Spin Doctrine

January 24, 2011

I’m sure this topic has been written about many times before, but I wasn’t aware of the details, so bear with me.

Section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants (28 in the 1833 Book of Commandments) is stated to be a revelation received by Joseph Smith in August 1830; the Book of Commandments says it is a “commandment given to the Church of Christ in Harmony, Pennsylvania, September 4, 1830.” I’m assuming the change was made because Joseph said he received the revelation before the September date, when it was given to the church. But I digress.

We read in verses 6-9 a list of prophets to whom God has “committed the keys” of various dispensations and powers:

6 And also with Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days;

7 And also John the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias;

8 Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron;

9 And also Elijah, unto whom I have committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse;

Here we are told of three different prophets: Elias, John the Baptist, and Elijah. Elias is said to bring “to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days,” and John the Baptist is said to have been “filled with the spirit of Elias.” Elijah is said to restore the “power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse.”

This is all fine and good, except for a small problem. Elias and Elijah are not two distinct people in the Bible; “Elias” is the Greek form of “Elijah,” consequently, the Old Testament refers to him as Elijah, whereas the New Testament, translated from the Greek, refers to him as “Elias.”

At first I thought, since Joseph received this revelation in 1830, he clearly did not realize the Biblical distinction and assumed the Bible was speaking of two distinct prophets. But I discovered that the original Book of Commandments did not contain this passage. In fact, Section 28 of the Book of Commandments contains only seven verses. The list of restoring prophets (and the rather flowery language accompanying it), comprising eleven verses, was added when the Doctrine and Covenants was published in 1835.

Surely, however, Joseph would not have made such a mistake in 1835, as he had been involved in serious study of languages by this time. But not so. The Doctrine and Covenants were compiled and approved by committee on February 17, 1835, and accepted at a church conference on August 17, 1835. Oliver Cowdery brought a Hebrew and Greek lexicon on November 20, 1835, and Joseph began studying Greek no later than December 23 of that year.

What I find interesting isn’t so much that Joseph made an obvious error, but how he (and later apologists) dealt with the problem. Once the Doctrine and Covenants was published, it was more or less set in stone, and unlike the never-published Book of Commandments, not available for serious revision. So the error stood.

Joseph at some point must have realized the mistake, and his solution came in the form of his “translation” of the Bible. For example, we read in JST Matt. 17:10-14:

10And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things, as the prophets have written.

11 And again I say unto you that Elias has come already, concerning whom it is written, Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and they knew him not, and have done unto him, whatsoever they listed.

12 Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them.

13 But I say unto you, Who is Elias? Behold, this is Elias, whom I send to prepare the way before me.

14 Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist, and also of another who should come and restore all things, as it is written by the prophets.

Italics in the original specify Joseph’s changes to the King James text. Here he is associating Elias with John the Baptist; however, in Joseph’s version of John chapter 1, he distinguishes John the Baptist from another Elias, which the text appears to associate with Jesus:

19 And no man hath seen God at any time, except he hath borne record of the Son; for except it is through him no man can be saved.
20 And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem, to ask him; Who art thou?

21 And he confessed, and denied not that he was Elias; but confessed, saying; I am not the Christ.

22And they asked him, saying; How then art thou Elias? And he said, I am not that Elias who was to restore all things. And they asked him, saying, Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.

23Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?

24He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as saith the prophet Esaias.

25And they who were sent were of the Pharisees.

26And they asked him, and said unto him; Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not the Christ, nor Elias who was to restore all things, neither that prophet?

27 John answered them, saying; I baptize with water, but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;

28 He it is of whom I bear record. He is that prophet, even Elias, who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose, or whose place I am not able to fill; for he shall baptize, not only with water, but with fire, and with the Holy Ghost.

If you’ve been paying attention, we have gone from the original KJV, which has one Elias (Elijah), to four Eliases, according to the LDS Bible Dictionary:

(1) It is the N.T. (Greek) form of Elijah (Hebrew). …
(2) Elias is also a title for one who is a forerunner, for example, John the Baptist. …
(3) The title Elias has also been applied to many others for specific missions or restorative functions. …
(4) A man called Elias apparently lived in mortality in the days of Abraham.

Clear enough? The first Elias referred to, is Elijah, who appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, “the curious wording of JST Mark 9:3 does not imply that the Elias at the Transfiguration was John the Baptist, but that in addition to Elijah the prophet, John the Baptist was present” (BD, “Elias”). Let’s look at the “curious wording”:

“And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses, or in other words, John the Baptist and Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.”

No, it doesn’t imply that John the Baptist was Elias; it explicitly says he was. The only reason the wording is “curious” is that this passage conflicts with doctrine.

The important point, apparently, is that Elias has now become a name-title, like “messiah.” Some Eliases are “preparers,” while other Eliases are “restorers.” Here’s the Bible Dictionary again:

“John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus, Jesus himself being the Restorer who brought back the gospel and the Melchizedek Priesthood to the Jews in his day.”

In the Doctrine and Covenants, three Eliases are mentioned: John the Revelator (D&C 77:14), Noah or Gabriel (D&C 27:6-7), and a mystery Elias who appeared in 1836 and “committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland (Ohio) Temple on April 3, 1836 (D&C 110:12). We have no specific information as to the details of his mortal life or ministry.”

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the convoluted and multitudinous explanations for the name “Elias” suddenly appear after Joseph Smith began studying Greek (and most likely recognized his mistake). It sort of reminds me of when a child is caught in a lie; rather than own up and move on, kids will come up with the most implausible explanations to justify themselves (think Eddie Haskell). Joseph seems to have aimed for muddying the waters just a bit. Note that the only references to the 3 “other Eliases” is from scripture revealed through Joseph Smith.

What I find fascinating is that the Bible Dictionary (read: Bruce McConkie) goes to such lengths to separate the uses of Elias and suggest that this prophetic calling is just one of those “plain and precious things” taken out of the Bible by apostate translators. Here’s the concluding paragraph of the “Elias” entry:

Thus the word Elias has many applications and has been placed upon many persons as a title pertaining to both preparatory and restorative functions. It is evident from the questions they asked that both the Jewish leaders and the disciples of Jesus knew something about the doctrine of Elias, but the fragmentary information in our current Bibles is not sufficient to give an adequate understanding of what was involved in use of the term. Only by divine revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith is this topic brought into focus for us who live in the last days.

Did you catch that? Although the Bible never mentions the three other Eliases, we can be assured that the Jews and Jesus Himself knew about them. Biblical teaching of this doctrine is absent, which makes for “fragmentary information in our current Bibles.” Thus, instead of being an obvious attempt to clean up after a silly mistake, we have this doctrine presented as being “brought into focus” by “divine revelation” in the last days.

Turn Away from the Light

January 21, 2011

Light is an important symbol in Christianity. Jesus said:

I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

Light is always associated with good in the scriptures (and darkness, of course, represents evil and error). In the LDS Church, light takes on a special significance in that there is a light within all of us, regardless of religion or faith, a light that emanates from God through Jesus. This light has a special purpose, outlined in Moroni 7:18-19:

And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.

Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.

The LDS Church’s web site defines the Light of Christ and how it influences us:

The Light of Christ is the divine energy, power, or influence that proceeds from God through Christ and gives life and light to all things. The Light of Christ influences people for good and prepares them to receive the Holy Ghost. One manifestation of the Light of Christ is what we call a conscience.

Elder Boyd K. Packer expanded on this doctrine:

Regardless of whether this inner light, this knowledge of right and wrong, is called the Light of Christ, moral sense, or conscience, it can direct us to moderate our actions—unless, that is, we subdue it or silence it. (The Light of Christ, Ensign, April 2005, 8-14.)

In October 2010, Elder Quentin Cook compared our modern world to wartime England, when the lights went out at night to “make it harder for the attacking bombers to find a target.” He lamented that the Light of Christ seemed to be dimming in the lives of many: “As Latter-day Saints, we need to do our best to preserve light and protect our families and communities from this assault on morality and religious freedom.”

In short, the Church teaches that the Light of Christ–our conscience–is a precious gift from God that must be followed in order to be richly blessed:

Peace of conscience is the essential ingredient to your peace of mind. Without peace of conscience, you can have no real peace of mind. Peace of conscience relates to your inner self and is controlled by what you personally do. Peace of conscience can come only from God through a righteous, obedient life. It cannot exist otherwise. (Richard G. Scott, Peace of Conscience and Peace of Mind, October 2004 General Conference.)

But what happens when your conscience conflicts with the counsel of your Church leaders? What do you do when your conscience tells you that what they are asking is wrong? The Book of Mormon gives us a clear explanation. In 1 Nephi 4, Nephi comes across the drunken and prostrate figure of Laban, the man who had stolen Lehi’s wealth and refused to give him the brass plates:

10 And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.

11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.

The angel gives Nephi several reasons why he should kill Laban, and Nephi eventually overcomes his conscience and smites off Laban’s head “with his own sword.”

(To be fair, the Bible also present such a moral dilemma when Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, but that was just a test, apparently.)

In short, we might summarize the Church’s attitude as “follow your conscience unless told otherwise.” Joseph Smith wrote that conscience is to be subordinated to obedience; disciples must His “will in all things [and] will listen to my voice and to the voice of my servant whom I have sent.

He further taught, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. … Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is. … Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”

But how are we to know what is right in each circumstance? Should we rely on our conscience? No, we should obey God and His servants, “even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.”

In other words, the Light of Christ is insufficient for us to know right and wrong; we must either gain our own testimony of what seems “abominable” or rely on those in authority above us who “understand the order of heaven” better than we do. (Note that this letter was written to Nancy Rigdon, who had rebuffed Joseph’s proposal of plural marriage.) Given that some of Joseph’s prospective wives were given very little time, if any, to make a decision about accepting his advances, we can assume that he expected them to accept on faith, trusting that he was in the right, “although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” The implication is obvious: in the absence of a confirming testimony, follow the leadership of the Church, even if what they tell you violates your conscience.

Michael Quinn refers to this as “theological ethics,” but whatever it is called, the important point is that loyalty to the church and its leaders overrules anything else, including one’s own conscience. Apostle Matthias Cowley understood this point when explaining why he “pre-dated” plural marriages so no one would know they took place after the first Manifesto: “I am not dishonest and not a liar and have always been true to the work and to the brethren…We have always been taught that when the brethren were in a tight place that it would not be amiss to lie to help them out. … I would lie like hell to help the brethren.”

This teaching continues through current church leaders. Ezra Taft Benson cited Marion G. Romney as follows:

I remember years ago when I was a Bishop I had President [Heber J.] Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home….Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” [In Conference Report, October 1), p. 78]

What I find interesting here is that we are told here that, even if something appears to be completely wrong, it isn’t, because “the Lord will never let His mouthpiece lead the people astray.” We are left to conclude that, in a conflict between our own conscience–the Light of Christ–and obedience to the prophet, we are to set aside our conscience and obey. Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, I would simply say that I do not ever recall a conference talk, a church manual, or a prophet telling us that following the prophet is optional and depends on our conscience. A good example of this comes from Gordon B. Hinckley’s counsel for women in the church to wear only one pair of earrings. Shortly thereafter, Apostle David Bednar applauded the faithfulness of one who man who had heard President Hinckley’s talk and was dating a young woman who wasn’t as eager as he was to obey:

“This was a valuable piece of information for this young man, and he felt unsettled about her nonresponsiveness to a prophet’s pleading. For this and other reasons, he ultimately stopped dating the young woman because he was looking for an eternal companion who had the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times. The young man was ‘quick to observe’ that the young woman was not ‘quick to observe.'”

I could give many more examples, but it is clear that, as Bruce McConkie said, “Obedience is the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest. It consists in compliance with divine law, in conformity to the mind and will of Deity, in complete subjection to God and his commands” (in chapter 17, “Obedience, a Law of Heaven,” Old Testament Course Manual, LDSCES).

I’ll just close with one more example from Boyd K. Packer:

There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries. (Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council, May 18, 1993.)

It’s a curious image, isn’t it? We are all to face the same way, with our backs to the light.

Runtu Hofmann: On Being Authentic and Happy

January 14, 2011

(Forgive me for being more personal–and freaking long–here than I should, but I thought some of you might relate to this.)

Reading Mark Hofmann’s “summary” of his crimes, it struck me that he had a preternatural need for attention and adulation. Deceiving and defrauding made him feel bigger and better than anyone else. The image he had built up was so important to him that he was willing to go to desperate lengths to preserve it.

A while back, someone who has pretty much stalked me on the Internet said I was a lot like Mark Hofmann in my deceit of others. In fact, he started referring to me as “Runtu Hofmann.”

That really bothered me, so much so that I actually sent him a rather conciliatory message trying to be friendly and resolve the animosity. Of course, he just laughed and said there must really be something wrong with me. And maybe there is. What I realized from that episode is that I’ve had this strong need to be liked my whole life. Someone recently said I was everyone’s friend, and in all honesty, that was probably an unconscious goal of mine in the past. I couldn’t stand it that someone could have such hostility and hate for me. Imagine being upset that some stranger on the Internet doesn’t like you! Crazy, huh?

I talked to my mother about it, and she agreed that it’s something I’ve struggled with. She said that maybe it came in part from my early childhood, when I was in the hospital overnight one or two nights a week to have my esophagus dilated. Because I was the only “regular,” the nurses all knew me and spoiled me rotten, as my mom put it. I was the center of attention. This went on until I was 5 years old.

We moved when I was 6, and I remember the first week of second grade being bullied by a much bigger kid (I’m not much of a physical specimen), and in our neighborhood there was an older boy who taunted me mercilessly. Once he threw a large rock at my head, giving me a concussion. I’d never experienced anything like that before. Until we moved, I had a lot of friends and had this naive faith that I could get along with anyone.

Throughout my school years, I stopped being the friendly, outgoing person I usually am and became extremely quiet and withdrawn. I had a few friends, mostly from church, and basically just kept my head down at school. That only gets you so far, though, and the bullying continued. But church was my lifeline. At church I had friends, I was outgoing and loved to participate in activities and seminary. And my senior year, I pretty much singlehandedly planned our “super activity,” a trip to Hawaii for which we worked for over a year to save money.

But school was a different story. There I was called a loser, a wimp, and all that. I didn’t go to school activities (sports, dances, plays, none of that), as my social life revolved around church. When I graduated and went to BYU, I realized that I had a choice to live the way I wanted; no one at BYU knew me, and I had a fresh start. I was once again outgoing and friendly. I was “church” me.

Another issue, I think, was that I was taught at church to be an example of the believers. People were watching me, I was told, to see if I would live up to the church’s standards. Growing up Mormon in a Jewish neighborhood, we did sort of stick out, and I was always keenly aware of maintaining that Mormon image. In a way, it was the one thing I could control at school. Missionary life was an extension of that, and then living in Texas made me that much more aware of people around me.

When I was posting as a believer on the FAIR message board and elsewhere, I was active in the church and serving in the high priests group. I was content because I considered myself well-liked and had a lot of friends. That was still important to me. But when I lost my faith, I gained some real enemies, people who genuinely wished me ill (mind you, these were just online folks, thankfully). But worse than that was knowing that I had disappointed my family and friends. People I’d known for years told me that they had lost respect for me. It was hard for me to admit to a lot of people that I’d lost my faith. For example, I kept my unbelief hidden from one of my Internet friends from the MAD board because I couldn’t handle her reaction; of course, it was that secrecy that led to her eventually thinking I was crazy and a sexual predator.

During that time I needed to get a lot of things out of my system, and I vented and mocked and railed as much as anyone. I didn’t so much hate the church as much as I hated the kind of person I had become in it, and that’s where I think I gained the reputation as being someone who is dedicated to attacking the LDS church. But I still wanted to be liked. Even in my venting I tried to be as inoffensive as possible, and I apologized when I crossed the line. I needed friends. I went on the MAD board once when I was really depressed and nearly suicidal, hoping for support from friends. Mostly I got attacks and hate and the suggestion that I deserved to be depressed, given what I had done to my wife and family and the church.

At my lowest, I tried to kill myself, not because I wanted my life to be over, but because I knew I had disappointed my wife. She had seen what was inside of me, and she hadn’t liked what she’d seen. This had been my greatest fear my entire life: for someone to know me completely and not love me. Mind you, my interpretation of her reaction wasn’t true. She never stopped loving me, and she wasn’t disappointed. She just wanted to make things work. But I was so fixated on being loved that I couldn’t see any way out but death.

I think this is why the Mark Hofmann letter hit me so hard. He needed to preserve the image of himself at all costs, just as I had (obviously, I wouldn’t have killed anybody, though). After my suicide attempt, I had to learn to be happy, no matter what other people thought of me. I had to live according to my own beliefs and morals, never sacrificing what I thought was right in an attempt to keep friends.

I spent months in therapy, but things finally clicked when my therapist asked me what my life would be like in ten years if I kept deferring to others just to keep the peace.

“I’d be miserable or dead,” I said.

“Yes, you would,” she replied. “Every time you give in and don’t stand up for yourself because you want to be loved, you lose another piece of yourself, and eventually there will be nothing left. You have to get to the point at which having a happy and authentic life is more important than any relationship.”

This shocked me, as it ran counter to everything I’d ever been taught. Self-sacrifice and self-denial for God and your neighbor are the highest ideals of the gospel. But I learned these can go too far. It is possible to give too much, to sacrifice too much.

A friend emailed me this morning in frustration that his family is not interested in why he has lost his faith. I told him that I had, as part of my desire to be loved, tried very hard to get them to understand my position. But the first thing I gave up on a long time ago was the hope that my family would be willing to look at the issues and see where the problems are. They aren’t. So, then, I thought I just needed them to respect my position. They don’t. I’m resigned to just not agreeing with them.

He replied, “I have to live a life with a ruined reputation in the community and being misunderstood?”

Yes, probably, but so what? As my therapist said, the opinion of others pales in comparison to a happy and authentic life. I’m trying to live that authentic life, and I think I’m succeeding. I compromise some, such as attending sacrament meetings with my wife, but I don’t hide where I stand. This may be what my stalker meant when he said he was glad I’d taken off the mask and come out as an “unapologetic apostate,” whatever that means.

I guess the point of all this rambling is that each of us must get to the point at which we are true to ourselves, no matter what other people think. For me, that has been an especially difficult struggle, but I think I’m approaching that goal. But being true to ourselves does not require us to treat other people badly. That’s my goal: kindness and authenticity. I put the mask down a long time ago.

“Drastic Measures Were Called For”

January 11, 2011

There’s a fascinating article about Mark Hofmann in the Salt Lake Tribune today (the condensed version is in the Deseret News, natch). The article discusses Hofmann’s four-page letter entitled “A Summary of My Crimes,” which he wrote to the board of pardons in 1988.

I’ve often wondered what it is that can drive a person to perpetrate a fraud and then continue in it, even when other people’s lives and livelihoods may be destroyed. I can’t relate to that. I guess I don’t have it in me to do such a thing to other people. But throughout history, fraudsters have destroyed anyone they could get their hands on, and this letter helps me understand. Here is a man who carried out a five-year career of forgery, and rather than allow himself to be caught, he was willing to kill two others and himself.

His career as a forger seems to have started with a childhood need to impress others:

“As far back as I can remember I have liked to impress people through my deceptions,” Hofmann wrote in a January 1988 letter to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. “Fooling people gave me a sense of power and superiority. I believe this is what led to my forging activities. … [At age 12] I figured out some crude ways to fool other collectors by altering coins to make them appear more desirable,” Hofmann wrote. “By the time I was 14, I had developed a forgery technique which I felt was undetectable. I exuded [sic] in impressing other collectors and dealers with my rare coins.”

“Money was not the object,” insisted Hofmann, who said he never sold a forgery until he was 24. By then, his interest had shifted from U.S. coins to Mormon money, which he created with the help of old ink recipes.

From an early age, then, successfully deceiving people gave him a “sense of power and superiority,” and that was enough to motivate him to create an “undetectable” forgery technique. Obviously, it’s impossible to know why Hofmann needed or wanted that power and authority. Perhaps he had a narcissistic personality or maybe he was just a psychopath, incapable of caring for anyone but himself.

At times he apparently felt some guilt from his activities: “He writes that during what he called his ‘life of crime,’ he had ‘learned to live with the inherent stress, guilt and fears through rationalization and hypnosis.'”

He was able to rationalize quite a bit, apparently. When planning the murders, “for example, for the first time in my life I took an interest in the obituaries,” he wrote. “I believe I was trying to convince myself of the worthlessness of life and of life’s unfairness. I told myself that my survival and that of my family was the most important thing.”

Hofmann also told himself that his intended victims might die that day in a car accident or from a heart attack, and he thought about “the Nazi Holocaust, the earthquake in Mexico and other disasters.”

He spoke of his “toying” with the religious faith of other as “”experimentation … to see why they believe what they do.”

Ultimately, however, what mattered was not getting caught. “”The most important thing in my mind was to keep from being exposed as a fraud in front of my friends and family,” Hofmann wrote. “When I say this was the most important thing I mean it literally. I felt I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed. … At the time I was not even sure who the victim(s) would be, only that drastic measures were called for.”

Think about that: his identity was so intertwined with the fraud that he would rather kill others and himself than be exposed for who and what he was.

For years, people have been telling me that no one would willingly go to their grave to avoid being exposed as a fraud. Hofmann is solid evidence to the contrary.

Open Season on Runtu

January 10, 2011

I was just looking at my blog dashboard and noticed that there have been a total of 2774 comments on a total of 405 posts. My first thought was, “405 posts? I need to get a life!” And then I thought, “2774 comments? They need to get one too!”

Of those 2774 comments, I’ve approved 2758, or all but 16 comments. Many of the comments I’ve rejected were spam, but probably 5 or so were comments that were sufficiently ugly or hateful for me not to want to post them.

That means that I’ve approved 99.4% of the comments made on my blog. Some of my friends think I’m crazy for letting most of the comments through (some people think I’m just plain crazy). In all honesty, people have posted some pretty ugly, hateful, and threatening comments here, and my motives in approving them haven’t always been pure.

Mostly I want my readers (you’re a select group with extraordinary intelligence and taste) to feel free to say what they want to me and about me, as long as they don’t cross any ethical or safety boundaries. I find that allowing the most vehement critic to opine on my blog leads me to think things through more clearly, and I have sincerely cherished much of the dialog I’ve had with people who probably consider me an enemy.

But, as I said, there’s another motive there. People on all sides of the Mormon debate show who they really are by how they respond to people they disagree with. If you’re going to say or do something hateful, I’m happy to let you show your true colors here. People reading the comments can sort between the reasonable and the hateful, and sometimes it’s a good thing to provide that contrast.

So, go ahead and say what you wish. I have a pretty thick skin, and very little of what has been said here has ever really bothered me. Thanks for participating and making this place a forum for discussion.

Sunday is my favorite day

January 10, 2011

Yesterday, our sacrament meeting theme was “Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy.” The first two speakers gave pretty much the standard list of things to do and not do on the Sabbath, but the third speaker started by saying, “Sunday is my favorite day of the week.”

Most people I know in the church have mixed feelings about Sunday. Yes, it’s nice to meet friends at church, do some focused gospel study, and get the occasional spiritual uplift. But if you have small children and/or a large family, getting ready for church can be about as fun as herding rattlesnakes. And LDS meetings aren’t noted for being stimulating.

So, I was anxious to hear why he loved Sundays so. He said that he loved Sundays because it was the only day he could take a nap.

Can I Have That in Writing? Joseph Smith, Sexuality, and Apologists

January 6, 2011

One of my good friends has over the last year or so traveled the difficult road of discovering some of the more unpleasant realities about the origins and rise of Mormonism. He spoke to his father about one of his concerns, Joseph Smith’s practice of polygyny and polyandry without the consent of his legal wife, Emma. My friend’s father assured him that such wasn’t the case, that Joseph may have introduced polygamy, but it wasn’t practiced “fully” (in the sense of the marriages being consummated) until Brigham Young. My friend’s father offered to put him in touch with a well-known BYU Religion professor who specializes in Church History to confirm that Joseph Smith was not a polygamist, except in that “loose, dynastic” sort of way the apologists like to talk about.

My friend emailed me with a brief account of his phone conversation with this professor. It went something like this (I’ll put his questions and her direct responses in quotes):

“I asked, did Joseph consummate the marriages?”

She replied, “We don’t know because if you read all of Joseph’s writings you will see he never mentions the words polygamy or plural marriage.”

“I brought up the temple lot case and asked if the Partridge sisters were lying” (they testified that they had married Joseph without Emma’s consent and consummated the marriages).

She replied, “No, I believe they were telling the truth.”

“I asked, ‘Where do you stand on this issue? Do you believe Joseph Smith consummated the marriages?'”

“She said we don’t know.”

“I asked, ‘Do you believe Joseph Smith married them but didn’t consummate the marriages and that Brigham Young actually started the practice in full?'”

“She finally said Joseph Smith very likely practiced it in full just like Brigham Young, but we don’t have DNA evidence.”

“She was really reluctant. She did make the comment that I have learned a lot.”

“She kept saying this over and over: ‘We have a one-sided view of church history because Joseph Smith didn’t say anything about the subject. All we get are the women testifying against him.'”

“I could tell she was waiting to see what I know before saying anything.”

This kind of evasiveness and equivocation really bothers me. On the one hand, yes, the Partridge sisters were telling the truth about marrying Joseph Smith and consummating the marriages, but on the other, we don’t know because Joseph never said anything, and there’s no DNA proof.

Saying that we can’t know anything because Joseph Smith didn’t write it down (in specific words, no less) is one of the worst apologetic arguments I have ever come across. Mind you, this is the best the church has to offer. This woman studies and teaches the life of Joseph Smith and early LDS history for a living, and yet she can’t commit herself to anything beyond, “We don’t know.”

Selling to My Hardened Heart

January 4, 2011

I went to church Sunday. This year’s Gospel Doctrine subject is the New Testament, so for most of the class period we watched the church film, “Finding Faith in Christ.”


The film combines scenes from the life of Jesus with a fictional conversation between the Apostle Thomas and an unbeliever named Jonah. A couple of things stood out to me:

First, many of the scenes depicting Jesus are designed to recreated famous LDS paintings. I thought that was kind of a nice touch, as most of the film is instantly familiar to Mormons.

Second, the unbeliever is depicted as being hard-hearted not for any logical or rational reason, but because he’s bitter following the death of his wife. He sneers at the believers not because he has any reason not to believe them but because he’s angry. What struck me was that he went from smug unbeliever to teary eyed potential convert in no time flat. One minute he’s cursing God for taking his wife, and the next he’s practically bearing his testimony.

It struck me that the film hadn’t moved me in the least bit. The approach seemed to be that a combination of touching scenes of Jesus, coupled with earnest testifying, will soften the hardest heart. But it didn’t soften mine.

I think these types of films give us a good view of what the corporation thinks will sell the religion. This is a great example of the church’s “HeartSell” approach, which they describe as “strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response.” That’s really all this film is, an advertisement designed to stimulate an emotional response. It is intended to trigger positive emotions from the life of the Savior and the testimony of “Thomas” and negative emotions toward the unbelieving Jonah, at least until his miraculous transformation.

But I wonder how successful such approaches are. We as Mormons were taught to associate strong emotion with the Spirit, so getting choked up about something is often seen as spiritual confirmation of truth. But people outside the LDS church don’t have that automatic response. People I’ve talked to find Mormon testimonies mystifying, and a few have told me they seem creepy (kind of like my response to those Evangelicals who put their arms up, close their eyes, and mutter during sermons and songs). Witness the response to John Boehner’s emotional election night speech. We Mormons would probably see that as being genuine and sincere and praiseworthy, but a lot of people criticized Boehner for it, calling it “bizarre” and “weird,” among other things.

So, I wonder if the church does its self-promotion assuming that most people are like Mormons. Surely, the emotional-response model works in most church settings. But it may be a hard sell for others.

Flight Risk

January 3, 2011

The other night I was reminded that, when I arrived in Bolivia, I had to surrender my passport to the mission president for “safekeeping” in the small safe in the mission office.

The safe was in my companion’s office, and the passports were all there, sorted by country in alphabetical order and held together in stacks with rubber bands. The vast majority were the navy-blue American, but we had missionaries from such places as Chile, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and Zimbabwe.

Once I began working in the office, I realized that the “safekeeping” reasoning was just an excuse. All it would have taken was a break-in after hours or someone to sneak in during office hours to steal all those passports (the safe door was often left ajar all day).

In fact, one missionary did sneak in and retrieve his passport. His companion started having paranoid delusions, and when he couldn’t get any help from the mission president, he just hopped on a plane and left.

But in general, missionaries are not allowed to go home unless they have committed a grave sin. In such cases, at least in our mission, they were shipped off immediately, though sometimes a disciplinary council was held before they headed to the airport.

Another reason for going home was physical or mental illness. During my tenure as travel secretary, I sent more than a few people home for health reasons ranging from typhoid to septic strep and meningitis.

But going home voluntarily was another matter entirely. You couldn’t just go home because you wanted to go. For one thing, you had to go to the mission office to get your passport, which meant that you had to meet with the mission president, who would do just about anything to convince you to stay. And of course, if you aren’t honorably released, you have to pay the airfare home.

One of my companions had what he called “a nervous breakdown,” but I’d say it was serious depression and a sort of psychotic break (it’s a long story, and one I don’t care to revisit). He desperately wanted to go home, but the mission president believed his psychological symptoms were just an act so he could go home. Soon, my companion’s mother, bishop, stake president, and young men’s leader called him on the phone and told him how much he would regret leaving and how disappointed they would be in him. So, he stuck it out, somehow, but I’m convinced he was suffering from major depression the rest of his mission (he once told me, “I barely made it out alive).

Another missionary arrived in Bolivia and informed the mission president that he didn’t want to be there, was only there because his girlfriend wanted him to serve a mission, and by agreement with her, he was only going to stay 3 months. As the 3 months approached, our mission president tried everything he could to get this guy to stay. Because he was going of his own accord, I was told not to do any of his visa papers, which meant that he would be delayed at least 2-3 weeks to do the paperwork himself. Nothing worked, from delays to guilt trips to pleading, and the guy went home on his own dime. And this was for someone who hadn’t wanted to be there from day one.

In short, it’s not easy to leave a mission. Perhaps the greatest mission exit story is “The Great Escape” by my friend Joseph.

But I wonder, why make it so hard to go home?