Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Prophet Swears He Loves You

The president of the church gave a devotional at BYU on Tuesday and sparked some outrage in typical Nelson style.  It was a relatively short address, but it was packed with objectionable material.   Nelson is a man who really needs no introduction (although his public appearances do seem prone to lengthy, fawning introductions), so I'll just dive right into things with the first statement I found troubling:
You are of the House of Israel and you have been sent here to help gather God's elect.
Why are we sent to gather just the elect?  Why would God, whose work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, only want to gather a specific type of person in the latter days?  I thought the first part of the mission of the church was to proclaim the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.  We wouldn't want to foster any kind of elitism in the membership by implying that our missionary efforts bring in only the best, would we?
Truth is truth.  Some things are simply true.  The arbiter of truth is God.  Not your favorite social media news feed, not Google, and certainly not those who are disaffected from the church.
Okay, that's fair if we start with the assumption that the Mormon God is real.  But Santa Claus is theoretically the arbiter of naughtiness and niceness, too, so....

And, honestly, the overwhelming majority of people don't consider their social media news feed as an arbiter of anything, and I think it's spectacularly condescending of a prophet to imply such.  Perhaps Google has a slightly better reputation for truth.  But lumping apostates in with these two ridiculous examples and adding a modifier that identifies them as the most ridiculous example of all is unfair, manipulative, and dishonest.  Yeah, disaffected members are not the arbiters of truth.  But neither is Russell Nelson.  So just because he says God is the highest authority on truth doesn't mean the god he pretends to represent is real enough to have any power to shape, defend, impose, or represent truth.
Because the Father and the Son love us with infinite, perfect love and because they know we cannot see everything they see, they have given us laws that will guide and protect us.  There is a strong connection between God's love and his laws.
Infinite, perfect love.  Nelson has stated in the past that, "While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional."  What I'd like to know is how something can be both infinite and conditional.  If it's infinite it encompasses everything, and if it's conditional, it excludes certain circumstances, which means it's not actually infinite.  And, honestly, if a love is dependent on whether its recipient behaves in a certain way, I don't see how that love is perfect, either.

Nelson is also going to spend a few minutes trying to tie God's love and God's laws together as closely as possible, making it sound like the laws are a manifestation of his love.  Which is weird, considering that when Nelson was announced as the new prophet, he answered a reporter's question about the church's dealings with LGBT members by explaining that "we've got the love and the law in balance here," to which Oaks exuberantly replied, "Yeah, the love of the Lord and the law of the Lord!"  Why do we need to balance two things against each other if there's such a strong connection between them?  Why do we make them sound like two opposing forces if one is an extension of the other?

And why does the prophet of God keep babbling about love like he's just making shit up whenever a fun new concept occurs to him?  
Divine law is incontrovertible!
Saying it over and over again doesn't make it true. (Ironically, I'm pretty sure I've expressed that sentiment over and over again.)  But it's especially untrue to assert something like this when the strategy concerning divine law is to change the laws and then insist afterward that the laws had always been policies.  You can say just about anything is incontrovertible when you're changing the definitions of the crucial words involved.

You know what else is incontrovertible?  The accuracy of this blog.  But if you find something here that's factually incorrect, I'll just reinterpret what I said to define "accuracy" as "sincerity," therefore my original statement that the accuracy of this blog is incontrovertible is still correct.  Magic!  I'm now infallible!
Divine laws are God's gifts to his children.  Just as our family's laws kept our children safe as they grew to adulthood.  Just as divine laws governing the heart and the flight of airplanes keep you safe on the operating table or while traveling.  Abiding by God's laws will keep you safe as you progress toward eventual exaltation.  
The law of gravity can kill you, and not because you're breaking it.  The metaphor that laws are there for protection doesn't hold up.  At all.

We are physically unable to violate natural laws.  I can't make an airplane fly without lift.  I can't keep myself from falling back down when I jump.  What humans have done is discover workarounds and develop ways to fly that utilize other natural laws and forces.  It's not as though anyone can fly by breaking the law of gravity.  Gravity is still exerting itself on the airplane, but the designers of that airplane have come up with methods to counteract the existing and unbreakable law of gravity.

Contrast that with God's laws.  These are very easily broken.  When you have premarital sex, it's not like flying—well...I mean, it can be, but I mean it's not like flying in the sense of this metaphor.  You aren't finding ways to work within the laws to achieve the desired goal.  You're just breaking the law.  

Now, an argument can easily be made that the law of chastity is designed to protect us, but that doesn't carry over to the other side of the metaphor.  Is Nelson seriously suggesting that God put the laws governing the cardiovascular system and gravity in place to protect us from our hearts not beating and to protect us from drifting off into space?  That's not protection, those are just common sense requirements for him to allow his children's physical bodies to maintain life.  Without those laws in place, nobody without a heartbeat is going to live long enough to float out of the atmosphere anyway.

The more you really try to parse it out, Nelson's comparison between these two types of laws, which he tries to assert are essentially of the same type, makes less and less and less sense.  Sure, though, it sounds fine if you try not to think about it.
Sometimes we as leaders of the church are criticized for holding firm to the laws of God, defending the Savior's doctrine, and resisting the social pressures of our day.  But our commission as ordained apostles is to go into all of the world to preach the gospel unto every creature.  That means we are commanded to teach truth.  In doing so, sometimes we are accused of being uncaring as we teach the Father's requirements for exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom.  But wouldn't it be far more uncaring of us not to tell the truth?  Not to teach what God has revealed?  It is precisely because we do care about all of God's children that we proclaim his truth.  We may not always tell people what they want to hear.  Prophets are rarely popular.  But we will always teach the truth.
Metric fucktons to unpack, here.

First thing I want to hone in on is resisting social pressures of the day.  Some examples of that would be polygamy and the priesthood ban.  Both of those changes were things that the church resisted vigorously before eventually caving to outside pressure.  Both of those were things on which the church was far behind the historical curve. Both of those are things that the church now claims to abhor.  So yes, please tell us more about how the prophets held firm in defending the racist and misogynistic doctrines of the Savior.

Next, if their commission as apostles is to preach the gospel to every creature, why do they spend so much time speaking to audiences that are already LDS?  Why are the speeches before other institutions like the NAACP the outliers in their speaking tours?  Why aren't they preaching on the streets, appearing on talk shows, visiting remote areas of the world without Mormon populations, and taking frequent and lengthy interviews with international news media?

And, Nelson, you're accused of being uncaring because, even as you teach some awful things, you have no sense of empathy in the methods you employ to teach them.  If you're going to oppress, marginalize, and vilify classes of people whom you believe do not follow the covenant path, you can at least be gentle about it.  But you have your bulldogs Oaks and Holland blustering at the pulpit every general conference and you take steps that you quite clearly don't need to take—which becomes apparent when you repeal them after only a few short years.  You didn't need to be an asshole about it, you chose to be an asshole about it, and now you're extending the assholery by refusing to admit fault or to apologize for it.  Even ignoring the unkindness of the doctrine you propagate, you went about "defending" and "teaching" it in ways that were unkind and unnecessary.

Would it be far more caring not to tell the truth?  Well, it could be, but let's not pretend you ever entertained that as an option.  And even if you're telling the truth, there are nicer ways to go about delivering the bad news that someone's on the road to hell for their gayness.  You were a doctor, for Christ's sake, have you never heard of a bedside manner?  Yours is shit.  You're basically kneeling at the beds of people you've decided without medical evidence have some horrible terminal illness and then expecting them to maintain full faith in your role as their doctor when you keep changing your mind about if you're going to treat them and how much effort you're going to put into the treatment.  Are you really surprised that some people are looking for another doctor?
Let's consider the definition of marriage.  In recent years, many countries including the United States have legalized same-sex marriage.  As members of the church, we respect the laws of the land and abide by them, including civil marriage.  The truth is, however, that in the the beginning...marriage was ordained by God, and to this day it is defined by him as being between a man and a woman.  God has not changed his definition of marriage.  God has also not changed his law of chastity.
Jesus Christ.

First of all, thank you for agreeing to abide by a law that doesn't actually affect you.  Legalizing same-sex marriage is not the kind of law that you have to obey as a citizen or as an organization.  It's not like a speed limit.  You aren't capable of committing an infraction against a law that says state and local governments can't deny couples the right to marry based on sexual orientation.  So your noble reminder that we abide by the laws is meaningless.  I don't issue warrants without probable cause, either, but you don't see me bragging about how committed I am to abiding by the Fourth Amendment.

And Nelson goes into astronomical levels of hypocrisy here when he starts talking about the definition of marriage.  "A man and a woman" clearly states both genders involved in his ideal marriage as singular.  As in, one of each.  So we're pretending that in the Bible and in the early days of the Restoration, God wasn't in favor of the definition of a marriage as "a man and several women" and "a man and several women, some of whom are already married to other men."  We're also pretending that the man giving this speech is not married for eternity to two women—he's not civilly married to both of them, of course, but he's still living within a celestial definition of marriage that is between a man and two women.  And his claim that God hasn't changed his definition of marriage is clearly absurd.

And I'm not sure we can claim that God hasn't changed his definition of chastity, either.  Doctrine and Covenants 132 indicates that a man can take several wives without committing adultery.  The church today is pretty clear that having sex with anyone other than a singular wife constitutes adultery.
Though we of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles cannot change the laws of God, we do have the charge to build up the church and regulate all the affairs of the same in all nations.  Thus, we can adjust policy when the Lord directs us to do so. 
Oh, okay.  So that means that policies are directed by the Lord too.  Which means we can throw out the idea that it was Brigham Young's fault that we discriminated against black people for more than a hundred years.  Because policies can only be changed when the Lord directs the leaders to do so.  Which means that, since the church was not founded with the priesthood ban in place, at some point the Lord must have directed Brigham Young to make an "adjustment."

It also means that, decades from now, when the church is trying to claim that the homophobic and transphobic policies that caused them so much trouble way back in the 2010s were instituted by imperfect human leaders, we can all point to this and remind the church that God's prophet assured us the policies were put in place at the Lord's behest.
Consider the policy announced in November 2015 related to the advisability of baptism for children of LGBT parents.  Our concern then—and one which we discussed at length and prayed about fervently over a long period of time—was to find a way to reduce friction between gay or lesbian parents and their children.  Because parents are the primary exemplars for their children, we did not want to put young children in the position of having to choose between beliefs and behaviors that they learned at home and what they were taught at church.  We wanted to facilitate harmony in the home and avoid pitting children and parents against each other.  Thus, in 2015, the policy was made to assist children and their parents in this circumstance, namely that children being raised by LGBT parents would not automatically be eligible for baptism at age 8.  Exceptions to this policy would require First Presidency approval.
Okay, well, I hate to upstage the mouthpiece of the Lord, here, but the best way to reduce friction between gay or lesbian parents and their children is to stop teaching that there's something fundamentally wrong with the parents and that their sexual characteristics need to be corrected or suppressed for them to be worthy of God's kingdom.  I mean, it's kind of an obvious solution.

And I don't understand how denying the children baptism actually would avoid putting them in the position of being taught different things at church than at home.  There is no primary class for children who are older than 8 but have not been baptized in which the students are taught only the things that jive with what they hear from their parents.  So all we'd really have is unbaptized children attending the same Sunday School classes they would have attended prior to the policy adjustment, hearing the same exact lessons they would have heard prior to the policy adjustment, and experiencing the same contrast between ecclesiastical teachings and parental teachings as they would have prior to the policy adjustment.  Only they're not baptized.  Which—considering how church culture works and how brainwashed children can react impolitely to differences they can identify but not properly understand—probably served not to reduce friction in the home, but to impose a social stigma on these children even though they have done absolutely nothing to deserve such a conspicuous contrast with the other children at church.

Which means either the apostles made a really stupid decision, or the motive being put forth by Nelson was not the real motive.   

Oh—and one last thing before I move on to the next quote:  Nelson is hoping his listeners don't know what the words "automatically" and "exception" mean.  He says that the original policy meant that certain children weren't automatically eligible for baptism.  When a child of heterosexual parents nears the age of eight, the bishop begins the process of preparing them for baptism, no questions asked—institutionally speaking, this happens automatically because there are no barriers to it.  When a child of LGBT parents nears the age of eight, nobody is supposed to begin the process of preparing them for baptism—institutionally speaking, this is not automatic because it requires First Presidency approval to get the ball rolling.  So when he talks about exceptions to the policy, he's not talking about exceptions.  Because the requirement of First Presidency approval is built into the policy itself.  A true exception would be if a child of gay parents were able to start baptism interviews with the bishop without requiring any external approvals.  If it requires First Presidency approval, it's not automatic.  Maybe that's nitpicking, but I don't want him to get away with claiming that he made any exceptions.  Because he didn't.  He transferred the power to permit these situations expressly to himself and his two sidekicks, which is more about preserving his right to gatekeep than it is about the concepts of leniency or exceptions.
The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve have continued to seek the Lord's guidance and to plead with him in behalf of his children who were affected by the 2015 policy.  We knew that this policy created concern and confusion for some and heartache for others.  That grieved us.  Whenever the sons and daughters of God weep for whatever reason, we weep.  So our supplications to the Lord continued.  We also took note of LGBT parents who sought permission from the First Presidency for their children to be baptized.  In nearly every case where the LGBT parents agreed to teach their children about and be supportive of the covenant of baptism, the exception request was granted.  As a result of our continued supplication, we recently felt directed to adjust the policy such that the baptism of children of LGBT parents may be authorized by bishops without First Presidency approval if the custodial parents requested the baptism and understand that a child will be taught about sacred covenants to be made at baptism. 
The arrogance is astounding as Nelson tries to position himself as having greater moral credibility than God.  Nelson and his friends, it seems, were valiantly pleading with an intractable Heavenly Father on behalf of the people who were affected—not hurt, offended, marginalized, victimized, targeted, or distressed, but affected—by the policy.  In much the same disgusting way as the lifting of the priesthood ban was described as the result of "[pleading] long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren," Nelson makes it sound like he really really wanted to be be nice to the homosexuals but God just wouldn't let him.  Don't make Nelson out to be the bad guy, it was God's fault it took so long to fix this.

And the unctuously magnanimous claim that the First Presidency was liberal in its granting of approvals admits that these approvals were not granted in every case.  In fact, he specifies that it was granted in nearly every case in which certain other conditions were met.  So, overall, who knows whether the actual approvals were 90% or 10%?  He clearly states this as an indication that he was generous in allowing these children to be baptized, but he leaves a lot of room in his statement to see how it's possible that he was not generous at all.

I'm also a little concerned by his use of "custodial parents."  It sounds like this could refer to a situation in which, for example, a child's father is married to a man and the child's mother has also a man.  If the mother and the child's step-father have custody of the child, they would need to be the ones who request the baptism.  I completely understand that custody arrangements and step-child situations can be extremely complicated, but it seems wildly unfair to give the power to request a baptism wholly to the "custodial parents."  What if the biological father is—understandably—against the baptism?  What does the church do in cases in which there is shared custody?  And why in the hell did they think a one-size-fits-all policy requiring First Presidency approval for any deviation was practical? 
Finally, we also clarified that homosexual immorality will be treated in eyes of the church in the same manner as heterosexual immorality.  
Wow, that's so great.  We're treating homosexuality the same as heterosexuality.  Took us long enough.  Of course, what he means is that being in a gay marriage isn't considered apostasy anymore.  Which is basically bragging about no longer being a total asshole about it.  And, importantly, what it also means is that homosexual immorality will be treated in the eyes of the church in the same manner as heterosexual immorality in matters of formal discipline.  Homosexual intimacy of any kind is still a sin and heterosexual intimacy is only a sin if it takes place outside of a marriage.  The church will continue to teach this and Nelson only means that they're not going to kick you out anymore if you're a woman married to a woman.  That doesn't mean your bishop isn't going to repeatedly counsel you to change your sexual orientation—which is something he'd never bother a straight couple about.

So Nelson's statement is framed to imply equality, but there's really nothing of the kind going on here.  It's just slightly less inequality.
Though it may not have looked this way to some, the 2015 and 2019 policy adjustments on this matter were both motivated by love.  The love of our Heavenly Father for his children, and the love of the brethren for those whom we serve.  Because we feel the depth of God's love for his children, we care deeply about every child of God, regardless of age, personal circumstances, gender, sexual orientation or other unique challenges.  
Saying it over and over again doesn't make it true.  (Why does that sound familiar?)

I wonder if Nelson understands why it didn't look to some like the policy changes were motivated by love.  He doesn't really seem to give the sense that he realizes that this was harmful even to people whose lives it didn't address.  He doesn't give any indication that he realizes it made a broader statement about how the church views the LGBT community regardless of the individual lives it "affected."  He doesn't acknowledge that it may have hurt people who were not directly impacted by it.  What he does acknowledge, however, is the depth of love he feels for everyone.

You got a funny way of showin' it, Russell.  Actions do speak louder than words.  It's very easy to claim that you love everyone, but it's clearly more difficult for you to behave in a way that demonstrates the love you insist that you have.

It interests me how often this policy and its reversal have been mentioned by leaders recently.  To me, this is an indication that the response to it has been so overwhelmingly negative that even the apostles have started to believe that ignoring it is not a viable tactic.  What's disappointing is that they still believe that sticking to their guns when they broach the subject is a viable tactic.  Rather than admitting that, as imperfect men, the leaders have made a mistake that has hurt people, Nelson goes the authoritarian route, links his actions inextricably to God's will, and tries to deflect any criticism toward the unassailable character of our Heavenly Father.  I think that will prove to be a losing strategy, but I suppose they're mitigating a bit of the possible damage to their membership strength by forgoing their usual approaches of hoping no one will notice it or hoping everyone will forget about it.

I'm sure Nelson will grace us all with more self-aggrandizing authoritarianism and more gilded bigotry during general conference in a few weeks, but for now, these words of witlessness are the latest declarations from the Lord's appointed prophet.  This, apparently, is the best God can do.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Soares & Christensen, Q&A, B&S

Yet another apostle has now graced us with what seems to be the church's new favorite gimmick—a Face-to-Face event.  Elder Soares, joined by Elder Christensen of the seventy, spoke to a small and slightly-too-intentionally-international group of young adults to answer their slightly-too-carefully-selected questions.  Though the devotional was structured to avoid having to confront particularly challenging concepts head-on, it was, nonetheless, a little revealing.

I'll begin with a completely unimportant quote that I found amusing.
"Where I Can Turn for Peace" is one of my favorite hymns.
Okay, Elder Soares, but the song you're referring to—the one you sat through a performance of like five minutes ago—is called "Where Can I Turn for Peace?"  I find it funny that he accidentally gets the name wrong while praising it as a personal favorite.  Although, to be fair, it's very likely that he learned the hymn in one of the other languages that he speaks, so when he first fell in love with its message, I'm sure the exact title wasn't the one in the English hymnbook.
We both loved God more than we would ever love each other.

Sister Christensen said this while telling the story of how she met her husband.  This just seems...wildly unhealthy.  You're choosing your eternal companion and you still seem to think it's a good thing that the person you're going to spend the rest of forever with will still mean less to you than an omnipotent being who doesn't even personally interact with you?  You're never going to have the kinds of bonding experiences with God that you'll have with your spouse.  You'll never struggle to raise a family with God, help shoulder God's emotional burdens, experience physical intimacy with God, or share in life's lighter, sweeter moments with God.  At the very least, wouldn't it make sense that, even if your relationship was initially founded upon a joint loyalty to your creator, you'll come to love your eternal companion in a way that is more intense and more entire than the way you feel toward your Father in Heaven?

I also thought that some of the things that the Christensens shared smacked of sexism.  For example, Sister Christensen said she identified qualities in her husband that told her that he was someone she should follow.  And Elder Christensen joked that the reason they have "more than twenty dollars now" is "thanks to her."  This was clearly a joke (and the audience laughed), but it seems to me that the basis for why people thought this was funny was that it was so silly to think that the financial success of a family could be an achievement of the wife.  The punchline was this weird, gooey, sour mixture of misogyny and false modesty.

Also, clocking in at over 12 minutes, the discussion in response to the question about marriage is the longest of this interview.  Interesting that these two leaders are comfortable spending more time talking about their personal histories with their spouses than answering the distressing doctrinal inquiries of their flock.
You know, I don't know this particular circumstance of this young man who asked the question.  Let me talk just in general. 
Uh, no, that's not okay.  This was how the question began:  "Every day, I feel so much hatred and embarrassment and guilt in myself for being home [early from my mission] and feel as if I have let God down."  You don't need to know any specifics, Elder Christensen.  You can talk in generalities later, sure, but if you don't start with a specific statement to the individual who posed the question to tell him that he absolutely should not hate himself, you're missing a big opportunity to do some good.

Elder Soares later does a similar thing.  He'll speak generally and give some kind words, but neither one of them will really express empathy toward a rather shocking confession that should worry people.  You have someone following the true gospel of Christ and this person hates himself.  This is not how you like to think your religion works.  Say something nice to this person, directly, to help free him from his downward spiral of self-flagellation!
I think we all question whether our offering to God is good enough. 
I wonder why so many of us question that, Elder Christensen.  It's not like a Book of Mormon prophet taught us that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.  So it's completely baffling to me that this is such a common subject of self-assessment.
To come home early from your mission might be for your learning and growth.
This is such a shitty thing to teach people who are suffering.  Oh, you suffer from a terminal disease, financial trouble, loneliness, mental illness, cultural stigma, sexual trauma, anxiety, the death of a loved one, or drug addiction?  This is actually a good thing!  It will be for your learning and growth!

Thanks, I'm cured.
I mean, he's certainly not wrong that we can learn and grow from our setbacks.  But when that setback is still raw and still an ongoing experience, this attitude is not a particularly helpful starting point.  After you've had a chance to heal a little, it's useful to look back for learning opportunities.  But telling someone who is currently in crisis that they'll eventually be able to draw positive lessons from their struggles doesn't necessarily help pull them out of their little pit of despair--particularly when that pit is filled with something as deeply detrimental to emotional health as self-hatred.
You're good enough.  I wouldn't worry about coming home early.
Okay, we're getting almost in the area surrounding the vicinity that's in close proximity to nearly directly addressing the questioner's claim of self-hatred.  But I think any progress made is destroyed by the advice simply not to worry about it.  I'm pretty sure not worrying about it is one of the first things this person tried.  If that had worked, he wouldn't have enlisted apostolic counsel for his plight.
I would say for you—especially for this returned missionary—seek for the Lord to find peace. He knows your heart.  He knows you gave the best you could.  And he understands the pains you're feeling and the reasons you had to return home.  He is the only one who can really judge you correctly.  So don't worry about anything else, search for the Lord.  Search for peace.
Okay, so now that Elder Soares has chimed in, it's getting even messier.  He, at least, opts to speak somewhat directly to the person who submitted the question.  I thought it was huge that he referred to him as a "returned missionary," because even though that's technically accurate, within Mormon culture, there's a returned missionary and then there's a Returned Missionary.  The way he refers to this person makes it sound like he should be considered a legitimate Returned Missionary, with all the social status and implied spiritual dick size that entails, even though his service was abbreviated.  And that wasn't really a surprise for me, because from what little we've heard from Elder Soares in his time in the Quorum of the Twelve so far, he does seem like one of the more well-meaning leaders of the church.


He didn't address the hate.  That one word in this question identifies the speaker, in my mind, as someone who is in a crucial personal crisis and who may be at risk for depression or suicidal ideation.  Someone in a position of authority needs to tell this person to seek professional counseling.  Someone in a position of authority needs to tell this person that he should never hate himself.  Someone in a position of authority needs to contact this person's bishop and make sure the ward is reaching out to him to make him feel loved and included instead of marginalized and stigmatized.  Someone in a position of authority needs to fucking acknowledge and validate this person's emotional struggle so he doesn't feel like he's screaming at a brick wall and receiving no assistance.  Someone, anyone, multiple someones need to tell this person he is loved and valued.

Absolutely no one should be telling this person not to worry about it.  But that's exactly what two of the Lord's anointed just did.  Both of them.

Also, it would have been nice if either one of these men had addressed the church body at large to remind them not to judge or informally ostracize people who have come home early from their missions.  Soares did say that Christ is the only one who can judge correctly, but it could have done a huge service to the people who have returned before their allotted mission length if he'd admonished the general membership in more direct terms for contributing to the suffering of people like the young man who posed the question.
Doubts are dangerous.  Questions are the way that we receive revelation.
This answer was given in Spanish, so some of the nuance may have been lost in the English translation, but these are the words attributed to Elder Christensen by his translator.

The church has really been trying to stress the distinction between a doubt and a question, and I think it's not doing a very good job.  Christensen's answer here makes it sound like receiving revelation is a tightrope walk.  You risk a lot by entertaining a question, because what if that question turns into a doubt?  The two concepts are frequently discussed hand in hand—one of them is considered to be unwelcome and dangerous while the other is considered to be acceptable and useful.  But when the two are so inextricably linked, it can make it seem like entertaining a question isn't worth the trouble because it can place you too close to the dreaded danger of doubt.  

Maybe I'm putting my tinfoil hat on again, but I have to wonder if the sloppy, often confusing treatment of these two concepts is intentional.  Because the church doesn't want your questions—it wants your obedience.  And if it can pretend to approve of questions while positioning them so close to something else that it actively demonizes, maybe it can effectively discourage questions while expressing support for them.  That way it can look like it welcomes them even as it tries to manipulate its members into avoiding them entirely.
Sometimes we move forward only reading things that we find on the internet or books or reading things that people wrote—people that we don't even know. When we do this, we forget to do the things that can help us.  Things such as reading the scriptures, praying, going to the temple, going to church, participating in institute classes.

This answer of Soares's was also translated into English.

Here he's apparently indicating that things that were written by people we don't know are of suspect validity.  What is the first thing he says we should do instead?  Read the scriptures.  Gee, I wonder how many of us are personally acquainted with Moses, Paul, Alma, Joseph Smith, or any other scriptural authors.

But regardless of the contradiction, it's still ridiculous reasoning.  The lack of a personal connection to an author does not make that author's information unreliable.  The accuracy of their claims and the soundness of their reasoning should not be judged based on how well we are personally acquainted with them.  Sound reasoning should speak for itself, truth should be buttressed by data, and complete strangers should be understood to possess the same capabilities as close friends to highlight truth and to produce lies. 

This is, of course, a relatively cynical way to live, so let me just clarify that I'm only suggesting people are well served by this approach when it comes to matters of greater import.  If a longtime friend tells you that The Last Unicorn is the pinnacle of cinematic achievement, then take their word for it and watch the movie.  If some rando on the street says so, feel free to ignore it.  Not only is this kind of information subjective, but it also doesn't have much impact on anything of great consequence.  It's when people start talking about morality and eternity and authority that I think we need to start being a lot more careful to judge information on its own merits rather than dismissing things from sources that aren't close to us.
I remember as a young missionary reading a scripture, I didn't know what it meant.  It talked of an overflowing surge that covered the earth, but my disciples would be in holy places.  And I remember thinking, how does that work?  I thought the scourge was pestilence or a plague.  How can one person stand and one person fall?  In today's world, that scourge is the problem of pornography.
This appears to be a reference to D&C 45:31-32, which doesn't seem to be about pornography at all.  I'm willing to concede that the scourge and sickness referred to here are figurative rather than being actual physical ailments.  But when the people who succumb to the scourge curse God and die, it sure sounds like this is talking about something that physically kills people.  But that's not really the main thing I want to bring up here.

Christensen appears to identify porn as one of the preeminent problems in the world.  So destructive is smutty imagery that it merited, apparently, a divine prophecy as a latter-day scourge and sickness.  I think that's completely absurd.  See, this planet still plays host to things like slavery and child sex trafficking.  Our species is responsible for deep-seated and indefensible cultural, racial, national, and sexual enmities and bigotries.  We start wars.  Some of us are consumed by greed or pride or selfishness. Some of us fundamentally discard and devalue empathy for our fellow human beings.  Pornography may be bad, but if you're seriously suggesting that this is the scourge of the world today that was foreseen by Joseph Smith in 1831, you're not taking an honest look at all the moral failings of humanity and it's really difficult to respect anything else you have to say.  Get some fucking perspective.
And, I remember, in our rehearsal you made this comment—if I could share it—you said, "If we saw the price that the brethren pay to receive revelation, we would have less doubts about the decisions they're making."
This is one of the youthful hosts attributing an earlier off-camera comment to Soares—which Soares nods to acknowledge.

Okay, so, what the hell is this talking about?  What is the price?  Does he mean that the apostles physically suffer in order to recieve divine instruction? Or is the process of receiving revelation mentally and spiritually taxing?  Does their revelatory ritual involve some kind of fight club?  Or does it take up a lot of their precious time?  Does it negatively affect their relationships with their families?  Do they lose money?  Does it make their hair gray?  What is the price?

Oh, right, we can't see the price.  And, apparently, we can't even define what anybody means by "price."  Which makes this entire comment completely useless.  This is a very important sounding way of saying, essentially, "There's a lot of evidence for why our decisions are awesome.  It's a bummer you can't see the evidence, but, man, if you could, it would blow.  Your.  Mind."  

They're pretending to be sitting on something truly wonderful and asking us to take their word for it on how wonderful it is—and they COULD be telling the truth, but since nobody will go into detail or let us see this wonderful thing, we have no idea how valid their claim is.

But it kind of makes you wonder—if this information has such power to dispel doubt, why is it not discussed openly for the benefit of the church membership?
Changes in policies is not something new.  It happens since the beginning.  The Savior changed policies and he entitled prophets, seers, and revelators to do the same according to the circumstances and needs.
Okay, then, Elder Soares, I'm gonna need you to go through this in detail and explain exactly what circumstances required ordinance discrimination against blacks and what needs required exclusionary policies against LGBT members and their children.  Because it seems like you're saying Jesus gave prophets the right to be giant dicks, and that really doesn't sound like him.
There are many in the scriptures that I would consider policy changes.  For instance, we no longer offer sacrifice of the firstling of our flocks.  The Savior put an end to that policy.... 

Okay, hold up, there, Elder Christensen.  Are you saying the Law of Moses was a collection of policies?  I really, really doubt that the Israelites would have considered all of that mere policy.  It was called a Law, it was given by God, and there were serious temporal and spiritual consequences for violating it.

If the Law of Moses was policy and not doctrine, does this mean that we can suffer eternal consequences for violating mutable policy even if what we've done is vindicated by immutable doctrine?  If the church is calling something a policy, then it should have administrative impact.  It should only have eternal impact if it's a proper doctrine.  

For example, it's church policy that we ordain boys as deacons at age 12.  If you interview an 11-year-old, find him worthy, and exercise your priesthood power to ordain him as a deacon, that's a policy violation—but nobody's going to a lower degree of glory over it, right?  Unless the Law of Moses was a policy, in which case, that opens the door to some possible extreme ramifications for a misstep like giving someone the Aaronic priesthood a year early.

And if failure to abide by a policy can carry punishments of the same magnitude as doctrinal violations, that means that when God places someone into the Celestial Kingdom, he's not just rewarding their belief and their faith and the virtue of their deeds—he's also rewarding them for observance of arbitrary, peripheral, non-essential administrative rules.  God is rewarding busywork.
We cannot condition our faithfulness to the immediate answers of our desires.
Translation (yes, I know, Elder Soares was answering in English):  It is unlikely that your prayers will be answered immediately.  If prayer doesn't work for you, don't stop believin'.  Just hold on to that feelin'.
I think Nephi was exactly like each one of us.  He had questions.  Didn't understand everything.  But he knew of one thing that helped to go forward.  He knew God loved him.  And that's what we need to know, my dear friends.  If we know that, everything will be easier in our lives.
Okay, on the surface, I guess that's sort of nice.  But the more we know, the more actionable information we can use to go forward.  Teaching people to be satisfied with not knowing things is shitty.  Especially when they feel that the questions they have are essential to their eternal salvation.
I had questions and I had them answered by the prophets, seers, and revelators.  I had them answered as I dive in the scriptures, as I learned more about the love of God for me.
Okay, so let's hear them.  If you don't have questions anymore, then you must have some real killer info.  Isn't that exactly what this Face-to-Face is for?  What were your questions, what did you struggle with, and what specific issues were substantively resolved?  Walk us through it.

Because the only things you've really offered today are simplifications, justifications, and platitudes.  Where are the details?  How much does any of this actually help?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Church on Defense

Radio Free Mormon's most recent podcast features some interesting clips from a Salt Lake Tribune interview with Elder Steven Snow, the Executive Director of the Church History Department.  In it, Snow acknowledges that some members were confused about the legitimacy of the Gospel Topics essays and expresses regret that there was no way to specify that these essays were in fact approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (approximately 9:40):
It's interesting...I guess...I wouldn't have expected that people would have thought that a rogue history department would go do something like this, certainly in the church—that would be impossible.  And every step of the way, they [the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve] were reviewing it and reviewed it and approved it—what was published ultimately.  So it was unfortunate that we couldn't in some way indicate that....
Radio Free Mormon, of course, immediately points out the obvious:  you can add a notation in the byline or at the bottom of the page to alert readers that their leaders have signed off on these essays.  If the church really wanted to indicate that the material was approved by the prophet, it very easily could have.

But I think that Elder Snow's interview is indicative of a pervasive and ultimately flawed strategy of church leadership:  they're playing a lot of defense.  Many decisions and many speeches demonstrate a focus on retaining the loyal membership base instead of reaching out to those who are on the fence, those who are critics, and those who could be welcomed in from outside.  Big Tent Mormonism is not a thing, at least not anymore.  Today, it's Exactly This One Size Tent Only Mormonism.

The reason the unsigned essays feel like defense to me is because an obviously simple solution that could help members who are more aware of or more interested in troubling issues was avoided—because doing so makes it easier for members who aren't as aware or aren't as interested in troubling issues to ignore them.  If an apostle didn't say it or didn't even seem to approve it, why should we feel the need to absorb this information?  This focuses on preserving the faith of the core membership to the detriment of the faith-related inquiries of those who are no longer part of that core.

A similar issue arises later in the Elder Snow interview—Peggy Fletcher Stack makes the point that the essay on the priesthood ban stops short of calling Brigham Young a racist or even of an explicit acknowledgement that the policy was wrong.  This way, if you aren't having doubts about the church and you stumble across the article, you're not forced to grapple with questions of how a prophet's policy that was upheld by several subsequent prophets could have been wrong and how that might shed light on the possible failings of today's prophet.  But those glaring omissions certainly are not going to smooth things over with doubters or progressives who believe that an important step to healing racial issues in the church is an acknowledgement of and an apology for past wrongdoings.  It's still playing defense—protect who's in, but make no effort to reach out to who's not in or to who's not in enough.

The church's strategy here strikes me as defeatist and limiting.  It's like a soccer team that only puts defenders in the field.  They'll never score, but it's unlikely they'll allow any goals.  Notably, if all of your players stay in your backfield, that means the best possible outcome for you is a draw—zero to zero.  If you put some attackers on the other half of the field you may weaken your defense, but you'll actually open up the possibility of winning by giving yourself the opportunity to score.  An argument can be made that the church has chosen this strategy because it knows it can't score—it knows that its doctrine and its history and its scripture are uniformly incapable of converting the skeptics and the doubters.  So the church focuses exclusively on defending its core of brainwashed, all-in, dyed-in-the-wool, wholly committed members.  They've packed their lineup with ten fullbacks and they're all milling around inside the penalty box.  And honestly, that's just as likely to allow a goal by obstructing the goalkeeper's sight lines as it is to prevent a goal, but I think I've taken this metaphor far enough already.

Plenty of other examples of this defense-centric approach crop up in the recent past.  In Ballard's "Stay in the Boat" General Conference address, though he mentions that questions are fine and that the church will help rescue those who have fallen out of the boat, he doesn't provide any specific questions.  He certainly doesn't provide any specific answers, either, and instead opts to spend the majority of his time telling us to wear our life jackets and not to get distracted.  He pays lip service to those who are no longer in the boat but imparts no reasons or methods to return.  It's all about retaining the people who are already there, safely aboard the Good Ship Zion.

Ballard revisits this strategy a few years later, asking those who are struggling with their faith, "Where will you go?"  Though he acknowledges that some have left the church, he doesn't discuss where they have gone.  Nevertheless, he is quick to imply to those who are still invested in the church that there really is nowhere else to go.  This, again, discourages the attrition of faithful members while providing nothing that assuages the concerns of doubters, progressive Mormons, fringe members, or the people who are, theoretically, drowning in the sea of nothingness beyond the hull of the boat.

And perhaps no recent example of this attitude is quite so callous as the announcement that the policy of exclusion for LGBT children had been reversed.  Notice how this information is framed by the First Presidency, as reported by the faceless Newsroom:
  • Nelson talks about how exciting it is that this is a real-life revelation, but offers no explanation and no apology for the original policy and provides no sympathy for anyone hurt by it.
  • Oaks focuses on Christ's love and says that the "very positive policies...should help affected families," but also offers no explanation or apology for the original policy.  He mentions that families have been "affected," but does not describe what those effects may have been.  "Affected" is a neutral term.  You can be affected positively or negatively.  Saying someone was affected is not an acknowledgement of the marginalization and bigotry that was inflicted upon them.
  • Eyring explains that revelation has helped the church adapt to changing circumstances, implying the policy didn't change because the church did—it changed because the circumstances did.  And he also does not offer an explanation or an apology and also does not express sympathy for those who were "affected" by the three-year exclusion.
All of this is geared toward those who weren't particularly bothered by the policy.  In fact, reading the news release doesn't alert anyone who was not already aware that this was enacted less than 3 years prior.  To a casual observer, this sounds a little like the way the lifting of the priesthood ban is framed—it used to be one way, but now it's another way, and now look at how wonderful it is for us to be moving forward!  

This is still playing defense.  Rather than acknowledge some uncomfortable things that will win them integrity points with critics and doubters and attempting to explain the reasons for those uncomfortable things (which would risk generating doubts among the membership base), the church leaders gloss over and obfuscate the more emetic information and turn their focus to comforting, positive talking points that the general membership is likely to digest.  There's nothing proactive here.  There are no strikers on this field.  This is just a way to prevent shots on their own goal, and they accomplish this by refusing to take shots at the opposing goal.

But beyond the sports metaphor, this behavior shows a hypocrisy in Jesus's shepherd metaphor.  Because by safeguarding the testimonies of the faithful while sacrificing the testimonies of those most at risk to faithlessness, the church is essentially sacrificing one group's salvation in favor of safeguarding another group's salvation. It is leaving the one and expending all its energies on the ninety and nine.  We should expect more from a church that claims to uphold the restoration of the same gospel taught by Jesus himself.  But many of us have learned to expect disappointment.  We've learned that, when the church is at a crossroads between the Christlike decision and the businesslike decision, it will rarely choose the right.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Chiasmus in Twilight

Chiasmus has long been cited as one of the evidences that the Book of Mormon is of ancient Hebrew origins.  I first learned about this during a special fireside given by a member of my stake who'd recently visited Central America.  I was about 14 at the time, but he was what I would refer to today as an amateur apologist.

It's pretty impressive to think of what complexity Joseph Smith was able to work into the Book of Mormon using Hebrew poetic devices that he would not have been academically aware of.  But what didn't occur to me in the midst of that tour de force of turn-of-the-millennium apologetics was that, in a lot of cases, you can find chiasmus if you squint really hard and look at the text just right.  Although the concept has been covered by church magazines, BYU researchers, and apologists, I was recently reminded of the more implausible branches of issue by stumbling across one particular site that claims the entire book of First Nephi was written as one giant chiasmic narrative.

So I took the methodology I felt had been employed in this particular case (starting with the conclusion and working backwards to find the supporting data) and applied it to some famous pieces of the written word to see if I really could force something to be chiasmus just by wanting it badly enough.  It was a surprisingly amusing exercise as I opted to revisit Lewis Carroll's masterpiece of silliness, The Jabberwocky:

please excuse my amateurish formatting
Sure, some of those things are a stretch, but that's what makes it fun.  And I do see a lot of Book of Mormon analysis citing things that are thematically chiasmic, even if they aren't syntactically chiasmic.  So even if similar words aren't used, as long as we can find some connection between the two ideas, we can decide that they match up.  And in this particular case, I think we can learn that something doesn't have to claim Hebrew origins or contain any kind of solemnity in it to have the framework of a chiasmus.

But since Lewis Carroll is a minor literary monument (I mean, he's not on par with Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but he's celebrated as a classic writer), maybe he had the wherewithal to consciously structure his poetry this way—assuming it wasn't just the opium talking. So I decided to try a larger piece of writing, in much the same way that the aforementioned website tackled the full breadth of First Nephi.  I went to someone who, though popular, is not a celebrated as a wordsmith.  I went to someone who I perhaps take too much pleasure in ridiculing.  I went to Twilight.

I can make an argument that the sparkly-vampire-high-school-melodrama-adventure that took the world by storm a little over a decade ago is laid out in that sort of nested, mirrored, symmetrical structure that we've been examining.  Some of it takes a little work to dig up, but I think that this is every bit as rickety and every bit as defensible as the claim that Nephi recorded his own story as a giant Hebraic Easter egg.

Observe, chapter by chapter:

1. Bella attends gym class, where she stresses about her clumsiness
2. Bella says she moved to Forks so her mom could travel with Phil, who plays minor league baseball
3. Edward saves Bella’s life by stopping an out-of-control van
4. Bella is surrounded with people and attention after surviving a life-threatening situation
5. Bella leaves school early
6. Against advice, Jacob tells Bella about werewolves
7. Bella makes plans to travel from Forks to Port Angeles
8. Bella is targeted by a group of dangerous men
9. Bella learns the supernatural aspects of vampires in conversation with Edward
10. Bella’s instinct is to lie by denying she’s scared of Edward
11. Edward drives Bella to her house
12. Bella pretends she’s not going to the dance to deceive Mike
13. Vampires sparkle in the sunlight
14. Bella pretends she’s asleep to deceive her father
15. Edward drives Bella to his house
16. Bella’s instinct is to lie by keeping her father from knowing she’s involved with Edward
17. Bella sees the supernatural aspects of vampires at the Cullen’s baseball game
18. Bella is targeted by a group of dangerous vampires
19. Bella prepares to travel from Forks to Arizona
20. Against advice, Alice tells Bella how someone becomes a vampire
21. Bella plans to leave Alice and Jasper
22. Bella isolates herself and James corners her in a life-threatening situation
23. Edward saves Bella’s life by sucking venom out of her wound
24. Bella’s mother reveals that her husband Phil was signed with a Phoenix minor league baseball team.
Epilogue: Bella attends the prom in the gym, where she stresses about her lack of dancing ability

It's not airtight, obviously.  But I think it's roughly on par with the analysis of First Nephi.  And more importantly, I think it demonstrates that the chiasmic construct can be a construct in more than one sense of the word.  It can be a post hoc fabrication that does not necessarily reflect the reality of the composition or the intent of its author.

I mean, unless Stephanie Meyer had some kind of seer stone we don't know about.