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
So...is 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.

Ewww.

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.

Notes on the Saturday Morning Session

Okay, with another round of General Conference addresses on the books, here we go again.  The first session started out relatively innocuously, but there was some juicy (by which I mean awful) stuff later on.  As always, these are as reasonably close to direct quotations as I could manage.  If there be any faults in the transcription, they be the faults of a man.

Even those with the best of parents may live faithfully according to the light they have but never hear about Jesus Christ and his atonement or be invited to be baptized in his name.  This has been true for countless millions of our brothers and sisters throughout the world's history.  Now, some may consider this unfair.  They may even take it as evidence that there is no plan, no specific requirements for salvation, feeling that a just, loving god would not create a plan that is available to such a small proportion of his children. 
Henry B. Eyring
I wouldn't say he hit the nail on the head, but there was definite contact between hammer and nail here.  It may have been a glancing blow that kind of bent the head of the nail a bit.  That's always frustrating.

This is unfair.  But my problem isn't that God would not have created a plan that's available to such a small proportion of his children.  Because there is a ridiculous amount of necessary safeguards in place to try and fix this issue.  There's missionary work, there's proxy ordinances for the dead, there's a huge effort on genealogy, and there's also the usual we'll-figure-it-out-in-the-Millennium-and-no-one-will-be-denied-the-opportunity explanation as well.  So clearly God is making an effort to keep people from slipping through the cracks.  My problem is that a perfected being would not have designed a plan with so many cracks for people to slip through.

It's a laughably inefficient system.  That is why I think the plan is fiction.  Not because it's unfair.


Don't be a burden to your parents.  Don't be a burden.  I have called your parents.
—M. Joseph Brough
There was a disturbing theme of sacrificing for the church that seemed to pervade this session, and this is the first instance I noticed.  These are the words that Brough ascribed to divine communication after he prayed about having to give up his beloved childhood dog when his parents were called on a mission.

Making sacrifices for things you believe in is not inherently bad.  Regrettable instances in which your children may be required to make sacrifices because of your own actions are not inherently bad.  Sometimes, parents have to relocate for employment opportunities and drag their children away from their homes and their friends.  It happens.  It sucks, but it happens.

This story doesn't feel like the same thing to me.  Here, a child was told he had to give away his pet because of something his parents decided to do (but easily could have opted not to do) and when he brought his concerns to his parents, they told him to pray about it.  Prayer convinced him that his parents' needs were greater than his and that his emotional attachment to his dog was selfish behavior that burdened his mother and his father.

I mean, I'm not a parent or anything, so maybe I just don't get it, but...it's my understand that one of the best reasons to sacrifice for what you believe in is when a parent puts his child's needs ahead of his own because he believes in providing for his family, be it physically or emotionally.  It sure doesn't sound like Brough's parents tried very hard to do anything other than teach their son to dedicate himself monomaniacally to the church and to relegate his emotional health to a secondary status.


There is so much more to our existence than what happens between birth and death.
—Weatherford T. Clayton
This guy seemed like that really ambitious, bombastic elder's quorum president from a typical BYU student ward who nobody ever bothered to call out on his histrionic approach to the gospel.  And then he just kept getting away with it until he got promoted up into a quorum of the seventy.

What he said here may very well be true, but remember that not everything true is useful.  People should still care about what happens during their mortal lives. But the more authoritative statements like this assure people that life is just an infinitesimal blip on the celestial radar, the more I fear that people's priorities will skew in favor of the eternal to the point of neglecting pressing present-day matters.

For those who have experienced these truths and for whatever reason have wandered away, I invite you to come back.  Come back today.  Our father and the savior love you.  I testify that Christ has the power to answer your questions, heal your pains and sorrows, and forgive your sins.
—Weatherford T. Clayton
Does Christ have the power to make his church not sexist, not homophobic, not racist, not insular, not closed-minded, not dishonest, not avaricious, and not demonstrably false?

If so, then let's talk.  Otherwise, I'm good all the way over here in the great and spacious building.

Church leaders cannot alter God's commandments or doctrine contrary to his will to be convenient or popular.
—Dale G. Renlund
Ho, boy.  Not this again.

Was it not convenient and popular to disavow polygamy in order to assist Utah in being admitted to the Union as a state?  Was it not convenient and popular to lift the ban on black folks once the civil rights movement had made undeniable progress in the church's home country?  Was it not convenient and popular to lift the ban on black folks once the church had met huge missionary success in the racially complex nation of Brazil?

But, see, Renlund is a clever man.  Did you notice how he slipped the phrase "contrary to his will" in there?  So they can simply claim that yes, the doctrines changed, but it changed because it was God's will to change them.  Therefore, there's no contradiction.  Problem solved.

Later, in various countries across the world, I have had small glimpses into the ugliness of prejudice and discrimination suffered by those who are targeted because of their race or ethnicity.  Persecution comes in many forms—ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion and isolation, or hatred toward another.  We must guard against bigotry that raises its ugly voice toward those who hold different opinions.  Bigotry manifests itself in part in unwillingness to grant equal freedom of expression.  Everyone, including people of religion, has the right to express his or her opinions in the public square.  But no one has a license to be hateful toward others as those opinions are expressed.  Church history gives ample evidence of our members being treated with hatred and bigotry.  How ironically sad it would be if we were to treat others as we have been treated. 
—Dale G. Renlund
This one is a doozy.  Where to start?

First of all, on its face, this is a good thing to teach.  Hatred is bad.  Persecution is counterproductive.  Bigotry should not be championed.  But what kinds of bigotry are we talking about here?  He mentions race, ethnicity, and later religion.   What about sexual orientation or gender identity?  This is the kind of bigotry that the church has recently helped lead the charge on.

And then, right after he works in the concept that religious people have the right to express opinions, he mentions that no one "has a license to be hateful."  This sounds, to me, like an oblique reference to that #FairnessForAll religious freedom stuff that Oaks was slinging a while back.  But let's be clear here—we absolutely have a legal license to hate each other.  That's part of freedom of thought and freedom of speech.  While there may be no moral license to hate each other, we most certainly have the right to express any hatred we may feel.  We don't have the right to burn down the homes of people we hate, but hatred itself is no secular crime.  Let's not be so hypersensitive to criticism that we think hateful opinions break the law.

And yes, church history does have plentiful examples of hatred and bigotry.  Early members were driven from their homes because people didn't understand them and chose to act with hatred instead of taking the time to learn about them and coexist peacefully.  How ironically sad it is that the church doesn't understand any kind of sexuality other than heterosexuality and it chooses to act with hatred instead of taking the time to learn about other people and coexist with them peacefully.

For us to ask for respect, we must be respectful.
—Dale G. Renlund
That's a good principle to live by.  May I posit a theory here that many gay people don't consider it a sign of respect to proclaim that following their sexual orientation is a sin second only to murder?

As his disciples, let us fully mirror his love and love one another so openly and completely that no one feels abandoned, alone, or hopeless.
—Dale G. Renlund
Again, this a good thing to say, but the church does not apply this philosophy across the board.  If this were the kind of thing the church were really trying to put into practice, perhaps there could be far fewer suicides among gay Mormon youth.

Actions speak louder than words, Dale.  And if you're trying to nudge the church in the right direction, maybe it would help if you actually spoke about the areas in which the church currently falls short.  But I didn't hear a word about the gay community or the transgender community or anything like that.

In this time of need, that faithful missionary renewed his commitment to serve the Lord with faith and with all diligence. 
—Ulisses S. Soares
Ugh.  This is reminiscent of Andersen's even more disgusting example from a year and a half ago.

This missionary's sister just died.  In this time of need, he should be with his family and his family should be with him.  There should be no calling so important to the Lord that he wouldn't understand and encourage giving his servants appropriate time to mourn with their loved ones during a time of family tragedy.

He is all-powerful, after all.  I'm sure he'll find ways to inspire the other missionaries to pick up the temporarily absent elder's slack.  I'd hate to be that missionary a few decades from now, looking back on life and feeling like an idiot for choosing not to attend my own sister's funeral.  Imagine the guilt.  Why would any mission president advise his missionary to inflict that kind of emotional damage on himself?

In these moments of trial, the adversary is always on the lookout, tries to use our logic and reasoning against us.  He tries to convince us that it is useless to live the principles of the gospel.  Please remember that the logic of the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.  
—Ulisses S. Soares
Great, great, let's keep demonizing logic and reasoning.  And let's also keep separating those concepts from the truth of the spirit.  Sure, outsiders will think that means that the whole religion is illogical and unreasonable, but the insiders will increasingly ignore their logical instincts in favor of whatever spiritual nonsense we feed them.

Brothers and sisters, I invite you to place all your trust in God.
—Ulisses S. Soares
No!  Nobody should place all their trust in anything!

Trusting God is all well and good, but not to the exclusion of trusting anyone else.  While God may have the big picture stuff covered and the lost car keys covered, we still need to rely on ourselves and our families and our friends for the day-to-day stuff.  Doesn't God help those who help themselves?  Why should trusting anyone other than God be inherently bad?

We see those who have slipped from activity in the church for a time returning as the rescue envisioned by President Monson brings daily miracles. 
—Mark A. Bragg
Oh, look, I got to dust this one off in the very first session. 

Look...the church will always have its critics.  It has been that way from the beginning and will continue to the end.  But we cannot allow such criticism to dull our sensitivity to the light that is available to us.  Recognizing the light and seeking after it will qualify us for even more light.
 
—Mark A. Bragg
I agree with the last sentence.  But the rest...ehhh....

We can and should allow criticism to dull our sensitivity to deception.  Criticism should not be rejected or accepted on the basis that it's criticism.  It should be weighed based on its merits.  If it has no merit then we shouldn't let it affect what we believe.  If there's a spark of light in there somewhere, we should investigate it until we find more light of truth, and we should follow that light wherever it leads us.

But we shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that any criticism of our beliefs has no light to offer us.

It is doctrinally incomplete to speak of the Lord's atoning sacrifice by shortcut phrases such as "the atonement," or "the enabling power of the atonement," or "applying the atonement," or "being strengthened by the atonement."  These expressions present a real risk of misdirecting faith by treating the event as if it had living existence and capabilities independent of our Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ.
—Russell M. Nelson
An apostle of the Lord addresses the world, and one of the central topics of his sermon is basically a semantics lesson.  Was there ever really any risk of the church membership forgetting that the atonement was only possible through Christ's sacrifice according to God's plan?  Surely there's an issue of more gravity that could have been given a thorough treatment during Nelson's fifteen minutes.

I guess for all the comparisons we make between the church and the Party from Nineteen Eighty-Four, it looks like there's no immediate threat of a Mormon equivalent of Newspeak.  We have to make sure we're avoiding shortcut phrases in order to be doctrinally complete, people.  Tell your friends.

When asked about her decision, she replied simply, "Well, the church is more important, isn't it?"
—Russell M. Nelson
This was the happy ending to a story about a girl who was knowingly disqualified from a sporting event because she had to leave early in order to attend a church meeting.  Speaking as someone who made many similar decisions in my youth, I think I may have some rather depressing insight into this.

If that girl was anything like me, she probably didn't think she had much of a choice.  But she'd made similar sacrifices before and she'd learned not to get too broken up about it.  It was expected of her to make the church her first priority, and the only practical option in her eyes may have been to sacrifice her other interests and pursuits no matter how reasonable any postponement of her church obligations would have been.

I think the dead giveaway here is that her quote isn't a statement.  It's a question.  She knows that this attitude is what her parents and leaders desire to see.  She's looking for validation of her unfortunate choice.  She needs someone to say, "Yes, you're right, you made the right decision, and we're proud of you."  I made similar comments to hers as a kid.  Sometimes the only comfort I received from making repeated (if relatively small) personal sacrifices for the church was the positive response from authority figures.

Assuming this is a real quote and a real story, I feel terrible for this girl.  If she's anything like I was, she feels trapped, but she's accepted the reality of it.  This was not a story of faith.  This was a story of captivity.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Mormon 9: Don't Stop Believin'

Moroni now levels his unwieldy rhetorical weapon at the non-believers.  I guess maybe it's time for me to sit up and start paying attention.


Asking the Important Questions
Rather than ease the reader into it gently, Moroni dives right into the deep end of the poppycock pool (verses 2-3):
Behold, will ye believe in the day of your visitation—behold, when the Lord shall come, yea, even that great day when the earth shall be rolled together as a scroll, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, yea, in that great day when ye shall be brought to stand before the Lamb of God—then will ye say that there is no God? 
Then will ye longer deny the Christ, or can ye behold the Lamb of God? Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?
What a ridiculous line of questioning.  Yeah, I suppose that if God revealed himself and if Jesus Christ returned and stood before me, I may rethink my apostasy.  Because I like to think that my beliefs are based on supporting evidence.  But that doesn't change the fact that I think that the Second Coming of Christ is incredibly unlikely and that the concept of the Mormon version of God is utterly preposterous.  So what, exactly, do these questions accomplish?  I'm just as set in my ways as I was before because you've asked me to address a situation that, to me, is one hundred percent hypothetical and has no bearing whatsoever on reality.

And the reason that I would not want to dwell with Heavenly Father in the hereafter may have less to do with the consciousness of my own guilt and more to do with the fact that I'd be really pissed at God if it turns out he exists.  If he hadn't made his truth so abstruse and his religion so unenlightened and his presence so indefinable, maybe I'd have made a lot of different decisions in my life that wouldn't have sent me on the fast-track to lesser glory—or, rather, on the fast-track to the "damned souls in hell," since the degrees of glory weren't a part of Mormon theology yet.  So I'd probably want to go off and sulk outside of God's kingdom for a while because I would deeply resent the way I was thrust into a system designed for failure.  You don't generally go fishing every weekend with the dad who used to slap you around when you were a kid.

But getting back to Moroni's inept attempts at persuasiveness, how is this chapter of any use to me so far?  All he's throwing at me is theoretical situations and fear-mongering.  He's asking me whether I'd deny Jesus if he were right in front of me and if I expected to be happy as a sinner before God, but none of this does anything to address the causes of my unbelief.  This isn't persuasion.  This is a fundamental failure to understand where his audience is coming from.

Moroni is asking, "What if?"  But what he should be asking is "Why?"

Until he understands why people don't believe, he can't possibly address how they can be brought back into the fold.  Obviously, he can't ask us why, but considering that he's spent a lifetime fighting a society made up entirely of non-believers, it's depressing that he still doesn't know why these people do not share his faith.

If you don't make an effort to understand the problem, you can't fix the problem.


Old Reliable
Moroni tells a little white lie in verse 9:
For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?
Sure.  That's in the scriptures.  Except that God has vacillated significantly concerning things like polygamy, violence, black people, blood atonement, the law of consecration, and teachings about his own identity.  I'd say those few things off the top of my head represent a pretty long shadow of changing.


Cease to Cease Ceasing
To make matters even worse, in verse 19, Moroni's circular logic twists itself into a pretzel:
And if there were miracles wrought then, why has God ceased to be a God of miracles and yet be an unchangeable Being? And behold, I say unto you he changeth not; if so he would cease to be God; and he ceaseth not to be God, and is a God of miracles.
Considering this is supposed to be the word of God, there's a lot of interdependent, unproven nonsense in there.

Okay, so here's a list of central concepts that Moroni has not provided independent evidence to support:
  • Miracles were wrought in the time of Jesus
  • God is unchangeable
  • Changing would make God cease to be God
  • God has not ceased to be God
  • God is a God of miracles
So, essentially, most things in this verse rely on accepting a previous premise in order to interpret them as true.  Others refer back to scripture.  The only argument that might be considered strong is that miracles were a reality when Jesus walked the earth, as that is extensively supported by scriptural accounts.  But from a logical standpoint, that's hardly sufficient to back up everything that Moroni is trying to say here.


Do You Believe in Miracles?
Apparently the adage of "quit while you're ahead" was not a part of Nephite culture, because Moroni stubbornly blunders headlong into verse 20:
And the reason why he ceaseth to do miracles among the children of men is because that they dwindle in unbelief, and depart from the right way, and know not the God in whom they should trust.
First of all, I'm not crazy about the microscopically fine semantic line he's walking here—it's not that God has ceased to be a god of miracles, it's just that he's ceased to perform miracles.  Okay, fine.  We'll concede that argument.  Perhaps when you're an eternally exalted being, breaking a habit for a few quick centuries doesn't count as a fundamental change in character.

But my bigger issue with this verse is that Moroni seems to suffer under the delusion that massive societal trend is required for miracles to take place.  But looking back through the scriptures, there are plenty of stories in which miracles happen with only a small number of faithful believers present.  An angel appeared to rebuke Laman and Lemuel with the only righteous people in attendance being Nephi and Sam.  An entire royal household slipped into spiritually resorative comas with Ammon being the only member of the church within shouting distance.  Three hundred murderous Lamanites experienced the miracles of darkness, earthquakes, and then a vision of the hosts of heaven when they stormed the prison containing the only two righteous people in the area—Nephi and Lehi.  And let's not forget that Alma the Younger and Saul of Tarsus were given fantastic heavenly visitations despite being publicly and vehemently opposed to God's church.

So...how has a lack of believers ever been a reason for miracles to cease?  Oh, I get it, this explanation currently serves the plot, so we'll just keep going and hope that nobody notices the continuity error.



Language Barrier
Moroni, who seems to be really bent out of shape about possible flaws in the manuscript, harps on the issue one last time (verse 33):
And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record.
Ah, yes, the old blame-it-on-the-Reformed-Egyptian excuse.

I suppose, looking back on the many imperfections in the Book of Mormon, some of them may have been the result of unavoidable linguistic limitations.  Maybe that could explain the plentiful grammatical errors and the occasional humorous run-on sentence.  It does nothing, of course, to address the fact that the Book of Mormon quotes directly from New Testament and Old Testament passages that had not yet been written at the time Lehi left Jerusalem.  And it certainly does not address the violence, racism, contradictory doctrines, and divinely-sanctioned atrocities that pepper the pages of the modern-day book.  Even if you claim that Hebrew is somehow such a perfect language that it would have made accurately translating the ancient record into English a snap, it would not have resolved all the imperfections that were etched into the gold plates.

The Book of Mormon is flawed in any language.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mormon 8: No Man is an Island, Except Moroni

Moroni takes over the writing duties from his now-deceased father to share a tale of woe and loneliness with his intended audience centuries hence.


Great Drama is Not Great Truth
Moroni shares the last few details of the Nephite downfall that his father didn't live to outline.  After their army was destroyed in battle, the Nephites were exterminated by the Lamanites.  Every single one of the Nephites was killed except for Moroni.  Then the barbaric Lamanites turned their bloodlust inward and began warring among themselves.  Even the semi-immortal Three Nephites were commanded by God himself to leave the country and disappear into the mysterious annals of folklore.

This is actually some pretty riveting stuff.  Imagine Moroni, a mighty man of God and an accomplished warrior, hiding out in some cave with the faint sounds of Lamanite-on-Lamanite combat in the background, tearfully writing the apocalyptic tale of his beloved people.  He's basically Will Smith, plus or minus the dog and the underground laboratory.
But even though it's a terrific, heartbreaking story, this gives the Book of Mormon the ring of fiction more than the ring of truth.  Real life doesn't generally work this way.  

This is a clean ending to the saga of the Nephites.  Only one person remains, and he remains to impart the uncomplicated moral implications of the story directly to the reader.  There are no loose ends and the hortatory objective of events is blatantly evident.

But reality rarely gives us clean endings and clear moral implications.  There are almost always loose ends.  The world is fraught with complications and moral gray areas and even the most satisfying conclusion to any sequence of events can be interpreted differently by different observers.  The moral of the story is too often ambiguous and too often lost on the spectators and the participants alike.

Moroni's story may be dramatic.  But drama does not equal reality.  This is why people don't actually say things like, "We meet again, for the last time."


The Most Correct Book
Joseph Smith is semi-famously quoted as saying that the Book of Mormon is "the most correct of any book on earth."  But let's see what the book itself has to say on the subject (verse 12):
And whoso receiveth this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are in it, the same shall know of greater things than these.
Even the guy who allegedly wrote the physical words himself seems to think that there are some flaws in the text.  But wait, there's more (verse 17):
And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire.
Ahhh, yes.  So the Book of Mormon is perfect, but its authors aren't.  That sounds strangely familiar.

It's also a little weird to me that an admission of possible imperfection is followed up so quickly by a reminder that the stakes of focusing on said imperfections are eternal in nature.  Sounds a little defensive to me.  And honestly, it sounds modern to me too.  Joseph Smith might believably be worried that his book would be ridiculed for some of its faults.  But it doesn't seem like the kind of thing Moroni would be concerned about while he was mourning the destruction of his people and pleading with future generations not to make the same mistakes.

Would Moroni warn us of pride, disobedience, and iniquity?  Sure, that makes sense.  But warning us about being too nitpicky over grammar, syntax, and other purportedly man-made defects in the text?  

Really?


Celestial Economics
Since I can't seem to find a suitable segue here, just read verse 14:
And I am the same who hideth up this record unto the Lord; the plates thereof are of no worth, because of the commandment of the Lord. For he truly saith that no one shall have them to get gain; but the record thereof is of great worth; and whoso shall bring it to light, him will the Lord bless.
The plates have no worth?  Because...God commanded that they have no worth?  What?

Worth is pretty relative, I'd say.  If nobody wants the plates, they're worthless.  If they're of value to someone, they have a little worth.  If they're made out of gold, they're of value to a lot of people and they have a lot of worth.  It's pretty safe to say that, around the time the Book of Mormon came forth, the plates were of some worth.

I suppose the intent of this scripture is to clarify that the doctrines written on these plates are the true treasures.  And perhaps to point out that God isn't going to let anyone sell them.  But that's not even close to the same thing as the plates having no worth.

I mean, if God wanted to make sure this ancient record had no monetary value, why would he have instructed his prophets to fashion them out of precious metals?


Indulging in Double Standard
Moroni claims that he has been shown a vision of the modern age and he makes some gloomy predictions about today's society.  Verse 32 is my favorite:
Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall be forgiven of your sins.
Are you kidding me, Moroni?  Let's just tweak this verse ever so slightly and see if it sounds familiar:
Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall have access to saving ordinances.
How is that any better?  Sure, today's LDS church doesn't offer forgiveness for sins in exchange for a fee, but it does demand a pretty hefty (and pretty unevenly applied) tax in order to enter the temple, where all the most important stuff takes place that's required to achieve the highest degree of glory in the afterlife.  Let me answer my own question here—that's not any better at all.  It's arguably worse.

Verse 37 also seems to speak to the present-day church:
For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.
With the billions of dollars in tithing receipts the church is raking in, how much more money could they put toward alleviating homelessness and starvation and suffering if they weren't building malls, furthering their business interests, and adorning their needlessly elaborate temples?

And yet, these condemnations come from the same religion's foundational book of scripture.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Responses to Responses to Common Questions

MormonLeaks, that lovable band of truth-seeking rapscallions, have some fresh releases this week, including a document outlining the talking points church representatives can use to respond to "common questions."  This one has some precious little nuggets of slime hidden throughout.

Here's my first example:
  • Do you believe you can become gods?  Latter-day Saints believe that we are all sons and daughters of God, and that all of us have the potential to grow both during and after this life to become more like him.  As the Bible teaches, this is God's work—to help us grow to what he calls exaltation, a state in which the faithful will be heirs to everything God has promised his Son, Jesus Christ.  This is one of the most profoundly significant doctrines of the Church—we live together as families and continue to learn and progress after we die.
This sets the precedent for most of the next 30-some pages—any journalist worth his salt will, of course, notice that this hypothetical church representative did not answer the question.  Do you believe you can become gods?  We believe that we can continue to progress after we die!  Apparently, we also believe in answering yes-or-no questions with neither a yes nor a no.

(And, also, yes, we're supposed to believe we can become gods, but we realize how weird that sounds to everybody else so we try to keep that to ourselves.)

Moving on to the section on abuse...
The Church has a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse or cruelty of any kind to children and spouses.
If only that were true.  Obviously, I only have anecdotal evidence to draw upon here, but saying you have a zero-tolerance policy and actually having a zero-tolerance policy are not the same thing.  Especially in the case of something as serious as abuse, when you're kind of expected to declare that you have a zero-tolerance policy.   The church is not about to publicly proclaim that there have been some isolated cases in which the reputation of a perpetrator or the good name of the church itself was used as a justification to make exceptions and keep disturbing events quiet.  They're not that stupid.  But the important thing here is that the church is not nearly so good at deterring abuse, detecting abuse, or disciplining abusers as it tries to pretend.

Again, anecdotally.  But still—to the people in those anecdotes, this matters a great deal.
  • No other church takes the steps we do to prevent or address abuse.  Local leaders are frequently instructed on how to recognize and prevent abuse.  The Church's "Handbook of Instructions" for lay leaders provides clear direction for helping victims and handling those suspected of abuse.  The Church maintains a 24-hour help line of counselors and legal specialists for leaders who have questions about reporting or responding to abuse.
 Come on.  No other church takes the steps we do to prevent abuse?
If the church were really so concerned about providing leaders with the resources to combat abuse, maybe they'd give them some kind of formal training instead of relying on handbooks and contingency hotlines.  This is one of those areas in which lay leadership really can't measure up.  A trained clergyman with decades of experience to draw upon would be immensely better equipped to recognize the signs of abuse and take the necessary actions to help those involved than a lay bishop who's received no formal training and only has eighteen months of experience.

To be fair, what the church does is far better than doing nothing.  But that doesn't give it the right to pat itself on the back and parade itself around as better than other religions.
  • Abusers are subject to internal Church discipline as well as criminal prosecution.  Depending on the nature of the offense, they may lose their Church membership altogether.
 ...just don't forget, that, according to the policies from church handbooks released in November 2015, that abuse falls under the category of when a disciplinary council may be necessary.  If you're in a same-gender marriage, however, a disciplinary council is required.  A marriage is, ideally, a union based on love.  Abuse is based on violence, depraved psychological urges, and disrespect for another person's humanity.  Even if you think homosexuality is wrong, I think it's fair to make the argument that being in a gay marriage is still more Christlike than abusing your family members.  This church's priorities are all mixed up.

Which is an excellent segue into the section on excommunication.
  • Withdrawal of membership has several purposes, including protection of the innocent (as in the case of abuse of other Church members) and protecting the integrity of the Church.
I'm sorry, but someone really needs to explain to me how excommunicating the abuser protects the person he abused.  Isn't that what the police are for?  Or Child Protective Services?  Or whatever other government organization may be involved?  How does stripping this guy of his imaginary ordinances protect anyone?  I mean, he can't get into the Celestial Kingdom that way, so I guess people would be safe from him in the afterlife, but....

And protecting the integrity of the church is another silly notion.  For a church that proclaims "visitors welcome" on its meetinghouses and frequently reminds its members that the leadership offices, not the men who temporarily fill them, are what should be revered, you'd expect them to have a sense that the ideals the church stands for are independent from the actions of individual members.  The Constitution of the United States is not weakened by the fact that Ted Bundy was an American citizen.  Unless by "integrity" this document means "structural resilience."   But if that's the case, then surely stripping the abuser of his calling and removing him from the leadership structure of the church would suffice.

I don't believe the church is true, of course, but I do believe that the doctrinal significance of excommunication is inhumane.  I'd like to see the church abolish the practice.  But while it still insists on handing out spiritual death penalties, I'd like to see its reasoning make a little bit of sense.  Unfortunately, the policies in this particular arena seem erratic and irrational.

Sample question:
Why won't the Church publicly share its financial reports and information?
Primary message:
The great majority of the Church's income is derived from the voluntary contributions of its members.  Through the principle of tithing, faithful members contribute a tenth of their income to the work of the Church.  The Church's finances are regularly and independently audited.
Wonderful, only that doesn't actually answer the question.  In fact, none of the information provided in the "Church Finances" section even pretends to address the question.

Also, I don't think it's entirely accurate to call tithing voluntary.  Strictly speaking, it may satisfy the definition of the word, but tithing is very subtly coerced.  You can't go to the Celestial Kingdom without attending the temple.  You can't attend the temple without paying a full tithe.  So while members do have the choice to pay or not to pay their tithing, it's roughly akin to the choice you have to take off your watch or not to take off your watch when a mugger has his knife to your throat.  The stakes are unimaginably high when a Mormon makes a decision not to pay his tithing.
  • Those who willingly embrace the biblical accounts of the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ—accounts which we also embrace—should have no problem with Latter-day Saint acceptance of revelation in the 1800's.
That one gave me a little chuckle.   The kinds of questions this statement is supposed to respond to are about "far-fetched" accounts of miraculous events in early church history.  This final bullet point basically boils it down to:  "Well, you Christians believe in stuff that doesn't make much sense, so all that stuff with the gold plates and the angels isn't all that different, really."

Speaking of stuff that doesn't make much sense, here's the response designed for questions about postmortal polygamy:
  • We can speak authoritatively about polygamy in this life.  However, concerning those who have legally married more than one spouse, including those whose partners have died and remarried, we can be sure that a loving Heavenly Father knows how to bless everyone's life and that our individual choices will be respected.
Wow...so much for that important new and everlasting covenant, huh?  Way to dance around that issue and pass the ball to God to let him sort it out later.  Because I guess if you tell people the truth about how postmortal polygamy is basically hard doctrine, people are gonna think those Mormon folks are pretty damn weird.

And then we get to the even juicier stuff about racism:
  • The origins of the practice [of denying the priesthood to blacks] are obscure, but prophets taught that at some point the priesthood would be given to all worthy males in the Church.
"We claim to be the only direct source of God's truth on the face of the earth, but we can't explain exactly why we did the thing that maybe we shouldn't have done for so long."  What a useless answer.  I mean, sure, it's possible that the origination of that racist policy has been lost in history and we'll never know exactly who started it or for what exact purpose.  But even if we never know, it won't stop being a big deal.

And it's not really that helpful that prophets apparently taught that equality was an eventuality.  Because prophets and apostles also taught things like black people were not equal to other races, that they would be servants in Heaven, that people should marry within their own racial groups, and that the church would not change its policies about blacks and the priesthood.  So I doubt very much that, if I'd been a black member of the church in the early seventies, I'd have been holding my breath and looking toward the future with an abundance of hope.
  •  Fined for campaign donations by the Fair Political Practices Commission:  Claims that the Church misrepresented contributions to the ProtectMarriage Coalition are false. There was a token fine for a technicality, which is fully explained on our website.  The Church did not donate money to Proposition 8.
What the hell??  ProtectMarriage was the group that sponsored Proposition 8 and gathered the signatures required to place it on the ballot.  So while the church may not have, like, written any checks made out to anything called "Proposition 8," it most certainly donated funds to groups advocating the passage of the measure.  I don't understand what the church thinks it's even proving or accomplishing here by saying it didn't donate money to Proposition 8.

It's especially strange that they do this in basically the same breath as their admission to the fine (which they explained fully on their website).  So essentially, what they're saying is that they received a fine for a minor administrative error in the reporting of their cash contributions to the impetus behind Proposition 8, but they didn't donate any cash to Proposition 8.

That sounds a lot to me like, "I didn't kill my wife, it was the baseball bat I was swinging at her that killed my wife, which is how I can explain the blood on my shirt."

This response is utterly baffling to me.
Sample question:
What are you doing to respond to the high number of suicides among the gay youth of your Church?
Primary messages:
  • As far as we are aware, there is no higher rate of suicide among the youth of our Church than among society in general.
This is just sad.  And I don't mean that in a the-church-is-pathetically-out-of-touch-look-how-sad-they-are kind of way.  I mean that it makes me sad.

First of all, the question was about gay youth suicides and this answer only mentions youth suicides.  While there may not be a higher rate of suicide among young Mormons than among young people in general, that's not the issue here.  Gay people are a minority, so it's possible that a significantly higher suicide rate among young gay Mormons could be a real thing without drastically spiking the suicide rate among all young Mormons.

Secondly, the "as far as we are aware" thing is kind of sickening.  This is a document designed to predict questions from journalists and provide ready answers for the church representatives to offer them.  Which means that the church has heard this question before.  And instead of looking into the issue and trying to collect data and see if it's something that needs to be addressed on a large scale—you know, to stop people from hurting or killing themselves—the church has opted to maintain plausible deniability by going to the press with "as far as we are aware, this isn't happening."

It doesn't matter if you're aware of it.  If it's happening to your people, you need to do something.  And if it's happening to your people because of your doctrines or your culture, you need to do something publicly and powerfully so that your other members know how to help and know that it's their responsibility to help.

If I were an apostle of the Lord and people kept asking me why a certain subset of my religion was unusually prone to suicide, you can bet your ass I would want to be as aware of it as possible.  Not these apostles, apparently.
  •  We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different.  Such acts simply have no place in our society. 
I mean, that's nice and all, but I think that completely misses the point.  I'd be very surprised if bullying was a leading cause of suicide for young gay Mormons.  I'm sure bullying doesn't help, of course.  And I've never been a young gay Mormon, so maybe I'm off base here...

But I would imagine that suicide seems like a good option in these cases most often because of the feeling that your identity is fundamentally at odds with what you've been taught is right and good.  That something you have no control over keeps driving you further and further away from what you think your Father in Heaven wants you to be.  That every desire and every emotion you feel can throw your whole life off track and make your eternal destiny terrifyingly uncertain.  Cruelty is bad, of course.  But I don't think that's what accounts for most of these suicides.  I think it's a church brainwashing gay people into thinking that their very existence is wrong.  And I think that, after trying to change, after growing up in an already confusing world and going through an already tumultuous teenage existence, and having all that extra homophobic Mormon drama heaped on you, it's not hard to imagine why, for some people, it might be too much.

Yes, we should all be kinder to each other.  But no, that's not going to do much to stem the tide of gay Mormon deaths.  The church needs to change its doctrines.  But since it won't do that, it at least needs to step in and find some way to make its youth feel more accepted for exactly who they are.
Sample question:
Why did the Church support the barbaric practice of aversion therapy, by which gays were subjected to physical pain in clinics to divert their sexual attractions to the same sex.
Primary message:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not, and does not now, recommend or sponsor such therapy.
Um, yes, you damn well did.  By your own admission, three bullet points down, you sponsored the therapy, at best indirectly, because it was performed at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the church.   You paid for it, which means you sponsored it.  Don't act like your hands are clean.
Sample question:
Why do women in the Church have a subordinate role to men? 
Primary message:
God makes no distinction between men and women as to the worth of a human soul, and neither does the Church.  The Book of Mormon teaches that "male and female" are "all alike unto God."
Sure, okay, only...no, not really.   Let's take a careful look at the Book of Mormon passage being referenced here (2 Nephi 26:33):
For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
So the best scripture these guys could come up with to illustrate that men and women are equal in the sight of God is a scripture that also insists that black people and white people are equal in the sight of God.  Except, according to the Mormon church, that second bit was not the case until 1978.  So if a hundred years of church policy contradicts the black-and-white part of this scripture, how should the verse have any credibility whatsoever for the male-and-female part?

And it's also interesting the way this question is deflected.  This "primary message" does nothing to refute the premise—that women in the church have a subordinate role to men.  Rather than engage on the concept of subordination, the answer pivots to the concept of value.  Which is great, except that value is intangible.  Subordinate relationships are more visible, more quantifiable, and it speaks to value with a lot more honesty than the words of church representatives ever could.  It's easy to say men and women are equal.  It's much more difficult to demonstrate it.  And the church is not doing a stellar job of demonstrating it.

It's a source of constant amazement to me how the church's public relations efforts can be both cunning and utterly inept.