Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Adolescent Priesthood

I became a deacon at age twelve, just like the rest of my buddies at church.  It was never questioned--I'd just turned twelve, so the logical progression of events was for me to receive the priesthood and be ordained to the office of deacon.  It's just how things were.


This mass exodus of twelve-year-old boys into the priesthood created bad priesthood.  As my peers and I progressed through the ranks of the Aaronic Priesthood, we developed into actors of varying skill whose true beliefs and behaviors had varying levels of alignment with the official church image.  I wasn't technically worthy from the beginning, a fact which I managed to hide very well for a very long time.  I believed in the church but I didn't really have anything invested in it besides culture and family.  

Looking around at my friends, I could tell that most of them had just as little invested in the church, and many didn't really believe or care at all.  There were some that believed and probably lived up to the expectations of the church, but I think more than half of us were in the Priesthood mostly to avoid appearing different or defective.  We hid our doubts and our sins and played along.  

One (of the many) problems with this was that when it came time for us to, as a Priesthood Quorum, do something important, we usually fell flat.  Once my Priest Quorum went to visit a less active priest to try and fellowship him so that he would come back to church.  In the Mormon mindset, this is a super-important mission:  save the soul who has strayed!  But we visited him and failed miserably.  The oldest of us was suitably engaged in the objective, but his social skills were poor and he didn't relate well to the kid we were trying to fellowship.  Then there was me, who also really wanted to help, but I was shy, awkward, and uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings, and I didn't contribute much.  Then there were the other two who were hiding their unbelief but who abandoned their feigned belief in the awkward, uncomfortable house.  They remained mostly quiet and completely unhelpful.

Not surprisingly, in our efforts to reactivate our priesthood brother, we were a collective failure.  I don't know how much else could have been expected when the priesthood is composed of adolescents whose main goal is to be accepted instead of ostracized.  Many of us were goaded into the priesthood by societal pressure and our actions as priesthood holders were governed by our understanding of how much we had to do to maintain the appearance of piety.  That doesn't seem like an effective way to run a church.  

And that doesn't seem right to me.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

1 Nephi 10: Who's Confused?

More Useless Prophecy
Lehi sure was one smart guy. In this chapter, he makes boatloads of already-fulfilled prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem, the slavery and liberation of the Jews, the coming of John the Baptist, as well as the coming of Christ, his role, baptism, and death. But, of course, this should impress no one, as the record of these prophecies didn't see the light of day until almost two thousand years after the predicted events had already happened and the existence of that record as an artifact was only verified by a few witnesses and not examined in any detail by any actual historians.

Nephi Mixes Up His Books
Nephi makes a strange comment in verse 15:
And after this manner of language did my father prophesy and speak unto my brethren, and also many more things which I do not write in this book; for I have written as many of them as were expedient for me in mine other book.
But Nephi just told us, in the previous chapter, that he's created two separate sets of records--one for the history of his people, and this one, for "the ministry" of his people. So, if the Book of Mormon is the sacred record of "the ministry" of his people and the other record is the secular history of the "reign of kings" and "wars and contentions," then why does he claim here to have made a more detailed account of his father's extremely religion-related prophecies in the other record? Wouldn't it have belonged in the sacred record that later became the Book of Mormon?

Yesterday, Today, and...Actually Only Yesterday
In verse 18, Nephi teaches that the Mormon God "is the same yesterday, today, and forever". Not only does this contradict the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression (that God was once a human like us who proved his faithfulness in life and entered the celestial kingdom after his death, at which time he became a god), but it also causes the Book of Mormon to clash with the modern church.

If God's behavior is constant, why did he send Nephi an angel and a magic ball (the Magical, Mystical Liahona) and tell him to kill Laban? When's the last time a modern prophet claimed to have been visited by an angel in the presence of at least two non-believers, or took direction from a mysterious artifact or committed what he claims to have been justifiable homicide? Why would God give his prophets revelation for polygamy, denying the priesthood to blacks, or the law of consecration, only to have his prophets later repeal or withdraw these decisions?

The Mormon God seems to change his mind and his methods a lot.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

1 Nephi 9: A Shell Game...with Plates

Holy Naming Convention, Batman!
The second verse of this chapter is pretty lol-worthy. Observe:
And now, as I have spoken concerning these plates, behold they are not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people; for the plates upon which I make a full account of my people I have given the name of Nephi; wherefore, they are called the plates of Nephi, after mine own name; and these plates also are called the plates of Nephi.
Let's break that down into the modern vernacular:
The plates I'm writing on right now are not the ones I'm using to record detailed history. I've named the history-related ones "The Plates of Nephi," after myself. And I've also named these plates "The Plates of Nephi."
Why bother naming your journals anything if you're just going to give them identical names? Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of giving them names at all? This brings to mind two comparable examples of poor naming.

First, George Foreman. He named all five of his sons George. Going beyond the charming tradition of naming one child after yourself just seems narcissistic. Similarly, Nephi naming not one, but both sets of records after himself seems like going out of his way to ensure himself a legacy.

Second, the TV show "Newhart." Whenever Larry introduces himself, he also introduces his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl. It was funny. The reason it was funny, of course, is because it's freaking stupid to give two separate, closely-related things the exact same name.

I have one question for you, Nephi: Seriously?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Divinely Inspired Drug Mules

During a recent gathering, my family began reminiscing about their various missions.

One family member who'd served in South America remarked that when he was on his mission the church used missionaries to sneak medicine through customs.  Another relative replied, "They used you guys as drug mules?!"  

The second one was joking.  But I don't get the joke.  As honorable as it may seem, and as good as the church's intentions could have been, "drug mule" still sounds like a pretty accurate description to me.  I didn't say this, of course, but the first thing that popped into my head during this discussion was Joseph Smith's twelfth article of faith, which every self-respecting Mormon is acutely familiar with:
We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
...except the laws of Argentina.  I don't understand how this doesn't bother my family.  How does someone see the church contradicting its own principles and simply find it amusing?

That doesn't seem right to me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

1 Nephi 8: God Pulls a Dom Cobb

Oh, Great...More Visions
I'd be interested to see if there is any scholarly research on the subject of visions per page. Specifically, if anyone has done a comparison between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Because it sure sounds like the Book of Mormon has something to prove--"Hey, look at me, I'm inspired of God and you can tell because he's been throwing out dreams and visions all over the place so I must be the real deal."

It sure seems like there weren't quite so many miraculous revelations in the New Testament, and the New Testament also didn't spend entire chapters discussing one dream.

Rooting for Laman and Lemuel
Lehi has a dream. It's a nice little dream drenched in simplistic symbolism. It tells us that people apostatize over shame because rich people (who are evil) are mocking them. It also sets a precedent for TBMs who think they've found the greatest thing ever ("the gospel") to try and force it upon their family members.

The way people keep harping on Laman and Lemuel and telling them they're bad guys who need to change and be more god-oriented really makes me feel sorry for them. Which is weird, because I've never sympathized with them before when I read the Book of Mormon.

Where Does the Iron Rod Start?
Lehi's description leaves the starting point of the iron rod in question. Specifically, I think it's important to know whether or not the rod begins in the midst of the cloud of darkness or outside of the cloud of darkness.

I think the accurate place to have the rod start would be inside the darkness. This placement portrays the church's ability to prey on people in vulnerable situations. These people in Lehi's dream were doing fine on their own. But when the darkness arose, they became disoriented and lost sight of their objective. In the midst of their troubles, they grasped the iron rod and found it to be steadfast and unmoving. They needed help getting out of the darkness, so they relied on anything that seemed to provide a sense of direction. When it led them out of the darkness, they continued to trust the iron rod even though they no longer needed it to navigate. They allowed it to lead them all the way to the Tree of Life--which, assuming the Tree of Life symbolically provides salvation Mormon-style, is not the destination they had in mind.

Sure, the fruit may be sweet, but it'll rot your teeth out.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

1 Nephi 7: Family Ties

Lower That Incest Quotient
Joseph Smith has reached another problem. He's got the basic direction of his plot planned out, but he hasn't hammered out the details before "translating" them for his scribe. And he realizes that he's about to send one family to the uninhabited American continent with zero options for populating it.

Well, there are options. But I'm betting the Book of Mormon wouldn't have caught on so well if it had glorified incest. The Bible did have at least one notable incident of incest (I'm thinking Lot and his daughters but there could be more, I don't really remember.) but the Bible had the advantage of being compiled over centuries and staying in circulation. The Book of Mormon just popped out of nowhere in the nineteenth century. Smith had already had his protagonist behead a defenseless sleeping guy so maybe he figured he'd created enough controversy for seven chapters.

Which is why, after leaving Jerusalem and going back to get the brass plates and leaving Jerusalem again, Nephi has to go back to the city one more time to get Ishmael's family. Ishmael apparently brings an extended family with him so that there can be lots of sex and lots of children in America...without any messy issues with incest. Great story-planning, Joe.

Nephi Is One Uppity Little Prick
Laman, Lemuel, and some of Ishmael's family rebel against the good guys as they're returning to Lehi's camp. Apparently not everybody was too keen on abandoning civilization. So Nephi gives a speech to convince them to continue. This speech includes this brilliant argument (verse 8):
Behold, ye are mine elder brethren, and how is it that ye are so hard in your hearts, and so blind in your minds, that ye have need that, I, your younger brother, should speak unto you, yea, and set an example for you?
Why, you little brat. You can't help but work in another "I'm younger than you, but I'm also better than you" jab? Looks like what that angel told Laman and Lemuel about living in Little Brother's shadow went to your head. It comes as no surprise, then, that this and other comments pissed Nephi's brothers off and they decided to tie him up and leave him to rot in the desert.

Begin the Miracle Parade
So Nephi prayed for strength to burst his bonds and--holy crap!--he hulks out enough to free himself. So far we've had a decent amount of visions and dreams and angels...but now we start the full-on miracles. Nephi bursts a length of cord by the power of God. Impressive, right?

Then, Nephi preaches at them again, tells them he forgives them, and advises them to pray to God for forgiveness. And thus, Nephi continues to be One Uppity Little Prick.

Either Nephi's an Idiot or Smith Writes Bad Characters
In verse 21, after Nephi says that he advised those who rebelled to pray for forgiveness, he adds, "And it came to pass that they did so." Not only does that strike me as modern phrasing (though I am in no way a linguistics expert) but it makes Nephi (or Joseph) look stupid.

As far as Nephi is concerned, it looks like he fell for it when his brothers pulled a fast one on him. They've tried to kill him twice now. They clearly don't trust any of the God-given revelation that Nephi or Lehi has received, and all they really want to do is go back to Jerusalem, and--I don't know--murmur and rebel. Because murmuring and rebelling is all they're good for. But yeah, I bet they poured their hearts out to God begging for forgiveness, just like Nephi said. Because they've exhibited such pious behavior in the past.

Psst...Nephi...they faked it. Watch your back, dude!

The other option is that Joseph Smith is a terrible writer. He either doesn't know his own characters or he doesn't put a lot of effort into keeping track of their motives and characteristics. Laman and Lemuel are bullies who are hardly given pause when a freaking angel comes down to tell them to lay off their brother. Why would Nephi wriggling out of his restraints and one of Ishmael's daughters switching sides in the argument change the fact that they hate Nephi and they wish he were dead? Inexplicably, though, they're suddenly happy little altar boys, praying for forgiveness and performing burnt offerings. I wrote stories that made more sense than this when I was in fourth grade.

Oh. Wait. Didn't Joseph Smith only have a third grade education or something?

The Gamer God

Mormons believe in what they call "Eternal Progression."   They believe that, if they sufficiently prove their worthiness to God, they will be made into gods as well, who will then reign over their own spirit offspring and create their own worlds for eternity.

It's a pretty awesome idea, but I also understand why it is that the majority of the Christian community doesn't really like the idea.  I guess claiming you can eventually be a god is kind of along the lines of polytheism, blasphemy and a whole bunch of other things that Christianity doesn't really...embrace.

If it were a reality, maybe Mormon heaven wouldn't be so bad. I'd get to play a souped-up version of SimCity for the rest of eternity.  I get tired of simulation games sometimes, but that's gotta beat an eternity in Hell, easily.  And if the current world becomes too boring, put it on a shelf and start a new one--you can come back the the old world with fresh eyes in a few thousand years.

Hey.  Maybe that explains the Great Apostasy--God got bored and went to work on another saved game for a while.  And maybe that's why God supposedly doesn't talk to the apostles personally anymore.  He's probably off working on another universe...the one he uses cheat codes in just to keep himself from getting bored with all the other imperfect societies he's created.

I expect to see "The Gamer God" doctrine in LDS Sunday School manuals sooner or later.  It totally jives with their views on the afterlife.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

1 Nephi 6: Damage Assessment

1 Nephi Chapter 6 is only six verses long. There's not a whole lot to find issue with here. There is, however, an interesting irony on Joseph Smith's part. Take a gander at verse 6:
Wherefore, I shall give commandment unto my seed, that they shall not occupy these plates with things which are not of worth unto the children of men.
But these plates aren't of worth unto the children of men. Plenty of good has come from it. Mormonism has bred plenty of decent human beings who have made positive impacts on the world around them. But the good is easily outweighed by the bad. We've moved well past 175 years of racism, sexism, homophobia, polygamy, broken families, suicides, brainwashing, emotional stunting, trauma and torture...all because of a religion based on "these plates."

The children of men would be better off without them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Patriarchal Blessings are Important to the Church

Tonight, I read my patriarchal blessing for the first time since I left the church.

I received the blessing six and a half years ago, and it's never been useful to me.  I always knew it was useless. But I don't understand how knowing it was useless didn't lead me to seriously question the church sooner.

The reason I considered it useless while I was a believer was because I lied in the interviews for it.  I calmly stated that I was sexually pure, despite the fact that I'd been struggling with masturbation for a few years by then.  The understanding going into the blessing, which was reiterated by the blessing itself, was that the blessing  was valid according to my obedience.  So, considering I'd lied to get the blessing and I probably jerked off again a few days later, I felt like I'd immediately committed a serious sin which called into question the possibility of any of my promised blessings ever becoming a reality.

I kind of felt like Marty McFly from Back to the Future.  My blessing set out a basic timeline for my life, but I'd changed something near the beginning of that timeline and I wasn't sure how much that would affect the outcome.  I didn't know if I'd wind up in the timeline at the end of Part I, where a lot of stuff is how it should be, with a few differences that could be dealt with, or the timeline in Part II, where everything is radically different and completely untenable.  But as I continued to struggle with my "worthiness," there came a point when I figured that what was intended and what was possible had grown too far apart and my blessing's blueprint for life was no longer relevant.

The blessing is kind of a strange thing to read from my ex-Mormon perspective.  It's weird to see the kind of sloppy juxtaposing of dramatic, scriptural language and modern-day mannerisms.  I'm told that I made a choice to come to earth and prove myself "in this, [my] second estate," but I'm also advised that I "need to be there for" my children when they have difficulties.  The whole blessing is riddled with weirdly clashing language like that.

It's also clear from my current perspective that patriarchal blessings are used to reinforce childhood brainwashing.  They capitalize on deeply-held beliefs, hopes and insecurities ingrained from an early age and promise great blessings for continuing to cling to them.

I was told that I received personal instructions from God in the pre-existence...I wasn't told what they were, or when I'll figure out what I'm supposed to do, or what the point of giving me instructions before wiping my memory was, but it sure made me feel awesome to know that I was important to God in the grand scheme of things.  But that's not the only useless piece of information in there.

I was told I would apply myself in my education.  That didn't pan out.

I was told I'd find an occupation that would be of great benefit to me (didn't pan out), that I would enjoy (didn't pan out), that would provide me with enough money to provide for my family (didn't pan out) and would allow me to be a benefit to mankind (that's hilarious).

I was told I would have a desire to serve a mission (never wanted to) and that I would bring many into the waters of baptism (can't do that if you don't serve a mission).

I was told I'd receive my endowment (didn't  pan out), be married in the temple (didn't pan out) and be a temple worker with my wife in my old age (definitely not gonna happen).

Then there's this glowing paragraph near the end full of ridiculous, emotionally manipulative promises about "well done thou good and faithful servant" blah blah blah.  I'm actually very disappointed with myself for ever buying into this.  I'm promised these wonderful blessings--everything a good Mormon boy could want--and warned that they are conditional on my obedience.

It just seems like the patriarchal blessing is the church's method for locking in childhood brainwashing for a lifetime.  Why else would it be given most often during a member's transition from child to adult?  Why else would they include such great promises and advise that it be used as a blueprint for life?  It's a sickeningly emotional experience that translates ingrained doctrines into lifelong ambitions.

And that does not seem right to me.

1 Nephi 5: Plate-gasm

Quick, Patch That Plot Hole!
Once Nephi and his brothers return safely (with Zoram in tow), Lehi gets pretty excited about the plates they brought back. And the audience discovers why the plates were so important. Apparently they contained the first five books of Moses and genealogical records of the descendants of Joseph of Egypt.

Oh, and by the way, the reason Laban had the plates was because he's also a descendant of Joseph.

This feels like something a modern writer who was not very skilled at storytelling would throw in when he realized that the motivations for his characters didn't make sense. This whole story took place and it was never explained why Laban had the plates and why he didn't want to give them away. Which apparently became clear to Joseph Smith when he had Lehi going berserk over the awesomeness of the genealogy the plates contained. He couldn't go back and put it in a spot that made more sense to the story because he's supposedly translating this by divine inspiration on the fly to a scribe who would probably think it was weird for him to be like, "Wait...go back the the chapter before and change this verse real quick." So he threw it in at the end.

Already-Fulfilled Prophecy
During Lehi's plate-gasm, he makes a few prophecies about the brass plates. He boldly foretells that they will "go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples who were of his seed."


That's because it's a good chunk of the Old Testament. The Bible is a pretty well-known book. Um, a lot of nations, kindreds tongues and peoples know about it. Especially in North America, which is where a lot of Lehi's "seed" supposedly wound up. This is not a particularly impressive prophecy considering that Joseph Smith translated and published the Book of Mormon well after Christianity had been brought to the new world.

Lehi also states that the brass plates shall never perish. If he meant that they would never perish in the literal sense, then why don't we know what happened to them? Nobody has them. Where did they go? If he meant that they would never perish figuratively, that's kind of another prophecy that was already fulfilled when the Book of Mormon was published. Because the Old Testament still existed.

Who can imagine the Bible being lost forever? By the simple fact that the first five books of Moses are included in the Holy Bible, Joseph was assured that the prophecy he'd written was a safe bet--not a very impressive prediction. His attempt to make Lehi seem prophetic and wise fell flat.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Free Pass on the Test of Life

I recently read this supposed account of a second anointing ordinance.  Assuming it's legitimate and accurate (and I think it is), there are some very clear problems with the ceremony and the situation surrounding it.

First, the authority who extended the narrator his invitation stressed how important it was to keep the ordinance a secret because it would create jealousy in the general membership of the church.  He was right about that.  The general membership tends to have level of awe for the General Authorities, and they aren't as bothered if the men who give General Conference addresses have their calling and election made sure.  But if they knew their local leadership--stake presidents or patriarchs, people they actually know--are getting second endowments, they'd be much less able to accept the choices of who gets it and who doesn't.  They've seen these men's flaws up close and personally.  (Why does the stake president get a second endowment when I'm a better parent than he is?)

Second, the concept of the ordinance totally defeats the whole "this life is a test" teaching.  Why don't these people have to "endure to the end" like everyone else to prove their worthiness?  It sounds like a shortcut to salvation, something that ensures someone's return to heaven (barring denying the Holy Ghost or murder).  And ensuring something like that sounds a lot like the plan that Lucifer brought up in the war in heaven...the plan that we were all taught in primary classes was horrible and wrong and stupid and bad.

Third, the ceremony seemed very impersonal.  The narrator said that the blessing he was given was very similar to a blessing Brigham Young gave to Heber C. Kimball and that each of the other couples received pretty much the same wording in their own blessings.  If God has decided to give someone an assurance of the highest degree of glory, why would it not be accompanied with a personal blessing?  It's a very personal gift, both in the sense that it's uncommon and that it's given to specific people.  Wouldn't the Lord want to say something to those people?  Wouldn't you expect a blessing that contains things like expressing the Lord's gratitude for your faithfulness, citing examples of what made you eligible for this gift, and counsel on how to proceed with your personal life after such a life-changing experience?  Wouldn't that make more sense?

Fourth, the ordinance seemed weirdly couple-oriented.  The narrator said he went through the ceremony with four other couples, and he was later asked to nominate two more couples for the ordinance.  So this clearly means that if your spouse dies, you're not eligible for a free pass to heaven.  Tough break.

Fifth, past the couple dynamic, it seemed very man-oriented.  This would be great fodder for critics who claim the church is sexist.  The narrator is in a room with a bunch of stake presidents and mission presidents...and their wives.  It seems as though the degree of leadership the man has attained is in some way prerequisite to each couple's presence.  Beyond that, the woman washes the man's feet and gives the man a blessing as though he is the focal point of all of this.  Sure, sure, the man holds the priesthood and the woman doesn't, but if they're both getting a free ticket into heaven, it can't just be because the man is just so damn awesome.  It has to be because they're both worthy...unless the lesson here is that women only get into heaven by riding on their husbands' coattails.

That does not seem right to me.

1 Nephi 4: The Heist

Nephi decides to sneak back into the city to get the brass plates, because asking Laban nicely didn't work and paying him fared even worse. Nephi discovers Laban passed out drunk.

Nephi Kills a Defenseless Sleeping Scumbag
Laban was a bad guy. But, as I've already explained, he didn't have to die.

Assuming You're Called of God Makes an Ass Out of U and Zoram
When Nephi, wearing Laban's clothing, manages to get Laban's servant Zoram and the brass plates outside of the city, his deception eventually falls through. Zoram realizes that Nephi is not, in fact, his boss, and he tries to bolt. Nephi grabs him, and convinces him to stay with his family with this gem of an argument (verse 34): "Surely the Lord hath commanded us to do this thing; and shall we not be diligent in keeping the commandments of the Lord?"

Perhaps this sets the precedent for Mormonism's attitude of assuming its own veracity. Nephi's comment to Zoram is basically saying, "God told me to do all this. You want to do what God says, right?" He focuses more on following God than on whether or not God actually told him to do it. It's behavior that feels very much in line with Mormonism's emphasis on obedience and not with verifying the source of the commandment.

I guess Nephi was just a few thousand years ahead of his time.

Monday, February 13, 2012

1 Nephi 3: Going and Doing

Chapter three begins with yet another direct revelation. God tells Lehi he's gotta go back and get the brass plates. Laman and Lemuel, of course, as Nephi's foils, hate the idea, and continue with their characteristic grumbling and "murmuring." Then...we hit a scripture mastery.

Nephi and Adam Need to Have Lunch Together Sometime
In modern terms, Nephi says, "Okay, Dad. I'll go do what God said, because I know he won't tell me to do something unless he's made it possible for me to do it successfully."

Ooh, okay. That's a great point. Nephi should pass that little gem along to Adam sometime. Because according to Russell M. Nelson:
To bring the plan of happiness to fruition, God issued to Adam and Eve the first commandment ever given to mankind. It was a commandment to beget children. A law was explained to them. Should they eat from "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil", their bodies would change; mortality and eventual death would come upon them. But partaking of that fruit was prerequisite to their parenthood.
So...the first two things that God ever told his children to do were...mutually exclusive? They can either do what God said and have children, or they can do what God said and not eat from the tree...but they can't do both? Nephi, I think maybe you need to rethink your stance. Because there was no way that Adam and Eve could accomplish both the things that God commanded them.

It was a nice thought, though, Nephi. Really. I like the sentiment. Good try.

What's the Deal with Those Plates?
In verse 20, Nephi explains to us that the reason he and his brothers are trying so hard to get the plates from Laban is that they need to preserve the word of God as written by the prophets. That strikes me as kind of silly. Considering how much God's been speaking lately, sending people revelations, visions and dreams, and even sending angels out to yell at people (verse 29), it doesn't seem like God would have much of a problem reiterating any of His word that might have been lost.

Living In Little Brother's Shadow
Nephi and his brothers, on their second attempt to get the plates from Laban, offer him their money and treasure. Instead of allowing them to buy the plates, he kicks them out and keeps their money. Nephi and his brothers flee from the city, and then Laman and Lemuel beat Nephi and Sam up because they're pissed at them for losing the money. And then an angel comes to stop them. And the angel says to Laman and Lemuel, "Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities?"

Why the hell would the angel say that? Laman and Lemuel are pissed at Nephi, and they're kicking his ass. So the angel comes down and says, "STOP! GOD LIKES HIM BETTER THAN YOU CUZ YOU GUYS SUCK!" Won't that just make them resent Nephi more? God's angel doesn't seem to have a really good handle on bullying. Instead of helping the brothers get along better, all he did was drive a bigger wedge between them.

And what do you know, later on the family will split and form separate societies which will attempt to eliminate each other several times over the next few hundred years. Way to promote family unity, angel. I hope you got fired for that one.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mormons and Music

This post will probably apply to Mormons and any field of the arts, but for now I'll just focus on music.

To refresh my memory on the church's specific stance on music, I've been referring to the For the Strength of Youth PDF. Here's an excerpt:
Choose carefully the music you listen to. Pay attention to how you feel when you are listening. Don't listen to music that drives away the Spirit, encourages immorality, glorifies violence, or uses foul or offensive language, or promotes Satanism or other evil practices.
That's actually not too bad, at least on the surface. But let me attempt to break those criteria down, in ascending order of how much they piss me off.

1. Glorifying Violence
I assume this was probably targeting rap music. I don't know that the General Authorities are aware of Cannibal Corpse, Anal Cunt, and all those other grindcore/horrorcore/gorecore/rapecore/whatevercore crazy offshoot death metal bands out there. But I can totally agree with this. I don't believe violence is a good thing. I don't listen to music that tells me to kill people. But there is plenty of violence in music that does not glorify it. And even a lot of those weird grindcore songs are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and funny. It doesn't match my sense of humor, but the musicians don't actually think that "Domestic Violence is Really, Really, Really Funny." (That's an actual song title, yes.)

2. Promoting Satanism or "Other Evil Practices"
I doubt the First Presidency is a fan of the band Deicide. And I don't think I've ever even heard any overtly Satanic music. But I do think that there are many music scenes that are extremely misunderstood and quickly judged by outsiders. When people see a guy with a guitar, long hair, and that weird black metal facepaint style, I guess they just assume that he worships the devil.

What worries me more is this "other evil practices" thing. Does that mean Mormons shouldn't listen to "Renegade" by Styx? The protagonist leads a life of crime and then goes on the run from law enforcement...those are evil practices. I'm not into violence and I'm not into Satanism, but trying to keep people from listening to anything that has something bad that's not cast in a negative light is absurd.

3. Encouraging Immorality
This one's easy to joke about. "Well, that means they can't listen to Kesha, so they're really not missing out on anything, amirite?"

I don't really have any stock in the artistic value of, say, Kesha. The seemingly innumerable pop songs about finding love (or finding sex) bore me. And the sexual content of some of these songs is probably not suitable for younger listeners. However, if you've taught your children as well as you think you have, you shouldn't have to stop them from enjoying a good tune even if it contains lyrics you disagree with. I've sung along to Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime album dozens of times even though I don't agree with the political themes behind the premise.

4. Using Foul or Offensive Language
This is just stupid. I understand that some people (including Mormons) find swearing to be offensive. But swearing is a way to convey strong emotion. There are some fantastic pieces of music that contain swearing...because the best music contains strong emotion. This emotion doesn't always have to be expressed with swearing, but sometimes it's just the best way to do it.

Swans' God Damn the Sun curses the sun as a perfect conclusion to a song of deep sadness. It's a heartbreaking portrait of depression in which the narrator's blasphemous swearing intimates the depth of his suffering. It's a song that has made me cry and allows me to see my own problems as comparatively minor. It's bittersweet and cathartic, but Mormons will never feel that catharsis because Michael Gira says "god damn."

Pain of Salvation's Cribcaged drops 20 F-bombs to express the desperate rage against people who neglect their children in favor of greed and materialism. The sheer number of F-words in such a short time drives the point home and illustrates how much damage these parents can do. It's a good point and an important message that Mormons would agree with...but they'll never hear it because they disagree with the way the point is being presented.

If I had more time, I could find countless more examples. Disregarding music because of swearing is can miss out on some truly beautiful, artistic, and inspiring pieces of music.

5. Driving Away the Spirit
This is kind of another catch-all for a wide variety of music that the church leadership disapproves of. I think is geared toward loud, heavy or energetic music that doesn't allow you to hear the "still, small voice" of the spirit.

I remember a family home evening lesson I had in high school in which my dad counseled me not to listen to any music that "excites" me. He wasn't talking about sexual excitement. He was talking about normal, "hey, this is pretty awesome!" excitement. At the time, I was starting to stray away from my musical roots (hymns, Disney songs and a little family-friendly country music) and discover popular music and hard rock. I'd been listening to some 3 Doors Down and some Nickelback and I'd recently gotten hooked on a few songs by Breaking Benjamin. I think he was worried that Breaking Benjamin was too loud, too heavy, and too fast to allow me to hear the promptings of the holy ghost. So he made sure to warn me against hard rock without ever telling me a specific genre to steer clear of.

Boy, am I glad I didn't listen to him. Breaking Benjamin became an obsession of mine for a while. It led me to heavier music, a realm in which I discovered Dream Theater. Dream Theater opened the door to the world of progressive music, which I have been exploring ever since. It's world which I consider to contain a huge amount of great music, on musical, lyrical, emotional, and inspirational levels. Listening to only calm, quiet music is like eating only grains: there's a lot of good stuff in there, but you're not realizing your diet's potential to be well-rounded and healthy.

On a closing note: there's a lot of good entertainment out there and there's a lot of bad entertainment. But by excluding these five different kinds of music, the church is failing in its aim to shut out the bad. Just as much good has become off-limits with the bad, and there's still plenty of crappy music left that meets their criteria of acceptable listening. I think an open mind and a good head on your shoulders is a much better guide to finding good music than the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.

And that doesn't seem right to me.

(Oddly enough, I've had "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" stuck in my head for the last five or six paragraphs.)

1 Nephi 2: Modern Comparisons

Visions Galore!
God does a lot of talking. He tells Lehi (in a dream) that he needs to take his family and run. Then His voice comes to Nephi and gives him a six-verse speech about his brothers and how their descendants and his descendants are probably not going to get along well.

Keep in mind that in the previous chapter, we had Lehi seeing choruses of angels and "One descending out of the midst of heaven." We're like four pages in and God's throwing visions and pillars of fire and his likeness and his voice around like it's no big deal.

Considering the recent change to the church's Gospel Principles (scroll down to chapter 14) that now omits the implied claim of the church's current leadership having personally seen doesn't seem like Nephi and Thomas S. Monson belong to the same religion. Perhaps too much doctrine has changed since the Book of Mormon was written.

Joseph Smith's Accidental Irony
Verse ten makes me smile:
And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!
I'm betting Joseph Smith didn't really know anything about Pangea or plate tectonics or anything like that. That kind of research and discovery came around after his time. Which is funny, because otherwise he would have known that valleys--and all geographical features--are slowly changing over great periods of time. That valley was not as firm and steadfast as Lehi thought it was.

Appropriately enough, however, Lehi unwittingly aligned himself with one of Mormonism's habits--slow change. Little by little, the church has whittled away at its less popular aspects. The Adam/God blacks in the priesthood...these and many other things have disappeared one by one, like the gradual shifting of a continent as it effaces a valley and raises it into a smooth plain.

Ironic, right?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

1 Nephi 1: The Cold Open

Kick Things Off With a Bang!
Nephi begins his account of his experiences by describing the situation in his hometown of Jerusalem, circa 600 BC. He says that there were "many prophets" warning of the city's imminent destruction, apparently excluding his father from that group. So Lehi, apparently just a normal merchant guy, prays about these prophecies and BAM--epic vision time.

We're just six verses into the Book of Mormon and we already have full-on pillar of fire action. This seems a little bit like modern storytelling. I'm no expert about how people told their stories back in the days of oral traditions, but grabbing the reader's attention with a miraculous vision on the first page is the kind of thing that's taught in a creative writing class. This isn't necessarily suspicious, but I think it's worth mentioning. I mean, the Old Testament, for example, starts off with a bunch of boring stuff about God creating the world. This is all very important, of course, but it's pretty repetitive and not very interesting to your average reader.

So it's interesting to me that the Book of Mormon begins a little bit more like a modern novel than it does like a book of ancient scripture.

I Tawt I Taw a Vision!
The pillar of fire is followed being overcome with the spirit then by hosts of singing angels, and Lehi even "thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with--"

Wait. He thought he saw? This whole running off into the desert for a few years and then sailing across the ocean to start an entirely new civilization on the other side of the planet deal is all because Lehi thought he saw God? No...wait, he's pretty sure it was God. It had to be. Yeah. Right?

That's not weird at all.

The True Meaning of the Book of Mormon
Nephi closes the chapter by sharing what is often considered to be the "thesis statement" of the entire Book of Mormon: that "the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance."

It's a fair point--Nephi had a lot of faith. He and his family successfully escaped Jerusalem and some of its inhabitants who wanted to kill them, survived for years in the desert, built a ship and sailed across thousands of miles of ocean, and became a leader in a new, flourishing civilization in a previously uninhabited land. I'd say he was pretty mighty and he was delivered from a lot of difficult circumstances.

But...his brothers also rebelled against him and eventually broke off to form a rival group that would clash with Nephi's descendants in centuries of bloody battles. So I guess the real thesis statement of the Book of Mormon is that Mormonism creates rifts in families, tearing them apart in violent, irreconcilable ways.

Awesome. Who wouldn't want that for their loved ones?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Book of Mormon, Blow by Blow

There are a lot of things about Mormonism that seem pretty shady to me.

At one time or another, I've questioned and criticized lots of different aspects of the religion, but it's difficult to collect all the thoughts I've had over the last decade and put them into a coherent form, let alone remember them all.

So I did some brainstorming in an effort to find more topics to write about...and I realized that the best place to go to discuss Mormon doctrine is Mormon scripture. And I also realized that the last time I read the Book of Mormon all the way through was during a time when I believed it to be the inspired word of God. How trippy would it be now to go back through it with my ex-member perspective?

So I'm going to attempt to look at the Book of Mormon chapter by chapter and let Mormon scripture bring up topics for me to mull over and muse upon. I'm actually kind of excited to see what I uncover that I hadn't noticed before.

So, someday comes First Nephi, chapter one.

The Pride of Peculiarity

Mormons consider themselves to be "a peculiar people."  They're proud of the way they stick out in the modern world, separate and identifiable from the rest of the masses.

This was always a point of pride for me--I wasn't like the other kids in high school.  I was from a better background, with a superior lifestyle and a higher, purer level of morality.  The rest of the kids were just directionless rabble, sinful in their ignorance.

The church leadership encourages the sentiment, as it helps the members identify more closely with the rest of the organization.  Psychologically, it reinforces the members' voluntary membership by making them feel more gifted and more important than their peers.  Members who are already deep in it are cemented by this feeling of superiority.

But for the individual member who takes pride in it without considering it a hook from the leadership, it comes off as a bit...immature.  It reminds me of high school.  It reminds me of those kids who used to preach about nonconformity.  It reminds me of kids who'd say they wanted to be rebels or skip class or wear ridiculous clothes or whatever because they were expressing their individuality...but in reality they were only conforming to a different label.  They were hypocrites and they had no idea.

It's a similar mindset--they feel validated by a claim to superiority.  They can consider themselves better because they've made a choice to make their own choices.  But the reality is that they've only aligned themselves with a different goal, consigned themselves to an adjacent fate--but not elevated themselves above those who have given up the ability to choose.

And that doesn't seem right to me.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Apostatizing Over the Irrelevant

Mormonism continues to receive heavy media attention, and not just in relation to Romney's presidential bid.

It seems that discussing Mormonism's losses may be a popular subject lately.  The Washington Post has its own spin on Marlin K. Jensen's recent comments about apostasy in the ranks.

Jensen's job is not one that I envy.  He's the church's historian, so he has to produce scholarly-sounding historical research that minimizes the church's checkered past.  But he can't ignore it completely, because too much of it is public record or too well-researched by non-Mormon historians.  So he has to somehow make the church's history look not-so-bad and reconcile the differences between the wild early church and the tame, civilized image the church projects now.

Square peg, round hole?

It appears that one of the ways Jensen tries to downplay the church's past is to claim that it's irrelevant to the church's current teachings.  From the Washington Post:
The church “has made no effort to hide or obscure its history,” Jensen said, but some aspects — such as polygamy — “haven’t been emphasized often because they were not necessarily germane to what is taught at present.”
I have two problems with this.  First, there is an implied disparity between what was taught in the past and "what is taught at present."  I suppose this just refers to the fact that polygamy is no longer preached or practiced by the official church.  But for a church that claims to worship a god who is the same yesterday and today, whose word never changes, that reeks of an inadvertent admission of "changing the word."  Maybe that's just semantics.

What isn't just semantics, however, is Jensen's dismissal of the church's history because it's "not necessarily germane."  If he's a historian, he should know better.  The history and how it unfolds shapes the present.  American society still feels the effects of the Vietnam War, World War II, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and all the other events in between.  To say that an organization's history is irrelevant is ignorance.

And from a more religious angle, the church's history is anything but irrelevant.  The polygamy, the violence, the failures, the changes and "clarifications" of doctrines all contradict the church's claim of truth.  They all demonstrate a changing church that adapts to its times instead of remaining constant.  They illustrate a picture of the church's founder that, instead of depicting him as a Christlike prophet, show him as a simple treasure hunter and a power-thirsting demagogue.  But the truthfulness of the church and the reputation of its founder isn't necessarily germane, right?  It's all gravy.

None of that seems right to me.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Consecrated Oil

Consecrated Oil:  I don't get it.

Even when I was a faithful, believing member of the church, consecrated oil struck me as a kind of odd touch that didn't seem in keeping with the church's style.

So here's my understanding of consecrated oil:  It heals the sick.  But if you give someone a blessing without the consecrated oil, it's no big deal.  The oil-less blessing is still valid and ostensibly still has the same healing power.  So what's the point?

Let's apply a similar philosophy to another aspect of Mormon doctrine:  baptism.  Baptism cleanses you of sin and makes you an official member of the "true" church.  It helps you take advantage of the atonement and is the first important ordinance on your path to eternal salvation.  But if you skip baptism, it's no big deal.  Your life is still valid and your deeds ostensibly accomplish exactly the same amount of good.  So what's the point?

Okay, I actually agree with all that, but any True-Believing Mormon would be appalled by a claim that baptism is superfluous.  But it seems like a church that prides itself on having the "fullness" of the gospel and a monopoly on religious truth wouldn't have so many extra appendages and unsightly love would be free of abandoned or altered doctrines and without unnecessary practices or rituals.

It seems like that kind of church wouldn't have attempted and failed to enact the Law of Consecration.  That kind of church wouldn't have practiced polygamy and discontinued it later.  That kind of church wouldn't have preached about the less-valiant souls in the preexistence and then repealed its ban on blacks in the priesthood.  And that kind of church wouldn't make special vials and advise that all Melchizedek priesthood holders carry them if they really aren't necessary.  Especially since it's supposedly God who heals through the power of the priesthood, not the oil.

So consecrated oil is just this extra little piece of church practice that hangs around serving no real function. That does not have the mark of divine inspiration.  It doesn't sound like the perfect structure and organization that should come from an omniscient deity.

That doesn't seem right to me.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

When Is a Member Not a Member?

According to this recent Reuters article, Mormonism may be losing members at the highest rate since 1837.

The church claims to have a worldwide membership of more than 14 million, but there is a common theory (I don't know if this has ever been proven) that the church inflates its numbers.  That 14 million is probably simply a count of baptisms.  It still includes people like me--I haven't been to church in more than three years.  I'm angry at the church for brainwashing me and cheating me out of the first twenty years of my life.  I would advise any friend and most of my enemies not to join the church.  I take a sick pleasure in reading bad publicity about Mormonism or individual Mormons.  But I was baptized when I was eight years I still count, right?

According to the same article, unnamed "sociologists" have estimated the church's actual active membership around the world to be in the neighborhood of 5 million.  And if you believe the estimation that convert retention stands at 25%, then you could surmise that most of the growing the church is doing is from its nearly endless crop of children born into the covenant.  There's probably a much higher retention rate for victims of the child brainwashing machine than for converts who haven't grown up with the church being all they have ever known.  Although I'm betting retention among brainwashed kids is probably dropping too.

It makes sense to me that the LDS Church is having trouble keeping members in the modern era.  Religion just isn't as popular as it used to be, especially during Joseph Smith's era and the Second Great Awakening.  With the Internet Age, the church's tumultuous history, doctrinal oddities and other dirty laundry are all easy to find.  All that, combined with the church's continual low-resistance missionary efforts (give 'em the accessible, peachy-sounding stuff first, then spring the weird, less glossy stuff after they're already in) is a recipe for dwindling membership.

But what jumped out at me the most in was a comment from Marlin K. Jensen, the Church's "Historian and Recorder."  The article says:
"The church has a very progressive research and information division, with tremendous public opinion surveyors," he said. Among other steps, it has hired an expert in search-engine optimization to raise the profile of the church's own views in a web search.
That paragraph reeks of secular public relations.  Why does a religious organization with leaders who are supposedly given divine revelation need to survey public opinion to aid its advertising and recruitment?  And why does the supposedly only true church on the face of the earth need to ensure that its own information comes up first in a Google search?  Why would it need to quash unfriendly opinions?  It's a religion, right?  Not a totalitarian regime?

The Church continues to bring in new members (revolving door or not) and inflate its purported membership, all the while doing its best to keep its facade of virtue and infallibility from slipping.  That is corrupt and wrong.

And that doesn't seem right to me.

Half the Wisdom?

The "Word of Wisdom" is the nickname of Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the chapter which famously instructs Mormons not to smoke or drink.  The same section is often interpreted as prohibiting the use of tea and coffee.  Mormons swear by the health and spiritual benefits of following the Word of Wisdom and are proud to follow it.

At least...they follow most of it.

In D&C Section 89, verses 12-15, the Lord seems to be advocating near-vegetarianism.  It says that animals have been provided by God for human consumption, but are to be used "sparingly."  It continues by stating that animals should only be eaten in the case of winter, excess hunger, or famine.

Why is this part ignored?

Eating meat sparingly was at best glossed over in my Sunday School lessons.  When we studied Section 89, it was always "don't drink, don't do drugs, don't drink coffee and tea, and eat healthy."  That was pretty much the  gist of it.  But why only teach half of it?  Why be proud of your obedience to it if there's obviously a part of it that you don't bother with?  That doesn't make any sense.

I have never met a vegetarian Mormon or a Mormon who makes sure only to eat meat when the situation is desperate.  I don't think there are many members who actually follow the Word of Wisdom exactly as stated in the scripture.  I mean, if you stop at a burger joint on a road're breaking the Word of Wisdom.  If you put bacon in your eggs in the're breaking the Word of Wisdom.  And if you eat turkey for might be going to hell.

And that does not seem right to me.

Laban's Death

Laban didn't have to die.

It's one of the first and most controversial notable events in the Book of Mormon.  Nephi is commanded by God to kill Laban.  Nephi, being the near-perfect guy that he is, follows the command.

Nephi and his brothers needed the plates of brass, which local rich asshole Laban had in his possession.  When Nephi snuck into Laban's house, he discovers the man passed out drunk.  Aaaaaaaaaand...he has to die.

Wait...if he's hopelessly drunk and asleep, why can't Nephi just take the plates and run?  Sure, the story goes in  Mormon (folk)lore that Laban was a powerful man who would  have hunted Nephi's family down and killed them, but I doubt that this is a realistic analysis.  If Laban had been permitted to live, here's what I think could have happened:

  1. Laban decides that if Nephi ever returns to his town, he'll kill him.  Or...
  2. Laban realizes that Nephi's family is gone and he doesn't bother wasting manpower searching for them in the desert.  He's angry, but he eventually forgets about it.  Or...
  3. Laban's men track down Nephi and his family but the Lord creates a devastating sandstorm that disorients Laban's men.  By a very Biblical-esque miracle, Nephi and company navigate the storm with no trouble, escaping Laban's hit men.

But instead, Nephi gets to cut his head off while he sleeps.  Because that makes way more sense.

Another thing I find interesting about this passage is that it makes God sound defensive.  Nephi comes across Laban's passed-out body, and God tells Our Fearless Leader to kill him.  Before Nephi shares any of his own thoughts on the subject, God launches into a reasoned-out explanation of why Nephi should kill him and why it's totally okay by God to do it.  That doesn't sound very...godly.

Remember Abraham and Isaac?  "Hey go kill your son, I know it sounds wrong, but trust me."  The supposed "same" god also told Nephi, "Hey, go kill this guy, and let me explain exactly why you should do it beforehand, just in case you're questioning my judgement or whatever."  That sounds more like some guy who wrote the Book of Mormon and realized it might be controversial to have a prophet commit god-sanctioned murder decided he needed to throw in a rationale.

And that doesn't seem right to me.