Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Nelson's State of the Union

The new Ensign for April 2020 has a bizarre little article by our Dear Leader that tells us all how great the end of times are.  I found it to be peppered with problematic language and I thought its thesis was ultimately self-defeating, so I wanted to review some highlights.

President Nelson starts off in very optimistic terms:
You and I get to participate in the ongoing Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is wondrous! It is not man-made! It comes from the Lord, who said, “I will hasten my work in its time” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:73). This work is empowered by a divine announcement made 200 years ago. It consisted of only seven words: “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (see Joseph Smith—History 1:17).
First of all, it strikes me as odd how quickly he assures us that this isn't a fake thing.  This is in the very first paragraph.  The third sentence of the entire article is "it is not man-made."  Wouldn't it make you kind of leery if a salesman were to begin his pitch with, "I swear this isn't a scam, but...?"

Also, was it really those seven words that "launched the restoration" of the gospel?  Because the first words Joseph Smith attributed to God in his 1832 account of the First Vision were "Joseph my son​ thy sins are forgiven thee."

Nelson continues:
Why? Because our living God is a loving God! He wants His children to gain immortality and eternal life! The great latter-day work of which we are a part was established, on schedule, to bless a waiting and weeping world.
Our God is a loving God!  He wants His children to gain immortality and eternal life, but not so much that he won't impose arbitrary and inscrutable impediments to those goals!

Also, why was the world waiting and weeping?  Because the God who loved us so much allowed the world to exist without his gospel for a couple of millennia.  Isn't it great how God creates a problem and then claims his solution to it amounts to a critical spiritual largesse?

And how confident should we really be that the restoration of the gospel was completed on schedule?  I mean, we know that there was a theoretical schedule in place for when Christ would come if Joseph Smith had lived to the age of 85, and that got derailed and apparently delayed by at least 176 years, so can we really take Nelson's word for it that God's timelines always unfold precisely as expected?
Today, the Lord’s work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is moving forward at an accelerated pace.
This isn't an important criticism, it's more an amusing observation.

But, mathematically speaking, the work can be accelerating and still not be an encouraging attribute.  For example, the total membership of the church is accelerating, but the rate of acceleration is declining—which is not the kind of victory Nelson is trying to claim here.  At a certain point, the rate of acceleration may even drop below zero.  The membership total will still have a rate of acceleration then, but that acceleration would best be expressed with a negative number.  So while he may be technically correct regardless of the circumstances, I don't know that the numbers really support the point he's trying to make.  Especially if we're measuring the acceleration of the Lord's work by the missionary force, because that actually has seen negative acceleration numbers.
Remember that the fulness of Christ’s ministry lies in the future. The prophecies of His Second Coming have yet to be fulfilled. We are just building up to the climax of this last dispensation—when the Savior’s Second Coming becomes a reality.
The line he's trying to walk throughout this article is weird.  He's trying to get people to panic just enough to hang on to his organization for dear life while getting them to calm down just enough not to cause problems.  We're in the end of days, guys, so hunker down.  But don't worry, we're not that close to the end.  So don't do anything crazy, but definitely keep paying your tithing.
Mercifully, the invitation to “come unto Christ” (Jacob 1:7; Moroni 10:32; Doctrine and Covenants 20:59) can also be extended to those who died without a knowledge of the gospel (see Doctrine and Covenants 137:6–8). Part of their preparation, however, requires the earthly efforts of others.
Right, that makes sense.  Jesus spent a lot of time telling us how we needed to rely on other people to make sure we could be saved in the kingdom of his father.  And it still seems disingenuous to talk about how merciful it is that we can extend the invitation to people who never received it during their lifetimes.  Whose fault is it they didn't receive it?  Could it be—stay with me here—the perfected omniscient being who designed a system in which it would be so common for people to live their entire lives without hearing of his gospel, let alone having the opportunity to learn it?

No.  Blame always flows downward, not upward.  And that way the guy in charge can pretend like he's doing us a solid when he shoddily patches up the innate flaws in his master plan.
Families are to be sealed together for all eternity (see Doctrine and Covenants 2:2–3; 49:17; 138:48; Joseph Smith—History 1:39). A welding link is to be forged between the fathers and the children.
I'm guessing that his reference to fathers and children is a nod to Malachi 4 and the turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children, blah blah blah.  It still strikes me as incredibly tone deaf phrasing, though.  If we're trying to claim that Mormonism isn't skewed unfairly toward patriarchy and that women still have "direct access" to priesthood power, maybe it might also be a good idea to make sure that women are explicitly included in our descriptions of eternal families instead of implying that eternal families are connected through the men?

The way someone speaks about an issue when that issue is not a central part of a discussion tends to be very indicative of their true attitude on the subject.  You can give a seminar to your coworkers about the importance of equal employment opportunities, but if you're using the n-word in private, you might need to admit you still have a blind spot when it comes to racism.  You can tell women how valued they are and how closely connected they are to the priesthood, but when your unrelated speeches value scriptural allusions over inclusive language, you might need to admit you still have a blind spot when it comes to sexism.
The time is coming when those who do not obey the Lord will be separated from those who do (see Doctrine and Covenants 86:1–7). Our safest insurance is to continue to be worthy of admission to His holy house.
Our safest insurance isn't to maintain contact with our Heavenly Father through daily prayers?  Our safest insurance isn't to feast upon the words of Christ with frequent scripture study?  Our safest insurance isn't to develop faith as a family or to partake regularly of the Sacrament or to seek personal revelation?  Of course not.  None of those things require our money.

Also, it's interesting that Nelson cites separation as our main concern in the context of the parable of the wheat and the tares, which involves the tares being burned.  It's more of his tightrope walk—he's stressing the urgency, but not explicitly mentioning the really scary part about the burning of the wicked.  If we frighten you too much, you'll get completely turned off, but if we don't frighten you enough you won't listen to us.  Be afraid, guys, but not too afraid, okay?
He will govern from two world capitals: one in old Jerusalem (see Zechariah 14) and the other in the New Jerusalem “built upon the American continent” (Articles of Faith 1:10). From these centers He will direct the affairs of His Church and kingdom. Another temple will yet be built in Jerusalem. From that temple He shall reign forever as Lord of Lords. Water will issue from under the temple. Waters of the Dead Sea will be healed. (See Ezekiel 47:1–8.)
I know I've been out of the church for a while now so I'm sure my sensibilities have been drastically recalibrated, but how does this stuff not sound batshit crazy?  Jesus will govern from two world capitals?  Why does he need two capitals?  Actually, why does he even need one?  Can't he direct the affairs of the kingdom remotely?  Or in some kind of itinerant fashion?  A capital location of centralized power just seems like a very human thing to implement—something an omnipotent creator of the world or a perfect savior of the world wouldn't have much need of.

And what's the deal with water issuing from under the temple?  How is that important?  How will that affect our lives during the millennial reign?  How is some nebulous and probably metaphorical prophecy about a holy site's groundwater model relevant to our salvation?
Meanwhile, here and now, we live in a time of turmoil. Earthquakes and tsunamis wreak devastation, governments collapse, economic stresses are severe, the family is under attack, and divorce rates are rising. We have great cause for concern.
Weird that a prophet who should have had foreknowledge based on his communication with an all-knowing deity didn't think to include pestilence or viral outbreaks in his list of causes for concern when he was writing this article for future publication.

But yeah, divorce rates are rising, that's what everybody is losing their minds over as we're heading into April.  Absolutely. 
Do whatever it takes to strengthen your faith in Jesus Christ by increasing your understanding of the doctrine taught in His restored Church and by relentlessly seeking truth. Anchored in pure doctrine, you will be able to step forward with faith and dogged persistence and cheerfully do all that lies in your power to fulfill the purposes of the Lord.
"Relentlessly seeking truth" is obviously lip service.  If we were so committed to people's relentless searches for truth, we'd stop demonizing them when they come to unapproved conclusions about truth.  We'd applaud them for their courage to follow the truth (insofar as they have learned it) even if it took them away from the social structure and the organizational loyalty they once valued.  Really, though, it's only okay to relentlessly seek truth if the search brings you to the determination that the Mormon church is the manifestation of that truth.  

And I have another amusing though not crucial criticism when it comes to Nelson's use of the word "anchored."  See, an anchor keeps a boat from drifting away.  The whole point of an anchor is to restrict movement.  So when you're saying we should be anchored in something as we step forward, you're really not hoping that we'll get very far forward, are you? 
However, I promise you that as you follow Jesus Christ, you will find sustained peace and true joy.
Sustained peace, even though I'm hinting at a lot of scary things that might happen before the Second Coming.  True joy, even though I just warned you that those who do not obey the Lord will soon be separated from those who do and some of your loved ones may be burned with the tares.

What a comforting promise.

I don't understand how he expects a promise like this to be comforting when it comes with so many underlying threats.  Let's review some of the key phrases he uses when telling us what to expect:

  • those who do not obey the Lord will be separated from those who do
  • we have great cause for concern
  • difficult days are ahead
  • each of us will be tested
  • persecution can crush you into silent weakness
  • your friends will betray you

To me, this entire piece sounds a lot like, "You'll be really happy, but it's gonna suck."  And while happiness isn't the absence of adversity, happiness at the very least should be the absence of doom and gloom hanging over your head.  Which means that this article, which is ostensibly about the Future of the Church, is telling us to expect more of the same:  failing to deliver on promises, manipulating people into paying tithing, and maintaining hopelessly mixed messaging.

No comments:

Post a Comment