Saturday, February 27, 2016

3 Nephi 4: A Chicken Couldn't Live on that Ground

Tensions continue to mount between the Nephite civilization and the massive armies of the Gadianton Robbers.

Food, Glorious Food
In anticipation of Gadianton aggression, the Nephites have consolidated their population into one ostensibly defensible knot.  They've brought livestock and seven years of "provisions"—and for good measure they've left their old homes "desolate" and free of any remaining crops.  When the Robbers descend from their mountain hideouts, they find the former Nephite territory to be an impossibly barren place to live.  But the Robbers refuse to spread out and plant crops for fear that this will leave them vulnerable to Nephite attack.

What about this makes no sense? Well, basically all of it.

First of all, how are the Nephites going to survive for seven years on "provisions?"  How did they orchestrate a harvest so monumental that it would last the better part of a decade? And if there was some foresight or planning involved, why was that not indicated in Gidgiddoni's five-point plan from the last chapter?

And what are the animals going to eat? You can't slaughter a pig to cook some bacon if all your pigs died of starvation six years back.  And there's no space to grow food, because they've gathered into one place and the Robbers' fear of putting down roots indicates that nobody can safely spread out and plant.  Which means somehow the Nephites were able to spontaneously generate enough non-perishable food to feed humans and livestock alike for seven whole years.

If this had happened, it surely must have taken a miracle.  And if a miracle had indeed transpired, isn't that exactly the kind of thing the prophets would have recorded for our day?

Old Dogs, Old Tricks
When the Gadianton Robbers return a few years later under new management, they attempt to lay seige to the Nephite settlement.  After the Robbers' food supply runs out and they're about to flee, how does Gidgiddoni ensure a decisive victory?

By sneaking his army around under cover of darkness and surrounding the enemy.  Doesn't this feel familiar?

It should, because that's basically what Captain Moroni and his cronies did in every single battle during the height of the Nephite-Lamanite conflict. While I suppose Moroni's wildly successful career would have essentially written the book on Nephite military strategy, these rehashed tactics are starting to feel less like a tried-and-true formula and more like the product of a poor writer with no combat experience.

By Their Kill Ratio Shall Ye Know Them
Remember, the Gadianton Robbers are the bad guys and the Nephites are the good guys with divine backing.  With that in mind, let's review a few of the wonderful things the Nephites have accomplished here.

In this chapter's first battle, the Nephite army drop to their knees in prayer as the Robbers charge, and God filla his chosen people with such power to repulse the assault "insomuch that there never was known so great a slaughter among all the people of Lehi since he left Jerusalem."

When Giddianhi's troops retreat, Gidgiddoni's men give chase (yes, the opposing generals have confusingly similar names) and continue killing the enemy "that they should not spare any that should fall into their hands by the way."  They take no prisoners and instead maximize their body count.

In the second battle, which begins as a seige, the Nephites use their superior rations to outlast their tormentors.  Harried by devastating daily attacks from the Nephites, the Robbers make plans to withdraw.  With full knowledge of his enemy's near-starvation, Gidgiddoni decides to turn a failed seige into an utter defeat.  Rather than let the beaten forces leave in peace, he sends part of his army out during the night to block the retreat.  The Robbers who surrender are taken prisoner, but "the remainder of them [are] slain."

Then, to top it off, the Robbers' leader, Zemnarihah, is hanged "upon the top" of a tree until he dies.  Then the Nephites chop down the tree and seal their barbaric ritual with a prayer (verse 29):
May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth.
Then they launched a full-fledged celebration before Zemnarihah's rigor mortis could even set in (verse 31):
And it came to pass that they did break forth, all as one, in singing, and praising their God for the great thing which he had done for them, in preserving them from falling into the hands of their enemies.
These are the righteous?  The ones praying for violent divine retribution around the corpse of an executed enemy before almost literally dancing on his grave?  These are God's chosen people?  The ones singing, whose hearts are "swollen with joy, unto the gushing out of many tears" in the immediate aftermath of a full-scale war that cost countless lives on both sides?  This is our ancient example of righteousness?  A callous disregard for the value of human life and an obsessive loyalty to a dubious religious ideal?

Show some mercy to your enemies!  Don't condone or celebrate needlessly bloody military victories!  Take some time to bury your dead!  Mourn the loss of your friends and family members!  And if you really think your god gave you the ability to gleefully take so many lives, pick a better god to believe in.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Poetry and Self-Loathing in Mormonism

I was poking around in some of my old files the other day and I came across a collection of poems I'd written during high school.  One of them contained a starkly depressing snapshot of my state of mind circa 2004.

I believed in the church one hundred percent at this point, but I liked looking at dirty pictures on the internet.  I'd already confessed to my bishop (who was also my father) once, and after I failed to curtail my forbidden online activities, I began lying and telling him that I'd stopped. So there I was, sixteen years old and pretty convinced that my whole future was ruined because I'd committed horrible sins and then deceived my bishop about it.  I would never be able to serve a mission and I'd never marry a wonderful Mormon woman, assuming the guilt didn't kill me before it was time to consider either of those things.  And my odds of spending eternity in the Celestial Kingdom with my family grew slimmer and slimmer with each passing day.  And it was my fault because I was weak.

I remember taking a break from a particularly difficult homework assignment to crank this out in a fit of self-loathing:
An upraised arm, there feebly waving,
A crimson hand, alone, forsaken.
Below, a man in need of saving
From swamps across the path he's taken.

Encumbered by this ruthless mire,
I sink into despair and mud,
Prepared to breathe last and expire—
Drown amid my own pooled blood.

Where is that offered, reaching hand?
Why do I not perceive a friend,
Who, though across whole worlds has spanned,
Will save me from my dismal end?

How can it be that I'm alone?
Did no one see my efforts fail?
How could they leave me on my own,
Not guide me toward a safer trail?

If not a friend, then some stranger
Could simply toss a length of rope.
But none are near this distant danger;
I'm as abandoned as my hope.

I'd wandered from the central road,
Escaped the everpresent eye
That served as a relentless goad,
Directing me up toward the sky.

I thought I'd won the right to choose,
But each new choice reduced my stride.
In verity, I chose to lose
My truest freedom to decide.

Now I recall extended arms,
Of friends who saw me go astray.
Now I recall the sharp alarms
From those who knew the better way.

Had not my ears received their pleas?
Had I not heard their worried shouts?
Why had I veered by such degrees?
Why had I not obeyed my doubts?

Mud rises gently to my chin.
My legs immobilized below,
I now regret the simple sin
That led to this concluding woe.

Afflicted by my vanity,
A tragic victim of my pride,
I sealed my humility:
I closed my eyes, submerged, and died.
It might sound suicidal, but it wasn't.  It was just depressing as hell.  I was so convinced that I'd destroyed myself and that my misery was the result of my own shortcomings rather than an effect of the suffocating atmosphere of Mormonism.  This poem was another way for me to remind myself that I was wrong, that everybody else was right, and that I needed to either fix myself or just give up.

As much as I dislike the church, sometimes I forget how bad things were when I believed in it.  Growing up under the Latter-day Saint pall was agonizing even though I was lucky enough to fall into the church's demographic sweet spot (straight white American male, built for Mormonism).  It brings to mind a quote from a children's science fiction book I used to love (and for some reason, I nailed this quote, word for word, at least fifteen years after I last read it):
No matter how deep you go, there's always another level.
Sure, I had it rough.  But no matter how deep you go, there's always another level.  There are tons of kids who have a tougher time in the church than I did.  And there are tons of kids who went through some crap I can't even imagine.  There's always another level.

I can't imagine how much bleaker this poem could have been if I'd been a young woman struggling with the licked-cupcake thing or a black kid being unofficially taught that I was less valiant in the preexistence or a gay guy expecting to spend my whole life either celibate or pretending I liked women.  There is a reason some kids in the church are suicidal—closed-minded dogma, high stakes, and impossible expectations put way too much pressure on the youth.

It's also great to see how far I've come since leaving the church.  I operate under no delusions that I'm perfect, but I'm not constantly warring with myself, defeating myself, and hating myself for it.  It's nice to assess my character and my progress on my own terms instead of comparing myself to unattainable and often arbitrary standards imposed upon me by a cult-like organization.

Hopefully, no matter how far you ascend, there's always another level.  Something else that can be better.  Something to look forward to.

Monday, February 8, 2016

3 Nephi 3: The Robbers Resurface, Again

Despite the fact that the Nephites and Lamanites now go together like peanut butter and jelly, trouble brews on the horizon.  The Gadianton Robbers are still trying to do the whole Gadianton Robber thing by screwing up everybody's plans for peace and prosperity.

Secret (adjective):  see public
Giddianhi, the current ruler of everyone's favorite ancient American terrorist organization, decides to send a letter to Lachoneus, the current ruler of everyone's favorite ancient American temporarily desegregated community.  In it, he essentially tells Lachoneous that the only way his people can avoid annihilation is to assimilate into the culture and lifestyle of the Robbers.  But in verse 9, Giddianhi calls himself "the governor of this secret society."  And two verses before that, when explaining the conditions of surrender, he says that Lachoneus's constituents must "unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works."

What I want to know is why anyone—Giddianhi, Mormon, Joseph Smith, or God, for that matter—thought that the word secret belonged anywhere in a description of the Gadianton Robbers at the height of their power.  They're not a mysterious organization infiltrating the government to try and murder a chief judge anymore.  They're basically an unrecognized government of a rival nation.  The combined military efforts of the Nephites and the Lamanites have been unable to destroy or even defeat these guys.  Their numbers are staggering.  Their existence is common knowledge by virtue of being public enemy number one.

They're not the Illuminati.  They're not the Freemasons.  They're not even the Girl Scouts.  They're a well-known, ever-looming threat with their own territory and their own culture.

Neither their society nor their works are secret.  Why is anyone throwing that term around at this point?

Lachoneus is an Idiot
Upon receiving Giddianhi's threatening epistle, Lachoneus decides to take a firm stand against terrorism.
So he springs into action in a stunning example of leadership that comes way too late.  Here's what he instructs his people to do:
  • cry unto the Lord for strength against the inevitable attack of the Robbers
  • gather all the people and animals and supplies into one place
  • fortify the city
  • post round-the-clock guards
  • repent
Two of those things are religious decrees, which you'd think should come from the prophet instead of from a government official.  One of those things is pretty impractical—because if you're consolidating two entire societies into the smallest possible space, where are you going to grow your food and where are your flocks going to graze?  

And the other two are things that Lachoneus already should have been on top of long ago.  The Gadianton Robbers are not a new problem.  Especially after the recent wars, why isn't the government already trying to ensure the fortifications are up to snuff?  And why is the military not already keeping watch to make sure an invading army isn't approaching?  

Even better, in verse 17, Lachoneus has the brilliant idea to "appoint chief captains over all the armies of the Nephites, to command them at the time that the robbers should come down out of the wilderness against them."  It's been at most one year since the last time the Gadianton Robbers attacked, during which time the previous chapter stated that "the sword of destruction did hang over them."  Why the hell didn't we have a leadership structure in the army before now?

After Pahoran, Lachoneus seems to be continuing an emerging pattern of the Nephites electing leaders who are utterly inept.

All the Right Reasons
So apparently the Nephites like to pick military leaders who have "the spirit of revelation and also prophecy," which is how a fellow named Gidgiddoni ascended to the position of chief captain.  Some of the people urged him to mount an attack on the Gadianton Robbers, but Gidgiddoni wouldn't listen (verse 21):
But Gidgiddoni saith unto them: The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands.
He doesn't say that it's wiser to conduct a defensive campaign.  He doesn't say that the Gadianton Robbers know the mountainous terrain better.  He doesn't say that the Nephites would be attacking uphill from a position of weakness.  He just says that, for unspecified reasons, God is going to make sure the Nephites lose.

Thanks, dude.  That's really helpful.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

3 Nephi 2: The Great Un-Schism

I know that this will come as a huge shock to everyone, but the Nephites are wicked again.  For the five hundred eighty-seventh time in the last six hundred years.  

Redundancy in Language
I'm not even ten words into the chapter and I'm already shaking my head at the amateurish writing.  Observe the illustrious dawning of chapter two:
And it came to pass that thus passed away the ninety and fifth year also,
Stop.  Why do we need two phrases, each utilizing the verb pass, to indicate the expiry of one unit of time?  This is bad writing, plain and simple...or at the very least it's inefficient translation.  The first six words are completely unnecessary.

Interesting Choice of Calendar
This chapter explains that, yet again, the Nephites are getting more rotten as more time goes by.  They no longer believe that they witnessed miraculous signs of Christ's birth and they no longer believe that there will be any future signs in the heavens.  And then this happens (verse 8):
Now the Nephites began to reckon their time from this period when the sign was given, or from the coming of Christ; therefore, nine years had passed away.
It's been one hundred years since the beginning of the reign of the judges.  It's been six hundred nine years since Lehi left Jerusalem.  Why would the wicked Nephites decide to start measuring their time based on a miracle that the majority of them don't believe in, especially when they already have two long-established historical benchmarks to reference?  You don't see the US switching from anno domini to since the last sighting of Elvis.

It's Almost Heartwarming
As iniquity abounds, the feared Gadianton Robbers become so powerful that they are now capable of "[laying] waste so many cities."  It gets so bad that the Nephites and Lamanites largely set aside their differences and unite to defeat the Robbers in battle.  Their societies finally begin to blend, perhaps as an outward reflection of their ideological alliance.  And just when you think the Book of Mormon is turning into an ancient American Hallmark movie, verses 14 through 16 drop like the proverbial Acme anvil:
And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites; 
And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;
And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year.
Ugh.  There we were, reveling in the Era of Good Feelings, and then the Book of Mormon has to ruin it by reminding us how racist it is.  Why did the Lamanites have to be numbered among the Nephites?  Why couldn't the Nephites be numbered among the Lamanites?  Or why couldn't they just have continued to coexist as peers, identified by their lineage without shame or stigma?

This is also an explicit confirmation that the curse placed upon them was, in fact, their skin color.  But it's okay now, because they've been righteous for a while and have been reunited with God's favorites, so their skin can turn white.  Now they can be hot again.

I suppose this is where the claim (supported by the prophet Spencer W. Kimball) that modern-day Native Americans' skin tones were lightening as they adopted the religious and cultural values of Mormons can find its genesis.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Review: A Danger to God Himself

In his first published work of fiction, a tale about a Mormon missionary who becomes afflicted with a mental illness, John Draper takes on some heavy subject matter, throws some great characters into the mix, and produces a memorable and admirable novel.
Available in ebook or print from Amazon
In Sedro-Woolley Washington, Elders Kenny Feller and Jared Baserman are caught up in one ward's awkward transition.  It's 1979 and the bigoted Bishop Briskey has been released from his calling because of his opposition to the reversal of the church's policy banning blacks from the priesthood.  Briskey has been replaced by Demetrius Bloodworth, a semi-recently converted black man.

Let's all take a moment to appreciate not only the Dickensian-sounding surname of the new bishop, but also the amusing poignancy of its selection—his religion has finally admitted that his blood is worth the same as any other man's blood.

Jared Baserman, meanwhile, has had a few strange little episodes that have given some people reason to believe that he has a unique power of prophecy.  Although this later turns out to be some kind of psychosis, as the condition escalates, it results in some truly riveting drama in an LDS chapel and eventually spawns a new sect of Mormonism.

It's a fun tale, but what's great about it is the realistic depiction of Mormon culture, which manifests itself as both profound and hilarious.  Though it's evident he did a ton of research, there were a few things about Draper's rendering of Mormonism that I found questionable.  For example, both Elders swear casually.  Around each other, this seems realistic enough, since they know neither one of them is the Peter Priesthood type.  But they also cuss in the presence of church leaders (without reproach, too), which seems like a risk very few missionaries would be willing to take.  Also, one of the characters refers to Gadianton as an apostate, which is not a term I've heard leveled at him before.  I don't think the Book of Mormon gives enough backstory on Gadianton to claim that he was ever a pious man.  Another character basically quotes First Nephi but attributes the principle to Joseph Smith.

Most notably, when Elder Feller eventually decides that the church isn't true, it's the easiest and fastest faith crisis I've ever heard of.  He's certainly had his doubts up to this point, but after President Dewey catches him breaking a pretty important rule, Elder Feller has one conversation with the man and then tells Jerusha:  "I think I'm done with the Church."  Switch flipped.  I realize the point of this novel really isn't to explore Kenny Feller's loss of faith, but I was disappointed by the way it was glossed over.

But enough with the complaints.  Let's get on to the good stuff!  For starters, here's what Elder Kenny Feller has to say on the nature of God:
Growing up in church, we always prayed to Heavenly Father as if He was involved in our lives—imminent, sneaking notes into the knife pocket of your corduroy pants.
I can't say enough how much I love this nostalgic, personal characterization of the Mormon God.  I want to start calling him the God of Knife Pocket Notes instead of the God of Lost Car Keys.  Draper also captures perfectly the struggle to react to awkward or inappropriate moments—when you're still trying to be a good Mormon, but you don't want to be weird about it:
But, back then, standing there with my new junior companion—my greenie—my primary concern was to communicate something non-judgmental yet alarmed. Something that was senior companion material but also made me seem like a normal guy. I think all I marshaled was a pained, equivocal look, like my plumbing was backed up.
It's impossible for me to express just how spot-on this is, at least for me.  Kenny also discusses the strategies of teaching Moroni's Promise to investigators:
It’s actually a great tactic in that it always works, if you’re the missionary. That is, if the investigator does receive an inner glow, then, wham, you can wrench him into the boat. And if he doesn’t feel that warm feeling, well, it’s just an indicator that he wasn’t sincere enough or that his real intent wasn’t real enough. Try again. The answer is never no.
I didn't serve a mission myself, but having tried Moroni's Promise approximately nine thousand three hundred forty-seven times and having heard about the same number of rationalizing explanations insisting that the promise always works whether we realize it or not, I completely agree with these comments as well.

But that's not all.  There's circuitous apologetics about why the priesthood ban was actually a good thing, amusing remarks about how uptight the church is, some hilariously irreverent dialogue, subtle jabs at Mormon members' comparative ignorance of the Bible, and a scene that illustrates how Mormon men especially don't realize how the church is sexist.  There's so much pure Mormonism in here that it's easy to forget that John Draper didn't actually grow up in the church.  Apparently he attended an LDS ward while working on this book, and he must have been filling stacks of composition books with notes.

The story does take a little while to really get going, but at least that time is spent fleshing out the characters.  The setting feels real, the people feel real, the church feels real, and the humor blends flawlessly with the drama and the tragedy and the philosophizing.

As a self-published writer, I try to read a lot of self-published books to support my fellow indie authors.  I think there's a common preconception that self-published or independent works are generally inferior to the products of large publishing houses—a preconception that I try my damnedest not to give anyone more reason to indulge in.  But this novel, refreshingly, is one of the books that makes us look good.  It may be the work of an amateur novelist, but that doesn't mean the work is amateurish.  It's a polished product, and it feels like the passion project that Draper claims it is.

I highly recommend giving this novel a read...and so does the webmistress of Main Street Plaza.

And don't forget there's still four days left to vote for A Danger to God Himself (or my own book, Their Works Shall Be in the Dark, should you be so kind) in this year's Brodie Awards!