Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ether 3: Light My Way

The brother of Jared continues his unlikely preparations for his improbable journey.

Who Abridges the Abridgers?
The opening verse of this chapter is, simply, a complete mess:
And it came to pass that the brother of Jared, (now the number of the vessels which had been prepared was eight) went forth unto the mount, which they called the mount Shelem, because of its exceeding height, and did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass; and he did carry them in his hands upon the top of the mount, and cried again unto the Lord, saying:
Why is that parenthetical comment needed?  Who cares about the number of boats right away in the middle of the sentence?   Why do we need to know the name of the mountain—a word that means nothing to us in any modern language?  Why do we need to know why the mountain was named that nonsense word because it happened to be a particularly tall mountain?  How exactly, were the stones both white and completely transparent?  And how is it at all important for us to know that the method the brother of Jared used to transport the stones to the peak of Mount Shelem was by using his hands?

Moroni has created the absolute worst abridgment in the history of abridgments.  If he's taking the salient points of doctrine from these records and carving them onto his own plates, why not keep it simple:
And it came to pass that the brother of Jared went forth unto a mount and did molten out of the rock sixteen small stones; and he did carry them to the top of the mount, and cried again unto the Lord, saying:
Look at that, I've cut the word count by roughly forty-five percent without breaking a sweat.  I suppose, realistically, that the word counts might not be the same in Reformed Egyptian, but still, it sure seems like this prophet was making a lot more work for himself than necessary and laying down some truly awful prose in the process.

Approximately Human
God stretches forth his finger and touches the stones so that they mysteriously glow to provide light inside the airtight Jaredite barges.  But that's—arguably, of course—not the weirdest thing about it.  The weirdest thing is that the brother of Jared is scared peeless by the fact that God has a finger of "flesh and blood."

The problem with this is that God isn't supposed to have blood at all.  As a resurrected, exalted, and celestial being, he's supposed to have the pure essence of spirit pumping through his veins.  Or something like that, as taught by some inconsequential person you've probably never heard of, by which I mean Joseph Fielding Smith, prophet of God and president of the church.  He's quoted in church-produced materials as saying:
After the resurrection from the dead our bodies will be spiritual bodies, but they will be bodies that are tangible, bodies that have been purified, but they will nevertheless be bodies of flesh and bones, but they will not be blood bodies, they will no longer be quickened by blood but quickened by the spirit which is eternal and they shall become immortal and shall never die.
But in Ether, which was translated by divine inspiration and is the most correct book on the face of the earth and contains the fullness of the gospel, God himself uses the word "blood" when referring to his own circulatory system.  Or at least to his own finger.

This is obviously not important doctrine that is essential to anyone's salvation, but in my opinion, these small but demonstrably contradictory discrepancies are exactly the kinds of things you should see if these concepts emanated not from a perfect deity but instead from a series of imperfect humans who were making stuff up as they went along.  You know, kind of the same way a detail in season seven of a TV show puts fans in an uproar because it doesn't jive with the backstory of the show based on that one line of dialogue from one character in season two.

The Awesomest Awesome that Ever Awesomed
The reason the brother of Jared sees God's finger, according to verse 9, is because no one else has ever come before God with so much faith.  This continues a trend in the Book of Mormon of absurdly idealized characters whose righteous traits exceed those of some of the most celebrated prophets of the Bible.  Who needs Moses and Abraham and Paul and John the Baptist and their middling feats when you have Moroni's theoretical power over the devil, Nephi's blank check of priesthood authority, and the brother of Jared's unprecedented faith to see the actual flesh of God?

This brings to mind a comment once made by David Cone of the New York Yankees:  "You run out of superlatives at some point."  When every Book of Mormon prophet is so amazingly amazing that no amazingness can express the amazement, it starts to get kind of old.  There isn't much else to say to make the next prophet seem important too.  And it's not just boring—it's unrealistic.  It makes the author seem desperate to one-up the larger-than-life figures of the Bible instead of trying to, as the cover of the book says, simply provide another testament of Jesus Christ.  The tone becomes competitive rather than complementary.  It reeks of fable rather than fact.

Make Up Your Mind!
Despite the fact that this story is supposed to be in the founding book of scripture for a religion that rejects (and sometimes mocks) the concept of the Trinity, in verse 14 of this chapter, God and Jesus have become the same person again:
Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.
You are the Father and the Son?  Oh, man, this is getting really confusing.  Second Nephi, Mosiah, Third Nephi, and Mormon have already caused some problems where the identities of the members of the godhead are concerned.  I guess we can just add Ether to that illustrious list.

A Long Journey for a Useless Rock
In verse 23, God gives the brother of Jared two stones that can be used at a later date to translate the records that the brother of Jared was keeping.  This is kind of a strange thing for God to do because he's providing the means for future translations before the original manuscript is even close to being finished.  Even if he's referring to King Mosiah translating the Jaredite record (as opposed to Joseph Smith translating the entirety of the Book of Mormon), this is still centuries and possibly millennia in advance.  That means that Jared and Company are going to have to make sure these stones get safely across the ocean and are preserved for generations upon generations so that at some point on the hidden horizon of time, somebody else can use them to make sense of their writing.

That's crazy.  That's not foresight, it's totally unnecessary planning.  I mean, Moroni is just going to have to abridge everything later.  Why not provide the tools for translation then, when it's vastly more practical?

And it really sounds like God is referring to the Urim and Thummim here.  If that's true, then this makes even less sense, because according to Emma Smith, the Urim and Thummim were only used in the translation of the lost 116 pages and not for anything that wound up being part of what we know today as the Book of Mormon.  (I don't think I've ever done this before, but I don't have a website reference for that—it's on page 43 of No Man Knows My History.)

If anything, this makes God seem lazy.  He doesn't want to be bothered with giving translators the necessary tools so he thought he could kill two birds with one stone (get it?!  stone?!) while he was answering the brother of Jared's concern about lighting the barges.  So he threw the seer stones in with the lamp stones and made Jared's family do all the heavy lifting in making sure the tools were preserved so that somewhere down through the ages a translator might use them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ether 2: Back to the Future

So now that they're all speaking the same language and they've been assured they'll be led to a promised land where they can raise a mighty nation up unto God, Jared's family, their friends, and their families journey into the wilderness in a way that's oddly reminiscent of the plot at the beginning of this...ponderous tome.  However, since this all takes place long before the events back in 1 Nephi, perhaps it's Nephi's family who really got the recycled storyline.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
Thus far, the brother of Jared and God have been communicating through prayer.  The brother of Jared asks for things, God grants things, and then at the end of the last chapter, God actually says things in response to a prayer.  But apparently that relationship is about to take an odd turn (verse 4):
And it came to pass that when they had come down into the valley of Nimrod the Lord came down and talked with the brother of Jared; and he was in a cloud, and the brother of Jared saw him not.

They've already talked.  The brother of Jared has heard God's voice before.  So what is accomplished by having God visit him in person, only to shroud his physical form?  Especially when he's about to actually walk ahead of this roving group to lead the way?  Couldn't he have given them a Liahona?  Couldn't he have given the brother of Jared some inspiration?  Maybe he could have come to him in a dream and drawn him a map.  Why would God visit personally and make sure nobody saw him?

My guess, honestly, is that Joseph Smith was again trying to legitimize his fictional scripture by linking it again with the Bible—so he had God revisit his pillar of cloud trick spoken of in Exodus.

Terms and Conditions
God seems to make a hasty decision in anger as evidenced in verse 8:
And he had sworn in his wrath unto the brother of Jared, that whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fulness of his wrath should come upon them.
Okay, "sworn in his wrath" is not an encouraging act to be ascribed to a deity.  The Mormon god is supposed to be just and reasonable, right?  As opposed to hotheaded and capricious?  And yet...here he is, in a fit of rage, making a decision that will affect millions of people over countless generations.  Not good.

But also it doesn't really seem fair the way that the principle taught in this chapter is hammered in over the next few verses—and really throughout the Book of Mormon.  So this is a land of promise, that's fine.  So whoever lives here should serve him...ehhhh, okay.  I mean, as long as everyone knows about this agreement to obey or be obliterated, I guess I could get behind it.  And also as long as everyone has the option to leave if they don't want to be included in this rather one-sided covenant.

What God is really doing here is holding people accountable for things that he told their distant ancestors.  Which is absolute baloney.  If he expects the Jaredites to uphold their end of the bargain, he should probably make sure that future Jaredites actually know that the bargain exists.  Instead, he gets to throw a fit every time a few centuries goes by and not every person in the country is appropriately genuflecting to his glory.  This is a smaller-scale satire of the Plan of Salvation, really, because God has made a unilateral decision, made demands on his children, denied them access to knowledge of the decision and the demands, and thereby forced them into a system designed for their failure—a failure which he reserves the right to sanctimoniously cite as evidence against his children at a later date.

Also, the promised land that he's talking about in these verses is America.  So if possessing America without unflinching service to God results in being wiped off the face of the earth, how come the Nephites got exterminated but the Lamanites didn't?  I mean, the Lamanites are still around in the present day, so if they have it coming to them, why does God seem to hesitate for a couple of millennia before laying the smack down?

World of Pure Imagination
Now we get to the infamous Jaredite barges (verse 17):
And they were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish; and the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish.
This description is pretty useless.  I mean, I guess that the main takeaway here is that the barges are watertight.  And it sounds like maybe they're completely enclosed—more akin to a submarine than to a galleon.  But I don't understand what it means that the ends were "peaked" or what importance that detail carries.  And I certainly don't know how big they are because "the length of a tree" depends one what kind of tree we're talking about here.  Dogwood?  Redwood?  Give me a hint, here, Ether.

I, for one, am also very interested in how thousands of years ago, the Jaredites were able what is essentially a submarine, complete with watertight doors.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Behind the Curve

I had a recent conversation with one of my sisters in which she shared that she'd recently learned about Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon.  My sister was shocked to learn that Switzer broke this gender barrier in 1967.

My sister is hardly what you'd call a feminist, but she was appalled that something like this happened so late in history—during both our parents' lifetimes, even.  This was almost fifty years after women had been constitutionally granted the right to vote in the United States, she reasoned.  How could it have taken so long for the culture to catch up with values of equality that should have been firmly in place decades before?

I agreed with her, of course.  It does seem crazy that Switzer faced such opposition because she was a woman.  And it does seem crazy that all this happened recently enough that she's still alive.  But as I sat there listening to my sister express her disappointment with her own society, all I could think about was the Mormon ban on black people holding the priesthood and attending the temple.

In answer to my sister's little rant, I mumbled vaguely, "Yeah, there are a lot of things like that that really should have happened way before they actually did."  I wasn't going to press the issue, of course.  I suppose that was my totally ineffectual way of trying to plant a seed of doubt.

But  I don't really blame my sister for not making the connection between the sexism of the Boston Athletic Association and the racism of the LDS church.  The story of Switzer affected her because she could identify closely with it.  My sister, obviously, is a woman.  During her college career she was in an environment overwhelmingly made up of men because of the major she'd chosen.  I'm sure she experienced a bit of sexism and at the very least a bit of masculine condescension.

But my sister has never been black.  She doesn't have much in the way of shared experiences with black people as far as racism is concerned.  So while she is opposed to racism, she hasn't arrived at any sort of disappointment with the church leadership for waiting so long to repeal its racist policies—because they don't resonate with her as deeply because they don't affect her.  She probably just hasn't given it a lot of thought.  And I can completely understand that because I'm the same way.  It took leaving the church for me to start to face some of the things that I should have always cared about but had never been confronted with.  It's something I'm still learning to do and something that I hope I never stop being able to do.

It would be more than a decade after Switzer first ran in the Boston Marathon that Spencer W. Kimball would reveal that God suddenly had no problem with black people holding the priesthood.  The United States government does tend to enjoy claiming moral authority in certain areas, but it does not claim to speak for God himself—and yet, bafflingly, as far behind the curve as the US government can be when it comes to things like race, gender, and sexual orientation, it's still far ahead of the religious institution that claims to be the only one hundred percent divinely sponsored church on the face of the earth.

It was 1954 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that public schools needed to be desegregated.  It was 1978 when God revealed that the Celestial Kingdom would be desegregated.  It was 1967 when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon.  It was 2013 when Jean A. Stevens became the first woman to pray in a session of General Conference.  It was 2015 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are constitutionally guaranteed the right to marry.  When will the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints catch up?

When will it actually start to take the lead, like God's true church should?