“Have Ye Received His Image in Your Countenances?”
LDS manual: here
To encourage readers to live by secular principles.
Alma, having gotten the chief priest gig, is doing the work of preaching and exhortation. As with all priests, a lot of his advice is just so much twaddle. However, the goal for a good humanist / thinker / person is to take the good and improve on it.
Main ideas for this lesson
His image in your countenance
In his preaching to believers, Alma gives a well-known checklist.
Alma 5:14 And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
Apparently, one of the side effects of righteousness is that you get Jesus-face.
This is one of those ideas that gets taken with varying degrees of seriousness in the church. I don’t know if anyone thinks that your face changes when you become more “spurchul”, but there is a very human tendency to judge by appearances.
Back in my Provo days, I would visit my Uncle Richard, who taught me to play the Deseret News Wedding Game. Here’s how to play: In the Deseret News (an LDS-owned newspaper that serves as the propaganda arm of the church), take a look at the Weddings section. There are photos of all the couples who have announced their weddings, along with a blurb about them. DO NOT LOOK at the blurb yet. Just by looking at their faces, can you tell if they’re getting married in a temple? Then check out the blurb, and see if it says something like, “They will be married in the Panguich Temple” or something like that. Non-temple-goers would typically omit a reference to a temple.
Truth to tell, it didn’t seem very hard to pick the temple weddings. They usually had an appearance that I’d describe as ‘special’. Their countenances seemed to shine with a look that said, “We haven’t done it yet, but we’ve been having heaps of oral on the low.” Whereas the photos of the non-temple heathen wedding couples had a murky and dark appearance, though this may have been the colours that couple chose to wear for the photos. Dark shirt on the guy = automatic non-temple.
Uncle Richard was convinced that it was easy to tell — although you’d get it wrong with some couples — and he put it down to discernment, or the Sperrit. Or the countenance thing that Alma is talking about. Looking back, I’d put it down to someone in a human social community being able to recognise one of their own, on limited data. We’re extremely sensitive to the social cues that we all beam out every second of our lives. And then there’s confirmation bias; I don’t think Uncle Richard was great at remembering the ones he’d gotten wrong.
At its worst, the ‘countenance’ idea is a form of social conformity enforcement, and a way of judging people by appearances. I still remember the investigator who was really into the church. He showed up one Sunday wearing a white shirt like usual, but you could faintly detect that he was wearing an undershirt, which he never had before. What was this? Had he noticed that the other men were wearing a garment top? Was he trying to fit in? I wouldn’t doubt it; again, we’re very sensitive to markers of membership in social groups.
What if you’re wrong?
Alma 5:15 Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?
5:16 I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?
I think this image is a very compelling one. Imagine good old Jesus wrapping you up in a giant bro-hug and saying in your ear: You’ve done an awesome job, Kevin!
Yep, brings a tear to the eye.
Contrast this with the fearful wrath that awaits the non-believers:
Alma 5:17 Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say — Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth — and that he will save you?
5:18 Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?
5:19 I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?
I mentioned that I’ve been visiting my LDS family. We’ve been having a grand time, while dancing around the difference in belief. Mostly it’s territory we’re happy to leave alone. But on occasion, Dear Sister and I have been making incursions into the Dangerous Valley of Discussion. It’s dangerous because it makes it clear that, yes, I really don’t believe that nonsense. (I think she’s hanging out for my tearful redemption one day, and these discussions make her realise that it’s Not Happening.) It’s also dangerous because it tends to compel her to an emotional Testimony Bearing, which is annoying, and it always seems heartless and abrupt to respond with the obvious “Feels aren’t facts”.
Anyway — today we ventured there, and she asked Alma’s question: What if you’re wrong? Apparently it’s upsetting a few people in the family. They’re afraid of what God is going to do to me. (Isn’t that a horrible and unnecessary form of suffering they’re putting themselves through on my behalf? Another reason why I hate the church.)
Ask: What if you get to the Pearly Gates and God is up there saying, “LOL you screwed up — I existed all the time, and the Mormon Church is totes true!” What would you do?
One way of approaching this is to turn the question back on the questioner: What if you’re wrong?
Richard Dawkins used this one.
“What if I’m wrong? I mean, anybody can be wrong. We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.
“You happen to have been brought up, I would presume, in the Christian faith. you know what it’s like not to believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim — you’re not a Hindu.
“Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in in America, not in India. if you had been brought up in India, you’d be a Hindu. If you’d been brought up in Denmark at the time of the vikings, you’d be believing in Wotan and Thor. if you had been brought up in classical Greece you’d be believing in Zeus. if you had been brought up in central Africa, you’d be believing in the great Juju up the mountain.
“There’s no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god in which, by the sheerest accident, you happen to have been brought up, and ask me the question, what if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong about the great Juju in the bottom of the sea?”
I think this one would just bounce off a true believer, who would just say, “But I’m not wrong, because feels.”
My response? What will I do if I die and see God singing “Hello, It’s Me”? (Because Todd is God, you know.)
Simple: I’ll change my mind.
How about that?
And then I would have some pointed questions for him.
- Why the absent father routine?
- Why was it only possible to have a relationship with you if we cultivated a mindset that’s indistinguishable from self-delusion?
- Why did you expect us to believe in you on the basis of bad evidence, when you could have provided good evidence?
- Why did you have your son say that it was more blessed to believe something on the basis of no evidence?
- Why did you try so damn hard to make it look like you didn’t exist?
And then I might follow that up with some damning Stephen-Fry-level questioning.
Changing my view in the face of new evidence is really all anyone can expect. But someone might say that that isn’t good enough. By the time you can see God and know for sure he exists, it’s too late! You were supposed to act by faith! Because it’s blessed to make major decisions based on no evidence.
Jumping ahead to Alma 34:
Alma 34:34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
Well, that would be a hell of a thing. In the real world, one needs to have the full range of information in order to make a decision. But God expects us to make eternal choices without any of that. (He actually wiped our memory!) And he’ll condemn us for eternity if we don’t make the right choice. It’s like he’s setting us up to fail.
If that’s the way God’s going to do it, then he’s an unjust jerk.
Well, that isn’t the way I phrased it to Dear Sister, but here’s what I did: I showed her this quote of uncertain provenance. It’s attributed to Marcus Aurelius.
And then something surprising happened. She seemed satisfied that I would change my mind with actual evidence. And she said she didn’t think it would be too late at that point (Alma 34 notwithstanding).
So I asked if that resolved her concerns, and she said that it did. How about that! She believes in a god who’s not a complete dick. It’s not the god of the Book of Mormon, but that’s encouraging.
I didn’t get to Part Two of my explanation: Having evidence would change my mind about God’s existence, but it wouldn’t change my mind about his character. Decided to drown everyone? Thinks gay people should be killed? Doesn’t reveal anything to his prophet except for the Gay Exclusion Policy? No, thank you. Even if the LDS Church is true, I’d still fight it, because the god of the Bible and the Book of Mormon is a homophobic, misogynistic, murderous asshole. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Alma continues his preaching:
Alma 5:28 Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.
5:29 Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.
5:30 And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
5:31 Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!
Well, mockery isn’t very nice; I’ll grant that. But I think Alma has misidentified pride as a really big problem. The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual does this as well:
• What do proud people set their hearts on? (Have two class members read Alma 4:8 and Alma 5:53 aloud.) What are some examples of “vain things of the world”? (Write class members’ responses in the heart with the word Proud written above it.)
Here are those scriptures:
Alma 4:8 For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.
Alma 5:53 And now my beloved brethren, I say unto you, can ye withstand these sayings; yea, can ye lay aside these things, and trample the Holy One under your feet; yea, can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?
Throughout the Book of Mormon, pride and materialism are held up as two very common sins.
Ask: What function would it have for a religion to warn against pride?
Answer: A demanding religion like the LDS Church requires the submission of its members. If the church can set itself up as the source of all good feelings, then this is a powerful motivator for people to stay with it. But having pride in one’s self works against this. It allows a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that works against the church.
Ask: What function would it have for a religion to warn against materialism (‘riches’, or the ‘vain things of the world’)?
Answer: A church / real estate corporation like the LDS Church needs money, and lots of it. Convincing members that material wealth isn’t all that important lowers the cost of giving their money away to the church — particularly if they think they’re getting pie in the sky when they die.
Here’s an idea — if the church is so deadset against riches, then don’t give them any. It’s hypocritical of them to preach against the “vain things of the world” — and then go build a mall.
George Carlin, ladies and gentlemen.
Read this quote from Ezra Taft Benson, a notorious conservative.
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. . . . The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1985, 5; or Ensign, Nov. 1985, 6).
While this may seem like standard religious talk, there’s a socio-political element. Benson was alluding to the tension between social programs that try to lift people out of poverty (which is standard Democratic stuff), and exhortations to “character” and “personal responsibility” (which Republicans typically appeal to). Benson is adding a Jesus-y element to this debate. Why waste money on welfare in the hopes of changing people’s circumstances, when Jesus can change their circumstances for free?
And let’s not forget that religions do pretty well in times of economic uncertainty, as people struggle for a support network. When their needs are taken care of, they tend not to be quite so religious. (RMs: were your most successful neighbourhoods ever the wealthy ones?) And therefore, by cutting the legs out from under the social support network, churches find an ideal set of conditions for growth.
I’ve wandered a bit, so let me return to Alma’s checklist. I think Alma has it wrong. Pride isn’t necessarily bad, as it’s related to self-confidence. Envy isn’t necessarily bad, as it can fuel a desire for better things.
I think we can make a better list. So here are my questions for ex-Mormons:
- Are you aware of the flaws in your perception? Having been wrong in the past, do you approach with enthusiasm new areas in which your mind could be changed?
- Do you strive to cultivate intellectual humility? Being able to say “I don’t know” indicates an awareness of a new area that you can learn more about.
- Do you make a mock of believers? Or are you able to attack ideas without attacking the people who hold them? Are you able to characterise someone else’s point of view fairly?
- Do you now contribute to charities or worthy causes, as you used to tithe? There’s some research into whether religious people or non-religious people give more. Religious people sometimes have the edge in these discussions, but it’s not clear whether that’s because they’re more generous as people, because they’ve had a long time to build up a charitable infrastructure, or because religious donations are automatically counted as charitable. But we non-religious folk could be doing better at giving than we are. When we drop tithing, let’s not stop giving.
Additional lesson ideas
Be ye separate
Alma advises the church members to separate themselves from others.
Alma 5:57 And now I say unto you, all you that are desirous to follow the voice of the good shepherd, come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things; and behold, their names shall be blotted out, that the names of the wicked shall not be numbered among the names of the righteous, that the word of God may be fulfilled, which saith: The names of the wicked shall not be mingled with the names of my people;
The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual points out this theme.
Alma commanded his people, “Come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate” (Alma 5:57). How can we separate ourselves from wickedness while living in the world?
Ask: What is the function of this idea?
Answers: False ideas don’t last very long when there’s a free exchange of ideas and information. They do best in a bubble. Communal separateness helps foster social and ideological bubbles where the community’s alternate-history narrative can flourish.
Also, the creation of a ‘scary external world’ narrative — in which the ‘world’ is seen as fundamentally unsafe — keeps members inside the bubble. When Latter-day Saints give testimonies, saying “I don’t know what I’d do without the church”, they’re not kidding. They often struggle to function in the real world, and this anti-world mindset perpetuates this.
It was weird being among my LDS relatives. I just listened for how much of the conversation focused on the church. Answer: just about all of it. Every point of discussion was about this or that church member. Every discussion about every friend and acquaintance tied back to the church somehow, and I realised that it was possible (even in a state like Washington, which is by no means exclusively LDS) to restrict one’s social interactions to members of the church.
That takes us to the next point: meetings.
Alma 6:5 Now I would that ye should understand that the word of God was liberal unto all, that none were deprived of the privilege of assembling themselves together to hear the word of God.
6:6 Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.
You know what — those of us who “know not God” probably know him better than you think.
It’s more or less acknowledged that church is the worst part of church. Why get together and have boring meetings?
One of the books that put me on the way out was “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger. Psychologists infiltrated a group of UFO enthusiasts who had predicted a specific date for the end of the world. The goal was to find out what they’d do when the prophecy failed. Would they dump it? Would they modify?
Spoiler alert: the world didn’t end. But there was one telling detail. The weekend after the prophecy failed, some people went back home for the weekend, and some stayed with the group. In general, those that stayed with the group stayed in the group, and those that left left. Being together with other members brought powerful feelings of belonging and affiliation.
This is why Mormons take one Sunday a month and tell each other that they “know the church is true”. Communal reinforcement keeps people pumped up, and reminds them of what the social group believes.
For me, this was an important realisation. If an idea is true, it doesn’t need to be continually propped up. Take an idea like continental drift. I haven’t studied continental drift since Geography 101, which was about 25 years ago. Yet I still think it’s as true as I ever did, and I haven’t been going to meetings to testify about it. True ideas simply do not need communal reinforcement in this way.
Is this a linguistic slip-up?
Alma 7:10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t born in Jerusalem; he was (allegedly) born in Bethlehem. But wait — the phrase is at Jerusalem. The guys from FAIR point out that at can be used for general locations, which is true enough. On the other hand, the folks at the Mormonism Research Ministry point out that the phrase “at Jerusalem” is always used in the Book of Mormon to refer to the actual city.
We can only offer our readers the simple suggestion that if a phrase is used 19 times, and in 18 of those times it can be demonstrated that it means the actual city of Jerusalem, it is both inconsistent and tenuous to interpret Alma 7:10 otherwise.
My take: Joseph Smith (or whoever) probably had a momentary slip-up and said Jerusalem when he meant to say Bethlehem, which is the kind of thing that can happen when you’re dictating a first draft with your face in a hat. But with all the linguistic problems of the Book of Mormon, this one slippery preposition is probably the least of its difficulties.