Monthly Archives: April 2018

Korihor’s Children, part four

Korihor only appears in one chapter of the Book of Mormon, Alma Chapter 30, though his influence resonates throughout the rest of the Book. He arrives immediately after a major national emergency, the deadly war between Lamanites and Nephites that left victims too numerous to even be counted. Following that war, Nephite society, exhausted and devastated, rebuilds on two seemingly contradictory foundations: the Law of Moses, and their shared belief in Christ. (That’s the defining peculiarity of Nephite society: Christians before Christ, non-Talmudic Torah-followers). In the seventeenth year of the reign of judges, Korihor shows up, preaching against Christianity. Alma makes a point of explaining that this was not against their legal code. People were punished for crimes committed, not for their beliefs.

Korihor is called Anti-Christ. And in verses 13-18, Alma gets specific. Here’s the gist of Korihor’s message (I’m paraphrasing):

Vs. 13: Believing in Christ is foolish and vain. Prophecy itself is impossible; no one can know what’s going to come.

Vs. 14-16: Prophecies are nothing but foolish traditions. You can’t know what you can’t see. You look forward to a remission of sins. That’s just insanity. You believe in things you cannot know; your doctrines and prophecies are nothing but a mass delusion.

Alma foregrounds these accusations of Korihor’s, presumably because they sting the most. After all, Alma himself is being called a deluded fool. (And some variant of the word ‘foolishness’ is used three times in these descriptions). But vs. 17 gets more interesting. This is where we begin to get a larger sense of Korihor’s teachings.

Vs. 17: There’s no atonement. None is needed: “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.” There’s no atonement because there’s no overarching morality. You prosper according to your strength, your will, your ambition, your work ethic and the way you apply your native wit.

Vs. 18’s also interesting. We’re told that the result of these teachings is ‘whoredoms.’ ‘Whoredom’ suggests prostitution. But I’m not sure that’s what Alma means by it. It makes sense, though, that sexual license would follow a program based on the rejection of all moral norms. But there’s an interesting phrase Alma uses: they ‘lifted up their heads in wickedness.’ In other words, they reveled in it; they distinguished themselves by it. Am I reading too much into this if I suggest an element of male privilege and sexual exploitation? We’re told that Korihor’s movement included both men and women, which might suggest consensual open sexuality. But there’s so much emphasis on power, on taking what you want and can fight for, it suggests, to my mind at least, a variant on rape culture. In any event, Alma has already told us ‘adultery’ was considered a crime in the Nephite legal code. Was marriage part of what Korihor’s followers rejected? Are we talking about the sexual mores of a hippie commune–theoretically, though not always actually, open and free and non-judgmental? Or something closer to a Playboy mansion: exploitative and woefully sexist, though presumptively built on equality?

Anyway, Korihor made what appear to have been tactical errors, taking his crusade to the two most rigorously pious Church strongholds in Nephite society, the people of Ammon (converted former Lamanites turned pacifists), and the people of Gideon (badly burned in the past by Noah’s priests). Both of whom tie him up and kick him out.

We are given what appears to be an excerpt of his examination by a Gideon high priest, Giddonah. Verse 23-28 are pretty much entirely in Korihor’s voice. Asked why he’s preaching Anti-Christian views, Korihor responds:

Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words. Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true. Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents. And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world. And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges. Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God—a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

The rhetoric is interesting here. Priests ‘keep (people) down.’ The people are in bondage. They’re not allowed boldness, or the free enjoyment of rights and privileges. They can’t ‘make use of that which is their own.’ Korihor’s message is one of liberation and self-improvement and empowerment. Priests are using the rhetoric of obedience and prophecy to keep people from honestly enjoying the fruits of their labors. I can see why it would be compelling.

It’s a rhetoric of freedom, a world-view in which any restrictions, moral, religious, ethical or legal are keeping people ‘down.’ Instead, Korihor urges his followers to look ‘up,’ to liberate themselves from bondage. And yes, Korihor is an atheist–something a sturdy Christian priest like Alma can barely wrap his head around. But I know lots of atheists who are perfectly moral people, who act charitably and kindly and show consideration for others and live the Golden Rule. And I know Christians who don’t do any of those things. Korihor, though, isn’t just an atheist. He wants to liberate everyone from all rules, all norms. He wants people to feel free to exercise their economic power, certainly, and also to use wealth to seize political power. Strong men will prosper. Who cares about anyone else? That seems to be Korihor’s ideology.

In short, he’s an Ayn Randian libertarian. To be continued.

Chappaquiddick: Movie review

On Friday, July 18, 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy hosted a cookout party on Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, in connection with two big events–the Edgarton Yacht Club Regatta, a sailboat race in which Kennedy competed, and the lunar landing and first moon walk, which took place on July 20th. Kennedy’s guests included six young women, the ‘Boiler Room girls,’ who had been part of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign staff. One of the women was 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne, who the Senator was trying to hire for his campaign staff for a possible run at the Presidency in 1972. Around 11:15, Kopechne asked Kennedy if he would take her back to her hotel in Edgarton. Kennedy agreed to do so, and later testified that he decided to drive her himself, as his chauffeur was enjoying the party. The car went off a wooden bridge, Dike Bridge, which had no guardrails, and landed top down in Poucha Pond, which the bridge spans. Somehow Kennedy was able to get out of the car and swim to shore. Kopechne died in the vehicle, though she survived the initial crash, and lived for up to an hour after, her head in a small air bubble.

Chappaquiddick is a new film covering essentially the events of that night and the week afterwards, as Kennedy and his team of lawyers, managers, and Kennedy hangers-on tried to cope with the aftermath of this tragedy. Ted Kennedy is played by Jason Clarke, and Kopechne, by Kate Mara. Both are superb. Of course the very word Chappaquiddick is, today, synonymous with scandal. There remain many unanswered questions about what happened, what Kennedy did immediately after the accident and subsequently, and why he didn’t report the incident to the police until the next morning. And, of course, the incident has given rise to a wide range of conspiracy theories and accusations. I saw one this morning at the grocery store, a tabloid asserting that Kopechne was pregnant at the time of her death, and that she told Kennedy that he was the father of her child that evening. (Not true).

When I saw the first trailers for this film, my thought was that it was likely another right wing hit job. It’s not; not even remotely. In fact, the screenwriters, Taylor Allen and Robert Logan, and the director, John Curran, went out of their way to confine their story to what is known, based largely on testimony from the inquest, and also from other sources. To the extent that a film can tell a controversial story objectively, that’s what they accomplish here. In fact, this film accomplishes something that Ted Kennedy was never able to do in relation to Chappaquiddick. It conducts itself with integrity. I cannot adequately express my respect to these filmmakers and their approach.

The conscience of the film, its moral center, is Kennedy’s cousin, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), known to the family as Joey. He was Kennedy’s logistics guy, as well as his attorney. He was there with his close friend, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), a former US Attorney for Massachusetts. After the accident, we see Kennedy stumble back to the cabin where the party was taking place. He says to Gargan, “I’m not going to be President.” Not: ‘there’s been a terrible accident, and I’m worried about Mary Jo.’ Not: ‘call the police.’ That line is one of many that indicts Ted Kennedy. It’s kinda horrifying. But it’s based on the sworn testimony of two members of the bar, two officers of the court. That’s the approach of the entire movie; if it happened, it’s onscreen. No embellishing, no sugarcoating. (Also, by the way, these two leading roles in a serious movie are played by comedians–Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan–and they’re both terrific).

So we see them drive back to the bridge, we see Gargan and Markham dive down to the car, we see their inability to open a door. We see the three men, exhausted, sit on the bridge. We see them borrow a rowboat and row it back to Martha’s Vineyard (it being too late for the ferry to run), and we see these two respected attorneys tell Kennedy that he absolutely needed to report the accident immediately. We see him step into a phone booth, and place a call. But not to the police. He calls his father. Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern), had had a stroke, and speaking was exceptionally difficult for him. But he has one word of advice for his son. “Alibi,” he says. And so Kennedy goes back to his hotel, has a bath, falls asleep on the bed, wakes up the next morning, dresses carefully, get himself some breakfast. And then, and only then, does he report the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

From that point on, the movie is about the spinmeisters, the political operatives, the Kennedy team of seasoned image managers with which the Senator surrounded himself. Seeing as how it was 1969, they’re all older, white and male. Leading the charge is someone listed in the credits as ‘McNamara’, played by Clancy Brown. Robert McNamara? He was no longer Secretary of Defense in ’69–I think he was running the World Bank. Would he have been in those meetings? No idea, but as with most Clancy Brown characters, he’s a forceful and powerful presence in the movie, his character openly contemptuous of the 37 year-old Senator. Those scenes, with everyone trying to control the narrative and minimize the political damage are frankly kind of disgusting. It would only taken the slightest tweaking of tone for them to have been comedic–an interesting aesthetic choice, if Curran had chosen to go that way. Really, though, they’re about Kennedy’s continuing cowardice and ambition. And Gargan, meanwhile, is disgusted by it, and disillusioned.

So, no, it’s not a movie in which Kennedy looks even remotely decent. It’s a movie about cowardice. He was drinking before the accident, and lied about it. He initially wanted to lie about who was even driving the car. He showed up at Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace he didn’t need, in a plea for sympathy. The idea of him giving a nationally televised address to set Chappaquiddick rumors to rest was his idea, as was the idea of invoking in that speech the memories of Jack and Bobby, the martyred brothers, making himself the victim in an event in which a young woman died. As his advisors hash out the wording of that speech, Kennedy says (in a stunning line), “We’re going to tell the truth! Or at least, our version of it.” One thought I had after watching it was gratitude that this weakling never became President.

But there’s another scene as well, with him and his father, in which old Joe, wizened and crippled and damaged, hands him a letter, in which he says (I’m paraphrasing), ‘you can become anything you want to. You can become a man of consequence, or you can choose not to. But if you choose nothing, I’ll have nothing to do with you.’ It’s a painful reminder of what must have been an excruciating childhood.

I think that larger perspective is part of what the filmmakers were aiming for. Kennedy looks like the worst kind of opportunist in this film, but it is, after all, about a terrible week in the man’s life. And the film acknowledges, and I think foreshadows, what would become of him. He would become the lion of the Senate, one of the most respected Senators in history, and an unflagging champion for progressive values. He became a man of consequence. Just not the one his father envisioned.

I respect and admire this film immensely. I especially like its portrayal of Mary Jo Kopechne. For most people, then and since, she wasn’t a woman worth paying a lot of attention to. What was she doing alone in a car with a married man (whose wife was also pregnant)? She had to have been his latest girl-on-the-side, a floozy, a tramp. As the film goes to some pains to point out, she was nothing of the kind. As Mara plays her, she was a canny, accomplished woman, a political operative–at the time of her death, she was managing a mayoral campaign in New Jersey. She was certainly not having an affair with Kennedy or with anyone else–indeed, she was engaged to be married. She was there, at Martha’s Vineyard, because Kennedy was trying to hire her, a job she hadn’t decided to accept, but was leaning towards turning down, there to see her old boiler room pals. She and Kennedy spend some time talking in the car, and those conversations are interesting. Kopechne was a listener. She’s quiet, reserved. She was valued as a counselor and a sounding board, someone whose opinion Kennedy valued, surrounded as he was by sycophants. And as he talks to her, he wants to know if he should run for President or not. The subject clearly consumed him, and he was never entirely sure if he even wanted it. More than that, though, he’s wondering who he is. As he puts it (again, I’m paraphrasing), ‘Joe was the hero, Jack was the leader, Bobby was the brilliant one. Who am I? The screw-up.’ In short, Mary Jo Kopechne was his friend. And yes, even in 1969, it was possible for a man and a woman to just be friends.

Kennedy of course has consistently denied that he had had an affair with her, which no one believes because why would we? Certainly Joan Kennedy (Andria Blackman), though we don’t see much of her, is royally honked off at him. But I like this movie’s portrayal of her. Mary Jo’s been labeled and forgotten and shoved aside by history, beginning with the Kennedy people. But she was worth remembering.

Ted Kennedy did eventually run for President, disastrously, in 1980, taking on a Democratic incumbent in the primaries, and losing in an ugly convention. Him running that year seems seems inexplicable to me. Did he feel so much pressure to run that he finally just decided to go for it, in an inauspicious year, to get it over with? I suspect so. But he was never able to shake Chappaquiddick. Nor, frankly, should he have. It was a terrible event, and a tragic one. And this film captures it, the tragedy of a good person’s unnecessary death, and the fall of a much lesser one. Pity and fear, man.


Pacific Rim: Uprising, movie review

The first Pacific Rim movie was essentially like a good Transformers movie, only with Godzilla. You’re probably thinking “a good Transformers movie? Unpossible!” But if what you like in movies is seeing massive robots fighting equally ginormous creatures or other robots, while also destroying all the buildings in a major world city, Michael Bay’s got your back, and so does this movie.

I’ll say this: the first Pacific Rim was qualitatively better than this one, and better than any Transformers movie. For one thing, it was directed by Guillermo Del Toro, not Michael Bay. Which meant much better action sequences, where you can actually follow what’s going on, and not be driven dizzy by flash cuts. For another thing, Idris Elba was in it. And the story, though dumb, was, imho, dumb in a more interesting way. It does not make sense that invading aliens would come as robots who could mingle with us humans by disguising themselves as trucks. That’s just silly. But invading aliens who come from a space-time rift in the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean, and send massive monster things called kaiju to soften us up? Far more plausible. That’s just science.

Yes, a Pacific Rim sequel. (The Uprising part of the title means, as far as I can tell, nothing).  Idris Elba’s character (named Stacker Pentecost, I kid you not), died heroically in the last movie, so this time his son Jake is the hero. Jake was played by John Boyega, playing essentially the same character he played in the Star Wars movies, only five percent more interesting. The tag-team of comic-relief German/American scientists from the last movie, Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) are back, only this time, one of them has turned evil, only I shan’t tell you which one, because: spoilers. The terrific Chinese actress Tian Jing is in this too, as the evil head of the evil Shao corporation, basically the villainess, except halfway through the movie, with no explanation whatsoever, she turns out to be a good guy working for a benevolent corporation bent on saving the planet. Somehow, Tian Jing makes the character work, sort of. Anyway, that’s the kind of plot twist that lets you know you’re in the hands of a master. Directing this mess is one Steven S. McKnight, whose previous credits include Daredevil (truly one of the worst superhero movies ever made), and something called Spartacus: War of the Damned, which I haven’t seen, but which looks craptacular. For some reason, the director is wearing a military uniform in his IMDB photo, and is saluting. I’ve seen his latest movie, and have no trouble believing its director wore a uniform on set and saluted from time to time.

Because it’s one of those. It combines the least original elements of several genres, including the military-training movie, the invasion-from-outer-space movie, the superheroes-trash-major- cities-while-fighting movies, the lovable-scamp-reforms movie, Transformers and Godzilla.

I forgot the tomboy-proves-herself-in-a-world-of-men movie. It’s got that too, and it’s the only part of this mess worth watching. The tomboy in question is spunky teen Amara, played by a newcomer I had ever heard of named Cailee Spaeny, who almost made this movie worth watching all by herself. Good for her; took an underwritten and thankless character and made her interesting and watchable. This is her first movie, too: keep an eye out.

But the rest of the movie. My goodness, it was terrible. For one thing, you’ve got this super big robot fighter things called jaegers, and they’re fighting these kaiju things, and their strategy seems to be to grab them and fling them into buildings. Which happens a lot, and never seems to do any damage whatever to the kaiju. Wouldn’t it be better to hold down the kaiju and beat on ’em some? Or maybe equip the jaegers with weapons that, you know, work? There’s a twist in this movie; it’s to take the buildings and throw them at the kaiju. This doesn’t work any better, but does have the benefit of destroying more buildings. (Which, you know, people live in, work in, inhabit). They’re fighting in Tokyo this time, btw, because the first movie made all its money in Asia it’s close to Mount Fuji, which the kaiju are trying to get to so they can blow it up and kill all of mankind or something. And, man, does that model of Tokyo get trashed!  (But we’re told they managed to evacuate all the citizens first, so we don’t have to worry about, you know, anyone dying or anything).

Anyway. I can’t say we didn’t enjoy it. We did, immensely. Movies don’t have to be good to be amusing. And of course there will be another sequel, presuming this one makes its nut. So let’s hope Cailee Spaeny has an agent who can steer her away and into something, you know, better. Pacific Rim: Uprising is throwaway entertainment, a fairly competent B-movie. It’s not better than that, and the first one maybe kinda was. See it if you don’t mind mildly amusing trash. Critic duty done: check.


Isle of Dogs: Movie Review

The first thing you will notice when you see Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (and you must), is that most of the human characters speak Japanese, mostly untranslated. I mean, if it’s essential for the plot that the Japanese bits be translated, the film finds an appropriately diagetic way to translate, but if it’s not plot-essential, you’ll figure out what they’re talking about, more or less. I love that touch. Of course, I don’t speak Japanese, but the film is set in Japan; what else would they speak?

The next thing I noticed is much more subtle; for a film about dogs, there sure are a lot of cats in it. In fact, the bad guys in the film pretty much all own cats. The cats’ role in both their lives and in the film itself is largely decorative; no cat actually does anything to advance the plot. Still, I couldn’t help the impression that in the eternal war between cats and dogs, the cats won. Quietly, without fuss, without overtly influencing events, the cats had, in their own sneaky, subtle, all-but-indiscernable way, triumphed. Certainly, at every bad turn for dogs, the cats look particularly smug. (They’re cats; of course they look smug, all cats always look smug).

Otherwise, what can I say? It’s a Wes Anderson film. Every shot perfectly composed and beautifully designed, with deadpan, quirky humor, multi-faceted characters, and with an ultimately thoughtful, interesting point of view and perspective. It’s a film about prejudice and oppression, a film about genocide–I’m not kidding–and politics at its ugliest, about political manipulation and extremism, a film about protest and political engagement. That’s Anderson; he makes these gentle comedies about the ugliest moments in human history. It’s also a religious film, about repentance and the possibility of redemption. It’s also a love story, on several levels. It’s about the cross-species partnerships between humans and canines (and, quietly, felines too). It’s moving and touching, and at times, very very funny. It is, in short, a Wes Anderson joint. Cultural appropriation? Cultural tourism, at least? Yeah, that’s in there too. But is it engaging in cultural appropriation, or mocking it?

So: the story. In a dystopic near-future, in the imaginary Japanese coastal city Magasaki (and I don’t think the historical echoes of that name are remotely unintentional), the ruling Kobayashi family has turned against dogs. Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has ordered all dogs exiled to Trash Island as a health measure, dogs having become afflicted by a dog flu which could spread to human populations. Magasaki’s chief scientist, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) insists, though, that a cure is imminent. No matter. Kobayashi is convinced that they’re ‘bad dogs,’ and his eventual plan is to exterminate them.

But his orphan ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), a ten-year-old and the Mayor’s heir, has grown to love his dog-protector, Spots (Liev Schreiber). He flies a small plane to Trash Island, to search for his exiled friend. There, he’s rescued by a gang of dogs: Rex (Ed Norton Jr.), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), all of them pampered, beloved pets turned feral, and their putative leader, their one stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston). I say he’s their leader, but in fact, most of their decisions are made through group votes, which Chief mostly loses. His dominant personality generally doesn’t prove decisive. That’s the main plot; these five dogs searching Trash Island, looking for Spots. In part, because all dogs, all of them, are in danger. Because Atari loves Spots, and he’s a ten-year-old boy. And dogs love ten-year-old boys.

There’s also a more conventional love story; the unrequited romance between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a registered show dog with a tragic past. And Nutmeg, because of who she is, has been subjected to rumors and innuendos, which probably aren’t true. But only probably.

Meanwhile, in the city, a high school newspaper starts a pro-dog crusade, led by an American exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). Who, it turns out, kinda has a crush on Atari.

Spoiler alert: Spots lives, and they find him. That’s not surprising, of course; either Spots lives or Spots is dead, and if the latter, you don’t have much of a movie. But Spots emerges as a tremendously compelling character too, and forms a rich partnership with Chief.

It’s all done with stop-action animation, which makes sense for a Wes Anderson film, because so much of his aesthetic is built on those perfectly composed shots and scenes. It’s also really funny, especially the conversations with the five main dogs. I don’t want to give away any jokes, and it’s not a jokey movie; not all punch lines and yucks. But I laughed a lot, though, as always with a Wes Anderson film, you do feel a bit distanced from the comedy. That’s also his approach; deadpan humor, and just enough artificiality to distance you. I was genuinely moved by the prospect of a dog mass extermination, because you do grow to care about the canine characters in the movie, and also because of the associations. (The town is called Magasaki, and yes, there’s a mushroom cloud). But also with a hint of vehrfremdungseffekt, enough Brechtian alienation to give a sense of observation and objectivity. It’s an interesting combination.

Cultural appropriation? Quick: when I say the word ‘Japan’ to you, a Westerner, what immediate associations come to mind? Sushi, kabuki, sumo wrestling, samurai, taiko drummers, anime, haiku, cherry blossoms? Close enough? They’re all in the movie. Cultural tourism? With a ‘white savior’ character? Absolutely.

And yet, the Wes Anderson aesthetic IS distancing and alienating. What if I were to suggest that we’re not invited to engage in cultural appropriation, but to observe it, and perhaps be amused by it. When Atari wins people open with a haiku of his own composition (not just a haiku, but a pretty obvious parody of haiku}, I laughed out loud. When Mayor Kobayashi watches a sumo match on TV, it was funny. Of course he likes sumo!  Am I wrong in suggesting that Kunichi Yomura’s performance as the Mayor seemed to these uncultured and ignorant Western ears like a parody of a Toshiro Mifune performance? That the Kurosawa parallels in shot after shot don’t seem accidental? And that Yomura himself is listed as a screenwriter?

Anderson has been criticized before for cultural appropriation, most specifically in The Darjeeling Limited, set in India. I felt that film was clearly making fun of these three Western dweebs thinking they understood India. This film isn’t as obviously parodic. And maybe it’s even more insidiously appropriative. I don’t know. See it: make up your own mind. I loved the film, and it made me laugh a lot, and never once at Japanese culture.

I still argue that this is a master filmmaker, at the top of his craft. Is it his best film? I don’t know how one could make that judgment. But I had a terrific time in the theater, and with much to think about afterwards. If that’s your measure for a great film, see this one. And if you can’t stand Wes Anderson’s films, if you find them mannered and fey and unengaging and overly prescriptive and lifeless, well, we’ll agree to part as friends.

Korihor’s Children, part three

The Book of Mosiah, though rich in sermons, simultaneously tells a rich and complicated story. Or, more accurately, three stories (or arguably more than three), beginning with King Benjamin’s long political/philosophical speech, but then going back in time, with various flashbacks. The principle narratives deal with Alma, and his church of religious separatists, who break away from the people of wicked King Noah, Limhi, and his leadership, trying to carve out a space for Nephites under Lamanite rule, and a group of emissaries from King Mosiah. Reading it, I get a distinct feeling of ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch.’

Noah is the king who initially causes all the trouble, leading to these miniature diasporas. And, yes, for most of us, the word ‘wicked’ is always appended before his name. It’s essentially not possible for Mormons of a certain generation to visualize King Noah without his leopards. In the iconic Arnold Friberg painting of his confrontation with Abinadi–which appeared in all those blue paperback Books of Mormon we remember from seminary–Noah is rich and short and fat and has a black beard. More memorably, he’s guarded by two snarling chained pet leopards straining to get at the prophet, who is old and in rags but still ripped. (Friberg loved drawing muscular guys, in common with Cecil B. DeMille, who Friberg worked closely with). Noah is surrounded by mysteriously Middle-eastern looking priests–we can see seven of them–who sycophantly make their complaint against Abinadi, in what has always struck me as a singularly strange way: by quoting Isaiah 52 at him. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings; that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good; that publisheth salvation.” That’s their coup de grace, their knockout punch. But it’s really important. Their theology is repeated endlessly by various Book of Mormon bad guys. Priests–or really authority figures generally, are specifically and richly blessed, by God, regardless of what they do. See, it says right there, in the scriptures, that priests–messengers from God–have particularly beautiful feet. That becomes a repeated theme; priests or kings or aristocracies should be popularly and financially supported. There’s no such thing as a bad leader. (“If the President does it, it’s not against the law.”) Abinadi has hurt their feelings, by pointing out how rich those same priests have become, and how far they’ve strayed from Biblical teachings. To Abinadi, holding priestly (or governmental) office carries with it responsibilities and obligations. If you don’t perform, you aren’t blessed all. (As Joseph Smith put it in another context: “when we . . . gratify our pride, or . . . exercise control  or dominion . . . in any degree of unrighteousness . . . amen to the priesthood or authority of that man,”) And Noah’s priests are bad at their jobs. Abinadi is quite specific, describing the duties they’ve neglected, the sins of which they’re guilty. Specifically, they abuse women.  Mosiah chapter 11 repeatedly points out the sexual dynamic of Noah’s court, with the king and his priests enjoying the favors of multiple wives, court prostitutes and concubines.

The court culture of Noah’s entourage is best described as one of toxic masculinity; sexually charged, contemptuous of moral norms, and violent. And boy, did they think they were hot stuff. Bigger, badder, tougher, stronger. After a military victory:

And now, because of this great victory they were lifted up in the pride of their hearts; they did boast in their own strength, saying that their fifty could stand against thousands of the Lamanites; and thus they did boast, and did delight in blood, and the shedding of the blood of their brethren, and this because of the wickedness of their king and priests. (Mosiah 11:19}

Abinadi’s sermon is interesting, and weird. It reads like what would become a standard Pauline understanding of the relationship between the law of Moses and the atonement of Jesus Christ, who hadn’t been born yet, but would be and who would, in time, redeem mankind. It’s like a simplified version of the Epistle to the Romans. The Book of Mormon does that repeatedly, of course; describes pre-Christ Christians living in the Americas. I’m not going to deal with the historicity angle; you either buy it as genuinely ancient or you don’t. My larger point, though, my political point, is that the specific condemnation of the priests of Noah is about their conduct, their ‘whoredoms,’ by which we mean an overall atmosphere of extreme misogyny, and their violent aggressiveness. Even when Abinadi warns of them of their impending destruction, these priests posture menacingly in response. ‘We’re strong, we’re tough guys. And we’re rich. No one’s going to destroy us!’ (Paraphrasing Mosiah 12: 15).

After Abinadi’s death, and after Alma’s departure to the Waters of Mormon, the priests of Noah become massive troublemakers for the Nephites. For one thing, they’re rapists. They find a favorite women’s refuge, a place where Lamanite girls gather to sing and dance, a recreation spot. They kidnap the girls, and that starts a war between the Lamanites and Nephites. They ‘marry’ the young women, have children by them, and become a group of people called the Amulonites. And stay trouble-makers for a good long time.

It’s worth pointing out that the Amulonites eventually join forces with the Nephites, which, of course, complicates the whole Nephite/light skin/good vs. Lamanite/dark skin/evil dynamic. Fourth Nephi couldn’t be clearer–“Lamanite” and “Nephite” were cultural constructions. That’s true generally; what we call ‘race’ is cultural, not biological. To the extent that racial differences exist in the Book of Mormon, they were essentially exploited as war-time propaganda. By both sides.

Anyway, that’s Noah’s priests, that’s what they stood for. Toxic, violent, hyper-masculinity. And that is quite specifically what Alma barely escapes, and what he creates his own society in opposition to.

So by the end of Mosiah, the people of King Limhi–Noah’s repentant son and heir–the people of Alma and the people of Mosiah have all gathered together. Limhi–who we sense never really wanted to be king all that much anyway–abdicates, and his people join Mosiah’s people. And we’re immediately introduced to another Korihor precursor, a guy named Nehor. We don’t learn much about him; his story takes up about half of Alma Chapter 1, but he comes across as similar to the Noah priests. He’s a big guy, ‘exceeding large,’ and with a nasty temper.

Nehor’s message is the same as Noah’s priests. (In fact, that’s probably where he learned of it). He preaches the ultimate in moral relativism: universal salvation. He wants priests to be paid, and for their message to be a lot more positive:

And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

There’s not such thing as sin, no such thing, therefore, as repentance or an atonement.  Everyone’s saved, without effort or difficulty. It is moral relativism writ large, or universalism in a new context. But note the undergirding of violence. Nehor gets good and rich. Starts his own church. And enters into a theological dispute with an older, revered member of the community, Gideon, loses his temper, and murders him. He’s caught, brought before the chief judge, Alma, condemned to death, and executed.

We do have to read between the lines a bit, but it appears that the popularity of Nehor’s message corresponds with a rise in income inequality. Nehor’s ministry is of necessity short-lived, but Alma’s response to it is suggestive; he sends out missionaries with a mandate to alleviate poverty. As for Nehor’s universalism, it might appear superficially attractive, to say that everyone will be saved, no harm and no fuss. And we Mormons don’t, in fact, believe in hell. Our theology posits multiple kingdoms of glory, not some dank eternal torture regimen. But moral relativism, on this scale, ends up excusing and rewarding violence. If nothing anyone does is bad, then why not lie, cheat, steal, rape and murder? Isn’t that the great secret of Cain, who became Master Mahan? “That a man may murder and get gain?” (Moses 5:31). And does this not suggest that income inequality is by its very nature violent? Isn’t that the “secret” of slavery, for example?

And, again, we see two schools of thought; one concerned with poor people, and helping those who were struggling to rise, and the other side getting good and rich through violence. And the Nephite cycle continues. Immediately after dealing with Nehor, Alma gets to deal with Amlici, and the Amlicites. A group of wealthy guys who wanted a monarchy, with Amlici as king, and who, after losing a national referendum, started a civil war. Which Alma was able to defeat. More wealth and more violence. And that’s my final point. When we talk about the Nephite cycle, poverty-righteousness-wealth-collapse-poverty and so on, we often leave out one of the most important factors: violence. Wealth does not always require violence–it’s possible to get rich non-violently. But it’s easier, and faster, if you’re essentially indifferent to the welfare of those you exploit. Nehor was violent, Amlici was violent, the priests of King Noah were rapists, the various Nephite Quislings who incited war with the Lamanites were men of violence. The Book of Mormon’s patterns of wickedness always include outbursts of what can only be called toxic masculinity. And it’s often directed towards women.

Next up: Korihor himself.

A Quiet Place: movie review

I have never in my life been in a quieter theater than I was today. As it happened, I had a bit of a cold–nothing serious, or even very bothersome, but I had to blow my nose occasionally. I felt guilty every time, like I was endangering everyone. Behind me, a woman had a bit of a cough. Every cough sounded like a cannon going off, and I flinched every time. No candy wrapper rustlings, no shifting in your seat. Not in that house. We were silent.

There are essentially four characters in A Quiet Place–Mom and Dad, daughter and son. Emily Blunt and John Krasinski play the parents, and Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe, the kids. They’re all extraordinary, especially Simmonds, who is hearing-impaired in real life, as well as her character in the movie. In the credits, they were called the Abbots, but I don’t recall any names spoken aloud, and it didn’t matter. We do sense, though, that the daughter’s deafness is a plus, has given them a leg up on survival. They’ve all had to learn ASL. Dad’s a farmer, and they have perfected silence, as a routine and as a matter of survival. We learn about their strategies and contingency plans. We learn about their survival tactics, and how they cope with everyday, terribly threatened, life. And most of it’s accomplished with no dialogue. Terrific visual storytelling.

Earth has been invaded, but we don’t know much about it, nor do they. The creatures are predators who hunt by sound. Any sound endangers you. When we see them, they’re essentially just claws and teeth and ears. They can’t see, but they’re also incredibly quick and strong. Humans have no chance against them, even if armed. We don’t know–the parents don’t know–who else is alive, but clearly some people are. Dad lights a bonfire periodically, and other bonfires can be seen in the distance.

The movie begins with a completely horrifying moment of shocking violence, for which the daughter–understandably, but wrongly–blames herself. But much of the movie is about their daily routines and coping mechanisms. The kids aren’t angels–they’re not perfect. They’re kids. They resent chores, they get testy with each other, they want to break family rules, sometimes they disobey. I love that about the movie. They’re a family. Loving, supportive, protective parents and kids who have each other’s backs, but don’t always get along. Krasinski and Blunt have the practiced intimacy of a real married couple. Hardly surprising, because they are in fact married, in real life.

The second half of the movie, however, essentially covers one day, and includes the most suspenseful scene I can remember from any movie ever, the ultimate ‘endangered woman’ scene. Mom is very pregnant; any day now level pregnant. And she’s injured herself. And her water has broken. And one of the creatures is in her house, hearing just enough to hunt, but not quite enough to attack. And so Mom has to give birth silently, in a tub, and somehow keep her new infant quiet, until she can be rescued. By her husband and children, who are physically helpless against the creature.

It’s a scene about a woman’s courage and intelligence, a scene in which the family joins forces in outwitting the beasts, since killing them seems impossible. It goes on and on, and the suspense deepens, and we’re wound higher and higher. And then I had to blow my nose. And thought I was about to kill us all. Blunt nails it. She’s just extraordinary, and yet, somehow, I thought Simmonds and Jupe and Krasinski were her equals. For this film to work, all four actors had to be tremendous. All were.

A Quiet Place is, in short, as exciting and scary and suspenseful and satisfying a movie as I have ever seen. My daughter and I were blown away by it, and shaking on our way out. Krasinski directed, and also had a screenwriting credit–kudos. It’s quite possible that the plot–the movie’s basic situation–wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. I assure you that I was much too shaken to even want to pick it apart. You might want to check with your cardiologist first, though.

Korihor’s children, part two

Let’s start with privilege.

Although class distinctions and issues of privilege are raised repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, privilege can also be a little tricky to track. The Book of Mormon begins with privilege. “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.” That phrase, the first verse of First Nephi, establishes young Nephi as wealthy, a rich kid from a rich family. That’s what ‘goodly’ implies. He was ‘taught in the learning of his father’ because his Dad could afford to educate him. But, unlike his brothers, Laman and Lemuel, he doesn’t turn out to be a spoiled brat. He can choose, and he chooses obedience and righteousness. Specifically, he chooses to give up all his wealth, and settle instead for a copy of the Torah and the Prophets, and exile into the wilderness. He genuinely believes his father’s warnings and visions. His emphasis is on doing what God wants him to do. And his choice is subsequently echoed throughout the Book of Mormon.

Essentially the books of Mosiah through Helaman tell the story of the Nephite civilization through the lens of two dynastic families; the priestly Alma line (Alma, Alma, Helaman, Helaman, Nephi, Nephi) and the ruling Mosiah line (Mosiah, Benjamin, Mosiah). The three main offices described are high priest–head of the Church–and king, which becomes eventually, chief judge–the highest executive office in Nephite government, with, as the name implies, judicial responsibilities. But the Nephites mingled religion and government pretty freely. Mosiah’s sons become important missionaries, Alma becomes chief judge–they go back and forth between public service vectors.

The Book of Mormon provides the names of twelve chief judges, but we know more about some of them than others. It’s also not clear how long their terms in office were–some served for up to thirty years, while others only for what appear to be a matter of months. It also became rather a dangerous job; six of the twelve whose names we know were assassinated. In any event, much of the Book of Mormon reads rather like a dynastic history. In fact, when Jesus makes his appearance, he calls ’em on it, points out that they left out the mission and message of Samuel the Lamanite. (Of course, they fix it). We’re primarily interested in the lives and contributions of Alma, Alma, Helaman, Helaman, Nephi and Nephi. They’re also the ones, we’re told, keeping and preserving the records from which the Book of Mormon was compiled and edited. The Book of Mormon could be seen as a history of privilege, or at least of a particular line of men–always men, by the way; we’re told very little about women. This kind of history is out of fashion nowadays–our focus today is on previously marginalized figures, and their contributions. So, no, it’s not a ‘History of the Nephites’ per se. It’s a specialized, old-fashioned kind of history, and may not be immune from hagiography. We’re interested in these guys. These few important guys.

But again, not really. The point of the Book of Mormon is not to valorize a few specific individuals, or advance a ‘great man’ historical narrative. It’s to promote a specific world view. It’s not what this group of men accomplished or what offices they held. It’s about what they believed, taught and practiced.

Because both lines, priestly and judicial, were commited to the same radical Christian agenda, anti-poverty, quasi-socialistic, peace-loving (amidst pretty much constant war) and socially leveling. We see two ideologies in play. On the one hand, the Korihor-ish doctrine of radical libertarianism, couched in terms of ‘personal liberty,’ laissez-faire and valorizing acquisition, is contrasted with the Benjamin-line side, rejecting even property ownership as a principle (See Mosiah 4: 16-30), and preaching equality and tolerance. Which is why I call it a progressive narrative.

I might compare the Alma line to that of the American Adams family. From John Adams to John Quincy Adams to Charles Francis Adams to Henry Adams and continuing, the Adams sons all demonstrated a commitment to public service and civic engagement, including support for public improvements and opposition to institutional slavery. Two US Presidents are included, in addition to ambassadors, authors, public intellectuals and political figures of outstanding capacity and merit. (Granted, there were also a few anti-Semites in the mix–it’s not a perfect parallel.)

These Nephite priests (and judges) warred pretty consistently with privilege, though arguably privileged themselves. And it doesn’t read as noblesse oblige.  Their enemies begin with the courtiers surrounding wicked King Noah, and continue with a Nephite political party known as the ‘kingmen.’ In fact, it appears as though the biggest issue the Nephites had to face throughout their history was over issues of income inequality. When Korihor appears, one of his most potent accusations against Alma is elitism. He accuses Alma of using his office in the Church to enrich himself, and of usurpation of power. These charges, Alma hotly denies, and with merit. All of them in the Alma line, though powerful, defined themselves in opposition to wealth. King Benjamin, in his great speech of succession, nearing the end of his reign, says this:

I have been suffered to spend my days in your service, even up to this time, and have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you; Neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another . . . And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day.

Presumably, this speech had resonance because his listeners knew of kings that did all those things; sought gold and silver and confined people in dungeons and used slave labor. But he hasn’t done any of it, and there’s no reason to think that he’s not telling the truth. This passage could suggest that they didn’t have a system of taxation, but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. He kept taxes low, didn’t tax them at a level ‘grievous to be borne.’ What we’ll see, though, is that the kingman party wanted all that, gold and silver and slaves and arbitrary imprisonments. The liberty Korihor wants–and the liberty he accuses Alma of denying him and his party–is precisely the liberty to make buckets of money any way they can, no matter who it hurts. In short, Korihor is an American type-acquisitive, callous, ambitious, grasping.

Becoming rich is a bad thing in the Book of Mormon. The entire book describes a cyclical view of history. Righteousness leads to wealth, which leads to pride and people forgetting God, which leads to destruction and poverty, which leads to righteousness and begins the whole thing again. That is the view of history of the Alma-line. That’s what their experience taught them. And although the Book of Mormon is described as a quintessentially American book, it is not an American cycle or story.

Can we admit this? In America, historically, was it really righteousness that led to wealth? Wasn’t it, well, wickedness? Benjamin specifically invokes, with a shudder of horror, slavery. Doesn’t  the American experience demonstrate this specific dynamic: it’s easier to make money if you don’t intend to pay your employees? Wasn’t, to a very large degree, American prosperity built on chattel slavery? Nor was this a regional phenomenon; New Englanders profited by it too, through shipping and international commerce. Didn’t America become an economic powerhouse by raising highly lucrative cash crops–cotton, sugar, tobacco–using slave labor, and by expanding westward onto lands stolen from Native peoples? Isn’t that how we got rich? At least partly? And didn’t we, as a nation, also pay for it, most especially in the period from 1861-65? How did Lincoln put it?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

The cycle didn’t end so well for the Nephites either. Because that’s the great tragedy of the Book of Mormon; the Alma line failed. Their great project, a reordering of society in the direction of social justice and equality led to their complete, utter, desolating destruction. That’s not to say that the Alma-line failed. Theirs is a beautiful vision, and it worked well for awhile.  It’s also specifically endorsed by Jesus, in Third Nephi. Eventually, though, Korihor did win. That’s our first lesson.