Sunday, April 1, 2018

Notes on the Sunday Evening Session

Nelson really has this Conference jam-packed with goodies for the members.  During this session, he announced seven new temples as well as a new "ministering" program that will replace home teaching and visiting teaching.  He seems to be taking full advantage of his first hundred days in office, although I'm pretty sure that's not a rule of thumb for prophets the way it is for presidents.  It's easy to see how some of these changes may energize the membership, and if the numbers reported on LDS.org yesterday are any indication, he's wise to prescribe a shot of adrenaline to the church. 

But here are some of the doctrinal insights shared during this final session of Conference:

We have made the decision to retire home teaching and visiting teaching as we have known them.  Instead, we will implement a newer, holier approach to caring and ministering to others. We will refer to these efforts simply as "ministering."  Effective ministering efforts are enabled by the innate gifts of the sisters and by the incomparable power of the priesthood.
—Russell M. Nelson
I know I've made points about sexism several times in the last couple of days, but this might be the most important indicator during this conference about how women aren't actually equal in the gospel.

The sisters have innate gifts.  The men have incomparable power.  And that's straight from the prophet himself.  Just look at the differences in the language.  "Incomparable power" is a soaring, superlative phrase.  "Innate gifts" is respectful and complimentary, sure, but it doesn't have the altitude given to the men.

I bear my own witness that these adjustments [to the elders quorums and the home and visiting teaching programs] are examples of the revelation that has guided this church from its beginning.  They are yet more evidence that the Lord is hastening his work in its time. 
Jeffrey R. Holland
The Lord has been hastening his work since the middle of the nineteenth century.  We're closing in on the two hundred year mark.  When is he going to hurry up and hasten for real?

Simple as [the planned policy of quarterly interviews between bishops and ministering companionships] sounds, my friends, those interviews are absolutely crucial.  Without that information, the bishop will have no way to receive the information he needs regarding the spiritual and temporal conditions of his people. 
Jeffrey R. Holland
Really?  The bishop will have no other way to find out what the spiritual and temporal status of his ward is?  I mean, he could also ask other people.  Realistically, bishops have a lot to do, so it would be kind of unfair to expect him to hunt everybody down to ask about any important spiritual or temporal needs.  

But...didn't the Lord provide a way for bishops to receive important information directly?  I believe it's called revelation?  Bishops can receive revelation for those in their stewardships?  You know, that long-established teaching of the LDS church?  Not ringing any bells?

Breaking news—the thing that the prophet spent fifteen minutes teaching about in the previous session of conference doesn't actually work because bishops have no other way to gather information other than having people report to him.

She replied, "We discovered that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the closest to Jesus Christ's original church than any other church we know of."
Gérald Caussé
I call bullshit.

This was a mayor whom Caussé had been trying to convince to allow a new church building to be built in her city.  So she did some firsthand research, apparently, visited an LDS meetinghouse, talked with members and with people who lived next to the chapel, and then came back to Caussé and said this.

Come on.

First of all, it's really not that close, in my opinion.  Secondly, nobody alive has actually seen Christ's original church on account of it existing two thousand years ago, so how does this woman feel qualified to say something like this?  It just sounds like a faith-promoting story to make Mormons feel good about being Mormon (like the infamous "light in their eyes" anecdotes), and it sounds so much like that as to muffle any ring of truth.  The phrasing of her comment is so perfect.  What are the odds that this happened?  If it did happen, what are the odds that her reaction wasn't exaggerated upon retelling?

Where do we stand today in fulfilling these divinely appointed responsibilities?  First, with respect to Moses's restoration of the keys for the gathering of Israel, today almost 70,000 missionaries are spread across the earth, preaching his gospel to gather his elect.  This is the commencement of the fulfillment of the great and marvelous work Nephi foresaw among both the Gentiles and the House of Israel.
Quentin L. Cook
They're teasing the numbers again, kind of like when the church essay on polygamy said that Joseph Smith married a girl who was "several months shy of her fifteenth birthday" to avoid saying she was fourteen. 

The number of full-time missionaries in the report posted online yesterday is 67,049.  Yes, that is almost 70,000.  But when most people approximate a number like that, they'd probably round down to either 65,000—or 67,000 if they're being a little more precise.  And I don't think precision is what Cook is worried about because the number of missionaries is dropping.  He needs the number to sound high, so he rounds up to "almost 70,000" so it isn't so apparent how far the numbers have plummeted since 2014's peak of 85,147.  This is the third consecutive year that number has decreased.

Like many church critics expected and like some apostles did not predict, lowering the age of missionary service resulted in only a temporary swelling of the ranks.  The bubble has burst, Cook.  It's time to come back to reality.

It is commendable that non-consensual immorality has been exposed and denounced.  Such non-consensual immorality is against the laws of God and of society.
Quentin L. Cook
Very true.  So what is God and/or his church planning to to with Joseph Bishop, who has admitted to committing non-consensual immorality while serving in a position of priesthood authority?  Nice nod to the MeToo movement, sure, but...remember that that old saying about monies and mouths?

In the Lord's church, the only culture we adhere to and teach is the culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The unity we seek is to be unified with the savior and his teachings.  As we look at the primary purposes of the church, they are but based on equality before the Lord and following the culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
 —Quentin L. Cook
I really like that he denounced tribalism a second before this.  But the church really isn't based on equality.  The Bible has a lot of stuff about how Israel is God's favorite people and the Gentiles are lame.  The Book of Mormon parrots that as well and adds its own Nephite/Lamanite dichotomy.  Plus there's also that pesky teaching that God uses dark skin color to signify wickedness.  And I could get into the sexism stuff again but I think we're all tired of that.

The point is, the LDS church has a feeble grasp on the concept of equality.  And while American culture is almost certainly less unified than Mormon culture, all is not exactly well in Zion either.

With respect to missionary work, the principal qualifications for baptism are humbling oneself before God and coming forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  Education, wealth, race, or national origin are not even considered. 
Quentin L. Cook
Another qualification is denouncing your parent if he or she is currently in a same-sex relationship.  Look how egalitarian we are!

In the sacred sealing room, the eternal marriage ordinance is the same for everyone.  I love the fact that the couple from the humblest background and the couple from the wealthiest background have exactly the same experience.
Quentin L. Cook 
Wow, it sure wasn't the same for everyone forty-one years ago.  That's because before 1978, the eternal marriage ordinance didn't happen if you were black.  I mean, it's great that this is no longer in effect, but it takes a special kind of arrogance to preach to the world that your organization is a big welcoming tent that treats everyone the same when you have so much racism in your past, so much sexism and homophobia in your present, and your progress has lagged behind American society in a way that should be humiliating for an organization claiming to represent a benevolent god.
  
There has been a significant increase in the number of worthy adult temple recommend holders for many years.  Limited use recommends for worthy youth have increased dramatically over the last two years.  Clearly, the faithful core membership of the church has never been stronger.
Quentin L. Cook
I can't believe it took me until the final minutes of the closing session of General Conference to dust this old classic off, but...
Half-seriously, maybe the next person shouting from the audience during Conference shouldn't yell "Opposed!" or "Stop protecting sexual predators!"  Maybe that person should yell "Citation needed!"  Not really though.  The sexual predator thing is a much more urgent issue that the church needs to fix.  We can worry about fudged numbers later.

But this was strikingly similar oral excrement to Cook's performance in General Conference two years ago, when he explained that not very many people resign and that "the Church has never been stronger."  He was, perhaps a little less defensive this time, but it was still a bold assertion easily challenged by anecdotal evidence.  And it was an assertion that can't be proved or disproved by any old schmuck off the street.  Who has the statistics for the number of adult and youth temple recommends?  The same organization who has the church financial records!

By which I mean:  not you.

You just have to take his word for it.  Because he's been totally honest in the past and has no reason lie, so I'm sure the numbers that he didn't give us are completely accurate.

One interesting note is that he seems to be retreating from his 2015 comment a little, because here he's focusing on the "faithful core membership of the church" as opposed to the church membership as a whole.  Maybe the apostles are finally starting to see the writing on the spreadsheet.

Our message to the world is simple and sincere.  We invite all of God's children on both sides of the veil to come unto their savior, receive the blessings of the holy temple, have enduring joy, and qualify for eternal life.
Russell M. Nelson 
Well...not all of God's children.  Not the disfellowshipped or excommunicated ones who've apostatized or criticized the church or decided to marry someone who happens to share the same kind of genitals, right?  And not the younger ones who won't denounce their parents' homosexual lifestyles, right?

But all of God's other children are welcome.  At least, as of 1978. 
 
And there you have it.  It was a surprisingly eventful series of broadcasts.  General Conference is usually referred to as a historic event, and this one at least may have lived up to the usual hype.  It will be interesting to see how the church adapts to the changes Nelson announced and it will be fascinating to see if he continues pushing more changes to try to keep the "faithful core membership of the church" engaged.

Notes on the Sunday Morning Session

And the hits keep coming....

Our greatest desire should be to labor diligently so we can prepare the way for the glorious return of our savior.
Reyna I. Aburto
This lady was so close.  So close!  She delivered a beautiful call to action for us to exercise love for our neighbors through selfless service.  She provided several examples of regional and local LDS organizations pitching in when a specific need was identified, including a Chilean ward offering Spanish classes to Haitian immigrants in their country and members with boats ferrying families around the Houston area in the wake of last year's hurricane.  And then she says this....

No.  Our greatest desire should be to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings.  Our desire should be to make our world a better place to live because we care about people.  We shouldn't help just because we think it's going to usher in an age of religious euphoria.

That being said, what these people in her examples did is terrific and I sincerely applaud them.  I would imagine that most of them participated because of a genuine desire to help and serve.  But the whole point of this kind of service is that we sacrifice our own time and our own concerns to put others' more urgent or more severe needs first.  Religion shouldn't be a part of that decision.  A hurricane flattened a city.  Ulterior motives are kind of inappropriate in that sort of emergency.

But other than that one comment out of a ten-minute speech, Aburto may have given the most agreeable sermon of the conference so far.

I exhort [inactives and/or apostates] to reflect and to return because I believe that no one will be able to make excuses before our Lord Jesus Christ.
—Claudio D. Zivic
"I urge you to put your life on an almost opposite course because the God I believe in is petty enough to dismiss an honorable existence simply because you found his official church untenable or unfulfilling."  As far as inactives and apostates go, this exhortation will probably fall upon deaf ears.  It's like the Pope telling Jews how they should live their lives.

However, there is a possibility this may be effective on members whose faith is beginning to slip.  A little doubt here, a skipped Sacrament Meeting there, maybe an attempt to weasel out of a calling...anyone who's recently begun any of these kinds of little negative behaviors may consider this a warning to get back in line.  Because if you still mostly believe in the church and you're just struggling with a couple of things, the implication that you're going to have to stand at the bar of God one day and make some lame excuse about how you just didn't think you'd have time every week to prepare a lesson if you were called as the Gospel Doctrine teacher is probably pretty scary.

The cultural currents are so strong that if we ever stop paddling we will be carried downstream toward a destination we do not seek but which becomes inevitable if we do not constantly try to move forward.
Dallin H. Oaks
Inevitable?  Come on, man, stop trying to terrify people.

In your metaphor, it's not inevitable.  You can still get to the destination even if you stop paddling temporarily, it'll just take a little longer.  You're trying to make the point that if we stop trying, even for a little while, we'll be dragged downstream to whatever horrible metaphorical fate awaits at the mouth of the river.

But not only is that ridiculous, it's completely unfair.  Life is hard—especially as a Mormon balancing so many different responsibilities.  There should be absolutely no shame whatsoever if you can't fire on all cylinders all the time.  There's nothing wrong with needing a break.  I suppose my argument may not really apply that well to sins of commission, but as far as omission goes, we need to cut ourselves some slack.  Oaks is pretending like skipping a Family Home Evening during a hectic week or not showing up to a quorum service project because of competing obligations is akin to the first step down the slippery slope.  

Listen, if your arms get too tired, stop paddling.  Pausing isn't giving up, and considering there's a lot of effort required, sometimes a break can be reinvigorating.  Don't turn the kayak around and paddle downstream or anything (I guess that would be your sins of commission in this metaphor), but take a moment to catch your breath, stretch your arms, and then keep going.  Don't let Oaks tell you you're risking your eternal fate by taking five.  Any god worth believing in will understand how much is being asked of you, how hard you're working, and how dedicated you truly are.

Similarly, even small acts of disobedience or minor failures to follow righteous practices can draw us down toward an outcome we have been warned to avoid.
Dallin H. Oaks
Okay, so I guess now the metaphor is situated along the Y-axis instead of the X-axis?  This is fear-mongering, plain and simple.  Should we celebrate our minor failures?  Of course not.  But neither should we treat them like gateway drugs to murder, rape, devil worship, and spiritual death.
  
One thing is certain:  the terrible consequences of partaking of anything that can become addictive, like drugs that attack our bodies or pornographic material that degrades our thoughts, is totally avoidable if we never partake for the first time, even once.
Dallin H. Oaks
I'm impressed with you guys.  You're going easy on pornography this conference.  

I don't entirely disagree with this statement.  I use similar reasoning for why I still have never had  any alcohol.  But the difference is that I've made that choice myself based on my own goals and my own knowledge of my own habits.  But I'm a little leery of this advice coming in such absolute terms from someone in such an influential position.  And, let's be honest, any addictive qualities of porn are not the reasons you want people to abstain.  You'd be against it almost as vociferously even if viewing it once didn't generally make people want to view it a second time. 

But if you're so against addictive things, why are you so careful to advise us not to partake of tea or coffee but so silent about caffeine?  Why have energy drinks not been added to the Word of Wisdom?

Oh, also...since he's irritated me so much, I wanted to cavil a little.  Oaks is saying "the terrible consequences...is totally avoidable."  Plural subject.  Singular verb.  Rookie mistake from someone of Oaks's intellect and experience with formal oratory.  Just sayin'.  Although I'm sure he was speaking as a man, at least in a grammatical sense.


Because I know that good inspiration is based upon good information, I prayerfully met one-on-one with each apostle.
—Russell M. Nelson
Good inspiration is based on good information??  What??  So when Nephi constructed a boat and sailed to America it was because he'd first walked back to Jerusalem to ask a master shipbuilder what kind of wood he should use?  So when God came to Joseph in a dream and warned him to flee with Mary and Jesus, it was because Joseph had been keeping a keen eye on the political climate and had anticipated that there may be an order issued to murder children under two?  So when Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon it was only possible because he had gone to his local library first to read up on Reformed Egyptian so he could translate a made-up language more effectively?

Way to take the magic out of the the process of divine inspiration, chief.  

And, actually, even more troubling is stuff like Saul of Tarsus and Alma the Younger.  Those men received inspiration in the form of angelic visitation that turned them from dedicated opponents of the church into even more dedicated servants of God.  What kind of good information would they have gathered before any of that happened?

I testify that the Lord instructed me to select President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring to serve with me as counselors in the First Presidency.
—Russell M. Nelson
"Instructed."  Nice.  It makes it sound like you converse with God, but it's vague enough on the procedure to avoid sounding crazy.  Was it face-to-face?  Was it a voice you heard?  Glowing characters on a rock in your hat?  A message written in the steam on your bathroom mirror?

It's gotta be tough to walk that line in the modern era.  The church was founded on visions and heavenly visitations, but nowadays too much of that talk is gonna make you sound like you forgot to put on your tinfoil hat this morning.  So you have to imply strongly that there is some kind of holy line of communication between the leadership and the heavens because that's what gives you your legitimacy, but you have to do it without sharing any details whatsoever to avoid turning off any investigating non-believers entirely.  

To his credit, Nelson is walking that line with a balance, an agility, and a grace that you wouldn't expect from a 93-year-old acrobat.

Does God really want to speak to you?  Yes!  "As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course...as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints."
—Russell M. Nelson
If God really wants to speak to us, then why does he make it so goddamn difficult to get access to his voice?  Why do we, as Nelson termed it earlier, have to "grow into" the principle of revelation?  Maybe man's arm isn't so puny as it says in the Doctrine and Covenants if we can foil the Almighty God's attempts to communicate with us with nothing but sheer force of incompetence.

I know I've probably beaten this point to death many times here, but considering God is compared almost constantly with a loving parent, correspondence shouldn't be so complicated.  If my dad wants to speak to me, he sends an email or a text message or he picks up the phone.  If my heavenly dad wants to speak to me, I have to reach out first, be worthy of his spirit of inspiration, study things out in my mind, and grow into receiving revelation.  By that logic, I should be able to dam the Missouri by dipping my thumb in the shallows.

You do not have to wonder what is true.  You do not have to wonder who you can safely trust.  Through personal revelation, you can receive your own witness that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, that Joseph Smith is a prophet of this dispensation, and that this is the Lord's church.  Regardless of what others may say or do, no one can ever take away a witness borne to your heart and mind about what is true. 
—Russell M. Nelson
Actually, we do have to wonder what is true.  Doctrine and Covenants 28:11 reads:
And again, thou shalt take thy brother, Hiram Page, between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me and that Satan deceiveth him;
The section header summarizes:  "Satan deceived Hiram Page and gave him false revelations."

So, it's scripturally established that we can receive fake revelations from Satan.  So, through personal revelation we can receive a personal witness of all that stuff Nelson mentions.  But, theoretically, we could also receive a false personal witness that Kanye West is actually Jesus Christ and that he'll be ushering in the New Millennium any day now.  Or, for a less drastic example, we could receive a false witness that the LDS Church has deviated from the gospel restored by Joseph Smith and that we should join Denver Snuffer's Mormon sect.

So there's always room for doubt.  The scriptures teach that.  Kind of weird that the prophet teaches something different than what's in the scriptures, isn't it?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Notes on the Priesthood Session

It looks like President Nelson has opted to make a strong start from the gate.  The Priesthood session was dedicated almost entirely to an announcement about a new policy reorganizing the quorums we've all become familiar with:
To accomplish the work of the Lord more effectively, in each ward the High Priests and the Elders will now be combined into one Elders Quorum.  The composition of the stake High Priests Quorum will be based on current callings.
As explained by the prophet and multiple apostles, this essentially means that Elders and High Priests will meet together instead of separately during Sunday meetings and that High Priests actively serving in stake positions that can only be filled by a High Priest will be part of a stake council thing.  There will be one Quorum President of each ward's new combined Elder's Quorum, and that President can be either an Elder or a High Priest.  The Elder's Quorum President will report directly to the Stake President instead of to the Bishop, and the Bishop, as the Presiding High Priest in each ward, will also report to the Stake President.

Don't ever let anyone tell you the gospel is simple.

Anyway, here are a few highlights from the meeting, which mostly functioned as a theocratic-slash-bureaucratic circlejerk to prop up Nelson as the awesomest prophet who ever awesomed and his restructuring as the most inspired inspiration that ever awesomed.

In much the same way that angels are authorized messengers sent by God to declare his word and thereby build faith, we who hold the Aaronic Priesthood have been ordained to teach and invite all to come unto Christ.
 —Douglas D. Holmes
This is just a depressing contrast to Sister Oscarson's approach in the Saturday evening session mere hours earlier.  Oscarson was pleading for young women to feel valued.  Holmes is simply reminding the young men about the fantastic, vital, and noble role they have in the work of God.  The tone is diametrically different—and that's because young men are filled with a sense of purpose and value because of their Aaronic Priesthood.  Young women don't have that and nothing is offered to them as an equivalent. 

These adjustments are inspired of the Lord.  As we implement them, we will be even more effective than we've been previously. 
Russell M. Nelson
"Inspired of the Lord."  That's the best he can do.  See, back in the day, God would actually, like, talk to his prophets.  Later in this meeting, Rasband will quote a prophetic revelation from generations ago that is written as the actual words of God himself.  But nobody admits to talking to God anymore or even hearing God's voice.  So this policy shift, which is being treated like Revelation with a capital R, is, at best, merely inspired by God.

We are moving forward with unanimity, in what is in reality one more step in the unfolding of the Restoration.  The Lord's direction is manifest and I rejoice in it.
D. Todd Christofferson
One more step in the unfolding of the Restoration?  Gimme a break!  The Restoration was God and Jesus in the Sacred Grove.  It was the Angel Moroni in Joseph Smith's bedroom.  It was  John the Baptist dipping Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Susquehanna River.  It was the prophet Elijah appearing in the Kirtland Temple.  This is basically consolidating two Sunday School classes and rearranging some administrative meetings.  Don't credit it to the miraculous arm of the Lord if it's something any non-prophetic public school principal could do before he finishes his morning coffee.

Since [pioneer days] , the Lord has used a variety of ways to help his saints care for each other.  Now he has blessed us with strengthened and unified quorums at the ward and stake levels.
Ronald A. Rasband
I have basically the same objection to this as to the Christofferson quote, but to a lesser degree.  Rasband is doing the same thing, trying to lend gravitas to this restructuring by likening it to revered events from church history.  And sure, maybe it will make quorums stronger and more unified.  But through each batch of blandishments and each parade of platitudes during this session, I couldn't help but wonder...is this really what God cares about?  All the problems in the world, all the moral complexities and urgent concerns of daily life that his children face, and he's really going to have his chosen mouthpieces spend almost an entire session of General Conference lecturing us on what amounts to a corporate mini-reorganization?  High Priests are being downsized.  We get it.  Let's talk about solutions to pressing moral, social, humanitarian, financial, and geopolitical crises.

Then, one day he received an urgent text from her.  She desperately needed help. She didn't know who the bishop was, but she did know her home teachers.
Henry B. Eyring
Here, Eyring has just told a story about an inactive single mother with several jobs who has rebuffed attempts for her home teachers to visit her.  The dutiful home teacher sent her text messages and letters on a monthly basis instead, which she invariably ignored.  But Eyring praises the home teacher because when the woman had an emergency requiring her to leave the country temporarily but she couldn't afford to take both her children with her, she knew who she could call for help.

That much I guess I'm okay with.  The home teacher's persistent contact isn't great, but Eyring is presenting it as though the woman didn't have time for the church, not that she specifically requested that she be left alone.

What I'm really not okay with is that the woman asked her home teacher if there was a Mormon family that she could leave her youngest son with for about a month until she could return.  The home teacher contacted his bishop, and they worked something out so that the boy could stay with several different Mormon families during that time frame.  These families welcomed the child into their homes, included him in their activities and Family Home Evenings, took him to church with them, and made sure he was looked after.  He continued attending church even after his mother returned to the country and he'll grow up a strong faithful member.  Happy ending!  Right?

Maybe not so much.  The issue was a plane ticket.  The mother simply couldn't afford an extra ticket to take her son to Europe with her and bring him back to the States when she was done.  If the home teacher and the bishop cared about this family the way they should, they would have opted for a solution involving buying a plane ticket.  Take up a collection, see if a wealthy member will donate or lend money, maybe find someone who's really great at finding deals and coupons, whatever.  It was terrific of these people to take care of this little boy, but wouldn't the ideal solution be keeping the family unit together for the whole month?  Instead, the mother came home to a religiously converted son who'd had to use Mormonism as an improvised social and emotional crutch because he was literally the only member of his family in the entire goddamn country for weeks.

This isn't a victory like Eyring wants us to believe.  The victory is that people stepped up to help.  The defeat is that they helped with ulterior motives, they perhaps unknowingly manipulated a child, and the outcome was less honest and less ideal than it could have been.

I thought the LDS church was all about families.  Why couldn't the church find a way to put the kid on a goddamn plane with his mother?

It is not appropriate to refer to "the Priesthood" and "the women."  We should always refer to "the holders of the Priesthood" and "the women."
Dallin H. Oaks
Taking a page out of Nelson's book and instructing us on semantics, I see.  Although I'm a little bothered by the fact that "the women" don't get a fancy title.  Why not "the men" and "the women" or "the holders of the Priesthood" and "the members of the Relief Society?"

But I nitpick.

Fathers should also cultivate loving family relationships so that family members will want to ask their fathers for blessings.
Dallin H. Oaks
What.  No.  That is not why you should do that.

I can't imagine how this guy must have treated his own children if he regards "cultivating loving family relationships" as part of his divine responsibility to exercise his Priesthood authority more fully in the home.  Can children wanting to ask for a father's blessing be a good byproduct of healthy parenting?  Sure.  But presenting this as an actual reason for why fathers should have good relationships with their kids is...shocking?  Appalling?  Depressing?  Laughable?  Idiotic?  I don't know, take your pick.

Too many of our brothers and sisters do not fully understand the concept of Priesthood power and authority.
Russell M. Nelson 
Maybe that's because it's such a nebulous and convoluted concept that it takes almost two hours for you to explain a minor administrative change to it.

Notes on the Saturday Evening Session

The big news at the beginning of tonight's general conference session was the announcement that membership statistics would not be read from the pulpit.  Instead, Oaks explained, they'd be posted online at the end of the session and published in the Conference issue of the Ensign.  As of this posting, I'm still waiting for their website to update...which means I still have to speculate about how anemic the church growth may have been during 2017.

So I'll just dive right into the quotes.

...we now have 116 general authorities.  Nearly forty percent of them were born outside of the United States.
Dallin H. Oaks
He spent a lot of time making this point.  I think he read off every single country of origin for the foreign general authorities.  He did also include American Samoa and Puerto Rico in his list, which are both US territories, but maybe that's splitting hairs.

And while it's great that the "nearly forty percent" mark is closing in on an accurate reflection of the international makeup of the membership, Oaks bludgeoned us over the head with this point during the same conference in which two new apostles were selected—one from California and the other (to correct an apparently false assertion I made in my Saturday morning post) from Brazil.  So the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are now almost 87% American.  It's great that we're making an effort to tap talent outside of the Morridor, but considering who actually has the power to dictate church policy, let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet.  Especially since a few months ago, we demoted poor German Uchtdorf from the First Presidency back to the Quorum o the Twelve—not that it's really supposed to be termed as a "demotion."

It may be less obvious to young women, parents, and their leaders that, from the time they are baptized, young women have covenant responsibilities to "mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death."
 —Bonnie L. Oscarson
It may indeed be less obvious that young women have responsibilities and things to do in the church.  I wonder why that is.  Maybe it's because young women have very few substantive roles in the church and everybody knows it.

I mean, as Oscarson points out, young women can be in Beehive, Mia Maid, and Laurel class presidencies and sit on Bishop's Youth Councils and everything.  But that's nothing compared to the mantle of power a Mormon boy of twelve years old has.  Even if you're not in the Deacons Quorum presidency, you still have the Priesthood.  You can still help perform ordinances.  You're visible in Sacrament Meeting every week doing important things like passing, preparing, and blessing the sacrament.  Young women don't have that, and Oscarson speaks from a kind of plaintive stance as she tells a story of how valued she felt as a 16-year-old when she was tasked with conducting the hymns every Sunday.  Which is great.  But as soon as a boy turns twelve, he gets to feel important every Sunday whether he has a specific calling or not.

And even more telling is that, as Oscarson lays out the important responsibilities young women have, everything she quotes is part of the basic baptismal covenant in the book of Mosiah.  Everybody over the age of 8 has these jobs, so no wonder young women may not feel valued.  There's no special responsibility for them that exists as part of the doctrinal framework of the church, which kind of helps instill the sense that men are more important—a sense that the church continually insists isn't accurate.

In Handbook 2, we learn that the work of salvation within our wards includes member missionary work, convert retention, activation of less active members, temple and family history work, and teaching the gospel.  This work is directed by our faithful bishops who hold priesthood keys for their ward.  For many years our presidency has been asking, "which of these areas mentioned should our young women NOT be involved in?"  The answer is that they have something to contribute in all areas of this work.
Bonnie L. Oscarson
Why...the fuck...would anybody be asking that?  Why would they not be able to contribute in all areas of the work?  Which of these jobs should we exclude women from?  What year is this?

Even from a doctrinal standpoint, nothing she listed from the handbook requires Priesthood authority to assist with.  Was this just bizarre phrasing, or is church culture really so devastating to the feminist ideals that she honestly thought she needed to look for things from which to exclude the women under her stewardship?

We are grateful for bishops who take the time to visit young women classes and who provide opportunities for young women to be more than mere spectators of the work.
Bonnie L. Oscarson 
This speech made me so sad.  I felt terrible for Sister Oscarson.  Her tone throughout her address was almost desperate as she implored the church to provide some kind of spiritual or even administrative offering to an entire generation of bored, underappreciated young Mormon women. With this line, describing her constituency as at risk of being "mere spectators," she fleshed out her point fully.  She is essentially genuflecting before the church leadership with a nearly empty bowl of gruel, begging, "please, sir, may my organization have some more?"

And she has to beg.  Because, as a woman, she only has as much power in the Mormon church as the men in charge deign to allot her.

After one such battle, Dad looked me in the eye and said, "You have strong hands, son.  I hope you always have the strength to never touch a young lady inappropriately."  He then invited me to stay morally clean and help others do the same. 
—Devin G. Durrant
Ew.

By "battle," Durrant is referring to a game his family used to play.  They would grasp hands and the object was to inflict pain on your opponent with your vice-like grip. At no point in my childhood did my dad finish a game of chess with me and comment, "You have a sharp mind.  I hope you always have the intelligence to never touch a young lady inappropriately."  You want to talk about inappropriate, I think we can slap that label on Durrant Senior's segue from family bonding moment to gospel teaching moment.

I mean, sure, it's good to teach your children to respect others and not be rapey.  But I think this is one of those there's-a-time-and-a-place things.  If you're not teaching this stuff in Family Home Evenings or Sunday night what-did-you-learn-in-church-today dinner table discussions like a good parent might under normal circumstances, that doesn't mean the solution is to spring it on your kid suddenly and be all creepy about it.

Notes on the Saturday Morning Session

The 188th annual General Conference of the church has begun, allowing the brand-spanking-new old-as-spanking-dirt prophet Russell M. Nelson to officially address the membership as a whole for the first time in his new capacity as church president.  The most significant event, I suppose, was the "vote" to sustain the new prophet.  Second to that would be the induction of Gerrit Gong and Ulisses Soares into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which was overshadowed by Nelson but probably more important—since they aren't white.  It's a little disappointing that these rather progressive choices for leadership positions are American, but at least it's a nod in the direction of diversity.

[Correction: Soares was born in Brazil.  So it's a slightly better nod in the direction of diversity than I originally thought.]

But anyway, here's a not-so-brief review of the Saturday sessions' most succulent nuggets of nonsense.

Please stand and vote only when asked to do so.
Henry B. Eyring
Okay, so Eyring stated this twice before having the leaders sustain themselves by raising their right hands and then inviting the general membership to do the same.  It was mildly frustrating that he did not ask for opposing votes and prefaced his repeated request for sustaining votes with a directive to speak with local authorities to express any different opinions.

What I thought was more frustrating, however, was the method by which Eyring had the membership vote.  After the leadership on the stand had voted, the Melchizedek Priesthood went next, followed by the Relief Society, the Aaronic Priesthood, and those in the Young Women organization.  And after that, the entire membership, including everyone who'd already voted, was invited to stand and sustain their new leaders.  Eyring was extremely specific about the procedure and the order.

It's nice to see adult women being given precedence over young men who hold the Priesthood.  But still, men went first.  And even with the doctrinal superiority of Priesthood power over not having Priesthood power, it seems completely unnecessary to break people down into separate groups of descending importance, especially if after each section has voted, everybody gets to do it as a whole.  Why not just have the worldwide church vote as a unified body instead of reminding everybody about the subtle or not-so-subtle caste-like or not-so-caste-like structure of the lay members?  Argue all you want about the obsolescence or superficiality of the American Electoral College—this is infinitely more pointless, unless the point is to make sure everybody knows that the women are separate from and secondary to the men.

And Eyring was so deliberate about the specifics of the process.  Perhaps he wasn't quite as deliberate as Gary E. Stevenson's exhaustive explanation of the "apostolic interregnum" and the biographical glorification of Our Dear Leader from a little later in the session, but it was pretty damn deliberate.

This is the church in action.  This is pure religion.  This is the gospel in its true sense as we succor, lift, and strengthen those in spiritual and temporal need.
M. Russell Ballard 
This is a pretty great sentiment.  If only it were how the church actually worked.  A church that succors, lifts, and strengthens those in spiritual need should not have any policy of disfellowshipping or excommunicating members.  Jeremy Runnells was invited to a church disciplinary council because of his CES Letter, which outlined a list of doctrinal and historical questions he had while experiencing a crisis of faith.  Rather than convene a disciplinary hearing, shouldn't the church have worked to answer his questions to strengthen his spiritual health?  

The November 2015 policy that specified disciplinary action is required when a member has entered into a same-sex marriage doesn't refer to succoring, lifting, or strengthening.  As much as I dislike the "hate the sin but love the sinner mentality," wouldn't trying to teach and fellowship a member in a gay marriage be more in line with this apostolic edict than deciding whether to excommunicate that member?

And, of course, with so much recent coverage of the march to protect LDS children from invasive private interviews with bishops and with so much scandal surrounding a former Missionary Training Center president admitting to a long pattern of sexual abuse, shouldn't a religion dedicated to succoring, lifting, and strengthening be jumping at the opportunity to address and rectify these problems instead of issuing press releases discrediting victims and restating its now-dubious zero-tolerance policy for abuse?  Shouldn't an apostle have greeted the marchers in Salt Lake City yesterday or publicly responded to the MTC rape scandal?

If you're going to pretend that your religion in its purest form is dedicated to addressing spiritual and temporal need, Ballard, your organization needs to put its money where your mouth is.

Spiritually, you are of noble birth, the offspring of the King of Heaven.
Brian K. Taylor
This is just such a weird thing to say.

I mean, it's a nice idea.  We're important because we're children of God.  But...noble birth?  Nobles are nobles because they're born with an inherently higher status than others.  So who are the others?  Who isn't of noble birth?  Where are the serfs?  Even the third part of the host of Heaven cast out for following Lucifer were still, spiritually, born of the same parents we were.  If everybody's of noble birth then nobody's of noble birth.

Maybe focus on the children-of-God phraseology and don't try to get cute.  Besides, we shouldn't feel special because we're better than other people.  We should feel special because we're unique and valued.

This great war over divine identity rages fiercely as Satan's proliferating arsenal aims to destroy belief in and knowledge of our relationship with God.  Thankfully, we have been blessed with clear vision and understanding of our true identity from the beginning.
Brian K. Taylor
Satan's proliferating arsenal aims to destroy knowledge of our relationship with God.  Think about that for a moment.  Then think about the Plan of Salvation.  The Plan of Salvation involved God sending us from the pre-existence through the Veil to Earth.  The Veil caused us to forget our divine origins, which is why so many billions of us have no clue who we are or why we're here.  So...that means that God is part of Satan's proliferating arsenal.  You heard it here first, folks.

We know from the scriptures that good things come from God and bad things come from the Devil (a paraphrasing of Moroni 7:12 and probably dozens of other verses).  So...what happens when God and the Devil seem to have congruent goals or methods?  What does that mean for the Mormon cosmological narrative?

And, of course, because of the Veil, the final sentence that I quoted above is completely false.  We don't have a clear vision of our true identity because God made us forget.  And we don't have clear understanding because...God made us forget.  If we had clear vision and understanding, we wouldn't need prophets or General Conferences. 
Repentance isn't His backup plan in case we might fail, repentance is His plan knowing that we will.
—Lynn G. Robbins
Yeah, the Mormon God is kind of a dick like that.  He knows that we're going to fail because the system he designed for us to reach exaltation is so shoddy and convoluted that he has to put all these contingencies in place to try to mitigate our limited capacity to achieve his ridiculous expectations.  What I want to know is, if God's work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39, apparently I'm feeling particularly scriptural today), since he's already failed a third of his children and it looks like an assload of us are seriously struggling with the Earthbound portion of our journey, what's God's plan for when he fails us?

Elder Nelson, at age 90, was fourth in seniority with two of the three senior apostles being younger in age than he was.  The Lord who controls life and death selects his prophet.  President Nelson at age 93 is in amazing health.
Neil L. Andersen
Yes.  God kills his prophets when he needs a different one.  Or, rather, he kills people in the line of succession to avoid their unintended apotheoses.  Andersen is basically bragging about this?  

I wonder how Boyd K. Packer's family feels when an apostle explains that the reason Granddad never became prophet is because God killed him to make sure it would be somebody more useful.  Isn't it a miracle how all these old men died in a specific order so that the guy who is apparently the best choice could ascend to the throne?  I mean, the only indication that he's the best choice is because he's the one who didn't die, but that doesn't mean the logic is circular!

Also, wouldn't a benevolent God have a better system for apostolic succession in place so that he didn't have to strike his servants dead?  By this measure, even the Great and Abominable Church foreseen in the Book of Mormon—by which, of course, I mean the Roman Catholic Church, although that interpretation has waned in popularity over the generations—has a better method for selecting a leader.  I'd feel a lot more comfortable with a god who puts his surviving apostles into a room to select someone from their quorum to replace a deceased prophet than I do with a god whose representative explains that God controls his talent pool by controlling life and death.

A prophet is a watchman on the tower protecting us from spiritual dangers we may not see.
Neil L. Andersen
This is a nice scriptural metaphor.  But the way he phrased this makes me desperately hope that when Nelson first addresses us from the pulpit, he'll give us his best harried Jon Snow smirk and announce, "Night gathers, and now my watch begins.  It shall not end until my death."

Anchoring our souls to the Lord Jesus Christ requires listening to those he sends.  Following the prophet in a world of commotion is like being wrapped in a soothing warm blanket on a freezing cold day.
—Neil L. Andersen
This kind of turn of phrase makes me miss the days of Neal A. Maxwell.  That man could write a sermon.  This man, not so much.  We're sitting through an address from Neil the Lesser.

Plus, I think his chosen metaphor implies isolationism.  You're not helping the world if you're wrapping yourself in a nice warm blanket and ignoring all the freezing around you.

We live in a world of reason, debate, argument, logic, and explanation.  Questioning why is so positive in so many aspects of our lives, allowing the power of our intellect to guide a multitude of choices and decisions we face each day.  But the Lord's voice often comes without explanation.  Long before academics studied the impact of infidelity upon trusting spouses and children, the Lord declared, "thou shalt not commit adultery."
 —Neil L. Andersen
I don't even know where to start with this completely baffling comment.  I mean, from Andersen, we've learned to expect opposition to things like reason and logic and especially explanation ("Give Brother Joseph a break" comes to mind).  But what I don't understand is that the best example he can give of a divine edict defying explanation is...thou shalt not commit adultery.

Is he saying that nobody realized that adultery is damaging to families until God spoke up on the issue?  Is he saying that prohibiting adultery challenged the zeitgeist?  Is he also suggesting that we actually need academics to do research to see if there are any negative consequences of marital infidelity?  Of all the ways he could have stressed the importance of following the prophet in the face of countervailing logic or evidence, this is so much more confusing than anything I'd expected.  He didn't even bother falling back on the old standard of The Word of Wisdom banning tobacco before we knew it was harmful.  He went with thou shalt not commit adultery.

Seriously.  I can't even begin to fathom what he thought he was accomplishing by framing his argument this way.

The prophet's voice, while spoken kindly, will often be a voice asking us to change, to repent, and return to the Lord.  When correction is needed, let's not delay.  And don't be alarmed when the prophet's warning voice counters popular opinions of the day.  The mocking fireballs of annoyed disbelievers are always hurled the moment the prophet begins to speak.
—Neil L. Andersen
A painting of Noah warning the wicked people during the construction of his ark was shown during this quote.  Wouldn't this have been a smarter thing to reference earlier?  But the allusion to Noah does strike me as a bit more...fearmongerish.  To a lesser extent, so did the next picture of Samuel the Lamanite being shot at while he preached doom and destruction on the city wall.

I suppose I am the kind of annoyed disbeliever he's referring to here.  But this is, in large part, exactly the attitude that makes me an annoyed disbeliever.  He's spending so much time trying to inoculate his church against contradictory opinions.  He writes us off as mocking, he calls us annoyed.  He has to characterize us negatively to drive home the point that we should be ignored.  He's trying to discredit outside voices and nurture his followers' biases against anything critical of the church.  

But...when correction is needed, let's not delay.  That means you guys, too, Andersen.  If your dogma is contributing to teen suicides and your organization is covering up rape, maybe it's time to stop dismissing this stuff as mocking fireballs and change, repent, and return to the Lord.  We're told so frequently that the church is perfect, but its leaders and members are not.  So let's not poison the whole well by using the institution to shield some of these imperfect members from public consequences to their actions. 

And don't be surprised if at times your personal views are not initially in harmony with the teachings of the Lord's prophet.  These are moments of learning, of humility, when we go to our knees in prayer. 
Neil L. Andersen
Credit where credit is due—that was a pretty gentle way to remind everybody they need to fall in line.  This sentiment from Dallin H. Oaks would have gone full asshat.  

The surrender of our will to God's will is in fact not surrender at all, but the beginning of a glorious victory.
Neil L. Andersen
 I'll just leave this here...again...

Some will try to overly dissect the prophet's words, struggling to determine what is his prophetic voice and what is his personal opinion.  In 1982, two years before being called as a general authority, Brother Russell M. Nelson said, "I never ask myself 'when does the prophet speak as a prophet and when does he not?'  My interest has been, 'how can I be more like him?'"  And he added, "My philosophy is to stop putting question marks behind the prophet's statements and put exclamation points instead."  This is how a humble and spiritual man chose to order his life.  Now, 36 years later, he is the Lord's prophet.
 —Neil L. Andersen
This would be hysterical if it weren't so slimy.

He's trying to address the issue of past leaders saying, doing, and enforcing awful racist, sexist, bonkers, contradictory, or otherwise problematic bullshit.  The common explanation is that since the prophet is an imperfect man who just happens to have been called of God, sometimes he's speaking as a man, so when Brigham Young said those things about "the negro race," he wasn't acting in his capacity as prophet, he was just being a run-of-the-mill asshole.  But Andersen's explanation twists the whole argument into a some kind of Escher-esque forced-perspective spatially-impossible five-dimensional pretzel.  Allow me to demonstrate:

The apostle Neil L. Andersen, who may or may not have been speaking as a man, explained that the current prophet, who will be prone to speaking as a man from time to time, said something as a man before he was called as an apostle, in which he advised that we assume that everything the prophet says should be followed instead of worrying whether it's spoken as a man or as a prophet.

So a statement spoken by a man is endorsed by an apostle—who theoretically could be speaking as a man during this endorsement—whose Priesthood leader asked him—probably as a prophet but theoretically as a man—to speak as an apostle on this particular subject, and the evidence for why the endorsed statement is correct is that the man who spoke it then as a man has since become a prophet who can now speak to the church as a prophet but still sometimes as a man even though we don't know the difference and shouldn't bother to find out because that's an indicator of pride and unfaithfulness.

That makes sense, right?

The logic is impenetrable and impossible to sort out, and that's kind of the point.  Andersen is saying it doesn't matter whether what the prophet says is actually right, because as a good Mormon we should demonstrate our faith by following his direction anyway.  Who cares if fifty years from now the church decides Nelson was just being a crotchety old bigot and not a prophet?  The important thing is that you committed whole-heartedly to that awful, misguided thing the prophet counseled you to do!

That's fucking disgusting.

I mean, from Andersen's perspective, I kind of get it.  There's so much hideous history and damaging doctrine in the church annals that they can't safely parse every single statement from the past or the present—because they can't see the future and they don't know for sure what they'll need to walk back later.  And offering the membership the empowerment to discern prophetspeak from manspeak would open the door to more dissent, less power, and an inevitable and hopeless loss of control over the church's message.

But that doesn't make it okay.  If the prophet tells you to jump off a bridge, you'd better fucking figure out whether he's speaking as a man.  All members owe that to themselves.  

Stay tuned for the next session....

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Expectations Game

In his office, my dad has a frame on the wall containing a picture of each of my sisters.  My picture is not in this frame.

When my second oldest sister went on her mission, she happened to send home a picture of herself standing on a street with her bag slung over one shoulder.  Someone in the family realized that this photo had striking similarities with a picture my oldest sister had taken on her mission.  The background was from a different country and the outfits were slightly different, but the poses and the facial expressions were nearly identical.  A plan was quickly hatched for my youngest sister to pose the same way at some point during her mission and for me to follow suit a few years later, completing an amusing but meaningful set for my parents to frame.  My dad went so far as to get the frame and arrange the portraits so that there were two empty spaces.  It wasn't long until the third space was filled.  And I knew that the bottom right-hand corner was reserved for me.  It was always assumed that I would serve a mission.  Nobody, including me, ever seemed to have entertained the notion that I would not.

Obviously, I did not follow suit.  My corner of the picture frame is occupied by a shot of my dad's favorite temple.  The picture is a vivid reminder of the expectations which I chose not to fulfill.  Those expectations were intense, though.  Missionary service is just about fetishized in Mormon culture and Mormon teachings.  

When I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, before I got my first job, my dad showed me a spreadsheet he'd been working on.  He had the projected cost of my mission entered into it and guidelines for me to make sure I'd saved up for it by the time I'd need to put my mission papers in.  There were other things in the document, as well—tithing, of course, and college savings.  But the way he explained it to me, the most important purpose of the spreadsheet was so that we could plan carefully for me to serve a two-year mission at age nineteen.

When I was a priest, my bishop had all the young men sign a pledge to serve a full-time mission.  I wasn't crazy about the idea at the time, because I was terrified to spend two years thousands of miles from home with no semblance of leisure time.  But I still fully expected to serve, because I'd always known it would happen.  I also considered that, as the first assistant in the priests quorum, I needed to set a good example for the rest of the young men.  So I masked my concerns and signed the pledge.  So did every other active young man in the ward.  Because we all knew that it was expected of us and there was no reason to think it wouldn't happen.

When I eventually decided not to serve a mission, the members of my family—and especially my mother—were confused and devastated.  When I returned to BYU, a lot of people didn't know how to react after learning that I was nineteen years old and had decided not to be a missionary.  The concept was so perplexing to them that they didn't know how to respond appropriately.  Thankfully, most people would, after an initial question, sidestep the issue to avoid awkwardness.  Others were not quite so polite.  One of my roommate's friends once asked why I wasn't on a mission.  I don't remember what abbreviated, glossed-over explanation I offered, but I clearly recollect the way she immediately dismissed it with a blunt reply of, "Well...you should do it anyway."

Because that's just how it works.  You serve a mission if you're a Mormon male.

I think my dad's picture is a pretty apt illustration for how missions are treated in the church.  He knew my third sister would be going on a mission because she'd expressed interest in it, so he expected the third box to be filled shortly.  And the fourth box was expected to have my picture someday, too, even though that was a few years away at the time.  There was never any thought that I wouldn't serve a mission.  Buying his picture frame without the fourth spot would have made as much sense as buying a car without wheels.  When you purchase a car, it comes with wheels.  When you have a son, he'll serve a mission.  To expect otherwise would be crazy.

And I think that's part of what keeps the church going.  Because when it comes to events in our lives over which we have a degree of control, if an expectation is strong enough, it too easily becomes reality.  If you're introduced to someone you've heard a lot of bad things about and expect to dislike the person, odds are that you'll wind up disliking him whether it's deserved or not.  If you fully expect to enjoy a show or a concert or a movie you can get yourself so hyped up that you'll think it's terrific even if you'd have disliked it going in with a neutral opinion.  And if everyone around you expects you to become a missionary and you've been aware of this expectation ever since they taught you to sing "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission," you'll probably wind up serving a mission whether or not it's something you'd normally want to do.  And since missions can really hammer in the brainwashing firmly established in the first couple of decades of life, by setting and maintaining this expectation, the church can turn children into lifelong devotees.

Everyone still has free agency, as I demonstrated, I suppose.  But when you're taught that men are free according to the flesh to choose liberty and life or captivity and death (2 Nephi 2:27 for the curious or the rusty) it's not so simple as deciding to casually opt out.  Opting out sets a dark precedent for your life and your eternal prospects and may carry some very grave consequences.  It is, however, totally optional to serve a mission.  Except that God's prophet says all young men must do it.  But you don't have to.

The way Mormon scripture, modern Mormon leadership, and Mormon culture conspire to manipulate the directions people's lives take is disgusting to me—if for no other reason than my absence in a four-part picture frame reminds me of what a colossal disappointment I am because I didn't allow myself to be directed down one particular avenue, regardless of any other positive attributes I may have developed since making that decision.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Mormon Just Believes

I recently had the opportunity to see The Book of Mormon musical on Broadway.  I was familiar with the songs and the basic plot outline thanks to YouTube, but I hadn't seen the full production.  Not unexpectedly, the show was hilarious.  But I was surprised at how poignant it was too.  I was surprised at my own emotional reactions to the story and the characters and at how thought-provoking the send-up of the LDS church turned out to be.

The motivated, entitled Elder Price and the bumbling, compulsively dishonest Elder Cunningham arrive in a small Ugandan village to preach the Book of Mormon and immediately encounter third-world problems that threaten Price's dreams of gospel grandeur and Cunningham's hopes for paternal redemption.   This leads to the villagers' first musical number, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," in which they teach the Mormons that their typical method for coping with their insurmountable challenges is by saying "Fuck you, God" in their native dialect.  Before learning of its literal meaning, Elder Price and especially Elder Cunningham really get into Hasa Diga Eebowai as a form of catharsis.  Their problems have not been diminished, but, as Mafala advises, "Having a saying makes it all seem better!"

As the story progresses and the missionaries begin to convert the Ugandans (with plentiful help from Elder Cunningham's infusing of Mormon-friendly pop culture into scripture), the musical actually explores the concept of how much help a philosophy can provide, whether it's true, whether it's false, or whether it's just a saying.  Unlike the missionaries, the Ugandans generally interpret Mormonism as highly metaphorical, using the stories taught to them as parables that promote peace, community, and civility—as well as examples that discourage the kind of negative behaviors that you wouldn't expect to be mentioned so casually in a theater production.  Ultimately, Hasa Diga Eebowai has the same direct material benefits as the metaphorical gospel (none), but the saying doesn't inspire the village in the same way, which is why Mormonism becomes a uniting force that helps them not only to cope, but to overcome.

Some of the characters' personal struggles deeply affected me.  Elder Kevin Price's confusion when the world doesn't work the way he expected based on a lifetime of Mormonism-colored glasses was, obviously, very relevant to my life.  But as Nabulungi sang "Sal Tlay Kasi Ti," expressing her hopes and dreams for how the missionaries' teachings and plans could solve all her problems, I started to tear up a little.  This song is the most important indictment of the metaphorical gospel.  Nabulungi may be one of the few Ugandans who doesn't assume that Elder Price's and Elder Cunningham's stories aren't meant to be literal.  For most of the production, she's the example of how dangerous it can be to sell someone a fantasy when that person doesn't know it's a fantasy.  Most of the villagers get into Mormonism enthusiastically, embracing the cultural values of community and "being really fucking polite to everyone" without placing too much emphasis on the factual veracity of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon—and the gospel does them a lot of good as a result.  Nabulungi, however, believes that Elder Cunningham is going to whisk them all off to Utah where they will be accepted and happy and free from fear and from poverty and from sickness.  She's crushed when none of that happens.

In this and other ways, a show that is ostensibly a lampooning of the religion actually displays a surprisingly nuanced balance between the possibilities for both good and bad fruits of Mormonism.  The missionaries, for example, exhibited a core of wholesome Christian faith and an earnest desire to serve, but there was also plenty of mockery of their less palatable beliefs and many nods to the Mormon tendencies toward naivete, repression, and an intricately selfish brand of altruism.

This balance was mirrored in the hilarious depiction of Joseph Smith, who came off as an obviously idealized caricature indicative of Mormon propaganda.  He was presented with such an over-the-top, swaggering confidence with a thousand-watt smile and glorious golden hair.  But this corny bravado was juxtaposed with Joseph's singing voice, which sounded strained and thin.  He sounded as though  he were trying too hard to be something he's not, like an amateur singer with a whiny, high-pitched voice trying to sound rich, deep, and well-trained.  And, of course, the swagger and the idealization was also balanced by the fact that many of Joseph Smith's exploits were presented to the audience as absurdities.

But, by the time the curtain fell, a musical so peppered with disrespectful humor showed an even-keeled maturity toward its subject matter.  Though it mocked, it could have been much more cruel and it ultimately represented many of the benefits and virtues of Mormonism.  The power of the metaphor was a strong central theme and probably intended to be the primary takeaway for the viewer.  As an ex-Mormon, I was given plenty of food for thought as well.  I'm convinced that I'm right about the church and that Mormon believers are wrong, but the production left me pondering the concept of personal priorities.  My priority has come to be truth, but others value belief or community.  I don't have the same problems that other people do and I should learn not to judge people who have different priorities or different interpretations.  My definition of happiness is only my definition.  Even though Mormonism has some wild and damaging beliefs, how am I supposed to argue that my happiness is more real or more legitimate just because my priority is truth?  Those who've learned the truth and choose to stay aren't necessarily suffering from a logical short circuit.  They may just care about slightly different things than I do.  They may be inspired by the metaphor.  They may be dedicated to the community.  They may be hoping to help adapt the church's teachings to address present-day problems (although I'm sure they'll do it more adeptly than Elder Cunningham did).  It doesn't make me better than they are and it doesn't make them less happy than I am.

Though I of course plan to continue opposing the aspects of Mormonism that I believe are wrong or that I believe have a negative impact on the members or on the world, I should not dismiss the value of Mormons' beliefs.  Their struggles are different from my own, their priorities are different from my own, and there is enough good in Mormonism that, for some people, the church may be exactly what they need.

Although it's still pretty weird that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.