Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: prayer doesn’t work

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.

BoM Lesson 14 (The Small Chapters)

“For a Wise Purpose”

Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show how the Book of Mormon gets it wrong.

Reading

There’s a little problem with the Book of Mormon. Actually, kind of a big problem.

You’re the writer. You want to start bringing lots of characters into your narrative. Maybe have some crowd scenes, with masses of people. But you’re only a generation or two removed from the original group of thirty-or-so characters. That means any new characters will be related, and you can’t have everyone asking: Hey, aren’t you Jacob’s grandson? And you’re going to have a population bottleneck anyway; people don’t reproduce that fast. But writing five or six generations’ worth of characters takes a lot of effort for a lazy scammer with a criminal record (Joseph Smith), and you’re hitting writer’s block anyway, ever since someone stole your 116-page rough draft.

Solution: Time to fast-forward. Just skim the next two hundred years, and pick it up again when things get interesting.

Jarom 5 And now, behold, two hundred years had passed away, and the people of Nephi had waxed strong in the land….

There, that ought to do it.

So that’s what this reading is about. But don’t worry — there’s enough here for a full lesson.

Book of Mormon structure

Let’s talk for a bit about how the parts of the Book of Mormon interlock.

Up to now, the Book of Mormon has mostly concerned the story of Nephi. It’s a ripping read (at least at first) because this was the writer’s second go at it. The first draft was destroyed when Joseph Smith let Martin Harris (who was after all providing the money for this, the sucker) borrow it to show his wife, who presumably burned it. You never let your first draft get out of your hands without photocopying it!

But the second draft was a keeper. A good argument for rewriting.

Now a few of the story threads are combining. Smith (or whoever) wrote an earlier migration into his story — a group that came from the supposed Tower of Babel. The last character alive from that group was called Coriantumr, and his story comes later, in the Book of Ether. But check it out — he makes a special guest appearance here! It brings the two groups together. What a great device.

Omni 20 And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God.
21 And they gave an account of one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people. And Coriantumr was discovered by the people of Zarahemla; and he dwelt with them for the space of nine moons.
22 It also spake a few words concerning his fathers. And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people; and the severity of the Lord fell upon them according to his judgments, which are just; and their bones lay scattered in the land northward.

So there are some very cool things happening in this reading.

“For a wise purpose”

Also something that’s kind of dumb. We also have a compiler character, Mormon, breaking in to tell us what he’s doing.

Words of Mormon 3 And now, I speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.
4 And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass —
5 Wherefore, I chose these things, to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall take from the plates of Nephi; and I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people.
6 But behold, I shall take these plates, which contain these prophesyings and revelations, and put them with the remainder of my record, for they are choice unto me; and I know they will be choice unto my brethren.
7 And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will.

In other words, Mormon is writing Nephi’s bit again, but doesn’t know why. But we do — the 116-page first draft got stolen.

So… God was able to preserve the gold plates, but he was unable to prevent someone from taking the manuscript of Nephi’s story, once it got translated into English. And God couldn’t just have it be translated again. So instead of doing any of those things, he decided to — hundreds of years ahead of time — get Mormon to etch out Nephi’s story again, when space on the plates was at a premium.

I can think of about 11 better ways that God could have recovered from the lost-116-pages problem, just off the top of my head.

  1. Tell Smith who took the 116 pages, and where they put them. Then get them back.
  2. Give whoever took the manuscript a heart attack before they could take it, like Uzzah and the ark.
  3. Send an angel with a sword to prevent Smith from giving Harris the rough draft, just like the angel that told Smith to marry teenagers.
  4. Send the angel with the sword to whoever took the 116 pages, and threaten them if they don’t give them back.
  5. Cause whoever took the 116 pages to not want to take them, like how God changed Pharaoh’s heart.
  6. Turn whoever took the 116 pages into an ally by appearing to them personally and explaining why the pages are so important.
  7. Get Smith to translate the 116 pages again from the plates that he still had. Come on, God, don’t be such a wuss. You can outsmart those bad guys.
  8. Simply inspire Smith to write Nephi’s section again, without the plates.
  9. Have an angel deliver the pages to Smith.
  10. Have the 116 pages magically appear on Smith’s desk. (“In his hat” says redditor shipl14. Impressive snark there!)
  11. Tell the post-mortal Nephi to go down and tell his story to Smith, Q-and-A style. An intimate interview with Nephi! Who wouldn’t go for that?

And that’s just off the top of my head! Throughout the church’s history, there have been so many ways that God could have not made Joseph Smith look like a total bullshitter, and he just didn’t do any of them. Instead, God decided to use a Rube God-berg solution — one that looks exactly like humans who don’t know what they’re doing.

Main ideas for this lesson

Enos

Enos was spending some time alone. He was used to doing this, as he got teased a lot about his name. Eeeeenos.

Enos 2 And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.
3 Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.
4 And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.
5 And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.
6 And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.

I tried this once as a young bloke. I suppose I was impressed by the story. I prayed for as long as I could, but nothing happened. Either I stopped too soon, or God’s imaginary. Maybe a bit of both.

Weaponry

Here’s Enos’s description of the Lamanites.

Enos 20 And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a bloodthirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat; and they were continually seeking to destroy us.

Harsh.

But cimeters and axes? Did they exist in the Americas during this time?

According to the Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, no. Metal working wouldn’t happen until the Late Classical Period (600–900 AD), and cimeters and axes wouldn’t be a part of it.

metal

See page 123 for more.

Who is a Lamanite?

Jarom writes that the Book of Mormon was written “for the intent of the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites”.

Jarom 2 And as these plates are small, and as these things are written for the intent of the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites, wherefore, it must needs be that I write a little; but I shall not write the things of my prophesying, nor of my revelations. For what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have not they revealed the plan of salvation? I say unto you, Yea; and this sufficeth me.

So who’s a Lamanite?

According to Joseph Smith and all the early brethren, the Lamanites were Native Americans. When they were called to teach the gospel to the Lamanites, where did they go? Straight to the Native Americans. There was no thought of going anywhere else.

This view persisted into the 1970s and 80s. Here’s an article in the Ensign, written by my own uncle, Dallas Burnett! Small world.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unique in its theological and philosophical understanding of the peoples in the Americas known as Indians and of the inhabitants of the Pacific islands. These people are a remnant of the House of Jacob and descendants of Lehi, an Israelite who left Jerusalem and came to the Americas around 600 B.C. Found in the Book of Mormon, a record of revelations received by these ancient peoples, are great promises for the Lamanites.

These prophetic promises prompted Joseph Smith, who translated and published the Book of Mormon in 1830, to carry the gospel to the Lamanites in the very early days of the Church’s existence. And from that day until this the gospel has been preached to those who are identified as Lamanites.

And Spencer Kimball, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve, said the same.

With pride I tell those who come to my office that a Lamanite is a descendant of one Lehi who left Jerusalem six hundred years before Christ and with his family crossed the mighty deep and landed in America. And Lehi and his family became the ancestors of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea, for in the middle of their history there were those who left America in ships of their making and went to the islands of the sea.

Not until the revelations of Joseph Smith, bringing forth the Book of Mormon, did any one know of these migrants. It was not known before, but now the question is fully answered. Now the Lamanites number about sixty million; they are in all of the states of America from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to Point Barrows, and they are in nearly all the islands of the sea from Hawaii south to southern New Zealand. The Church is deeply interested in all Lamanites because of these revelations and because of this great Book of Mormon, their history that was written on plates of gold and deposited in the hill.

Find more sources here:

who-and-where-are-the-lamanites

But research into DNA has falsified that claim. Native Americans are not Hebrews; they’re Asians.

There’s a lot of information (and disinformation) on this, but as a starting point, check out the blog of Simon Southerton, a biologist and former bishop.

Native American DNA reveals they are descended from Asian ancestors

Scientists studying Native American populations see no cultural or genetic connection between Old and New World populations. There is a broad consensus view among archaeologists, geologists and biologists, based on more than a century of excavating thousands of archaeological sites, that the New World was first populated at least fifteen thousand years ago, and possibly as early as twenty thousand years ago, by migrants from Asia. These people entered the Americas via a wide expanse of land—called Beringia—which connected northeastern Asia with northwestern North America during ice ages when sea levels were lower. These small groups of migrants soon exploited the richness of the “new world,” and their populations grew quickly and expanded across the North and South American continents over a few thousand years. There is widespread agreement among archaeologists that there is no evidence that the cultural developments unveiled in the archaeological record in the New World were in any way inspired by visitors or migrants from Africa, Europe, or Asia.

Simon’s interviews on Mormon Stories is worth a listen, as well.

So this is a problem. If you’re looking for an honest-to-goodness Lamanite — a descendent of Laman or Lemuel — there’s literally no one you can point to. Yet the Book of Mormon was meant to benefit the Lamanites. Suddenly it’s a book without its primary intended audience. So who was this all for again?

Apologists like Mike Ash argue that the term ‘Lamanite’ is actually a cultural term, and not necessarily a genetic one.

As discussed in an article earlier this year, the term “Lamanite” has at least three ways in which it can be understood: by genetics, by culture or through genealogy. My earlier articles on DNA and the Book of Mormon demonstrated that not all of one’s descendants will end up with the DNA genetic markers of one’s ancestors. So while the Native Americans of Joseph Smith’s local vicinity may be genetically descended from the Lehites, there is currently no way to demonstrate this link or the lack thereof.

My response: Thank goodness God sent us Mike Ash to sort Joseph Smith out. Funny how Smith got it so wrong, only being a prophet.

Geneticists have rejected Ash’s explanation.

Steel

Was there steel in the ancient Americas? The Book of Mormon says so.

Jarom 8 And we multiplied exceedingly, and spread upon the face of the land, and became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war — yea, the sharp pointed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all preparations for war.

But, as before, there’s no evidence of metallurgy during this period.

I got curious as to how you could make your own steel at home, and I found this page:

DIY Blacksmithing: Forge Your Own Steel at Home!

It looks pretty cool! Or hot, actually. It uses modern tools, and I’m not sure how it would work if you tried to substitute that kinds of tools you’d have around 300 BCE. And I’m no archaeologist, but I’m pretty sure that this would leave a small mountain of archaeological artifacts. Naturally, no such steel smelting site has been found.

Does language degenerate?

In the book of Omni, we find the earlier group of Hebrews. Notice what it says about language.

Omni 15 Behold, it came to pass that Mosiah discovered that the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon.
16 And they journeyed in the wilderness, and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth.
17 And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.

From the LDS manual:

Explain that the second half of the book of Omni, written by Amaleki, illustrates the importance of preserving the records by showing what happened to a people that had not preserved its records.
• Why were the people of Zarahemla (the Mulekites) so happy to see Mosiah and his followers? (See Omni 1:14.) What consequences did Amaleki imply had come to the Mulekites because they did not bring any records with them when they left Jerusalem? (See Omni 1:17. Their language had degenerated and they had lost the knowledge of Jesus Christ and His teachings.) How might we be affected if we did not have the scriptures? (See Mosiah 1:3–5.) How are we affected when we have the scriptures but do not study them?

So let’s look at the implications.

  • The people didn’t have written records.
  • As a result, their language “degenerated”.

As a linguist, I see a problem here. What does it mean for a language to “degenerate”? People sometimes talk about a language becoming “corrupted” or “bastardised”, but this is not a linguistically sound judgment. Languages change, but this process is neither good nor bad.

Also, even if they’d had written records, that wouldn’t stop language from changing. English has changed over a thousand years, despite having written records. What happens is that language changes, and then we change our writing system. Consider also Latin, and how it evolved into the Romance languages, despite their writing system. Language change is not something that can be halted, and in the very long term, everything is on the table.

This is another area where the Book of Mormon gets it wrong. Any being that would qualify as a god would have known this.

BoM Lesson 11 (Goodbye, Nephi)

“Press Forward with a Steadfastness in Christ”

2 Nephi 31–33

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To point out the way in which believers disparage and threaten non-believers

Reading

This is the last reading from the putative Nephi. After this reading, it’s Jacob, Omni, Himner, and Just-Make-Uppa-Name-from-Local-Geography.

I’ll say this: Nephi was a self-righteous pain in the ass, but he knew how to tell a good story. In this, he was quite unlike other Book of Mormon writers. So let’s us unbelievers send him off — not with the same finger he gives us in this reading — but with a vote of thanks. All those in favour signify with the uplifted hand.

All those opposed.

Hey, you’re not supposed to oppose.

Main ideas for this lesson

Why does God use language?

God, if he exists, has all power. He can do anything. He can communicate through our thoughts and our emotions.

But when it’s time to officially convey his perfect message to humankind in a book that could never be mistaken as something that a regular person would say, what does he use? Human language, just like a regular person of the the time would say. Nephi explains.

2 Nephi 31:3 For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.

That’s right — God could communicate clearly, but when it’s time to write the Book of Mormon, God decided to use a stilted form of Jacobean English — just like a person of the time. Because he communicates to us after our manner of understanding.

This is kind of stupid. With all the tools at his disposal, why would a god use human language? Don’t get me wrong — it’s a great tool. But it’s ambiguous and imprecise. It changes meaning with time, and the problem gets even worse over long distances. In either case, you need people to translate and interpret the holy writings, and that introduces more ambiguity. And some things will be incomprehensible anyway, to people who don’t share the context.

Let’s also remember: this is a god who cares so much about being clear to us — and yet when we ask believers why he allows evil, they tell us how incomprehensible his ways are.

Okay, the believer might respond, but what else could an all-powerful God use to communicate, if not language? Possibly telepathy. Maybe something else. I don’t know. But an all-knowing god would know, and yet he chooses to communicate poorly, vaguely, and ambiguously to humans.

Again, I love language, but this is not evidence of a transcendent being. This is a being that is indistinguishable from people. And a god that’s indistinguishable from a person is probably a person.

Baptism

Isn’t baptism kind of weird? Dunking yourself in water to join a group. Does it actually do anything cosmic? Or is it just to show that you’ll do something foolish to show the group that you’re a member?

Nephi says it’ll help you to speak other languages.

2 Nephi 31:11 And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son.
31:12 And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.
31:13 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism — yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.

Sounds a bit like that speaking in tongues to me.

But there’s a catch. If you join, don’t ever leave.

2 Nephi 31:14 But, behold, my beloved brethren, thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying: After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me.

I’d put it a bit differently: After you’ve been a member, and done the secret handshakes and all that jazz, it’s better to get out immediately than to waste five more minutes in that silly group.

But members HATE that! They’ve got to make it so that being an ex-member is worse than being a non-member.

Ask: Why do members fear ex-members so much?

Possible answers:

  • For occult religions (occult meaning “having hidden doctrines that are only revealed to initiates”), ex-members are sources of inside information about the inner workings.
  • Non-members may have no particular knowledge about the church, but ex-members do.
  • When you know the game, it’s easy to explain the problems.

Keep on grinding

But for Nephi, baptism isn’t all.

2 Nephi 31:19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
31:20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

“Enduring to the end”, or timing your church burnout to coincide with your death, is a priority for church members. But the use of the word endure does raise some eyebrows. It’s not the most appealing way to describe church activity, is it?

Even some church leaders have taken issue with the use of the word endure.
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This was something going around my stake just before my deconversion. My stake leaders (great men, some of them) recognised that the call to simply “endure” church membership was not very appealing, and they encouraged us to “enjoy to the end!”

Somehow this was not very convincing. Enjoy hours of repetitive meetings? Enjoy hours of arcane and repetitive temple sessions? Enjoy needless behavioural restrictions? Enjoy unnecessary sexual guilt? Enjoy ugly and dehumanising underwear? Enjoy forcing family members into an unrealistic structure? Enjoy misogyny? homophobia? cleaning the buildings for a church that bills you 10% for the pleasure?

Enjoy the cognitive dissonance of having to believe things that were manifestly untrue?

What exactly was the enjoyable bit again?

No, I think the word endure was well-chosen. Enduring is what long-term members have to do, if they’re going to stay in it.

And the way that members speak about this is rather strange. I have heard people say, “Hang on to your testimony! Don’t let it fade!”

But when something is true, you don’t need to keep pumping yourself up to keep believing it.

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Activity: Think of a scientific idea that you learned once — perhaps something you studied in school — but that you haven’t thought about for a long time. Do you still believe it? How is this different from a religious idea that you haven’t thought about for a long time?

For me, I haven’t thought of continental drift for a long time. It’s been literally decades since I studied it. Yet I still believe it’s true. My belief in this idea has not faded with time. How can that be?

Well, it’s simple — continental drift is supported by evidence (the last I heard), and I haven’t heard a better theory, so I still believe it. And if I wanted to pick it up again and remember more about it, I could do so — but this wouldn’t make me any more devoted to the idea.

Contrast this with religious ideas which have no evidentiary basis. If I ignore them, they become less credible because either contrary evidence pushes in, or the artificial pumping-up of faith loses its effect. Good! That’s what should happen.

Ideas need advocates, but only fake ideas need constant propping up against the tide of reality.

Distinguish Reality From Fiction

What Nephi says about unbelievers

I’ve given some answers as to why people stop believing. But Nephi has some different answers. Instead of blaming the bad ideas (like I’ve done), he puts the blame on the unbelievers. And the way he does this looks a lot like what Latter-day Saints say about unbelievers.

They don’t ask sincerely.

2 Nephi 32:4 Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
32:5 For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.

Once there was a guy named Jeremy. He had questions about the church, and he decided to ask them to an authority in the Church Education System. But he didn’t just ask them in private. He turned his questions into an open letter. It’s informally called the CES Letter.

Since then, many people have read the CES Letter, and have decided to make the break from the LDS Church. And Jeremy has been threatened with excommunication. (The hearing has been indefinitely postponed.)

Think about this for a second. Jeremy asked, and got no answers. He got threatened instead.

A member could raise the objection — as the fictional Nephi might have — that in putting together his letter, Jeremy wasn’t asking sincerely, and was just trying to make the church look bad. I’m not a mind-reader, so I don’t know. But consider this: the church could have stopped the CES Letter in its tracks by providing answers to his questions. Instead, they chose to threaten him. Which suggests to me that they have no answers.

They don’t pray

2 Nephi 32:8 And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.
32:9 But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.

As I’ve said in an earlier lesson, prayer does nothing. Is an evil spirit telling me this? Or is it just long years of mumbling to the ceiling?

They have hard hearts

2 Nephi 33:1 And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
33:2 But behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught.

This is blaming the listener when the speaker doesn’t make any sense.

So what to do with unbelievers? Predictably, threaten them.

2 Nephi 33:10 And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.

I don’t think these words are from anyone called Christ. I think someone sat down and wrote them. What evidence can someone give?

2 Nephi 33:11 And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye — for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.

Boy, then you’ll be sorry!

This is known as the argumentum ad baculum, or argument from threat.

I love this one! Members use it all the time. “You’re going to be in big trouble if you don’t mend your ways,” said a long-standing member to me.

“I don’t like being threatened,” I said.

“It’s not a threat,” he responded. “It’s just a simple statement of what’s going to happen.”

Get that? I’m not threatening you; I’m just telling you what my invisible friend is going to do to you if you don’t believe like I do.

It’s a threat all the same.

Additional lesson ideas

Inadvertent trinity

We’ve seen that the author of the Book of Mormon was a pretty solid trinitarian, and here’s another scripture where he steps in it.

2 Nephi 31:21 And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.

One in purpose! Harrumph, harrumph.

See you next week.

NT Lesson 35 (2 Corinthians)

“Be Ye Reconciled to God”

2 Corinthians

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to be charitable toward those with whom we disagree.

Reading

Paul’s back for another go at the Corinthians.

Main ideas for this lesson

Does prayer help?

Paul starts off by thanking the Corinthians for their prayers.

2 Corinthians 1:11 Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf.

Here’s some explanation from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:

Paul thanked the Saints who had prayed for him and Timothy in their time of adversity (2 Corinthians 1:11). Why is it important for us to pray for each other? How have the prayers of others blessed you or someone you know? How are we blessed when we pray for others?

Presumably, God knows what everyone needs. Yet he needs to be constantly reminded who needs help. So either he doesn’t remember whom to bless, or he know and he doesn’t care to do it until enough people beg him.

I made a cartoon on this topic. At the time, I was thinking of how strange it was that Mormons would not only pray for someone, but — if you needed to bring out the big guns — write down someone’s name and put it in a temple. What’s the difference? Why would one work better than the other? It’s a question I still wonder about.

But who needs a temple? Prayer alone is useless enough as it is.

Unbelievers are blind.

Ask: Why don’t some people believe in God or Jesus or the church?
Possible answers:

  • They find that there’s no evidence for the claims.
  • They tried it, but didn’t like it.
  • Thy didn’t think it was relevant for their life.

There may be any number of valid reasons not to believe. But not in Paul’s world. For Paul, if someone doesn’t believe, they are blind.

2 Corinthians 3:12 Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech:
3:13 And not as Moses, which put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished:
3:14 But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ.
3:15 But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.
3:16 Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.

It’s even worse than that. They may be affected by Satan, the “god of this world”.

2 Corinthians 4:3 But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
4:4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

This is a really unhelpful and disrespectful way of reasoning.

It might come as a surprise that I should say this, when I have an entire blog (or two) devoted to pillorying religious belief. How can I talk about respecting belief?

It’s like this: there are beliefs, and there are people. People should be respected, but beliefs need to be examined without mercy.

Religious people often conflate the two. They think I’m being disrespectful to them when what I’m really doing is speaking out against the belief. That usually means they’ve identified too closely with their beliefs. They’ve essentially traded their own goals and identity for that of the religion. At times, this demand for respect is an attempt to silence opposition.

To sum up, I draw a distinction between ideas and people. So notice the difference:

  • When I say that someone is wrong on religion, I’m saying the ideas are wrong, and they are mistaken.
  • When Paul says that someone is wrong on religion, they are somehow under satanic agency.

In this situation, how can a believing Mormon respect their spouse who no longer believes, when their views are considered not only wrong, but somehow evil? How can a parent have a relationship with a child who sees no need for the religion under these circumstances?

Ask: If you are an unbeliever, how can you do better than Paul did?
Answers:

  • We can see believers as good people with whom we disagree.
  • We can refrain from saying that believers are stupid, remembering that we weren’t stupid when we believed. We just relied on some very human forms of reasoning. We wanted to defend our beliefs — we were told over and over again that beliefs must be defended.

Paul’s accusation of others as blind is particularly galling when he admits that his own approach is to walk by faith, and not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:6 Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:
5:7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight🙂

And to make it worse, he puts a smiley after it. Full points for being on the cutting edge of online trends, but really, Paul.

It gets even worse. Paul advises against having relationships with unbelievers.

2 Corinthians 6:14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
6:15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?

Ask: What does Paul’s final question mean in modern English: “What part hath he that believeth with an infidel?”
Answer: It might mean something like “What agreement can they have? How can they have any common ground?”

Isn’t it telling that religious beliefs make it difficult to find common ground? Paul can’t imagine how it could be done. Fake belief systems cause division.

This kind of separation is absolutely necessary to maintain the fragile bubble of faith. When a belief has no evidentiary support, it’s difficult to keep believing it, and it needs a carefully controlled environment to maintain it. Merely speaking against it can be enough to make that bubble pop. This is why believers are so touchy about criticism of their beliefs. They know the belief can’t sustain scrutiny, and they’re trying very hard to keep that bubble.

I have found that, while it can be difficult relating to someone on the opposite side of a faith divide, it’s much easier from the unbelieving side. I think they’re wasting their time, but at least I don’t believe that there will be any eternal consequences (torture or isolation) for them. On the other hand, the believer seems to approach the matter with a great deal of anxiety for the eternal soul of their friend or family member. What a lot of unnecessary suffering.

Godly sorrow

You know what I really hate about the LDS Church? It takes normal things and, by outlawing them, makes them a source of guilt and shame.

It’s good to feel bad about rotten things we do, but it’s not great to invent sins and make people feel bad about them.

Daniel Dennett mentions this in his talk, “How to Tell You’re an Atheist”.

At about 6:45 –

“As you know, we atheists are a happy lot. We’re deeply moral but we don’t have a mountain of artificial guilt. We do feel guilty about our misdeeds but we don’t consider them sins.”

On the other hand, Paul is glad when people feel guilty in ways that work for him.

2 Corinthians 7:8 For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.
7:9 Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.
7:10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.

From the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:

What is the difference between godly sorrow and “the sorrow of the world”? Why is godly sorrow an important part of repentance?
President Spencer W. Kimball explained: “If one is sorry only because someone found out about his sin, his repentance is not complete. Godly sorrow causes one to want to repent, even though he has not been caught by others, and makes him determined to do right no matter what happens. This kind of sorrow brings righteousness and will work toward forgiveness” (Repentance Brings Forgiveness [pamphlet, 1984], 8).

Well, I agree that if you’ve done something wrong, it’s not great if you feel bad just because you got caught.

Let’s turn our discussion to the behaviour of the LDS Church. For decades, it has been intentionally fuzzy about its past (to put it kindly). It has promoted a sanitised, feel-good version of its history. When others have published the facts, they have been dismissed as anti-Mormon lies. At times, the church has “flashed” the facts here and there, in ways that would not attract a lot of attention. This has allowed apologists to claim that the facts were always out there, and if people hadn’t noticed them, this was due to their lack of diligence.

That tactic only worked when information was scarce. But in our age of information, people have learned facts about the church that they didn’t hear in church. And so now that enough people are leaving to affect the bottom line, the church has finally begun to open up a little about its past. Not in advertising this information, but by producing what can only be described as apologetic essays, anonymous and unpublicised.

Discuss: Is the church trying to be honest about its past, and do better? Or is it just trying to get its version of the story out there? If the latter, how is this different from someone who feels bad because they got caught?

Additional lesson ideas

Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”

According to 2 Corinthians, Paul had an unspecified infirmity. The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual says:

• Paul said that the Lord gave him an infirmity — a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Why did the Lord give Paul this infirmity? (See 2 Corinthians 12:7.) What did Paul learn when the Lord did not take away his “thorn in the flesh” as he had asked? (See 2 Corinthians 12:8–10.) How can our weaknesses help us receive strength from Jesus Christ? (See Ether 12:27.) How have you seen the truth of Paul’s statement that “when I am weak, then am I strong”?

Here’s the scripture that pertains.

2 Corinthians 12:6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.
12:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
12:8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

So what was Paul’s infirmity? It’s possible that it had something to do with his eyes, as he says to the Galatians:

Galatians 4:15 Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.

On the other hand, a friend of mine takes the view that, with Paul’s hatred of women, it was probably something only fixable recently with a little blue pill.

Satan is allowed to impersonate angels of light

Here’s an odd scripture to finish on.

2 Corinthians 11:13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
11:14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.

Let’s consider the context. Paul is trying to lead a church of people with lots of differing views. It must have been a challenge to retain his leadership! After all, anyone could claim thy’d received a vision from an angel of light, and place themselves over Paul.

When you’re in that position, what do you do? You tell people not to believe their experiences, and to believe yours instead. And this is what Paul does.

The problem is that by saying this, Paul is admitting that God’s plan is so confusing that satanic agents are allowed to impersonate divine ones. God maybe should have rethought that.

NT Lesson 24 (The Holy Ghost)

“This Is Life Eternal”

John 16–17

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To help readers avoid emotional reasoning.

Reading

In the reading for this lesson, Jesus talks about the Holy Ghost. Since speaking against the Holy Ghost is inexplicably the worst, most unpardonable sin you can commit, I’ll be doing lots of it in this lesson.

Main ideas for this lesson

Holy the Ghost

Some people say that religion fills a need, and I suppose that’s true in a rather sad way: it tries to give people things that life doesn’t. One Christian evangelist revealed one of his angles to me: when he meets people without a strong father figure in their life, he pushes the angle of “God is your father”. Voilá; insta-dad.

Ask: Is that comforting, or just manipulative and awful?

In the same way, people who don’t have a lot of friends might be drawn to the idea of having a “constant companion”, which is how Mormons often describe the Holy Ghost.

Here’s a swag of times where the phrase constant companion has turned up in General Conference. The phrase has been coming up more and more lately. (Try your own searches here.)

And in John, Jesus calls the Holy Ghost “the comforter”. But he mentions another function:

John 14:26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

The Holy Ghost will teach you all things? Like as in: all things?

John 16:13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.

Note that there are no caveats as to the kind of truth one can learn from the Holy Ghost. It’s not just spiritual things you can learn by the Spirit; it’s all truth and all things.

We can submit this claim to some skeptical analysis.

Object lesson for class
Here’s a test you can use for comparing the efficacy of the Spirit as a revealer of truth: Have two class members work out the digits of π to some level of precision. One class member gets to use science and technology — math books, web sites, and an ordinary computer — and the other has to use the Spirit. How accurate was each method? I predict the second class member will be right no more than random chance. And it’s no use trying to fudge it and say that the digits of π “aren’t important to your salvation”. Jesus makes no such qualifications in the scripture.

(If this test is not suitable for your class, feel free to substitute any other sort of fact that can be easily verified, and for which answers can be unambiguously right or wrong. Another suggestion is blood type. How accurately can a very spiritual person tell the blood type of various individuals, using revelation? Be sure to have several testing kits on hand.)

There really are no “other ways of knowing”. Science is the only way of knowing. Observing carefully, making predictions, testing them, observing some more — this is the only way we have of knowing something, and even then it’s darn hard. Everything we think is at least a little bit wrong. How could anyone think that communicating with a spirit can do better than science? If it’s hard to get it right with all that careful work, what chance does anyone have mumbling to a ghost?

If you think you know “another way of knowing”, please tell me, because science is hard.

Not only is the Holy Ghost not great at the “revealing truth” part of his job, he’s also terrible at offering companionship. Ask someone their definition of a true friend, and you’re likely to hear that it’s someone who sticks with you through thick and thin, through good times and bad.

Well, the Holy Ghost isn’t that kind of companion. Apparently the Holy Ghost takes off the second you have a lapse in behaviour, or even temperament.

This is not really a dependable companion. Which is why I say: Piss off, little ghost. I have human friends that are more dependable, and a whole lot better at teaching me things.

How to feel the Holy Ghost

Here’s what the LDS manual says about how to feel the Holy Ghost:

To help class members feel and recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost, speak with a few of them in advance, inviting each of them to choose one of the following presentations to do as part of the lesson:

a. Read a favorite scripture passage.
b. Bear testimony.
c. Sing a hymn or Primary song about the Savior.
d. Express love for Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
e. Share a spiritual experience (as appropriate).

In class, invite class members to describe how they felt during the presentations. Read the statement by President Boyd K. Packer on pages 99–100, and help class members recognize feelings that come from the Holy Ghost. Talk about how you feel when you receive guidance from the Holy Ghost.

What a show: the Gospel Doctrine teacher is supposed to get people to do soppy vulnerable things in front of everyone, and then hope that a collective soppy vulnerable mood ensues. What’s amazing is that it works so often.

After all the things I’ve done in church and all the experiences I’ve had, people still invite me to church hoping that I’ll have some kind of creepy, weepy “spiritual experience”. If I did feel something, that wouldn’t prove the veracity of the church. It would prove that I was capable of emotional reasoning. It would also show that my body can produce oxytocin and other chemicals, which is nice, but hardly evidence for supernatural claims.

Again, from the LDS manual.

President Boyd K. Packer taught: “The Holy Ghost speaks with a voice that you feel more than you hear. It is described as a ‘still small voice.’ And while we speak of ‘listening’ to the whisperings of the Spirit, most often one describes a spiritual prompting by saying, ‘I had a feeling . . .’ . . . Revelation comes as words we feel more than hear” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 77; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 60).

Emotional reasoning is a bad way of reasoning, but in the LDS Church, ideas verified only by emotion are considered to be the highest form of evidence that there is.

Show the class this video featuring LDS apostle Jeffrey Holland.

Noting that the sun was going down, we decided that we’d better get back. But we came back to a particular fork in the road, really the only one that at that point was absolutely unrecognizable. I asked my son to pray about which road to take, and he felt strongly that we should go to the right, and I did as well. And we went to the right, and it was a dead end. We went four or five or six hundred yards and it was an absolute dead end, clearly the wrong road.

“Turned around, came back out, took the other road. And clearly the road to the left was the correct road.

“Somewhere along the way, Matt said, ‘Dad, why did we feel, after praying about it, that the right road was the proper one to take, the correct one to take, and it wasn’t?’”

Ask: When the Holy Ghost failed to lead him and his son in the right direction, despite them being sure that they had a confirmation, what should Holland have done if he’d had any intellectual honesty?
Answer: He should have admitted that this method failed in this instance.

Holland continues:

And I said, ‘I think that the Lord, His wish for us there and His answer to our prayer was to get us on the right road as quickly as possible with some reassurance, with some understanding that we were on the right road and we didn’t have to worry about it. And in this case, the easiest way to do that was to let us go 400 yards or 500 yards on the wrong road and very quickly know without a doubt that it was the wrong road and, therefore, with equal certainty, with equal conviction that the other one was the right road.’

Ask: What did Holland do instead to rationalise this failure?
Answer: Claim that the failure was a success! The Lord led them the wrong way to a dead end, so they could be more certain that the right way was indeed right.

This story with its explanation is, quite frankly, astounding. Before Holland gave this talk, if you had a spiritual revelation, you could be pretty sure that what you were told to do was the right thing. Now, post-Holland, you have no idea. Now, a spiritual prompting could be taking you the wrong way, and you won’t know it until you hit a dead end. Is a spiritual prompting to, say, join the Mormon Church leading you to a dead end, and the Lord is helping you be more certain of the right way when you eventually leave?

If you get a hit, your faith is confirmed. if you get a miss, your faith is confirmed more. This is the definition of blind faith. Someone on r/exmormon (can’t find at the moment) said it well: An eye that responds the same to light and darkness is a blind eye. A faith that responds the same way to both confirmation and disconfirmation is blind faith. It is a terrible method. It is just asking to be fooled. We need to make life decisions using good methods and good information.

In the world but not of the world

It’s very common to hear this little aphorism in church, and it’s based more or less on this scripture.

John 17:14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

From the LDS manual:

How can we, like Jesus and his Apostles, live in the world and be “not of the world”? (John 17:14; see also verses 15–16).
Elder M. Russell Ballard said:

“In the Church, we often state the couplet, ‘Be in the world but not of the world.’ As we observe television shows that make profanity, violence, and infidelity commonplace and even glamorous, we often wish we could lock out the world in some way and isolate our families from it all. . . .”

With so much violence in the world, isn’t it kind of sweet and touching that he’s concerned about fictional representations of violence? Anyway.

Ask: What function could this idea serve?

This idea works to create a “scary external world” narrative that will ensure that members get their information, their values, and their positive feels only from church. Not only does this foster a “bunker mentality” that keeps members worried about “the world” and therefore likely to remain in the church orbit, it makes it very difficult for Latter-day Saints to appreciate or even recognise the morality of people in the broader community. And this is important for keeping the brand afloat. If people in “the world” are not uniformly lost and wounded, but have morals similar to — and in some cases, superior to — the rather narrow tribalistic morality taught in the LDS Church, this challenges the idea that Mormon morality is superior and divine.

Additional lesson ideas

I’m Jesus: AMFA

Again, Jesus says that whatever you ask for he’ll give you.

John 16:23 And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.

It has occurred to me that perhaps this referred to the disciples only. In that case, it seems kind of strange that they didn’t ask Jesus for some very sensible things, like not being crucified upside-down or not being shot through with arrows. But then the disciples were not the sharpest people ever.

NT Lesson 23 (Last Supper)

“Love One Another, As I Have Loved You”

Luke 22:1–38; John 13–15

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show readers that Jesus is neither the way, the truth, nor the life.

Reading

Things are starting to come apart for Jesus and the Disciples. One member of the group is thinking of going solo, due to creative differences. The rest of the disciples are hiding out with Jesus during Passover, which — as you’ll remember — is a celebration of the time Jehovah killed a bunch of children because he disagreed with Egypt’s immigration policy.

While there, Jesus starts a tradition called the sacrament, which was originally Jesus’ flesh and blood, but thanks to latter-day revelation is now white bread and room-temperature tap water.

The centrepiece of this reading is a rambling, incoherent discourse in which Jesus lies to his followers about the power of prayer, says some nice things about love, and opens up about his relationship with his dad. So let’s get to that.

Main ideas for this lesson

Sacrament

Here’s where Jesus encourages ritual cannibalism.

Luke 22:17 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:
22:18 For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.
22:19 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
22:20 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

You might remember that Jesus explained this earlier, in more blood-curdling terms.

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.

Mormons quite sensibly refrain from interpreting this literally.

Unlike our Catholic friends, who think it’s very literal. Some Catholics threatened noted atheist PZ Myers with violence when he floated the idea of desecrating a cracker.

That’s right. Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker.

I find this all utterly unbelievable. It’s like Dark Age superstition and malice, all thriving with the endorsement of secular institutions here in 21st century America. It is a culture of deluded lunatics calling the shots and making human beings dance to their mythical bunkum.

So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart.

The episode became known as Crackergate, and the resulting brouhaha surrounding the disrespect of a cracker is indicative of the fervour that believers are able to generate, and the madness of supernatural belief.

Washing of feet and the Second Anointing

Washing someone’s feet seems like a strange thing to do, though it could be symbolic of an act of service. Jesus strips down, and makes with the towel.

John 13:4 He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.
13:5 After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
13:6 Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?
13:7 Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.
13:8 Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
13:9 Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.
13:10 Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.

The JST erroneously claims that this was a Mosaic ritual, but no record of this exists.

Some Latter-day Saints may not realise this, but foot-washing is part of a semi-secret (sorry, sacred) and recently rebooted ritual called the Second Anointing. One man who has undergone this ritual, Tom Phillips, has spoken out about it. His interview with John Dehlin is long, but worth the listen.

Love

Modern Christians agree: If there’s one thing Jesus was all about, it was the lerv.

John 13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
13:35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

Love, love, love. (Except when Jesus is condemning people to eternal punishment for not believing in him.)

I like love, and I’m glad there’s something in the Bible about loving people. But in the end, it doesn’t matter to believers. Whenever you have a common belief or practice that contradicts scripture, the common belief or practice wins every time.

There’s a function to these ‘love’ verses. I liken it to poison. If you want to poison an animal, you can’t just throw it the poison and hope it eats it. You have to hide the poison in some kind of food the animal will like. In the same way, these ‘love’ scriptures provide cover for the nastier bits — of which there are plenty — so that people will gulp them down while they’re gulping down the good bits.

Anything?

Ask: Were there any restrictions or conditions on what Jesus would let people do if they believed in him?
Answer: Nope.

John 14:12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
14:13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
14:14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

And:

John 15:6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
15:7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

It would only be later, when people realised that it wasn’t working, that they would lard Jesus’ promise up with conditions and out-clauses. We’ll see those in future lessons.

Friendship and obedience

Jesus continues:

John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

I think this might be true, and we can search for lots of heartbreaking examples of heroic people who have paid with their lives to try to rescue others. Click this link for a Google search of all the latest examples of human courage in action.

What’s different is that, unlike Jesus, many of these people died without a belief that they would live again, and they did it anyway. It makes Jesus, with a knowledge of his immortality, seem cheap by comparison. (We’ll see in a following lesson how Jesus’ sacrifice would not have been a sacrifice at all.)

But then Jesus cheapens the moment further with this gem:

John 15:14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

“If you want to be my friend, you have to do everything I command you.” Seriously, what kind of friendship depends on one-sided obedience? That’s not a friendship; that’s a master-and-servant relationship.

Persecution complex

Many people belong to organisations or movements they consider to be “true”. That leads to a conflict: If the movement is so obviously true, why don’t more people accept it? For conspiracy theorists, the answer usually has something to do with sheeple being stupid and so on. But Jesus has an answer: they hate you because they hated me.

John 15:18 If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.
15:19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

And if they hate Jesus, then they hate God.

John 15:23 He that hateth me hateth my Father also.

So that means that by the transitive property: if they hate you, they hate God. Get the picture? And so Christians comfort themselves by thinking, “They don’t hate us; they hate God.”

Unless you’re a very special kind of stupid, in which case you take it to the next level: Rejection of God = hatred of God = evidence that it’s true!

I don’t hate concepts, but if I did, it would be because they’re noxious and harmful. Gods are a lot more harmful than leprechauns — partially due to the fact that more people believe in them — and that’s why I single out theism for special treatment.

Actually, I do hate leprechauns.

Additional lesson ideas

Then why did you tell me?

If someone hears the word and rejects it, then they’re condemned.

John 15:22 If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin.

That means missionaries — by their own logic — are doing little more than walking around condemning everyone they communicate with. What kind of irresponsible jerk does that?

Contradictions: Cock

Jesus said that the cock would crow once before Peter denied him.

John 13:37 Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
13:38 Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.

Unless you’re in Mark, in which case the cock would crow twice.

Mark 14:30 And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.

There have been attempts to explain this, but this is just papering over the contradiction.

I do not care whether ancient readers would have considered the cock crowing stories contradictory; I care whether we can regard all four as consistent with reality.

Contradictions: Demonic possession

Funny thing about John: he never mentions Satanic possession. In the other three gospels and Acts, you’ve got evil spirits infesting people all the time — it was how they explained mental illness. Not in John. No exorcisms there.

But there is one story with a good old-fashioned possession: when Satan “enters into” Judas. The only problem is when this happened. In Luke, it happens early on, when Judas first meets with the chief priests.

Luke 22:3 Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve.
22:4 And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them.
22:5 And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money.
22:6 And he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.

But in John, it happens at the Last Supper.

John 13:23 Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
13:24 Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.
13:25 He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?
13:26 Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
13:27 And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.

WHICH IS IT CHRISTIANITY

The story of Judas raises the question of theological determinism, which asks: If God knows what’s going to happen, do we still have agency?

God’s willing that Allison take the dog for a walk is thus necessary and sufficient for Allison taking the dog for a walk. But if this is true, it is hard to see how Allison could have free will.

So is Judas responsible for betraying Jesus, when that event was foretold by a god who can’t be wrong? Foreknowledge precludes agency.

People sometimes tell me: No, it doesn’t. Just because God knows what’s going to happen doesn’t mean that he’s making it happen. It could just be that God knows our tendencies perfectly well, and so can predict with perfect accuracy what we’re going to do, without causing us to do it.

To which I would respond: It doesn’t matter how he knows it. If he knows for any reason that Allison will walk her dog, and he is never wrong, then Allison will be unable to not walk her dog. Agency is curtailed by foreknowledge.

In Judas’s case, the problem is especially vexing because not only was it (supposedly) predicted that someone would betray Jesus, the entire plan more or less depended on Jesus being betrayed. Judas was helping the whole plan come off.

As for this latter point, the Bible has it covered. It seems that even if you do what was prophesied — something which someone had to do — you’ll still get punished if it’s you.

Luke 22:22 And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!

What we have, then, is a god who punishes people for enabling a plan which the god himself put into motion. This is unjust.

That being the case, it seems that Judas’s image is undergoing a renovation.

As a result of this, many within the Church (and a significant number within the Roman Catholic Church) are now calling for Judas to be finally made a saint. Of course, there is still great controversy over this but one day this may well happen. However, whether or not Judas is made a saint on earth, there are a significant number of Christians who believe that, along with the rest of the disciples, he is now in God’s nearer presence as a result of God’s grace and forgiveness, and as a result of his doing God’s will, at great cost to himself – and his reputation – over the last 2000 years.

Let’s finish with a closing hymn. There’s a very sweet image in this reading, depicting the relationship between Jesus and John.

John 13:23 Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.

So it seems fitting to listen to “John My Beloved” by Sufjan Stevens. Not that it’s that topical, but it’s a really beautiful and sad album, and I happen to be listening to it with my son as I’m typing this. Happy Sunday.

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.