Thursday, March 26, 2020

D&C 17: Can I Get a Witness?

This section is the preamble to the revealing of the Gold Plates to the Three Witnesses.  And there's some juicy manipulative language in here.

Say Anything
Verse 4 says that the witnesses will need to testify publicly of what they're about to see so "that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed...."  That's an odd thing to say.  Why would a prophet be destroyed because three other people failed to follow instructions?  Whatever happened to "we believe that men will be punished for their own sins"?

Also...Joseph Smith was destroyed.  I mean, it took 15 years for it to happen, so maybe God slowly became frustrated with the degree to which the witnesses were promulgating their affirmation of the plates' authenticity and he eventually decided it was time to let Joseph get murdered as the penalty.

Verse 8 promises that if they keep the commandment to testify of the plates, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against [them]."  Nothing motivates the troops quite like extravagant promises, right? Imagine being told that if you follow this one simple instruction to tell people about something you saw then you'll be pretty much guaranteed to triumph over the influence of the devil and have everlasting joy in the kingdom of Heaven.  Sign me up.

Totally Not a Scam
Verse 6 seems to hint at Joseph's desperation to prove that he was legit: 
And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.
Sounds like God is a little too obsessed with vindicating Joseph.  Shouldn't God be saying, "this book is a true record of my dealings with ancient Americans and contains the fullness of my gospel" instead of "Joe totally translated this, guys, just like I told him to."  If God's ways are higher than our ways, why is he more concerned with propping up Joseph than with promoting the gospel of salvation?

But, of course, neither God nor the golden plates have been proven to exist, so God swearing on his own existence to support the truth of the Book of Mormon is like me swearing on my mother's grave that the check is in the mail.  My insurance company doesn't know I haven't written a check yet and they don't know my mother's still alive.  Swearing to it doesn't make it true, especially considering your collateral isn't verifiable.

The Eye of Faith
The last thing I'd like to point out about this section is the really peculiar language used to describe the nature of the experience the witnesses were about to have.  Because it kind of sounds like Joseph Smith was prepping them to have a non-physical view of the plates.  The strange wording first jumped out at me in verse 2:
And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.
Of course it's entirely possible that I'm using the norms of modern language to misunderstand the meaning of nineteenth-century language, but...

The use of the word "by" here is notable, I think.  The way I'm reading it, it sounds like the witnesses will see the plates by means of their faith instead of due to their faith.  In D&C 10:47 and 10:52, God makes promises that will come to pass "according to their faith" and in D&C 31:1, Thomas B. Marsh is blessed "because of" his faith.  In these examples, when God is indicating that one thing is directly caused by another—as opposed to one thing merely facilitating another—he opts not to use the preposition "by."

And, more famously, in D&C 88:118, God advises us to "seek learning, even by study and also by faith."  Clearly, in this context, the word "by" indicates that the learning should be sought by means of study and by means of faith.

With those other examples of God's word choice in mind, it seems more and more likely to me that when this section says the witnesses will see the plates by their faith, it's saying by means of their faith.  The faith is a vehicle to obtain the view.  

Call me crazy, but you don't need faith as a vehicle to see physical objects.  After all, Alma taught us that if you have faith, you hope for things which are not seen, so if faith was the method by which the witnesses were able to see the plates, then maybe their definition of "see" in this case isn't the same definition you and I are accustomed to using in daily conversation.

This is also supported, I think, by verse 5:
And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.
This is an important contrast.  Joseph Smith never claimed to have seen the plates with his spiritual eyes—as far as his contact with the plates was concerned, they were a solid, physical object observable with the natural eye.  The word "because" is used in Joseph's case because his faith was not the method by which he was able to see the plates, it was the catalyst for his possession of them in the first place.  Although, to be fair, the word "by" is used as well, but it seems to me that when God is saying "it is by my power that he has seen them," he's not talking about the act of seeing the plates, he's talking about the state of having access to them.

I think this wording helps bolster the quote attributed to Martin Harris that "I did not see [the plates] as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith."  It further muddies the waters when it comes to determining just how literal the witnesses' testimony is.

And if the testimony of the witnesses can be muddied, then the legitimacy of Joseph's narrative of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon may need further examination.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Nelson's State of the Union

The new Ensign for April 2020 has a bizarre little article by our Dear Leader that tells us all how great the end of times are.  I found it to be peppered with problematic language and I thought its thesis was ultimately self-defeating, so I wanted to review some highlights.

President Nelson starts off in very optimistic terms:
You and I get to participate in the ongoing Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is wondrous! It is not man-made! It comes from the Lord, who said, “I will hasten my work in its time” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:73). This work is empowered by a divine announcement made 200 years ago. It consisted of only seven words: “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (see Joseph Smith—History 1:17).
First of all, it strikes me as odd how quickly he assures us that this isn't a fake thing.  This is in the very first paragraph.  The third sentence of the entire article is "it is not man-made."  Wouldn't it make you kind of leery if a salesman were to begin his pitch with, "I swear this isn't a scam, but...?"

Also, was it really those seven words that "launched the restoration" of the gospel?  Because the first words Joseph Smith attributed to God in his 1832 account of the First Vision were "Joseph my son​ thy sins are forgiven thee."

Nelson continues:
Why? Because our living God is a loving God! He wants His children to gain immortality and eternal life! The great latter-day work of which we are a part was established, on schedule, to bless a waiting and weeping world.
Our God is a loving God!  He wants His children to gain immortality and eternal life, but not so much that he won't impose arbitrary and inscrutable impediments to those goals!

Also, why was the world waiting and weeping?  Because the God who loved us so much allowed the world to exist without his gospel for a couple of millennia.  Isn't it great how God creates a problem and then claims his solution to it amounts to a critical spiritual largesse?

And how confident should we really be that the restoration of the gospel was completed on schedule?  I mean, we know that there was a theoretical schedule in place for when Christ would come if Joseph Smith had lived to the age of 85, and that got derailed and apparently delayed by at least 176 years, so can we really take Nelson's word for it that God's timelines always unfold precisely as expected?
Today, the Lord’s work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is moving forward at an accelerated pace.
This isn't an important criticism, it's more an amusing observation.

But, mathematically speaking, the work can be accelerating and still not be an encouraging attribute.  For example, the total membership of the church is accelerating, but the rate of acceleration is declining—which is not the kind of victory Nelson is trying to claim here.  At a certain point, the rate of acceleration may even drop below zero.  The membership total will still have a rate of acceleration then, but that acceleration would best be expressed with a negative number.  So while he may be technically correct regardless of the circumstances, I don't know that the numbers really support the point he's trying to make.  Especially if we're measuring the acceleration of the Lord's work by the missionary force, because that actually has seen negative acceleration numbers.
Remember that the fulness of Christ’s ministry lies in the future. The prophecies of His Second Coming have yet to be fulfilled. We are just building up to the climax of this last dispensation—when the Savior’s Second Coming becomes a reality.
The line he's trying to walk throughout this article is weird.  He's trying to get people to panic just enough to hang on to his organization for dear life while getting them to calm down just enough not to cause problems.  We're in the end of days, guys, so hunker down.  But don't worry, we're not that close to the end.  So don't do anything crazy, but definitely keep paying your tithing.
Mercifully, the invitation to “come unto Christ” (Jacob 1:7; Moroni 10:32; Doctrine and Covenants 20:59) can also be extended to those who died without a knowledge of the gospel (see Doctrine and Covenants 137:6–8). Part of their preparation, however, requires the earthly efforts of others.
Right, that makes sense.  Jesus spent a lot of time telling us how we needed to rely on other people to make sure we could be saved in the kingdom of his father.  And it still seems disingenuous to talk about how merciful it is that we can extend the invitation to people who never received it during their lifetimes.  Whose fault is it they didn't receive it?  Could it be—stay with me here—the perfected omniscient being who designed a system in which it would be so common for people to live their entire lives without hearing of his gospel, let alone having the opportunity to learn it?

No.  Blame always flows downward, not upward.  And that way the guy in charge can pretend like he's doing us a solid when he shoddily patches up the innate flaws in his master plan.
Families are to be sealed together for all eternity (see Doctrine and Covenants 2:2–3; 49:17; 138:48; Joseph Smith—History 1:39). A welding link is to be forged between the fathers and the children.
I'm guessing that his reference to fathers and children is a nod to Malachi 4 and the turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children, blah blah blah.  It still strikes me as incredibly tone deaf phrasing, though.  If we're trying to claim that Mormonism isn't skewed unfairly toward patriarchy and that women still have "direct access" to priesthood power, maybe it might also be a good idea to make sure that women are explicitly included in our descriptions of eternal families instead of implying that eternal families are connected through the men?

The way someone speaks about an issue when that issue is not a central part of a discussion tends to be very indicative of their true attitude on the subject.  You can give a seminar to your coworkers about the importance of equal employment opportunities, but if you're using the n-word in private, you might need to admit you still have a blind spot when it comes to racism.  You can tell women how valued they are and how closely connected they are to the priesthood, but when your unrelated speeches value scriptural allusions over inclusive language, you might need to admit you still have a blind spot when it comes to sexism.
The time is coming when those who do not obey the Lord will be separated from those who do (see Doctrine and Covenants 86:1–7). Our safest insurance is to continue to be worthy of admission to His holy house.
Our safest insurance isn't to maintain contact with our Heavenly Father through daily prayers?  Our safest insurance isn't to feast upon the words of Christ with frequent scripture study?  Our safest insurance isn't to develop faith as a family or to partake regularly of the Sacrament or to seek personal revelation?  Of course not.  None of those things require our money.

Also, it's interesting that Nelson cites separation as our main concern in the context of the parable of the wheat and the tares, which involves the tares being burned.  It's more of his tightrope walk—he's stressing the urgency, but not explicitly mentioning the really scary part about the burning of the wicked.  If we frighten you too much, you'll get completely turned off, but if we don't frighten you enough you won't listen to us.  Be afraid, guys, but not too afraid, okay?
He will govern from two world capitals: one in old Jerusalem (see Zechariah 14) and the other in the New Jerusalem “built upon the American continent” (Articles of Faith 1:10). From these centers He will direct the affairs of His Church and kingdom. Another temple will yet be built in Jerusalem. From that temple He shall reign forever as Lord of Lords. Water will issue from under the temple. Waters of the Dead Sea will be healed. (See Ezekiel 47:1–8.)
I know I've been out of the church for a while now so I'm sure my sensibilities have been drastically recalibrated, but how does this stuff not sound batshit crazy?  Jesus will govern from two world capitals?  Why does he need two capitals?  Actually, why does he even need one?  Can't he direct the affairs of the kingdom remotely?  Or in some kind of itinerant fashion?  A capital location of centralized power just seems like a very human thing to implement—something an omnipotent creator of the world or a perfect savior of the world wouldn't have much need of.

And what's the deal with water issuing from under the temple?  How is that important?  How will that affect our lives during the millennial reign?  How is some nebulous and probably metaphorical prophecy about a holy site's groundwater model relevant to our salvation?
Meanwhile, here and now, we live in a time of turmoil. Earthquakes and tsunamis wreak devastation, governments collapse, economic stresses are severe, the family is under attack, and divorce rates are rising. We have great cause for concern.
Weird that a prophet who should have had foreknowledge based on his communication with an all-knowing deity didn't think to include pestilence or viral outbreaks in his list of causes for concern when he was writing this article for future publication.

But yeah, divorce rates are rising, that's what everybody is losing their minds over as we're heading into April.  Absolutely. 
Do whatever it takes to strengthen your faith in Jesus Christ by increasing your understanding of the doctrine taught in His restored Church and by relentlessly seeking truth. Anchored in pure doctrine, you will be able to step forward with faith and dogged persistence and cheerfully do all that lies in your power to fulfill the purposes of the Lord.
"Relentlessly seeking truth" is obviously lip service.  If we were so committed to people's relentless searches for truth, we'd stop demonizing them when they come to unapproved conclusions about truth.  We'd applaud them for their courage to follow the truth (insofar as they have learned it) even if it took them away from the social structure and the organizational loyalty they once valued.  Really, though, it's only okay to relentlessly seek truth if the search brings you to the determination that the Mormon church is the manifestation of that truth.  

And I have another amusing though not crucial criticism when it comes to Nelson's use of the word "anchored."  See, an anchor keeps a boat from drifting away.  The whole point of an anchor is to restrict movement.  So when you're saying we should be anchored in something as we step forward, you're really not hoping that we'll get very far forward, are you? 
However, I promise you that as you follow Jesus Christ, you will find sustained peace and true joy.
Sustained peace, even though I'm hinting at a lot of scary things that might happen before the Second Coming.  True joy, even though I just warned you that those who do not obey the Lord will soon be separated from those who do and some of your loved ones may be burned with the tares.

What a comforting promise.

I don't understand how he expects a promise like this to be comforting when it comes with so many underlying threats.  Let's review some of the key phrases he uses when telling us what to expect:

  • those who do not obey the Lord will be separated from those who do
  • we have great cause for concern
  • difficult days are ahead
  • each of us will be tested
  • persecution can crush you into silent weakness
  • your friends will betray you

To me, this entire piece sounds a lot like, "You'll be really happy, but it's gonna suck."  And while happiness isn't the absence of adversity, happiness at the very least should be the absence of doom and gloom hanging over your head.  Which means that this article, which is ostensibly about the Future of the Church, is telling us to expect more of the same:  failing to deliver on promises, manipulating people into paying tithing, and maintaining hopelessly mixed messaging.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

D&C 16: Carbon Copy

It's now Peter Whitmer's turn to receive a personalized revelation from God's lips to Joseph Smith's ears.

Ha, just kidding.  This is identical to the previous section except for the name.  That's kind of interesting, considering the header from John's revelation states that its "message is intimately and impressively personal in that the Lord tells of what was known only to John Whitmer and Himself."  How impressively personal is it when it reads so much like a fortune cookie that it can literally be reused for a completely different person?  Is it really that intimate if it can be repeated verbatim for a different audience?

As a tangential note during the current COVID-19 pandemic, this section might be useful as a sobering reminder to faithful Mormons. Though it can be very easily argued that the blessings promised to him in this section were fulfilled (his missionary work brought Sidney Rigdon on board, so Peter Whitmer Jr. certainly did help "bring souls" unto God), we might want to remember that he would also die quite young just seven years after this revelation.  

Being favored of God doesn't necessarily mean he's going to bless you with a long and healthy life.  Adherents and apostates alike should exercise caution, follow medical recommendations and hygiene guidelines, and stay safe.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

D&C 15: The Secret Life of Whitmer

Here we have a less redundant, more specific revelation for John Whitmer.  The section header is in awe of the way God addresses an issue that John has kept secret.  And that issue is revealed in verse 4:
For many times you have desired of me to know that which would be of the most worth unto you.
...wait, really?  That's the "intimately and impressively personal" message teased in the intro?  That's not much better than a horoscope.

First of all, God is a shitty writer.  Like twenty percent of those words are propositions.  It's pretty easy to get tangled up halfway through that sentence, but when you parse it carefully it's not very meaningful.  The big reveal is that John Whitmer has secretly been asking God for some kind of guidance in his life.  That's hardly an unusual thing to pray for.  Guessing that secret correctly is not impressive.  

This revelation is basically at the level of a medium's hot-reading skills.  All it's missing is the table-knocking and the flickering lamps.  And the answer this medium gave to his subject's burning question of what he should do with his life is predictably self-serving:  recruit for the church founded by the guy who's giving you this revelation.

That's not suspicious at all.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

D&C 14: Thanks, I Hate It

Here we have another xeroxed revelation with several repeated elements that we're already tired of.  "A great and marvelous work is about to come forth" was used in sections 4, 11, and 12.  The "sharper than a two-edged sword" routine is recycled from Hebrews chapter 4 but has already been quoted in sections 6, 11, and 12.  The "field is white already to harvest" spiel is regurgitated from sections 4, 11, and 12.

When some more original material is added to the mix, we get this scripture mastery verse:
And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.
I liked this verse when I was Mormon.  And it sounds innocuous enough to re-read unless I really tease out what it's saying.  It really paints God in a dishonest, PR-spinning, adulation-fiend kind of light.

God labeling eternal life as a gift feels like your employer trying to make itself seem more generous by labeling your paycheck as a bonus.  Is it really a gift when you're following intensive pre-written eligibility guidelines?  This sounds more like a service purchased using a lifetime of labor as currency or like a reward for an achievement.  And not to get all Sacrament-Meeting-Talk here, but Google defines "gift" as "a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present."  Considering that the commandments we're required to keep to be eligible for the gift include worshiping the gift-giver and paying ten percent of our incomes to the gift-giver's organization, it's really not accurate at all to characterize eternal life as a gift.

I think it's more honest to say it's something being withheld from us unless we meet certain requirements.  But somehow we're expected to praise the being who's withholding it from us for magnanimously making it available conditional upon our ability to jump through his hoops.

This is not a healthy spirit-parent-and-spirit-child relationship.