Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Seminary Music

Recently, I watched the entirety of The Newsroom on Amazon Prime.  I'm a big fan of The West Wing, so I figured I'd give this show a shot since it was created by—and principally written by—the same dude.  Aaron Sorkin:  ingenious writer of snappy, witty, dialogue and die-hard owner of some complex if overbearingly idealistic political opinions.

It wasn't as good as The West Wing, of course, but what I disliked about The Newsroom the most was, unexpectedly, the opening theme music.  It brought back some post-traumatic-stress-esque flashbacks of seminary.

Obviously, I'm exaggerating.  Seminary was not nearly bad enough to have given me any kind of legitimate PTSD.  But watch this opening sequence and tell me if the score, especially the first half of it, doesn't conjure up images in your head of some attractive young actor of wholesome appearance poring over a copy of the Book of Mormon with a righteously goofy grin on his face:

It's stupid, but as a television fan, I love a good opening theme.  From the triumphant orchestral swells of The West Wing to the ominous jauntiness of Dexter to the upbeat madness of 30 Rock or Futurama, a great opening theme excites a viewer familiar with the music and gets him pumped about the episode to follow.  But with The Newsroom, I can't shake the association with cheesy seminary videos.  And so I begin each episode with mixed feelings—I can tell that the music is beautifully written and laudably performed, but it still conjures up memories of "...and my soul hungered...."

This is not the first time I've come across this phenomenon.  It's difficult to describe exactly what properties qualify a piece of music as "seminary-video-like," but apparently I know it when I hear it.

The first time I can remember discovering my distaste for this kind of thing was when I was exploring modern progressive rock and I stumbled across a band named Spock's Beard.  Something about the singer Neal Morse's voice, or maybe his vocal melodies, felt very seminary-like.  And when I listened to Transatlantic, a side project of Morse's, the song "Bridge Across Forever" made me realize what I was associating him with—the song is the most seminary-like non-seminary song I've ever heard in my life:
I later learned that Neal Morse had abandoned Spock's Beard following his conversion to Christianity, and for a while I thought maybe Christian music and seminary music sounded similar to me.  Except that "Bridge Across Forever" was recorded a couple of years before Morse became Christian.

It's a mystery, I suppose, but one that I find interesting.  As best as I can tell, the music that gives me seminary flashbacks tends to be down-tempo, with emotionally-charged (or emotionally manipulative) melodies and lyrics, with orchestral instrumentation (as opposed to rock instrumentation), and with a general bittersweet vibe.  There are definitely a lot of unidentifiable, unquantifiable attributes at play, though.

But apparently this kind of mental association with the agonizing brainwashing session before school every day is strong enough to taint my enjoyment of The Newsroom.  Luckily the episodes are almost a full hour long, so I've mostly forgotten about any early morning seminary associations by the time the dramatic climax rolls around.

Brains are weird.  They have all kinds of tricksy things to tease their owners with.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

3 Nephi 12: The Sermon on the Rubble

Jesus is still Jesusing in the ancient fictionalized American realm.

The Magic Number
The very first verse in this chapter interrupts itself to specify that the number of men Jesus called to minister unto the spiritual needs of the people was...wait for it...twelve.

Not fifteen.

Mormonism likes to pretend that it has the same organization that existed in the primitive church.  But how many apostles did Jesus have? Twelve.  And how many people did he appoint to preside over his church in the new world following his ascension? Twelve.

Again, not fifteen.  

Both times Jesus personally organized a church, he organized it without a single reigning figure of supreme power.  No president.  No first presidency.  Just twelve.

If we are to believe Ted Callister's specious claim that the LDS church is God's legitimate church because of its organizational structure, we must also consider that the Jedi Order is arguably more legitimate.

The Be-edit-udes
Then Jesus transitions into the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5.  There are a couple of things I'd like to point out.

Verse 6 promises that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness "shall be filled with the Holy Ghost," as opposed to simply "filled" (Matthew 5:6).  The Book of Mormon's specificity doesn't seem to add anything to the thought, much like in its many slight alterations to Isaiah.

Verse 10 blesses those who are persecuted for "my name's sake" as opposed to for "righteousness' sake" (Matthew 5:10).  This implies more dedication to Jesus than to trying to do the right thing.  The Bible's version is better.

Although not part of the Beatitudes (so much for my clever section title), verse 32 has a perfect opportunity to clarify something that could be interpreted as kind of troubling.  Here's the original verse in Matthew 5:
But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
This could have been one of those plain and precious truths that had been perverted by conspiring men during the many uninspired translations of the Bible, right?  Or not.  The only thing the Book of Mormon changes here is throwing a "verily, verily" into the opening clause.  Rather than smoothing over a bizarre teaching about divorce, fornication, and adultery, the 19th century Word of God merely parrots the 17th century Word of God, making the god in question seem like a deity of double standards and all-around madness.   

Getting the Details Hammered Out
This chapter makes a few efforts to tailor Jesus's remarks for his American audience.  For example, he omits his reference to "scribes and Pharisees" and changes the reference to a farthing to a senine.  All so this different culture will be able to understand and identify with his teachings.  Right?


He doesn't adapt the Aramaic-originating word "Raca" to any Nephite insult.  And even more interestingly (in my opinion, anyway) he uses the idiomatic "take up your cross." This is a reference to crucifixion, a form of execution which has been mentioned in only eight verses of the Book of Mormon (the most chronologically recent being close to 200 years before this sermon).  As best as I can determine, the practice originated in the 6th century BC, after (albeit possibly very very shortly after) Lehi left Jerusalem.  It therefore seems unlikely that the Nephites would be familiar with the concept of crucifixion—and extremely unlikely that they'd be familiar with figurative expressions derived from the practice. If Jesus could change something simple like the monetary unit he mentions, why would he not change something more crucial like his poetic call to bear whatever burdens necessary for righteousness' sake?

Meekness as Weakness
Starting in verse 39, we have another potentially dangerous teaching preserved from the original sermon:
But I say unto you, that ye shall not resist evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also; 
And if any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also; 
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
The basic concept is a good one:  turn the other cheek.  Don't escalate situations by retaliating.  Be the bigger person.

The problem is that this philosophy shouldn't be applied universally.  It doesn't always work, especially when coupled with the advice to "not resist evil."  Of course we should resist evil!  I'm all for being forgiving and being slow to wrath and all of that jazz, but turning the other cheek is not the best or even the moral choice in every situation.

If you take this to the extreme, you wind up at appeasement.  You wind up at the frame of mind that helped World War II get going.  Turning the other cheek is a good thing to do up until the point when it convinces the person who smote you that he can get away with smiting other people too.

Perhaps verse 44 is the better advice here:
But behold I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you;
That's something I can get behind.  You can love someone who is doing bad things.  That's how you can be the bigger person, but it doesn't necessarily entail letting that person walk all over you and allowing him to harm others.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

3 Nephi 11: Hypercube of Hypocrisy

So apparently all the righteous survivors in this quasi-apocalyptic ancient American wasteland have gathered around the water cooler in Bountiful to discuss current events and this Jesus character.

Schroedinger's Trinity
In this chapter, we will learn how the Godhead is really a superposition of two states which allows them to simultaneously exist as three separate beings and one unified being.  Let's begin in verse 14:
Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.
This, obviously, muddies the Mormon claim that the church rejects the concept of the Trinity, which is kind of a superposition of three states all by itself.  (Yes, I am willing to admit that my knowledge of quantum physics is very generously described as cursory and these jokes probably will not hold up well among those who are actually educated in the field.)  The problem here is that Jesus has just identified himself as God.  But he's the Son of God, isn't he?  How can he be both?  This verse seems to me like it's leaning dangerously toward the evil Trinitarian side. But now let's take a look at verse 27:
...for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.
Okay, yeah, this makes it sound exactly like the Trinity to me.  Three beings in one.  Pretty standard stuff here.  Until verse 32:
And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.
Okay, wait, so now they're three separate beings, right?  The Father gave the doctrine to the Son, which he wouldn't need to do if they were the same person.  And all the members of the Godhead seem to, I don't know, testify of each other, so it seems pretty evident that these are three individual dudes.  Right?  Wrong, because of verse 36:
And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.
And round and round we go.  While it's certainly possible that being "one" is, in this context, metaphorical as opposed to a reference to their physical identities, it sounds to me like the kind of concept that I, as a young Mormon, was taught originated from a group of uninspired men at the Council of Nicaea (although that appears to be inaccurate).

Modern Mormonism is very clear about the Trinity being hogwash—God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three competely distinct entities.  But this chapter, nestled in the meaty dramatic climax of the church's central text, seems to be voting three-to-one in favor of a Trinitarian perspective.  Four-to-one if you throw in all the times Jesus is referred to as "the Lord," a title generally reserved for God the Father.

And you know what makes all of this even worse?  Verse 28:
And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.
Jesus lays down the law so that there can be a standardized format for official baptisms because he doesn't want his people disputing important doctrines.  Well, then, Sherlock, if you want to avoid doctrinal misconceptions, maybe you should be crystal clear about how many different people you may or may not be.

Note to Joseph Smith:  Learn to plan ahead.  This is the kind of problem you get when your theology evolves beyond—and in glaring contradiction to—your founding book of scripture.

Redundant Ordination
Jesus forgets an important part of Nephi's personal journey in verse 21:
And the Lord said unto him: I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven.
Why does Nephi need to be granted the power to baptize?  He already has the power to do literally anything he wants to, which, logically, would include baptizing people into God's church.  How often do you think people remind Bill Gates that he has the power to hire a secretary if he so chooses?

Also, both times that Nephi has been given priesthood authority, there's been no laying on of hands. Come on, where's the devotion to continuity in the lore?  This is the kind of thing that disappoints lifelong fans.

The Devil is of the Devil
Here's one of my old favorite scripture masteries (verse 29):
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.

The modern church seems to labor under the impression that contention is some kind of divine mantle.  Why else would the church leadership so doggedly pit itself against the entire not-strictly-heterosexual community with such acidulous rhetoric?  Why else would Holland so publicly and so transparently express anger toward ex-Mormons?  Why else would Oaks smack down the Ordain Women and the Any Opposed movements with such reductive, contemptuous backhands?  Why else does the church seem to engender such divisive dogma that causes arguments, rifts, and emotional gulfs in so many families?

The spirit of contention abounds and thrives in the LDS church.  According to its own depiction of Jesus, the LDS church is of the devil.

A Simple If/Then Statement
Another proto-doctrinal problem arises in verse 34:
And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.
Damned? It's just that simple? If the Book of Mormon contains the fullness of the gospel, wouldn't this have been a great time for Jesus to discuss the spirit world and the spirit prison and the celestial, telestial, and terrestrial kingdoms?  Apparently the possible eternal destinations of our immortal souls aren't important enough for the man upon whom the entire Plan of Salvation hinges to discuss, much less to include in the book that should contain his most plain and precious truths.

This pithy Messianic soundbite is not reflective at all of what is now considered accurate Mormon theology.

Falling Through Your Own Trap Door
The issue I take with verse 40 actually encapsulates the feel of this entire chapter quite well.
And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.
Joseph Smith would go on to declare much, much more than the teachings contained in this chapter, although he'd ascribe it to divine revelation.  But it sounds to me like we should disregard the majority of Mormon doctrine and just repent, become as a child, and get baptized, because apparently tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tattoo policies, R-rated movies, endowments, garments, celestial marriage, baptism for the dead, and all that other stuff is completely irrelevant to our salvation.

And Joseph Smith, who continued to tease his truths and embellish his teachings, apparently cometh of evil and is not built upon the rock of our Redeemer. He told us so right here in the book he claimed to have translated.