Thursday, March 23, 2017

Responses to Responses to Common Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mormon 7: Mormon Gets Real for a Minute

Our current narrator takes a moment to preach to the Lamanites of the modern era—and, regardless of which version of the Book of Mormon's introduction you go by, that would be the Native Americans.


Essential to Salvation
Mormon includes a peculiar detail in his summary of things that his enemies' descendants will need to know (verse 5):
Know ye that ye must come to the knowledge of your fathers, and repent of all your sins and iniquities, and believe in Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God, and that he was slain by the Jews, and by the power of the Father he hath risen again, whereby he hath gained the victory over the grave; and also in him is the sting of death swallowed up.
Don't forget:  Jews killed Jesus.  Very important.

It stands out especially because this section is devoid of some of Joseph Smith's more flowery tendencies.  It's full of strong, straightforward statements such as "Know ye that ye must come unto repentance, or ye cannot be saved."  So in the midst of a chapter that contains simple phrasing and direct doctrinal concepts unfettered by needless metaphors and extraneous details, Mormon still feels the need to mention that the Jews are the ones who killed Jesus.

It reminds me of a particular type of math problem from elementary school.  To teach students effective problem-solving, the goal wasn't to find the numerical answer—the goal was to identify the piece of information provided in the question that wasn't necessary to solve the problem.  The answer would never be "43 apples."  The answer would be something like, "To find the solution, I don't need to know that Sarah had 12 oranges."  Looking back at verse 5, which part is totally irrelevant and not essential to our salvation?  Oh, yeah.  It's blaming the Jews.  That's not useful at all.

Why did Mormon bother to include it?  I mean, the important things are that Jesus died for our sins and that he was resurrected, right?  Not the religious or ethnic identities of those responsible for his execution?

It's good to know that Joseph Smith truly was a prophet.  He predicted American elementary educational practices circa 1995.


Heaven's Gonna Suck
Verse 7 contains a concept that I feel is generally associated more with mainstream Protestantism than with Mormonism, but it's interesting to see it crop up here in LDS scriptural canon:
And he hath brought to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end.
Two things about this description of the afterlife bother me.

First, singing ceaseless praises to God for all of eternity sounds like a real bummer.  Perhaps Mormon is being poetic here (possibly unlikely considering the general tone of the rest of this chapter), but I've heard this idea repeated by enough Christians that I'm worried Joseph Smith may have meant it literally.  I get the whole being grateful for existence and mercy and salvation and stuff, but spending the rest of forever worshiping makes me wonder if maybe there's a Dungeons and Dragons tournament going on in Hell that I could sit and watch instead.  Should be way more fun being a spectator to a game I've never played than just thinking up new ways to kiss God's ass until the end of time.

And the second thing that bothers me is God's apparent need for his ass to be kissed in the first place.  You'd think a being of his perfect caliber would be humble enough and magnanimous enough to gracefully shy away from excessive worship so that we can enjoy our eternal glory.  Sure, he gave us the gift of life, but he's certainly not a very gracious gift-giver.  Wouldn't you be annoyed if your aunt called you up six times a day expecting an outpouring of gratitude for that scented candle she sent you last Christmas?  A perfect, benevolent, fatherly deity wouldn't want us to feel indefinitely indebted to him.  He would kindly accept what gratitude we offered, tell us we were quite welcome, and suggest that we not feel the need to mention it any longer.  Right?

Not this god, apparently.  Not that we really have a clear concept of his characteristics anyway, since this verse seems to further complicate the church's scriptural stance on the Trinity.


gic Circular Lo
Near the end of this chapter, Mormon really makes the wheels in your head spin (verse 9):
For behold, this is written for the intent that ye may believe that; and if ye believe that ye will believe this also; and if ye believe this ye will know concerning your fathers, and also the marvelous works which were wrought by the power of God among them.
Just to clarify a little bit, let me replace a few vague words with the things Mormon is actually referring to:
For behold, [Mormon's words are] written for the intent that ye may believe [the Book of Mormon]; and if ye believe [The Book of Mormon] ye will believe [Mormon's words] also; and if ye believe [Mormon's words] ye will know concerning your fathers, and also the marvelous works which were wrought by the power of God among them.
 So...a part of the Book of Mormon is written for the intent that reader will believe the whole Book of Mormon?  And if the reader believes the whole Book of Mormon he will believe a section contained within the Book of Mormon?  And if he believes that smaller portion he'll know some important stuff?

This whole verse is just ridiculous.  Mormon could have saved himself so much time by simply taking references to his own writings out of the equation:
For behold, if ye believe [The Book of Mormon] ye will know concerning your fathers, and also the marvelous works which were wrought by the power of God among them.
There!  Wasn't that easier to write?  And easier to understand?  Without sacrificing the central point of the verse?  I should be charging Mormon two senines of gold per thousand words for editing fees.

It's almost as though this book was produced by a relatively uneducated, relatively inexperienced writer.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mormon 6: Force Depletion

Mormon, the military genius that he is, communicates by mail with the king of the Lamanites and the two of them baffingly agree to the location of their final showdown.


Safety in Numbers
In summarizing his apocalyptic battle with the Lamanites, Mormon lists his commanders, each of whom led a force of ten thousand.  After mentioning thirteen captains, he apparently tires of writing out names and simply adds that there were ten others.  This means that there were twenty-three Nephite leaders each in charge of ten thousand soldiers.  

This also means that the Nephites lost almost 230,000 men in a single day.  Even making the ridiculous assumption that the battle went on for a full twenty-four hours, that's 2.6 deaths every second.  In total, it's approximately how many people were killed by the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  This is a huge and historically unparalleled loss of life.

And keep in mind that these are specifically described not as casualties but as deaths.  Which means that if you compare it to what is considered the bloodiest day in American military history—the battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862—this Nephite battle is of a preposterous scope.  Antietam had almost 23,000 casualties.  That tally includes both groups of combatants and includes the wounded, not just the dead.  And still, in an era with more technological capability for destruction, the number barely scratches the surface of the Nephite conflict.

To be fair, the Nephite army (and, presumably, the Lamanite army as well) was much larger than either force that engaged in the fighting at Antietam.  But Mormon states in verse 15 that every one of his soldiers had been killed except for twenty-four of them and "a few" who fled southward and "a few" who defected to the Lamanites.  Sure sounds to me like he incurred upwards of 99% casualties.  But compare that number against the famously disastrous Pickett's Charge during the battle of Gettysburg—"over 50% casualties."  The Allied forces on the brutal D-Day assault managed to keep their casualties under a tenth.  Even at the legendary battle of Thermopylae, well over one percent of the ill-fated Greek defenders managed to escape with their lives.

Either Mormon is a colossally incompetent general or his story was made up by someone who hadn't bothered to consider the absurdities of his own arithmetic.


A Confusing Eulogy
After witnessing the bloody demise of almost a quarter of a million of his countrymen, Mormon bemoans their fates (verses 17 and 18):
O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! 
Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss.
Um...didn't the Lamanites also reject Jesus?  Why are the Nephites getting slaughtered due to unbelief instead of the Lamanites?  Both groups committed the same crime and the Lamanites actually fell away from the gospel first, so....

I think the usual explanation here is that the Nephites covenanted with God to remain righteous, therefore they're being punished more harshly because the Lamanites never made that promise.  On its face, that's an awful covenant depicting a tyrannical, easily offended god.  But now that we're generations beyond any of those covenants, it seems grossly unjust to hold current Nephites accountable for their distant ancestor's promises.  Not only that, but remember how, during the post-Jesus utopia, there were no manner of -ites?  When a group called the Lamanites eventually split off, they split off because of apostasy, not because of skin color.  They called themselves Lamanites to mark themselves as spiritual rebels, not to distinguish their racial heritage.

Which means the Lamanites in this chapter should probably have a lot of light-skinned ethnic Nephites in their midst, especially after generations upon generations of intra-societal marriages (as opposed to intra-ethnic marriages).  Therefore, according to the covenants Nephites made with their unreasonably exacting God way back when, both armies should be annihilated because they're both made up of the covenanters' lineage.

But, somehow, God decides to make sure the Nephites get utterly routed to the point of insanity and the Lamanites mostly live to be godless savages another day.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Snow Blindness

He knew it was a mistake the moment it was over.  He always did.  Rob had never developed the gift of foresight.  Victoria’s departure—the latest addition to a long series of arguably self-induced misfortunes—seemed carry with it a vinegary sense of finality.  He scratched at the dry stubble on his face and stared down the length of his stained, half-deflated air mattress toward an empty container of Cheez-Its resting on its side against the yellowed baseboard. 

"Well," he told the cardboard box sourly, "at least I still have you."

With an effort that felt monumental, like a breathless surge upward to break the surface of a cold lake, he rose to his feet.  Nausea hit him immediately.  He only needed to take a few frantic strides across the cramped apartment to make sure his vomit landed in the toilet instead of on the flat, desert-beige carpet.

"Ugh," Rob muttered to himself, spitting weakly into the bowl.  "If I could only feel like one kind of crap at a time, that would be great."

He missed the days when, instead of waking up hung over in a gloomy, roach-infested apartment, he would rouse to the soft clatter of plates and the crisp sizzle of his mother's breakfast.  The sounds would always hit first, but the aromas of the sliced fruits and the French toast and the warm bacon would follow closely behind with comforting reliability.

The best mornings were on snow days.  Not only would little Robby awaken to an idyllic winter vista beyond his bedroom window and the added thrill of a day without school, but the snugness of the home was somehow amplified by the presence of harsher conditions outside.  His mother's homemaking skills always seemed to kick into overdrive on those days, and all the fresh cookies and steaming mugs of hot chocolate and thick blankets and Disney movies would envelop the physical walls of the house in an insular cocoon of protective serenity.  On snow days, Robby was convinced there could be no higher level of contentment.

Now, though, Rob struggled to consider the possibility of a lower level of discontentment.  Waking up alone and starving to spit phlegm into a brown-ringed toilet bowl was never going to be a nostalgic memory.  Another surge of nausea swirled in his stomach as his eyes fell upon the week-old condom resting on the lip of the small garbage can beside the bathtub.  When he vomited a second time, it was accompanied by a wave of equally unpleasant regret.

His tragically short-lived experience with Victoria had been a twenty-first century whirlwind romance complete with Tinder meetups and Snapchat nudes.  At the time, it had felt like his generation’s version of a fairy tale—but it had all been over within two months.  Rob had been unbelievably lucky to find her and unbelievably blindsided when she’d grown bored with him.  Not that the boredom was necessarily due to her personality defects—admittedly, Rob had been useless when it came to pleasing her.  He genuinely wanted to, but he could never think of any ways to solidify the relationship beyond its inchoate phase of sexual adventure.  And his crucial mistake had been pretending that he knew what he was doing instead of admitting his ineptitude and discussing her expectations.  The moment she’d ended things, he had understood his strategic deficiencies with debilitating clarity.  He knew it was a mistake the moment it was over.  He always did.

Even as a child, he’d known.  The concept of shrewd hindsight had introduced itself to him one wintry morning during his youth.  He'd awoken to the sounds and scents of his mother at work in the kitchen.  The bright glow through the blinds unmistakably indicated large quantities of snow, and he leapt up to proclaim his excitement only to exclaim his anguish when his head slammed into the underside of his brother's half of the bunk bed.  He knew it was a mistake as soon as it was over.  He always did. 

Not that such knowledge had ever been useful to him.

Little Robby hadn't allowed his minor cranial trauma to derail his day of celebration, however.  There were some tears, of course, but then his mother was at his side and there were hugs and kisses and extraneous bandages and soft words.  And then it was on to pancakes and chocolate chips and strawberries.

The mere thought of pancakes made Rob's stomach heave again.  He stifled the reflex, stood on weak knees, ran his hand under the tap, and slurped from his palm.

He stared at his own haggard reflection in the cloudy mirror.  "Take.  A shower.”

The water sprayed feebly from the shower head.  It wasn’t hot, but it was better than it had felt in weeks.  It was interesting to him—and perhaps reassuring, in some imperceptibly significant way—that, despite how much his life had transformed in the preceding year, certain things were still unchanged.  He’d experienced a long period of airless loneliness, which had been followed sharply by its extreme opposite during his brief time with Victoria, only to return to his previous state of isolation with symmetrical abruptness. His sense of self had also undergone some drastic shifts during the year and his behavior had started to become more unpredictable.  Though he’d once been a pious fixture in the local pews, Rob hadn’t ventured inside a church or said a prayer or cracked open a book of scripture in twelve months.  His personal identity seemed trapped in a state of helpless flux.  The rules by which he governed his own actions were mutable and transient.  But at least certain rituals such as bathing himself had remained constant throughout his increasingly tumultuous existence.

That was nice, he reflected.  At least there was—somewhere deep beneath the wisps of smoldering fury and the dying tendrils of discarded dogma—some kind of essential foundation to his conduct.  Maybe he could build on that. 

He snickered as he stepped out of the tub and groped for a threadbare towel.  “Sure, I don’t know what I believe anymore or who I am or what I want, but my moral stance on showering is rock solid, so I’ll start there.”

He had wrapped his towel around his waist and shuffled back out into the bedroom to search the floor for a reasonably unstained t-shirt when he heard fragments of muffled conversation through the thin walls and a gentle rapping at his door.  He crept as quietly as possible up to the peephole and peered out.  With one eye occluded and his vision distorted by the curved circle of glass, he managed to glimpse two starkly clean-cut young men in white shirts and ties. 

The black nametags on their chests were a dead giveaway.  These were missionaries—these were Rob’s past life.  He had been one of them just a few years before, spreading the message of Mormonism with a huge grin on his face and a huge weight in his heart.  Now he just had the weight—but at least he could admit as much to himself these days.

He wondered who had given the missionaries his address this time.  His mother?  His brother?  Maybe one of his old missionary companions?  He considered that these two particular men may have merely been visiting every unit in the building and were oblivious to the fact that they were knocking on the door of a former believer, but he knew that coincidences were a rarity in Mormonism.  He watched silently as the two men taped a short note to the chipped surface of the door just below the peephole and left, ignoring every other apartment on their way to the stairs.  As he’d suspected, this had been a targeted visit.

As he tossed his towel aside and pulled on some mostly clean underwear, a crumpled pair of jeans, and a relatively odorless t-shirt, Rob felt his stomach gurgle.  He was feeling a little better and he realized he probably needed to eat something soon.  He wished his mother were around to whip up one of her legendary breakfasts.

Little Robby, by contrast, had never worried about procuring his next meal—it had always been provided for him before he had the chance to experience true hunger.  That snow day, he had wolfed down extra helpings of pancakes with gusto before joining his brother’s pleas to play outside.  Always attentive and arguably overprotective, his mother had agreed—on the condition of bundling them up in layer upon layer of warm clothing.  Shortly thereafter, wrapped in so much thermal apparel that he could hardly force his arms to stay against his sides, Robby had flung open the front door and rushed out into the yard.

He’d known it was a mistake as soon as he’d done it. He always did.

The temperature must have fluctuated during the previous night’s blizzard. The foot and a half of snow had been topped with a thick sheen of ice, which reflected the late morning sun with dazzling brilliance.  The excessive brightness had hurt Robby’s eyes at first, but he wasn’t about to let a little natural light ruin his day of jubilation.  Squinting against the sun’s hostility, he had bounded forward, enjoying the peculiar way the crust of the snow collapsed only slightly beneath his weight at first.  Then, with the more energy he’d stomped, the lower his feet had sunk until the surface had risen just past his knees.  The ice had also obscured and smoothed the topography of the yard, and he’d tripped a few times because his feet had slipped into unseen nuances of the terrain.  More than once, the painful impacts on his knees and his ankles had provided him with that same shrewd hindsight immediately following a misstep.  Regardless of the increased difficulties of movement, however, Robby had been enthralled by the magical new landscape around him.

His less adventurous younger brother had whined about the sun immediately and their mother had welcomed him back inside.  But Robby had been determined to enjoy his unscheduled vacation to the fullest.  Hours later, he’d built a small army of snowmen, half of which he’d demolished with some carefully directed maneuvers on his sled.

Rob wondered sometimes if destruction had always been one of his talents.  Looking back on recent events, it was difficult to deny that he possessed a certain knack for it.  He’d tugged on a nagging string at the sleeve of his faith until he’d unraveled the whole thing.  He’d presented his skepticism to his family in a way that may have skewed more toward belligerence than he’d realized—until, of course, the big conversations were over and he’d understood what a mistake he’d made.  It had set off a chain reaction and he’d watched in harrowed impotence as his relationship with each member of his family had deteriorated.  In his aimless, boundless frustration, he’d torpedoed his career, his finances, and numerous friendships.  He’d somehow managed to torpedo his whole damn life.  Fifteen years ago, it had just been a few snowmen.  How had his capacity for destruction escalated so drastically?

He poured some slightly soured milk over his off-brand Mini-Wheats.  “I am going to destroy you,” he explained to his breakfast.  “But rest assured, your sacrifice serves a purpose.”

As he crunched on the stale cereal, he pondered the day that he’d plowed through the line of snowmen at the base of the hill in his back yard.  After a few hours in the snow, his vision had grown blurry.  His eyes had begun to ache.  He’d eventually staggered toward the house, hysterical and bawling, completely convinced that he was going blind.  His mother had been there, as always, welcoming him back into the warm, safe cocoon, giving him hugs and reassurances and extra marshmallows in his cocoa. 

He hadn’t gone blind, of course.  It had hurt like hell, but he hadn’t gone blind.  Robby had later learned that what he’d experienced was called snow blindness.  After too much time outside, his eyes had been damaged by all the sunlight reflecting off the glistening surface of the ice.  Perhaps if he’d been less eager to enjoy himself and more inclined to return to the safety of his mother’s home….

But what he hadn’t realized in his throes of juvenile panic is that the effects on his vision were temporary.  The pain would subside and the darkness would be dispelled.  Similarly, the ice would melt and the outdoors would once again be safe.  But for months afterward, on every bright cloudless day, regardless of whether there was snow on the ground, little Robby had remained wary of playing outside.  On the rare occasion that he had ventured out, he’d done so with the utmost caution.

“Caution,” Rob chuckled wryly to himself as he left his bowl atop a pile of moldering dishes in the sink.  “Remember caution?”

It was clear to him—in retrospect, as usual—that many of his choices in the past year had been reckless.  He’d started to act on what felt like impulse because he’d had to discard the instincts he’d built over his two decades of religious indoctrination.  The internal resources he’d once used to maneuver through life had been revealed to be tainted, and he supposed—again only in retrospect—that he’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater and left himself without any kind of reliable decision-making process.  It was snow blindness.

It was like stumbling around on a winter afternoon with blurring eyesight.  He’d had no visual cues to help him navigate his way back to the house, but it wasn’t until his vision had become severely limited that he’d realized how much he relied upon optical stimuli.  His crisis was essentially the same now as he wandered through his life without moral cues and without philosophical stimuli.  It was terribly frightening to have something so fundamental and so taken for granted so concussively wrenched away from him, and he couldn’t avoid rushing about clumsily in a blind panic.

But the fear, he realized, had made him bolder the second time around.  As a child, he’d wailed and sobbed and hyperventilated until his mother had soothed his worries away and had assured him that everything would be all right.  But this time, he was barreling on into the jungles of uncertainty, thrashing away with heroic myopia in the hopes of finding a way through.  Rob was every bit as frightened as he’d been that day in the snow, but surviving the fear once had taught him that being too blind to see his path didn’t mean the path wasn’t there—he just had to feel around in the dark for a while until he found it.

“I’ve been feeling around in the metaphorical dark for so long, it’s no wonder I’ve stubbed my metaphorical toes a few times,” he quipped somberly.  

Victoria was a stubbed toe, a misstep, a faceplant in a snowbank—not Victoria herself, of course, but his amateurish attempt at a successful courtship with her.  That had all been a natural consequence of sightless navigation.  Despite how devastated he was to have lost her so quickly and with such thunderous irrevocability, Rob tried to keep in mind that he hadn’t been in the best headspace to have forged a lasting, healthy relationship.  He wasn’t necessarily to blame for his failure.  Perhaps, strictly speaking, it hadn’t even been a mistake.

Back in his dingy bathroom staring himself in the mirror while he ran his toothbrush under the tepid tap water, he took in a long breath.  This was just the transition period, he reminded himself.  It was the healing period.  His vision would come back eventually.

“It hurts like hell,” he told his reflection.  “But once it heals, it comes back.” 

He brushed aggressively, as though the scraping of plaque and tartar from his teeth could set in motion the scouring of doubt and disquiet from his soul.  He spat contemptuously into the sink to complete the symbolic purging.  Gazing at the thin trails of blood swirling toward the drain, he was about to admit that brushing so hard had been a mistake—but maybe it hadn’t.  Maybe the initial impression that something was a mistake wasn’t always a reliable indicator of whether it actually was.  Maybe it was less about hindsight and foresight and more about experience and perspective.  After all, the more he’d tripped in the snow, the more he’d gained a feel for the contours of the ground hidden beneath his feet.

He spat into the sink once more and watched the spray from the faucet slowly dissolve the vivid crimson until it became a faint pink around the mouth of the drain.  He’d known he’d brushed his teeth too hard the moment it was over.  But the cleansing was necessary and now that the neglected buildup of plaque was gone he would not be shredding his gums like that again.

“Wisdom from a toothbrush,” he sighed.  “Better than no wisdom at all, I guess.”

Taking his keys and his wallet from their hastily-assigned resting places on the carpet beside his air mattress, Rob headed for his front door, pausing with his fingers curled around the handle.  He was about to go out and learn to stumble around some more even though his snow blindness hadn’t entirely healed yet.  This was something little Robby never could have done.  Robby hadn’t learned to face the world.  But Rob, at least, felt up to the task.  He wasn’t going to run back to the house.  He was going to venture forward into the magical new landscape.

The agony was temporary.  The disorientation was temporary.  But the more he could get used to fumbling around in the murkier moments of his existence, the better he’d be able to keep stride in the right direction once his vision began to grow sharper.  Rob twisted the handle and stepped outside, squinting defiantly against the glaring sunlight. 


“Well,” he smirked, “Here goes nothing.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mormon 5: Two Minutes to Midnight

With the Nephite apocalypse looming ever closer on the horizon, we're witnessing the creation myth, so to speak, for the physical Book of Mormon as Mormon himself begins to gather up the records of his ancestors and ensures that his son Moroni will continue his legacy.


Repent!  Repent?
Even though he threw a little temper tantrum earlier, Mormon decides to reinstate himself as Supreme Commander of the Nephite Allied Forces.  But what's interesting is not that he changed his mind—it's how he describes changing his mind (verse 1):
And it came to pass that I did go forth among the Nephites, and did repent of the oath which I had made that I would no more assist them; and they gave me command again of their armies, for they looked upon me as though I could deliver them from their afflictions.
He repented of his oath.  This implies that quitting the army and abandoning his soldiers was a sinful act.  Which is a strange thing to say, because if you look back at Mormon 3:16...
And it came to pass that I utterly refused to go up against mine enemies; and I did even as the Lord had commanded me; and I did stand as an idle witness to manifest unto the world the things which I saw and heard, according to the manifestations of the Spirit which had testified of things to come.
...it sure sounds like God told him to quit.  Or at the very least, God approved of his decision to quit.  How could that be sinful?  How could something divinely sanctioned require repentance?


I'll Take Racism for Three Hundred, Alex
Mormon explains that he's weaving this brief tale of doom as part of a larger record that will come forward in the future and convince the Jews and the Gentiles of Christ's gospel.  But in the midst of that, he kind of, uh, becomes prematurely prejudiced against the future of the society that's about to annihilate his own (verse 15):
And also that the seed of this people may more fully believe his gospel, which shall go forth unto them from the Gentiles; for this people shall be scattered, and shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites, and this because of their unbelief and idolatry.
Dark?  Filthy?  Loathsome?  Damn, dude.  You have nothing to say about the Gentiles who will one day attempt genocide against these people?  You're just gonna focus on the Lamanites' skin color and call them names?  It bothers you more that they'll be idolotrous than that they'll be nearly wiped out by self-important avaricious bigots?  Are you sure you're not wicked like everybody else?  Because that's pretty harsh.  Especially when you're including that kind of unfair judgment in a book of scripture that will one day be regarded by millions as the literal word of God.

The Book of Mormon God is still racist.  I don't see any way around that conclusion.


Sixed Mignals
As he foretells the inevitable downfall of the Lamanites (and, apparently, their eventual return to glory and righteousness), Mormon recycles a common Biblical metaphor (verse 17):
They were once a delightsome people, and they had Christ for their shepherd; yea, they were led even by God the Father.
Christ being envisioned as a shepherd is hardly groundbreaking imagery, of course.  However, it is a little strange that such an analogy would occur to a man who lived in a place where domesticated, herded sheep almost certainly did not exist.  But mostly, this verse jumps out at me for its amateurish muddying of a classic comparison.

Christ was their shepherd and they were led by God the Father?  But isn't leading the sheep exactly what a shepherd does?  Were there two shepherds?  Have you ever heard of sheep who obediently follow their shepherd's dad?  What's the deal here?

My theory is that this is one of those vestigial remnants of earlier Mormon doctrine.  See, this verse is no big deal from a Trinitarian's perspective—the part following the semicolon is merely restating the original concept for emphasis.  But from a non-Trinitarian point of view, the writer seems to have abandoned his own metaphor mid-sentence.

Of course, as Abinadi's rambling indicates, early Mormon theology was a lot closer to Trinitarianism than it is today.  But even though the Book of Mormon has undergone numerous little tweaks and edits over the years, it looks like not every verse influenced by the religion's initial concept of the godhead has been scrubbed.

It's a big book, though.  When you're going through it and making sure it's all properly correlated with current church materials, I'm sure it's tough to be sure you got everything.