Wednesday, May 20, 2020

D&C 20: What Is and What Should Never Be

It's shocking how disorganized this section is considering it's all about the organization of the restored church.  First of all, verse 1 calls this the Church of Christ, but I'm sure there's an easy explanation for why the fledgling sect hadn't grown into its full title yet.  But the uncomfortable disconnects between the church outlined in this section and the largest church claiming to have been organized in this section don't stop there.

Prove Me Now Here With What?
Verses 10 and 11 make some fun claims about the Book of Mormon:
Which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them—

Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;
Honestly, I don't think the word "prove" has much place in discussion of religion because most religions teach the importance of faith.  Proof defeats the purpose of faith.  But all of that aside, does this really prove to the world that the scriptures are true and that God calls men to his work in this age?  I mean...really?

At best it's evidence of that.  Not particularly strong evidence, though, because there are plenty of things about the story that don't check out.  Having three witnesses attest to something that has a compelling countervailing narrative isn't gonna prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt.

All Means All
Nelson needs a good smack upside the head with verse 37:
And again, by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism—All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church.
I see nothing in here about disavowing any sins that your gay parents haven't repented of.  It's all about the sins of the individual who wishes to be baptized.  And this is probably less important, but I also see nothing here about getting First Presidency approval if you've been excommunicated in the past.

When is an Apostle Not an Apostle?
A lot of people need a good smack upside the head with verse 38:
The duty of the elders, priests, teachers, deacons, and members of the church of Christ—An apostle is an elder, and it is his calling to baptize;
Yes, yes, it goes on to explain that apostles also lead and conduct meetings and teach and expound and exhort and watch over the church.  These are things that apostles do.  But this section really makes it sound like apostles should serve by rubbing shoulders with the members in a much more hands-on capacity.  And, sure, the passage is really about the duties of elders, not necessarily the duties of apostles.  But nowhere does it say that once you become an apostle you can stop mixing with the rabble because you've transcended an elder's middling responsibilities.  If that were the case, why would verse 38 have specified that apostles are elders too?

(But they're really high priests anyway, aren't they?)

When is a Teacher Not a Teacher?
Teachers have a weird job description (verses 53 and 54):
The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them;

And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking;
So the teachers are the church's watchful protectors and the church's enforcers.  They're Batmen.  But seriously, how are 14-year-old boys supposed to make sure there's no lying or evil speaking in the church?  I heard what you said about Sister Barnes in Gospel Doctrine class last week and I'm here to tell you that kind of talk is not permitted in this ward!

My teachers quorum when I was a kid was pretty decent.  Most of us were dutiful believers and we had a few really great quorum advisors.  But none of us ever did anything like what verse 54 says we were supposedly responsible for.

When is a Vote Not a Vote?
Verse 63 starts to get into a crucial issue that the modern church conveniently ignores:
The elders are to receive their licenses from other elders, by vote of the church to which they belong, or from the conferences.

Each priest, teacher, or deacon, who is ordained by a priest, may take a certificate from him at the time, which certificate, when presented to an elder, shall entitle him to a license, which shall authorize him to perform the duties of his calling, or he may receive it from a conference.

No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church;

But the presiding elders, traveling bishops, high councilors, high priests, and elders, may have the privilege of ordaining, where there is no branch of the church that a vote may be called.
Nowhere in here does it say that a new prophet can ascend to his position in secret and inform the church about it after the fact.  Nowhere does it say that if you vote against someone being in a particular calling that the church should keep that person in the calling anyway and direct you to your priesthood leader for a one-on-one attitude adjustment.
The footnotes on the word "vote" in verses 63 and 65 point the reader to the Topical Guide entries for "Sustaining Church Leaders" and "Common Consent."  Not for "Vote," though, because that entry is much shorter and we don't want you to think of your scripturally mandated right to vote as a right to engage in an activity that can accurately be described as voting.

To be fair, these guidelines in the Doctrine and Covenants aren't really detailed enough to be useful, though.  What's the threshold at which the church should deny someone a position as an elder?  This section doesn't say the vote has to be unanimous.  It doesn't say it requires a majority.  It just says there has to be a vote in order for someone to be ordained.  Most people would reasonably assume that the decision to ordain a candidate depends on the outcome of the vote, but it doesn't actually say that.

So this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't kind of situation.  Mormonism looks bad either way.  If there is a threshold of approval before someone serves in the priesthood, then the modern church is ignoring scriptural procedures.  If there isn't be a threshold of approval, then God is terrible at his job for providing such unclear instructions.

When is a Member Not a Member?
Another thing present-day Mormonism doesn't really care about is verse 71:
No one can be received into the church of Christ unless he has arrived unto the years of accountability before God, and is capable of repentance.
Yes, so officially, no one is a member until they've reached the age of accountability and been baptized, but that doesn't stop us from using unbaptized children of record to pad our membership numbers.  There's a pun in here somewhere about being accountable and being counted, but I feel like it's so easy that if I really try to go for it it'll be like hitting an archery target with a bazooka. 

When is a Symbol Not a Symbol?
So the Word of Wisdom hasn't been revealed yet, of course, and it certainly hasn't been reinterpreted and codified into a commandment, but the sacrament prayers here are fun (verses 78-79):
The manner of administering the wine—he shall take the cup also, and say:

O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this wine to the souls of all those who drink of it, that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them; that they may witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him, that they may have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.
Wine is bad.  Ignore the scriptures.

What strikes me is that the wine is supposed to be symbolic.  The bread represents the flesh of Christ because it's sort of soft like human flesh and it's white (and there are brown breads too if we want to be more anthropologically accurate).  The wine represents the blood of Christ because it's liquid and red, like human blood.

Water is not red.  If your tap water is red, you don't drink it. Ever since Mormonism became the Community of Teetotalers, the sacrament symbolism has literally been watered down.  When we drink clear liquid during the sacrament, are we conjuring up images of Christ bleeding colorless blood from every pore?  Are we thinking about the scriptures that discuss being washed in the clear blood of Christ?  For a religion so steeped in symbolism, it sure seems strange that they'd undercut one of their most central and most frequently performed acts of symbolism over something that God proclaimed "not by commandment or constraint"—and which didn't actually ban drinking wine but merely urged that our wine should be pure and of our own making.

It's almost like the leaders of this church are just kind of, y'know, making things up as they go.

Monday, May 11, 2020

D&C 19: What Even Is God?

This section's header explains that Joseph Smith proclaimed this to be “a commandment of God and not of man, to Martin Harris, given by him who is Eternal.”  My inspired translation of that awkward wording is:  "It's from God, not from me, totally from God."  

Perhaps I'm imposing present-day behavioral norms on historical accounts, here, but that really sounds like the phrasing of a man who's worried that he's going to be believed.  Joseph appears desperate to convince Martin that he's not coming up with this stuff himself.  That's a peculiar approach for someone who was hand-picked by miraculous visitation to carry out God's work.  You'd think having God, Jesus, and angels appear to him would have given Joseph the confidence that his divine endeavors are blessed and that he doesn't have to go around telling his followers that the revelations aren't "of man" all the time.

God of Pain
Verse 4 sheds some sunshine on the soul:
And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.
...a Joseph Sith, perhaps?

Okay, but seriously, that's such an intimidating thing for a god to say.  It's basically his way or the highway and he makes the rules because he's all-powerful—which really doesn't strike me as an approach that's particularly benevolent.  But that lack of benevolence becomes even more pronounced in verse 5:

Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.
Is it just me or does God sound kind  He seems to relish his opportunity to describe the possibilities of suffering that he can visit upon those who have incurred his disfavor.  Why does he seem to revel in the level of misery he can inflict?  If his work and his glory is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life, why is he flexing his damning muscles at us?

Three-God Monte
An ongoing theological shell game is showcased in this section (verses 16-19):

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
This is clearly Jesus speaking, because he suffered for us all, he bled from every pore, and he refers to the Father as a different person.  Except he also refers to himself as God with a capital G twice.  What I need to know is the point in history at which it became incorrect to refer Jesus as God—because it clearly seemed acceptable for Jesus himself to blur the line between Jesusness and Godness back in the 19th century, but we wouldn't dream of doing that from the Conference Center pulpit today.  If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever and if the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unchanging, then why does Jesus's identity seem so different in the scriptures of the restoration when compared to the common parlance of the prophets and apostles 200 years later?

All About the Benjamins
This section is, I think, just a way to squeeze the malleable, gullible Martin Harris for more money.  God spends some serious time here talking about how powerful he is and how much he can torment people and damn people, but the intent of all this lead-in starts to become clearer around, say, verse 33:
And misery thou shalt receive if thou wilt slight these counsels, yea, even the destruction of thyself and property.

Impart a portion of thy property, yea, even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family.

Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage.
You (and your wealth) will be destroyed if you don't obey me.  By the way, pay my printer and give me everything that you don't absolutely require for your family's basic needs. Nothing coincidental about these two concepts being so close together in the same section.

[Fun fact about my little caption is that Benjamin Franklin was not on the hundred dollar bill in Joseph Smith's lifetime.  The first one hundred dollar bills wouldn't be issued by the US until 1862 anyway.  Oh well.]

Delicious Word Salad
I'm going to go out of order here and jump back to earlier in the section because I wanted to save the best for last.  This is a favorite little weird scriptural moment for me.  I think it's an excellent example of when church doctrine—especially during Joseph Smith's theological evolution—is sort of half-formed.  It desperately wants to be insightful and meaningful, but there's nothing beneath the surface (at least not yet), so it couches its superficiality in language meant to imply depth.  Observe (verses 6-12):
Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.

Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.

Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.

I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.

For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—

Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.

Endless punishment is God’s punishment.
It's not that there's no end to it, it's just that it's endless?  Okay.  Then it's not that this passage has a lack of sense to it, it's just that it's nonsense.

In verse 8, God says he's going to explain the mystery (which is, apparently, a great mystery), but I don't see where he actually does so. He goes on to talk about the importance of repentance, to reiterate select commandments, and to describe Jesus's sacrifice, but he never explains his baffling delineation between that which has no end and that which is endless.  That's probably because God is focusing on an aspect of this section that I don't find nearly as riveting—God is explaining the mystery of how his punishment can be endless.  That's not what I needed explained, personally.  What I really want to know is why God can't properly use a language invented by mortals.  Because if God really can't tell the difference between not having an end and being endless, then maybe he's not actually omniscient and maybe this isn't actually him speaking.

If you don't pay attention to what this passage is trying to say, this sounds kind of cool.  This is the sort of thing that feels like you can really sink your teeth into it, cross-reference it with Book of Mormon and New Testament verses, and unravel the inscrutable nature of divine justice.  But it's not.  It's Joseph Smith trying to tilt the table and impress us with his meretricious celestial ventriloquism.