Sunday, December 6, 2020

FAIRMormon is Kwaku-ing in Their Buckleboots

The FAIRMormon YouTube channel has recently been releasing a series of videos that attempt to dismantle specific sections of the CES Letter.  These newsroom-style clips feature Kwaku El and adopt a surprisingly aggressive, sarcastic tone.  Let it be known:  sarcasm is never acceptable in any substantive theological discussion.

(Yes, that was me being self-referentially sarcastic.)

I'd like to focus on FAIRMormon's approach to the Trinity for now to demonstrate the yawning gaps in the case that they strive to portray as a slam dunk.

The video begins by introducing a Baptist pastor character (Atticus Buckleboot) to discuss the Trinity as it relates to Mormonism.  In the bottom corner of the screen, the following text appears:

This little disclaimer is pretty telling about the attitude of the content creators, I think.  Since Pastor Buckleboot is presented as a rude country caricature who hates Mormons and who holds some opinions that will be the butt of a few jokes, the awareness that Baptists may find the portrayal offensive is good—although Baptists aren't the target audience here, so I don't know how likely it is that very many of them will discover this possibly disrespectful video.  

But the response to a demeaning portrayal of another faith wasn't to rewrite the sketch so that it could be entertaining and informative in an inoffensive way.  The response was to add a text box that says we love the people we're making fun of (well, the Baptists, anyway, but not the ex-Mormons) and that we're sorry.  To me, that sounds like the creators of this video feel they're at liberty to be offensive as long as they apologize for it, kind of along the lines of that famous verse in Matthew when Jesus says, "Verily, verily I say unto you:  it is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission."  This undercuts any hope for moral or ethical authority right out of the gate.

Also, they misspelled the name of their own beloved organization.  "Latter-day" is supposed to be hyphenated.  Have they never seen any official church materials?  Have they never read a church magazine, visited the church website, owned a church manual, or visited a church meetinghouse?  That's obviously nowhere near as important as the substance of the disclaimer, but I found the typo amusing nonetheless.

The first issue they bring before their Baptist expert is this quotation from the CES Letter:

Pastor Buckleboot reacts by vehemently disagreeing with this statement and by insisting that neither Mormons nor the Book of Mormon profess any belief in the Trinity.  The two hosts then show him Jeremy Runnells's examples of Book of Mormon passages where the wording was changed in later versions of the book, which leads to this exchange:
Kwaku:  Well, I mean the first [version] says "God" and then the second says "son of God," and because it says "son of God," that means it changed from Trinitarian to non-Trinitarian, because evangelical Christians like you wouldn't refer to Jesus as "the son of God."

Buckleboot:  Yes, we would!  Who wrote this?  Does this man believe that Christians don't call Jesus "the son of God?"

This is a great line and they do a good job of making it sound like a home run, but the reasoning is backwards.

If these passages were changed from Trinitarian to non-Trinitarian, it wasn't because of the titles the Book of Mormon gave to Jesus.  Nobody was making changes to the Book of Mormon cackling gleefully to themselves about how Trinitarians will be pissed because now we're calling Jesus the son of God.  

The changes were necessary because of the specifics of these verses and the purposes for invoking any member of the godhead.  If you're teaching in a Trinitarian church, you can get away with saying that Mary is the mother of God or that God is the Savior of the world.  But if you say those things in a non-Trinitarian church, it starts to sound like you're giving God the Father attributes from Jesus's character sheet.  These verses weren't changed so that Trinitarians would disagree with them.  They were changed so that non-Trinitarians would agree with them. The theology taught by Joseph Smith toward the end of his life had moved away from the more Trinitarian ideas he taught earlier, so the scriptures needed to better reflect the doctrine of the church.

So Jeremy Runnells doesn't need to believe in something absurd (such as "Trinitarians never call Jesus the son of God") in order to find these changes problematic.  He just needs to see that the original wording was less palatable to non-Trinitarians and that the current wording is more palatable to non-Trinitarians, and then make his point that this is in line with the early shift in church doctrine.

But if none of this is a problem and none of this indicates any doctrinal discrepancies—as FAIRMormon clearly believes—there's an obvious follow-up question that this video glaringly opts not to address:  if changing the wording regarding the nature of the godhead didn't change the meaning of these verses, why was any change necessary?  I thought these were supposed to be the literal words Mormon abridged onto physical golden plates, which Joseph Smith then translated by the power of God.  Are you telling me that God allowed Joseph to incorrectly translate several key passages that gave us misleading ideas about the identity of our Father in Heaven so that we later had to correct those passages?  Why does God mess with our heads like that?  Why does God give such easy ammunition to his church's critics?  Is he really bad at his job or something?

A bit later in the video, we arrive at this contradictory patter:
Kwaku:  So do atheists understand the Trinity?

Buckleboot:  [bleeped] no!  If they did, they wouldn't be atheists.

Second Host:  Well, would an ex-Mormon atheist understand the Trinity?

Buckleboot:  No!  [angry rant for comedic value]

Kwaku:  So would an ex-Mormon atheist writing an atheistic PDF trying to discredit Mormonism have a full understanding of the Trinitarian doctrine?

Buckleboot:  Absolutely not.

Kwaku:  [triumphant laugh]

There are a lot of layers to peel away from this, so buckle in.

Someone's stance on the existence of God is not a measure of how well they understand a particular religion's doctrine.  I don't know why any of the three people on camera think this is a valid criticism.  I didn't particularly enjoy Hamlet but I aced that essay I wrote on it in tenth grade.  I'm not a Simpsons fan but I can name every member of the Simpson family and plenty of the other townsfolk of Springfield.  I read Twilight cover to cover and I hated it, but I still read all of the words and was able to understand the complete story.  Who wrote this script?  Does this person believe that the only people capable of understanding an idea are the people who support that idea?

Kwaku knows his audience, though, I'll give him that.  Look how frequently he employs the term "atheist" in a pretty short stretch.  I am in no way making any comparison between Kwaku and present American politicians, but it reminds me a lot of how the word "socialism" has been thrown around lately.  It's a word many of us have been taught to fear, so finding a way to slap that label on a person or a movement or a policy is an effective way to discredit your opponent on a level that, for specific audiences, is almost visceral.  I don't think Jeremy Runnells is an atheist, although I haven't committed every public statement he's made to memory.  But his FAQ on the CES Letter's website says "I subscribe to no gods or religions."  That's not necessarily atheism.  That could be agnosticism or perhaps an irreligious stance.  Not that the creators of this video should be expected to understand the distinctions, though.  They're not atheists or agnostics, therefore they have no way of understanding atheistic or agnostic concepts.  Right?

In case the "atheist" branding isn't setting fire to Jeremy Runnell's credibility within Mormondom, we've also made sure to repeat the fact that he's an ex-Mormon.  And we've decided to specify one of the digital formats in which the CES Letter was made available—because the CES Letter is an atheistic PDF.  That's important, I assume, because that means Jeremy doesn't have the academic credentials to warrant a book deal with Simon & Schuster.  Because if it's merely a PDF and it's not something you can buy at Barnes & Noble, clearly the content can't be trusted.  At least, I assume that's why they decided to call it a PDF.  It's such a weird thing to specify that I'm having trouble coming up with any other reasons.

This section dives into unintentionally bizarre gray areas with Buckleboot's flat-out declaration that Jeremy Runnells couldn't possibly understand the Trinity. Just before this exchange, Buckleboot himself said he couldn't understand it because "God's ways are higher than our ways."  So even though he is a follower of a Trinitarian belief system and therefore the only one onscreen who could understand it, even he doesn't.   And beyond that, their own argument kind of backfires on them when they begin stating Runnells's motives and levels of comprehension.  If Runnells isn't allowed to understand Trinitarianism beliefs, FAIRMormon shouldn't be allowed to claim understanding of Runnells's "atheistic" or "ex-Mormon" knowledge of any subject.

It gets even stranger when you consider the fact that Atticus Buckleboot is an actor.  Since this guy isn't really a Baptist pastor, that means that, as a non-Baptist, he shouldn't be capable of comprehending what he's acting like he comprehends while he declares that people who believe what he's pretending to believe have no way of fully comprehending it.  Honestly, this would be a genius-level Kaufman-esque script if any of it had been done intentionally.  It's like if M. C. Escher rose from the grave and discovered that his artistic talents had been transposed into the medium of epistemology.

Moving on:

Kwaku:  So, essentially, these changes of words, by the definition of historical Protestantism that Joseph Smith was raised in, don't actually denote a change in the view of the godhead?

Buckleboot:  Of course not.

It's nice that the ersatz Baptist has made his peace with the continuity of the Book of Mormon's publication history, but they're sort of sidestepping the issue again. Why should there be any need to place the Book of Mormon in the context of the historical Protestantism of Joseph Smith's youth?  That would imply that the Book of Mormon was at least partly authored with Joseph Smith's cultural biases at play, rather than merely being translated from ancient scripture.  Are we suggesting that Joseph Smith described the godhead in the Book of Mormon based on his own assumptions from his Protestant background instead of just dictating the descriptions of the godhead precisely as they were revealed to him?

If you're not dizzy yet, consider that FAIRMormon is about to have their Protestant pastor "accidentally" explain that the First Vision isn't necessarily non-Trinitarian, that the original wording of the Book of Mormon isn't necessarily non-Trinitarian, and that the current wording of the Book of Mormon isn't necessarily non-Trinitarian.  Weirdly enough, they've used their caricatured guest to demonstrate that someone with a Trinitarian view can agree with these Book of Mormon verses both before and after the revisions.  The logic folds back on itself yet again if we revisit Buckleboot's answer to Kwaku's first question:

Buckleboot:  The triune God is fully represented in the Bible and you Mormons don't believe in it.  And it isn't taught in the Book of Mormon.

Now, I don't know how Buckleboot can claim to understand what is and isn't taught in the Book of Mormon if he doesn't even believe in it, but the parts of the CES Letter that this video skips would have given him a perfect opportunity to explain why Jeremey Runnells's analysis is incorrect.  See, they've clearly responded to this part at the end of the relevant section:

But in this same chapter that accuses the Book of Mormon of being Trinitarian, before the reference to the 1838 First Vision account and directly after the examples of the changes in 1 Nephi the video discussed, we have this no-man's land:

Why aren't we having Buckleboot—or, even better, maybe an actual Baptist—go through these examples and explain why they're not referring to the Trinity?

Second Host:  It wasn't until the revelation of multiple gods itself that it was clear that the concept of God as an omnipresent, immaterial, triune being wasn't consistent with the way that the Lord revealed himself to Joseph.

Here's another fun tactic I've seen in several of these FAIRMormon videos:  he speaks so earnestly and so volubly that this kind of stuff can blow right by you and you think you've understood, but you don't really have time to process it fully before we've moved on to the next item or the next punchline.

I think he's trying to refer to Doctrine and Covenants 132, which is (I believe) the first scriptural statement that we will become gods.  Or perhaps he's referring to D&C 131, given two months earlier, which states that there's no such thing as immaterial matter.  Or maybe he's conflating the two?  And isn't also deeply problematic that God revealed himself to Joseph Smith but it took us 23 years to figure out whether he was one being or three beings or a three-in-one being?  It's not like that's one of the most fundamental concepts of Christian theologies or anything.  It's not like Joseph Smith had been going around proclaiming that he'd restored the fulness of the gospel even though he had (apparently) entirely misunderstood the identity of the being from whom the restoration stemmed.

[It's not as though the Book of Mormon has been hailed by the church as having revealed "profound doctrine, much of which clarifies or contradicts the Christian beliefs of his time," either.]

If anything, this argument means there's another item for the shelf.  Why does God take his sweet time to clue us in on some really crucial issues?  Why can tobacco and alcohol keep us from saving ordinances now, but we didn't know that during Joseph's lifetime?  Why was the Celestial Kingdom essentially segregated for more than a century until God provided a revelation in 1978?  Why did God allow Joseph Smith to think he was literally translating Egyptian characters from the Book of Abraham papyri and only let modern Mormons discover that wasn't the case when secular scholars learned how to read Egyptian?  And why in the world did God appear to Joseph Smith personally and yet still allow him to spend more than half of his life not realizing that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct beings?

Kwaku:  The Trinity is a rather confusing concept and blanket statements in the CES Letter meant to damage Joseph actually damage other beliefs as well, given that the letter ignorantly attempts to explain both Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian beliefs.  The point is, the CES Letter is trash and faker than Utah's air pollution laws.

Ah, how bold of you to use blanket statements to criticize the use of blanket statements.  Only a Sith deals in absolutes, am I right?

And the CES Letter doesn't stick exclusively to blanket statements.  It gives specific examples of passages in the Book of Mormon that teach a Trinitarian view of the godhead.  Why don't we spend some time going over those specifics and explaining why they're not actually Trinitarian instead of pretending like Runnells ignorantly shies away from details?

I'd like to point out the use of the phrase "as well" in case that slipped past anyone.  Saying that parts of the CES Letter "meant to damage Joseph actually damage other beliefs as well" means that they damage both.  He's saying this information is harmful to the legacy of Joseph Smith.  I'm not sure if that was intentional.

I'm also not sure what to make about the damage to other beliefs.  This presentation is obviously intended for a Mormon audience.  Are the viewers supposed to be concerned that the CES Letter supposedly damages Baptist beliefs?  Mormons aren't Trinitarians—modern Mormons, anyway—so it's no skin off their noses if the CES Letter pokes holes in the Trinity.  The Trinity is already swiss cheese as far as they're concerned.

If there were any guise of impartiality before, it vanishes at the end when Kwaku declares that the CES Letter is trash and fake.  "Fake" is a silly word to use to attack it.  For one thing, it's not fake like Mark Hoffman's forged salamander letter and it's not fake like the fabricated folklore of the Three Nephites doing good deeds in small towns across the map.  I have a physical, paperback copy of this atheistic ex-Mormon PDF next to me on my desk—it really exists and it was really produced by Jeremy Runnells.  I don't agree with all of Runnells's analysis, either, but it's real analysis using real quotes from real sources—many of which are real quotes from real sources published by the real Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-hyphen-day Saints.  The CES Letter can be wrong, it can be misguided, it could even be intentionally misleading, but...fake?  We wouldn't be using charged, dishonest, pre-packaged phraseology to discredit our critics, would we?  Because that's cult behavior.

Oh, look, I'm a hypocrite again.

All of this is coming from an organization whose mission is to provide "well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice."  This video is not well-documented at all.  The only documentation provided is a handful of screenshots from the CES Letter—no documentation is given for the video's rebuttals.  When the second host refers to the "revelation of multiple gods" there's not even a little caption to provide us with the scripture he might be referring to.  

A possible exception is when Pastor Buckleboot tries to lend legitimacy to Joseph's belief in the Trinity after the First Vision by citing a Biblical example of someone seeing two separate beings from the Trinity simultaneously, "like Paul does in Acts 7."  While that is a real example and it does bolster his argument, the problem is that it wasn't Paul.  Acts chapter 7 features Stephen seeing both the Father and the Son right before he gets stoned to death.  I have no explanation for how they got that wrong.  So that really doesn't count as "well-documented."  

So what's faker here?  The CES Letter?  The stated purpose of FAIRMormon?  The motives of the creators of this particular video?  The cityscape backdrop?  The completely pointless pieces of paper the two hosts hold importantly as they read from the camera-level cue cards?  Or the almost literal, corporeal strawman in the form of a fake Baptist pastor?

From where I'm sitting, the CES Letter is one of the least suspect things discussed in this video series.

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