More Randomness

April 13, 2012

Epic fail: Apparently the North Koreans aren’t any better at developing rockets than they are at feeding their people.

I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but it’s a good thing authorities have charged George Zimmerman. Obviously, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened exactly, but at least a trial can sort that out. I suspect that, had Trayvon Martin been white, he would not have aroused much suspicion, but then I really can’t say. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that Neighborhood Watch volunteers are supposed to call the police and let them handle things rather than carrying a gun and confronting people late at night. Almost three years ago, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Bluffdale, Utah, was shot and paralyzed; both the shooter and the victim were armed.

Imagine you’re a state with a $10 billion deficit. What’s the fiscally responsible thing to do? If you answered, “Build a $68 billion bullet train” you’d be correct. That would be like a church that can’t afford to pay for janitors spending $5 billion on a mall. Oh, wait …

There are Democrats in Utah County. Who knew?

Oxymoron of the day: Raw Foods Cook-off.

You’re never too old for pedophilia, it seems.

Movie pick of the week: Bolivia. My friend Odell recommended this. It’s the kind of film I like: understated, yet very powerful. Bolivian actor Freddy Flores steals the show with his blank yet heartbreaking performance. Excellent.

Book I’m reading right now: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.

Love this.

Why I Was Angry with God

April 12, 2012

I grew up believing that God told you what was true through his Holy Spirit, and you felt that spirit through feelings and emotions. When I was a missionary, we taught people that when they felt a peaceful, warm, or good feeling, that was the Holy Ghost testifying that what we were teaching was true. Apostle Henry Eyring says much the same thing when he teaches about how to recognize the spirit:

You have felt the quiet confirmation in your heart and mind that something was true. And you knew that it was inspiration from God. For some of you it may have come as the missionaries taught you before your baptism. It may have come during a talk, lesson, or hymn in church. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of Truth. You feel peace, hope, and joy when He speaks to your heart and mind that something is true. Almost always I have also felt a sensation of light. Any feeling I may have had of darkness is dispelled, and my desire to do right grows.

This worked for me for a long time until I discovered that some of the things the spirit had testified of just weren’t true. And some of those things were morally wrong. I wondered why God would testify of such things, and I concluded that he must not exist, or must not care about me at all. I still believe in God, but it has taken time to get over the hurt and anger I felt toward Him.

Manipulation of Missionaries

April 11, 2012

I’ve written about the relentless guilt-tripping used to “motivate” missionaries. Here’s an excellent example. Now we know why the French are not receptive to the Mormon message:

Toulouse France Mission Zone Conference

Poor kids.

Oh, What a Deal!

April 11, 2012

This showed up in my inbox:

Amazing. It’s now only $225 to send your kids to a week of indoctrination at BYU. I am intrigued by the video contest. I think I’ll let it stand on its own without comment.

Random Thoughts

April 11, 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that North Korea should not launch its Unha-3 rocket if it wants to provide a “peaceful, better future” for its people. For years, North Korea has experienced serious problems feeding its population. At one point, people were eating grass, tree bark, and any animals or pets they could find. It boggles the mind that a country that cannot or will not provide food for its people can spend its resources building and launching missiles and rockets. Shameful.

Now that Rick Santorum has gone back to his consulting and legal profession (and perhaps back to his job as a Fox News commentator), Mitt Romney is certain to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. A lot of Mormons are expecting the scrutiny of Romney’s faith to be even more aggressive and attacking than it has been so far. My prediction is that the Obama campaign will not directly address Romney’s religion but leave it to other groups and people to go after Mormonism. The Obama campaign had previously indicated it would focus on Romney being “weird,” which many took as a subtle reference to Mormonism, but I think Romney’s biggest problem is that he is a wealthy white guy who seems to have trouble relating to the lives of ordinary Americans. But look for the press to be much more aggressive in their approach to Mormonism. The recent BBC program on Romney and his religion is likely a harbinger of things to come. I don’t expect the attacks to come from the religious right who are likely either to sit the election out or, as Pastor Robert Jeffress put it, hold their noses and vote for Romney. I suppose it depends on whom Evangelicals see as a bigger threat: Mormons or Obama.

I don’t expect Romney to win the election, but if the economy gets worse, all bets are off. If Obama is re-elected, it will validate the view of many conservatives who believe that the GOP can win the presidency only if they nominate “true” conservatives. The last two cycles they’ve nominated moderates in John McCain and Mitt Romney. Starting with Barry Goldwater’s selection of William Miller as his running mate in the 1964 election, the Republican ticket has usually included a “movement” conservative and an establishment moderate. So, in 2008, John McCain chose Sarah Palin to shore up the conservative wing of the party. (I’m guessing he probably regrets that choice, but I digress.) Romney will almost certainly pick a movement conservative as his running mate, as well. But if he loses the election, conservatives will once again insist that the election could have been won by a real conservative who offered, as Phyllis Schlafly put it, “a choice, not an echo.” Thus, in 2016, the GOP will probably nominate someone from the right wing of the party–Rick Santorum, say–and get trounced, unless of course the Democrats nominate someone even more unpalatable.

It’s kind of a shame that the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is being marked by the re-release (in 3-D!) of a really crappy movie.

But at least we know where Homer Simpson lives.


April 10, 2012

Hat tip to An Open Mind.

Most objective readers would agree with Professor Robert Ritner’s opinion of Joseph Smith’s “translation” of Egyptian funerary scrolls into the Book of Abraham: “Except for those willfully blind, the case is closed.” Professor Ritner recently published The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition. From the book description:

The surviving papyri have been translated into English in their entirety. In analyzing and translating the ancient texts, Robert K. Ritner, foremost American scholar of Egyptology, has determined that they were prepared for deceased men and women in Thebes during the Greco-Roman period. They have nothing to do with Abraham, Joseph, or a planet called Kolob, as Smith had claimed.

I’ve watched with interest the treatment of Professor Ritner, who is known as one of the most respected Egyptologists in the world, by certain Mormon apologists. All sorts of accusations have been made against Dr. Ritner, from suggestions that John Gee (an LDS apologist and student of Ritner’s) had to petition for Ritner to be removed from his doctoral committee to hints that Ritner is gay. Here are a few statements by Mormon apologists about Ritner:

The fact is that Professor Gee went on to earn a doctorate from Yale in Egyptology after successfully petitioning for the removal of Professor Ritner, his appointed advisor, from his doctoral committee. (Aug 2 2006, 10:45 AM)

Perhaps you’re unaware that Professor Gee (successfully) petitioned his department at Yale to have Professor Ritner replaced as chairman of his doctoral committee. Such requests are not commonly made. And they are not commonly granted. Do you think they’re best buddies? (Jun 10 2006, 04:56 PM)

Professor Ritner was once Professor Gee’s dissertation chairman at Yale University, until he was removed from that position and replaced by another professor. There is a personal history here (of which I was aware as it played out, since Professor Gee had been a student of mine before he went off to graduate school at Berkeley and then Yale. (Mar 22 2006, 08:43 PM)

As I’ve said, various substantive responses are in the works. Whether the personal side of this will ever come out is unknown to me. I wish it would, but I don’t think that’s my decision to make. (Sep 29 2004, 01:26 PM)

“I also will not comment on his removal from my dissertation committee other than to note that it was the department’s decision to do so. There is much more to the story than what Professor Ritner has chosen to tell.” (John Gee, Mar 23 2006, 07:47 PM).

When asked to comment about these accusations, Ritner responded:

My response to Gee’s relevant academic output will be contained in the book edited by Brent [Metcalfe]. Gee has been increasingly visible, but not increasingly respected, at meetings. I do not know [one of his critics], nor how he would have any knowledge of my involvement with Gee’s dissertation (except through misrepresentations by Gee himself), but I am the one who rejected further participation in Gee’s work, and I signaled many errors in his work as a reason. If [said critic] continues to make false allegations, I may have to consider a slander or libel lawsuit. In any case, whoever he is, he is neither competent nor legally authorized to discuss the private matter. I have retained my dated correspondence and may put it on-line if such misrepresentations continue.

Sincerely, Robert Ritner

In my view, the dishonesty and nastiness of some Mormon apologists have been stunning. For some examples of the shenanigans of Mormon apologists, see Chris Smith’s excellent blog. Naturally, Chris–who is one of the kindest, most reasonable, and fairest student of Mormon history I have ever met–is routinely denounced as a “career anti-Mormon” bent on destroying the church.

It’s nice to see Ritner’s full discussion of the Book of Abraham issue in print, though he has published on the subject before. Except for William Schryver’s rather lame presentation a couple of years ago at the FAIR conference and the premature crowing from apologists about it’s “game-changing” nature, no one has been able to show that the Book of Abraham is anything more than most critics and outside observers recognize: a clumsy and easily debunked fraud.

Why I Was Angry at the LDS Church

April 10, 2012

After a profound crisis of faith in the summer of 2005, I went through a period of about 2 years or so when I had feelings of genuine anger toward the LDS church. I would regularly refer to the church as a “stupid fucking cult,” and when I drove past the stake center, I’d give it the finger. Childish, but true.

But the anger passed, and for some reason I’ve been thinking about why I was so angry. A lot of people feel like the church lied to them, and of course, that’s true in that they are not forthcoming about the church’s real origins and history. But I can’t say that about myself, because I knew about the “bad stuff” for about 10 years before I acknowledged to myself that it wasn’t true.

What made me angry is knowing that, for those ten years, I sold out my integrity to rationalize and justify things I knew weren’t right or true. My conscience told me it’s not right to pretend to translate Egyptian or engage in bank fraud or sleep around behind your wife’s back. But I rationalized all of that. I overcame my own conscience to defend wrong.

Lest anyone misunderstand, I believe that the LDS church works for a lot of people, and they are happy in it. It would make no sense for such people to leave the church. But it didn’t work for me, not least because of what it motivated me to do.

I think I’ve forgiven myself for all of that because, after all, I was only doing what I had been taught to do, and besides, I had a testimony, so there had to be an explanation for everything. But whenever I’ve been tempted at all to go back to church, I remember what it cost me last time.

Never again.

More on the Mormon Missionary Numbers Game

April 10, 2012

A friend of mine recently read my book and wrote to me wondering why I hadn’t spent much time writing about the message we missionaries brought and why that message resonated with the people we baptized. I didn’t have a good answer, but after I thought about it, I realized that the message was not really an important part of being a Mormon missionary. Missions were about obedience to our leaders and increasing the number of church members. I wrote a while back about the pressure among Mormon missionaries to produce numbers of baptisms, which in our mission led to some shocking abuses.

I know enough about other missions to understand that the emphasis on numbers has disastrous effects on church members, wards, and stakes. For example, the LDS church grew at a phenomenal rate in Chile until 2002–at least on paper. That year, in an unusual move, the church sent apostle Jeffrey Holland to Chile to train leaders, but mostly to reorganize the church there. Before Holland arrived, there were 951 congregations (wards and branches) and 116 stakes in Chile; by 2005, there were 607 congregations and 74 stakes, meaning that 344 congregations and 42 stakes had been closed. Years of focusing on baptisms at all costs led to abysmal retention and activity rates, though the church kept creating these phantom congregations and stakes based on the number of people in the church’s records. The discrepancy between the membership numbers the church reports and those who self-identified as Latter-day Saints in the 2002 Chilean census is telling: That year, the LDS church reported 527,972 members in Chile. In the census, only 103,735 people self-identified as LDS. (For details, see I should also note that apostle Dallin Oaks was sent on a similar mission to the Philippines at the same time, resulting in the closing of six stakes.

Most of us are familiar with missionary techniques for increasing numbers: quick teaching and baptism of children and teens and going after those “in transition,” such as people who have experienced a death in the family, loss of job, or other instability. In his excellent article, “I-Thou vs. I-It Conversions: The Mormon “Baseball Baptism” Era,” Michael Quinn explains how pressure for numbers drove these tactics, reaching their nadir in the era of the “Baseball Baptisms” in Britain in the 1960s.

At least I thought that was the nadir until I read about “The Groberg Era” in the Tokyo South Mission in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which is described in appalling detail here. In 1978 the new mission president, Delbert H. Groberg (brother of general authority and author John Groberg) arrived in Japan and met with Yoshihiko Kikuchi, who had recently been called as the first Japanese general authority. Groberg wrote in his journal:

Elder Kikuchi came out to our home and we talked from 3:30pm until 7:00pm. He really has high expectations of me. I had thought that 10 times as many baptisms as they are getting now would be a good goal to shoot for (about 10,000). Before telling him, I asked him what he felt I should do. He mapped out the progress as he expected and it turned out to be 25 times as much as what is currently happening minimum! (And he stressed minimum!) That seems like a lot, but I believe we can make it.

To achieve these goals, Kikuchi and Groberg implemented what they called the “Investigator Extraction” method. A former missionary who served at that time explains how it worked (note that his choice of words reflects his cynicism and disdain for the “method”):

  • Missionary apartments were relocated to areas near major pedestrian shopping and transportation traffic centers.
  • In Tokyo, existing chapels were used as teaching centers, and when distance from a chapel rendered that option unfeasible, offices were rented with the intent to use them for the same purpose and as branch meetinghouses. In outlying areas, missionary apartments were to be used as teaching centers as well as branch meeting-houses.
  • Missionaries were no longer to waste their time tracting [going door to door]. They were instead instructed to use the major traffic centers as a resource pool, and make street contacts through a variety of cheap tricks, the most popular being to offer English lessons and tutoring (imagine a 19-year-old farm boy tutoring someone in English…).
  • Missionaries were to target teens, young adults, and needy types in their street contacting. These were “easy marks.” They were to take advantage of a certain Japanese reluctance to directly disagree or contradict in face-to-face interaction, and were given techniques on how to establish an easy rapport and how to get the “mark” to constantly agree with the missionary. A pattern was developed so that the missionary could steer the conversation and control it. Then the missionary would get the “mark” to agree (easy by that time) to go with him/her and talk briefly about Something Very Important.
  • The missionaries were to MAKE CONTACT AND NOT LOSE IT. They were to bring the “mark” to whatever teaching center had been designated and begin indoctrination immediately.
  • The six missionary discussions were rewritten and condensed into six five- to ten-minute presentations. It was dramatized and made very charismatic. Missionaries were advised that they could “teach” all six discussions at once “if so directed by the spirit.”
  • Following the mini-discussion presentation, missionaries were instructed to challenge the “mark” to baptism, immediately.
  • If the “mark” accepted, missionaries were to contact their zone leaders and schedule a baptismal interview. Zone leaders were never more than ten or fifteen minutes away by train.
  • Apartments/teaching centers/meeting-houses were all equipped with makeshift “baptismal fonts.” If the “mark” accepted and passed the “interview” (who would not? almost nobody failed it!), the “mark’ was loaned a white jumsuit or shift, and baptism immediately followed the six lessons and interview, witnessed by the Zone Leaders. Confirmation followed, again witnessed by the Zone Leaders.
  • The entire process (contact to confirmation) was timed and refined until it was streamlined down to approximately 1.5 HOURS. It could be–and most frequently was–all done at the same time.
  • The missionary was to exchange contact information (address and phone #) with the “new member,” give them a Book of Mormon, and give them a small map showing them where church services were held, times, etc.
  • The contact was “allowed” to depart.
  • New baptism statistics were posted weekly in the mission newsletter, to increase the level of competition among the missionaries.
  • Missionaries were required to meet regularly for “mutual encouragement” meetings (rah-rah sessions). Zone or All-Mission Conferences were scheduled to raise the excitement level even further and sustain it at fever pitch.
  • Never let up on the pressure to perform.

Another man who served in the same mission writes:

These are deep wounds, and I am touched and saddened to see how vivid the memories are for some of us.

A few additional details. Regarding the Groberg/Kikuchi model, the basic premise was a relentless focus on sheer numbers. If one in 100 (?) who hear the lessons are baptised and one in three (?) converts remain active, then teaching 300 lessons produces one active members. It follows that teaching 30,000 lessons must result in 100 active members. This quantitative logic is all that matters, since no individual human is valuable enough as a mere child of God to warrant personal attention. The rule, effectively, was to dump Japanese in the waters of baptism and then let the Lord sort them out.

Manipulative techniques. I should add … that not all of these practices came directly from Groberg and Kikuchi; a lot were innovations by missionaries who functioned under intense pressure. The leaders retrospectively claim that they did not know some of these things were happening–and that may be true, though I think there was, and still is, a lot of intentional ignorance.

With that caveat, we were taught to teach only young people, ideally men between 18 and 22, because they baptized the fastest. We were explicitly ordered not to teach families because they took too much time; and I know of one instance in which a companionship was punished for insisting on teaching a family. The entire lesson plan was condensed into one hour, and during that hour each missionary was to shake hands with the investigator at least ten times. This worked because Japanese don’t normally shake hands and the sudden, repetitive physical contact tended to facilitate persuasion. During that hour we were also to speak frequently in broken English, saying things like “berry, berry goodo” because that made the investigator feel like he was engaged in an English language conversation. Finally, once the baptism was done we were ordered to see each convert a maximum of one time, since it was now the members’ responsibility to develop and maintain a human connection. Friendships between missionaries and Japanese converts were virtually proscribed.

Of course, the missionaries were manipulated with equal cynicism and zeal. Status and approval were based on the number of baptisms a person could perform. This gave an advantage to the charismatic, strong personalities at the expense of quieter, often more sensitive and spiritual missionaries. The former rose fast through the hierarchy, becoming zone leaders and APs while the less forceful characters were continually condemned as inadequate, a disappointment to God, because they did not produce enough. Nor did personal “worthiness” matter. Missionaries turned to their old vices to let off steam; and if the leadership found out about their chemical or other indiscretions, the consequence was a demotion followed–assuming that the requisite number of baptisms was achieved–by immediate promotion back into the ranks of the godly. There was thus very little connection between the moral and ethical codes of our childhood congregations and the definition of success in the mission field.

So what happened as a result of all of this? Baptisms skyrocketed for a couple of years, until Groberg was replaced and some of his senior missionaries excommunicated for things that he had not wanted to see. The Church then tried to turn back the clock, but the prominent comedian Takeshi Beat made “accept baptism!” routines a staple of late night television and Japanese people, for various reasons, lost much of their interest in American culture and religion. As the rate of new baptisms fell through the 1980s and 1990s, one or two mission presidents tried to resurrect parts of the Groberg system but, frankly, the moment had passed and there was no Kikuchi to provide support.

Meanwhile, the missionaries returned to their home communities having been through hell. These were the years of Spencer Kimball, when “every young man must go on a mission and he will like it,” so our families and friends could not comprehend the stories we had to tell. We were shunned, avoided by members who were uncomfortable with us and in many instances condemned by local leaders who thought that we must surely be to blame for our pain. After all, the Lord’s Church could not possibly have done what we described. Some missionaries and their families complained to apostles–I am aware of two such conversations by friends’ parents–so it is pretty clear that SLC knew the depth and breadth of the problem. But rather than reaching out to help the missionaries or, at the very least, warning bishops and other leaders of the difficulties the RMs were bringing home, the brothren in SLC swept the whole thing under the rug, leaving the isolated and traumatized missionaries to work through the social ostracization, self-condemnation, and disillusionment in solitude.

Even today we cannot share these stories with Mormon friends. The truth is that the one thing the religion can never forgive–other than diety’s intransident decision, contrary to the urging of his prophets, to create a certain percentage of his children gay–is the arrogance of those who dare to have been harmed by the Church. It would be inconvenient and embarrassing, after all, to ask leaders to admit mistakes…

Let the Lord sort it out.

Another missionary describes how President Groberg “bullied, forced, coerced, threatened and at times, even blackmailed missionaries to perform ‘miracles.'” I used to say that it’s impossible to be too cynical about the LDS church, but this shocked even a hardened cynic like me. The words of another survivor of that mission sum things up for me: “I came home feeling robbed of spiritual nature of the experience, having been reduced to nothing more than a salesman with daily and weekly quotas that I couldn’t possibly live up to.” (For more recollections of missionaries from that era, see this discussion.)

I’d like to think that such practices are behind the church, but I suspect they aren’t. Similar methods were used in the England Manchester Mission in the 1990s. It’s a fair bet that it’s still going on, most likely in areas where the church has recently begun missionary work, such as Eastern Europe and Africa.

More on the Strengthening the Church Members Committee

April 9, 2012

A friend of mine wrote of being asked to submit information to the Strengthening the Church Members Committee (you know, the one that the church doesn’t know much about):

Years ago, when I was a member of the LDS Church and part of the ward leadership, a former bishop became the subject of a public media investigation, which resulted in a week-long television exposé.

Some Mormons were critical of how the LDS Church had handled initial complaints about the bishop’s alleged misconduct and an apparent subsequent cover-up.

During these troubled times, General Authorities visited. I, along with others, was asked to clip articles from local newspapers regarding this matter and send them collectively to an address at Church headquarters.

It is my recollection that the focus was mostly about comments being made by church members critical of church leadership.

At that time I did not know of the existence of the Strengthening the Church Members Committee. However, now I realize that the intelligence gathering was for the benefit and use of the committee.

Obviously, the local leadership already knew about the criticism. This material was being sent to put into individual members’ files for future reference.

My Non-Threatening Blog

April 6, 2012

A source from the Curriculum Department at the Church Office Building told me yesterday that not long ago he was in a meeting with some of the higher-level management. One of the people in the meeting had a folder containing a list of blogs that they were monitoring and some example postings. My source was surprised to hear my blog mentioned by name and discussed in the meeting. He said he wasn’t about to tell anyone he knew me, but the verdict on my blog was that I was not a threat and not worth worrying about.

I’ve known for a long time that the church keeps tabs on blogs, including mine. I used to get regular hits from the church’s IP address. When I mentioned that in my blog, the hits stopped, but then I started getting regular hits from the “More Good Foundation.” When I mentioned that, those hits stopped too, leaving me to believe that they’re still watching but using a proxy.

I guess it just floors me that they keep such close tabs on anyone who says anything even remotely critical.