Friday, January 18, 2019

Real Quick—Shameless Self-Promotion

The novel I released about a month ago retelling part of Captain Moroni's career (casting him in an unfavorable light because he should clearly be considered a villain, not a hero) is FREE on Amazon this weekend.  I'd be grateful to anyone who wants to download it and take a read.

I know I've only shared a few of these self-promotion posts out of the hundreds of articles on this blog, but I try to keep them short because doing them feels weird.  And I've only posted about novels that have direct relevance to Mormonism—although I have a bunch of other books that you're welcome to check out too!

Thanks for indulging me.  And now back to our regular unscheduled dissections of apostolic speeches and occasional ruminations on doctrine.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Stay in the Fishing Boat

Recently, Dale G. Renlund and his wife, Ruth, gave a devotional for the young adults of the church in which they had some interesting things to say on the subject of maintaining faith in the face of doubts and questions.

I thought it was pretty bad.

So, of course, I'm going to share exactly why I thought it was so bad.  In possibly excruciating detail.  There's a lot to digest from their devotional and a lot of it is flawed.  It doesn't piss me off quite as much as Tad Callister's talk about how the Book of Mormon is obviously true and anyone who says otherwise is clearly a moron, but it's up there.  I think it's worthy of its own detailed dissection.

The basis of the couple's address was a metaphor about being lost at sea and subsequently rescued by an old man in a dinky fishing boat.  After deciding that the food and water he gave you wasn't high quality and that the boat is a little beat up, you opt to jump back into the ocean.  In this brilliantly-conceived allegory, the boat is the church, the old fisherman is the church leadership, and the points of dissatisfaction represent the unimportant things that those silly apostates obsess over to the rejection of more vital and more substantive benefits of the gospel.
Finally, you demand that the fisherman stop the boat and let you back in the water.  Even though you're still more than 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, away from shore, you can't stand the idea of being in the boat.  With sadness, the fisherman stops the boat and helps you back in the ocean.  You're on your own again!
Dale  
Three major points that I disagree with here.

First—in order for any part of this parable to work, we'd have to agree that existence is like being adrift in the middle of a vast ocean with no boats but one within sight.  This is only a viable metaphor if you're starting from the assumption that you need to be rescued and that there's only one way to be rescued.  But there are numerous religions and philosophies paddling around in similar vessels.  And the people telling you that you're in dire need of saving are the same ones telling you that there's only one boat that can save you, so why should we trust them when they say we're in danger of starvation or dehydration or shark attack or drowning?

Second—even granting everything else that happens in the story up until this point, you're not on your own again.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the only social safety net.  Most of us are still going to have families, friends, and communities.  Pointing to isolation as a natural consequence of apostasy is just a little light-hearted fear-mongering on Dale's part.

Third—the fisherman absolutely does not stop the boat and help you back into the ocean.  That makes it sound like the church processes resignations without delay and doesn't try to track down addresses of long-inactive members and doesn't do everything it can to stop those who are doubting to act upon their doubts.
Do dents and peeling paint on the church change its ability to provide authorized saving and exalting ordinances to help us become like our Heavenly Father?
Ruth
Theoretically, no.  But the concerns that many apostates had are not cosmetic ones like dents and chipped paint or fastidious ones like stale crackers and off-brand water.  Discrepancies between First Vision accounts that could indicate Joseph Smith fabricated the story and concerns about Joseph's translation ability based on the Book of Abraham and the Kinderhook plates can, depending on what we learn after researching our doubts, undercut the validity of the religion in its entirety.  In which case, these "exalting ordinances" are meaningless.

It's like getting on board the boat and finding out that the fisherman is steering it into a 100-foot-diameter circle.  Then it actually makes sense to get back in the water, since you're more likely to be saved by trying to swim to shore than by participating in aimless, fruitless movement for movement's sake.
Without a true conversion including a mighty change of heart, you may begin to focus on the metaphorical soda crackers and chipped paint.
Ruth
Sure didn't take very long for these two to start casting aspersions on apostates.

If you focus on what they say is unimportant and leave the church, it's because you haven't been truly converted to the gospel.  To any apostates who may have been listening, Ruth is essentially saying, "Your faith was weak, you weren't a true believer, and it's your own stupid fault that we vilify you."

That's shitty.
I didn't hear a voice, but it was as is if God told me, "I've been telling you all along what's true."
Dale
That's the most nebulous description of a conversion story I've ever heard from an apostle.  "It was as if" is such an empty phrase.  What does that mean?  The only thing you've ruled out is an audible voice, which most of us weren't expecting anyway.  If you ask a friend who seems to have a perfect marriage how he knew his wife was the one and he responds with, "There wasn't a chorus of angels shining a spotlight on her when we met, but it was as if everything suddenly made sense," you might find that a similarly useless answer.  That's vague.  How can I identify that moment when it happens to me?  I mean, sure it sounds cool, and I'm happy that it happened to you, but your telling of the story gives me nothing that I can use in my own life.
Also, if you're basing the entire trajectory of your life's work on a feeling so indistinct that it's best described as "it was as if [insert thing I really wanted to be true here]," I don't know that you should have quite as much confidence in your life choices.
Faith is a choice that each person must make.  Faith is not just whimsically wanting something to be true and fancifully convincing yourself it is.  Faith is the assurance of the existence of things that we haven't seen in the flesh. 
Ruth
Okay, this one is a doozy.

"Faith is not [A].  Faith is [something that sounds suspiciously similar to A]."

It sounds to me like she's saying that faith is the assurance of things we don't have any physical, measurable, empirical evidence of.  Which means that the only difference between faith and whimsical wanting is whether the object of belief is actually true.  And since we have no physical evidence of these things, that means that we can't know whether we're exercising faith in something true or fancifully convincing ourselves of something false.
So, essentially, there is no observable difference between the thing she's advocating and the thing she's repudiating.  Until we die and then possibly find out we were wrong.

This is not healthy or rational.
Faith does not come from demanding signs from God but by obeying and following his commandments.
Ruth
But considering that you just established that having faith means you have confidence in something you haven't seen, it actually makes more sense to demand signs from God.  With your eternal fate at stake, shouldn't you want to be as absolutely certain you're on the "covenant path" as you can be?  In which case, shouldn't you be seeking for knowledge instead of faith?  Don't you want to be sure now, before you die, that you've dedicated your life to the proper cause?

Why does God value obedience and faith over knowledge anyway?  He really wants everyone on earth to be operating based on emotional responses and best guesses instead of actually trying to nail down the truth as fact?

God values...ignorance?  Interesting doctrine you're teaching us, ma'am.
A person needs to decide that he or she wants to have faith and then act in faith before faith can grow.
Dale
That sounds better than "fake it 'til you make it," but the substance of it is pretty much the same.
Also, this wanting-something-and-pretending-you-have-it-so-that-it-will-come-to-you philosophy is a terrible idea in every other aspect of life.  I want to be rich, so I'm going to spend irresponsibly like I have plenty of cash to burn so that my wealth can grow.  I want to be attractive, so I'm going to act like I'm handsome and then my physique and facial features will improve.  I want to be more intelligent, so I'm going to behave like I'm intelligent until I get smarter.

Yes, those are arguably unfair caricatures of the point that Dale is trying to make, but the two of them are later going to do a corny little award-ceremony-host patter about not getting advice on a particular subject from someone who obviously doesn't know his shit with the implication that apostates don't know their shit about the church, so I feel like my own sarcastic misrepresentations of their arguments are totally justified.
"Could these things NOT be true" is a question that presumes that it's true.
Ruth
Okay, credit where credit is due—I would have loved this as a Mormon.  I think we've all wondered at some point about the peculiar wording in Moroni 10:4, where the author exhorts us to pray to God about "if these things are not true."  Sister Renlund's spin on this is pretty clever.  Of course, it also means that she's actively encouraging confirmation bias.  You have to assume it's true when you ask in order to get the confirmation that it's true. 

For kicks, let's apply that strategy to mathematics.  I was pretty sure the answer was 5, so when I did all the work on this problem, I did so with that assumption in mind and I managed to get 5 as my answer.  It was really confusing to me when it got marked wrong.

Listen, if your priority is a reassurance that the gospel you've poured so much of your time, your effort, and your identity into is the true gospel of Christ, then it makes sense to presume the affirmative before seeking confirmation.  But if your priority is to find out if it's true, then you owe it to yourself to go in without assumptions or preconceptions and let the information you learn take you wherever it goes.
If we instead start with the question "Couldn't these things not be false?" it leads to doubt.  And doubt never leads to faith.
Ruth
Okay, that's...that's what's called a double negative.  Could not these things not be false means could these things be false, which is the same meaning as the wording she just praised the Book of Mormon.

I'm pretty sure she just read the teleprompter wrong, and I don't blame her considering the complexities of the truth table she's laying out for her audience.  Mostly, this was just a point of amusement for me, even though I know what she meant.
I put Steven in contact with a man who had researched these four versions [of the First Vision] decades earlier.  Steven visited with the researcher.  The next time I spoke with Steven, I said, "So how do you feel about the First Vision?"  He said, "Well, I feel okay about that because my questions have been answered.  That no longer bothers me.  But now I'm really concerned about the polygamy that was practiced in Nauvoo and after the Manifesto in 1890.  That's really troubling me." I asked Steven to visit with someone who had researched these topics in reliable primary sources.  After that discussion, I contacted Steven and asked how he was doing.  He said, "well, that doesn't bother me anymore.  I understand what happened and my concerns have been resolved.  But now I'm really concerned that the priesthood was withheld for a time from those of African descent."
Dale
Interesting.  There's a lot to dig into with this too.
I'm fascinated by Elder Renlund's choices of which issues he should mention.  What I've decided is that they were arranged in a specific order—for most members of the church, they should be in descending order of controversy.  The multiple accounts of the First Vision is an issue that, of these three, I think is easily the least widely-known.  So Renlund starts off with that one.  Anyone listening who didn't already know about it might be rattled and wondering what other previously unknown concepts people have problems with.  But then Renlund moves on to polygamy, an issue everybody knows about, but he throws in a couple of extra details that the general membership might not be fully aware of—that it was practiced during Joseph Smith's ministry and after the church's canonized claim in 1890 that it was neither practiced nor taught.  And then, to allay everyone's fears, he finishes with something that much of the white middle-class American core membership is less bothered by—that blacks were banned from the priesthood.  Of course, Renlund downplays it, too, not mentioning that blacks were also banned from the temples, and therefore from the highest degree of glory.

So if the first example or two left some viewers wondering if there were other awful things that apostates left the church over, the third example implies that the first two were the worst of it and that there's not much else to worry about.  And I think that sequencing was calculated to elicit this reaction.

That's my theory, anyway.

I'm also bothered by the weirdness with the answers to Steven's concerns and the access to those answers.  Elder Renlund, it seems, did not have those answers.  I suppose that ties in with one of the themes of this talk that these specious doubts are intellectual in nature, not spiritual, and so they don't affect the truth claims of the church and therefore can only be answered with historical explanations.  But beyond Renlund's inability to address Steven's concerns himself is the fact that he still hasn't bothered to learn the material that allayed this man's doubts.  Renlund tells us that these answers exist and that they explained everything to Steven's satisfaction, but he doesn't tell us what the answers are.

Steven had a faith crisis over this stuff.  The church published a book narrating its history from a faithful perspective addressing more of this stuff than ever before and Renlund claims to have read it.  He even felt the need to give an entire devotional about this stuff.  Shouldn't it maybe be important for him to go over this same stuff for his audience and explain, "Hey, as an apostle of the Lord, let me lay out exactly why it's no problem that Joseph Smith gave four differing accounts of the First Vision"?

No, but he can still imply that the answers are somewhere and the answers are adequate but we shouldn't need them.
Sadly, Steven had chosen to be a perpetual doubter.  For him, doubting pleased him more than knowing and he was digging up in doubt what he had planted in faith.  
Ruth
Um, no, though.  If the whole point is to have faith, then you weren't really offering him the chance to know.  Maybe he preferred doubting because by repeatedly challenging his own beliefs, he was able to bring himself closer and closer to the actual truth.  Just because his search for truth took him out of the church doesn't mean he was pleased by not being able to know things.
What Steven was doing is a form of Church History Whac-A-Mole.
Ruth
Ha ha ha, yeah, that's pretty funny the way you're infantalizing a process that for many people is  deeply traumatizing and of paramount personal significance.  People love it when you reduce the central struggles of their lives down to a simple arcade game.
But it's not Church History Whac-A-Mole because the issues that can cause people to have faith crises are not exclusively within the realm of church history.  I mean, the Book of Mormon still has racism in it.  The church still espouses homophobic, transphobic, and sexist teachings.  The church's financial secrecy and for-profit arms can still cause consternation among some members.  The church still tends to protect sexual predators and cover up its leaderships' misconduct.

I'm not sure if this was her intent, but it seems to me that Sister Renlund is trying to imply here that the history of the church is where all the apostates find their shelf-breaking items.  There's no problem with current doctrines or policies.  It's just these unimportant details from a hundred fifty years ago that those whiny ex-Mormons keep harping on.  
Doubt is not and will never be the precursor of faith any more than light depends on darkness for its creation.  Peter wasn't told as he was slipping into the water after having tried to walk on it, "Oh, Peter, if only you had more doubt."  No, he was told, "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?"
Dale
Sure, that's funny, too, I guess.  But let's say for the sake of argument that Jesus wasn't actually the son of God.  Then Peter's doubts could have protected him by preventing him from stepping into the water in the first place.  Renlund is trying to depict doubt as something that's always destructive and never creative.  But doubt can be protective.  Doubt can be instructive.  It's not a universally negative trait.  And if it turns out that the LDS church is just controlling you to get your tithing dollars, then doubt can save you a lot of time, a lot of stress, and a lot of money.
As time went on he [Steven] didn't have the strength to confront the challenges that one faces as a member of the church. 
Dale
Oh, hey, fuck you, Dale.  Apostates just don't have the strength to stay in the church.  Leaving the church is easy, right?

To have questions about the church and its doctrine is normal and the root of gospel learning.  Joseph Smith understood that when he read, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him."  But the passage continues, "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering."  In other words, ask God, not doubting that he can give you an answer.  The passage continues, "For he that wavereth"—or doubts—"is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed.  For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord."
Ruth
Circular faith.  You need it to get it.

Don't doubt that you'll get an answer from God, even though he hasn't answered you yet, so you don't actually know he exists to provide the answer you seek in the first place.  That's wildly unfair, especially for someone who's honestly seeking the truth but is honest enough with himself to admit that he doesn't know anything for certain yet.

Also, I take issue with James's teaching here.  If God gives so liberally, why does he require such intensity of faith before answering?  And if he upbraideth not, why is he smack-talking people who have doubts in the very next verse?  
I'll paraphrase what he [John A. Widtsoe] said:  "Doubt, unless changed into inquiry from a reliable trustworthy sources, [sic] has no value or worth.  A stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the appropriate effort to pay the price of divine discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and darkness.  His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers.  At last, blind like the mole in his burrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, indolence for labor, and becomes a lazy scholar.   Doubt is not wrong unless it becomes an end in and of itself.  That doubt which feeds and grows upon itself and breeds more doubt is evil."
Dale
Jesus Christ, dude, chill!  We get it, apostates are the fucking worst.  You've made your point already.
Okay, let's see how well I line up with Widtsoe's checklist:

I did change my doubt into inquiry, but I used a ton of different resources, some of which were unreliable and untrustworthy.  But even some of the reliable and trustworthy ones that I used are probably not considered as such by the church because they weren't produced by the church and they're not particularly faith-promoting.

Pay the price of divine discovery?  It sounds like that means going through the effort of research and/or prayer?  I mean, yeah, I did all that too, it's just that what I discovered turned out to be pretty fucking divergent from the divine.

I like to think that I inhabit the realms of ridicule and reason equally.  Not like a snowbird who spends half his time in either state, but more like I bought the condo above mine and renovated it to add a staircase connecting the two so that I can spend time in both places on a daily basis.

Indolence for labor?  Ah, yes, the old apostates-are-just-lazy trope.  I mean it's true that I don't expend effort toward home teaching and church callings and the like.  But I do more research into the church these days, so there's that.  Which also means I'm certainly not a lazy scholar.  I regularly refer to LDS.org for scriptures and official quotations from church leaders.  And I refer to plenty of other resources as well.  I don't think I'd qualify as lazy in my gospel scholarship for any reason other than I came to different conclusions than the church wanted me to.  But, yes, I suppose it is easier to dismiss people like me as lazy instead of admitting that we've made some legitimate judgments based on reasonable information we've acquired after exhaustive studies.

Oh, and the doubt itself was evil because the information I found led me to more doubts.  Silly me, I thought I'd merely been attempting to learn the truth.  And here I'd been carrying an evil inside me the whole time.  Pro-tip for Renlund:  that's a pretty shitty accusation to level at a person, even if you're using someone else's words to do it.  You're not helping yourself make any more friends.  Next time you're sitting alone at home on a Friday night, remember that you've been teaching people that their evil doubts make them weak and lazy and maybe you'll figure out why you don't get invited to more parties.
So would you seek financial advice from someone who is broke and in debt?
Ruth
Would you seek for medical advice from a charlatan snake oil salesman?
Dale
Who would you take some advice from on how to improve your forehand in tennis?  A weekend hack or Roger Federer?
Ruth
Good Lord.

Now the implication is that apostates are charlatans and hacks who are in debt up to their eyeballs.  I mean, not literally, of course.  But I don't think it's a mistake that the Renlund duo is comparing us to so many varied unsavory characters.

The first and the third example are the silliest.  It can be pretty easily demonstrated if someone has tennis skill, so of course you'll be able to make a wise decision when choosing a trainer.  And as far as financial advice goes, there's generally only one reason to get financial advice—to increase your wealth—so of course you'd also want to enlist the help of someone who has demonstrated that particular skill.

But seeking medical advice from a snake oil salesman is more intriguing to me, because that's exactly the kind of situation in which doubt becomes a virtue.  The product might sound too good to be true or the salesman's tactics might seem manipulative or pushy, so a little skepticism might come in handy.  The problem is that good snake oil salesmen, metaphorically speaking, don't present themselves as charlatans.  So of course you're not going to seek medical advice from a fraud intentionally, but you need to be sharp enough to uncover the fraud in the first place.
Which brings me back to Mormonism.

Would you seek for ecclesiastical advice from a charlatan?  Well, first you have to figure out if he's a charlatan, so you wouldn't want to presume he's on the up-and-up from the get-go like Sister Renlund suggested we should do when we're praying about the Book of Mormon.  You'd want to use some doubt, you'd want to skepticize what he's preaching and the tactics he's using and whether his claims make sense to you.  And even after you've bought into his doctrines, if he behaves in a way that undermines his claims or if he teaches something that you feel is fundamentally wrong, you'd understandably be justified in terminating your ecclesiastical relationship with him.

But, no, that's absurd, right?  That approach is way too rational.  We shouldn't be rational.
So why would you entrust your eternal welfare to those who are spiritually bankrupt because they have ripped up in doubt what they once planted in faith?  Or who, as Jeremiah said, "have forsaken Christ, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water?"  These individuals have walked away from that fountain of living waters and want you to trust in something that doesn't hold water.
Dale
Demonstrate that apostates are spiritually bankrupt.  Demonstrate that the church offers a metaphorical "fountain of living waters."  Demonstrate that apostates' claims don't hold water.  Boy, it sure is easy to dismiss people when you don't try to prove them wrong!

This quote also illustrates a tactic I've found common in discussions like these.  Who said anything about entrusting our eternal welfare to someone else?  Listening to different opinions is not the same as placing your soul in the opining one's hands.  Can't we maybe give the members of the church some credit and not assume that by letting a doubter express some thoughts we're essentially giving that person the reins to our agency?  Because that's ridiculous.  And, to any believing member listening to this, it should be offensive.  We hear information all the time that we don't agree with and that we continue not agreeing with after we've heard it and made our own judgments about its validity.  This is no different.
Foster your faith by going to trustworthy sources to find answers to your questions.
Ruth  
Sure, using trustworthy sources is a best practice.  But if you're going to tell people to use trustworthy sources, it would help if your institution were itself a trustworthy source.

But, unfortunately, the church has a long history of hiding and obfuscating the less palatable aspects of its own history.  More recently, the history has been willing to admit some things in general terms and to provide difficult-to-find essays not explicitly written by any of the apostles.  And any information that can be found from "trustworthy" church-approved sources is almost guaranteed to be unabashedly saturated in bias.

No wonder so many people try to find answers to their questions by seeking out sources that the church would deem untrustworthy.  Because if you can only get one cross-section of one limited perspective by reading the approved material and that doesn't satisfy the complexity of your concerns, then you don't have many other options if you're really determined to find the truth.
So, it's simple:  if a choice leads you to do good and believe in Christ, it's from God.  If the choice entices you to do evil and deny Christ, it's of the devil.
Dale 
Speaking of complexity, painting something in such simplistic terms is naive and dangerous because it ignores the fact that so much of human experience is complex.

Let's take Sam Young, for example.  He is a believer in Christ, and because of his beliefs he wants to protect children from grooming and abuse.  From the church's perspective, this should mean that his choice is from God.  Except that his choice also enticed him to challenge the priesthood authority of God's church.  So from the LDS perspective, his choice is also of the devil.  Kind of weird that it could be both, considering those cosmic beings are supposed to be on complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

Or we can even go with the choice the church sometimes presents between paying tithing and supporting your family.  The church taught, in the December 2012 Ensign:
After reading these scriptures together, Bishop Orellana looked at the new convert and said, “If paying tithing means that you can’t pay for water or electricity, pay tithing. If paying tithing means that you can’t pay your rent, pay tithing. Even if paying tithing means that you don’t have enough money to feed your family, pay tithing. The Lord will not abandon you.”
These are two things that the church considers to be good—paying your tithing and feeding your children.  They were, in that situation, mutually exclusive.  How was that family to make their choice with Moroni's reductive decision-making mechanism?

It's not so simple as good-things-are-good and bad-things-are-bad, even if you're approaching morality from the scriptural framework Renlund is pushing here.
He [Joseph Smith] always behaved as one who had actually seen our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Moses, Elias, and Elijah.  He acted as one who had possessed the golden plates and translated those ancient texts by the gift and power of God.
Dale  
Okay, how do you know how someone acts under those conditions?  Have you ever met someone who's done those things?  What's your basis of comparison?

I can see how you might say something like "Joseph Smith behaved as one who was cheating on his wife" or "Joseph Smith behaved as one who craved the adulation of his followers" because those are more common situations and you may have actually had some experience with those kinds of people.  But how, exactly, do you know how someone who's translated golden plates by the power of God normally acts?
What we consider dents and peeling paint on the well-used boat may turn out to be divinely sanctioned and divinely directed from an eternal perspective.  The Lord has either had a hand in the dents and the peeling paint or he uses them for his purposes.
Dale  
This, unfortunately, is where the allegory really breaks down.  Renlund is basically arguing that what may seem like flaws or inconsistencies in church doctrine or history might actually be good things that God did on purpose.  How does that translate into the precious boat metaphor?  I can understand how the dents and paint chips might not have a deleterious effect on the functionality of the boat, but how, exactly, can those things become actively good?  How does the dent in the boat increase its ability to bring the stranded person to shore...from an eternal perspective, of course?

So there you have it, folks.  The bottom line is that you gotta stay in the boat.  Don't be a whiny loser because of some minor problems.  Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  We've always been at war with Eastasia.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oh, How Chilly Was The Evening

I'd like to try an experiment as a way to test an apologetic response to the multiple conflicting accounts of the First Vision. 


INTRODUCTION
Critics of Mormonism like to point to the discrepancies between various accounts as evidence that Joseph Smith was making it all up.  While some variation in the story is to be expected—especially for accounts separated by the better part of a decade—there's no reason that central elements of the experience should differ significantly from telling to retelling.  Apologists like to insist that the disparities are not only unconcerning, but actually advantageous (see the LDS.org Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision):
The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.

HYPOTHESIS
Of course I side with the camp that thinks it's ridiculous for Joseph Smith not to be able to keep straight whether it was one person, two people, or a host of angels who appeared to him.  Of course I think this is evidence that he was just making stuff up.  Of course I think it's harder to remember a lie correctly than to remember an earth-shattering divine visitation correctly.  Because that confirms what I already believe.  But have I ever tried to tell a story that I'm on record as having told previously?  How big would the differences between my versions be? 

I'm guessing I could best the Prophet of the Restoration when it comes to consistency.


METHODS
That thought process led me to recall this post, in which I shared what I wrote in 2006 about an experience from 2003-ish.  So I decided that I should try holding myself to a similar standard to which I hold Good Ol' Joe and see how I measure up.  Without re-reading the above linked post, I wrote out my memory of how that episode of my life unfolded.  I realize that I have no way of proving that I didn't review my old post first, but considering that the people who read this kind of stuff are generally in the ex-Mormon camp, I'm guessing I'll have the benefit of the doubt.  
I have no visual material for this post, so here's a picture of an attractive woman
to break up the wall-of-text monotony.
Anyway, here's what I came up with:
When I was about sixteen years old, my dad and I were briefly assigned to home teach a woman in our ward who had recently gone inactive.  I didn't know the details as to why, but she'd been in the ward a long time and my assumption was that since she'd dealt with my father frequently when he was bishop, that he had a bond with her that the current ward leadership hoped would be strong enough to bring her back into the fold.
So one night, my dad and I made the forty-ish-minute drive to the far side of the ward  to visit her.  The reception was immediately identifiable as frosty and I spent the entire time in a state of mounting emotional discomfort.  We sat in her living room for a relatively short period of time while my dad attempted to convince her to resume her activity in the church.  I don't remember specifically what her issues were or what my dad said to try to address them, but I think it had something to do with how she'd been treated by the current bishopric.  I do remember her leveling specific accusations at my dad and claiming that he didn't actually care about her but that he was essentially just fulfilling his own duty as a home teacher for his own reasons.  In what may have been the closest I'd ever come to feeling the burning in the bosom, I experienced a visceral reaction to her claims because I knew my dad sincerely wanted to help.
The conversation between the two of them escalated to the point at which this woman threatened to turn her temple recommend in.  My dad insisted that she didn't need to do that, but that only seemed to spur her on.  She walked a little further into the next room, came back with her recommend and handed it to him.  Realizing he wasn't going to make any headway with her while she remained so angry and so defiant, my dad asked if we could say a closing prayer before we left.  She agreed—but she asked me to say it.
I was pretty shaken by all of this and I had no desire to pray aloud in front of someone who held such open contempt for my beliefs, but I struggled through a short, cliche-ridden benediction.  Then we left.
I never figured out exactly what the issue was with this sister, but I remember seeing her in church again after that, probably weeks or months later.    
This was the first time I'd ever come across a staunch anti-Mormon directly.  I'd brushed past some hecklers at the Hill Cumorah Pageant and at Temple Square and I'd had a few friends at school try to convince me of the errors of my ways, but I'd never encountered someone who had such bilious enmity toward my religion and toward my dad as its representative.  It was deeply troubling and I'm pretty sure I was on the verge of tears as we were leaving.

RESULTS
How did I do? 

Well, let's make sure Joseph's stuff is in play.  Here's his 1832 account, arguably the first record of the First Vision we have (12 years after the fact), and here's the canonized 1838 account (6 years after that).  As a reminder, for reference, the first version of my story is about 3 years after the fact and this one is 12 years after that.

Here are some of the key elements from each of these versions of the First Vision:
 1832 account
  • "16th year of my age"
  • Joseph decided the whole world had apostatized from the true faith and prayed for forgiveness of his own sins
  • pillar of light precedes the appearance of any divine figure
  • one personage appears, identified as "the Lord" and referring to his own crucifixion for the sins of the world
  • God forgives Joseph's sins
  • God tells Joseph to go his way and keep the commandments but makes no mention of any churches 
  • "they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me"
1838 account
  • "spring of 1820"—fourteen years old
  • prayed to ask for wisdom from God about which church to join after reading James 1:5
  • an enemy power of thick darkness is dissipated by a pillar of light to precede the appearance of any divine figure
  • two personages appear, identified as God and Jesus
  • No mention of any forgiveness for Joseph's sins
  • Joseph asks the personages which church was right and is twice forbidden from joining a church
  • "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me"

DISCUSSION
Only one of these is really a slam-dunk as far as consistent storytelling goes—in both accounts the divine being speaking to Joseph made reference to Matthew chapter 15 (and Isaiah chapter 29, apparently) about the people's hearts being far from God.  

Two of these elements, in my opinion, can be easily rationalized with the apologetic explanation that Joseph was telling the story at different times with different purposes and therefore with different emphasis—perhaps the thick darkness didn't seem as important to discuss in the 1832 account, but the bright pillar of light is the same and perhaps it didn't seem necessary to discuss God's personal absolving of Joseph's sins when the prophet was later recording his own history.

One of the bullet points can be brushed aside as the honest failing of human memory—he sounds pretty sure of his ages in both accounts, but maybe he just remembered wrong.  Was Joseph fourteen?  Does the "16th year of my age" mean he was sixteen or fifteen?  Does it matter?  It's not way off and it can be tough to remember those specifics accurately after so much time.
This is getting dry, so here's a picture of an attractive man
to break up the wall-of-text monotony.
But the other three elements are deeply contradictory.  The story we all learn in primary depicts Joseph having a little epiphany about the utility of prayer after reading the Book of James and going to the Sacred Grove to ask God which church he should join.  But in 1832, the motive is completely different—not only did Joseph decide for himself after a study of the Bible that all the churches were wrong, but his purpose in praying was just out of concern for his own sinful behavior.  And the earlier account's silence on the subject of joining other churches is problematic, too, considering that the Mormon narrative of the Restoration is built around the concept that the fullness of the gospel did not exist in any church, which is why God needed someone like Joseph to bring the gospel back.  But perhaps most troubling is the number of personages present in each telling.  The 1832 account has one visitor who is referred to as "the Lord" but speaks as though he is Jesus, which aligns with Joseph Smith's more Trinitarian beliefs at the time of the record.  The 1838 account—which came after the Lectures on Faith that started to teach the Mormon godhead as being made up of multiple beings—has two distinct personages, the Father and the Son.  Joseph's beliefs about the identity of God may have changed, but that should not have changed the number of people who descended from Heaven to answer his prayer when he was a teenager.


MORE RESULTS
Now let's see how well I recalled my own history:
2006 account
  • "near the end of senior year, or possibly near the end of junior year"—16 or 17 years old
  • only three people present—me, my father, and the woman we were home teaching
  • the woman's "reception was immediately identifiable as frosty"
  • my father and I were given this assignment because the woman was a friend of my parents
  • the woman attacked my father's personal sincerity, but I experienced a "visceral reaction" against her claims
  • she retrieved her recommend from a desk and gave it to my dad after he mentioned her love for the temple
  • my dad asked if we could close with a prayer and the woman chose me to say it
  • "It still felt better to pray"
  • "I was crying before we left"
2018 account
  • "about sixteen years old" 
  • only three people present—me, my father, and the woman we were home teaching
  • the woman "made it clear that she'd let us in to give our speech and nothing more"
  • I assumed the reason my dad was chosen as her home teacher was because of an existing ecclesiastical bond
  • the woman attacked my father's personal sincerity, but I became more convinced that my dad was a good man
  • she threatened to give him her recommend and retrieved it from "a little further into the next room" after he told her she didn't need to turn it in
  • my dad asked if we could close with a prayer and the woman chose me to say it
  • "I had no desire to pray aloud" in front of the angry woman
  • "I'm pretty sure I was on the verge of tears as we were leaving"

MORE DISCUSSION
The most contradictory aspect of my two versions is the turning in of the recommend.  While my current memory maintains that this was discussed as a threat before the woman followed through on it, earlier texts indicate that she turned in her recommend as an abrupt response to my dad's appeal to her love of the temple.  Also, I may have incorrectly remembered the location where she kept her recommend.  Was it in the other room or was it in a desk nearby?  My attitude about giving the benediction is another discrepancy—did I have no desire to pray or did praying make me feel better?

The next issue in descending order of importance is my theorized reasoning behind our assignment to home teach this woman.  Was it because she was friends with both my parents or because she trusted my dad as her former bishop?  It's a peripheral detail that doesn't seem particularly important to how the story plays out, but it is still something I wasn't able to keep completely consistent upon retelling.
I can feel you losing interest, so here's a picture of an attractive alien/human hybrid
to break up the wall-of-text monotony.

Everything else seems to line up just fine between my two accounts, however.  I was about the same age in both and there weren't any conspicuously absent characters in either version.  The woman's attitude upon receiving us, her assault on my dad's character and my emotional reaction to it, her decision to have me say the closing prayer, and even my tears at the conclusion of the experience are all consistent.  There's more detail in the 2006 account and it contains more of a post-script (sort of like Joseph Smith—History does), but of the eight central elements I identified, I managed to nail five of them.  Joseph was one for seven. 


CONCLUSIONS
I'm better at keeping my stories straight than the Prophet of the Restoration was.

If the First Vision were a real historical event, it should have been immeasurably more significant in Joseph Smith's memory than my uncomfortable home teaching visit was in mine.  Did I use my experience as a basis for my testimony of the gospel?  Sure.  Did it involve anything supernatural of explicit, undeniably divine origins?  Certainly not.  All other things being equal, you'd think that the appearance of God delivering a personal message would be a much more memorable event than an angry woman trash-talking a revered parent and a revered religion.

That's not to say that apologists are making up excuses.  I suspected that my own details wouldn't line up perfectly, but I was still a little surprised by how different my two accounts were.  But too many of the divergences between Joseph Smith's 1832 and 1838 writings (as well as his 1835 and 1842 writings) are too pivotal to explain away with the foibles of human memory and the nuances of different emphases for different audiences at different times.

This exercise, though certainly not scientific, verifiable, or exhaustive, was definitely eye-opening.  But my analysis (which I tried to protect as best I could from my own confirmation bias) still validates my hypothesis—that the evidence is still much more strongly supported by the theory that the First Vision is a fabricated event than by the theory that the First Vision is a historical certainty.  The appearance of God to the prophet was a convenient retcon in Mormonism to lend further credibility to Joseph and to later flesh out the concept of the Restoration.

Or, more succinctly stated, the First Vision never happened and Joseph Smith was a liar.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Captain Moroni's Gritty Reboot



Captain Moroni is a fascinating character to me, so I decided to give a novel treatment to one episode from his career—when the exiled Chief Judge Pahoran recruits his help to reestablish the Reign of the Judges while the Nephites are still under Lamanite attack.  I wrote it because I think Captain Moroni is a badass who needs to be properly depicted as a monster and because I think Pahoran is kind of the unsung hero of the whole incident.  

I tried to stay pretty true to the bare-bones narrative in the Book of Alma, filling in my own details and interpreting the existing characters in the mythos according to their actions instead of according to what the scriptural editorials have to say.  It was actually a lot of fun to re-imagine "classic" stories from my youth and I'll admit to taking a certain pleasure in my iconoclastic approach.

I never have enough good reasons to use the word "iconoclastic."  Seriously, say it out loud.  It's a great word.

Also, Moroni's extreme and uncompromising brand of political philosophy seemed like a particularly relevant thing to explore in the safety of a fictional universe.

Anyway, the ebook link is above if anyone wants to take a crack at it (paperback is in the works).  It's written so that zero knowledge of Mormonism should be required, but I would imagine that those with an LDS background will probably get a little more out of it.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Devil Church

Over the past few years, I've been getting progressively more interested in a rock band called Ghost.  Beyond their fantastic catalog of eclectic, metal-infused melodies, they appeal to my ex-Mormon appreciation for blasphemy and sacrilege by presenting themselves as a singing Satanic papal figure backed by a group of nameless ghouls on various instruments.

They don't sacrifice goats onstage.  They're not that kind of Satanists.  They're theatrical, tongue-in-cheek devil worshipers who draw upon the long, messy history of religion for inspiration in their flip-the-script lyrical style.

[gratuitous mid-concert camera phone shot]

Tobias Forge, Ghost's frontman who has portrayed a string of different servants of Lucifer on several tours, was recently interviewed in the New York Post and, as always, I was impressed by how insightful, how rational, and how generally non-evil he was:
The problem with religious doctrine, as with politics, because of its ability to give people authority, it has a tendency to attract people that want authority for all the wrong reasons, and that is what it has done across all time....  But, then again, in all fairness, I am not saying that there shouldn’t be faith. It’s completely different things. The belief in something bigger and supernatural is not the same thing as linear religion.
Let's compare and contrast this devil-praising shock rocker with the illustrious Dallin H. Oaks, apostle of God and heir apparent to the mantle of prophecy after Nelson:
We live in a time of greatly expanded and disseminated information. But not all of this information is true. We need to be cautious as we seek truth and choose sources for that search. We should not consider secular prominence or authority as qualified sources of truth. We should be cautious about relying on information or advice offered by entertainment stars, prominent athletes, or anonymous internet sources. Expertise in one field should not be taken as expertise on truth in other subjects.
We should also be cautious about the motivation of the one who provides information. That is why the scriptures warn us against priestcraft. If the source is anonymous or unknown, the information may also be suspect. 
Our personal decisions should be based on information from sources that are qualified on the subject and free from selfish motivations.
Okay, first of all, I'm contrasting Oaks's words with the words of an "entertainment star," but the reason I have a greater degree of trust in what the musician has to say is because of the content of his statements, not the source of the statements.  That's an important thing that Oaks is trying to sidestep—that stars, athletes, and anonymous internet sources can share truth.  Should we assess our sources to try to make sure they're being honest?  Obviously yes.  Should we assume a source is wrong or selfish or dishonest if it's anything other than an LDS scripture or an LDS apostle?  Obviously no.  When we're seeking truth, the substance of a claim or argument should matter more than the status, vocation, or anonymity of the person presenting it.

Nowhere does this apostle say anything akin to "to be fair" or offer any kind of praise for anything he opposes.  At no point does he validate the thinking behind opposing concepts.  He uses the word "should" frequently to instruct behavior instead of less absolute words like "tend" that leave space for complexity.  And perhaps most importantly, he refuses to acknowledge that ecclesiastical leadership is particularly attractive to people who crave authority—because he's always too busy defending his own:
Whoever exercises priesthood authority should forget about their rights and concentrate on their responsibilities.
—Obliquely smacking down Ordain Women in the April 2014 General Conference
I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them.
 —Refusing to admit in 2015 that his infallible institution had mistreated LGBT people
It's wrong to criticize the leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.
Responding in a 2007 documentary to clarify a less pithy version of this he taught in 1986
For further contrast, let's go back to Tobias Forge, a man who doesn't seem to present himself as an unassailable authority:
I am not against the idea of believing.  I am not an atheist ... The whole institution of Christianity being based on that book, being based on the premise that he was conceived out of nowhere—it's kind of hard to believe.  But on the other hand, I do believe in the idea of a historic person named Jesus that was a kind of chill dude who was just telling people to chill and be nice to each other.  And he got penalized for that.  So I'm not dismissing the whole thing as bullshit.  But I definitely believe that tormenting other people because of the Bible and for that to be—for lack of a better word, Gospel ... I think that is not very nice.
Does he come off as absolutist and authoritarian?  No.  Does he seem more open-minded, more empathetic, and less obsessed with the status of his own institution than Oaks is?  Absolutely.

I just think it's amusing that a man who's penned such a moving piece of musical praise to Lucifer (mostly as a parody of worship songs) is somehow more respectful, more aware of nuance, and more open to other ideas than some of God's chosen mouthpieces.  But, then again, there will always be people who call evil good and good evil.  Dressing up as a Satanic pope doesn't mean you can't be a thoughtful, perceptive, inclusive person—and dressing up as a Priesthood authority doesn't mean you can't be a thoughtless, uncompromising, abusive person.

Oaks is equal with parasites and moving without eyes.  Ghost just wants us to come together, together as one.

That last bit probably sounds dumb to everyone except Ghost fans.