Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mormon Encounters: Part 2 - Reading the BoM

My Mormon Encounters saga continues...
Part 1: First Meeting
Part 2: Reading the Book of Mormon 
Part 3: Going to Mormon Church
Part 4: Mormon Battalion & General Conference
Part 5: The Missionary Sisters
Part 6: A Talk Among Friends
Part 7: Adam and Free Agency
Part 8: To the Investigators
Part 9: To the Missionaries
At the end of their first visit the sisters asked that I read the introduction part to the Book of Mormon (BoM) before their 2nd visit a week later. As the thing is only a page long, I managed a tad better and read that along with the testimonies of Joseph Smith, the three witnesses and the eight witnesses as well. If you are so inclined, you can access them online here.

Basically, the introduction claims that the BoM is a holy scripture on the par with the Christian Bible, that it is a historical record of god's dealings with the Jewish tribes that became the ancestors of the native American Indians, that it contains 'the fullness of the everlasting gospel', was first recorded etched onto golden plates that were hidden for over a thousand years and then only revealed in 1823 to a young American boy (14 yrs old) named Joseph Smith - who was given this special power to translate its writing into English... And that one would realize that what is written in this book is true if one - 'in faith' - asks god in the name of Christ in prayer to verify it. Then there are 2 sets of testimonies signed by 3 and 8 witnesses claiming that they were shown the golden plates and verifying that they were etched in a curious ancient language, which they thought evidenced that they were from god as Joseph Smith Jr had claimed. The witnesses were: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith Sr, Hyram Smith, and Samuel H Smith.
So... before even seeing what the BoM has to say, there are already some serious question marks popping up in its introduction and witness testimonies. I'm always a bit wary when a religious text is presented as a historical record whose authenticity can only be affirmed through prayer 'in faith'. 'In faith' is curious operative clause; you are basically asked to first want to believe in the premise of the book before praying/meditating on it. As a relatively fair-minded person I will readily consent to wanting to find out what is really true and what is not in my examination of something, but it is utterly contradictory to intellectual integrity to willfully pre-accept a certain outcome before even embarking on any experiment. Asking me to want to find if the book is true or not is fair. Asking me to want to believe the book to be true isn't.

The assertion that the American Indians were descendants of Jewish tribes that sailed in from the Middle East seems quite fantastic. I did fairly well in history at school and had never heard of such story. With modern DNA ancestral tracing this seems an easy claim to verify. I waited until after our 2nd meeting before checking up on it (and on the other stuff) and haven't been able to find any supportive evidence for it. Rather, all the evidence unearthed so far point toward the Far Eastern Asians rather than the Middle Eastern Jews as the first people to populate the Americas. Am I really being asked to think that all the historians and archeologists from the days of Joseph Smith Jr onward have been indulging in a massive conspiracy to cover up the true origin of the American Indians in refusing to teach about this supposed ancient immigration of Jews to the Americas? But really! These missionary sisters are well spoken college-educated ladies. How could they not realize the preposterousness of this twistory? What exactly are they teaching in history classes at Brigham Young University (BYU)???

In the next to last paragraph, the introduction asserts that;
"We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost. (See Moroni 10: 3-5.)"
Now... what is wrong with this picture? It sets about a fixed formula that purports to only yield one valid result when in fact the alternative result is at least equally valid. It also sets up a default technical exculpation if you do not get the result that whoever wrote this thing wants you to get (which is to find the message in the book to be true). If you ponder on the book and find it faulty, the author will not accept that as a valid verdict on the book's message. He will instead blame your undesired finding on whether or not you had properly 'asked god in the name of christ' (it isn't such an easy thing for any person with integrity to sincerely do when you realize very early on that the information the book espouses is false), or on you not having had enough 'faith' when you ponder on it. In short, you have to want to believe in order to believe. And if you don't believe, then it's your fault for not having wanted to believe badly enough...

But why should anyone want to believe the Book of Mormon to be true in the first place? And why should the 'want to believe' be a prerequisite in making something believable... if that something is in fact true? Being an avid opera fan I am well acquainted with willful suspension of disbelief, but opera is not a religion, at least not one that requires the monthly membership due of 10% of my gross personal income along with a lot of time and labor answering church callings (having been around the Mormons and their church for just a month and I already get a strong feeling that this is one really intrusive church that doesn't have much respect for anyone's privacy). Truth is truth regardless of whether one wants to believe it or not, and the same goes for untruth.

The quote from Moroni 10: 3-5 will pop up regularly in my discussions with the sisters. They are utterly convinced that I will find what is written in the BoM to be true -- if only I pray in faith about it. There is a bit of a gentle but persistent cultural clash between us. I don't like to make any positive assertion about anything before I have looked at and eliminated the other competing possibilities. And even after having eliminated all the other possibilities that I could think of, I still hesitate to claim absolute certainty about many things (what if the truth lies in the possibility in which my limited mind hadn't thought of yet?). Theirs is a certainty-oriented church culture. While I'm waiting to see where the evidence would lead me, they already know where they want to go regardless of what the evidence says. I have been down that road once already. And once is more than enough for me...

The sisters are also seemingly operating under the assumptions that believing in their gospel is something others would readily want to do and that non-Mormons long to be happier in their lives. It quite threw Sister Stetig off her game plan to find that her positive promise of 'more happiness' upon subscribing to the LDS church elicited no interest from me whatsoever. Sure, I could be more financially well-off and more healthy, but I'm doing fine, have many wonderful friends, and can physically function without requiring assistance - something many who are more deserving than me aren't enjoying). I was raised in a Buddhistic environment where contentment is valued over ambition, so it isn't in my nature to aspire or to want more than what I already have). I mean... when you are already happy, what do you care about being 'happier' anyway? Should I also mention something about the folly of promising something whose delivery one has no control of?

Then came the testimonies of 11 witness who were evidently made up of only two extended families; the Smiths and the Whitmers (after the 2nd meeting with the missionaries I finally got online to fact check and found out that apparently Mr Cowdery, Mr Harris, and Mr Page were also married into the Whitmer clan, and that none of the witnesses were any expert on ancient archeology or anthropology). Really, what does that say about the golden plates' credibility when their only witnesses were friends and family members of the person who claimed their existence but can no longer physically prove it? So, I wondered about the gold plates. If they exist, then surely they must have been examined by neutral parties and now serve as concrete evidence for the truth of Mormonism? Perhaps they are even on display at a museum or at a Mormon temple?

Alas... the aptly if unfortunately named angel Moroni took the plates with him back to heaven, leaving us with no physical proof whatsoever of the existence of the plates let alone the writing on it. We are back to square one with being asked to take it on faith that the claim of Joseph Smith Jr and his then inner circle (all the witnesses later fell out with him and were ex-communicated. Some rejoined the church and some never turned back) is true basically because Joseph Smith claims it to be true... 

So, what of the writing in the BoM itself? Share a taste of my frustration, my friends. I have such a hard time staying with the book that after a few weeks I have only managed to read 16 chapters out of the first book (1 Nephi) and 3 more from Alma. Here is how 1 Nephi begins:
"I, Nephi, having been aborn of bgoodly cparents, therefore I was dtaught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many eafflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a frecord of my proceedings in my days.
 Yea, I make a record in the alanguage of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.
 And I know that the record which I make is atrue; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.
 For it came to pass in the commencement of the afirst year of the reign of bZedekiah, king of Judah, (my father, Lehi, having dwelt at cJerusalem in all his days); and in that same year there came many dprophets, prophesying unto the people that they must erepent, or the great city fJerusalem must be destroyed.
 Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his aheart, in behalf of his people.
 And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a apillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did bquake and tremble exceedingly. (1 Nephi 1:1-6)"
And it goes on and on like that. Whoever it was that wrote the book simply would not tell any story in three sentences if he could fit in 50. And all this was supposedly etched first onto brass and then onto golden plates rather than written on papers? You would think that the ancient Jewish American Indians with their primitive tools would try to be concise, wouldn't you? That first Nephi could have saved himself many brass plates if he would only refrain from starting his many repetitive paragraphs with 'And it came to pass that.'

Not only that (and the obviously odd details like how Nephi's Jewish father could have Egyptian as his language when he supposedly spent 'all of his days' in Jerusalem - this supposedly happened 600 or so years before Jesus came along - when the language spoken there at that time would have been Hebrew), the stories in the books are far from original. The sisters got all enthusiastic in telling me about the conversion of Alma the Older this week without seemingly realizing how the story is nearly exactly the same as the conversion of Saul into Paul the Evangelist in the New Testament. Whenever a story is cited from the BoM, I've heard an earlier version of it from somewhere in the Bible. I'm not talking about similarity in pathos or teachings here, but on actual stories that seemed lifted wholesale with only minor changes (sometimes only the names of people involved and the setting were changed)! This seems to me more a case of plagiarism than one of divine revelation.
Joseph Smith Jr being tarred and feathered by an angry mob led by dissenting Saints (Mormons) in 1832. Picture from Harper's Magazine (Public Domain)
What is my impression so far? There is something strangely reusable about the Judeo-Christian religion. A few thousand years ago there were the monotheistic Jews with their Torah as a holy book. They got kicked around a lot by various invading forces, and spread their religion around in the moving process. Then a bit over 2000 yrs ago the Christians popped up to say that the Jews had failed to recognize Jesus as their messiah, so that their religion is now obsolete without the new information contained in what we now know as the New Testament. A few more years down the line came the Muslims who claimed that both the Jews and the Christians were too busy doing their things to notice another great prophet, Mohammed. For them, the old holy books are now incomplete save for the new one contained in the Koran. Many more years down the line on a different continent came the Mormons who are convinced that the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims had all missed the boat and failed to recognize yet another great prophet in Joseph Smith Jr and that the only complete information from god is now contained in yet another holy book, The Book of Mormon (and, apparently also Doctrines and Covenant, and The Pearl of Great Price). I wonder when the next budding new religion along the same old line will pop up. Whatever it is, I hope their prophet will be an imaginative and CONCISE writer! 

But you wonder about how it is hanging out with Mormon missionaries (to their credit, I actually told them in near verbatim the paragraph above... and they still want to come back to talk to me. An evangelical Christian or a Jehovah's Witness would have dropped me on the spot!). Sorry to do this, but you'll have to wait a bit for Part 3 of this saga... coming hopefully soon. 

18 comments:

Drew80 said...

Can't wait!

eyesometric said...

Likewise!

yvette said...

The golden tablets... what a huge forgery... and the Indian jewish origin is a good excuse for the christian Founding Fathers to massacre them as a punishment for having crucified Jesus.(though this was a Roman custom ! The lost wandering tribes... of course they all came from the West through the Bering Strait ...you are doing a great job Mitchell... here's a possible answer for the 'budding new religion': 'Sciences and Research...of course!
.http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/

Smorg said...

Hiya Drew & Eyes: Sorry I'm dragging my feet a bit! Somehow I've been more tired lately. Hopefully I'll shape up and put #3 up in a few days. Thanks a bunch for reading! :oD

Hiya Yvette: You're right indeed! I still think that science and religion have no need to butt head as long as one doesn't try to infringe on the other... But I have to admit that the blood sport between the two can be rather entertaining to witness sometimes. ;o)

Hey, great site about human migration! Thanks a bunch for the link. I'll add it to the post. It's really cool!

Hope everyone is well and having a good October! :oD

dadsprimalscream said...

What a fascinating story to read of your experience with Mormon missionaries. Having been one myself, it's great to hear the other side of the story.

I can't wait to hear the rest.

Just know... you will have to be really blunt I'm afraid. Any opening or soft words you use to tell them that you won't be getting baptized will be seen as an opening - or as a maybe. Just sayin'

Smorg said...

Hiya Dads: Thanks a bunch for the warning! I think you're right indeed. The sisters are lovebombing me big time. :oP Do they drum into these guys at MTC not to take no for an answer? I think I'm getting a taste of what sort of peer pressure I'd be subjected to if I join this clan.

On the up note I'm feeling grateful that the evangelical Christian movement of the 90's (when I was one) wasn't anywhere nearly as organized as the LDS church is. I would have had a much harder time escaping otherwise.

Thanks very much for dropping by and for your blog as well! :oD

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Really, what does that say about the golden plates' credibility when their only witnesses were friends and family members of the person who claimed their existence but can no longer physically prove it?

Mark Twain wrote about the Book of Mormon and has a very funny quite about this point:

And when I am far on the road to conviction, and eight men, be they grammatical or otherwise, come forward and tell me that they have seen the plates too; and not only seen those plates but "hefted" them, I am convinced. I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.

Smorg said...

Hiya CL: That is hilarious!! Thanks very much for pointing me to it. I hadn't seen that before. Gotta love Ole Mark Twain and his sharp pen, ay? Now, why didn't Old Joe Smith just hire Twain to write his books? They might not turn out any holier, but at least they'll likely be a whole lot more entertaining! :oD

Thanks a bunch for stopping by and for your blog as well.

thadieu said...

that BoM started just like Sindbad's story in 1001 arabian nights before he went off on his 7 voyages! (i tried to find but only have version in vietnamese :-) )

dadsprimalscream said...

@Smorg - I used to work in the MTC and it's not so much that they're programmed to not take no for an answer. It's more that the MTC deludes them to such an extent that they think that the mere fact that you are willing to listen to them means that your spirit is "searching for truth" and that you want to be Mormon. You just don't know it. You're one sincere prayer away from conversion in their minds.

Also consider how few people they are probably teaching. And there's enormous pressure on them to produce numbers...like a salesperson they have to report every single week how many discussions they taught, how many baptisms that they produced, when they brought you to church, etc...

Smorg said...

Hiya An: Hey, I didn't know that. Believe it or not, I've only read 1001 Arabian Nights in Thai! Must try to find an English copy and give it a good go. Thanks a bunch for mentioning that. :oD

Hiya Dad: Darn it. I think you have them read exactly right. They even walked me all the way home from church this morning (it was Stake Conference rather than a normal Sunday service)... All 1 1/2 miles of it. :oP That's dedication! ;oD

I dunno... I'm tempted to just let them keep dropping in if they still want to, but I won't go to church or study the BoM they want me to study (tho I'm reading through much of D&C... it is such a blasphemous book it actually is capable of being entertaining when I'm in some of my odd moods) and I darn well won't pray anymore... Maybe when they transfer out they'll go with an uncomfortable thought that it doesn't take being a Mormon to be decent and civil.

I think they're finding themselves thinking about certain things a bit more than they had planned on. Getting back to my place they tried to coerce me into praying again. I told them I thought one should first believe and then pray as an expression of one's belief rather than the other way around. The former is honest and sincere, the latter is none of the above. They were speechless for a while before tentatively mumbling something about work being a requirement for faith-building. Something bothered them, tho, and they quickly changed subject to making a return lunch appointment for Wednesday instead. :oP

Really, it speaks volume about the LDS church's priority when it pressures its missionaries to get people baptized (to become tithe-paying, labor-giving members) rather than to make sure that people know what they're getting into before committing to their church. There's so many things dishonest about their way of doing things... :o(

dadsprimalscream said...

Absolutely nothing wrong with trying to maintain a friendship with the 2 ladies. THEY sound sincere and probably pretty decent people most likely. It's the organization they've chosen to serve that perpetuates the pressure and thoughtlessness. And you actually may be able to get them to think although it might not sink in for years... I still have friendships from my mission.

If missionaries knocked on my dooor I'd invite them in, feed them and yet be honest with them.

Smorg said...

Hiya Dad: A wise counselor, you are. Thanks! :o)

I really quite like the gals and would enjoy being friends with them. I'm reading a lot of horror-ish stories over at exmormon.org, though, about how hard it is for many investigators to keep from being perpetually visited by proselytizing missionaries. I'm hoping that the mishies would respect my and my roommate's request that they don't come by anymore after I've moved back to Missouri at the end of the year (my roommate is even more allergic to religious people than I am).

On the other hand one of the church leaders speaking at the Stake Conf yesterday positively alarmed me when he kept bugging at the mishies to be persistent, telling a story about how a bishop kept making a promise to stop bothering a guy by a certain date and then just kept on extending the date every time they came to it until many months down the line the guy's resistance broke down and decided to join the church.

I sat there hoping that the sisters had fallen asleep temporarily and didn't hear any of that... Unfortunately they were both wide awake. I don't know how they managed to do that even without any caffeine in their system. I only stayed awake the entire time because my bad back was seizing up from sitting still on the uncushioned pew. :oP

Georg said...

There is one thing missing, Smorgy. You talk in detail about this religion but I imagine you talk to them, too, from time to time (though I know you are a great listener).

So what did you say to those girls and what was their reaction to your opinions?? That I would like to know.

Georg

Smorg said...

Hallo Georgy: To be honest, I've been listening a lot more than I've been talking during our meetings indeed. :oD So far my strategy is to keep challenging them enough to make them think a bit more about the dogma they're selling and about what they're being told by church leaders... but not enough to convince them that coming back to talk to me is useless (in term of having a real chance at converting me to Mormonism) and dangerous to their faith. So... I'm not trying to convince them that their religion is wrong at all. Instead I just try to make them elaborate and put into wider context the church teaching they want me to adopt. It is just that most of the church teaching is so illogical (and some even unethical) that a lot of time they end up bothering themselves without me having to say much at all...

The training still kicks in and they'll still end up rationalizing with the 'god works in mysterious ways and we aren't able to know the mind of god' sort of uncomfortable shut down switch, though. It might sink in some years down the line... You never know. When I was in the process of thinking my way out of that trap that was evangelical Christianity a lot of things non-believers said to me years before came back, and the compilation of them pretty much convinced me that I was a bona fide Holzkopf myself for ever believing that myth at all. :oP

Anyhow! Will definitely include more actual dialogs on #5. :oD Thanks for great suggestion!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I especially enjoyed the last part where you put the Judeo-Christian religion pattern in perspective. Never thought of that before!

I suppose if someone wants to believe in someting bad enough, then he will regardless. As long as the belief isn't imposed on others it should be okay. I don't think these mormons are imposing yet, though there is something weird about their zeal to evangelize.

Icarus

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed you didn't tell them to get lost after this meeting. Anyone that believe such boloney can hardly be interesting to talk to!

Jelly Bones

Smorg said...

Hi Icarus: Sorry I didn't see your comment earlier! I agree about how the will to believe can trump all reason indeed. The Mormon misshies were imposing plenty, though not really without my consent (I went with the flow a lot because I was curious at where they'd try to take things to). But with me I know I wouldn't agree to anything that bugged my conscience. I'm concerned that the baby Mormons are imposed upon by their religion pretty much right from birth, tho. The LDS church's brain-washing program starts young and with vigor... They pretty much are all expected to be baptized as Mormons when they're 8 yrs old... and they think that that's totally voluntary. :oP

Hi Jelly Bones: I'm afraid I have a softy streak... and a few of the misshies I talked to were rather cute and intriguing. ;o) Of course, when they were set on just talking religion their cuteness evaporated at alarming rate. When they let up a bit and talked about something else (like their life experiences), though, they were quite interesting. :o)

Thanks very much for stopping by! HOpe October is going well your way.