Friday, November 29, 2019

D&C 6: Oliver!

In this section, God provides Joseph Smith with revelation specifically for Oliver Cowdery, although I'm not sure why this has to happen considering that this chapter mentions repeatedly that Oliver can receive revelation from God himself and has even had prayers answered. Notwithstanding, Joseph produces this banal gem of personalized inspiration to be later codified as scripture.

Motive is Important
Either God doesn't understand empathy and altruism or Oliver is one supremely self-absorbed asshole.  Almost everything is framed by how Oliver can be personally rewarded or punished according to his actions.  Verse 27 is a prime example:
And now I command you, that if you have good desires—a desire to lay up treasures for yourself in heaven—then shall you assist in bringing to light, with your gift, those parts of my scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity.

Oliver should thrust in his sickle (that's a reference to missionary work, not sex) so that he can ensure everlasting salvation for his soul—never mind about the other souls he's saving.  He should seek for wisdom, not riches, because wisdom will grant him the mysteries of God and the greatest wealth of all.  God commands him to assist in bringing forth the gospel because of his good desires—which God explicitly states means a desire to be personally exalted—without much acknowledgement of fellow human beings other than as avenues to exaltation.

Considering that this is already becoming a recurring theme in the Doctrine and Covenants for these targeted revelations, I don't think this selfish approach necessarily reflects poorly on the subject of the revelation.  And since selfishness is generally considered to be a human trait and not a divine characteristic, it sounds to me like either Joseph Smith doesn't understand true charity or he's more concerned about having God spew threats and promises to keep his followers following than about making sure God actually speaks in terms that a truly benevolent creator would.

Are You There, Oliver?  It's Me, God
Perhaps to try to really sell his point that this is totally coming from God, Joseph makes sure to have two badass personal introductions in this section.  In verse 2, it says, "Behold, I am God."  But even after repeating a bunch of solemn catchphrases of divinity, he oversells it by reintroducing himself in verse 21 with the statement, "Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

Wait.  Hold up.  Who's talking?

Then, without giving any indication of a change in speaker, the section slides right into discussing Oliver praying to the speaker and receiving an answer from the speaker.  But...we don't pray to Jesus and we don't receive answers from Jesus.  God is in charge of all that.  Who the hell is narrating this chapter?

Oh, but wait, remember this is pretty early on.  It's 1829 and the Book of Mormon isn't even finished.  The finer details of Mormon theology have yet to be hashed out, so Trinitarianism is still kind of a thing here.  Apparently.

Man, that's embarrassing.

Some Witnesses
Verses 22 and 23 set another precedent for how we determine truth within Mormonism:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?
That's the best you got??  Angels are running around with ancient golden plates and the only confirmation you're offering Oliver Cowdery that any of this bullhockey is real is a feeling of peace that he can't logically trace back to the god Joseph claims to speak to with any kind of a surety?  That's weak, man.  Weak.

And you do tend to hear this a lot in testimony meetings (or at least I did, ten years ago, when I regularly attended testimony meetings).  People struggle with questions, with unanswered prayers, with the cognitive dissonance of their personal suffering juxtaposed against their belief in all their personal blessings, but they will often fall back on the undeniable spiritual experiences they've had to hold themselves level with the gospel horizon as they fly through their turbulent lives.  The peace that people feel from their prayers and from their faith is real, but that does not mean that they have correctly judged the source of that peace.  It's a wonderful feeling to know that an omnipotent benevolent being is watching your back but it's completely possible—and common, considering all the different religions and different deities—to get that feeling even when your chosen god doesn't exist.

Did Oliver feel peace in his trials?  I'm sure he did.  But that could have come from him, from the strength of his own misplaced faith, or from the placebo effect of prayer.  God-slash-Joseph is using the intensity of Oliver's own convictions against him.  By having him focus on the peace he felt, he's hoping Oliver doesn't notice that he really doesn't have much in the way of direct evidence to tie that feeling of peace to the current speaker.
That's kind of manipulative, isn't it?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

D&C 5: Martin the Manipulated

This section should be subtitled "Quit Asking Questions, Dingus."

God Blows Off Some Steam
Our favorite deity vents his frustrations a bit in verse 8:
Oh, this unbelieving and stiffnecked generation—mine anger is kindled against them.
God's constant kvetching about his children's iniquity irks me.  He made us and he set the standards for us, so don't our shortcomings reflect the imperfections of his creation?  And other than some outliers like the City of Enoch and the generations of Nephites who lived immediately after Christ's visit, isn't God almost always wringing his hands about how gosh-darned sinful we are?

If a child continuously and willfully misbehaves, there's a certain point at which you have you wonder whether the kid isn't necessarily a brat but maybe poor parenting is unwittingly nurturing the brattiness.  But this takes it to another level, because God designed the reality in which we so persistently disappoint him.  So this is like chopping your kid's leg off at birth, forcing him to train as a long-distance runner all through his adolescence, and then getting mad at him when he doesn't qualify for the Olympics as an adult.  I mean, sure it's possible he could have done it, but the expectation is completely unreasonable, especially considering the severity of the roadblocks that were put in place by the same person imposing the expectations.

But, sure, God, by all means, keep whining and go on pretending like all of this isn't primarily your own failure.

When is a Witness not a Witness?
If you've got your birdwatching binoculars on, I'm sure you spotted a rare Northeastern Ruffed Contradiction in verse 14:
And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.
God has just finished telling Joseph that he's going to let him show the plates to three people.  In this verse he seems pretty clear about the fact that nobody other than these three witnesses will be permitted to see the ancient records from which the Book of Mormon was translated.  That makes it kind of peculiar that we were later given eight more witnesses.  Did God change his mind?  Did some divinely unforeseen development necessitate additional witnesses?

Also—and this is more a curiosity than a criticism—why is it the banners that make an army so terrible?

Holy Manipulation, Batman
Joseph moves on to using fear and the supposed power of God to keep Martin Harris in line.  In particular, look at verses 23 and 24:
And now, again, I speak unto you, my servant Joseph, concerning the man that desires the witness— 
Behold, I say unto him, he exalts himself and does not humble himself sufficiently before me; but if he will bow down before me, and humble himself in mighty prayer and faith, in the sincerity of his heart, then will I grant unto him a view of the things which he desires to see.
Although God's tenuous grasp of English grammar (that vs. who, which vs. that) is annoying, my biggest problem with this passage is the sly move Joseph is trying to pull here.  It also may have set a precedent for how Mormonism treats questions.  When someone asks for a sign or for—dare I say it—a practical corroboration of concepts for which they have exercised faith, the response here is not to provide proof, but to immediately attack the person's motives.  How dare you want to get a little extra peace of mind about this possibly fraudulent endeavor that you're sinking heaps of time and money into, Martin?  Stop being so prideful! But, oddly, the witness Martin is being chastised for desiring can be given to him if he asks in humility.

I suppose that is supposed to teach that it's the way the witness is requested that was the problem, not the request itself.  But that sends some mixed messages, considering that we use the story of Korihor to preach against asking God for signs (Alma 30:44):
But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets?
But maybe that's not entirely fair since, at this point in the historical timeline, Alma hasn't been translated yet—although God surely already knows what the Book of Alma will contain.  So regardless of any theoretical conflict with later Book of Mormon verses, it sure seems to me like God is tearing Martin Harris a new asshole because he wants proof while also dangling the possibility of that proof in front of him to keep stringing him along.   Which seems like a very human form of manipulation, not like a course of action indicative of a loving, perfected deity.

But it gets worse in verses 26 and 27:
And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say. 
But if he deny this he will break the covenant which he has before covenanted with me, and behold, he is condemned.
So, under threat of eternal damnation, Martin is not to elaborate on any golden, plate-like historical relics he may be shown. He is also not to share any doubts, questions, or unapproved observations on the matter. He is only to tell the public that God revealed them to him and that they're totally legit, and then he is expected to end the press conference without opening it up to any questions.

Why? If it's all real, what does Martin or Joseph or God have to fear by going into more detail about the plates? What does God risk by allowing Martin to describe the dimensions, the weight, and the color of the plates or to share some of the characters inscribed on them? If all of this is legitimate and not a fraud in any way, what devastating ammunition could Joseph's critics find in Martin's statements that they wouldn't have been able to come up with before?

Of course, if this is a scam, then what God's saying here makes perfect sense—especially the threat of condemnation to make sure Martin doesn't overstep his bounds and say something that could be used as evidence that he was duped by a glass-looking con man.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

How Racist is Ignoring Racism?

This past weekend, the church released another installment from its Book of Mormon video series.  This particular video covered 2 Nephi chapter 5, which contains a passage that's infamous among church critics:
Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence. 
And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. 
And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. 
And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done. 
And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey. 
And the Lord God said unto me: They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction.
The video shows Laman and Lemuel plotting to kill Nephi because he rules over them.  It shows friends and families saying tearful goodbyes as the fledgling civilization in the promised land bifurcates into separate factions in separate settlements.  It shows Nephi lamenting his trials and the wickedness of his brethren.  It shows the Nephites becoming productive and industrious in their new home.  But there's a pretty crucial aspect of this schism that it doesn't even acknowledge:  God's curse upon the Lamanites.

As we know, God cursed the Lamanites for their inquities and caused a skin of blackness to come upon them, which also made them unenticing to the Nephites so that intermarrying between the righteous and the wicked would be discouraged.  The punishment God inflicts on the Lamanites comprises verses 20 through 25.  That's six verses out of a chapter of 34 verses, which is a pretty big chunk to omit from a film adaptation—especially since other parts of the curse are prophecies that will be fulfilled by the end of the Book of Mormon.  And the curse also contains warnings for the righteous:  don't mix your seed with the loathsome Lamanites or you'll share in their punishment.

But, strangely, (my sarcasm should be obvious here) no acknowledgement is made of this passage in the video.

Now, I realize this puts the church in an awkward position.  After all the work they've done to convince people Mormonism isn't racist, trumpeting the more troubling racial underpinnings of their own scripture can threaten to undo any progress they've made.  Ideally, of course, they'd condemn the use of skin color as a way to distinguish good from evil, but by doing so they'd be condemning their foundational holy writ and their god.  So I understand why that definitely ain't happening.

But that still brings up an impossible choice.  Since the racism is in there and they can't remove it, what's the best approach when they're bringing their scripture stories to life?  Is it worse to adhere faithfully to the text and include the racism, or is it worse to skip it and pretend like it's not actually there at all?  Well...I think they made the wrong call here.

Again, I understand why they did it.  One of the goals of these videos is to attract new investigators, to reel people in with miraculous stories and Christ-centered teachings.  Generally speaking, blatant racism is a marketing technique that's destined for failure.  And it's possible the filmmaking team themselves were a bit embarrassed by this subject.  It's also tough to imagine a curse of this nature being implemented into the videos in a way that wouldn't have been weird and hokey, so maybe it was cut for more practical reasons.

But it's still dishonest.  

Let's indulge in a little parable.  Let's say you're dating someone new and you're terrified that if you tell her about your collection of rare Beanie Babies before she really gets to know you, she'll judge you unfairly.  So you wait.  Six months into the relationship, you're confident enough in her affections that you tell her about it.  She's cool with it.

Now let's go through the same scenario, except replace "collection of rare Beanie Babies" with "belief that dark skin is a sign of divine disfavor."  That's not the same thing at all.  She'll probably be cool with the Beanie Baby thing, but generally, if you harbor intense bigotry toward a cross-section of humanity, people want to know that information up front before they decide to invest their time and energy in a relationship with you.

By the same token, if the Book of Mormon videos were to skip over the second telling of the vision of the Tree of Life (which they did), it wouldn't be a big deal.  Nobody's going to join the church, read the Book of Mormon, and then leave in a huff because the videos never talked about how Nephi was later given a vision similar to Lehi's.

But if someone watches the videos, takes the missionary discussions (which, barring a particularly unsual missionary, will not explain that Native Americans are dark-skinned because God cursed them with extra melanin), joins the church, and then reads the Book of Mormon in full, there's gonna be one hell of a record-scratching moment when they hit 2 Nephi 5.

I have a feeling that the faithful response to that argument would be that the investigator should do their due diligence and study the entire Book of Mormon prior to committing to baptism.  And while I agree with that, I don't think the missionary culture really encourages a methodical, circumspect approach in its investigators.  And even though someone should, ideally, read a religion's scriptures in their entirety before signing on, that doesn't excuse the religion's lies of omission.  Picture a stereotypical used car salesman telling an unhappy customer, "well, you didn't inspect the transmission yourself before I sold you the car."  Okay, yes, that's true, but you're still the sleaze bucket who sold me a lemon hoping I wouldn't realize it before I signed the paperwork.

So it will be really interesting to see how the remainder of the Book of Mormon videos unfold.  Will the church make some kind of reference to the racial punishment of the Lamanites?  Will it show the darkness and the loathsomeness of their people?  How will it attempt to walk the line between scriptural exactness and PR polish?  If there's an honest way to tell a racist story without racism, they haven't found it yet.

Friday, November 15, 2019

D&C 4: Thrust that Sickle!

Ah, yes, I remember this section well.  I read it from the pulpit at my sister's missionary farewell.

What a Threshold
I've said this a few times before, but Joseph Smith really did have a knack for penning a killer line here and there.  This one balances eloquence and solemnity pretty well and I think it represents Smith in his peak literary form (verse 3):
Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day.
And even though I think it sounds cool and it has a pleasant rhythm, it's actually a pretty awful thing to teach.  He's basically saying that if you give one drop less than 100 percent effort, you're gonna have some serious explaining to do.

I understand the need to motivate people to better themselves and I think we should always be ready to admit when we can improve...but this kind of stuff leads to the overwhelming panic of what-if-after-everything-I'm-doing-I'm-still-not-good-enough, and that's just not healthy—especially when eternity is at stake.

Laundry List of Awesomeness
Joseph's writing gets a tad lazier a few verses later (verse 5-6):
And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.
Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.
Now we're just listing things.  When one collection of traits required for good missionary service isn't enough, we'll just tack on a longer one to give you plenty of stuff to remember.  It's especially odd because faith and charity appear in both groupings.  Did God think we had already forgotten what he told us in the previous sentence?  Is there any significance to moving charity toward the back of the line the second time around?

The second list is troubling because there's so much overlap here.  Depending on which definitions of temperance and virtue we're using, temperance could be one form of virtue.  Additionally, virtue, knowledge, charity, and patience are all different aspects of godliness.  And doesn't brotherly kindness sound like it's merely a subset of charity?  It's not a string of direct synonyms or anything,  but concision and lucidity fall by the wayside when God throws around such sloppy phraseology.

I have trouble believing in a god whose wording is this lazy.  This wasn't a translation or anything, so it's not like we can blame the clunky language on the practical limits of expressing Reformed Egyptian concepts in modern English syntax.  I would expect that a being of God's knowledge and wisdom and experience would have a much better command of his children's forms of communication—as well as some sharper writing skills.

Lies, Damn Lies
The final lines contain another frequent Doctrine and Covenants refrain (verse 7):
Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Amen.
This is false.  I suppose that this can be interpreted as a promise being given only to Joseph Smith Senior, for whom the revelation was intended, but this idea is reiterated so many times in the Doctrine and Covenants that it seems pretty clear that the expectation is for it to be taught as an open offer—and my experience, that's how it's taught in LDS congregations.  He who asketh receiveth.

But Mormonism also teaches that not everything prayed for will be granted—especially lately, now that we've entered the era of Faith Not to be Healed.  So this verse is basically reduced to scriptural filler.  It's meaningless, but it sounds nice and it sure helps pad the word count.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

D&C 3: Liar Liar

God's Pants are on Fire
Our third entry begins with a particularly dubious claim (verse 1):
The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught.
Okay,'s a handy list of things that were supposedly God's designs that were ultimately frustrated:  selling the copyright to the Book of MormonZion’s Campthe search for treasure in Salemthe United Orderthe command to build a temple in Missouri, and apparently the timeline for the second coming was pushed back because Joseph Smith didn't live long enough (D&C 140:13-15).

For a more modern examination, how about the ultimate court defeat of Proposition 8 and the 2015 ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges?

God's Pants have Burned off Completely
Verse 2 doubles down on God's dishonesty:
For God doth not walk in crooked paths, neither doth he turn to the right hand nor to the left, neither doth he vary from that which he hath said, therefore his paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round.
Okay, so...what about Zion's Camp or the Kirtland Safety Society?  Those are times when God's designs came to naught, right?

And I know I harp on this a lot, but I think it bears repeating...if God doesn't walk in crooked paths, his church certainly does.  Flip-flopping on polygamy, waffling on racism, behaving in ways explicitly condemned in its own scripture (polygamy, priestcraft, letting alms be seen before men, not standing up to wicked, corrupt leaders, etc).  These are not straight paths.

God Smears the Ashes of his Pants on his Followers
Verse 3 continues the madness.  It just doesn't stop.  Brace yourself:
Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men; was God's work that was frustrated too.  The coming forth of the most important scripture in the history of the world was delayed because God put the same story from a different POV into his scripture and allowed his prophet to waste precious time translating it instead of just preventing the bad guys from stealing it.

Just Desserts
Take a look at verse 4:
For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.
This makes me think of the quote from Joseph Smith that he had more to boast of than any man because not even Jesus could keep a whole church together. Was his murder the promised vengeance of God, then?  Was his death a punishment for boasting and for setting aside the counsels of God regarding polygamy found in the book of Jacob?  Does that mean that Joseph Smith is a fallen prophet and that another sect of Mormonism has the true gospel?

Also, I'm not really okay with vengeance being taught as something that is just.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
God spends most of this section tearing Joseph a new asshole for setting aside divine counsel.  Which makes no sense because Joseph didn't give Martin Harris the manuscript until receiving permission from God.  God should chew him out if, after the first no, Joseph gave Harris the 116 pages anyway.  But that's not what happened.  Joseph complied with the first two nos and only gave Harris the manuscript after his third attempt, when he received a green light from Heaven.

So why didn't God just keep saying no?  Seems like Joseph was pretty obedient.  Why give him permission to do the wrong thing and them blame him for doing what you let him do?

Full Circle
With satisfying symmetry, this section also concludes with a particularly dubious claim (verses 19-20):
And for this very purpose are these plates preserved, which contain these records—that the promises of the Lord might be fulfilled, which he made to his people;

And that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers, and that they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith in his name, and that through their repentance they might be saved. Amen.
Seems pretty weird that the the purpose mentioned for the Book of Mormon is for the salvation of the Native Americans.  I thought it was for everyone.  But the phrasing implies pretty strongly that the purpose laid out in this chapter is the only—or at the very least the most important—purpose of the Book of Mormon.  Strange that there isn't a massive LDS following among the descendants of indigenous American civilizations.

Or maybe that's just yet another example of one of God's designs being frustrated, despite his claims to the contrary.