Saturday, October 7, 2017

Notes on General Conference

I missed General Conference again because of my work schedule, but it looks like this time the church preserved the sessions on YouTube instead of just offering the live stream.  Or, more likely, they've done that before and I didn't realize it until now.

But from skipping through the sessions and admittedly only paying close attention to the big names, here are some of the most...noteworthy...passages I came across.

Latter-day Saints who understand God's plan of salvation have a unique worldview that helps them see the reason for God's commandments, the unchangeable nature of his required ordinances, and the fundamental role of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Saturday morning session

Unique worldview, indeed.  But I'm not so sure that we can safely pretend that God's required ordinances are unchangeable.  I mean, the penalties were removed from the endowment ordinance a few decades ago.  When the sacrament was first performed by Jesus (and when it was performed in the Book of Mormon, as well as—please correct me if I'm wrong here, someone—when it was performed in early church history) it used wine, not water.

And these required ordinances weren't always required anyway.  There was a complete overhaul of God's commandments and of his required ordinances way back, ohhhh, about two thousand years ago.  Ring any bells?

Just eighteen years after the Family Proclamation, the United States Supreme Court authorized same sex marriage, overturning thousands of years of marriage being limited to a man and a woman.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Saturday morning session
Does anybody have any idea what he's being so dramatic about?  Thousands of years?  The United States has not been around that long, chief.  And even during US History, there was a time when marriage between, say, a man and multiple women was legal.  And if we're going back thousands of years, Jacob preached against polygamy in the Book of Mormon, so apparently multiple-member-marriages were a thing back then too.  So let's not pretend that marriage on this particular continent has always been defined the same way.

Another respondent said, "I would not know that there is continuing progress after this life."
—Russell M. Nelson, Saturday afternoon session
This is, purportedly, a reply to Nelson's queries about how our lives and attitudes would be different without the Book of Mormon.  This is my favorite reply because the Book of Mormon does not teach the doctrine of eternal progression.  In fact, it leans more toward the generically Christian version of the afterlife.  It mentions nothing about degrees of glory, of becoming gods, or any postmortal progress other than your basic Protestant version of salvation.  These are things that this person would not have known if Joseph Smith had been murdered sooner, but they are not things that this person would not have known without the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon shatters the false beliefs that happiness can be found in wickedness....
—Russell M. Nelson, Saturday afternoon session
Um...what?  Point me to a religious tradition that teaches "wickedness always was happiness."

I don't think there's a pervasive belief out there that happiness is found in wickedness.  The reason people do bad things is that not everyone agrees on the definition of wickedness.  Some people may pursue fulfillment in things that others may perceive as wrong, but that doesn't mean we have a billions of people running around looking for more wicked things to do so they can be happy. If one of the Book of Mormon's most powerful abilities is the dispelling of a false belief that isn't actually that widespread, I'm not particularly impressed.

Willingness to be patient is part of our search for truth and part of the Lord's pattern of revealing truth.
—David F. Evans, Priesthood session

I get that not every answer to every question can be made available at a moment's notice, but some people wait for unnecessary lengths of time.  When I was testing Moroni's promise at BYU, desperate to receive a strong testimony with the prospect of missionary service looming, I waited weeks and weeks for an answer to repeated prayers.  The woman in Evans's example waited the better part of a lifetime for her witness of the gospel.  What possible reason, other than sadism, would God have for making people wait and wonder for these inordinate periods?

Some receive a witness very quickly.  For others, it will take more time and more prayer and may include reading the book several times.
—David F. Evans, Priesthood session
Whoa, hold up, where does it say that in Moroni 10?  Because if you can know the truth of all things by the power of the Holy Ghost, but it may take the Holy Ghost twenty years to answer, isn't that something that should at the very least be in the fine print?  But there's no "some exclusions apply," line in this chapter.  There's no "you may need to receive these things several times before the Holy Ghost will manifest its truth unto you."  How can you possibly expect people to just keep on keepin' on, devoting a lifetime to something that they can't confirm, even after following a specifically prescribed series of steps to receive that confirmation?

If the keep-trying-the-same-one-thing-over-and-over-until-you-get-it-right-and-never-try-anything-else philosophy were applied to other aspects of Mormon life, every Mormon would be completely unemployable.  It's an insane approach to doing anything, but it's a particularly insane approach to determining truth, personal identity, and a life's pursuit.

Do we have the faith not to be healed from our earthly afflictions so that we might be healed eternally?  A critical question to ponder is "where do we place our faith? Is our faith focused on simply wanting to be relieved of pain and suffering or is it firmly centered on God the Father and his holy plan and in Jesus Christ and his atonement?"

—Donald L. Hallstrom, Sunday morning session
What kind of nonsense is this?

I have no idea what this means, doctrinally.  I mean, it sounds like he might be saying that the family who died in the plane crash were so selfish as to have prayed for relief from death instead of having faith in God's plan.  But that's crazy.  Who blames people who died in a plane crash because they appealed for divine deliverance?  That can't be what he's saying.

Aren't some of the most important purposes of prayer to receive comfort and to request aid from our heavenly father?  What's the point of praying while your plane is going down if not to ask for rescue from urgent earthly troubles?  And what's the point of faith if you have faith in two mutually exclusive outcomes?  If you pray with faith to be healed and faith not to be healed, are you really praying with true faith, nothing wavering?  Also, how does dying in a plane crash heal you eternally?

All Hallstrom is trying to do is change the question to fit the answer.  When you pray for miracles and don't receive them, he wants to make sure that the explanation can't be that the church isn't true.  The explanation is that the church is so true that it's impossible for you to understand your situation because you don't have God's eternal perspective.  The trueness is the reason that your suffering continues—and that's a good thing and you should be reassured by the fact that you're still suffering.

Also, quit worrying about how much pain or danger you're in and think about God's plan for you.  You know, try not to be so small-minded while your life is flashing before your eyes.

Today, I testify of miracles.  Being a child of God is a miracle.  Receiving a body in his image and likeness is a miracle.  The gift of a savior is a miracle.  The atonement of Jesus Christ is a miracle.  The potential for eternal life is a miracle.

—Donald L. Hallstrom, Sunday morning session
Because that last quote from this guy pissed me off so much, I'm gonna nitpick a bit here.  Let's review Hallstrom's definition of a miracle that he provided earlier in this talk:  a beneficial event brought about through divine power that mortals do not understand.  By his own definition, two of these miracles he listed are not actually miracles.  The state of being a child of God is not an event.  The potential for anything, eternal life or not, is not an event.  These two things are not miracles.  A representative of God said so.  Of course, he also said the exact opposite, too, but....

A young elder arrived with apprehension in his eyes.  As we met in an interview, he said dejectedly, "I want to go home."  I thought to myself, "We can fix this!"  I counselled him to work hard and to pray about it for a week and then call me.  A week later, almost to the minute, he called.  He still wanted to go home.  I again counselled him to pray, work hard, and to call me in a week.  In our next interview, things had not changed.  He insisted on going home.  I just wasn't going to let that happen.

—W. Craig Zwick, Sunday morning session
And there, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most important problems of Mormonism.  Screw what you want, pal, you need to conform to what the organization wants for you.

To be fair, the point of Zwick's story is to illustrate that he wasn't examining the situation carefully enough.  He admitted that he'd given hasty advice without fully understanding the situation.  But Zwick's reactions to the missionary's repeated insistence is indicative of Mormon culture as a whole.  We don't listen.  We try to apply fixes to the church-approved perception of the problem.

Also, I think it's hilarious that the phrase "young elder" makes any kind of sense in context, but that's entirely beside the point.

Obviously, truth mandates our highest allegiance, though it should never be a barrier to kindness.
—W. Craig Zwick, Sunday morning session
I wish you'd tell that to your buddy Dallin.

But I don't think truth should mandate your highest allegiance anyway.  Your highest allegiance should be to your fellow human beings.  Truth should definitely be high on your list, sure.  But I think that humanity mandates your highest allegiance.  Because you can be wrong about what you think is truth, but people will always be people regardless of what you consider true at any given time.  The best way to make sure your monomaniacally religious mindset isn't a barrier to kindness is to make sure that kindness is actually your first priority.  For what shall it profit a man if he shall believe all the right truth but lose his own soul on account of being an asshole to everyone who considers something different to be true?

We need to embrace God's children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, or nationalism.
—M. Russell Ballard, Sunday afternoon session
Whoa.  I was not expecting this.

The church now claims to stand against racism on a pretty regular basis, so that wasn't a surprise.  A call for the elimination of sexism was a bit unexpected from M. Russell Just-Put-On-A-Little-Lipstick Ballard.  But, of course, both of those issues are poorly reflected by the makeup of the church leadership.  The number of women or persons of color among the general authorities seems to indicate that the church isn't that overly concerned about racism or sexism.

Nationalism was perhaps the biggest surprise.  The western world, lately, seems to be regressing back into a nationalist, isolationist attitude.  The President of the United States has adopted an "America first" slogan and repeatedly criticized international cooperative efforts such as the United Nations and NAFTA.  The United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union.  And more recently, the nationalist party Alternative For Germany received an unprecedented portion of its country's popular vote.  This is not a trend that I believe is good for these countries, for western society, or for the world as a whole. Shockingly, Ballard and I seem to agree.

Although, if the other two forms of prejudice he mentioned are any indication, this may be little more than lip service.

To believe such [Book of Mormon critics' reasoning], I would have to accept one unproven assumption after another.
—Tad M. Callister, Sunday afternoon session
Where do I start with this talk?  I may feel the urge to go through it line by line later, but for now, I'll just focus on this quote.

Almost every single thing Callister said in his entire talk was an unproven assumption.  So apparently, to defend his faith from a litany of unproven assumptions, he finds it both necessary and acceptable to provide his own litany of unproven assumptions.  That doesn't make him right.  It just makes him a hypocrite.

Where we turn to find answers requires great care.  There is nothing to be gained in exploring the views or opinions of the less informed or disenchanted. 
—Ian S. Ardern, Sunday afternoon session
This kind of mindset, is, I believe, one of the most important ways that the world manages to hold itself back.  When we have disagreements, we are too quick to write off the opposition as uninformed or unreliable.  What Ardern says is absolute, one hundred percent, flat-out wrong.

You know what you can gain from exploring the views of others?  Understanding.  Just because you see or read the opinions of someone less informed or disenchanted doesn't mean you will begin to agree with those views.  It's absurd to think that there's some false information out there with the intrinsic insidious power to overwhelm reason and truth.  Can we be mislead by disingenuous opinions?  Absolutely.  But that doesn't mean we should be careful what kinds of views we explore.  It means we should be careful about how thoroughly we process new information.  

Refusing to explore opposing views and dismissing them as "less informed" or "disenchanted" leads to ignorance and resentment.  It splits people apart along dogmatic lines instead of allowing us to unite despite our philosophical differences.  Exploring opposing views can lead to better understanding of your fellow human beings, even if you continue to disagree with them.  It can totally change the way you see and treat people when you can become educated enough about their beliefs that, even if you still think they're wrong, you can comprehend the principles, you can understand the approach, and—more often than you'd think—you can admit that their intentions are good.

Another important thing you can gain from exploring divergent views is enlightenment.  Sometimes, you're actually going to find out that you were wrong and that's totally okay.  But if you are wrong about something, stubbornly entrenching yourself in your current mindset will keep you from being aware of it and you will forever continue to be wrong.  Opening yourself up to other viewpoints and other information can help you move toward beliefs that you feel better about.  This is how I went from Mormon to ex-Mormon, from homophobe to ally, and from misanthrope to humanist.  Obviously, I can't claim that my current opinions and beliefs are all correct (and many are subjective anyway), but I can feel much better and much prouder in my continued evolution toward mindsets that are more accurate, more positive, and more beneficial.

Never let anyone tell you that there is nothing to be gained by exploring other views and opinions.

Yes, the irony is intentional.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ether 15: The End of the World As We Know It

The moment we've all been waiting for is finally upon us—the ultimate destruction of the Jaredites.

Numerical Escalation
In the process of coming to his senses in verse 2, Coriantumr realizes that two million Jaredites have been killed in this ridiculous war.  Two million.

Two million people died by the sword.

Surely battles on such a vast scale would have left prominent archaeological traces—especially since the previous chapter states that they were basically leaving the dead where they fell without any kind of burial.  Shouldn't there be hundreds of thousands of skeletons and swords (and shields, and breastplates, and head-plates as described in verse 15) littering a field somewhere?  

Also, the numbers of casualties in these battles seem to be getting more and more impressive to the point of absurdity.  Back in the earlier pages of the Book of Mormon, deaths were counted in the tens of thousands (and, more recently, hundreds of thousands).  But the escalation as the narrative progresses seems less reminiscent of a historical record and more reminiscent of a storyteller's efforts to keep his audience interested.

Turning Over a New Leaf
Coriantumr starts to understand that, just maybe, having everybody slaughter each other may not be a good idea.  In verse 3 he makes this realization:
He began to repent of the evil which he had done; he began to remember the words which had been spoken by the mouth of all the prophets, and he saw them that they were fulfilled thus far, every whit; and his soul mourned and refused to be comforted.
He even goes so far as writing a letter to his nemesis, Shiz, and offer a truce.  But twelve verses later, he's arming children to help fight against the continual depredations of Shiz's army.

What the hell kind of patty-cake, taffy-pulled repentance is that?  If he were really repentant, he would have made a stand and fought defensively against Shiz to buy time for some of the families to escape into the wilderness, or the land northward, or to the narrow neck of land.  You know, instead of directly introducing children to the horrors of war and essentially guaranteeing that they were all going to die.

But yeah.  He's totally seen the error of his ways and he's a good guy now.

Never Tell Me the Odds
I fully understand what a brazen statement this is, but the story of the Jaredite apocalypse may be one of the most absurd things in the entire Book of Mormon.  This chapter essentially follows the civilization as they kill each other, move to a new place, kill each other some more, flee somewhere else, and then—you guessed it—kill each other until there are hardly any each others left to kill.  This culture has apparently evolved past such trivial things as a sense of self-preservation.

At no point does anybody say, "hey, we went from millions to less than a hundred, let's stop and think about this."  At no point does someone say, "I'm getting out of here to live on my own before these animals destroy everyone."  At no point does anyone say, "Maybe the fact that we keep fainting from the loss of blood doesn't bode well."    It's just continuous fighting, with occasional breaks for sleeping and for fleeing to other made-up place names between battles.  When did they have time to prepare and ingest food to fuel more fighting?  How is it that one side didn't win by attacking while the others slept? 

None of this makes sense.  None of this feels like the behavior of real people—although, admittedly, it would make one seriously badass action movie (Jason Statham IS...Coriantumr.  Coming summer 2018).  No one is this obsessed with victory or vengeance, but even if there are people like that, what are the odds that the last hundred or so warriors of a nation numbering in the millions would ALL be that kind of person?

But you know what's even more ludicrous?  After these millions of Jaredites have hacked each other to pieces, the last two combatants after every single other person has died are the two leaders of the armies.  The final inning is a showdown between Shiz and Coriantumr. 

Gimme a break. 

I mean, everybody loves a good macho squaring off between Skywalker and Vader, Neo and Agent Smith, or Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, but that's generally something that happens in fiction.  FDR did not trade blows with Hitler.  Grant and Lee never crossed swords.  And even if they had, they'd have needed to miraculously survive in the heat of battle while every single one of their soldiers fell dead around them in order for the end of Ether to be historically analogous.  Assuming that each of the Jaredite rulers possessed an army of one million combatants, the probability of Shiz and Coriantumr being the last two survivors comes in at around one in one trillion.

One in one trillion.

Let that sink in.

Considering these were both wicked men, I don't think it's fair to say that this was a miracle.  I think it's fair to say that it was a complete fabrication.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Eclipsing the Truth

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to view a total solar eclipse.  My sister happens to live right in the path of the totality, so a bunch of us drove to her house and made a weekend out of it.  It was pretty fantastic and pictures don't really do the firsthand experience justice.

But the reason I mention that is because this was the first occasion in a very, very long while that I spent an extended period of time surrounded primarily by Mormons.  And there were some interesting conversations.  The one that irritated me the most was between my sister and her friend.

Her friend mentioned that the moon's orbit is slowly changing and that in thousands of years, total eclipses won't happen.  The moon will be further away from us and it will appear smaller to our view, which means that instead of totally eclipsing the sun, the moon will only be able to blot out most of it.  This is a fascinating comment to make, and it was, up until that point, an engaging discussion.

And then...

Since this is only going to be a problem in thousands of years, he continued, by then it won't matter to us.  Finishing his thought, my sister agreed that, by that point in time, we'll just be able to design our own solar systems to make eclipses happen exactly how we want.

Which made me immediately think of this infuriating entry in the Mormon Newsroom's frequently asked questions:

It's a flat-out "no" on the whole becoming-gods-and-designing-planets thing, huh?  

For a church that seems so obsessed with controlling information and standardizing its teachings, it seems kind of weird that so many lifelong, doctrinally educated members don't realize that, apparently, they won't become gods or get their own planets.  The church leadership has sent letters to local authorities to make sure members know what kinds of sex they're allowed to have and to appeal for members to combat specific laws that may go into effect.  And Elder Nelson used his fifteen minutes in the last general conference of the church to deliver a semantics lesson.  But somehow, in the last 187 years, the prophets have never bothered to clarify exactly what will happen to us if we attain exaltation in the afterlife. 

That makes no sense.  Clearly the leadership is not doing a good job of prioritizing the information it chooses to share with the faithful.  It is, however, carefully prioritizing the information it shares with the public, downplaying teachings that are embarrassing or off-putting and obfuscating things that cannot be safely denied.

That is not being very honest in your dealings with your fellow men.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ether 14: Countdown to Extinction

We're witnessing the death throes of the Jaredite civilization, folks.  

Ain't Happy Without a Good Curse
The chapter begins with a description of a curse that befalls the people.  This is one of the more peculiar ones I've heard of (verse 1):
And now there began to be a great curse upon all the land because of the iniquity of the people, in which, if a man should lay his tool or his sword upon his shelf, or upon the place whither he would keep it, behold, upon the morrow, he could not find it, so great was the curse upon the land.
The people were so wicked that they kept losing things?  It makes more sense to me that they'd become so wicked and so violent that they slept with their hands on their weapons out of a necessary paranoia.  And maybe people would steal the good weapons and tools from their sleeping neighbors.  Or maybe it was a mystical curse.  I guess that works too.


Not As Good As Vantage Point
Here's a verse, that, quite honestly, requires no context (verse 9):
And it came to pass that his high priest murdered him as he sat upon his throne.
Again!?  I'm starting to think that if the FBI developed a time machine and used it to track American crime statistics back a few thousand years, they'd discover that about 80% of all homicides in this country prior to European invasion took place on either a throne or a judgment seat.  It's literally the most dangerous place for any character of the Book of Mormon to be at any given time.

Or maybe Joseph Smith just wasn't that creative when it came to dreaming up scenarios for the assassination of government officials (luckily for Lilburn Boggs).

The Great Schism
After a whole lot of fighting and killing, apparently every single person in Jaredite society chooses a side—either Coriantumr or Shiz.  Nobody strikes out on his own.  Every single Jaredite is now a member of an army.  This makes perfect sense to me.  The phenomenon likely shares a sociological explanation with why it's common to see elections in which only two candidates receive votes and no eligible voter abstains from the process.

Blood for the Blood God
In verse 25, we get a nice, straightforward, told-you-so just to make sure we understand that these people got what was coming to them:
And thus we see that the Lord did visit them in the fulness of his wrath, and their wickedness and abominations had prepared a way for their everlasting destruction.
Okay, so the moral of the story is pretty roughly shoved down the reader's throat.  But there's a serious lack of self-awareness in this chapter.  Because just three verses earlier, we were taught this:
And so swift and speedy was the war that there was none left to bury the dead, but they did march forth from the shedding of blood to the shedding of blood, leaving the bodies of both men, women, and children strewed upon the face of the land, to become a prey to the worms of the flesh.
Being punished with destruction for wickedness is something that I don't necessarily agree with, but I can understand the cold logic behind it—at least when it applies to able-minded adults.  But what exactly did those children do to deserve this brutal vengeance from God?  This chapter goes from gruesome depictions of child corpses to gloating about God's execution of justice with frightening speed.  Why did God deem it necessary to punish children for crimes they should not have been accountable for?  Why is it so important to God to use senseless violence as a teaching tool?

And thus we see that God is a bloodthirsty asshole.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ether 13: Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

There's some nice little mumbo-jumbo in this chapter about the New Jerusalem being established on the American continent, but I think the most interesting and most central verses here revolve around a meeting between Ether and Coriantumr.

Ether is essentially the only righteous person remaining in the Jaredite society, so he's apparently God's only option when it comes to selecting a prophet.  Ether is staggeringly unpopular because of his preaching, so he's been living in a cave somewhere to avoid being beaten to death.  But then God tells him to go and speak with the wicked king Coriantumr, so Ether dutifully relays the following prophecy:  if Coriantumr repents, his life and his people's lives will be spared—but if he does not repent, Coriantumr will live to see his family and his entire society die, and he will be the last Jaredite left.  Is it just me, or does this feel like the premise of a classical tragedy more than the premise of a book of scripture?  I mean, if it had been three witches talking instead of just gloomy old Ether, it could have been Shakespeare.

But if we're following the pattern of a theatrical tragedy, it should come as no surprise that Coriantumr refuses to repent, tries to kill Ether, and then gets embroiled in an absurd, over-the-top war that fulfills the horrific prophecy.  The next two chapters will go into painstaking detail about how all that comes to pass.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

Ether 11: More Jaredite Nonsense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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

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

Father of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'm a Crackpot Lately

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The Curelom Conundrum 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Ether 8: Our God is an Awful God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Ether 7: More of the Same

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ether 6: The Incredible Journey

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

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

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

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

It's the water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes perfect sense.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cutting the Mic and Cutting through the Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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