of the land like all the other usurpers in Ether, the brother sets him up as some kind of puppet instead.  Because, in the next verse, Kim's son Levi succeeds him and "[serves] in captivity" for forty-two years.  And then Levi overthrows the king, which is kind of weird, because it sounds to me like Levi was the king.  This puppet regime or suzerainty or potemkin monarchy or whatever the hell it is doesn't make a lot of sense.

What also doesn't make much sense is that, four generations later, somebody else does the same exact thing.  Hearthom has his throne "taken away from him" and "[serves] many years in captivity."  In this particular instance, the wording seems a little more vague about whether or not Hearthom was still some kind of king or figurehead or whatever.  But it still uses the word serve, which hearkens back to verse 15, which states that Levi "did serve in captivity after the death of his father."  (Emphasis is mine, of course.)

If the service starts after the death of his father, that doesn't sound to me like serving a sentence in prison.  It sounds like public service.  Like he inherited a job only upon his dad's demise.  And the use of the same word in Hearthom's case leads me to believe that Hearthom too was a puppet king.  It's weird that this should happen twice, especially since it backfired so horribly the first time.

And, what do you know, it backfires the second time too.  In verse 32, Hearthom's great-great-great-grandson steals half the kingdom from his overlords, bides his time, and then goes to war and steals the rest of it.

It's not just a weird government with weird writing.  It's lazy storytelling.


Not a Good Drinking Game for Ether
By my count, there are fifteen rulers named in this chapter as well as a handful who aren't.  This chapter is only thirty-four verses long, so there's a different monarch every two paragraphs or so.  Do not take a shot every time a new king is crowned.

And this is really one of my biggest problems with the book of Ether as a whole.  This is a (purportedly) historical summary.  We learn nothing from this chapter that we can't learn from other parts of the Book of Mormon.  The only doctrine here is that when you're not righteous, God gets pissy.  This is essentially the mission statement of the whole book, and if you haven't learned that lesson by the time you get to Ether, then you're never going to learn it.  Honestly, you can just read the chapter summary written wayyyy after the fact and not miss a single important item:
One king succeeds another—Some of the kings are righteous; others are wicked—When righteousness prevails, the people are blessed and prospered by the Lord.
See what Bruce R. McConkie did there?  He kept everything that you needed to know but condensed it down to a much shorter bit of text.  It's brilliant!  But wasn't abridging the scriptures originally supposed to have been done by someone else?  Man, that guy really sucked at his job.

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'm a Crackpot Lately

During a recent bout of insomnia, I turned on the TV and browsed through my Netflix account to find that the Fox special about moon landing conspiracy theories was available for streaming.  I remembered watching it in eighth grade and I figured it would be an amusing little flashback.

It was not that amusing.  It was honestly kind of scary.

See, I believe that we landed on the moon.  I've always believed that we landed on the moon.  But the way the documentary was framed was so vividly reminiscent of the critic-versus-apologist format I've become so familiar with that it kind of felt like watching a televised summary of the CES Letter interspersed with snippets from FAIR's rebuttal.  And in that sense, I was on the side of the apologists.  I was the one stubbornly clinging to a long-held belief in the face of mounting evidence against it.  And the whole time I was watching Bill Kaysing explain why NASA must have faked the moon landing, I was thinking...is this how crazy we look to Mormons?

I'd been spectacularly mistaken about my long-held religious beliefs.  If I was wrong once, why should I assume I was right when it came to the moon landing?

Of course, there are a few logical reasons why this show elicited these reactions from me.  For starters, it was about the conspiracy theories, so much of the time was devoted to explaining the reasons why it may have been a hoax.  NASA representatives were interviewed, but in most cases their explanations simply boiled down to "That's just absurd!"  And some of the explanations for these apparent clues would have required some technical scientific background that a 45-minute show would not have had time to include.

Additionally, I'm not well-versed in physics and astronomy.  I don't know much about radiation belts and launch craters and how things behave in a vacuum.  So while I instinctively scoffed at almost every argument made by conspiracy theorists, I couldn't directly refute them.  I just knew that they, for one reason or another, felt wrong.  And how could I be sure that the reason they felt wrong wasn't merely because I really wanted them to be wrong?

I'm far more knowledgeable about Mormonism.  Though I can't tear every single apologist's rebuttals to pieces, I've studied a lot of the issues in depth for myself to the point where I feel pretty confident that my dismissal of most apologetics is founded in solid reasoning.  And I'm continuously discovering more issues that would require some truly earth-shattering context to be fairly interpreted in any other way.

Rest assured, I did some Googling after the show ended and I decided that the NASA apologists had responses that, to my lesser scientific mind, seemed plausible enough and exhaustive enough to support my lifelong belief that an American flag has flown from the moon since 1969.  So I'm still firmly in the it's-not-a-hoax camp, at least when it comes to NASA.  When it comes to Mormonism, I'm still decidedly of the are-you-kidding-of-course-it-was-a-hoax school of thought.  I guess one man's crackpot is another man's crusader.  And I'm still not sure what would have been more troubling—discovering that the moon landing really was a hoax or discovering that I didn't have the intellectual honesty to consider and research a compelling idea that threatened my worldview.

Luckily, the truthfulness of NASA is not essential to my salvation.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ether 9: Good Kings, Bad Kings, Sane Kings, or Mad Kings

The lengthy string of kings and crises in the Jaredite record continues.  


The Creative Juices are Not Flowing
Verse 3 provides a familiar scenario to even the most casual scriptorian.  King Omer is warned by God in his dream that he and his family need to pack up and leave for their own safety.  This is something we've seen before with Lehi way back in the beginning of the book and also—more famously—with Jesus's stepdad.

I guess I'm a little disappointed that God couldn't be more creative.  He did produce a universe out of nothing, after all, so creativity should be one of the ultimate divine characteristics.  Obviously, God is more than welcome to continue using methods that have worked for him in the past.  And obviously, the fact that plot devices have been reused doesn't prove anything about the origins of the Book of Mormon.  But I do think that recycling bits of stories from earlier scripture is exactly the kind of thing we should expect to see if some guy is making this up and trying to get people to think it's from the same source as the Bible.

And speaking of a lack of creativity, the king Jared is killed in this chapter in a tired fashion.  Why is it that so many ancient American monarchs get murdered while literally seated on a throne?


The Curelom Conundrum 
Why.

I fully realize that this point is easily among the least original issues I've brought up.  But it still demands an answer so I'm gonna bring it up anyway.  Elephants—that's problematic.  Maybe we can pretend that New World elephants are really mammoths or something.  Any way you look at it, it's a stretch.  But cureloms and cumoms?

The only reason I can think of for an animal in the Book of Mormon to have a nonsensical name in what is supposed to be an English translation is that these animals became extinct before European settlers arrived on this part of the globe, so there never was an English name for them.  But considering that these things were supposed to be particularly useful, probably domesticated, and quite populous, shouldn't there be a pretty blatant archaeological record of them?  Shouldn't American school children be learning about the beasts with three legs and prehensile snouts (or whatever the hell a curelom is) when they study the Native Americans and adobe huts and coup sticks and tumuluses and buffalo?

Maybe Joseph forgot for a moment that he was supposed to be writing a scriptural historical epic and he let a bit of fantasy sneak in.  If he hadn't caught himself and course corrected, maybe we would have seen Coriantumr of the Sky Elves go to battle against the Wizard Clan of Shiz at the end of Ether.


You Old Dog
Coriantum is anointed king in his father's stead.  Emer, his father, is so wonderful that he sees "the Son of Righteousness," which sounds really important but is only mentioned in passing.  Coriantum is described as following in Emer's footsteps, which should mean that he is also righteous. But when his wife dies, this king marries "a young maid" in his twilight years (a little wish fulfillment sneaking into Joseph's writing?).  To be fair, I guess that, depending on the nature of the relationship and the level of the young maid's maturity, this may not be technically wrong, but it's still kind of creepy.  I'd have been a lot more comfortable seeing Coriantum marry a girl a quarter of his age if he were depicted as wicked.  At least then it wouldn't be so easy to interpret this kind of nuptial union as totally normal and totally fine.

Oh, and Coriantum also lived to be one hundred forty-two years old.  I can't decide if that's more difficult to believe than the barges that brought his ancestors to America.


Creating a Problem, Selling the Solution
After society casts out the prophets, bad things happen—drought, famine, a bizarre prevalence of hyperintelligent venemous snakes.  Verse 35 sounds like a happy ending if you don't think about it too much:
And it came to pass that when they had humbled themselves sufficiently before the Lord he did send rain upon the face of the earth; and the people began to revive again, and there began to be fruit in the north countries, and in all the countries round about. And the Lord did show forth his power unto them in preserving them from famine.
Listen, if all God has to do is "send" rain to end the crisis, then he caused it. He allowed the drought to happen by permitting it to continue. The difference between one sunny day and a full-fledged famine is how long God waits to sprinkle some precipitation.

Verse 33 explicitly states that God is the one who sent the serpents that terrorized the people and sent their livestock stampeding off.  This whole thing is God's fault.  He did this.  He didn't "preserve" them from anything—he almost chose to destroy them. He used his unmatched power to coerce the people into behavior he approved of (I wonder how that affects their free agency) and only then did he decide to stop being a sadistic, power-tripping asshole.

This is unrighteous dominion.  This is manipulation.  This is not something a benevolent god would do.  This is not something that someone worthy of our worship would do.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Ether 8: Our God is an Awful God

The endless stream of Jaredite names and kings continues, but at least in this chapter we start to get a little more detail.


The Sexism Continues
Yes, we've all heard that there are only three female Book of Mormon characters with names.  But the problem isn't just about the way the narrative is skewed to heavily favor the involvement of men—it's also about the way women are depicted when they're important enough to be part of the story.  

So here's the situation:  the king Omer is overthrown by his son, Jared, who imprisons him and uses him as a puppet ruler.  Omer's other children don't like this, so they go to war against Jared, defeat him in battle, and only spare his life when he agrees to return the kingdom to Omer.  This is when the "exceedingly fair" daughter of Jared hatches a plan to get him back on the throne.  Knowing full well how hot she is, she dances for Akish, who's one of Omer's buddies, and gets him so riled up that he wants to marry her.  Jared's price to approve the wedding?  Bring me Omer's head.

No, really.  Literally.  This is what Jared says in verse 12:  "I will give her unto you, if ye will bring unto me the head of my father, the king."  This results in Akish setting up a secret combination (and we all know how bad those things are) so that he and his friends can conspire to murder the king.

So it's safe to say that Jared's daughter is a central figure in the events that unfold in this chapter.  Nevertheless, despite being the originator of a pretty plot-important intrigue, she isn't named.  The men around her all proudly bear monikers preserved into the modern era, but she does not.


And this also continues a slight pattern in the Book of Mormon.  This woman's strength appears to lie primarily in her sex appeal and her ability to manipulate men with it, and it's not the first time this has happened in a book that's almost entirely barren of the female presence.  Remember the harlot Isabel who led away Corianton?  Remember the way the priests of Noah went nuts when they saw those Lamanite daughters dancing?  It's the sex appeal.

But for Abish and arguably Sariah, we'd learn from the Book of Mormon that women are uniformly weak, uninteresting, and only powerful or remarkable in rare intervals due solely to the fact that men like the way they look.


An Un-Level Playing Field
Moroni's narration brings up an odd point when he starts to speak directly to present-day Gentiles (verse 23):
Wherefore, O ye Gentiles, it is wisdom in God that these things should be shown unto you, that thereby ye may repent of your sins, and suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above you, which are built up to get power and gain—and the work, yea, even the work of destruction come upon you, yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God shall fall upon you, to your overthrow and destruction if ye shall suffer these things to be.
Oh, that's nice.  The Book of Mormon will be revealed to us so that we can read this stuff, avoid suffering, and escape eternal destruction.

But where was this sentiment a few chapters ago when God was choosing to withhold the gospel from the Earth?  How is it wisdom to let humanity blunder around in the dark for a millennium or two and then brag about how great it is to suddenly offer to illuminate the way for them?  I mean, if God is specifically showing these scriptures to us in order to help us avoid the sword of justice, doesn't it logically follow that he doesn't actually care if all those other people who lived during the great apostasy avoid the sword of justice?  


Thou Shalt Not Kill
I'm not going through this chapter in order, because this last verse I'm going to address is way too juicy to stick in the middle.  I had to save the best for last (verse 19):
For the Lord worketh not in secret combinations, neither doth he will that man should shed blood, but in all things hath forbidden it, from the beginning of man.
The Lord worketh not in secret combinations?  So...when Joseph became a Freemason and then quickly designed Mormon temple ceremonies to closely mirror that organization, including all the ritual secrecy...that wasn't from the Lord?  Even though the highest levels of leadership of his church have no public transcripts, no available financial statements, and hardly any accountability as they amass wealth, buy up properties, and run businesses to—dare I say it—get gain, that's not how the Lord works?

But honestly, that's not even my biggest problem with this verse.  It's that this verse also emphatically states that God has forbidden the shedding of blood in all things.  God damn, Joseph, did you even read the book you wrote?  Because that's one hell of a continuity error.  Let's go back to the beginning, to Nephi 4:10-13:
And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. 
And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property. 
And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; 
Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

It's pretty safe to say that this took place after the "beginning of man," which means that Ether, a prophet of God, also happens to be a filthy liar.  God specifically told Nephi to shed blood.  He engineered the situation to deliver Laban into Nephi's hands so that he could kill him.  He didn't strike Laban dead like Uzzah or get him conveniently trampled like Korihor.  He arranged for one of his servants to chop his head off.

God is clearly not the same yesterday, today, and forever.  But he certainly is fond of insisting that he is.

And besides, if God is so vehemently opposed to bloodshed, why are his scriptures so littered with violence?  Look at all the faithful Mormons who have shed blood—Nephi, Ammon, Captain Moroni, and the Stripling Warriors on to Joseph Smith (defending himself at Carthage Jail) and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  Didn't somebody once famously say something about knowing them by their fruits?  The fruits of this god seem to include a history of violence.

Thankfully, I wouldn't say that there's anything particularly violent about the current LDS church.  But I don't think it's accurate to say that Mormonism worships a god who has forbidden bloodshed since the beginning of man.  But that's exactly what this chapter of the Book of Mormon teaches.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Ether 7: More of the Same

Joseph is losing his narrative steam at this point, summarizing the history and genealogy of his Jaredite creations with such brevity that none of this winds up mattering.

At least when we got to spend multiple chapters with his characters we could divine the didactic purposes of their fictional existences.  But here, this is just a list of names and places and cursory conflict summaries.  I count around half a dozen usurpations and/or rebellions in this chapter, and there are a few peaceful exchanges of power as well.  We learn nothing because we can hardly catch a breath to even remember any of these rulers' names, let alone glean any insightful gospel applications that their piety (or lack thereof, depending on the case) may have on our lives.  


At least something remotely interesting takes place at the end of the chapter—the king Shule interferes to protect the prophets from being mocked and reviled.  Apparently the same god who protected Nephi, Abinadi (for a time), both Almas, the sons of Mosiah, the Stripling Warriors, and the other Nephi isn't able to shield his messengers from a little teasing and a little opposition.  It's that oh-so-dreaded monarch who has to step in and make things right.

Which is a little disappointing, I think, and kind of contradicts some of the central themes of the whole Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ether 6: The Incredible Journey

In the format of so many sacrament meeting talks, I'm going to begin by defining the subject I'm about to discuss.  This post is called The Incredible Journey not only because it's a fun little reference to a Disney movie from my youth but also because it's about a journey which aligns perfectly with Google's first definition of the word incredible:  impossible to believe.

And let's examine why this journey is so impossible to believe.


Problem 1:  Everyone Should Have Died
Verse 4 explains that these eight Jaredite barges were packed with enough food "that thereby they might subsist upon the water, and also food for their flocks and herds, and whatsoever beast or animal or fowl that they should carry with them...."

This is an insane amount of food.  These eight ships are basically miniature versions of Noah's ark, and the quantities of food required to sustain all the people and all the animals for a 344-day voyage is staggering.  But it's not the food that bothers me.

It's the water.

Since apparently we should make sure that each person has a minimum of one gallon of water to last a three-day period, this means that, for a 344-day journey, each person would have needed roughly 115 gallons on board.  115 gallons would take up a little bit more than 15 cubic feet of valuable barge space. Multiply that by whatever number of people were traveling (according to Ether chapter 2, it was Jared, his brother, their families, and their friends' families, which could be 20 people or 2000 people, considering that later in the chapter it sure sounds like these guys have bucketloads of children), and you start to run out of room in those ships pretty quickly.  The whole barge would basically need to be a giant water reservoir.  And that's not accounting for the "flocks," which, logically, would vastly outnumber the humans and would need plenty of water of their own.

Now, if this journey had actually taken place and God was really as intelligent and all-knowing as he's supposed to be, then maybe he would have taught the Jaredites how to get water from the ocean and make it safe to drink.  Think of the field day apologists would have if Ether predicted some kind of effective desalination technique long before non-Jaredite societies could figure it out.  That would have been a great thing to include here that could help validate the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon and lend a bit of credence to this most ridiculous part of the narrative while remaining relevant to the story at hand.

But no.  There's no way they would have had room for all the animals and all the food and all the water to last for so long on the open ocean.  Everyone should have died.


Problem 2:  Everyone Should Have Died
Verses six and seven destroy my attempt to give this story the benefit of the doubt.  A few chapters earlier, I admitted that, even though critics like to call these boats "Jaredite submarines," we hadn't yet approached any evidence, other than their weird design, to indicate that they actually submerged.  So much for that:
And it came to pass that they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them, and also the great and terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind. 
And it came to pass that when they were buried in the deep there was no water that could hurt them, their vessels being tight like unto a dish, and also they were tight like unto the ark of Noah; therefore when they were encompassed about by many waters they did cry unto the Lord, and he did bring them forth again upon the top of the waters.
Okay.  So it looks like not only did these barges go underwater, but it they went wayyyy underwater, and they did it a lot.

I don't know what else these guys could have made their boats from if not wood, but this would have had to be an engineering marvel even by modern standards for anyone to have survived.  For a wooden submarine to remain perfectly airtight for almost a year and to survive repeated exposure to deep undersea pressure?  Whether from drowning or from being crushed in a wooden box, everyone should have died.


Problem 3:  Everyone Should Have Died
Since so much of these life-threatening problems are made so much worse by the sheer amount of time the Jaredites spent sailing, I think it's fair to list the duration as another reason why everyone should have died.  The duration, again, was 344 days, which could not have been stated any more clearly than it is in verse 11.  But it really shouldn't have taken that long.  Look at verse 5:
And it came to pass that the Lord God caused that there should be a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters, towards the promised land; and thus they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind.
"There should be a furious wind blow" is terrible wording.  I can't tell if it's a grammar error or just remarkably poor phrasing, but it's definitely not right.  But that's not the important thing here.  With the actual events of that verse still in mind, let's review verse 8 as well:
And it came to pass that the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus they were driven forth before the wind.
Okay, so an all-powerful God made sure that the winds and waves propelled the Jaredites toward the promised land without stopping.  So why the devil did it take nearly a year?  A journey from Yemen around southern Africa to the eastern coast of Mexico should be in the neighborhood of 11,500 miles.  Admittedly, we don't know specifically where the Jaredites landed, but it does seem that their territory and the later Nephite territories would overlap a bit.  Many LDS like to think that Book of Mormon events took place in North America, but some think it's more reasonable to assume Central or South America, so Mexico seems like a reasonable compromise.

But I'm getting sidetracked.  In this theoretical journey from the Arabian peninsula to Central America, a 344-day time frame would put the daily travel distance at around 35 miles.  That's little better than walking speed.  You'd think explicit divine intervention and manipulation of the waves and winds and currents would have beaten out walking speed by a considerable margin.  There is no reason why, with God in the mix, the Jaredites should have been crammed into their (probably) wooden sardine cans for almost a year.

And just maybe, if God had been miraculous enough and managed to shave their travel time down significantly (and also avoided sending them deep below the surface of the ocean) it wouldn't have been quite so unbelievable that everyone didn't die.


Problem 4:  Everyone Should Have Died
Okay, actually, this one has nothing to do with the sea voyage and nothing to do with death, either, but I had to keep the pattern going.

So once everybody gets to the promised land and starts their new lives, they decide they need some kind of government in place.  And, surprise surprise, monarchy seems to be the most prevalent suggestion.  And then we get this lovely exchange (verses 22-24):
And it came to pass that the people desired of them that they should anoint one of their sons to be a king over them. 
And now behold, this was grievous unto them. And the brother of Jared said unto them: Surely this thing leadeth into captivity. 
But Jared said unto his brother: Suffer them that they may have a king. And therefore he said unto them: Choose ye out from among our sons a king, even whom ye will.
Jared sure makes an eloquent argument deftly refuting his brother's concerns for a monarchy.  That's what you like to see, a prophet—one with so much faith that he could see the body of God himself—being so under-confident that he can only raise one feeble objection when his brother decides upon a system of government that this whole book of scripture cautions against.  Real balls there, Mahonri.  Way to stand up for what you believe in.

Seriously, that's all he says.  He says, "Hey, maybe this is a bad idea," and his brother says, "Naw, we're gonna do it," and then he just sits by and watches while they go ahead and set up a monarchy that, unsurprisingly, will lead to corruption and conflict and war.

So maybe, following the brother of Jared's pattern, the modern prophets of the church actually do make prophecies and impart essential information—they're just so meek and quiet about it that nobody notices and that's why society is in the toilet.

Makes perfect sense.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cutting the Mic and Cutting through the Noise

I'm sure you've heard about the incident with the girl coming out as gay in Fast and Testimony meeting and getting her microphone shut off.  Even if you haven't been paying close attention, you may have heard about it—I've had a few friends who have never been affiliated with Mormonism in any way text me to ask me if I knew anything about it.

Obviously, it's not a great situation.  I feel terrible for Savannah, who publicly bared her soul only to be shut down and ignominiously ushered off-stage.  I feel kind of bad for the leaders involved as well.  For the presiding authority, unless he's a complete jerk, that was probably a really difficult decision to make.  I don't think he handled it well, but acting in his capacity as a church authority, he had to make a quick judgment call, and those are the exact kinds of decisions that tend to be made most poorly.  And then the member of the bishopric who had to get up immediately afterward and try to gently smooth things over with some vague platitudes that didn't directly condone the girl's speech...well, I wouldn't have wanted his job either.  I kind of wish the presiding authority (who was a member of the stake presidency, I believe) would have had the guts to at least deliver the follow-up himself instead of making somebody else do it.  But whatever.

The worst part about this whole thing, to me, is the way some faithful Mormons are reacting to it.  People posting Facebook screenshots has made the Ex-Mormon subreddit the most depressing it's been in a long time.  But the faithful response I'd like to focus on here is from my least favorite Mormon blog this side of Greg Trimble's:  The Happiness Seekers.

Their post on this subject includes the following unpleasant insights:
[A group of anti-Mormons] immediately began pushing the video to news outlets, and trying to control the narrative in the process.
The video has been used to completely mischaracterize what we believe as Latter-day Saints.
Okay, first of all, the church should not have any credibility whatsoever if it chooses to accuse someone of trying to control a narrative.   The way it has tried to control the narratives surrounding the translation of the Book of Mormon, the murder of Joseph Smith, the practice of polygamy, and the pre-1978 policy of racism kind of make this, at best, a pot-and-kettle situation.  To be fair, this accusation doesn't actually come from the church itself, but it does seem to be coming from someone who has repeatedly supported church-controlled narratives.

And this article in no way explains how the video has been used to "completely mischaracterize" Mormon beliefs.  It just keeps insisting that it definitely has been.  The articles I've read have generally stuck to reporting on the incident and the aftermath rather than editorializing or condemning.  The CNN article linked in this blog post quotes the bishop of the ward several times, so it's not like it's skewed toward only one side of story.

The LDS Church remains one of the few major churches that publicly opposes the view that same-gender attraction is a sin or a choice.
Perhaps, but the use of the word "remains" implies that this was constantly the case—at least in recent history.  The infamous To Young Men Only pamphlet, penned by Apostle Boyd K. Packer, has this to say:
There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it.  They are just "that way" and can only yield to those desires.  That is a malicious and destructive lie.  While it is a convincing idea to some, it is of the devil.  No one is locked into that kind of life.  From our premortal life we were directed into a physical body.  There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits.  Boys are to become men—masculine, manly men—ultimately to become husbands and fathers.  No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers.
The pamphlet goes on to refer to those engaging in homosexuality as "[having] been drawn into wicked practices."  So if they aren't born that way and are merely practicing wickedness...that makes it a choice, right?  A bad choice?

Packer originally spoke these words in 1976, but the pamphlet was given to me as a teenager, by my bishop, fifteen years ago.  When I stopped attending church in 2008, I was still under the impression that the official LDS position was that homosexuality is a choice.  These changes in church stances have come about recently, and I think that undermines any claim of moral high ground here.   If God's church were really so enlightened, it would have been enlightened a long time ago.  True inspiration would be, at the very least, ahead of the curve.

For years, the Church has been a fierce proponent of granting LGBT individuals protection from discrimination in housing or the workplace.
...and that's the same problem.  "Years" only means 24 months at most.  How many years is it?  The link used to support this claim is from January 2015.  So that's...less than three years ago.  Got anything better?  Because if the church has only been this magnanimous toward the LGBT community for three years, that's hardly a shining endorsement of its progressive thinking and open-minded policies.  And let's not forget how hard the church fought against gay marriage—gay civil marriage, of course.  Even though the United States government allows plenty of things that Mormons don't approve of (alcohol, tobacco, coffee, pornography, R-rated movies, miniskirts, etc.) for some reason it was a big deal to make sure that this one thing—something that cut to the very core of people's identities in a way nothing else I listed could have—couldn't be legalized.

The Church’s approach was heralded for achieving a balance between religious liberty and LGBT protections that satisfied all parties.
Um...if you actually read the article, it sure sounds like there were notable people from all parties who were not satisfied:
Some who oppose it claim the bill does not adequately protect people’s religious freedoms. Others argue it’s too short-sighted, applying only to state anti-discrimination laws.
“It contains a lot of provisions that are unique to the legal climate of Utah that would not translate elsewhere,” the progressive lobby ThinkProgress reported. “Given the ubiquitous presence of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in Utah, it may be the best bill that could pass there — and is thus better than no protections.”
However, it does appear that the bill passed overwhelmingly.  So it seems to have been a legislative success even if it didn't necessarily satisfy all parties.

You see, we are a sacrificing people. 
Regardless of the deep feelings of sexual attraction that all of our members feel, we are taught to abstain from:
  • Pornography
  • Masturbation
  • Sex before marriage
  • Sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman
Wow.  That is so not the same thing.  If you're a straight Mormon and you feel the urge to have sex, at least you can do that eventually, once you're married.  If you're a Mormon who's not straight, you'll never be able to experience it the way you want to.  You can, of course, get married to someone you aren't physically attracted to and have sex that way, but...I'm sure that's really not the same.  It's easy to preach about sacrifice when your version of sacrifice is postponement more than deprivation.

But [losing membership in the church] of course does not preclude [those in same-sex relationships] from participating in our meetings with us—where true Latter-day Saints will treat them with nothing but love and respect.
I really hate to be that guy, but...No True Scotsman, anyone?  Look, regardless of whether true Latter-day Saints will treat LGBT people with love and respect, a strong stigma against them still exists in Mormon culture.  And it's foolish to deny that, whether or not bigoted Mormons are justified in their beliefs, their attitudes are rooted in Mormon doctrine.  The church may have made some concessions in recent years to keep it from becoming insurmountably entrenched in homophobia, but it still has a long way to go until most LGBT people will feel as comfortable in the pews as the straight cisgender people do.

What you may not have noticed in the video is that no one heckled that girl.
I did notice.

But that might not make a whole lot of difference.  Because even though heckling from the audience would have been horrible, she was still humiliated—by the ranking authority in the whole building, no less.  And even though he could have been a lot more rude about it, I think the act of switching off the microphone and then insisting that she sit down when she was in the middle of an incredibly personal testimony was still unbelievably insensitive whether he agreed with what she was saying or not.  She wasn't invoking Our Dark Lord Below, she wasn't threatening to kill anyone, she wasn't even saying that the church wasn't true—she was professing a belief in God, a belief in herself, and preaching a lot of love.

But heckling would have been truly surprising.  I attended twenty years of sacrament meetings and I never once saw anybody get heckled.  That's just not what the culture is in the church.  Some churches involve a lot of audience participation, but in Mormondom, when someone's speaking from the podium, everybody else shuts up.

And I've also never seen someone get their microphone shut off, either.  There was a guy in my ward when I was a kid who used to get up most Fast and Testimony meetings and say some pretty off-the-wall things.  He once talked about how his dead mother appeared to him in a vision and made a prophecy to him that he felt it was important for him to share with the ward.  Another guy once bore his testimony about the gospel parallels in The Matrix.  But as non-kosher as Fast and Testimony meetings got sometimes, I never saw anyone's mic switched off and I never saw anyone directed to sit down before finishing a speech.

So, yeah, unsurprisingly, she wasn't heckled.  But that still doesn't make any part of this right.  If you ask me, even though the surface outrage here may be about the church's stance on homosexuality, it's about more than that.  It's about how the church treats people in its desperate, monomaniacal crusade to protect those beliefs from contrary opinions.  It's about free speech.  It's about an Orwellian intervention.

The video also doesn’t show that the Bishop reached out to the family after the meeting and made sure they knew that they were loved and welcome in our Church.
Um...actually, the link doesn't show that either.  Here's what that CNN article actually says:
"This incident has created some tender emotions, first and foremost for a brave young girl," said [Bishop] Law in his emailed statement to CNN. "As a congregation, we continue to reach out, and do all that we can to make sure she knows that we love her and her family."
As a congregation.  Sure, that doesn't mean that the bishop didn't personally reach out as well, but he doesn't explicitly state that he lifted a finger.  But if you're going to accuse anti-Mormons of trying to control the narrative, you may want to make sure you're not guilty of it too before, you know, casting stones.


What I think is conspicuously absent from this blog post is any expression of compassion toward the girl herself.  The CNN article mentions that, after leaving the podium, Savannah was "distraught and crying," but Happiness Seekers doesn't address that at all.  There's no mention that, even if she was unjustified in speaking it still took a massive amount of courage.  Even though she's the subject of the article, she's never even mentioned by name, and the embarrassment and disappointment she suffered isn't so much as acknowledged.  It's all righteous indignation and a need to set the record straight on the church's behalf.

And that's a big part of the problem, I think.  When it becomes about protecting the institution instead of protecting the people within it, that should be a red flag about the institution itself.  If we're more concerned about how our beliefs are portrayed to the world than we are about expressing our beliefs, I don't think we're focusing on the right things.  When we're more interested in insulating an organization's public image than in trying to determine why certain problems arise within that organization, we're disregarding the suffering of who knows how many people.  Mormonism has a big problem with homosexuality right now.  And instead of taking a close look at where it's coming from and what to do about it, too many members of the church are worried about how they are being misrepresented instead about how others are being mistreated.

In closing, maybe we can all take a page out of Savannah's notebook:
I believe that God wants us to treat each other with kindness, even if people are different. Especially if they are different.  Christ showed us this.  I believe that we should just love.
I have no belief in God or Christ, but I love this sentiment.  How absurd is it that saying something like that publicly can cause such a backlash, especially among people who actually agree with every word in paragraphs like that?

I believe that we should just love too.  Even if it means letting someone say something we don't like.  Because ultimately the person matters far more than the speech does.  We can disagree all we like once it's over, but to quash someone's expression before she can even finish, especially when so much of what she's saying revolves around the concept of Christlike love?  That's not kindness.

But, in my eyes, that's exactly the atmosphere that the church fosters.  It's a flexible, conditional definition of kindness that won't appear in any dictionary.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Spreading the Un-gospel

A few weeks ago, I received a negative review of Their Works Shall Be in the Dark.  But this was different from the others because it was actually pretty encouraging:
So this person had some not-so-nice things to say about the book itself, which is fine.  It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and that applies to the style, not just to the subject matter.  What was awesome about this review is what caused it in the first place.  It looks to me like someone who shares my, um, agenda, used my novel as a way to try to propagate the truth about the church.

And by "the truth about the church," I'm referring, of course, to the fact that the church is not true.

I did make an effort to take a moderate approach in my book rather than writing a story full of one-sided arguments and unfiltered hatred.  So perhaps recommending the book may be more likely to make a Mormon think about things differently than, say, sending him a copy of the CES Letter.  Maybe it's more likely to elicit thoughtful consideration rather than a knee-jerk reaction.  And it's pretty cool to think that someone actually tried to do this.

It seems that it didn't have the desired effect, which is unfortunate.  But to whomever recommended my book to this guy, thanks for trying!  I'm sorry it didn't work!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ether 5: Witnesses on Trial

Here we arrive upon a short six-verse chapter that seems to center on the concept of the future three witnesses to the gold plates.  Verse 3 seems to be the central point:
And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day.
It seems to me that this scripture is grossly overestimating the impact of the three witnesses.  It also seems to be grossly overestimating the visibility of God's power.  There have been a few events in which a divine power has apparently favored the organization that arose from the fruits of "this work" and the "testimony of three," but all those events are now historical.  The mass healing of the sick in Nauvoo and the miraculous eradication of the insect problem in the Salt Lake valley are both great stories, but they're old and difficult to verify.  Surely if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the same church founded upon the same principles to which these three witnesses were dedicated then the power of God would have continued to be shown forth throughout its history.  Surely there would be some miraculous event favoring the LDS people that I could point to in my own lifetime.  Right?

I made a similar point once in an email to my sister.  She had been trying to get me to reconsider my lack of faith and made mention of miracles as reasons to believe.  I jumped on that in my response and asked her why public, theatrical miracles like those in the scriptures no longer take place. Nobody is feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and a few fishes anymore and no brave missionaries are bringing entire prisons down to rubble around them.  Her response was that miracles don't have to be like that.  She pointed to the fall of the USSR as a modern miracle because it was unexpected and beneficial to mankind.  I don't particularly buy it in that context, but with this chapter in mind, the end of Soviet Russia certainly would not classify as an extension of the three witnesses.  If that's the only miracle we can come up with, where is the power of God that's supposed to be standing as a testament of the gospel in the last days?

Also, why were the subsequent eight witnesses necessary?  According to Ether, which makes no prophecy about numbers four through eleven, three witnesses should have been plenty.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ether 4: Primitive Doctrine

Moroni takes a page out of his father's book by interrupting his own abridgment and speaking directly to his audience.


Withholding the Word of God
Moroni explains that God has commanded him to bury these records so that these plain and precious truths of salvation can be hidden from the wicked people—you know, the people who should need them the most (verse 6):
For the Lord said unto me: They shall not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord.
So God confiscates the gospel when the people are too wicked?  What kind of sense does that make?  That's like a parent catching a child eating a candy bar and then declaring that the kid can't have any food at all until he demonstrates healthier dietary habits.  How can the Gentiles be expected to repent of their iniquity if they're cut off from the word of God?  How will they know they're transgressing the laws of heaven if they don't have access to the teachings of heaven?

How much, again, does God care about bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man?  Because it really seems like he gets his jollies by directly impeding the immortality and eternal life of man.


Trinitarian Shell Game
This is quickly becoming an issue I harp on repeatedly.  But I think I do so with good reason considering how proudly modern Mormonism rejects the Trinity.  Look at the closing lines of verse 12:
...and he that will not believe me will not believe the Father who sent me. For behold, I am the Father, I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world.
So does Latter-day Saint theology have one god or three gods?  

Maybe we should we just take the average and call it good with two gods.


The Evolution of the Afterlife
Verse 18 paints a grim picture of an afterlife that is much more black-and-white than the celebrated doctrines of the degrees of glory:
Therefore, repent all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me, and believe in my gospel, and be baptized in my name; for he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned; and signs shall follow them that believe in my name.
This pretty clearly indicates a binary postmortal existence.  There's only the saved and the damned—there's no nuance of telestial or terrestrial kingdoms.  And there's no mention of the spirit world or anything we're accountable for outside of this life.  Beyond that, this verse makes it seem like all that is required for salvation is belief and baptism, which makes so much of the ordinance work of present-day Mormonism completely superfluous.  Where is eternal marriage?  Where is enduring to the end?  Where is the receipt of the Holy Ghost or the Priesthood?  Where is the endowment?

It seems pretty safe to say that some of the most important elements of the Plan of Salvation are missing, glossed over, or utterly ignored in the Book of Mormon.  This chapter is the perfect opportunity to mention such quintessential Mormon doctrines, and yet the book of scripture that launched the religious movement has dropped the ball yet again.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ether 3: Light My Way

The brother of Jared continues his unlikely preparations for his improbable journey.


Who Abridges the Abridgers?
The opening verse of this chapter is, simply, a complete mess:
And it came to pass that the brother of Jared, (now the number of the vessels which had been prepared was eight) went forth unto the mount, which they called the mount Shelem, because of its exceeding height, and did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass; and he did carry them in his hands upon the top of the mount, and cried again unto the Lord, saying:
Why is that parenthetical comment needed?  Who cares about the number of boats right away in the middle of the sentence?   Why do we need to know the name of the mountain—a word that means nothing to us in any modern language?  Why do we need to know why the mountain was named that nonsense word because it happened to be a particularly tall mountain?  How exactly, were the stones both white and completely transparent?  And how is it at all important for us to know that the method the brother of Jared used to transport the stones to the peak of Mount Shelem was by using his hands?

Moroni has created the absolute worst abridgment in the history of abridgments.  If he's taking the salient points of doctrine from these records and carving them onto his own plates, why not keep it simple:
And it came to pass that the brother of Jared went forth unto a mount and did molten out of the rock sixteen small stones; and he did carry them to the top of the mount, and cried again unto the Lord, saying:
Look at that, I've cut the word count by roughly forty-five percent without breaking a sweat.  I suppose, realistically, that the word counts might not be the same in Reformed Egyptian, but still, it sure seems like this prophet was making a lot more work for himself than necessary and laying down some truly awful prose in the process.


Approximately Human
God stretches forth his finger and touches the stones so that they mysteriously glow to provide light inside the airtight Jaredite barges.  But that's—arguably, of course—not the weirdest thing about it.  The weirdest thing is that the brother of Jared is scared peeless by the fact that God has a finger of "flesh and blood."

The problem with this is that God isn't supposed to have blood at all.  As a resurrected, exalted, and celestial being, he's supposed to have the pure essence of spirit pumping through his veins.  Or something like that, as taught by some inconsequential person you've probably never heard of, by which I mean Joseph Fielding Smith, prophet of God and president of the church.  He's quoted in church-produced materials as saying:
After the resurrection from the dead our bodies will be spiritual bodies, but they will be bodies that are tangible, bodies that have been purified, but they will nevertheless be bodies of flesh and bones, but they will not be blood bodies, they will no longer be quickened by blood but quickened by the spirit which is eternal and they shall become immortal and shall never die.
But in Ether, which was translated by divine inspiration and is the most correct book on the face of the earth and contains the fullness of the gospel, God himself uses the word "blood" when referring to his own circulatory system.  Or at least to his own finger.

This is obviously not important doctrine that is essential to anyone's salvation, but in my opinion, these small but demonstrably contradictory discrepancies are exactly the kinds of things you should see if these concepts emanated not from a perfect deity but instead from a series of imperfect humans who were making stuff up as they went along.  You know, kind of the same way a detail in season seven of a TV show puts fans in an uproar because it doesn't jive with the backstory of the show based on that one line of dialogue from one character in season two.
  

The Awesomest Awesome that Ever Awesomed
The reason the brother of Jared sees God's finger, according to verse 9, is because no one else has ever come before God with so much faith.  This continues a trend in the Book of Mormon of absurdly idealized characters whose righteous traits exceed those of some of the most celebrated prophets of the Bible.  Who needs Moses and Abraham and Paul and John the Baptist and their middling feats when you have Moroni's theoretical power over the devil, Nephi's blank check of priesthood authority, and the brother of Jared's unprecedented faith to see the actual flesh of God?

This brings to mind a comment once made by David Cone of the New York Yankees:  "You run out of superlatives at some point."  When every Book of Mormon prophet is so amazingly amazing that no amazingness can express the amazement, it starts to get kind of old.  There isn't much else to say to make the next prophet seem important too.  And it's not just boring—it's unrealistic.  It makes the author seem desperate to one-up the larger-than-life figures of the Bible instead of trying to, as the cover of the book says, simply provide another testament of Jesus Christ.  The tone becomes competitive rather than complementary.  It reeks of fable rather than fact.


Make Up Your Mind!
Despite the fact that this story is supposed to be in the founding book of scripture for a religion that rejects (and sometimes mocks) the concept of the Trinity, in verse 14 of this chapter, God and Jesus have become the same person again:
Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.
You are the Father and the Son?  Oh, man, this is getting really confusing.  Second Nephi, Mosiah, Third Nephi, and Mormon have already caused some problems where the identities of the members of the godhead are concerned.  I guess we can just add Ether to that illustrious list.


A Long Journey for a Useless Rock
In verse 23, God gives the brother of Jared two stones that can be used at a later date to translate the records that the brother of Jared was keeping.  This is kind of a strange thing for God to do because he's providing the means for future translations before the original manuscript is even close to being finished.  Even if he's referring to King Mosiah translating the Jaredite record (as opposed to Joseph Smith translating the entirety of the Book of Mormon), this is still centuries and possibly millennia in advance.  That means that Jared and Company are going to have to make sure these stones get safely across the ocean and are preserved for generations upon generations so that at some point on the hidden horizon of time, somebody else can use them to make sense of their writing.

That's crazy.  That's not foresight, it's totally unnecessary planning.  I mean, Moroni is just going to have to abridge everything later.  Why not provide the tools for translation then, when it's vastly more practical?

And it really sounds like God is referring to the Urim and Thummim here.  If that's true, then this makes even less sense, because according to Emma Smith, the Urim and Thummim were only used in the translation of the lost 116 pages and not for anything that wound up being part of what we know today as the Book of Mormon.  (I don't think I've ever done this before, but I don't have a website reference for that—it's on page 43 of No Man Knows My History.)

If anything, this makes God seem lazy.  He doesn't want to be bothered with giving translators the necessary tools so he thought he could kill two birds with one stone (get it?!  stone?!) while he was answering the brother of Jared's concern about lighting the barges.  So he threw the seer stones in with the lamp stones and made Jared's family do all the heavy lifting in making sure the tools were preserved so that somewhere down through the ages a translator might use them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ether 2: Back to the Future

So now that they're all speaking the same language and they've been assured they'll be led to a promised land where they can raise a mighty nation up unto God, Jared's family, their friends, and their families journey into the wilderness in a way that's oddly reminiscent of the plot at the beginning of this...ponderous tome.  However, since this all takes place long before the events back in 1 Nephi, perhaps it's Nephi's family who really got the recycled storyline.


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
Thus far, the brother of Jared and God have been communicating through prayer.  The brother of Jared asks for things, God grants things, and then at the end of the last chapter, God actually says things in response to a prayer.  But apparently that relationship is about to take an odd turn (verse 4):
And it came to pass that when they had come down into the valley of Nimrod the Lord came down and talked with the brother of Jared; and he was in a cloud, and the brother of Jared saw him not.
Why?

They've already talked.  The brother of Jared has heard God's voice before.  So what is accomplished by having God visit him in person, only to shroud his physical form?  Especially when he's about to actually walk ahead of this roving group to lead the way?  Couldn't he have given them a Liahona?  Couldn't he have given the brother of Jared some inspiration?  Maybe he could have come to him in a dream and drawn him a map.  Why would God visit personally and make sure nobody saw him?

My guess, honestly, is that Joseph Smith was again trying to legitimize his fictional scripture by linking it again with the Bible—so he had God revisit his pillar of cloud trick spoken of in Exodus.


Terms and Conditions
God seems to make a hasty decision in anger as evidenced in verse 8:
And he had sworn in his wrath unto the brother of Jared, that whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fulness of his wrath should come upon them.
Okay, "sworn in his wrath" is not an encouraging act to be ascribed to a deity.  The Mormon god is supposed to be just and reasonable, right?  As opposed to hotheaded and capricious?  And yet...here he is, in a fit of rage, making a decision that will affect millions of people over countless generations.  Not good.

But also it doesn't really seem fair the way that the principle taught in this chapter is hammered in over the next few verses—and really throughout the Book of Mormon.  So this is a land of promise, that's fine.  So whoever lives here should serve him...ehhhh, okay.  I mean, as long as everyone knows about this agreement to obey or be obliterated, I guess I could get behind it.  And also as long as everyone has the option to leave if they don't want to be included in this rather one-sided covenant.

What God is really doing here is holding people accountable for things that he told their distant ancestors.  Which is absolute baloney.  If he expects the Jaredites to uphold their end of the bargain, he should probably make sure that future Jaredites actually know that the bargain exists.  Instead, he gets to throw a fit every time a few centuries goes by and not every person in the country is appropriately genuflecting to his glory.  This is a smaller-scale satire of the Plan of Salvation, really, because God has made a unilateral decision, made demands on his children, denied them access to knowledge of the decision and the demands, and thereby forced them into a system designed for their failure—a failure which he reserves the right to sanctimoniously cite as evidence against his children at a later date.

Also, the promised land that he's talking about in these verses is America.  So if possessing America without unflinching service to God results in being wiped off the face of the earth, how come the Nephites got exterminated but the Lamanites didn't?  I mean, the Lamanites are still around in the present day, so if they have it coming to them, why does God seem to hesitate for a couple of millennia before laying the smack down?


World of Pure Imagination
Now we get to the infamous Jaredite barges (verse 17):
And they were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish; and the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish.
This description is pretty useless.  I mean, I guess that the main takeaway here is that the barges are watertight.  And it sounds like maybe they're completely enclosed—more akin to a submarine than to a galleon.  But I don't understand what it means that the ends were "peaked" or what importance that detail carries.  And I certainly don't know how big they are because "the length of a tree" depends one what kind of tree we're talking about here.  Dogwood?  Redwood?  Give me a hint, here, Ether.

I, for one, am also very interested in how thousands of years ago, the Jaredites were able what is essentially a submarine, complete with watertight doors.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Behind the Curve

I had a recent conversation with one of my sisters in which she shared that she'd recently learned about Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon.  My sister was shocked to learn that Switzer broke this gender barrier in 1967.

My sister is hardly what you'd call a feminist, but she was appalled that something like this happened so late in history—during both our parents' lifetimes, even.  This was almost fifty years after women had been constitutionally granted the right to vote in the United States, she reasoned.  How could it have taken so long for the culture to catch up with values of equality that should have been firmly in place decades before?

I agreed with her, of course.  It does seem crazy that Switzer faced such opposition because she was a woman.  And it does seem crazy that all this happened recently enough that she's still alive.  But as I sat there listening to my sister express her disappointment with her own society, all I could think about was the Mormon ban on black people holding the priesthood and attending the temple.

In answer to my sister's little rant, I mumbled vaguely, "Yeah, there are a lot of things like that that really should have happened way before they actually did."  I wasn't going to press the issue, of course.  I suppose that was my totally ineffectual way of trying to plant a seed of doubt.

But  I don't really blame my sister for not making the connection between the sexism of the Boston Athletic Association and the racism of the LDS church.  The story of Switzer affected her because she could identify closely with it.  My sister, obviously, is a woman.  During her college career she was in an environment overwhelmingly made up of men because of the major she'd chosen.  I'm sure she experienced a bit of sexism and at the very least a bit of masculine condescension.

But my sister has never been black.  She doesn't have much in the way of shared experiences with black people as far as racism is concerned.  So while she is opposed to racism, she hasn't arrived at any sort of disappointment with the church leadership for waiting so long to repeal its racist policies—because they don't resonate with her as deeply because they don't affect her.  She probably just hasn't given it a lot of thought.  And I can completely understand that because I'm the same way.  It took leaving the church for me to start to face some of the things that I should have always cared about but had never been confronted with.  It's something I'm still learning to do and something that I hope I never stop being able to do.

It would be more than a decade after Switzer first ran in the Boston Marathon that Spencer W. Kimball would reveal that God suddenly had no problem with black people holding the priesthood.  The United States government does tend to enjoy claiming moral authority in certain areas, but it does not claim to speak for God himself—and yet, bafflingly, as far behind the curve as the US government can be when it comes to things like race, gender, and sexual orientation, it's still far ahead of the religious institution that claims to be the only one hundred percent divinely sponsored church on the face of the earth.

It was 1954 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that public schools needed to be desegregated.  It was 1978 when God revealed that the Celestial Kingdom would be desegregated.  It was 1967 when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon.  It was 2013 when Jean A. Stevens became the first woman to pray in a session of General Conference.  It was 2015 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are constitutionally guaranteed the right to marry.  When will the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints catch up?

When will it actually start to take the lead, like God's true church should?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ether 1: The Book of Mormon Reboot

And now we dive into Ether, a book of scripture that was aptly named, considering its distant and nebulous relationship with reality.


Genealogy, I Am Reading It
It's a long established claim here that the records that were eventually published as The Book of Mormon were created by pulling together many various accounts of ancient Americans and etching the most important things from these accounts onto a limited number of metal plates.  And this is precisely what Moroni is doing when Ether begins.

But the first five verses of Ether are a needlessly detailed explanation of the fact that Moroni is abridging an existing record.  And then the next twenty-seven verses consist solely of a genealogical line that links the characters in the book to the book's namesake.

Not only was this an absurd waste of effort and space, but it begs the question:  how, exactly, is knowing that Riplakish was the son of Shez essential to my salvation?  How is it essential to anything?  How was it worth writing down when Moroni knew damn well that the book was intended for the modern day, an era in which none of these names and their connections to each other would mean a thing to the reader?


More of God's Favoritism
Getting down to the actual plot here, we're introduced to a family living in the time of the Tower of Babel.  Our main protagonist, referred to so far as merely "the brother of Jared," is "highly favored of the Lord."  So when this brother of Jared prays that he and his brother will not have their language confounded, God grants this request.

And then when Jared prays that his friends and their families will not have their languages confounded, God grants that request too.  And then Jared prays to know whether God is going to relocate them and where they should go.  God replies by giving them directions to "a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth" so that he, his friends, and their families will be blessed and will found a society so awesome that "there shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth."

This is completely unfair.  But it also seems to be the Mormon God's usual MO.  He plays favorites with the righteous people he likes and lets plenty of other people benefit from his favoritism even when they may not have deserved it.  Laman and Lemuel got rescued from the impending Babylonian captivity and taken to the promised land even though they were wicked.  Alma the Younger had an angel appear to him to convince him of the error of his ways because his daddy was the prophet.  And in this case, a whole bunch of people who may or may not have been righteous get dragged along for the ride to blessedness and prosperity because they (or their family members) are buds with Jared or his brother.

I thought God blessed us for obedience and punished us for disobedience.  How is God supposed to have any kind of moral authority when he's basically acting as a bouncer at the front door by letting the guys who know somebody important cut in line?


Not to Bring the Bible into my Criticism, but...
What I'd like to know is how these guys knew beforehand that God was going to give everybody a different language.  What I'd also like to know is why Jared and his brother would have been given different languages from each other.

Obviously, the Tower of Babel story has lots of problems if you interpret it as historical fact rather than as didactic parable.  But it does seem that, either way, the story offers an explanation for how humanity came to be so vastly multilingual.  And with that in mind, why would God have given every individual person a different language?  Wouldn't he have given each family or each existing social group its own language?  That way, when God scatters them across the face of the earth in Genesis 11, each group can successfully build its own nation.  So why would it be in God's interest that brothers would not be able to understand each other?  Did God also confound the toddlers so that they couldn't communicate with their parents, who also couldn't communicate with each other?  That doesn't make any sense.

Based on Joseph Smith's interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, we could have millions of languages today instead of just a few thousand.


Prayer by Proxy
I also think it's weird that everything the brother of Jared prays for is suggested by Jared himself.  If Jared is the one with the questions, why can't he pray about it?  If the brother of Jared is the one who seems happy to let things play out, why is he the one asking God for changes to the plan?  It's almost as if this story is quietly hinting that the effect of a prayer is dependent upon the identity of the person praying.  But we know that's hogwash because God loves us all equally, right?  God is no respecter of persons, right?  He that asketh receiveth, right?