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.

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 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?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Notes on the Sunday Afternoon Session

Okay, we're on the home stretch, ladies and gentlemen.

Sometimes those who raise a warning voice are dismissed as judgmental.  Paradoxically, however, those who claim truth is relative and moral standards are a matter of personal preference are often the same ones who most harshly criticize people that don't accept the current norm of "correct thinking." 
—D. Todd Christofferson
Make no mistake—this is nothing better than a very calm temper tantrum.  He thinks he's being so sly by pointing out some kind of paradoxical thinking, but all he's really doing is trying to lob criticism back at his critics while trying to give himself the appearance of being above it all.

Not to buck your trend here, Todd, but I dismiss your religion as judgmental, except I don't think truth is relative or that moral standards are a matter of personal preference.  And while I don't believe that you accept "correct thinking," I don't think that "correct thinking" should be accepted because it's the current norm.  It's because I think it's correct or further progress in the direction of correctness—at least insofar as the issues you're getting all butthurt about are concerned.

The guilt culture may be harsh, but at least you can hate the sin and still love the sinner.  The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and those who don't fit in.
—D. Todd Christofferson, quoting David Brooks Christofferson advocating a guilt-based culture?  What the hell?  It's especially confusing considering that he's clearly using this quote to attack the shame culture, except that his own organization is guilty of the exact things that Brooks is condemning.  The modern LDS church allegedly values inclusion and tolerance but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and those who don't fit in.  This is why it tries to excommunicate the Dehlins and the Runnellses in its midst and this is why it disciplines members in homosexual relationships and demands that their children disavow their parents' lifestyles.

So that's a nice heaping two-thousand-calorie bowlful of hypocrisy there....

How much better it is to have the unchanging law of God by which we may act to choose our destiny rather than being hostage to the unpredictable rules and wrath of the social media mob.  How much better it is to know the truth than to be tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.  How much better to repent and rise to the gospel standard than to pretend there is no right or wrong and languish in sin and regret.
—D. Todd Christofferson
Props for getting out the words "unchanging law of God" with a straight face.  Should we discuss polygamy?  The law of consecration?  The prophetic and apostolic reasoning provided for the priesthood ban against blacks?  The fact that the Word of Wisdom was more of a suggested guideline until the 1920s?   The church's waffling over its stance on oral and anal sex?  Or there's also the well-documented fact that the Lord's laws did change, once, pretty significantly.  Something about a savior fulfilling the law of Moses or something.

And I really don't understand how following the law of God allows us to act to choose our destiny but somehow following the rules of the "social media mob" doesn't.  Having an active Twitter account doesn't restrict one's free agency.  How, exactly, is following the rules of the social media era classified as being held hostage but following the rules of God isn't?  Don't we still get to choose which set of rules we want to follow?  Isn't the level of enslavement the same whether we choose to follow the social media madness or the Mormon mania?  And how on earth did we get from talking about social media to talking about pretending there is no right or wrong?

Christofferson is aggressively trying to paint everyone who disagrees with him with a broad brush of mischaracterization, and it's getting to the point where I have no ungodly idea what the hell he's talking about anymore.  And since he gets to quote secular writers without naming the source, let me just follow suit by saying that his rabid philippic is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Elites get and stay married and make sure their kids enjoy the benefits of a stable marriage.  The problem however, is they tend not to preach what they practice.  They don't want to impose on those who really could use their moral leadership.  But it is perhaps time for those with education and strong families to stop feigning neutrality and start preaching what they practice pertaining to marriage and parenting and help their fellow Americans embrace it.
—D.  Todd Christofferson
Oh, you smug, supercilious snob.

The level of arrogance in this statement could bring down a grizzly bear at one hundred yards.  He's appealing, I suppose, to some kind of silent majority that will stand up for the family unit.  I thought he was going into a lecture against gay marriage, but he never mentions it.  It could be aimed at those who choose to have families without entering into legal (and lawful!) marriage, but he never really says that either.  But whatever he's getting at, you can bet that it's time for people to start standing up for it.

He even uses the word "elites" multiple times.  He calls on those who have "education" to provide "moral leadership."  So basically, what I'm understanding here, is that rich, educated people have strong morals and they need to start teaching it to the indigent simpletons who think it's okay to have atypical non-nuclear families or something.


Because wealthy, educated people don't get divorced, right?  They never mess up their kids, right?  I keep reviewing this, trying to figure out if there's something else he's getting at here, but it sure looks like he wants the moral upper class to teach the common people how to do things right.

And to top it off, his statements on the subject are blatantly America-centric.  I thought he was a leader of a worldwide church.  Surely the weakening of the family unit isn't a problem only seen within the borders of the United States.

Through following the promptings of the Holy Ghost, President and Sister Tataoka and all missionaries were safely assembled.  They were out of harm's way and miles from the devastation of the tsunami and the nuclear fallout.
—Gary E. Stevenson
That's a pretty terrific story.  One person's prompting to hold a larger-than-necessary gathering of the missionaries kept everyone in the mission out of harm's way.  But the disaster itself wasn't averted.

Which makes me wonder...what about all the people living in the affected areas who hadn't had an opportunity to hear the message of the gospel?  I understand that the missionaries were protected because they were followers of Christ and their leaders were inspired.  But what about everybody else?  What about all the people who were killed or injured because they had no opportunity to receive promptings from the Spirit—it's not that they chose to ignore the promptings, it's just that they didn't have access to the spiritual apparatus required to receive them.  So God chose to save the people he'd already made contact with and then left those he hadn't yet contacted to fend for themselves?

Stevenson's story relates what could be a great miracle.  But when you read between the lines, it kind of points to a callous god who shamelessly plays favorites and allows people to suffer so that he can teach his favorite people more about how to be his favorite people.

What then, has the Lord revealed to President Monson that we need to continue doing so our light can be a standard for the nations? ... The Lord has always revealed his will to us, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, therefore we should not be surprised by what may seem like small things because of their simple and repetitive nature. For the Lord has already counseled us, telling us "blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto he that receiveth, I will give more."
—Benjamín De Hoyos
...and that's the end of that.

De Hoyos gets startlingly real when he flirts with the possibility that the Lord hasn't really revealed anything important to the current prophet.  But after asking what those things might be, he essentially avoids the question.  The most specific he's able to get is that the things the Lord has revealed to President Monson may be simple and repetitive.

Long gone are the days when God would reveal specific things to individual members, as canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants.  Gone are the days when angels appeared to minister unto prophets, as in the Book of Mormon and early church history.  Gone even are the days when the prophet revealed important shifts in doctrine like the manifesto on polygamy or the abrogation of the priesthood ban.  And so all we're left with as far as revelation is concerned are the very things that are most easily confused with no revelation at all—little things and redundant things.

That's not very helpful, De Hoyos.  If that's how revelation works, just about any idiot could pretend to receive regular revelation.

...we concluded that [my brother's] decision on whether to serve a mission depended on three issues:  one, was Jesus Christ divine; two, was the Book of Mormon true; and three, was Joseph Smith the prophet of the restoration.
—Quentin L. Cook
Notice that none of these issues has anything to do with Cook's brother.  There's no talk of whether serving a mission might strain an already tense family relationship.  There's no discussion of whether the family had the resources to send him.  And even the assessments of the gospel's veracity are laid out in impersonal terms—it's not about whether Cook believed these things, it's about whether these things are true.  It sounds as though his brother made a decision to give up two years of his life by removing himself entirely from the equation.

Which, from a perspective of faith, is admirable.  But too many decisions made based on admirable faith have too many disastrous consequences.  I think it's healthy for a little reason to enter the mix.  Even if the faith is justified, it's too easy for people to get carried away with devotion and make life-altering choices without weighing all of the variables.

What about the aids to translation—the Urim and Thummim, the seer stones?  Were they essential, or were they like the training wheels on a bike until Joseph could exercise the faith necessary to receive more direct revelation?
—Quentin L. Cook
There's some nice little apologetic footwork here.  But what I really despise about this comment is the casual delivery that not-in-so-many-words tries to imply that the Urim and Thummim and the seer stones are the same thing.

They're not.

Stop trying to gloss over problematic issues.  Stop trying to bring them up slyly to pretend like you've made the information public.  Stop whitewashing your church's origin story.

I believe weekly participation in sacred sacrament meetings has spiritual implications we do not fully understand.
—Quentin L. Cook
Um...isn't it kind of your job to understand that sort of thing?  If you're just here to share some individual beliefs and some doctrinal guesswork, what's the point of claiming to be an apostle of the Lord with the spirit of revelation?  If your personal trainer offered you a new protein shake and said that it has nutritional implications that we do not fully understand, wouldn't you be a little wary of following his advice to drink it?

And that's all, folks.  Another edifying and uplifting General Conference has come and gone.  It was interesting and kind of sad to see subtitles on Monson's addresses to compensate for his slightly slurred speech.  And it was a little creepy the way so many of the general authorities began their talks by expressing love for, gratitude for, and prayers on behalf of the aging prophet.

I really wish they'd let that poor man become an emeritus church president.

Notes on the Sunday Morning Session

Not a whole lot of consequence was shared at the priesthood session, so I'm just going to cover a couple of brief points from last night here instead of giving it a separate post.  The only things I felt like commenting on were from the same talk:

So if you feel a little overwhelmed, take that as a good sign.  It indicates that you can sense the magnitude of the trust God has placed in you.  It means that you have some small understanding of what the priesthood really is.
—Henry B. Eyring
I don't understand how a church that claims it offers unparalleled happiness in this life can also indicate to its members that a constant feeling of being overwhelmed due to the impossible scope of their responsibilities is "a good sign."  Sure, a little stress here and there is healthy.  A little responsibility is healthy.  But if you ask me, being told that it's okay and even good to be fundamentally overwhelmed by what is expected is not going to make people happy.  Perhaps it can reassure them that they aren't the only ones who struggle, but it certainly isn't delivering the kind of joy the church advertises.

Additionally, being told after already doing so much for the church that I still only possess "some small understanding" of what I've been divinely entrusted with would only make me more anxious and less happy.

[Christ] seemed to take particular notice of people who are overlooked and even shunned by society so we should try to do that too.
—Henry B. Eyring
That doesn't explain why the church has been so far behind on social issues.  I mean, at least the church is trying not to be racist these days, but it's still actively contributing to part of society's attempts to shun those of different sexual orientations.  It's taken drastic steps to remove those in homosexual relationships from official membership and to divide the families affected by these relationships.

The other thing I don't like about this quote is the insouciant wording.  General Conference addresses tend to be polished and carefully constructed, tending toward the flowery and the bombastic depending on the specific speaker.  But the best turn of phrase Eyring can offer when it comes to emulating Christ's outreach to the outcasts and the downtrodden is a flippant, "we should try to do that too."  There's no noble phrasing here, nothing about making that behavior a part of our daily discipleship or anything along the lines of searching for opportunities to follow the pattern set by our savior.  Just...we should try to do that too.

To me, it sounds like it's good if we can manage to do it, but if it never happens it's not that big of a deal either way.   It's hardly a powerful apostolic call to action.

Moving on to this morning's session...

Because the Book of Mormon is true, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord's Church on the earth....
—Thomas S. Monson
I've got to be the fifty thousandth person to make this point, but no, Thomas, that's not true.  IF (and that's a big if) the Book of Mormon is true, it does NOT logically follow that the LDS church is God's church.  There are literally dozens of offshoots of Mormonism in existence claiming that the Book of Mormon is their foundational book of scripture.  The Monsonite church is far and away the largest in membership, the most publicly visible, and the most successful, but that doesn't necessarily indicate that it is the only one among many that follows God's complete gospel.

The problem is that the Book of Mormon doesn't lay out the proper organization of the modern church.  About the closest thing it has is Jesus's selection of twelve apostles.  And the Book of Mormon certainly doesn't set forth any kind of procedures for succession of power once a prophet dies.  Even Joseph Smith didn't reveal specific guidelines about who should take the reins after him.  So if the Book of Mormon is true, it doesn't do much to clarify which of the numerous denominations claiming to follow its precepts is God's legitimate church.  It could be Monson's, but it may not.

Regardless, the issue is not so simple and straightforward as Monson is pretending.

Today, the war continues with increasing intensity.  The battle touches us all—and our children, unfortunately, are on the front lines facing the opposing forces.
—Joy D. Jones
And now we've arrived at my least favorite talk from this session.

I am so sick of war metaphors.  I am so sick of the way this church tries to pit its members against everyone around them and against these purported evils overrunning the world in the most spiritually violent way possible.  Are there dangers and negative influences in the world?  Of course there are.  But oversimplifying the complexity of life into a militaristic, us-versus-them struggle for our very survival does everyone a huge disservice.

Especially when we're putting the children on the front lines in this metaphor.  If listeners weren't already concerned for their own spiritual safety, now we're depicting their own kids crouching in the muddy trenches of their souls, ducking at the sound from the mortar shells of immorality.  Way to use fear and overwrought analogy to whip people into a dogmatic frenzy.

And why are we doing this?  Oh, right, to encourage people to brainwash their kids!  Here's a simple guideline:

Perhaps we underestimate the abilities of children to grasp the concept of daily discipleship.  President Henry B. Eyring counseled us to "start early and be steady."  So the third key to helping children become sin-resistant is to begin at very early ages, to lovingly infuse basic gospel doctrines and principles from the scriptures, the Articles of Faith, the For the Strength of Youth booklet, primary songs, hymns, and our own personal testimonies that will lead children to the savior.
—Joy D. Jones
What Jones is doing here is overestimating the abilities of children to grasp the concept of daily discipleship by confusing it with the abilities of children to grasp the mechanics of daily discipleship.  Children can do as they're told, but it doesn't mean they understand the reasons behind why they're doing so.  Which,  perhaps, is why it's so important to get them started as early as possible, before they've learned to ask questions and before they've learned any semblance of objective skepticism.  That way, these church-approved behaviors will be deeply ingrained in them long before the risk of independent thought comes along.

Perhaps being sin-resistant comes as a blessing from repeatedly resisting sin.
—Joy D. Jones
The whole point of this talk was to instruct parents how to make themselves and their children naturally able to better resist temptation.  And this explanation basically boils down to "you can resist sin by resisting sin."  What kind of inane advice is that?  If it were that simple, we all would have thought of it!  The best she can do is to remind us that we can get better at it by doing it more?  I thought we were locked in heroic combat for the eternal fates of our loved ones and she's up there at the pulpit making it sound like it's a piano lesson.

In today's world, where integrity has all but disappeared, our children deserve to understand what true integrity really is and why it is so important—especially as we prepare them to make and keep sacred covenants at baptism and in the temple.
—Joy D. Jones
Can we stop being so dramatic about the moral state of modern society?  Can we demonstrate some kind of evidence for this claim that integrity is nearly dead?  I mean, it's generally less socially acceptable these days to give voice to racism or to disrespect women than it has been in the past.  Sure, we still have plenty of dishonest businessmen and corrupt politicians and cheating spouses, but can you point to a time in history in which those things were absent?  Integrity may be in short supply, but I'm not seeing how that's unique to our era.

And I'm not crazy about how far forward this brainwashing looks, either.  Start at an early age and prepare them to make temple covenants?  Baptismal covenants, okay, I can understand that, that's only at age 8, but temple covenants will come at least a decade later.  Are we just pushing our kids through the doctrinal cattle chute here?   Can't we indoctrinate one step at a time?

Children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate.
—Joy D. Jones
Sweet Mother of Cornbread, she's practically admitting to the brainwashing here!  She's already insisted that children have the ability to understand the concept of daily discipleship, yet she's conceding that children are masters of mimicry.  If they're merely aping their parents' behavior, they don't understand the concept.

I mean, yes, absolutely, her statement here is true.  Children are indeed excellent imitators, and the future generation deserves to have good role models to emulate.  But to encourage and even glorify twisting children's tendency to imitate into a stifling of their independent thought and a furthering of the church's purposes is simply disgusting.

Sometimes we rationalize.  We wonder if we are feeling a spiritual impression or if it is just our own thoughts. When we begin to second-guess, even third-guess our feelings (and we all have), we are dismissing the spirit.  We are questioning divine counsel.  The prophet Joseph Smith said, and I quote, "If you will listen to the first promptings, you will get it right nine times out of ten."
—Ronald A. Rasband
Nine times out of ten isn't good enough for me.  If anything, it points to the ineffectiveness of God's system for communicating with us.  You're telling me that when the spirit of God tries to influence me to take a particular action, I could be totally misinterpreting the source of that prompting around ten percent of the time?

Considering some of the things people have claimed promptings to do, it seems safer to wait for the second or third prompting before taking action, since numerous stories have indicated that the Spirit will indeed try again.  But if you're a missionary at a fork in the road and the Spirit may be prompting you to enter a dangerous neighborhood, I don't think we should fault you for trying to be more certain that it's the Spirit talking and not just some off-the-wall idea from your own head.

If the prompting is that important, God should be making himself clear the first time around instead of leaving so much room for interpretation and rationalization.  And God's representatives should not preach so harshly against reasoning if God isn't willing to provide a strong impetus to disregard that reasoning.

Over time, that bishop and I have observed that those who are deliberate about doing the small and simple things, obeying in seemingly little ways, are blessed with faith and strength that go far beyond the actual acts of obedience themselves, and in fact may seem totally unrelated to them.  It may seem hard to draw a connection between the basic, daily acts of obedience and solutions to the big, complicated problems we face, but they are related.  In my experience, getting the little daily habits of faith right is the single best way to fortify ourselves against the troubles of life, whatever they may be.  Small acts of faith, even when they seem insignificant or entirely disconnected from the specific problems that vex us, bless us in all we do.
—L. Whitney Clayton
Oh, hey, I finally get to use this GIF that's been languishing on my hard drive for a few years:
...actually four things, by my count
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Lord's mouthpiece.  This bumbling bit of clumsy repetition is the most soaring oratory God's servant could muster.  It's like he was dancing around a central point that he felt he wasn't really getting across and he kept trying until either he found what he was looking for or he gave up—I'm honestly not sure which.  This speech was badly in need of a good Sam Seaborn polish.

I'm not speaking of blind obedience, but of thoughtful confidence in the perfect love and the perfect timing of the Lord.  The trial of our faith will always involve staying true to simple, daily practices of our faith.  Then and only then does he promise we will receive the divine response for which we long.  Only once we have proven our willingness to do what he asks without demanding to know the whens, the whys, and the hows, do we reap the rewards of our faith and our diligence and our patience and long-suffering.
—L. Whitney Clayton
Not speaking of blind obedience?  The church doth protest too much, methinks.  But that's not my biggest beef with this passage.

Clayton is saying that in order to receive answers to our prayers, God requires that we remain steadfast in the daily observances of our faith to indicate that we will do his will without asking any details from him.  If that's the case, that would have been really nice to know.  Because when I was in the midst of the most important prayers of my life, I was predicating my expectation for an answer on, you know, ancient scripture:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
Ask God in the name of Christ?  Check.  Sincere heart?  Check.  Real intent?  Check.  Faith in Christ?  Check.

Oh, if only I'd known that there were additional requirements in the fine print!  If only I'd realized that there were even more rigorous hoops to jump through before receiving one simple bit of communication from my Father in Heaven who's supposed to love me!  If only I'd understood that I also needed to show that I was willing to do whatever God asked of me and to demonstrate that I wasn't interested in interrogating the father of my spirit concerning the exact game plan for his commandments to me!  Maybe if I'd known all that, I'd have acted accordingly, received my confirmation that the Book of Mormon was true, and never left the church.

But, yeah, God chose to include huge sections of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon instead of adding a couple of sentences into Moroni chapter 10 that may have clarified the absurdly complicated prerequisites for basic communication between a loving Father and a desperate son.

Makes perfect sense.

Real obedience accepts God's word unconditionally and in advance.
—L. Whitney Clayton
This is just scary.  Obedience means doing what you're told.  The church already glorifies obedience enough—why does Clayton feel the need to delineate between the actual definition of the word and his own kind of "real" obedience?  And why does he not seem to see the irony in insisting that he isn't asking for blind obedience while also insisting that obedience be given unconditionally and in advance?

In contrast to the institutions of the world which teach us to know something, the Plan of Salvation and the gospel of Jesus Christ challenge us to become something.
—Dallin H. Oaks
Okay, but that's not inherently a contrast.  Knowing and becoming are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, I'd argue that they're directly proportional.  The more you know, the more you can become.  The more you become, the more you can know.  So I'm not sure what claim of supremacy you're trying to assert here.

Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who want to do what is right and want to obey Heavenly Father.
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Uchtdorf spent his time advising against fear and fearmongering.  Most of what he said was good, except that so much of it did not jive with the words and actions of his colleagues.  He said all this in the same session as Joy D. Jones's fear-fest.  And it's not hard to find other recent examples of fearmongering from the church leadership.  Favorites include:
Apparently, all these church leaders aren't going to change our hearts this way, but I guess that hasn't stopped them from trying.

Often people may condemn bullying in others, yet they cannot see it in themselves.  They demand compliance with their own arbitrary rules, but when others don't follow these random rules, they chasten them verbally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically.
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf 
The irony is so thick you could cut it with an airplane propeller.

I'm not aware of much in the way of physical chastening in the church, but there is plentiful verbal and emotional chastening arising from the church's demanded compliance with its arbitrary rules.  And yet...Uchtdorf is somehow unable to see that kind of bullying within his own organization.

To be fair, it's probably because he doesn't think the rules are arbitrary.

There is no fear in Christ's love.
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Really?  Because if you've been paying attention to Bednar in the last two years or so:
Godly fear is loving and trusting in Him. As we fear God more completely, we love him more perfectly. And perfect love casteth out all fear.
Bednar seems to think that we should have some kind of quantum superposition of these two emotions (I swear I've made that joke before, but I can't seem to find it).  Uchtdorf says that we should have no fear because Christ loves us.  Bednar says that fear is how we express our love, which is how we get rid of our fear.  Bednar makes no sense all by himself, but when you throw Uchtdorf into the mix and try to reconcile both apostles' statements, it all falls apart even more.

One of these two guys needs to get back on message.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Notes on the Saturday Afternoon Session

This session was somewhat uneventful.  The two most notable details were from early on.  The church's self-reported membership increase is the smallest numerical growth since 1987 and the smallest percentage increase since 1937.  And is it just me or are the people voting opposed during the sustaining of church officers getting louder—or perhaps merely more numerous?

Interesting, either way.  Moving on to my first selection:

...guns and slurs and vitriol are not the way to deal with human conflict.  The declarations of heaven cry out to us that the only way complex societal issues can ever be satisfactorily resolved is by loving God and keeping his commandments, thus opening the door to the one lasting salvific way to love each other as neighbors.
—Jeffrey R. Holland
Oh man, he was so close!

God has nothing to do with it.  If the only way you can muster up the strength to love your fellow homo sapiens is by loving God first, that's a failure on your part.  The only way complex societal issues can ever be satisfactorily resolved is by loving each other.  You can cut out the middle man on this one, Jeffrey.

Overall, though, he was making some admirable points here.  Guns and slurs and vitriol are not the way.  Though I don't think that Jeffrey "Taffy-pulled" Holland is in the best position to cast the first stone at those who employ vitriol as a tactic.

That day I learned the principles of paying tithing and the blessings that follow.
—Valeri V. Cordón
This kind of thing really bothers me.  Cordón was wrapping up a story about how his parents had chosen to pay their tithing instead of buying food for their family.  It all worked out in the end because a stroke of professional luck brought Cordón's father a sudden source of income.  But, of course, they had no way of knowing that beforehand except for their trust that they would be blessed for their reckless obedience.

This is a terrible thing to teach and a terrible behavior to celebrate.  What Cordón's father did took a tremendous amount of faith and courage, but his religion should never have indicated to him that such courage was required.  His religion should have taught him that his first responsibility was to take care of his family.  Both God and the church would have been fine without one of this faithful family's contributions if it meant they'd have some peace of mind about the source of their next meal.

What does it say about a religion when its leaders crow about the way the poorest members dutifully submit to the extortion of their money?

Overcoming the world is not a global invasion but a private, personal battle requiring hand-to-hand combat with our own internal foes.
—Neil L. Andersen
Nothing particularly shocking here.  I just got a little chuckle out of the sloppily-conceived metaphor.  Go ahead, try to picture hand-to-hand combat with your personal, internal foes.  What the devil does that even look like?

With increasing temptations, distractions, and distortions, the world attempts to beguile the faithful into dismissing the rich spiritual experiences of one's past, redefining them as foolish deceptions.
—Neil L. Andersen
I swear I've heard him say almost the exact same thing before.

There's nothing wrong with redefining experiences from one's past.  In fact, it can often be helpful to review the past from another vantage point.  But it shouldn't be anyone else's role to say for sure whether those were rich spiritual experiences or foolish deceptions.  Just because an apostle seems to think that you should uphold your memories as spiritual experiences doesn't mean you don't owe it to yourself to revisit those memories based on new perspectives.  If you've received new information that may significantly alter your interpretation of earlier events, I don't think anyone should stop you from seeing if that information also has an impact on your past, your present, and your future.

If it's real, it's real.  If it's not, it's not.  Don't let people scare you away from chasing the truth with dismissive, self-serving mischaracterizations like Andersen's.

Satan's plan to accomplish his diabolical goal applies to every individual, generation, culture, and society.  He uses loud voices—voices that seek to drown out the small and still voice of the holy spirit that can show us all things we should do to return and receive.  These voices belong to those who disregard gospel truth and who use the internet, social and print media, radio, television, and movies to present an enticing way, immorality, violence, ugly language, filth, and sleaze in a way that distracts us from our goals and the plans that we have for eternity.  These voices may also include well-intentioned individuals who are blinded by the secular philosophies of men and women and who seek to destroy the faith and divert the eternal focus of those who are simply trying to return to the presence of God and receive all that our father hath.
—M. Russell Ballard
Woof, what a mouthful.

I completely understand the warning against too much distraction, of course.  Everybody should have a little time for introspection.  Or meditation.  Or prayer.  Or whatever.  A lot of people do have a tendency to get too wrapped up in inconsequential distractions from more important endeavors.  But damn.  The way he's calling out so many different mediums and so many kinds of offenses makes me wonder what he could possibly use for entertainment.  If you remove the immorality, violence, ugly language, filth and sleaze from television and literature, you'll have no conflict.  No character development.  Nothing to learn from, nothing to be interested in.  I'm not saying everybody should sit down and watch the undeniably messed-up stories of Game of Thrones or anything, but come on, be reasonable.

I'm almost caught up on Game of Thrones at the moment.  I've watched five and a half seasons of violence, betrayal, manipulativeness, sexual depravity, greed, profanity, lust for power, incest, fratricide, patricide, infanticide, and regular old homicide, and I have yet to experience the faintest urge to mimic any of those behaviors [edit:  except, obvioiusly, profanity.  But that shit was already long established when I started the show].   Should I spend every waking moment watching this stuff?  No, of course not.  But it's hardly distracted me from my goals and my plans.  It's entertainment.  It contains some insights into human nature and makes some interesting statements concerning good and evil, moral complexity, and survival.  But entertainment that contains bad things doesn't necessarily derail the moral trajectory of its viewers.

Now, if Ballard had said something about shameless glorification of some negative behaviors, that could be different.  The argument can be very easily made that Game of Thrones has some serious sexist underpinnings—not because of the sexism within its fictional universe, but because of the way that sexism is presented to our non-fictional universe.  If it encourages negative behavior—which it certainly should have the right to do—I can understand how certain forms of entertainment can be seen as spanners in the works of the Plan of Salvation.  But the mere presence of bad things in media is not even close to being the same thing as all that.

And lastly, let's dwell for a moment on those well-intentioned individuals who are blinded by the secular philosophies of men.  This is judgment of the kettle straight from the pot's mouth.  It's not a huge stretch of the imagination to admit that perhaps Ballard is blinded by the dogmatic philosophies of religion and that he seeks to destroy secularism and divert the worldly focus of those who are simply trying to live by comprehensible rules within the realms of what is observable to them.  Maybe both groups can learn to live and let live.