Friday, June 23, 2017

Cutting the Mic and Cutting through the Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Spreading the Un-gospel

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ether 5: Witnesses on Trial

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ether 4: Primitive Doctrine

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


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

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


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

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


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

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