Friday, January 19, 2018

Meet the Pressident

The newly coronated First Presidency gave a little press conference on Tuesday to, I suppose, try to introduce themselves to the world.  Eight reporters were permitted to ask questions and Presidents Nelson, Oaks, and Eyring provided some panel-esque discussion in response.  It was much more of a train wreck than I was expecting.  I was expecting boring.  What I got was a whole mess of quotes that I wanted to analyze.

Because of time limitations and a desire to represent media from around the world, five local, one national, and two international media outlets have been pre-selected to ask questions.
—Eric Hawkins 
A member of the church's public relations arm conducted the meeting (to steal some very Mormon phrasing).  This part of his introduction seemed laughably disingenuous.  For one thing, if the true desire was to represent media from around the world, why were only two questions from reporters outside of the US?   It's also bothersome that a church that's so proud of its international membership ensured that 62.5% of the questions posed to its new leadership came from a state that makes up approximately 10% of its worldwide population. 

My initial reaction was to assume that skewing the press representation toward local media guaranteed a lot of softball questions, but that may have been an unfair judgment, because some of those Utah reporters were throwing sliders and knuckleballs.

But first, the new leaders had some weird, circle-jerk-esque opening statements.

Though our world is filled with serious challenges, I am optimistic about the future and feel confident about the fundamental goodness of humankind.
—Russell M. Nelson
And in his first public appearance as prophet, Nelson is immediately teaching false doctrine.  Because what he's doing here is blatantly disagreeing with a sermon canonized in the Book of Mormon.  You see, according to King Benjamin, "The natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man..." yadda, yadda, yadda.  (It's Mosiah 3:19, in case you weren't sure what I was getting at.)

Don't you know your scripture masteries, President Nelson?  Because there's no such thing as the fundamental goodness of human kind.  We're just plain awful.  Enemies of God.  Scum of the earth.  This is official church doctrine.

If you are not yet affiliated with this church, I invite you to come and see if we can add knowledge, perspective, and hope to your life in a way that will make it more abundant, meaningful, and joyful.
—Russell M. Nelson
Okay, so this is pretty bizarre writing for a prepared statement.  First of all, it's kind of presumptuous for him to have thrown the word "yet" in there.  Like, we're coming for you all.  Resistance is futile.

But I'd also like to know how one is supposed to make one's life more abundant.  I mean, even Mormons agree we only have one mortal life. do you increase its quantity?  Is he opening the door to doctrinal reincarnation or is it just bad writing?  You decide.

I declare my devotion to God, our Eternal Father, and to his son, Jesus Christ.  I know them, love them, and pledge to serve them and you with every remaining breath of my life.
—Russell M. Nelson
The thing that jumped out to me here is that the prophet just said that he knows God and Jesus.  He isn't saying he's testifying of their existence.  He knows them.  I feel like this is the closest an apostle has come to saying "I met with a member of the godhead face to face" in a very, very long time.

I love working with the Quorum of the Twelve and our other leaders—men AND women, local and general.
—Dallin H. Oaks
Something about his tone here just comes off as icky.  Kind of like he's magnanimously saying, "I know, I couldn't believe it at first either, but working with women is actually pretty okay!"  The fact that I think Oaks is a massively sexist, pompous douchenozzle undoubtedly informs the way I'm interpreting his inflection, but it does kind of make you wonder why he feels the need to mention different groups.  Like, wait, why would he not have enjoyed working with women leaders or local leaders?  What reason should we have had to assume that such a thing might be unpleasant?  The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Even those of us within the church have to work hard to see the church as it really is. It is even harder for those who are looking in from outside. It is also easier for us to describe what we are trying to become than it is for you to believe we really hold such lofty aims. The why we aim so high and work so hard is more easily described by us, but not, perhaps, easily believed.

—Henry B. Eyring
Eyring is not on his game here.  This quote is all over the fuckin' place.  This palavering nonsense reminds me of two hilarious fictional moments.  First, the majority leader caught off guard by a reporter asking him why he wants to be President in The West Wing:
The reason I would run, were I to run, is I have a great belief in this country as a country, and in this people as a people, that go into making this country a nation with the greatest natural resources and people, educated people.
Secondly, it's reminiscent of good old Bilbo Baggins taking a sly shot at an audience too thick to grasp his full meaning in The Fellowship of the Ring:
I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
Was Eyring painting himself hopelessly into a verbal corner or cleverly insulting his audience with his impenetrable and inscrutable wit?  You decide.

Moving on, the first question comes from an AP reporter who's curious about how the reorganized church leadership plans to handle LGBT issues.

So we've got the love and law balance here....  —Russell M. Nelson

Yeah, the love of the Lord and the law of the Lord!  —Dallin H. Oaks
This exchange sees Nelson struggle for words while making broad, general statements about how the Lord loves everyone.  Then Oaks steps in to try to nudge him in the right direction and they kind of bounce ideas off each other until they come up with an answer they feel is appropriate.  Super-duper-apostolic.

What's interesting is that they both make love and law sound like opposites.  The Law, which is imposed by God, is the countervailing force against the Love, which is supposed to emanate from God.  Why the fuck do both of these things come from God if one of them is the thing that gives so many people so much grief?

Oh, you're transgender?  Great, well, God has these laws you have to follow, like not being transgender, and since you're not following the Law, then the balance is all out of whack so I guess the Love part doesn't really count until you just...stop...being...transgendery.

Awesome answer, guys.

Also, way to not use any kind of relevant nomenclature while you're answering the question.  None of these guys says anything along the lines of "God loves X" or "We love X" or "The church loves X," where X can represent any number of sexual orientations or gender identities.  God just loves everyone, and he's so unconcerned with the groups of people who are killing themselves over his church's treatment of them that he can't be bothered to have his apostles explicitly state, "God loves his lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children."  It's like they're afraid to speak the words themselves.

The next question comes from a member of the Mexican press, who asks for advice concerning turmoil and natural disasters.

You know, we have a special love for the people of we do for the people everywhere....
—Russell M. Nelson
This is actually the real answer to the previous question.  The reason I say that is because this is the very first thing Nelson says in response to this reporter.  Someone asks about gay issues, and Nelson can't even say the word gay or directly tell gay people they're loved and valued.  Someone asks about Mexican issues, and Nelson replies that he loves the Mexican people.

This is very telling.

Also, if you have a special love for the people everywhere, doesn't that kind of mean that your love for any group of people is, by definition, not really that special?  A fun drinking game, now that I think about it, might be to suffer through this conference with a few friends.  One of you has to drink when one of the apostles uses the word "special," one has to drink when Nelson swallows really loudly, and the other one only has to drink when someone gives a direct answer to a reporter's question—no, wait, that won't work.

That's gonna be a fact of life—we have to live with danger around us.  Now how do you do that?  I think the most important thing is to prepare our people with faith in God and the knowledge that he has a plan for us and that plan will immunize us from a lot of the social apathy and challenges that could be avoided.
—Russell M. Nelson
I don't know how much more out of touch Nelson can sound here.  The question is about how to deal with upheaval and distress and disaster, and Nelson basically says, "Well...the world's a dangerous place, but at least we know that God designed it to be dangerous and that faith will help us."  And I have no idea why he's talking about social apathy.  Who brought that up?  We're talking about fires and floods and earthquakes and hurricanes.  The reporter isn't inquiring about social apathy.
In terms of natural disasters and challenges, I think of the Philippines, where we have about seven hundred thousand members, and where my wife Kristen and I were privileged to live for two years...and I think the Philippines has every natural disaster known to man.
—Dallin H. Oaks
It strikes me as very callous and very unsympathetic that, when talking about natural disasters that kill and displace countless people in a particular country, Oaks can't resist the urge to brag about how big the church is there before getting to his point about...about whatever his point was about. I mean, sure, he wasn't going in to specifics about a particularly tragic event, but still, even from a purely PR standpoint, this was a very poor choice of words.  If you want people to question your priorities, this careless phrasing is a good way to make that happen.

Then, suddenly, a wild Peggy Fletcher Stack appears.  It was a delight to watch her ask the revered brethren what they might do for the causes of gender, ethnic, and racial equity.

I don't know how these men didn't anticipate at least some of these more troubling questions, but they seemed woefully unprepared.  While I admire their desire to mostly speak off-the-cuff, Nelson, as a doctor, should know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Observe:

We are white. And we are American. But look at our Quorums of the Seventy and look at our leaders locally. Wherever we go, the leadership of the church is from the local communities. And those are the real leaders. The Twelve and the Seventies are not a representative assembly of any kind. That means we don't have would you govern the church with a representative from all one hundred and eighty-eight countries? So somebody's gonna be left out, but it doesn't matter, because the Lord's in charge and we will live to see the day when there will be other flavors in the mix. But we respond because we've been called by the Lord and not one of us asked to be here.
—Russell M. Nelson

Okay, props for fessing up to the reality indisputable fact.  But first he refers us to the Seventy, which is still overwhelmingly composed of white American men.  So no dice there.

Then he brings up local leadership, which isn't always made up of locals anyway.  Sometimes, in areas without much priesthood "experience," local leadership is made up partly from transplanted missionaries.

His "real leaders" comment reeks of false modesty.  And regardless of whether the local leadership is more "real" than that of the general authorities, how does that address the concern that the worldwide leadership is skewed too far toward white American men?

Then he pivots to his assertion that the leadership is not supposed to be representative of the church population.  Which is fair.  I don't think there should be a quota system requiring 0.5% of the general authorities to be from Lesotho once Lesotho reaches 0.5% of the church membership.  But since leaders are called of God, that kind of raises the possibility that God is racist.  Because it's the office we're sustaining, not the imperfect man who occupies it, right?  So why doesn't God find very many imperfect-but-worthy men for his callings that just happen to have dark skin or just happen to come from somewhere other than the US?  If God truly is no respecter of persons, it stands to reason that his leadership would generally reflect the makeup of the church membership as a whole.  Unless there's this crazy, generations-long string of coincidences or he's just racist.

And "flavors."  That's the kind of flippant remark you can make with your buddies and nobody's gonna be like, "hey, that's racist."  But when you're in front of the press, on television, introducing yourself to the world as the new prophet of God?  What a stupid thing to say.  Issues of race, sexism, and the American Napoleon complex are NOT a laughing matter for a lot of people.  Way to treat the whole thing like an inside joke.

I think it's also valuable to remember something that I have found useful to cite when I talk to youth. I remind them that it's dangerous to label themselves as a particular nationality, geographic origin, ethnic circumstance or whatever it may be. Because the most important thing about us is that we are all children of God. If we keep that in mind, we are better suited to relate to one another and to avoid a kind of quota system as if God applied his blessings and extended his goodness and his love on the basis of quotas that I think he does not recognize so we shouldn't.
—Dallin H. Oaks
I don't have any concept of my ethnic heritage.  My ancestors have been Americans for so long that nobody in my family could tell you a damn thing about what it means to be Danish.  So I don't fully understand people who feel connected their own ethnic culture, because I don't really have one myself.  But I wouldn't dare walk up to a Mexican celebrating Dia de los Muertos and be like, "Stop celebrating because it's dangerous to label yourself as a Mexican."  That would be ridiculous, rude, presumptuous, and plenty of other bad things.  Does Oaks also rail against his countrymen celebrating Independence Day?  Is it dangerous for me to consider myself American?

It seems like Oaks thinks he can unite people under the false homogeneity of Mormonism.  Listen, asshole, you can be Mormon and have other facets to your identity.  You can be Mormon and a child of God and a Mexican if that's how you see yourself.  Nobody should let some angry old curmudgeon dictate what things their sense of personal identity should and should not entail.  Thinking you have a right to tell people how to define who they are is one of the most pompous things I can think of.

And yes, Oaks, a quota system would be silly.  But if it guarantees that God can't be quite so racist in choosing his servants, it would be much less silly than this parade of pasty 'Merican men.  And it's possible that the reason God doesn't recognize quotas is because they remind him of his failures.  See, as a perfected being who claims that his work and his glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, you'd think that his quota for the salvation of his children would be one hundred percent.  But, as I've mentioned before, what with the whole Lucifer business, right out of the gate God's maximum success rate was slashed by a third.  Quotas may give him painful flashbacks to that unpleasant memory.

And then, astutely recognizing that the answers to her question have mostly involved race and nationality, Peggy pipes up again, "But what about women?"  To which our new mouthpiece of the Lord quips:

I love 'em.  I have a special place in my heart about the women.
—Russell M. Nelson
He actually has to pause for laughter after that first sentence.  He's totally taking this seriously, guys.  Also the use of a definite article here is completely unnecessary and comes off as oddly belittling.  Instead of having a special place in his heart for women, he as one about the women?  That's weird, dude.  Slightly creepy.  And the phraseology kind of separates you from women like you've compartmentalized your world so that you don't actually interact with females much and sometimes you forget what they're like.

I keep getting praised about how wonderful my children are.  And I know who did that.
—Henry B. Eyring
Under normal circumstances, this might be a very sweet thing to say about his wife.  The problem is that this is a Mormon news conference, so these are hardly what could fairly be considered as normal circumstances.

It may come as a shock to you, Henry, Dallin, and Russell, but women can actually excel at things  that are entirely unrelated to child care.  Sure, some women are terrific mothers and they should absolutely be praised for their efforts.  But all of the nice things you've said about women while kind of ignoring the fact that they can't be apostles boils down to two things:  they raise children and they have a positive effect on adult men.  Sure, women can't hold the priesthood and they can't be prophets, apostles, seventies, mission presidents, temple presidents, stake presidents, patriarchs, high councilors, bishops, branch presidents, high priests, ward executive secretaries, elders, priests, teachers, or even deacons, but it must be a comfort to the gentler sex that, when pressed, those men in power can pretend to attribute their success to the women who did all their parenting for them.

If you add the number of years that Brother Oaks and I and Brother Eyring have been apostles, you're talking about ninety years.  So that can't help but be helpful to the young people of the church so that they don't have to look laterally for what will bring them joy in life, they can look to the leaders of the church who, under the influence of the Lord, can give them good guidance.
—Russell M. Nelson
Wait, why is it inherently bad to look laterally for something?  I mean, isn't that basically the spirit of teamwork?  People on the same level work together, pull strength from each other, and achieve as a group?  That's bad?

And Nelson has mildly misinterpreted the original question ("I think you were saying, in essence, how can the youth follow an old man?").  The reporter has asked Nelson to share a message to the youth relating to their struggles and to explain what the youth could learn from him.  Nelson uses this opportunity about how the First Presidency is better able to guide the youth because of their wealth of experience—even though they'll be led by the Lord, which really should mean that age doesn't matter.  The Lord can still put a younger, inexperienced prophet under his "influence" to accomplish his purposes.  Has President Nelson even read the scriptures?  Or heard of Joseph Smith?

So basically Nelson answers a question that wasn't asked by claiming his age gives him wisdom that he shouldn't need in the first place in order to be led by God.

I think, if anything, [Nelson's] sermons won't be as important to [the youth] as his example.
—Henry B. Eyring
Eyring seems to be ensorcelled by Nelson's irrepressibly upbeat personality.  To be fair, Eyring knows the guy far better than I do, but I was surprised to hear that particular kind of praise heaped upon the new prophet.  Nelson has never struck me as being as concertedly optimistic as Eyring seems to believe he is.  I wouldn't say Nelson is happy to focus on negativity, as Elder Holland is prone to do.  But Nelson has always emanated a sense of dryness and stuffiness and sternness.  Optimistic?  Where is Henry getting this from?

But it is entertaining to hear an apostle admit to the predictably low impact of a prophet's general conference address.

The final question is a doozy, referencing slowed growth and increased apostasy due to the church's lack of transparency or a member's study of troubling church history.  Our fearless leader responds:

Every member needs to know the difference between what's doctrine and what's human.  We have both elements that we have to work with.
—Russell M. Nelson
Yeah, that's fair.  So when a prophet preaches overtly racist ideology from the pulpit at general conference and institutes anti-black policies that endure for a century while subsequent prophets and apostles echo or expound upon his bigotry in the name of the Lord, we should all just be expected to parse those statements flawlessly, on the fly, and understand that it's not of God, even though it's presented in exactly the same way as things that actually are of God, and even though it will continue to be printed in official church publications and lesson manuals until those references are eventually scrubbed clean or sanded down to something sounding much more innocuous and even though we've been taught since primary to follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, don't go astray.

Just...know the difference, guys.  We won't give you any tools or guidelines for determining the difference, and if it's something being stated by the current prophetic administration we'll always insist that it's doctrine even if that happens to be overturned later, but there's no reason for confusion.  Just know the difference

Don't be offended by what may have been said or what may have transpired.  Make sure that you're square with your Heavenly Father who loves you and wants you to be happy, and the way to happiness is to keep his commandments.
—Russell M. Nelson
I'm wondering if Nelson honestly doesn't understand that people can stop believing in the church.  The reporter asked him what his message was to those who were leaving the church, but his answers still contain an expectation of belief.  Telling someone who's left the church that keeping the commandments will lead to happiness and that it's important to be square with the man upstairs is pointless.  Most of us don't actually believe in that stuff—and those of us who do tend to believe in different versions of that stuff.  We tend to follow no God's commandments or the commandments of a God worshiped by a non-Mormon religion.  What Nelson is suggesting here is basically like sitting down next to a musician composing a piece of music and saying, "Have you tried using watercolor instead of acrylic?  I think that will really make your song sound better."

Also, telling someone not to be offended by something you can't even admit happened (although it may have transpired or been said) doesn't solve anything.  If someone finds something troubling—oh, hey, my African-American ancestors were treated like second-class citizens by God's true church even after my government started trying to make it illegal for people to treat them like second-class citizens—you can't just wave that away.  If you think the solution is for people not to get offended by appalling, reprehensible words and actions in church history, you're not honestly confronting the problem.  Offensive shit happened.  Offensive shit still happens.  As someone who has had some experience offending people, I've often found that a sincere apology does a lot more good than some non-specific advice to just get over it.

It's a great comfort to me that I don't have to take the statement or actions of one particular leader as expressive of the doctrine and expectations of the church.  We don't believe in infallibility of our leaders. What we believe in is the organization the church has set in place with multiple prophets, seers, and revelators, and with a council system.
—Dallin H. Oaks
This is not the fucking United States Constitution, pal.   Don't pretend like there are checks and balances and separations of powers.  What exactly does the "council system" entail?  And what exactly is the point of having the leaders of the church address the membership twice a year if we shouldn't necessarily be taking their statements as expressive of the doctrine and expectations of the church?

And you have balls of some kind of iron-hypocrisy alloy to tell everybody we don't believe in the infallibility of our leaders.  Remember that time that you said that "it's wrong to criticize the leaders of the church even if the criticism is true"?  So you're saying that you're not infallible, but it's wrong to treat you like you're not?  

And in addition, I would remind those who worry about the things you've asked about very appropriately...when it comes to transparency, by the action of this council, we have published the Joseph Smith Papers.  ...  If we weren't interested in transparency, we wouldn't be publishing all the papers of the prophet Joseph Smith and the documents that came out of the founding of this restored church.
—Dallin H. Oaks
Okay, sure, at the very most, the Joseph Smith Papers project signals an increased interest in transparency within the last decade or so.  But Joseph Smith died 144 years ago.  The church, throughout its history, has not been interested in releasing tons of historical information about Joseph Smith's life, including some of his wilder sermons and his many brushes with the law.  Are the Joseph Smith Papers a good sign?  Absolutely.  Does it demonstrate once and for all that the church is honest and open about everything?

Well...let's see...I don't recall Oaks releasing the details of the church finances, so, I'd say no.  I'm still hearing general authorities discourage members from researching topics the church doesn't want them to research (Uchtdorf's "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith," Andersen's "give brother Joseph a break," Callister's attack on Book of Mormon critics, et cetera).  As long as the church does its best to make sure nobody knows exactly what they're doing with all that tithing, transparency cannot be considered a very high priority.  Oaks's assertion here sounds kind of like triumphantly stating, "If I weren't trying to lose weight, I wouldn't have driven past that McDonald's last Tuesday."  One positive action can't be reasonably extrapolated into an established pattern of positive behavior.  You'll have to do better than that.

I began watching this press conference half-interestedly, assuming it would be little more than a photo op with some prepared statements and some non-threatening questions with canned answers.  Maybe one of the apostles would say something a little off the wall, and maybe not.  What I did not expect was that all of them would ad lib their answers with an embarrassing level of rhetorical frailty.  Let's all please give a special (take a shot!) round of applause for the reporters, most of whom opted not to lob low-speed pitches right through the strike zone—and for Peggy Fletcher Stack, who was doing her damnedest to throw a beanball.

It'll be, as always, interesting to see how the church evolves from here during Nelson's tenure.  And it will be tense to see how long it lasts before Dallin Oaks stops jumping in to retool the prophet's words in more eloquent and more appropriate language and starts warming the hot seat himself.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Purpose of Prophethood

By now, I'm sure it's old news that Thomas S. Monson, sixteenth president of the Brighamite branch of Mormonism, has passed away.  The next prophet is expected to be Russell M. Nelson.

I liked Monson's public persona.  He had kind of a grandfatherly charisma at his General Conference appearances, much like his predecessor, Gordon B. Hinckley.  Nelson doesn't have that.  His aura is one of rigorousness and exactness.  One of his recent Conference addresses stressed the importance of semantics referencing the atonement, an assuredly trivial thing to devote such time to.  Unless the mantle of leadership involves a softened public image, Nelson's tenure may be quite different from Monson's.

But one thing that will stay the same is, of course, Nelson's ability to prophesy.  Monson, as many church critics gleefully point out, didn't make any substantive prophecies while he was the prophet.  Neither did Hinckley.  And likely, neither will Nelson.

But that got me wondering what the purpose of prophecy is.  Why is this such an important concept that it's the first title members sustain their church president to be?  What is essential to our salvation about our leader foretelling future events?  Prophets have predicted the second coming of Christ and the ensuing havoc at varying levels of non-specificity for generations.  What does this accomplish?  Why does God need this kind of thing to happen?

Of course, one of the simplest reasons is to demonstrate the power of God—or, more accurately, that the prophet has the power of God.  Predicting some unexpected event with clarity speaks to a level of foresight associated with godly knowledge.  This is why Hank Morgan was feared as a powerful wizard for predicting the eclipse in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  And this is why it was so impressive, apparently, for Nephi to know about Christopher Columbus.  At least, with the power of prophecy, God's chosen mouthpieces can convince people that they actually speak for God.  Sometimes.

Another reason seems to be for God to basically say, "I told you so."  The doom of the Nephites was foretold many times over their thousand year history.  But despite all the foreknowledge, it seemed unavoidable.  What is the purpose of prophesying something so horrible?  Why would an omniscient God bother to warn us of something that we clearly cannot avoid?  I suppose it teaches a lesson to later generations who can see how disastrously correct the prophecy was, but it doesn't hold a lot of weight if the prophecy and its fulfillment are both revealed centuries after the fact.  A prophecy like that is only predictive if the audience can see it unfold in real time.

But when is the last time we've seen a prophet do anything like the things prophets did in the scriptures?  What purpose does a prophet who does not prophesy serve? 

I realize it's a bit of a Mormon cliché to resort to explicating the definitions of key terminology, but it's interesting to me that the Google definition of prophet includes a specific definition among Mormons:  Joseph Smith or one of his successors. The first definition mentions teaching the will of God but gives words like seer and fortune-teller—terms associated with foresight—as synonyms.  Other definitions mention the ability—or the claim of an ability—to make predictions.  So prophets are generally associated with divine predictive power...except maybe in modern Mormonism.

Why call someone who doesn't prophesy a prophet?  I suppose the only reason left is to induce the distinction provided by the title.  The title is merely a vestigial office, an outdated remnant of the faith's the bolder, gutsier, more dramatic roots (like polygamy, praying with archaic pronouns, and even the prophetic line of succession).  But the word prophet—and to a lesser extent, the words seer and revelator—summons up mental associations with powers beyond the realistic scope of Hinckley, Monson, and Nelson.

But as long as the focus in the church is on the title and reverence for the man who bears it instead of on the abilities and divine gifts being claimed, Nelson will have the same prestige and enjoy the same control over his followers, whether he makes any prophecies or not.

And I'm betting he will not.