Monday, April 29, 2013

LDS Niche Marketing

Today I rejoined the future. 

By which I mean that I upgraded my once-modern three-year-old smartphone and got one that is new, functional, and kind of sexy.  And suddenly, phone apps have once again become practical for me.

In my perusal of the millions of apps now available to me, I stumbled across a developer called LDS DUDES.  I found his programs to be...amusing.

The first one that caught my eye was a tithing calculator.  Yes, a tithing calculator.   The app was pretty much a dressed-up version of what anyone who's taken a computer class in the last ten years could have whipped up in Excel.

Even more laughable was the scripture reading alarm app.  This little gem allows you to set an alarm to read your scriptures--because it's not like you can do the same thing with your smartphone' s alarm clock or calendar.  The kicker, though, was the convenience this app provides its user by letting him enter the chapter and verse he stopped reading.  Because sometimes a physical bookmark just doesn't seem to do the trick.

Both of these apps--the free versions--fell into the 5,000-10,000 installs range.  While that's not an obscenely high amount, the number of downloads grossly outstrips the applications' usefulness.

As a Mormon, wary of the dangers of the world that were so prominently on display in popular culture, I remember occasionally longing for more entertainment that was more aligned with my conservative Mormon (and sheltered) worldview.  And it seemed to me that some of the other members were positively starved for Mormon-friendly products.

This is where substandard LDS pop culture stepped in.  Enoch Train, Mobsters and Mormons, The Work and the cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.  If it's by Mormons and for Mormons then it's worth shelling out for.  And if there isn't enough, anything secular by a practicing Mormon is the next best thing.  Orson Scott Card is a member of the church?  I'll buy six of his books for my kids. 

There's this weird culture in the church of members taking advantage of each other.  Artists who are often second rate fall back on a small but desperately loyal fan base who lap up their material with ravenous appetite.  When I was a kid, I used to think I'd be a successful LDS novelist.  I didn't necessarily need to come up with anything good--I'd just market it to church members and BAM!  I'd have a cult hit on my hands.

See what I did there?  Cult hit?

Anyway, it's still kind of tempting to try and make a quick buck off the by-Mormons-for-Mormons niche.  Whether it's making music, coding phone apps, or writing the next Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, it almost seems worth it.

The market is small but comically lucrative.  The field is white already to harvest.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Do You Think We're Stupid?"

My sisters didn't find out that I wasn't going to church right away.  They learned of my unbelief a few weeks after I told my parents.  All of them were home visiting for the weekend and were surprised when I didn't get up to get ready for church.

After they got home from church, one by one, they all came to talk to me during that afternoon.  I can't remember very many of the specifics of those brief but agonizingly awkward conversations--except one question that my oldest sister asked me:  "Do you think we're stupid?"

I'd just told her that I didn't think the church was true anymore.  And that was her response.  I guess she was trying to gauge my level of disgust toward the church.  I thought it was a weird question, and for a moment I kinda thought that my answer was yes, but I assured her that I didn't think any of them was stupid...I simply disagreed with them.

But that's a question that I keep coming back to, even though it was asked of me four and a half years ago.  And my current answer keeps switching back and forth with pretty reliable regularity.  It's like a pendulum.  Or an oscillating fan.  Or maybe a Newton's Cradle.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.

My family is a pretty smart family.  It's obvious to most people within a few minutes of meeting any member of my family that, at the very least, he or she is not stupid.  Between the five of them, they have nine college degrees.  Their language and comprehension skills strike me as being decidedly above average.  Mathematics came easily to most of us.  My dad in particular has a methodical, logical mind and I think his children inherited that.  So sometimes, when I think about my sister's question, my reaction is, "Of course not.  None of you is stupid."'d think all that extra education and all the problem-solving and reasoning skills they've acquired would make them better equipped than most people to see through the appealing facade of Mormonism and into the rotten core.  You'd think that the logical fallacies and doctrinal contradictions would almost jump off the pages of the Book of Mormon and smack them in the face.  You'd think that their intelligence would make them less prone to the deception and the brainwashing.  But they're all still locked into their LDS lifestyles.  Maybe having a better-than-average ability to understand things and not utilizing that ability to examine your religion is stupid.  "Unto whom much is given, much is required."  I'd expect better from people of their mental caliber.  And sometimes, when I think about my sister's question, my reaction is, "Of course I think you're stupid.  How can you, of all people, not see how false the church is?"

Back and forth.  Back and forth.

My family likes to tell me that I'm the smartest of them.  I got the best scores on the ACTs and the SATs.  They frequently express astonishment at my capacity to remember things (although they don't seem to realize that this ability is pretty much good for movie quotes and nothing else).  I don't know how true their claims are that I'm the brightest of the bunch, but if any of them still think that this is the case, I wonder how that colors their impressions of my current lack of religious belief.

Yeah, yeah, I be learned is good if you hearken unto the counsels of God.  When men are learned, they think they are wise, blah blah blah.  Maybe they still think I'm smarter than they are--but I got cocky and started thinking I was smarter than God.  I don't know.  But I do find it ironic that the supposed smartest guy in the family is the only one (or, hopefully, the first one) to leave the church.  Though, to be honest, and maybe to be fair to my "stupid" family, I don't think leaving the church is necessarily just about being smart enough to see through the bull.  There's some courage involved.  It takes a lot to face the doubt head-on.  

People talk a lot about the "shelf"--that when you come across something that doesn't make sense and makes you doubt the church, you push it aside and set it on a shelf in your mind.  Then, eventually, the shelf gets too full, it collapses and you leave the church.  I think different people's shelves have different capacities.  And some people get tired of putting stuff there earlier than others.  It takes a lot of guts to, after avoiding the things that make you all hot, bothered, uncomfortable and doubt-y for so long, to walk up to the shelf, stare at it directly, take things down, and examine them one by one.  Directly confronting your doubts can be an excruciating experience--but I think it's excruciating in the same way that setting a broken limb is excruciating.

So I guess maybe I shouldn't be too hard on my family for their beliefs.  I shouldn't consider them stupid--just cowardly.  No, wait, that's not right either.

I know they're smart people.  And because of that, it can be difficult to continue to respect them as they continue to attend the temple and pay their tithing.  But I guess I'll figure something out.  Because, as much as I do think they're stupid sometimes, that's not exactly a healthy way to view your own family--especially when they're not dumb to begin with.

Ugh.  Back and forth.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Hosanna Shout

The Hosanna Shout is friggin' weird.

At some point during high school, my family and I attended a televised temple dedication at our stake center.  I think it was for the new Nauvoo temple, but I'm not sure.  Anyway, we made sure to bring white handkerchiefs with us so that we could participate in the Hosanna Shout.

The dedication was pretty boring.  I hardly remember anything about it.  But I definitely remember the part when Boyd K. Packer got up, explained how to do the Hosanna Shout, and then led us in performing it.  I remember feeling ridiculous as I waved my silly little handkerchief and chanted "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna to God and the Lamb, amen, amen and amen" three times with the severely under-enthused congregation.

I think that was one of the first times I actually thought that some aspect of the church was undeniably stupid.  This wasn't some kind of blessing for the new temple--there was no implicit or explicit beneficial consequence of performing the Hosanna Shout.  It was simply an empty ritual, a superfluous tradition from an earlier era of church history.  I didn't associate this experience with the word, but this was the most cult-like vibe I'd ever gotten from the church.  This was weirder than calling people "brother" and "sister."  This was weirder than having the missionaries over for dinner.  It was even weirder than getting baptized for dead people.

The atmosphere in the chapel was strange.  Nobody really seemed to be really into the shout, which was really more of a weak mass intonation.  And it wasn't as though Packer was there in person to condemn us to eternal damnation if we didn't participate.  But everybody did it because it was just something that everybody needed to do.  I got the sense that if Packer had explained that we were to shout "I frequently have sexual intercourse with barnyard animals" three times, we all would have done it, hankies aflutter.

I'm having trouble locating a quote from a church leader concerning this, but I grew up with the impression (probably given to me by my parents, my Mormon leaders, or maybe General Conference addresses) that one of the great things about the Mormon church was that it wasn't crippled by a reliance on ritual--an oblique jab at the Catholics.  Instead of sitting through a service full of empty traditions wrapped in Latin, those of us in the true church simply had a few "ordinances" to receive.  The only rote rituals in our worship services were the sacrament prayers, which took all of thirty seconds.  This was supposed to be one more stone in the mountain of evidence that the church was true and the other churches were far removed from any real divine authority.

But then...this?  The Hosanna Shout is exactly the kind of thing that the church members used to criticize about other religions.  It accomplishes nothing, it doesn't even come off as particularly worshipful, but it's tradition to perform it exactly the same way at temple dedications.  Which makes it an empty ritual that our arch-nemeses, the Catholics, would laugh at us for.

If there is a god, I'm pretty sure he does some kind of cosmic facepalm every time he sees a performance of the Hosanna Shout.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Value of R-Rated Movies

I grew up with the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet readily available to detail The Brethren's standards for things I was and was not permitted to do.  One of the things I never really had a problem with was avoiding R-rated movies.  I may have sworn, been dishonest, listened to immoral music, and tainted my sexual purity, but for a long time I didn't watch R-rated movies...and I didn't have a problem with not watching R-rated movies.

But then in my junior year of high school one of my teachers decided it was a good idea to show the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan in class.  I didn't have the courage to announce that it was against my religion to watch, so I nervously rationalized that it was historically significant and I wouldn't be watching the complete film.  The next year, my government teacher showed us the entirety of All the President's Men.  It didn't even occur to me what kind of rating that would have until I encountered a block of dialogue that heavily featured the F-word.  And, to my dismay, I realized that I'd been watching an R-rated movie the entire time.

While I was at BYU and still mostly a believer, I explored a lot of different music and started to enjoy a lot of it that was outside what I'd been taught was the acceptable domain.  So when I finally stopped attending church, I opted to do the same thing with films and give this whole R rating thing a serious try.  And I watched a whole bunch of movies that I'd previously been told were to be avoided at all costs.

Here are some of the positive, important and Mormon-friendly messages that have been reinforced by some of my favorite R-rated films.

Panic Room - To me, this movie is really a huge buildup to the selfless, redemptive actions of Forest Whitaker's character.  He could have gotten away with the money but he would have left Kristen Stewart in danger.  So he went back and saved the girl because, despite his status as a criminal, it was the right thing to do and he knew it.  Mormons would not oppose his character's willingness to sacrifice to do what is right.  Also important is that he saves the family even though he's a criminal--don't judge the book by its cover.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Woven in among the many different themes that the brilliant-but-crazy screenwriter Charlie Kaufman works into this heartbreaking story is the severe consequence of making rash, emotional decisions.  Any kind of careful consideration can help spare the devastation that affect Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey after they both decide to erase their memories of each other.

Ten Inch Hero - This movie has a hell of a lot of heart.  Though much of the dialogue is sexual in nature, the movie actually glamorizes the bonds of friendship and family instead.  There's also the storyline in which Jen learns that her inner beauty is more important than her outer appearance--a theme that's also mirrored by Jensen Ackles' outwardly rebellious but inwardly sympathetic character.

Love Actually - As advertised by its title, this movie also has a hell of a lot of heart.  It shows the audience all kinds of love in all kinds of forms.  While there's nudity, immorality and plenty of swearing, the movie's central themes are about loyalty, friendship, the need to love and the need to be loved.  It captures the most important human emotion so beautifully and so poignantly that, at the end of the film, you kind of feel like humans, though flawed, are pretty awesome.

Schindler's List - This is one movie that I'm actually kind of angry about.  It's rated R and so I considered it off-limits and never really bothered to learn about it, despite the fact that it ranks so high on so many lists of great movies (eighth on IMDB, for example).  And though I didn't enjoy the majority of Schindler's List as much as some of my other favorites, it's this ending that makes the movie so great.  It emphasizes with such heartrending clarity the need for selflessness, for sacrifice and gratitude, and for working to make a positive impact on an often brutal world.  Sure, there's movies that glorify drug use, meaningless sex, obsessive vengeance and cold-blooded murder, but Schindler's List is the kind of R-rated movie that the LDS church is simply wrong to teach adults to avoid.

There's a lot of good to miss out on when you limit your film choices based on other people's decisions (by which I'm referring, of course, to the non-divinely-inspired MPAA).  Most art achieves the greatest impact by honestly confronting some aspect of human existence.  While it's possible to do that by avoiding sex, drugs, coarse language and violence, sometimes the most poignant messages require some kind of R-rated counterpoint.

Not that I expect Monson and friends to understand that.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Jacob 4: Phenomenal Cosmic Power

Commanding the Elements
Jacob overstates the power of faith in verse 6:
...and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.
When was the last time you heard any credible account of someone commanding the natural elements in the name of Jesus?  I'd also be willing to bet that the most recent accounts of this kind of thing, credible or not, probably featured priesthood holders.  According to Jacob, however, all you need is unshakable faith and you can literally move mountains.

There's been a movement among the latter-day church leadership away from explicit, literal miracles.  Recent addresses by the Quorum of the Twelve generally just interpret coincidental events as miraculous.  Any of the supernatural, public, Biblical-style miracles that are mentioned are long in the past.  This is just one more way in which the modern church has failed to align itself with its supposed scripture.

The Spirit:  Clear as Mud
Verse 13 contains a bit of information about the Spirit and how it can speak to us:
Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls.
According to Jacob, the Spirit manifests truth "plainly."  Of course, since its preferred method of confirming truth seems to be the oft-referenced "burning in the bosom," the person trying to obtain truth from the Holy Ghost would have to go through a trial-and-error series of yes-or-no questions until one of the questions yields a yes in the form of a soothing heartburn.  That does not sound like a direct, effective or "plain" method of communicating with a member of the godhead.  And considering that the salvation of our souls is at stake, you'd think that a loving God would ensure that the most effective system of communication with the Spirit would be in place.

There are those, of course, who actually hear the voice of the Spirit telling them something.  This is a much more effective method for God to communicate with his children, but unfortunately, the people who literally hear that "still, small voice" tend to be the same people who bear their testimonies about their dead uncles appearing to them in visions and giving them the names of the people God wants them to marry.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Gay Marriage RAGE

A thread on Recovery From Mormonism referred me to a blog post by a Mormon mother who recently had what she terms an "epiphany" concerning gay marriage.  She then lists an exhaustive, it's-so-horrible-I-can't-look-away litany of reasons why gay marriage is a bad idea.  Here were some of my favorite points:

How Sexual Relations Harm the Participants

  • It "deprives the participants of the opportunity to create life in the eternities."  Try telling a gay guy that he should dump his boyfriend because they won't be able to have spirit children in the hereafter.
  • "The homosexual lifestyle tends toward promiscuity."  No, the homo sapiens lifestyle tends toward promiscuity.  There are plenty of studies about the claim that gays have too much sex--she cites a source which refers to studies done more than 25 years ago that support her argument.  But I know how to use Google too, and in just a few short minutes I found a reference that disagrees with her reference and one that agrees with her to the point of absurdity.
  • "One of the reasons sexual union within the bonds of marriage is so joyful is because God Himself is a part of the union."   So married atheists are lying when they say they have great sex?
Reasons Why Same-Gender Marriage Harms Children
  • "Children need both genders as parents in order to be whole and happy.  We need only look to our prisons, full of children from one parent families, for proof of this fact."  That's not proof, that's simply a correlation--which, of course, does not imply a cause-and-effect relationship.  I'd be willing to bet that the reasons children from one parent families tend to wind up incarcerated are more closely tied to the family's finances.  And there's also the possibility that one parent can rarely keep a steady job, provide for all a child's emotional needs and guide a child's moral development simultaneously with complete success.  A devoted gay couple can surely provide all those things.
  • "Legalizing same-gender marriage will require schools to teach its validity, which equates to indoctrination of children over the objections of their parents."  I think this is silly.  All it will require schools to teach is its legal validity.  When I learned about Roe v. Wade in history classes, my teachers didn't tell me we should all go out and get abortions.  They just talked about the court ruling.  Sometimes the floor was open for debate, but the teachers never told us what to think about the moral aspects of the issue.  It's the parent's responsibility to teach children morality--at home I was given the gospel standards and a moral context for the historical fact that I learned in school.  
Reasons Why Same-Gender Marriage and Even Same-Gender Civil Unions Harm Society
  • "If same-sex marriage is legalized, any expression of disagreement with it becomes illegal discrimination."  Calm down, Orwell.  That seems unlikely.  She refers to an article citing a rash of tough and unjust anti-discrimination laws in Canada following its legalization of gay marriage.  But the article itself admits that some of these measures are being rolled back.  That, to me, seems like Canada just had some pretty weird growing pains.  Besides, I don't think this country repeating Canada's experience is a foregone conclusion considering our differences.
  • "...any person who [believes] homosexual relations to be wrong based on religious convictions would be required to betray their consciences by condoning hampers religious freedom."  What happens when gay marriage becomes legal nationwide?  Gays can get married to each other in any state and every person in the country can still pick what church to go to.  There won't be a state religion.  Religious freedom won't be compromised.  Furthermore, people will still be able to speak out against stuff they don't like about the government, just as they do now.  If you're worried that you'll be forced to condone homosexuality, remember that nobody can stop you from telling all your friends how filthy you think homosexuality is.
  • "It defines our culture as an immoral one."  Really?  From the Mormon perspective, our culture is already shot to hell.  We have drugs, gangs, murder, rape, abortion, coffee, and Ponzi schemes.  The entertainment we so ravenously consume frequently glorifies sex, violence and crime, promotes materialism and sensationalism, and may contain more than a few swear words. Besides, the state recognizing gay marriage could be construed as the government accepting those evil immoral deeds going on in bedrooms across the country.  You could say that the country is finally being honest about itself by admitting that gays exist and that they're people too.  Isn't honesty moral?
  • "If marriage between two men or two women is legal, we must also allow polyamorous groups...polygamy should then also be legal."  Here we have a Mormon saying that gay marriage is wrong because it opens doors to...polygamy.  Doesn't she realize she'll be a polygamous wife in the celestial kingdom?  
  • "If two people should be allowed to marry solely based on whether they have an emotional bond, then there is no reason to assume the marriage will have any permanence.  The partners can change whenever the emotional bonds change."  Yes.  An impermanent marriage often ends in divorce.  In fact, almost half of the marriages in the US end in divorce.  Impermanence in marriage is nothing new.
  • "Marriage is not just about recognizing bonds of affection or romance.  It is about a union fulfilled by procreation and family life."  Interesting that the traditional marriage vows ("to have and to hold," "in sickness and in health," etc.) don't mention anything about procreation or family life.  Just two people's commitment to each other.
Legal Arguments to Support Keeping Marriage Between a Man and a Woman Only
  • "The government is not in the business of affirming our loves."  That sounds like a good argument for...eradicating legal marriage entirely?
  • "What is at issue in the whether the government will force every recognize and affirm same-gender relationships as marriages."  Because it would be so traumatic for you to admit that the two guys that live next door have what the government calls a marriage?  What do you lose from this?  Nobody's asking you to knock on every homosexual couple's door and sheepishly admit to them that you realize they are married.  I think you give the government too much sinister credit for forcing people to do things.
  • "If we view sexual orientation as being more like religion than race, then we will understand why those who are religious don't want someone else's "religion" imposed upon them."  Why would we ever view sexual orientation like a religion?  If you don't like your religion, you can switch to a better one.  Or you can abandon it altogether.  You haven't chosen your race or sexual orientation. You can't simply decide to suddenly be Asian instead of white or straight instead of gay. And you can't remove yourself from sexual attraction or skin color altogether.  Furthermore, this is not a case of gay marriage being "imposed" on anyone.  A government employee is not going to come to your house and force you to take a gay lover and have a wedding.
  • "It is illogical to demand the right to do something that you have no inclination to do.  Marriage is between a man and a woman.  If a person has no inclination to be married to someone of the opposite sex , they should not demand the right to marry."  This assumes that everyone agrees that the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.  And it's not just the ceremony and the word that gays want.  It's also the tax and inheritance benefits.  I mean, a general consensus that they're equal beings might be nice, too, but at this rate, it might have to come later.
  • "Marriage...provides a stable, affectionate, and moral atmosphere for raising children, thus perpetuating the nation and strengthening society.  Homosexual marriage provides no such conditions."  This presupposes that all married heterosexuals are stable, affectionate and moral people.  I have a friend whose dad was an abusive drunk.  But he was married to my friend's mother, so everything's fine, right?  It's a person's character that matters, not his marital status or sexual orientation.  Gays can strengthen society by being role models of successful, hard-working, people who give back to their community and support their loved ones--you know, the same ways everyone else can strengthen society.
In her conclusion, this blogger also claims that "God's laws do not change with the trends of the times.  They are immutable.  They are true in all ages and times."  This begs several questions.  Why does Mormonism not follow the Law of Moses?  Why is the Law of Consecration not in practice?  Why does the church currently reject polygamy?  I don't expect it to happen, but I wonder how dramatically this woman's world would be rocked when the church finally caves in to societal pressure and condones homosexuality.

She concludes with a call for her readers to stand in holy places and not be moved, to defend their beliefs, and to not sway from their convictions in the gospel when assailed by peer pressure.  There is a misconception--especially in the church--that peer pressure is inherently bad.  Sometimes peer pressure can be a positive influence.  In this case in particular, when the equality of a group is impeded by the bigotry of erroneous religious politics, I think a little peer pressure could do some good.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Jacob 3: Scumbag God

And So The Endless Role-Swapping Begins
As Jacob continues to censure his people about their wickedness, he makes the point that the Lamanites are more righteous because they don't practice polygamy or any other "whoredoms."  And so, less than one generation after arriving in the Americas, the Nephite/Lamanite civilizations experience their first of many role reversals.

In First and Second Nephi, Nephi and his friends were the good guys and Laman and his cohorts were the bad guys.  But while those who came over on the boats still lived, Nephi's descendants became inexplicably wicked and Laman's descendants have just as bafflingly turned righteous.  And they will continue to switch back and forth for the next thousand years or so in an absurd caricature of social dynamics.

God's Curses, Blessings and Inscrutable Motives
Back in Second Nephi chapter 5, God cursed the followers of Laman for their wickedness by giving them a "skin of blackness."  Now that the wicked generation is passing away and their children are comparatively more righteous than their Nephite counterparts, does God decide to lift the curse?  Of course not, that would be silly.

Instead, he has his prophet Jacob speak highly of their chastity and their strong marriages.  Then the prophet uses the whole skin color thing as a scare tactic:
O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God.
Which pretty much means, "Look at how dark and gross these guys are on the outside—that's what your souls look like to God right now."

But Jacob also gives the "filthy" cursed race a little divine pat on the back:
And now, [the laws of chastity] they observe to keep; wherefore, because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them; and one day they shall become a blessed people.
Which pretty much means, "Hey, good job not taking multiple spouses.  God's not going to obliterate you, but he's going to leave your curse in place indefinitely, down through scores of generations that had nothing to do with the sins that caused it in the first place.  But don't worry, you guys will be blessed.  Eventually."

Why does God think this is a good plan?  What does he accomplish by trying to punish people for their ancestors' treachery?  And what is it that he has against the Lamanites that makes him promise them almost-unnattainable eventual blessings and continually favor the Nephites?

Not This Again...
In the last verse of the chapter, Jacob says:
These plates are called the plates of Jacob, and they were made by the hand of Nephi.  And I make an end of speaking these words.
Holy crap, it's hereditary. Jacob continues with Nephi's narcissistic, logic-defying naming convention by naming the plates after himself, despite the facts that
  1. He didn't make the plates himself, and
  2. He only contributed 7 chapters compared to Nephi's 55
  3. Nephi already decided to call them The Plates of Nephi
It's a bizarre little comment thrown in there at the end.  Truly Jacob has a dizzying intellect.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jacob 2: State of the Union

Following his Near-Perfect Older Brother's death, Jacob takes it upon himself to address the people concerning some worries he has about their righteousness.

Women Are Like Children
Jacob begins by fretting over the apparent aggressiveness of his preaching:
And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God...
So Jacob, in talking to the general public, speaks specifically to just the men.  Not only that, but he lumps adult women in with children when it comes to the maturity to take criticism and confront uncomfortable truths.  The Book of Mormon has been criticized for a kind of passive sexism due to the small number of women who play major roles or even have names (only three women from the Book of Mormon narrative are given names).  But this might be an example of a more active gender bigotry, implying that women have less emotional and spiritual strength than the men.

Being Rich Is Bad, Except When It's Not
Jacob launches into a philippic about wealth.  He warns his people that their searches for precious metals and their financial successes and their expensive clothing have made them prideful.  He berates them for "'persecuting" the less fortunate.

But then we arrive at yet another famous pearl of Book of Mormon wisdom, another scripture mastery, verses 18 and 19:
But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and afflicted. 
I have two problems with this—first, the fact that the top leaders of the modern-day church have riches, and they build malls and McTemples instead of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, liberating the captive and administering relief to the sick and afflicted.

Second, with this verse, Joseph Smith contributes to many Mormons' feelings of inadequacy.  This verse promises temporal material blessings for faith instead of the usual impossible-to-disprove postmortem promises of salvation.  Considering faith in Christ and pure motives should provide one with financial success, those who are struggling to remain employed or manage their budgets can't help but wonder why this verse hasn't come to their aid.  The implication here is that if you're doing what you should, you shouldn't have to worry about your finances.  But there are too many members who think they're doing all they can and are finding that it's not enough when it comes time to balance their checkbooks.

Whether he meant it to or not, verse 19 has cruelly tortured too many of Smith's followers.

An Arbitrary Abomination
Jacob continues by chiding his people for their "whoredoms," criticizing them for justifying their polygamous activity by using the Biblical stories of David and Solomon.  In no uncertain terms, he declares:
Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;
Wait, what?!

I know I read this as a faithful member more than once...but it never stuck in my memory.  Which seems odd, considering it preaches flat-out against what Joseph Smith and his friends would later do in the name of God.  Other verses call the practice an abomination and decry its deleterious effects on the emotions of the women affected by it.  But all that apparently would be set aside with Smith decided he wanted to get a little extra action.

I know apologists have found ways around this.  But I think it's pretty clear that even if Smith was a prophet when he published the Book of Mormon, he was at best a fallen prophet when he wed Fanny Alger.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Modern-Day Almas

Where are all the ex-doubters in the LDS church leadership?

Alma the Younger was a well-known enemy of the church before his conversion--and he became one of the Book of Mormon's greatest prophets.  His story mirrors that of the apostle Paul, who spoke out against Christianity until he was converted and became one of its greatest proponents.  Alma the Younger's father (Alma the Elder) was a wicked priest for the wickeder King Noah before being converted by Abinadi and gaining a following of hundreds of converts.

But where are the checkered pasts among the modern church leadership?  Which of the Twelve Apostles is a rehabilitated anti-Mormon?  Are any of the Seventies on a guilt-fueled mission to do as much positive work for the church as possible to atone for their past mistakes?  Where are the vehemently converted former doubters among the leadership?  There are no modern-day Almas.

I've complained before about other inequities among the upper echelons of the LDS heirarchy--that, overwhelmingly, the leadership is white, western American, educated, and male.  With the exception of the founding eras of Mormonism, there hasn't been a prophet who was a convert.  The last convert to serve as prophet was Lorenzo Snow, who died more than a hundred years ago.

The disparities between modern-day prophets and scriptural prophets are seemingly without number.  The church that claims it is led by a god whose doctrines and policies do not change, a god who is the same yesterday, today and forever, has a suspicious habit of not following its own historical precedents when it comes to selecting its leaders.

Well--it follows its own precedents from recent history.  But not those from ancient history.  The church's sixth article of faith, penned by Joseph Smith himself, states that Mormons believe "in the same organization that existed in the primitive church," so recent precedents and ancient precedents should be one and the same.

But they aren't.  And that doesn't seem right to me.

Jacob 1: Growing Pains

And so Nephi's brother Jacob takes the reins.

Eschewing History
Jacob says that, when his older brother passed the plates on to him, he included a "commandment" to only write things that were "most precious" on them instead of "the history of this people."  Apparently Nephi's vision for the small plates--which was supposed to have been God's plan--got watered down or lost over the centuries.  For example, the later books of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman and Ether have large chunks of political and military history.  I suppose the other explanation is that describing how many men were killed in battle and explaining who assassinated which leaders were considered "most precious" by the later authors of the plates.

Population Explosion
Jacob includes a little obituary for his recently departed brother.  He mentioned that Nephi hand-picked his successor to the "throne" of the apparently fast-growing Nephite society.  However, when describing how beloved Nephi was, Jacob mentions that he "wielded the sword of Laban in [the people's] defence."  That's kind of odd considering the family had only been in the Americas for about fifty years.  How many wars could such a small society have in such a small period of time?  How many of them could be left after so much fighting?  Come to think of it, how could a society in need of a monarch have sprouted up so quickly?  Fifty years ago it was like twenty people and now it's a burgeoning civilization with wars and kings?

In verse 13, Jacob lists the different factions and families as Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites and Ishmaelites.  It seems like every man who came across on that boat had his own following.  Where did all those extra people come from?

Jacob:  A Paragon of Altruism
Jacob and his brother Joseph established an ecclesiastical structure as the government and the inexplicably large population slid toward wickedness and the Book of Mormon's most venomous foe--pride.  In verse 19, Jacob explains:
And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments and we would not be found spotless at the last day.
That Jacob--always looking out for number one.  He doesn't say that he preached to the people so that they could rediscover the happiness offered by the gospel.  He doesn't say that he taught them for the benefit of their eternal souls.  He doesn't even say that he proselytized to unite the people around a common belief.  He just realized that he took on the responsibility of spreading the word of God and that if he didn't do it, God would punish him.  Although, to be fair, that kind of thinking probably still factors in to the decision to serve a mission today.

And so Nephi died.  He was an uppity little prick, and he wasn't too bright, and of course there was that whole murdering business.  But he was undeniably a badass--but not the last one the Book of Mormon will throw our way.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Another Empty Victory for Mormon Women!

Prepare to be shocked.

The LDS church, in a move doubtlessly intended to demonstrate their benevolence toward women, has subtly solidified their implicit status as inferior to men:  they've restructured missionary leadership to include some token female positions.

As announced on the Mormon Newsroom, the church is introducing a "Missionary Leadership Council" which will include the mission president, his wife, assistants to the president, zone leaders, and the brand spankin' new Sister Training Leaders.

The sister training leaders "will be responsible for the training and welfare of female missionaries assigned to them" because obviously it's unacceptable for a woman to be in charge of a man.  They will "spend time each week training and evaluating the needs of female missionaries" and "report directly to the mission president on the needs of sister missionaries."  So the women are in charge of only worrying about the women stuff while the big strong men get to carry the responsibility for everything that goes on in the mission.  Also, mission presidents' wives will be "asked to play an enhanced role in training and caring for sister missionaries," cementing the idea that the women will be taking care of women stuff.  Nowhere does this announcement make any reference to the remotest glimmer of possibility that any female could ever be in charge of any male.

The icing on the cake, though, is this line:
Full expression from all participants is invited in council settings, unifying the efforts of both male and female council members.
There is no assurance that opinions from male and female sources will be given equal weight and there's no chance in hell that the councils will be in any way numerically gender-balanced, but at least the few women on the council will be allowed to express themselves.

The church leadership doesn't seem entirely clueless--they seem aware that people both inside and outside of the church are calling for better treatment of women.  But this move is disingenuous.  The church is effectively saying that, to prove how much they value women, they're going to give women a few empty positions of leadership that are still subject to male oversight and allow them to go off into a corner and do their womanly stuff together with their own mostly useless leadership structure.
That makes two kind-of-good-but-not-good-enough strides for feminism within Mormonism in the past few days.  But if women ever gain truly equal footing with men in the church, that day is a long, long way off.  Because both these victories have been subtle put-downs at the same time.  

And that doesn't seem right to me.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

What's This--A Woman Praying?

Jean Stevens offering the benediction is probably the most-posted image in the Bloggernacle today.

I gotta say, I am extremely surprised that the church allowed a woman to pray in General Conference.  I guess I thought the Big Fifteen were a little more diabolically clever than that.  But even though women should obviously be allowed to pray in Conference, I think the church has made a tactical misstep that will weaken their already tenuous credibility.

One of the church's more important claims is that it is the same church that existed during Jesus's ministry.  Mormonism likes to tout itself as representative of unchanging truth, the constant word of God, and the restored original gospel of Christ.  But then something like this comes along and the church decides to make a logistical change--and some people who were paying close attention suddenly exchange skeptical glances and whisper, "Wait...why wasn't it like this all along?"

I'm hoping this event will be a miniaturized version of the end of the ban on blacks in the priesthood.  The scope of this event is much smaller, but it still--hopefully--will make people think.  If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why have women been kept from praying in conferences for so long?  Why the change?  If the church is run by divine inspiration, why does it feel like the leadership is simply giving the squeaky wheel some grease?  If God is at the head of the organization, why did he allow a tradition with no doctrinal basis whatsoever to continue?  And how depressing is it, that, in a religion which denies women the priesthood and relegates their value to the realms of child care and homemaking, such a small victory is met with such an outpouring of gratitude?

From the evil, scheming apostles' perspective, letting Jean Stevens step up to the microphone in the conference center was probably a bad idea.  At least, had they simply ignored the movement, they could have maintained a degree of continuity.  But now the continuity is broken and the credibility is compromised.  It's a slippery slope, Thomas, Henry and Deiter.  You opened the floodgates--next thing you know, you'll be ordaining them as deacons.

Friday, April 5, 2013

How Gay Marriage Will Fail to Destroy America

I know this has been in heavy rotation on blogs both inside and outside the Mormon blogosphere for a while now...but I think I'm finally going to weigh in on this whole gay marriage deal.

I'm straight.  Although I was raised with the implicit understanding that gays were to be avoided, I've since discovered that gay people are not, in fact, poisonous.  And they'll be just as non-poisonous when they're married to each other.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2 Nephi 33: Nephi's Clumsy Closer

Ladies and gentlemen, here we have it--Nephi's parting words of wisdom.

The Written Word is Useless
Nephi seems to imply that oratory, not text, is what affects our hearts (verse 1):
And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
Is Nephi/Joseph simply making an excuse for the crudeness of the Book of Mormon prose or is he saying that the written word has less power than the spoken word?  Is Nephi saying that the impact of reading the General Conference issue of the Ensign pales in comparison to seeing the conference live?  

That's what it seems like to me.  But then you'd have to wonder what the point of written scripture (like the Book of Mormon) would be.  If speech is what carries the power of the Holy Ghost, wouldn't it be preferable to mankind for scripture to be in the form of oral traditions?

Who Was This Written For Again?
Moving on to verse 3:
But I, Nephi, have written what I have written, and I esteem it as of great worth, and especially unto my people.
The Book of Mormon is of great worth unto Nephi's people?  I thought it was written for us.  In fact, several chapters ago, I referenced a quote from President Ezra Taft Benson, in which the former Prophet says:
The second great reason why we must make the Book of Mormon a center focus of study is that it was written for our day.  The Nephites never had the book; neither did the Lamanites of ancient times.  It was meant for us.  
So we have an ancient prophet saying that the Book of Mormon is of great worth unto his people and we have a modern prophet saying that his people never had the book because it was written specifically for the current age.  Which one of them is right?

I suppose the argument could be made that Nephi was talking about his descendants.  I think the limited church membership among Native Americans speaks for itself.  And then there's the fact that, when talking about his descendants, Nephi's preferred phrase seems to be "my seed" instead of "my people."

I suppose either Nephi or Benson was, as they say, speaking as a man instead of a prophet.

Another of Nephi's Logical Mindbenders
In verse 10, Nephi delivers another mental tongue twister reminiscent of his brilliant reasoning from the ninth chapter of his first book:
And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ.  And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.
A simplified translation:
And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, complete task A and complete task B; and if ye complete not task A then complete task B.  And if ye shall complete task B then ye will have completed task A, for task B is the same task as task A.
A more intelligent, efficient way to relate the same sentiment:
And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, believe in Christ.  And believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.
Magic!  I've cut the word count by more than thirty percent, preserved the meaning of the verse, and saved Nephi and his editor some precious time spent slaving over a plate of gold to painstakingly etch the words of God into the metal surface.

Here at the end of his run, Nephi is seeming less and less inspired.

The Last Day is Too Late
Nephi immediately follows up that last bit with another doozy:
And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye--for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.
This could be the single verse in the entire Book of Mormon that would piss me off the most if it turned out to be true.  I took Moroni's challenge many times, attempting to verify the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon according to the guidelines set forth in Moroni 10:4-5.  I was not granted an answer.  It was not confirmed to me that Nephi's words are the words of Christ.  So I'm picturing standing in front of God and Jesus after my death, waiting for my judgment.  And Jesus says to me, "By the way, the Book of Mormon is true."  And I will rage, "Thanks for telling me that now, after I've lived my entire life and it's too late to change anything!"

Thanks for that, Nephi.  It's really helpful to know that, after all the doubt and uncertainty we face in life, that after death we could have a divine "I told you so" coming.


And on that note, Nephi makes an end of his writing.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Easter and Mormon Logic

I was a decent son the other day.  I visited my parents for Easter.

Easter's never been a big thing in my family.  And I've noticed that it's never seemed to be as big a deal in Mormondom as it was for a lot of other people.

My mom made a similar comment toward the end of the evening when she kind of half-apologized to my girlfriend for a normal dinner instead of something special.  We've never really had a fancy dinner for Easter, and this year was no exception.  My mom explained that Mormons "remember the atonement and the resurrection all year round, so we don't really need a holiday to commemorate it."  That seemed like an arrogant and insensitive thing to say to my non-denominational Christian girlfriend.  It was kind of a not-so-subtle my religion is better than your religion thing--although I'm pretty sure my mom didn't mean for it to be taken that way.

I don't think I've ever wanted to slap my mother.  Until then.  What I wanted to say was "So you guys are too dumb to remember the birth of Christ?  The miracle that began the perfect life of the Son of God and enabled the atonement and resurrection?  You don't need a holiday to remember his death, but you need a reminder to celebrate his birth?"

Obviously I didn't say that.  But I was appalled that my mom would say something so pompous and so logically flawed.  Then I thought about it and realized that she's been saying stuff like that as long as I can remember.  For example, she's explained that some people feel the need to give to charity but she doesn't because she donates tithing and fast offerings to the church.  Of course, she has no real guarantee that the money "donates" actually goes toward charitable enterprises.  And if she's really committed to helping those less fortunate than she, donating to the church doesn't exclude the possibility of donating to other worthy causes.

I used to believe those kinds of things.  I used to say those kinds of things.  It's embarrassing to face that reality.