Monthly Archives: May 2018

Korihor’s Children, part six

Consistently, throughout the Book of Mormon, Nephite (and later Lamanite) prophets call the people to repentance for their failure to care for the poor. The prosperity/pride/fall/repentence cycle the Nephites repeat includes perhaps the most essential element; shared (and later, through transgression, denied) prosperity. When income inequality reaches a certain point, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated in his seminal work, Capital In The Twenty-first Century, nations inevitably decline. This is the central historical argument Mormon makes in his history of his people.

Which is why I return to King Benjamin. Mormon informs us that his book is a translation of two concurrently-written records, the large and small plates of Nephi, plus, later, an edited version of a Jaredite record. Joseph Smith began translating the large plates of Nephi, but the first 116 pages of his translation were lost by his associate, Martin Harris. This disaster had been foreseen by God, we’re told, and the small plates created in anticipation of this mishap. 1 Nephi-Omni are from the small plates, and Mosiah-Moroni, from the large plates, minus Ether. What this means in practical terms is that, in all probability, Mosiah was translated before 1 Nephi. Mosiah is thus the earliest translated book in the Book of Mormon. And it is, in my opinion, also the most powerful anti-poverty sermon in all of scripture.

My conservative friends insist that Benjamin’s call for his people to support the poor does not suggest that government do it. They say that he’s calling for private charity, for individual people to do what they can to alleviate suffering. And they insist that conservatives such as themselves do, in fact, care for the poor among them; that they donate time and money to help people in difficulty. And they do. I do not accuse my conservative friends and neighbors of hard-heartedness, of Korihor-ish selfishness. (Just the political party to which they have given their support).

And I would also say that this kind of tension between private alms and public anti-poverty programs is a relatively new development. Whether the Book of Mormon was written in the late 1820s or 100 AD, there would have been relatively few, and relatively paltry amounts of government assistance available for impoverished people pretty much anywhere on earth. Romans kept a lid on discontented plebeians by tossing ’em bread and entertaining them with circuses, and occasionally governments provided some small measure of disaster relief. But King Benjamin’s chroniclers may not have ever even considered a comprehensive, bureacratic anti-poverty scheme, no more than they would have been able to imagine a notional wall separating Church and state. Their high priests were often also their chief judges. And King Benjamin’s speech is overtly and specifically Christian in its approach.

Still, look at the setting for it. Mosiah 1: 9, tells us that the impetus for Benjamin’s speech was an announcement about the succession, a crucial matter for a king with three sons. In fact, historically, a king had no more essential function than this, to provide for an orderly transition of power. Was his talk a political address, or a sermon? Both, obviously, but the initial motivating force here was political.

And attendance was compulsory. He asks his son Mosiah to organize this big kingdom-encompassing meeting, and tells him that he wants everyone there (1: 10). So all the people in the kingdom gather. And they all show up, and pitch their tents outside the temple. And Benjamin sees how many there are, and orders a tower to be built (2: 7). so more people can hear him, and scribes to take the speech down so it can receive broader dissemination (2: 8).

So it’s a succession speech, with mandatory attendance, written down and published. That’s a big, important speech. And it may well have been setting up what would happen in his son’s reign, a transition from a monarchy to a quasi-democratic state: the rule of the judges. So King Benjamin’s speech is a succession speech, could be seen as setting the stage for a constitutional reform regime, mandatory and widely disseminated. The argument that it’s not intended as a political speech, or as announcing a political program really doesn’t hold water.

Of course, it’s also a sermon. And he begins by disavowing any special status as monarch. He’s not an Egyptian king/God. He’s just a guy. “I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man.” That’s his opening. He’s an ordinary person, subject to ‘infirmities of body and of mind.’ He’s worked hard to be a good king, and he thinks they’ll agree that he has served them, and God, well. At the end of his reign, his conscience is clear. He hasn’t taxed them heavily, hasn’t spent public money on lodgings or fancy royal outfits exclusive to royalty (there’s no sense of sumptuary laws, in fact). He has served their interest, and he wants them to do the same. There’s even a scripture mastery verse: Mosiah 2: 17. “I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” That’s what he wants from them. Dedication to serving each other.

This is, of course, a direct repudiation of the upcoming Korihor ethic, which is entirely selfish. But Benjamin takes it a step further. If they dedicate themselves completely, totally and without reservation, to lives of service, if they serve God by serving others absolutely, they’ll still be ‘unprofitable servants.’ Because we humans, we’re not worth much. We’re the dust of the earth. We’re inherently worthless.

I’m reminded of the great Moses paradox, found in the Pearl of Great Price, chapter one. Moses is brought to a mountain, and given a vision of, well, everything: the world–all the worlds–God had created. And Moses says “I know that man is nothing. Which thing I had never supposed.” And Satan shows up, and tempts Moses, and is rejected by him. And then Moses gets the same vision again. And God tells him this: “This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” It’s the ultimate both/and. Mankind is nothing, less than the dust of the earth. Mankind is also kind of the point. God created us for a reason, and that reason is more magnificent than we can possibly comprehend. Meanwhile, we’re dust. And unprofitable dust at that.

Korihor, you may recall, wanted people to “look up with boldness,” assert their independence and rights and privileges and powers, rejoice in the glory of their humanity. Benjamin begins by insisting that we’re fundamentally, inherently worthless. And also worth giving our entire lives over to serving.

Benjamin’s vision is foundational, the basis for the entire Nephite civilization. Next, we’ll show where his reasoning leads him.


Book Club: Movie Review

My wife and I saw Book Club last night, and we enjoyed it very much. Let me start with that. It’s refreshing, to see a movie about a close, life-long friendship between four interesting, successful women. Starring four terrific actresses who, frankly, aren’t likely to be getting a lot of work nowadays.  Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen (I listed them alphabetically), have three Oscars between them, who knows how many Emmys (Bergen won a boatload for Murphy Brown), have had long, amazing careers, and still have outstanding acting chops. It was just such a pleasure watching them perform, and I applaud whatever studio head greenlighted this unlikely project. It’s a genial, charming, pleasant comedy, good-natured and genuinely funny. Narratively, it’s also utterly predictable and conventional, and that’s all right. Nothing that happened surprised me for one second–ten minutes in, I mentally predicted everything that would subsequently occur, and I didn’t miss a bet. I didn’t care. It’s charming enough to get away with it.

Diane (Keaton), is recently widowed, with two daughters (played by Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) who are worried about their Mom living alone, and are pressuring her to move to Arizona and live with one of them. Jillian (Fonda), owns and manages an upscale LA hotel, has never married, but lives from one-night-stand to one-night-stand. Sharon (Bergen), is a federal judge, long divorced from Tom (Ed Begley Jr.), who is newly engaged to a woman at least 35 years his junior (the comically perky Mircia Monroe). And Carol (Steenburgen), is the only one of them more-or-less happily married, to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but that marriage has grown routine and stagnant. These four women are lifelong friends, and the key to their friendship is their four-woman book club. When Jillian recommends that their next book be 50 Shades of Grey, the others are initially reluctant. And, of course, there are obligatory scenes in which these older women exclaim things like ‘oh my!’ while reading the novel. And to some extent, that book is rather libido-freeing, I imagine–I haven’t read it, and won’t. And, yes, the movie does threaten to lurch into old-lady sex farce. It doesn’t really go down that road very far, though.

In fact, the four of them each find themselves seeking out, and finding a greater, missing intimacy in their lives and relationships. They break out of old patterns. Those who haven’t dated for years, begin dating. They take risks. They’ve all become, I don’t know, emotionally distant, from their own feelings and their own needs.

This is not, in short, a movie about the relationship between these women and a sexually explicit book, and it’s not a movie about how much women need men in their lives, and it’s not really a movie about how even old people need sex at times. It’s a movie about old friends who have allowed their friendships–and their romantic relationships–to get in a rut. But they love each other, and have to rediscover how much they mean to each other. Diane’s impending move to Arizona becomes particularly significant. Arizona seems to represent safety, but also an arid emotional desert. Diane has to decide between her daughters (who I mentally named, unfairly, Regan and Goneril, but who do genuinely seem to love her), and her friends–and yes, there’s also a guy involved.

The male characters are less well developed and less interesting, honestly. Andy Garcia is Mitchell, a pilot, who romances Diane. He’s charming, but not much more. Don Johnson is Arthur, an old flame of Jillian’s–he gets one good speech, but is otherwise rather a cipher. Richard Dreyfuss is George, a date Sharon meets on-line–he’s also rather anodyne–a nice enough guy, I suppose. Nelson fares better as Bruce–he genuinely loves Carol, but is struggling with issues of his own, which she doesn’t initially pick up on. (He also gets the funniest scene in the movie, after she slips him Viagra, and he has to deal with the resulting embarrassing, uh, physiological consequences).

My wife and I saw a trailer for this, and thought it looked intriguing. We liked it a lot more than we thought we would. It’s not profound or important. But it’s charming and fun. And all four actresses are outstanding. Glad to see them work together.

Deadpool 2: Movie Review

“Post-Modernism:  a: being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature) bof, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary on-line.

Or, in short: Deadpool 2.

If you are troubled by films with lots of bad language, apparently gratuitously employed, or if you are troubled by excessively violent films, with overly graphic depictions of characters being maimed, ripped in half, blown apart, or fed into trash compactors, I cannot urge you strongly enough to avoid Deadpool 2. It is an R-rated superhero movie, in which superpowers are very often used to commit horrifically comedic acts of violence. If post-modernism annoys you, if you find self-referential humor unfunny, if you want unambiguously heroic good guys and undeniably wicked bad guys in your elaborately costumed melodramas, this film is not for you. I cannot say this strongly enough: it’s not just R-rated, it’s the very definition of R-rated, minus gratuitous nudity, which it manages to avoid. It’s not a superhero movie so much as a deconstruction of superhero movies. And it’s one of those movies where, given a choice between having a character die, or having that same character die as gruesomely as possible, it pretty much always chooses the latter. Quinton Tarantino does not make comic book movies, but if he did, this is likely what it would look like. And sound like. On account of: F-bombs. So many many F-bombs.

This undoubtedly points to major flaws in my character, but I saw it and loved it. I laughed long and hard. And I took my daughter, and she laughed longer and harder. If this makes me a juvenile delinquent: guilty as charged. It brought out my inner fourteen year old, and I’m grateful. It’s just a very funny, genuinely exciting, honestly surprising movie. It’s also kinda emotional at times, though how seriously we’re meant to take that is worth examining.

I mean, superheros lose loved ones. Peter Parker loses his beloved Uncle Ben, giving Spiderman a pathos which grounds the character in interesting ways. Captain America loses, basically, everyone dear to him. And so Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), at the end of the last movie, was deeply in love with his beloved Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). And so, of course, just before the opening credits, she is killed by some bad guys Deadpool failed to dispatch. She’s fridged, in other words.

“Fridging (Short for “Women in Refrigerators”) refers to an act where the villain kills, maims, depowers, or rapes someone (female) close to the hero in order to break the hero’s spirit and attempt to make the hero chase him.”

And the graduate seminar on feminist literary theory in my head instantly saw the death of Vanessa for what it was; one of the most clichéd and dismissive narrative tropes used by clueless male writers. My daughter, sitting next to me, reacted as I had. “They fridged Inara?!?!?” she said. (You either get the reference or you don’t). Except did they?

Because immediately after Vanessa’s death, we get the opening credits, and instead of the names of the directors and writers and producers, it goes all meta, with jokey WTF exclamations of faux shock and surprise about what had just happened. Fridging? Or fridging deconstructed? Fridging ironically undercut metatextually?

I think the latter. And applaud the movie for doing it. Also, remember, superhero deaths tend to be fairly provisional–a thought that got a lot of us through the end of Infinity Wars.  Deadpool is saddened, and becomes suicidal, and then vows to get his revenge–which pretty much doesn’t happen–and then is saved by his X-men friends, particularly Colossus (Stefan Kapacic). And that’s all, again, superhero movie cliché. Which this movie pretty well traffics in, like all superhero movies do, except ironically in this one. Deconstructively.

I don’t want to give too much away. I do love that Deadpool decides he needs his own superhero crew, and with the help of his bartender friend Weasel (T. J. Miller), gathers resumes and hires himself some. And they’re hilarious, both in their varied superpowers, and–with one exception–their astonishing ineptitude.

The exception is Domino (Zazie Beetz), and her superpower is, she’s lucky. She just has good luck. A baddie aims his gun at her, and the gun misfires. She narrowly escapes various traffic related mishaps. It’s a terrifically funny superpower, and the movie makes the most of it. And the young actress who plays her was terrific. I also loved the hilariously perky X-man, Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna), who seems to have a firewhip thing she uses, and the youthful Firefist (Julian Dennison), a plus-sized New Zealander teen, who occupies the equivalent narrative role of John Connor in the Terminator franchise, which also requires a from-the-future assassin, a la Arnold, Cable (Josh Brolin), who Deadpool consistently calls ‘Thanos.’ (Again, you either get the joke or you don’t). They’re all great. Plus a cameo by Brad Pitt, who plays Vanisher, a superhero who is, well, invisible.

Anyway, I enjoyed the movie very much indeed, and only recommend it to those of you who think you can stomach it, while warning away those of you who know in your hearts that you can’t. And I suspect you know who you are.



Tully: Movie Review

Babies are unequivocally wonderful. Sweet, helpless creatures who can melt your heart with a smile. Endless promise, endless potential. Living evidence that humanity has a bright and glorious future.

And also selfish, squalling, screaming little poop machines, demanding, horrible, red-faced and completely, totally, exhausting. A week dealing with a colicky infant can feel like the worst medieval torture. Women know this: you would commit homicide for a nap; you would burn down a convent for a shower. And that’s not even counting how damaged and vulnerable and in pain and hormonal women feel anyway, after the agony and trauma of childbirth.

In Tully, Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a woman with two children, an eight-year old daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland), and six-year-old son, Jonah (Asher Miles Falica), who has some sort of undiagnosed emotional disorder. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is a moderately successful corporate middle-manager drone, and Marlo is on maternity leave from a job in HR. Comfortable middle-class family, not wealthy, in a pretty good, fairly mutually supportive marriage. Marlo, as the movie begins, is exceedingly pregnant, and twenty minutes into the movie, gives birth, to baby Mia. Marlo is at her wit’s end before Mia shows up, because Jonah, basically a sweet kid, is also impossible, given to uncontrollable tantrums when triggered by what essentially seem to be random events–parking in the ‘wrong’ parking lot, the sound of a toilet flushing, any foods that aren’t chicken nuggets.

And then Mia arrives. And Marlo is . . . empty.  Sleep deprived and exhausted, can barely function. But her much-wealthier brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for her to have a night nanny. I’d never heard of such a thing, but apparently it’s real. A night nanny comes to your house around 10:30, watches your baby overnight, brings her to Mom for breast feedings, but takes care of everything else. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis). And Tully is amazing. She’s kind, she’s cheerful, she’s wonderful with the baby, and she cleans the house all night so Marlo doesn’t have to deal with it. She bakes minion cupcakes for Jonah’s schoolmates. She counsels, supports, cajoles. She’s kind. She’s also kind of weird, with hippie-ish ideas about the relationship between Moms and babies, and with all sorts of random facts at her fingertips. (It’s also possible that she might be a mermaid). Marlo’s skeptical at first of Tully–does she even need this, what’s going on, can I actually trust this young woman? But in very short order, Marlo is transformed. She can actually sleep at night! She has energy again! She re-engages with her family, cooks nicer meals, apologizes to people who she had blown up at, even, weirdly, starts to regain something of a libido. Tully’s a lifesaver.

And now I have to stop telling you about the movie’s story, and just urge you to see it. If you’re a Mom, you absolutely must see this movie. And do whatever you need to to get your husband to see it with you. I say that as a guy–he needs to see this. Drew, her husband, is not a bad guy. He’s a good Dad, he loves his wife and family, he’s certainly not remotely unfaithful or whiny or more than normal amounts of selfish. Ron Livingstone’s a fine actor, and the character he plays is not in any sense a villain. But seeing childbirth and infant raising from a woman’s perspective, as we do in this movie, is salutary for us guys. He doesn’t do enough. He does help out. Not close to enough. We don’t, generally. Make him watch it with you. It’ll be good for him.

And don’t leave early. And you’ll probably want to. At first, I thought it was going to be about how super duper awesome it is to be able to afford a night nanny, and sort of wanted to hate it for class reasons–most women can’t afford one, many new Moms are alone, many can barely afford housing. But no, that’s not what this movie is about.  The relationship between Tully and Marlo takes some weird turns, and you may be tempted to give up on it. Again: don’t. I wondered if it was going to be one of those horror movies where the nanny seems super nice and awesome and ends up a demon from the pits of hell. That’s not this movie; not even a little bit. We get all sorts of false clues as to What Might Be Going On– I promise, you’re going to make guesses and those guesses will be wrong. The first half of the movie is very funny, and then it gets sadder and sadder, but please, please, stay with it. Trust me on this. It’s a wonderful movie, eventually. I mean, not conventionally ‘gosh, babies are wonderful after all!’ (The baby’s performance was pretty flat, I thought–essentially, just crying and pooping. The baby doesn’t really grow or develop as a character, I suppose because this movie mostly just covers the first month of its life. Babies don’t. Eventually they become teenagers. This is not a huge improvement).

But there are three other reasons to see it. First, is Diablo Cody’s screenplay. Sorry, that’s former stripper, now mother-of-two, Oscar winner Diablo Cody. She’s such a fine writer, truthful and funny and sad and real. Look at her screen credits: Juno, Ricky and the Flash, the upcoming Barbie movie. Her screenplay is a marvel, detailed and smart and so very intriguing. I won’t give away its secrets; just see the movie.

Second, Theron. Charlize Theron is a marvelous actress, and earlier that day I had seen some of her performance in Atomic Blonde, where she plays a kick-ass assassin femme fatale. Not this time. But she’s completely unafraid in this movie, to strip away all vestiges of movie star glamour, and just be a woman with a new baby who can barely cope. It’s just a terrific performance, funny when it needs to be, heart-breaking when that’s required.

Finally, it’s not a political movie, not even a little. But it also really is. It reminds us that most advanced nations offer–heck, require–paid maternity leave for families with new babies, for both Mom and Dad, for a year or longer. And that would make a difference. Having children is hard. Not just a little bit hard–exceptionally, heart-breakingly hard. Women’s bodies are amazing, and the babies are amazing, and families are wonderful, but there is nothing about childbirth and infancy that are easy. Only one major industrialized nation does not require employers to provide for maternity leave for both parents, and the reason is simple: Republicans. Pro-family Republicans. And no, nothing in the movie even suggests that political agenda. Except all of it does.

Anyway, see it. Watch it to the end. Make hubby see it too. It’s just really good. And then come home afterwards and give your kids a hug. Betcha anything they hug you back. Kids are great that way.

The Avengers: Infinity War, movie review

Most big action movies are built on the structure of nineteenth century melodrama: a protagonist hero, trying to accomplish something laudable, while also winning the girl. Marvel superhero movies are no exception. Each of the many many Marvel superheroes have starred in movies of their own, and each followed that tried and true formula. Infinity War is the exception. It’s a quest movie, in which the protagonist works through barrier after barrier, towards a goal, opposed by a variety of obstacles and antagonists. Only, in this case, the protagonist is also the film’s villain. He drives the action; his choices and the objectives of his quest are what structure the movie.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is the movie’s protagonist/villain. He spends the movie trying to gather six Infinity stones, for which he has acquired a special glove. Combined, the stones will give him awesome powers. It frankly reminded me of the last couple of Harry Potter movies, in which Harry and Hermione and Ron are trying to find and destroy horcruxes. Same basic dynamic–where are they, who has them, how can we get hold of them. And Thanos has an overarching purpose, and, seen through one lens, a noble one. He wants to end poverty and hunger. He wants to improve life on every planet in the universe. He thinks the biggest problem in the universe is overpopulation. So his plan is to kill half the sentient beings everywhere. Kill 50% of everyone. Wipe them out. An instant, appalling cure for scarcity of resources. Yikes.

So, though he rather looks like an overgrown, overly-muscled oaf, he’s actually more interesting than that. His cruelty and violence have a design and purpose. He is capable of compassion and feeling; in fact, he believes himself to be acting out of genuine empathy. He honors a valiant opponent. He loves his daughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and forgives her (as he sees it), betrayal. He clumps across the screen with an inexorable power and authority. And the various permutations of Avengers who work improbably together to defeat each of his attempts to grab a stone seem, at times, like annoyances, rather than as serious threats.

Of course, he’s also a brutal mass murderer. He is absolutely the villain of the movie. I just found it interesting to see how, I don’t know, defensible his plans were. Reprehensible, to be sure. And in need of being defeated, absolutely. Our sympathies are with the various superheros trying to stop him. Most of the time. But he drives the plot, and one of the immutable rules of dramatic structure is this: you will always root for the protagonist. And we do, sort of. Kind of. At least a little bit.

We’re also rooting for the main Avengers, of course, especially for Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who is battered and ravaged and intrepid throughout, for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), especially through his relationship with teen protege, Spiderman (Tom Holland), and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose gifts include an insight into how Thanos can be defeated that I would really have appreciated the durn movie sharing with us out there in the cheap seats. Also, strangely prominent, Vision (Paul Bettany), who has one of the stones embedded in his head, and is quite willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

In fact, that leads me to another theme of the movie. Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that you were told that you could stop Hitler, prevent the Holocaust. But to do it, you had to kill the one nearest-and-dearest person in your life. A spouse, a parent, a child. Someone you loved deeply; someone you’ve built your life around. Well, would you do it? Would you kill someone you cared about in order to prevent the mass slaughter of millions (or even billions) of strangers? I’ll tell you right now, I’m not sure I would. Logically, it’s an easy call: weigh one life against billions? Emotionally, I don’t know what I’d do. What a dreadful, wrenching dilemma.

Well, that particular moral dilemma is reinacted repeatedly in this movie. Several characters are faced with it. They don’t respond uniformly. They make different choices. It was a fascinating conundrum to build a superhero movie around. (Especially if we believe that superheros are somehow unique, more than ordinary humans, and therefore especially to be valued). It gave the movie a bit more heft than we’re used to with most superhero movies. It raised the stakes.

Of course, there are many many characters in this movie, and a lot of them aren’t really given much to do. Among other things, it includes three of the four Chrises (Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt), so we can do a side-by-side acting-chops comparison. (Hemsworth wins, and it’s not close: Captain America (Chris Evans), isn’t given much to do, and Starlord (Chris Pratt), is just sort of goofy through much of the movie. (Yes, this is an Avengers movie in which Vision is much more prominent than Captain America). Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is just sort of there, while Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), gets a lot more screen time and more satisfying acting challenges. It’s very clear to me that Black Panther‘s success took Marvel by surprise, or T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) would have been more central to the plot than he was. Meanwhile, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), spends a lot of the movie trying to emerge–Bruce Banner doesn’t seem to have gained much control over his ferocious alter ego. Two final actor mentions. Karen Gillan, so great in the last Jumanji movie, reprises Gamora’s sister, Nebula, and was terrific in that tiny role. And Peter Dinklage is in it, playing a dwarf, only a really tall one. Kudos.

Considering how high the stakes are throughout, the movie had a surprising amount of comedy, which made it’s nearly three hours running time go down a little more easily. (I was never bored, though, I’ll say that for it). I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I was rather comforted by the thought that superhero deaths are often fairly temporary. Whew.

Overall, though, I found it impressive, a bit overwhelming, and, considering it had fifty seven main characters, surprisingly compact. I mean, if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re going to. That’s essentially mandatory, right? But I expect you’ll enjoy it, sort of, as I did, pretty much. Kind of. Stay past the credits. There’s a post-credits sequence which I found completely baffling, but which probably represents a ray of hope, or something. And at least we get to see Samuel L. Jackson say half of his favorite word. So there’s that.

Korihor’s Children, part five

Korihor casts a long shadow in the Book of Mormon. His ideas seem to have come from the priests of wicked King Noah, by way of Nehor and the kingmen, but his dark presence continues, influencing the Zoramite heresy and eventually, the rise of the Gadianton robbers. Giddianhi’s insolent bravado has echoes of Korihorish thought, and I see resonances in the history of that wiliest of Nephite quislings, Amalickiah.

I think that’s why he’s included. Imagine, if you will, that someone were given the responsibility of editing and compiling, from a variety of sources, a thousand-year history of England, with around 500 pages to work with. What should he include?  Shakespeare’s a no-brainer, and Henry VIII and the Reformation; does John Wycliffe make the cut? Henry V: in or out?  All right then, would our imaginary editor include a chapter on Ned Ludd?  Very unlikely, unless he thought the cultural audience for whom he was writing was likely to develop dangerously Luddite tendencies. And you were worried about it, and in fact, were writing the book to combat just those ideas. Then, yes, you’d include a good bit about Ludd. But not otherwise.

It’s generally historically dubious to draw direct and specific parallels between the actions of historical figures and actions being contemplated today. But scripture is different. Scripture isn’t intended to be read as history; it’s purposes are didactic and pointed.  We’re supposed to liken it unto ourselves.  The Book of Mormon, as scripture, is a 531-page sermon, in which historical materials are introduced to illustrate certain arguments, involving parallels between one ancient culture and our own culture, complete with heroes we’re meant to emulate, and villains we’d be wise to avoid.  When Mormon describes the arguments of Korihor, it’s because he has prophetic reason to think similar arguments are being made and listened to today.

And so, in Alma 30, in just a few verses, we get a compact, even if rudimentary account of what appears to have been quite a comprehensive philosophical system, complete with metaphysics, axiology, and epistemology.  It’s not uncommon for Mormons to use Korihor as a club to attack humanism, or philosophy, or perhaps some philosopher–Nietzsche’s a popular choice–they disagree with.  Gerald Lund, for example, in a reductio ad absurdem article in the Ensign, compared Korihor to Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson and their 1973 Humanist Manifesto II, which appeared in Humanist magazine. Korihor=secular humanism. That’s much too broad to be very meaningful, and frankly reads as rather shallow, and so may my reading be; all readings are misreadings, de omnibus dubitandum est. Still, it’s not hard to see, in Korihor, a very specific cult of heroic individualism, one in which “every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.”  In fact, ‘prospering’ emerges as the defining value of Korihor’s system, excusing conquest, the acquisition of power and influence, and pretty much any kind of sexual or violent conduct.  (See, for example, that chillingly all-inclusive ‘whatsoever:’ whatsoever a man did was no crime.  This isn’t moral relativism; it’s moral anarchy.).  I’ll grant as well, that Korihor, at least as he emerges in an account written by men hostile to his teachings, is just not that interesting a thinker. To find his like, we’d need to look at more popular thinkers; not really at philosophers per se so much as the sorts of people who play them on TV, so to speak.  Which may be why my thoughts turn so immediately to Ayn Rand: someone superficially appealing, able to hornswaggle such “deep thinkers” as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul into thinking her profound.

Because it’s all there. The celebration of individualist achievement. The rejection of religion and spirituality. The notion that everyone prospers according to his genius, and conquers according to his strength, and that no act by a strong man can be immoral. And how strong men are set upon and persecuted by religious do-gooders like Alma.

It’s hard to improve upon the marvelously preposterous nature of Randian dualism.  Instead of dividing the world into ‘body’ and ‘spirit,’ as most dualistic thinking does, Rand divides ‘body’ up into ‘ideal men’ and ‘second-raters.’ Her world consists entirely of strong men, who we should view as exemplars because of their whole-hearted pursuit of their own happiness, and of weak men, ‘nonideal’ men, who only want to drag heroes down.  Strong men advance all of society through their fearless creativity, and tiny, lesser men either bow at their feet, or contrive to destroy them.  Rand called her philosophy ‘objectivism’ (which isn’t a bad description for Korihor’s own metaphysical stance), but what she really celebrated was egoism:

All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good.  All which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil. . . . The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. . . This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him, and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency.  But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others . . . that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental (Harry Binswanger 450)

By far the closest literary parallel I can find to Korihor is that iconic architect of great and spacious buildings, Howard Roark, hero of Rand’s The Fountainhead. Well, John Galt, of course, but bear with me. In her preface to the 1968 edition of the novel, Rand made it clear that the “purpose, first cause and prime mover” of the novel was its portrayal of the “ideal man” Roark (vii).  If we didn’t know that going in, we’d certainly get it from the novel itself, a preachy melodrama in which Roark confronts and eventually defeats the second-rate architect Peter Keating and his mentor, the evil altruist–and in Rand’s world-view, ‘evil’ and ‘altruist’ are inevitably linked–Ellsworth Toohey. But there’s a delicious irony in Roark’s profession.  Essentially the main plot of The Fountainhead revolves around the building of a Rameumptom.

The grim comedy of the Rameumptom is found in Alma 31.  Immediately after defeating Korihor, Alma takes his sons with him on a mission to the Zoramites, a Korihorish splinter group who were “perverting the ways of the Lord (Alma 31: 1)” through idol worship. And which idols were they worshipping–what were their golden calves?  Nothing less than themselves.  The cult of heroic individualism takes on a new face and identity.

We all know about the Rameumptom, the “holy stand (Alma 31: 21)” where each Zoramite stood, arms stretched upwards, and thanked God for how terrific Zoramites were: “We thank thee, Oh God, that we are a chosen and a holy people (Alma 31:18).” Compare this description of the Stoddard Temple, Roark’s greatest building in The Fountainhead:

When a man entered this temple, he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed.  It was a joyous place, with the joy of exaltation that must be quiet.  It was a place where one would come to feel sinless and strong, to find the spirit of peace never granted save by one’s own glory (334).

I love the idea of a building where men can go to celebrate their own glory.  What’s fantastic about both the Stoddard Temple and the Rameumptom is how sublimely, wondrously, marvelously funny they both are.  (And all the funnier given the self-righteous humorlessness of Rand’s prose).  It reminds us that Hamlet’s stirring “What a piece of work is  man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” is meant sardonically; those repeated exclamation points give the joke away.  Hamlet would surely appreciate the savage comedy of the Rameumpton; a religion built on a preposterously inflated self-worth.  (We know what their prayers sounded like: what do you suppose is in their hymnal?  Right Said Fred’s “I’m too sexy for my shirt,” perhaps?).  I remember a few years ago, a friend and I happened to be in Anaheim, and had the opportunity to visit The Crystal Cathedral.  It’s a spectacular building, and we enjoyed our visit.  But our favorite moment was a memorial to ‘Christian capitalists,’ where wealthy donors could give money, and get their names on a wall commemorating, well, them. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of, let’s face it, me.” (The danger, of course, for a Church of Me, is an ill-timed bout of flatulence from just one celebrant, which could literally blow the whole theology away.)

But, of course, the selling point is “freedom.” Freedom from restrictions, freedom from a moral code, freedom to do whatever you choose and to profit by it, freedom from societal, governmental or religious restraint. Alma, as a priest, is accused by Korihor of using his Church position to enrich himself. He is likewise accused of using his governmental position, as chief judge, to enrich himself. Korihor, like Randian libertarians, preaches liberation. Above all, of course, today, it’s freedom from taxation. Taxation is bondage, we’re told. It’s our money, and we want to keep it. Our hard-earned money, as we’re constantly told. Look up, instead of down, rise against arbitrary restrictions!

No wonder it turned out to be kinda popular. But King Benjamin thought otherwise.