Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: faith healing

BoM Lesson 25 (Lamoni)

“They Taught with Power and Authority of God”

Alma 17–22

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To point out that emotional reasoning is not a good way of finding out what’s true

Reading

This reading concerns the missionary journeyings of Alma and the sons of Mosiah.

It begins with our heroes bumping into each other after 14 years of preaching — what’s meant to be a period covering around 91 to 77 BCE.

Alma 17:1 And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, Behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla.
17:2 Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.
17:3 But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.

I get feels from this bit.

In the town where I grew up, there was a medium-sized Mormon presence, and most of my best friends were in the church. Reading this, I could imagine a day when we would get back together and find that we were all still active Mormons — yay!

Now life has moved on, and some of us are still active, and doing churchy things that way. But some of us have realised that the church wasn’t what it said it was, we’ve left, and we’re moving on in that way — in, I think, a better way.

I’m sure that my church friends wish we’d all be in the church again. (One former mission companion told me pointedly that he’d liked me better when I was a believer. Facebook discussions can do that.) For my part, I wish my friends would wake up and get out, as I can see that damage that a demanding religion can do. It’s a shame, and a waste.

I guess the lesson here is that basing your relationships on religious affiliation can bring about a lot of closeness if you stay, but division if you leave. And that’s too bad. Religion poisons everything.

Ask: How have you been able to maintain your friendships with believers, post-deconversion?

Anyway, they take their leave, and go teach those wild, hardened, and ferocious people, the Lamanites. One might say they had a few prejudices, but anyway.

Alma 17:13 And it came to pass when they had arrived in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, that they separated themselves and departed one from another, trusting in the Lord that they should meet again at the close of their harvest; for they supposed that great was the work which they had undertaken.
17:14 And assuredly it was great, for they had undertaken to preach the word of God to a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them; and their hearts were set upon riches, or upon gold and silver, and precious stones; yet they sought to obtain these things by murdering and plundering, that they might not labor for them with their own hands.

The story moves to Ammon, who goes to the land of Ishmael, and winds up talking to their king Lamoni. Naturally he gets a welcoming committee.

Alma 17:20 And as Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites took him and bound him, as was their custom to bind all the Nephites who fell into their hands, and carry them before the king; and thus it was left to the pleasure of the king to slay them, or to retain them in captivity, or to cast them into prison, or to cast them out of his land, according to his will and pleasure.
17:21 And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael; and his name was Lamoni; and he was a descendant of Ishmael.

When Ammon tells Lamoni that he wants to live there, the king is impressed, and offers him a daughter.

Alma 17:22 And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people.
17:23 And Ammon said unto him: Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.
17:24 And it came to pass that king Lamoni was much pleased with Ammon, and caused that his bands should be loosed; and he would that Ammon should take one of his daughters to wife.

Wow, free daughter — and Ammon doesn’t even have a green card!

When I first got to Australia as a missionary, they gave me free health care, and I thought that was something. Could it be that the Book of Mormon writer has the Lamanites all wrong? They seem quite hospitable.

Alma 17:25 But Ammon said unto him: Nay, but I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites.

I’m sensing a Joseph-in-Egypt element to this story, but let’s continue.

Now comes the action: when robbers come to steal the “flocks” — of alpaca, presumably — Ammon sees an opportunity. He kills some of the robbers with a sling, and cuts off the arms of others.

Alma 17:26 And after he had been in the service of the king three days, as he was with the Lamanitish servants going forth with their flocks to the place of water, which was called the water of Sebus, and all the Lamanites drive their flocks hither, that they may have water —
17:27 Therefore, as Ammon and the servants of the king were driving forth their flocks to this place of water, Behold, a certain number of the Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered the flocks of Ammon and the servants of the king, and they scattered them insomuch that they fled many ways.
17:28 Now the servants of the king began to murmur, saying: Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men. And they began to weep exceedingly, saying: Behold, our flocks are scattered already.
17:29 Now they wept because of the fear of being slain. Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy; for, said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words.

17:36 But Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slain of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him.
17:37 But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm.
17:38 Now six of them had fallen by the sling, but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword; and he smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few.

After this grisly spectacle, Ammon brings in all the severed arms. Needless to say, the king finds his manner disarming.

Alma 17:39 And when he had driven them afar off, he returned and they watered their flocks and returned them to the pasture of the king, and then went in unto the king, bearing the arms which had been smitten off by the sword of Ammon, of those who sought to slay him; and they were carried in unto the king for a testimony of the things which they had done.

The king is even more impressed when he learns that Ammon is feeding the animals, as though nothing has happened.

Alma 18:8 And it came to pass that king Lamoni inquired of his servants, saying: Where is this man that has such great power?
18:9 And they said unto him: Behold, he is feeding thy horses. Now the king had commanded his servants, previous to the time of the watering of their flocks, that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi; for there had been a great feast appointed at the land of Nephi, by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land.
18:10 Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.

The real Gospel Doctrine lesson manual puts Ammon’s work ethic down to “giving service and developing trust”.

• How did the king respond when his servants told him how Ammon had defended his flocks? (See Alma 18:2–5.) What was Ammon doing when the king asked where he was? (See Alma 18:8–9. On the chalkboard write Give service and develop trust.) How did this help prepare King Lamoni to be taught? (See Alma 18:10–11.)

People who offer unsolicited help can be genuine. They can also be partaking in a more sinister pursuit: that of loan-sharking. Abusers do this to instill a sense of obligation in their victims.

We’re all familiar with the stranger who offers to help a woman with her groceries; most often he is a fairly unsophisticated loan shark looking to pick someone up. The debt he records in his ledger can usually be paid off quite easily, just a little talk will do it. But he has something in common with the predatory criminal who imposes his counterfeit charity into someone’s life: motive….At its best, loan sharking is on a par with asking a woman, “Do you come here often?” At its worst, it exploits a victim’s sense of obligation and fairness.

Once Ammon establishes trust with the king, it’s time to teach. Strangely, Ammon tells him that God is a Great Spirit, which doesn’t mesh with current Mormon doctrine, but may have been in line with Mormonism v1.

Alma 18:24 And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
18:25 And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth.
18:26 And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
18:27 And he said, Yea.
18:28 And Ammon said: This is God.

Maybe Ammon is just holding back on the strong stuff, so the king doesn’t flip out and stop the discussions.

Anyway — what do you know — the king accepts everything, and his mind gives out under the strain of having to believe so much nonsense at once.

Alma 18:40 And it came to pass that after he had said all these things, and expounded them to the king, that the king believed all his words.
18:41 And he began to cry unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, have mercy; according to thy abundant mercy which thou hast had upon the people of Nephi, have upon me, and my people.
18:42 And now, when he had said this, he fell unto the earth, as if he were dead.

But he’s okay, folks! His wife looks after him, and when he comes to, she faints. Ammon faints too, but that could just be peer pressure.

Alma 19:12 And it came to pass that he arose, according to the words of Ammon; and as he arose, he stretched forth his hand unto the woman, and said: Blessed be the name of God, and blessed art thou.
19:13 For as sure as thou livest, Behold, I have seen my Redeemer; and he shall come forth, and be born of a woman, and he shall redeem all mankind who believe on his name. Now, when he had said these words, his heart was swollen within him, and he sunk again with joy; and the queen also sunk down, being overpowered by the Spirit.
19:14 Now Ammon seeing the Spirit of the Lord poured out according to his prayers upon the Lamanites, his brethren, who had been the cause of so much mourning among the Nephites, or among all the people of God because of their iniquities and their traditions, he fell upon his knees, and began to pour out his soul in prayer and thanksgiving to God for what he had done for his brethren; and he was also overpowered with joy; and thus they all three had sunk to the earth.

Later on, Ammon’s friend Aaron teaches King Lamoni’s father — also a king — and teaches about a Great Spirit.

Alma 22:7 And Aaron answered him and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And the king said: I know that the Amalekites say that there is a God, and I have granted unto them that they should build sanctuaries, that they may assemble themselves together to worship him. And if now thou sayest there is a God, Behold I will believe.
22:8 And now when Aaron heard this, his heart began to rejoice, and he said: Behold, assuredly as thou livest, O king, there is a God.

Bad idea, king — that’s not how you verify a claim.

Then the king prays — to a God he doesn’t know — and wouldn’t you know it, he faints!

Alma 22:18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead.

Main ideas for this lesson

Fainting

So what’s going on? Why do all these Lamanites turn into fainting goats?

The Book of Mormon has its origins in 1800s American spirituality. So when something appears in the Book of Mormon, it’s a safe bet that it reflects something that was going on at the time. Was fainting a normal part of a religious conversion?

In the early 1800s, it was. The eastern US was the scene of camp revivals — mass delusions that saw the converted fainting by the hundreds.

In August, 1801, Barton W. Stone led a revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky that became the most famous camp meeting. The meeting lasted a week, and 23,000 people came. The preaching was simple, lively, and persuasive, with preachers from different denominations sharing the platform. The common people were deeply affected, and, as at the Gasper River meeting, strong emotional responses were considered proofs of conversion. Often these produced strange physical manifestations – some people fainted and fell to the ground (were “slain in the spirit”) or suffered uncontrollable shaking (“the jerks”). There was dancing, running and singing – all of which Stone said were manifestations of God’s presence. The noise of the meetings was so great that some said “the noise was like the roar of Niagara.” Revival camp meetings swept through Kentucky, Tennessee and many of the southern states.

Another account.

‘The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The bast sea of human being seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons and one standing on a tree which had, in falling, lodged against another. …
‘I stepped up on a log where I could have a better view of the surging sea of humanity. The scene that then presented itself to my mind was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens‘ (Pratney 1994:104).
The Rev. Moses Hoge wrote: ‘The careless fall down, cry out, tremble, and not infrequently are affected with convulsive twitchings
‘Nothing that imagination can paint, can make a stronger impression upon the mind, than one of those scenes. Sinners dropping down on every hand, shrieking, groaning, crying for mercy, convulsed; professors praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress, for sinners or in raptures of joy! …

You can imagine that these scenes would have had quite the effect on the public imagination for quite some time! Small wonder that it worked its way into the Book of Mormon. And in fact, Christian historian Nathan O. Hatch mentions fainting particularly in connection with early Mormons.

As Jonathan Edwards noted some 60 years earlier, religious ecstasy—trembling, groaning, crying out, panting, fainting—may be signs of God’s power, but you don’t know. In the 1800s, you see these same expressions in the early Mormons and Shakers.

So that’s why these fainting stories appear. It seems that, for early Mormons, fainting upon conversion was sort of a normal and well-accepted thing. I doubt early church members would recognise the rather boring church of today.

Conversion as a phenomenon

Fainting aside, I think these fainting stories have left their mark on modern Mormonism — not because fainting is still a part of Mormonism’s cultural repertoire, but because Mormons still think of conversion as something that “happens”.

I had a couple of missionaries over to the house for dinner recently. I like having them over — it’s good for them to get some food, and I remember what it was like to pound the pavement under less-than-encouraging conditions. The ensuing discussions are quite interesting, as well.

In these discussions, I tend to focus on the need for evidence, when establishing a claim. I often say, “You don’t get knowledge from feels.”

But one of the missionaries — a junior companion — inexplicably challenged me to read and pray about the Book of Mormon. As though that was something I’d never thought of doing before.

I guess if that’s the only tool you have, that’s what you go with.

But it’s a part of this idea that conversion involves some kind of big emotional experience. I can even see this in the eyes of Mormons I talk to; they’re thinking: If I can just say something, then he’ll see the sense of it all, and believe. (Then when I don’t, I’m hard-hearted.)

Of course, if I did pray about the church — never mind that praying presupposes the existence of a being whose existence is one of the claims under consideration — and if I did have a big emotional experience, what would that show? Only that I’m just as susceptible to emotional reasoning as anyone else. That’s something I already know.

I should also point out that not everyone has a big emotional experience. Many people pray and get no answer at all. So if this is a test, that means it failed, right? Nope — Mormons in that situation condition themselves to believe that they “already knew it was true” and that no big experience is necessary.

From a public forum:

I remember trying to get Moroni’s promise to work for me. When nothing happened, I finally decided that I didn’t need it because I already knew it was true.

And another.

This is how my experience went. I remember it quite clearly. My “answer” was that I already knew it was true. It sustained severe activity for fifty years……… Now I have to come to terms with the idea that my own mind just had to have the answer so it gave me one.

It goes to the highest levels.

Ask: How would this quote encourage someone to stay in the church, even if they feel no “spiritual manifestation”?

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This is how the church plays both sides of the epistemological fence. Pray, and you’ll have an experience that will make you believe — but if you don’t, you don’t need a big experience; just believe anyway.

Additional lesson ideas

Horses and chariots

We’ve mentioned the lack of pre-Columbian horses — and here they are again — but now let’s take it farther with chariots.

Alma 18:10 Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.

Did ancient Americans have chariots with wheels?

In a word, no. Wheels don’t appear in the archaeological record.

Did I say “don’t appear”? That’s not quite true. They do appear as kids’ toys.

There are around 100 known examples thus far and they vary in construction according to where they were found. Small solid-bodied examples were found around the Veracruz and northern coastal regions, whilst larger hollow-bodied examples have been found in Veracruz, Michoacan, Geurrero and El Salvador. If putting wheels on an animal wasn’t strange enough, the larger type are often flutes or whistles with the posterior or tail being used as a mouthpiece.

The majority were made by threading an axle through loops formed on each leg, with one between the front legs and another between the hind legs, with a wheel mounted on each end. Another composite type does exist, with the animal mounted on a plinth through which the axles were mounted. Both types result in a fairly robust mobile animal on wheels, which most people liken to a child’s toy – although it is very unlikely that they were given to youngsters to play with.

Okay, so when did they appear?

The majority of examples that exist today are thought to have been made in the Early Post Classic Era (900AD-1250AD), though some do come from the earlier Classic Era (200AD-900AD).

So that’s 200–1250 CE. That’s way too late for king Lamoni, who was strictly a BCE kind of guy.

So why don’t we see wheels on chariots?

Well, toys are one thing, but scaling it up is quite another.

The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder.

“The stroke of brilliance was the wheel-and-axle concept,” said David Anthony, a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College and author of “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language” (Princeton, 2007). “But then making it was also difficult.”

To make a fixed axle with revolving wheels, Anthony explained, the ends of the axle had to be nearly perfectly smooth and round, as did the holes in the center of the wheels; otherwise, there would be too much friction for the wheels to turn. Furthermore, the axles had to fit snugly inside the wheels’ holes, but not too snugly — they had to be free to rotate.

Uncle Cecil of the Straight Dope points out that the lack of big strong animals was also a problem.

Unfortunately, the New World suffered from a conspicuous scarcity of draft animals. The only beast of burden known in the Americas was the llama, a delicate critter restricted to certain parts of the Andes, which was used solely as a pack animal. Without draft animals you cannot do extensive hauling with sledges, and without sledges it will never occur to you that the wheel would be a handy thing to have.

In the end, the lack of ancient American wheels is a big problem for the Book of Mormon, and not just because it mentions wheels all the time. It’s also because Lehi and family came from the Old World, where wheels had already been in use. If someone traveled to the Americans with this knowledge, it would have taken the New World by storm (problems with animals notwithstanding). What, did Lehi forget?

So Lehi comes over and “forgets” to use the wheel. I’m sure that even a FARMS dude has got to admit that that is about as stupid as forgetting about fire or even forgetting how to eat…or breathe for that matter. As we all know, “forgetting about the wheel” isn’t even in the realm of possibility.

The oldest wheel found in archeological excavations was discovered in what was Mesopotamia and is believed to be over fifty-five hundred years old. The wheel was used extensively in the Greek and Roman civilizations and of course was well established in Jerusalem when Lehi made his supposed journey, (Hell, logic would say that Lehi even used wheels in his “trek” from Jerusalem to the coast.) But then once he arrives in the New world, he forgets all about it!!

Surely we’d see wheels being used in the Americas in some capacity during this time. But we don’t. Fictional people don’t innovate.

What’s the FairMormon answer?

The nature of “chariots” is not clear in the Book of Mormon text. The text nowhere states that wheels were a part of these devices.

We do not know what type of chariots the Nephites used, nor do we know if what they called chariots had wheels.

Aren’t they great, ladies and gentlemen? Chariots without wheels!

“Hey, I feel like a ride in my chariot! Wanna go out for a scrape?”
“Sure; our alpacas are rarin’ to go!”

But here’s the best part: we can’t find the chariots because they just decayed.

It appears that most chariots during Book of Mormon times did not survive, just like during the Exodus which the “six hundred chosen chariots” (Exodus 14:6) and “all the chariots of Egypt” (Exodus 14:6) did not survive in the sea. (Exodus 14:26-28)

Are they saying that the Lamanite chariots are just as real as Pharaoh’s chariots?

nevermind_nathan_fillion

Of course, this is dumb; we can find older wheels than that.

Bronze Age wheel at ‘British Pompeii’ Must Farm an ‘unprecedented find’

A complete Bronze Age wheel believed to be the largest and earliest of its kind found in the UK has been unearthed.

The 3,000-year-old artefact was found at a site dubbed “Britain’s Pompeii”, at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire.

Archaeologists have described the find – made close to the country’s “best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings” – as “unprecedented”.

Still containing its hub, the 3ft-diameter (one metre) wooden wheel dates from about 1,100 to 800 BC.

Unprecedented — but possible.

This wheel is even older than anything from our reading. If something like this were found in Guatemala, LDS apologists would claim it as a win for the Book of Mormon. And rightly so — it would turn Mesoamerican archaeology on its head. But when we don’t find such things, they don’t seem to care. And that’s careless.

NT Lesson 27 (Resurrection)

“He Is Not Here, for He Is Risen”

Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20–21

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show contradictions in the resurrection story, and to encourage readers to seek evidence for extraordinary claims.

Reading

This lesson is about the pivotal event of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. I say it’s pivotal because if it didn’t happen, then there’s no point to Christianity at all. And Paul says as much.

1 Corinthians 15:14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

This really came home to me when my father passed on. I realised that I was the grown-up now, and I had to decide how I was going to live. And if there was a life after this, or no life after this, I wanted to know it. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you don’t care about defending the story you’ve always lived by, and you just want to know if you’re right or wrong. Well, at this point, I wanted to know if I was right or wrong.

So for me, the crucial question became: Did the resurrection of Jesus happen?

And my answer: Of course not. Why would it? Don’t be a credulous nincompoop. People don’t just get up from being totally dead. When has that ever happened in all of human experience? Never. So if someone wants to convince me that it really happened, thry’re going to need better evidence than copies of documents. And as Sam Harris points out, that’s all we got.

Bible scholars agree that the first gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus. Decades.

And of course, we don’t have the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts which have thousands — literally thousands — of descrepancies between them, many of which show signs of later interpolation, which is to say that people added passages that then became part of the canon. There are whole books of the canon, like the book of Revelation, which for hundreds of years were not included because they were deemed false gospel. There are other whole books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which you probably haven’t heard of, but for centuries it was considered part of the canon, and then was later jettisoned as false gospel.

Generations of Christians lived and died being guided by gospel that is now deemed both incomplete and mistaken. Think about that. This process, this all too human process of cobbling together the supposed authoritative word of god is a very precarious basis to assert the claims of Christianity. But the truth is, even if we had multiple contemporaneaus claims of the miracles of Jesus this would not be good enough. Because miracle stories abound even in the 21st century. The devotees of the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba ascribe all of the miracles of Jesus to him. He reads minds, he fortells the future, he heals, he raises the dead, he was born of a virgin. Sathya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure. You may not have heard of him, but they had a birthday party for him a few years ago and a million people showed up. There are vast numbers of people that think he is a living god.

So Christianity is predicated on the claim that miracle stories — exactly of the kind that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba — become especially credible when you place them in a pre-scientific religious context of the first century roman empire, decades after their supposed occurance, as attested to by copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek and largely discrepant manuscripts. We have Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories attested to by thousands upon thousands of living eye witnesses and they don’t even merit an hour on cable television. And, yet, you put a few miracle stories in an ancient book and half the people on Earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around. Does anyone else see a problem with that?

Actually, yes, I do.

Speaking of “largely discrepant manuscripts”, we’re going to see how the stories in the gospels are hopelessly confused as to the details of the resurrection. Here’s a helpful infographic.

This was God’s opportunity to report the facts of the case, and it resembles nothing more than a mishmash of human fabrication.

So how does Christianity paper over this? The surprising answer: By expecting you not to demand any evidence for its claims, and by telling you that you’ll be blessed if you believe without evidence. How about that?

Main ideas for this lesson

Rolling away the stone?

Let’s start at the beginning: In the morning, two Marys (and a Salome, if you believe Mark) were heading to the tomb.

Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

Other Mary: Why do I have to be ‘other Mary’?
Mary: You’re not married to Jesus.
Other Mary: Well, you’re not married to Jesus!
Mary: (silence)

I don’t know what they thought they were going to do; there was supposed to be a huge stone there. But then Matthew reports a second huge earthquake that no one else noticed, and an angel rolls away the stone.

Matthew 28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.

Already we have a fail. Round tomb stones weren’t really a thing at the time. They wouldn’t be popular until about 70 CE, which supports the idea that this was a later addition. Richard Carrier notes:

There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).

Appearances

Jesus then appears to different people in contradictory and mutually exclusive ways. Rather than recount it, I refer to this portion of our infographic.

If that’s not enough for you, I have this PDF file from my good friend David Austin. (He should get a blog.) Click the image to download a copy for yourself.

Thomas and doubt

Jesus appears to the rest of the apostles. And since it’s John, notice the “fear of teh Jooz”. He’s always on about the Jews.

John 20:19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

Good so far, except Thomas wasn’t there. And he won’t believe it until he sees it.

John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
20:25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Good on him. He’s demanding the kind of evidence that’s required to support a claim. That’s what a person should do.

John 20:26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
20:27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
20:28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

Thomas believes, but at least he’s doing it right. He wants evidence, he gets it, and he changes his mind.

But now here’s Jesus with the kicker.

John 20:29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Here we have it, folks. This is the one that I count as the worst verse in scripture. Jesus is saying that evidence is fine, but no evidence is just as good. Maybe even better.

By insisting that believing without evidence is somehow on a par with believing with evidence, Jesus takes the metric that rational people use to evaluate claims, and turns it on its head. If we all did this, there’s no limit to the mutually exclusive and contradictory claims we could believe. To accept this way of thinking is to abandon reason.

Imagine how irresponsible it is for a god to demand this. Here we are in our short lives, having to choose the right religion or philosophy or story among tens of thousands, and if you get it wrong, it’s no salvation for you. Those are serious consequences (which God has set out). A responsible parent would spell out the evidence for his gospel fairly clearly. God doesn’t do that. Instead, he expects you to pick one without adequate reasons, and hope you got it right. To be fair, he also is supposed to give out feelings, the nature of which can easily be misunderstood, and which are experienced by followers of all religions. Otherwise, good luck.

This theme of not needing evidence is often taken up by believers I’ve met. When I ask for evidence, they never provide it. Instead, they make excuses for why I shouldn’t expect evidence, or they tell me why I should accept substitutes for evidence (like feelings). Strangely, they don’t seem to see how this is an evasion of the responsibility to back up what they say.

Read this excerpt from The Ethics of Belief, written by William K. Clifford in 1877

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

Ask: How does the LDS Church encourage people to “avoid the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss” church doctrines?
Answers: By avoiding material that is not “inspiring”, and by labelling books and people who tell the truth about the church as “anti-Mormon”.

Ask: How is the refusing to confront doubts “one long sin against mankind”?
Answer: One of the most important things we can do in life is to advance our collective knowledge. Doing this helps create technologies that can cure illness, sustain life, and improve the quality of living. But this only works if we make reality the metric against which we compare other ideas. Accepting false beliefs means that we stop advancing, and start retreating, and this helps humankind not at all.

I’d like to take a moment and bear my testimony of doubt. Doubt is amazing! Doubt has helped me figure out what’s true and what’s false far better than faith can. Having faith just confirms what you believe, whether it’s right or not. It’s like a compass that always points in the way you’re going. What good is that? It might be okay if you’re trying to feel good about your beliefs, but if you’re trying to find out what’s true, it’s no use at all.

By contrast, doubt won’t hurt true claims (as long as you understand the kind of evidence required to establish a claim). However, it’s lethal to false ones.

Why’s it have to be snakes?

Jesus eventually jet-packed back up to heaven, but before he did, he left this instruction:

Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Poison aside, let’s talk about the snakes. This scripture has resulted in generations of pastors dying in snake-handling churches of the American South.

Snake-handling preacher Cody Coots got scared when the 6-foot long rattler bit his right hand early Monday.

Just three months ago, his father, Jamie Coots, died within minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at his Middlesboro church.

The loss was still fresh for his family and friends, and Cody Coots, who took over for his father, had just been bitten by an even bigger rattler.

At first, “All I could think about — am I going to make it?” Coots said.

Jamie Coots, 42, was handling three rattlesnakes during a Saturday-night service at the church when one bit him on the right hand. Jamie Coots had survived more than half a dozen previous bites, but that night the venom quickly overwhelmed him.

His legs buckled in the bathroom at the church after he murmured “Sweet Jesus,” said Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling minister from Tennessee who was with him.

People at the church rushed Coots home. He had made clear earlier that he did not want medical attention for a bite; his family sent an ambulance crew away as believers prayed over him.

A deputy coroner pronounced Coots dead about 90 minutes after he was bitten.

This raises all kinds of questions for me.

  • When someone dies from a snake bite in these churches, why don’t they take it as a sign of the victim’s lack of faith?
  • Why do they pray for the person to get better? Is that supposed to be some kind of Plan B, in case of lack of faith?
  • And where are all the poison-drinking churches? Did they used to exist, but poison worked more reliably than snakes?

Then there’s this quote:

If you don’t understand it, don’t knock it,” said Hamblin, who was close to Coots. “We adhere to the literal interpretation of the Gospel.”

I think I do understand it. They believe the Bible, and that is a terrible and costly mistake. However, unlike most believers, they take the claims of the Bible seriously. Well, one of them.

NT Lesson 19 (Prayer)

“Thy Faith Hath Saved Thee”

Luke 18:1–8, 35–43; 19:1–10; John 11

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show the futility of prayer, and the contradictory and convenient rationales used to explain away its failure.

Reading

Ask the class: According to this reading, which of the following is a reason to pray?

  1. To ask God for things we need
  2. To pester God into giving us stuff
  3. To feel better about not getting stuff
  4. To remind ourselves of how unworthy we are
  5. As a way of displaying our relationship with God to other people

    Answer: All of the above, except the first one.

    Surprised? Let’s just do a bit of review.

    Back in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, prayer was simple. You asked God for stuff, you got stuff — just like in that first answer above. If you only had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could have it all. There was no indication from Jesus that it was supposed to be any other way.

    Matthew 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
    7:8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
    7:9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
    7:10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
    7:11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

    Mark 11:23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.
    11:24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

    But as anyone who’s ever prayed for a pony — or a loved one to get better — knows, it really doesn’t work. People started noticing that God was giving out a lot of serpents. So Jesus added this dodge:

    Matthew 17:19 Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
    17:20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

    If you didn’t get it, it was because you didn’t have enough faith. Which is a great way of blaming the victim when prayer fails. Nice move, Jesus.

    And now, Christianity and Mormonism are teeming with qualifications, hedges, and rationales to explain why prayer really works — just not how you think. If prayer doesn’t seem to work — well, it’s because:

    • you didn’t blah blah blah…
    • you’re not supposed to blah blah blah…
    • God doesn’t blah blah blah…

    Here’s the complete chart, just for reference.

    That being the case, this lesson is about some of those other — in my view, less worthwhile — reasons for prayer.

    Main ideas for this lesson

    Pestering God into giving us what we want

    Here we have the parable of the Unjust Judge and the Widow.

    Luke 18:1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;
    18:2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:
    18:3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.
    18:4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;
    18:5 Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.

    This is one dodge to justify why prayers don’t get answered: Oh, well, they will eventually.

    The LDS lesson manual elaborates.

    • How is persevering in prayer an act of faith? What should we do when we have persevered in prayer and feel that we have not received an answer?

    Elder Richard G. Scott said:
    “It is a mistake to assume that every prayer we offer will be answered immediately. Some prayers require considerable effort on our part. . . .
    When we explain a problem and a proposed solution [to our Heavenly Father], sometimes He answers yes, sometimes no. Often He withholds an answer, not for lack of concern, but because He loves us—perfectly. He wants us to apply truths He has given us. For us to grow, we need to trust our ability to make correct decisions. We need to do what we feel is right. In time, He will answer. He will not fail us” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1989, 38; or Ensign, Nov. 1989, 30–31).

    Ask: How does Mr Scott justify the lack of answers to prayers?
    Answers:

    • God will answer your prayer. Just not yet. Well then, when? Juuuuust a little longer.
    • Prayers require effort. Submit your request again, and continue paying tithing.
    • Sometimes God answers no.

    But what good are these excuses? We could get the same results by praying to a jug of milk.

    You might as well ask a rock! Which some people do, and they think it works great.

    Pick up your stone and hold it firmly in your hand to feel its power and purifying abilities. Ask it to soak up any negativity from your office space and send out strong, positive energetic rays around your computer to keep it virus-free.

    You may chuckle, but at least rocks exist.

    By the way, why would we need to ask an omniscient god for anything, when he already knows what we need? Blonde Hot Surfer Jesus has an answer:

    To sum up, the moral of this parable is that you should keep asking. Weary the Lord with your pleadings.

    Except when you’re not supposed to keep asking. You might remember the story of the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, which were lost by investor Martin Harris.

    The seminary guide for the Doctrine and Covenants relates the story:

    By mid-June 1828, the Prophet Joseph Smith, with Martin Harris as scribe, had translated 116 pages of manuscript from the gold plates. Martin asked Joseph to allow him to take the manuscript to “read to his friends that [perhaps] he might convince them of the truth” (Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers [2012], 15). Joseph approached the Lord with Martin’s request but was told not to let the manuscript out of his possession. Martin convinced Joseph to ask again—which resulted in a second refusal from the Lord. Martin prevailed upon Joseph to ask once more and, on this third request, the Lord gave permission for Martin to take the manuscript if he agreed to show the manuscript only to his wife and a few select family members. However, Martin broke his oath and the manuscript was lost. Because Joseph had not accepted the Lord’s initial counsel but delivered “that which was sacred into the hands of a wicked man” (D&C 3:12), Moroni took the plates and the Urim and Thummim from the Prophet.

    Considering what you know about Martin Harris and all that he had done for Joseph Smith, why do you think Joseph persisted in asking God if Martin could take the manuscript even though God had already given a clear answer the first two times he asked?

    I don’t know; maybe because Jesus said to persist in asking? The rules of whether to persist in prayer or leave it alone are confused and contradictory. This is not the work of a god who’s all that bright.

    Reminding ourselves of how unworthy we are

    You know what people tell me when I say that religion is harmful? They tell me about the comfort it brings them. So comfort. Wow.

    Well, how comforting is it when you’re told what an unworthy wretch you are? That’s the next purpose of prayer in this lesson, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.

    Luke 18:10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
    18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
    18:12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
    18:13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
    18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

    In other words, you’re supposed to proclaim your unworthiness at all times. This graphic is an actual meme that Christians are sharing with each other.

    This is not a system that builds confident people. It celebrates and encourages brokenness.

    Displaying your relationship with God to others

    Lazarus gets sick and dies. Like the man born blind, it’s an example of God making people sick so that he can show how great he is for making them well.

    John 11:4 When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.

    Then Jesus says something a little unusual in his prayer to raise Lazarus:

    John 11:41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
    11:42 And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

    From the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:

    • What can Jesus’ prayer before he raised Lazarus teach us about his relationship with his Father? (See John 11:41–42.) How can we follow Jesus’ example in our personal and family prayers?

    Answer: By praying as ostentatiously as possible. Suggestion: Over food in restaurants.

    On that: Would you believe that some restaurants offer discounts for customers who make a display of mumbling over their food?

    A diner on business travel received a 15 percent discount on her check for simply praying over her meal at a Winston-Salem, North Carolina restaurant Wednesday.

    Jordan Smith stopped for breakfast with two colleagues at Mary’s Gourmet Diner where they publicly prayed for their food, and later were surprised with the deduction.

    ” … The waitress came over at the end of the meal and said, ‘Just so you know, we gave you a 15% discount for praying,’ which I’d never seen before,” said Smith, according to HLN TV.  “The three of us at the table talked about how wonderful that is and what a cool thing it is that they do as business owners.”

    Except that Jesus said we’re not supposed to make a show for others.

    Matthew 6:5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
    6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

    Again, the advice on prayer is confusing and contradictory.

    Does prayer do anything?

    As we’ve seen, believers have taken Jesus’ original instruction to pray for things, and larded it up with justifications and out-clauses for when it doesn’t work.

    So does prayer actually do anything? Well, it’s pretty good for making you feel better.

    I will pray for you

    My favourite passive-aggressive Christian jibe is when people say “I’ll pray for you.”

    Do I answer in the way that this guy does? No, I do not.

    Often I say, “And I will reason for you.” But here are some other ways to respond.

    The God of Small Things

    Many people will say yes, prayer works. They base this on personal anecdotes, and I have to say, some of them are pretty trivial.

    That’s not a pretty picture, I know, but there are a lot of starving kids in the world. If God is helping wealthy Westerners find parking spaces, while choosing to leave problems of massive systemic suffering alone, then he truly is the God of Small Things.

    The Divine Plan

    Of course, when prayer doesn’t work, people try to make themselves feel better by saying it “wasn’t in God’s plan”.

    As always, George Carlin had the best answer to this.

    Again, on Bill Maher.

    And of all people, Mr Deity knows what’s up. He’s got a plan! And when doing nothing gets people to believe in you, why screw it up?

    Can’t answer ’em all

    Complicating the whole prayer idea is the fact that people send millions of contradictory prayers and requests that are mutually unfulfillable.

    Ask: What does John Steinbeck mean by this quote?

    All of which should be enough to tell us that prayer is futile.

    If, as people say, prayer is really for you, then there are better things for you to be doing.

    Additional lesson ideas

    Faith healing

    On his way somewhere, Jesus healed another blind guy.

    Luke 18:42 And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee.
    18:43 And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God.

    Perhaps you’re not impressed by this story, written down as it is in this 2,000-year-old book. Would you be impressed if you saw it in real life? Many people are; these so-called miracles are duplicated by fakes and con artists everywhere.

    SCEPTICS are warning people to be wary of a self-proclaimed “miracle healer” who claims to have cured blindness and is bringing his “healing” tour to the southeast.

    Hungarian pastor Laszlo Magyari, who has claimed to have healed people of conditions from cancer to blindness, will perform his “healing” services in Bentleigh, Springvale, Noble Park, Narre Warren and Endeavour Hills over the next two weeks.

    But Australian Skeptics Victorian Branch president Chris Guest said it was important to remain vigilant of the claims of faith healers.

    Even faith healers who are sincere in their beliefs and offer their services without fee are still capable of doing harm,” he said.

    Their followers may be dissuaded from getting timely medical attention from serious illnesses or continuing with promising orthodox treatments.”

    Derren Brown explains how they do it.

    Until next week, I hope you are well.

    NT Lesson 12 (Walking on water)

    “I Am the Bread of Life”

    John 5–6; Mark 6:30–44; Matthew 14:22–33

    LDS manual: here

    Purpose

    To remind readers that regular people have used science to help humanity more than Jesus ever did with his comparative paltry conjuring tricks.

    Reading

    At this point in our story, Jesus has a pretty good thing going on. Not only has he taken over John the Baptist’s franchise, he’s managed to convince people that he can do miracles — conjuring tricks, really — turning water into wine, faith healings, and so on. This prophet gig is pretty sweet!

    But, as with every con artist who believes their own hype, overreach was inevitable. And this week, Jesus has his “bigger than the Beatles” moment.

    Here are the high points of this lesson:

    • Faith healing at the pool of Bethesda
    • Loaves and fishes
    • Walking on water
    • Many are offended by his “Bread of Life” speech

    Main ideas for this lesson

    Pool of Bethesda

    We start with Jesus healing a man at the site of a pool with some… shall we say… unusual visitors.

    John 5:2 Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.
    5:3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
    5:4 For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

    Imagine. Angels are popping in, popping out, dipping their toes in the water, and giving it magical healing properties.

    What I think is cute about this story is how John just totally buys into the angel angle, and reports it straightforwardly, without blinking an eye. Of course angels are real, says John, and that’s what heals people. Duh.

    John 5:5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.
    5:6 When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?
    5:7 The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.
    5:8 Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.
    5:9 And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

    Poor guy, waiting for 38 years. God knows that he wanted to be healed, but I’m sorry, guy. The rules say that God won’t heal you unless you actually touch the water first. Rules are rules.

    Well, not everyone believes in angels, and that’s the story behind this scripture. It would appear that the translators of the KJV worked from texts that had the angel story, but there were earlier texts that they didn’t have access to, and these texts don’t include the angel story in verses 3 and 4.

    Defenders of the decision to omit John 5:3b-4 consider the verses to be later interpolations or glosses, dating no earlier than about AD 500, and not to be found in the original manuscript as whispered by God into the ears of his human secretaries. Defenders of the KJV, on the other hand, get very cross indeed when even one jot or tittle of the Word is messed with.

    There are some Bible fans who acknowledge that some scribe slipped in the angel story (hey, thought the scribe, it had to be an angel; there’s no other explanation), but it’s not a big deal to them. But the issue here is: with all these additions, deletions, discrepancies, and interpolations, how can we see the Bible as an accurate record of what happened? And if we can’t, then why should we place any credibility in Christianity?

    By the way, Jesus didn’t just heal the guy and leave him; he came around once more to threaten him.

    John 5:14 Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.

    Because physically infirmities come from sin, donchaknow.

    Loaves and fishes

    Here’s the story of Jesus miraculously feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes.

    John 6:5 When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?
    6:6 And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.
    6:7 Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.
    6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him,
    6:9 There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?
    6:10 And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.
    6:11 And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.
    6:12 When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.
    6:13 Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.

    Jesus (allegedly) fed thousands of people a couple of times, which was very nice for them. But Norman Borlaug, architect of the Green Revolution, saved millions of people from starvation.

    Link text: If you don’t know who Norman Borlaug is, He was a man who saved over a billion people worldwide from starvation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

    But there’s more to Borlaug’s story. Unlike Jesus, Borlaug was a proponent of social justice.

    Unlike Jesus / Jehovah, he had the will and the ability to ensure that people didn’t go hungry. Borlaug did what God wouldn’t.

    Walking on water

    In a display of divinity, Jesus reportedly walked on water. Let’s pick it up from Matthew.

    Matthew 14:24 But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.
    14:25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.
    14:26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.
    14:27 But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
    14:28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
    14:29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
    14:30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
    14:31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
    14:32 And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.

    I’m not trying to say that this miracle can be done by just anyone:

    Nigerian Pastor Tries To Walk On Water Like Jesus, Then Drowns In Front Of His Congregation
    Walking on water is not easy. Not too many people have the ability. Let’s see, there’s Jesus, and well, that’s about it. Unfortunately for one pastor on the West Coast of Africa, his attempt to become the second man to make this impossible feat a reality cost him his life.
    Pastor Franck Kabele, 35, told his congregation that he was capable of reenacting the very miracles of Jesus Christ. He decided to make it clear through way of demonstration on Gabon’s beach in the capital city of Libreville.
    Referencing Matthew 14:22-33, Kabele said that he received a revelation which told him that with enough faith he could achieve what Jesus was able to.
    According to an eyewitness, Kabele took his congregation out to the beach. He told them that he would cross the Kombo estuary by foot, which is normally a 20 minute boat ride.
    Sadly by the second step into the water Kabele found himself completely submerged. He never returned.
    This is not the first incident of this nature in Africa. At Ibadon zoo in south-west Nigeria, a self-proclaimed Prophet claimed to be able to do what the Daniel of the bible did by walking into a den full of lions.

    But this feat has been duplicated.

    And as you’d expect, it was a very clever trick.

    There are also non-Newtonian fluids that you can walk on, in this case a very thick mixture of corn starch and water.

    I’ll just leave this here.

    What can I say? Fictional characters can do some amazing things.

    Let’s give science the final word on the topic.

    Eating flesh and drinking blood

    Finally the breaking point comes. Jesus says that you need to eat his flesh and drink his blood to be saved.

    John 6:53 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
    6:54 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
    6:55 For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
    6:56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

    Wait, isn’t drinking blood against the Old Testament?

    And no wonder people would be put off — it’s a rather nauseating doctrine.

    Not only that; it’s also a bit plagiarised. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a deity figure predates Christianity, in particular the worship of Dionysus in a rite practised by the Maenad.

    The rite climaxed in a performance of frenzied feats of strength and madness, such as uprooting trees, tearing a bull (the symbol of Dionysus) apart with their bare hands, an act called sparagmos, and eating its flesh raw, an act called omophagia. This latter rite was a sacrament akin to communion in which the participants assumed the strength and character of the god by symbolically eating the raw flesh and drinking the blood of his symbolic incarnation. Having symbolically eaten his body and drunk his blood, the celebrants became possessed by Dionysus.

    Everything’s a reboot.

    “To whom shall we go?”

    It’s tough when a speech bombs. Jesus loses a lot of followers. It’s his Howard Dean moment.

    John 6:66 From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
    6:67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
    6:68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

    As a believer, I often thought of this scripture. “Who else would I follow if I didn’t follow Jesus?” It seemed absurd to stop being a Mormon; what else would I be? Who else would I follow?

    What I didn’t realise was that when Jesus seemed like the only game in town, it was because I didn’t know there were better games. Life offers more choices than just choosing whom to follow.

    This is why, for me, leaving the church was so freeing. Having decided that almost everyone in my life had been mostly wrong about everything — and thank goodness — I realised I’d have to do some thinking for myself, and determine what my life was going to be about. But this time, I’d have to use some reason, logic, and evidence so I’d be maybe a little harder to fool this time. No more gurus, no more mystics, and if someone wanted to say they were an expert on something, they were going to have to have their credentials in order. It’s an approach that’s made all the difference in my life.

    Additional lesson ideas

    Anti-semitism in John

    We’re going to see this a few times, but it’s worth pointing out that John has a blame-the-Jews agenda. The Gospel of John is arguably the most antisemitic book in the New Testament. Here’s just a taste.

    John 5:16 And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.

    More of that later — with a view to the consequences.

    NT Lesson 7 (Miracles)

    “[He] Took Our Infirmities, and Bare Our Sicknesses”

    Mark 1–2; 4:35–41; 5; Luke 7:11–17

    LDS manual: here

    Purpose

    To show that science has actually accomplished everything Jesus is claimed to have done, but much better and for more people.

    Reading

    Jesus is really getting into the miracles in this lesson. Here’s what he’s been up to.

    • Jesus casts out devils.

    In Mark 5, Jesus finds a man who seems to be some kind of container for unclean spirits. Jesus casts them out, but in a compassionate gesture, allows them to inhabit a herd of swine. The pigs have other ideas, and drown themselves. That’s very sad, isn’t it? Let’s imagine another ending for the piggies:

    • Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead
    • Jesus walks on water

    Look out, Jesus!

    Main ideas for this lesson

    The Bible is wrong about unclean spirits

    There are lots of exorcisms in this reading.

    Luke 4:33 And in the synagogue there was a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice,
    4:34 Saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God.
    4:35 And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not.
    4:36 And they were all amazed, and spake among themselves, saying, What a word is this! for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out.

    Luke 4:40 Now when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them.
    4:41 And devils also came out of many, crying out, and saying, Thou art Christ the Son of God. And he rebuking them suffered them not to speak: for they knew that he was Christ.

    And of course, the pig episode.

    The Bible teaches that mental illness is caused by demons. And, as with so many things in the Bible, it’s unhelpfully and inexcusably wrong. How easy would it have been for Jesus to point out the real causes of mental illness — psychology, biology, and genetics? Blaming it on malevolent supernatural agents is the kind of thing that pre-scientific people would have come up with.

    Thankfully, most Latter-day Saints don’t seem to believe in demonic possession anymore. I still remember one time in church, where a woman had a rather violent psychotic episode in the middle of sacrament meeting. I wonder why no one performed an exorcism — perhaps no one in attendance had the experience. Instead, health services were called, the women was collected, and then jittery ward members — in an adult meeting and a separate youth meeting — were counselled by a psychiatrist and a psychologist who happened to be ward members. It was really handled very well, and all without casting out devils.

    In some other Christian churches, though, exorcisms are de rigueur. Benny Hinn makes a good living out of it.

    They’re so easy, even a child could do one.

    While this ritual seems silly to me, the participants sure do seem to think something real is happening to them. But what’s really going on here? The psychological explanation is that people undergoing an exorcism are conforming to expectations about what is supposed to happen in an exorcism, and how the participants are supposed to behave.

    Exorcisms tend to follow a predictable path. The apparent victim of possession’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, perhaps even violent, until the exorcist casts the demonic spirit out. “Possessed” people may speak in tongues, vomit, become violently ill, or harm themselves. And while these behaviors might seem shocking, they can be easily explained.

    Mental issues can cause strange behavior, and people tend to conform to expectations. This means a person experiencing an exorcism is more likely to act in ways he or she has heard of others behaving during exorcisms. Exorcisms sometimes also involve the use of potions, drugs, or fasting, each of which can induce violent illness and strange behavior. Starvation can affect brain function, and the stress of an exorcism may radically alter behavior.

    In other words, both exorcist and exorcee are both playing a role. And in some cases, participants can break out of the role at inappropriate times.

    “Hang on, it’s the Prince of Darkness; I gotta take this.”

    And now for the part that’s not so funny: exorcisms do a lot of harm, and in some cases people get killed. Try reading this very long list of people (especially children) murdered by parents and others who believed they were possessed.

    Evelyn Vasquez
    Age: 6
    The child had a history of sleepwalking. Her mother confessed to brutally stabbing her to death because she believe she was possessed by the devil. She was charged with murder.

    Amora Bain Carson
    Age: 13 months
    They believed the child was possessed and tried to rid her of demons. They allegedly bludgeoned her and bit her more than 20 times. She died. Her mother and a man were arrested and held on $2 million bond.

    Dane Gibson
    Age: 12
    After attending a fundamentalist church, they became convinced they were surrounded by demons. The boy had been held down in the yard as part of an exorcism. They were found not guilty of murder.

    And on and on and on and on and on. Exorcism is a barbaric practice that has no basis in fact, and a book that claims to come from the all-knowing creator of the universe ought to reflect this.

    Healings

    Healings are another dodgy area. Jesus was supposed to have healed a few people of blindness and illnesses. The effect of this on us today in practical terms is about nil. Diseases in our time don’t seem amenable to healing.

    Also, some types of healings never occur at Lourdes, as indicated by the comment of French writer Anatole France. On a visit to the shrine, seeing the discarded canes and crutches, he exclaimed, “What, what, no wooden legs???” 

    Ask: Why won’t God heal amputees?

    But then some people claim that God has indeed healed people of their illnesses, and that this is evidence of God’s existence, love, and what have you. In fact, this really makes the case for God’s goodness even more problematic, not less. If God really is healing various individuals in piecemeal fashion, without addressing the underlying causes of disease and while allowing others to languish and die, then this calls God’s goodness even more into question. Why is he so capricious about who he heals? Why does he choose not to heal the rest, when he could? (What are they, chopped liver?) How does this relate to God not being “a respecter of persons”?

    Watch the video for “Thank You, God” by Tim Minchin. In this video, Tim recounts the story of Sam’s mum, who allegedly got God to heal her cataracts.

    Ask: What are some other explanations for Sam’s mum’s healing that Minchin mentions? Make a list. How many times can you say ‘Minchin mentions’ really fast?
    If God is healing relatively well-off Westerners, then what are some illnesses God is ignoring? Why would he do that?

    As with exorcisms, there’s a dark side to faith healing. News reports seem to bring a steady stream of stories of parents who kill their children by denying them medical care in the belief that God will heal them through prayer. Here’s a smattering of recent stories, and I didn’t even have to try very hard to find them.

    Faith-Healing Churches Linked to 2 Dozen Child Deaths
    Living on a Prayer: Why Does God Kill So Many Children in Idaho?
    Faith-Healing Parents Jailed After Second Child’s Death
    Big list on HuffPo

    Of course, the believer could always argue that someone wasn’t healed because they didn’t have enough faith. It’s a common enough dodge; even Pat Robertson has engaged in it.

    But saying that the sufferer didn’t have enough faith is really just a way of blaming the victim. It allows people to believe that faith healing is real, even when it plainly doesn’t work.

    Supernaturalism is terrible at curing illness, but science has done a great job. Let’s see the totals for leprosy.

    Take a look at this video of a man who is getting his life and his autonomy back by the use of robotic arms that he can control with his thoughts. This is amazing. I see it as nothing less than new-testamental, in a way that the New Testament can’t match. This, after all, is publicly verifiable.

    Some people say God is responsible for medical progress. Isn’t it great of God to heal people at exactly the same time that scientists work out how to treat disease? Unless it’s really medical science doing it all, which seems to be a much more straightforward explanation.

    We still have a lot to learn about the body, and progress is sometimes frustratingly slow. But in the area of human health, medical science is doing the job that God has failed to do.

    Additional lesson ideas

    No exorcisms in John

    When you read the book of John, guess what you never see? You never see any exorcisms or cases of demonic possession. The reason is a bit of a mystery; Twelftree cites “theological considerations” which I assume means he thinks some compiler left it out on purpose. Or perhaps the synoptic texts (Matthew, Mark, Luke) just come from a different tradition that John.

    For whatever reason, it’s yet another way in which the gospels tell widely varying stories about Jesus, and this should cause the reader to regard these fragmentary accounts with skepticism.

    Walking on water

    This miracle has been difficult to duplicate by spiritual means. Here’s a story that’s both sad and hilarious. Sadlarious.

    Nigerian Pastor Tries To Walk On Water Like Jesus, Then Drowns In Front Of His Congregation
    Pastor Franck Kabele, 35, told his congregation that he was capable of reenacting the very miracles of Jesus Christ.  He decided to make it clear through way of demonstration on Gabon’s beach in the capital city of Libreville.
    Referencing Matthew 14:22-33, Kabele said that he received a revelation which told him that with enough faith he could achieve what Jesus was able to.
    According to an eyewitness, Kabele took his congregation out to the beach.  He told them that he would cross the Kombo estuary by foot, which is normally a 20 minute boat ride.
    Sadly by the second step into the water Kabele found himself completely submerged.  He never returned.

    I guess he didn’t have enough faith.

    On the other hand, it is possible to duplicate the feat by non-scientific means, at least well enough to fool you and me. Here’s illusionist Criss Angel doing it.

    Try one of the YouTube suggested links for an explanation of how he does it.

    And of course, with a little corn starch, you can walk across a non-Newtonian fluid.

    Science!

    Thank you for reading this week’s lesson. To finish our demonic theme, let’s have a closing hymn.

    See you next week.