Category Archives: Religion

Korihor’s Children: Part 6.5

I had intended my next post in this series to be a) a lot sooner and b) a continuation of the arguments made earlier. Illness has intervened, however, and I thought a brief side excursion first might be helpful. I want to talk about a challenge I see a lot. My conservative friends frequently ask this: where in the scriptures does it suggest that the coercive powers of government can or should be used to help alleviate poverty? Isn’t charity a private matter? Doesn’t the Church oppose public welfare; isn’t our obligation to the poor supposed to be a matter of agency? Everyone agrees that the scriptures urge us to help the least of these, Christ’s brethren. But do we partially fulfill that through a government program?

The difficulty is that the scriptures describe a variety of societies very distant from our own. We are a religiously pluralistic society, with a democratic republic governing. We believe in a separation of Church and state. Throughout most of human history–and certainly every society described in scripture–none of that was true. A public v. private understanding of charity would have been nonsensical in ancient Israel, for example. The predominant political structure throughout most of history was monarchy or, occasionally, theocracy. Most nations had, and enforced a state religion. And caring for the poor was rarely any kind of governing priority. And even so, there are still a number of scriptures in which political/governmental entities engaged in supporting charitable activities.

To begin with, the Israelite practice of Jubilee was surely intended to alleviate poverty. As described in Leviticus 25, every fiftieth year, all prisoners and slaves were freed, and all debts canceled. Fields were to lay fallow, and everyone urged to celebrate the bounty of the earth. It was to be a year of simple living, with class distinctions erased. Property would revert to hereditary ownership. What that means in practical terms is that you couldn’t really buy or sell land–you could only lease it.

The existence of jubilee years would seem to preclude the possibility of income inequality, or at least reduce inequality. After all, if land is money, and land is power, the fact that anyone would have to return land purchased from other people every fiftieth year would militate against the accumulation of wealth.

So what we have described here in Leviticus 25 is a divinely mandated, but legally enforced anti-poverty, pro-equality program. Every fiftieth year, everyone’s debts were cancelled, and purchased land reverted to its previous owners. Would you say that’s a private anti-poverty mandate, or a public one? The context is so radically unlike our own, those terms are close to meaningless. But it was, in pre-exile Israel, a requirement, not optional. The coercive powers of the state could be said to enforce it.

What about the practice of gleaning? Leviticus 23 is clear enough about it:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God.

Again, the practice of gleaning was not an option. It was a requirement of the law of Moses, legally enforceable. When harvesting, you were expected to leave the corners of the field alone, and the edges of the fields as well. The grain in those areas was free pickings for poor people. Farmers were not allowed to discriminate–decide which poor people they’d let into their fields, nor frighten away gleaners with dogs. They were required to harvest so that gleaning could follow, and they were supposed to allow gleaners in.

That practice is central to understanding the book of Ruth, which I consider one of the most beautiful works found in scripture. Boaz obeyed the law, and seeing Ruth gleaning in his fields, was impressed by her. And the rest of the story followed.

No one knows how long gleaning took place in ancient Israel, or by what legal mechanisms it was enforced. It’s quite possible that the book of Ruth was included in scripture to encourage the practice. Many European nations continued doing it up through the mid-nineteenth century, and in Israel, some communities practice it today. You could argue that this was an example of private, not public charity. But if communities enforced it, and likely some did, then it wasn’t optional. It was a mandate.

What conservatives really object to, of course, is tax revenues being used for charitable purposes, as legally required and enforced by a strong central government. That’s the system we have today in the US (and elsewhere), and the conservative argument is that coercion, with the threat of violence, corrupts the giving of alms. ‘Let me keep my own money, and I will use it to help the poor, as God requires of me.’ (I hope I haven’t misrepresented the conservative argument here–let me know if I have).

The difficulty is that the situation of today, with a large, centralized, somewhat distant central government collecting taxes from us (under threat of violence if we don’t pay) doesn’t really have much of a parallel in scripture. That didn’t really describe the political situation found in most of the Bible, or in LDS scripture.

There is, however, one exception: Rome. When the New Testament was written, Palestine was under Roman occupation. Rome was big, distant, powerful, violent and rapacious for taxes. Taxes were collected by publicans, public contractors, member of the conquered community, who took a percentage of taxes collected for his own use, and also maintained public buildings. So, Jewish publicans were, well, Jews. And the profession was much hated, as you can imagine. It’s no accident that the phrase ‘publicans and sinners’ so frequently is found in scripture.

And there were many kinds of taxes. Land taxes, estate taxes, taxes on manufactured goods and traded commodities, a tax on widows and orphans specifically earmarked to pay for upkeep of military horses, a tax on unmarried men, a special tax if you owned slaves, another one if you freed slaves, and a third if you sold slaves. So many taxes, for so many purposes. And all of them massively unpopular.

What did Jesus think about them?

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22: 15-21)

It was a verbal trap. Let’s ask this Jesus guy about taxes. If he says ‘taxes are evil; don’t pay them,’ the Romans will arrest him. If he says ‘taxes are fine; pay ’em,’ he’ll alienate everyone. Instead, Jesus presents a third alternative. Pay your taxes; obey the law. And worship God. It’s a beautiful answer.

The Romans had a tax for everything, and a use for every tax. And most of those tax dollars were spent on the military, or on civic infrastructure. But taxes were also used to . . . alleviate poverty. In fact, a major Roman expenditure was for what has come down to us as ‘panem et circenses.’ Bread and circuses.

Romans were conquerers, and brutal ones. Roman circuses–the Roman Games–were horrific, bloody, violent spectacles. But panem? The grain dole–the annona–was instituted by Gracchus in the second century BCE, and continued under the emperors, and literally could be the difference between life and death for the Roman poor. It was also, of course, a way to prevent civil unrest and the potential for violent revolution. It was hardly benign. But people who might not otherwise get to eat did get to.

Should we have to pay this tax? At least one of those taxes was used to feed poor people. Did Jesus endorse it? No, he sidestepped the question. But he did not condemn it.

Certainly, the scriptural record does not unequivocally endorse public charity. Nor does it condemn it. And there are scriptural passages that support at least some form of public assistance for the poor. Of course, our best, most relevant scripture on the subject is found in the Book of Mormon, with King Benjamin’s address. I’ll address that next.


In Defense of Mixed Economies

Thought experiment: let’s suppose your daughter just got a new job. It’s a great job, one she has been training for and preparing for all her life. She’s tremendously excited by it, and you’re excited for her. But it will require that she relocate. in fact, it will require her to move to another country, leave the US, if not forever, for at least a substantial length of time. How excited would be for her? How scared would you be?

My guess is that in large measure, it would depend on where she would need to move to. If her new job were in France, you’d be delighted. You might have some trepidation–after all, this is your daughter we’re talking about. But you can always Skype, you can email, you can text, you can call. It’s not like you’ll lose touch with her. And France, my gosh, France is beautiful. You’ll think of ways to plan vacations around visiting her. You’ll celebrate at a nice French restaurant. You’ll brush up on your high school French. You’d be excited for her. Right?

But let’s suppose that she told you her new job was in Libya. Or Somalia. Or Afghanistan. Well, you’d be scared to death. You’d try to talk her out of going. If she was, in fact, going to those three countries, it would probably mean that she was in the US military, and heading into a combat zone. But those countries are, economically, not prosperous. They’re for the most part failed nations.

You want your child to move, if move she must, to a country with jobs, good health care, good schools, rule of law, adequate transportation. You would want her to go to a relatively prosperous nation.

In short, you would want her to move to a country with a mixed economy. You would be thrilled if she moved to Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland. You’d be delighted if her job were in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, or Germany. Austria would be fine. So would South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy would be fine. Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all have growing economies. So does Romania. Mexico has a problem with gang violence, but is otherwise fairly safe and prosperous. And they’re all countries with, to some degree or another, mixed economies.

What is a mixed economy? It’s a system that combines market capitalism with socialism. It has some of the characteristics of each. Generally, it means an economy where private property is protected, where the free market and supply and demand determine prices. It’s an economy that relies on the enlightened self-interest of individuals, to make their own basic economic choices–where they’ll live, what they’ll drive, what they’ll purchase. Rule of law makes for orderly conflict resolution, and regulation and taxation keep income inequality under control. It also has a robust social safety net. Quality of life is protected through laws governing how much people are paid, how many vacation days they’re allowed, what to do in the case of illness or incapacity. Generally, pensions are either generous or, at least, adequate. Education is well-financed. Governments take infrastructure needs seriously. Taxes can be fairly high. And health care is regarded as a right, and provided for either through the government or via government mandate.

A lot of my friends on the Right are terrified of the spectre of creeping socialism. They warn against it. They point, with trembling fingers, to the Bad Examples of Venezuela recently and the Soviet Union historically. If LDS, they like to quote Ezra Taft Benson on the subject. And if they’re LDS, they vote for either conservative Republicans or Libertarian Republicans. Libertarians are likewise loathe to embrace socialism. Their mantra is Freedom, by which they mean complete deregulation, with private enterprise expected to take over many government services, and with health care up to each individual. “There has to be a market solution” to the problem of health care access, they say.

And, up to a point, they’re right. The defining characteristic of socialism is public ownership of industry and commerce, with a command economic element. Prices are set by government. production quotas are set by the government. Weak industries are propped up and not allowed to fail, and everyone is guaranteed full employment, at wages established by government bureaucracy. It’s been tried, and it doesn’t work. By the end, the Soviet Union was an economic basket case. Today, Russia is a deeply corrupt kleptocracy, but with market elements–it’s doing a bit better. Free markets work. It really is fair to say that socialism, as an economic system, is a proven failure.

But so is laissez faire, deregulated, fully-liberated-and-free unrestrained capitalism. The nineteenth century demonstrated that nicely, both here and in Europe. Libertarianism doesn’t have a lot of test cases anymore, but Somalia remains one, a country without rules, laws or policing. They have two major industries–sale of an addictive hallucinogen, qat, and piracy. It’s a nightmare state, just recently starting to emerge with something resembling rule of law. The nineteenth century tended to devolve into the worst kind of Dickensian nightmare. Income inequality was rampant, and the poor largely just starved. And if we learned anything from the world-wide debacle of the Financial Crisis of 2006-09, it’s the complete failure of financial deregulation.

By hook and by crook, by trial and error, through experimentation and by degrees, what has developed in its place is the mixed economy. Free markets are essential, and free trade preferential. But economies do also include some planning, and markets are carefully regulated. And social safety nets prevent income inequality from utter destructiveness. In nation after nation on earth, we’ve learned a lot in the last fifty years. Scandinavia led the way, as did the Fabian incrementalist model in the UK and elsewhere.

In the United States, in many respects, we’re a mixed economy. Every country is different, every example internationally can teach its own lessons. Right now, I would suggest that the US needs a greater commitment to the socialist side of the mix. We need universal health care; we need pension reform, we need to make college affordable for our kids. This is all doable. And should be the policy approach of the Democratic party going forward.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Korihor’s children, part one

My approach to the Book of Mormon is, I think, fairly idiosyncratic, and rather unorthodox. At least I haven’t seen this perspective articulated before.

I am not interested in the question of whether or not the Book is “true.” I don’t consider myself sufficiently expert in ancient texts, or genetics, or the Middle East in the 7th century BC or in any of the other arenas where apologists and debunkers do battle to have an informed opinion. The relevant question to me is not ‘is the Book of Mormon true?’ It is ‘is the Book of Mormon scripture?’ And the answer, for me, is yes.

When I say I don’t know if the Book of Mormon is true, that doesn’t mean I think it’s untrue. It just seems to me a baffling question. One might say that the Book of Mormon cannot be scripture if it’s not true. I can’t really address that, though, because the statement ‘the Book of Mormon is true’ is one I genuinely do not understand. I’ve heard that phrase my entire life, and I finally had to conclude that I’ve never understood it. But it is scripture; uniquely valuable and important.

Sometimes when I read the Book of Mormon, it feels to me like a nineteenth century text; sometimes, it feels genuinely ancient. I’m not qualified to judge either way. Nor do I care to. I read it, I study it, I admit it to my prayer life, I intend to continue doing all those things. To me, the Book of Mormon is a work of scripture, whenever or whoever actually wrote it. I define ‘scripture’ as any written work that significantly and meaningfully explores issues and ideas relating to the relationship between humanity and Deity. I do not read our Mormon scripture to increase my testimony, or looking for inspirational proof-texts. I read it to gain insight into how God wants me to act, what He wants me to do. I want to engage with scripture, wrestle with it, disagree, at times, with it. It also doesn’t matter to me if two different works of scripture contradict each other; I expect them to. Different times, different places, different authors, different intentions.

To illustrate what I mean, look at the Book of Joshua. Joshua describes a military campaign that can only be described as ethnic cleansing, a genocidal series of conquests which Joshua, in the text, genuinely seems to believe he has been commanded, by God, to carry out. I don’t know enough about Old Testament scholarship to know whether or not any of that actually happened; I strongly suspect that it did not, and that Joshua is a work of fiction, as Jesus’ parables are works of fiction, or the Book of Job probably is. But I don’t care: Joshua is spectacular scripture, precisely because it so challenges my beliefs about God’s universal love for all His children. To me, Joshua takes the idea that God might have a Chosen People to its most extreme logical conclusion. If God genuinely has a favored people, then less-favored people deserve less divine consideration. The result might well be divinely-sanctioned genocide. Joshua is horrifying, because its depiction of the resulting consequences of that mainstream idea is so graphic and so brutal. I can really only conclude that the idea of God having a chosen people is contrary to this scripture’s sense of God’s will. There are many many scriptures where the idea of God having a chosen people is articulated. Joshua provides a counter text, an argument. Do those scriptures contradict Joshua? Certainly, and productively. It makes me think; it expands my understanding. I believe that by using a deliberately extreme example, Joshua teaches the opposite of the message implied by a straightforward reading of the text.

I love the Book of Mormon, really genuinely love it. I love the Book of Mormon because it’s so bracingly, spectacularly progressive. I know what some of you are thinking: racially progressive? Yes, I think so. Problematic terms like ‘white and delightsome’ deconstruct themselves; I would suggest, in the Book itself. My close reading convinces me that ‘Nephite’ and ‘Lamanite’ are purely social constructions, that racial differences between them are little more than war-time propaganda, perpetuated by both sides.

I also believe that the Book of Mormon was written for our day. I believe that, of course, because I read it now, in the early years of the 21st century CE, and can’t read it any other way. If, when I say that, you want to dismiss me as an apologist, you’re more than welcome to. But I will take it a step further. I believe that my progressive reading of the Book of Mormon is a necessary one, and one that might help both the Book and the Church itself carve out a space in the years to come. The Book of Mormon is a book describing a destructively violent society, and one in which a handful of genuine progressives face destruction at the hands of brutal reactionaries. It’s a book in which an other-directed people are destroyed by a self-and-wealth-worshipping society. It describes a people that lose their humanity to violence, a formerly democratic society turned as lethal and toxic as Hitler’s Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. It also prescribes a solution, found in selfless Christian service. In fact, I was reading in Alma 17 this morning, and reading about the sons of Mosiah, who gave up privileged lives to work as missionaries to their cultures’ traditional enemies. It’s not a great parallel, but I couldn’t help but think of those amazing kids from Parkland Florida, preaching their truth to power. Victims of violence, preaching peace.

All of this is by way of introduction. This is part one of a multi-part series about the Book of Mormon character Korihor, who appears in just one chapter, Alma Chapter 30. A self-styled reformer, whose campaign was exceedingly short-lived, and ended in disgrace and poverty and failure. And yet, his ideas built on those of earlier thinkers, and became astonishingly influential in years after he died, leading eventually to the complete destruction of the societies described in the Book of Mormon. And I see echoes and resonances of his ideas throughout our society and our day. I think they’ll destroy us too, if they’re not confronted, exposed, and combated.

I think the Book of Mormon was written for our day. I believe it is holy scripture, as much scripture as Paul to the Romans, the Gospel of Luke, or Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which functions as scripture for many Americans today. And, frankly, Korihor scares me to death.

Christmas talk, 2017

I spoke in Church today. Here is my talk.

I have a friend, a former student, who was telling me about her five-year-old. They just got a kitten, and this little boy loves it. For his recent birthday, he said he wanted to become a cat. So they got him some cat pajamas, with a little cat tail and cat feet slippers, and he loves it. Running around the house, making cat noises. But then, my student told me, he was racing around, and slipped, and slid across the floor of their house, right down the stairs, thump thump thump to the landing below. She ran to the stairs to see if he was okay. And then she heard his little voice, saying “Okay. One life gone, eight more to go.”

I can identify with that little boy actually. This last year, I’ve definitely felt like I’ve used up at least a couple of cat lives myself. But thanks be to great doctors and hospitals and nurses, I’m doing much better. And when I think back on 2017, what I remember are moments of joy. The things I love most in life, friends and family, theatre and movies, books, and above all, music have sustained me, even in times of difficulty.

And as I’ve had leisure to think about it, I realized that illness and pain and difficulty are only to be expected and accepted. Suffering, disappointment, diseases and their symptoms, depression and loss, were always part of the deal. Mortality is a test, after all. It had to be that way. It had to be hard, to obey, to serve, to grow, to be kind. There also had to be unfairness, unwarranted suffering, undeserved pain. Life wasn’t fair for Job. And we believe that the atonement will reconcile everything, will heal every hurt and right every wrong.

But as I’ve contemplated this, something else occurred to me. Pain’s essential; Beauty may not be. The ability to experience the loveliness of Earth, and even to create beauty ourselves; that may not necessarily be required. It may just be a blessing. Look to our north. Check out Timpanogas. We don’t have to see it as beautiful. It could be, to us, nothing more than a great stone barrier, fallow ground, bad for crops and rotten for travel. But we don’t. It’s glorious. And that’s just one mountain, just one sight, amid the infinity of wonders we call our home. Annette and I once had a calling in the nursery, and we were supposed to teach the kids lessons. Two year olds; lessons. But the manual for the class was terrific. One lesson: Trees show how Heavenly Father loves us. That’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? But doesn’t all beauty, all loveliness, all art, all music testify of God’s love? They’re extra, they’re free gifts. They’re not necessary parts of the test. But they’re wonderful, because that’s also who Heavenly Father is; wonderful is one of His names. And the greatest gift of all, I think, is music.

Hold that thought.

It’s Christmas Eve, and tomorrow we celebrate the arrival of the Christ child; the birth of Jesus. And yes, it was the beginning of atonement, the essential moment when Jehovah received his mortal flesh. But it was something else too. An ordinary thing, a young couple, making a journey, a young woman giving birth.

Why do we not think of Christmas as a women’s holiday? Why is it not a feminist celebration? Is there anything more uniquely and spectacularly female than giving birth? And consider this: Mary was the first woman, in the history of the world, to know one thing. She knew that her baby would live. Angels told her that her baby would live. I love that thought. Not that we should ignore poor Joseph. His part was colossal; male role model for Deity. How do you nurture that nature? But Christmas is about Mary.

And a journey. Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, in Judea; Bethlehem was in Galilee, perhaps because some inflexible bureaucratic regulations required them to go there for a census. We usually picture Mary riding a donkey, but it’s unlikely they could have afforded one; in all likelihood, they walked. It’s seven miles as the crow flies, probably closer to ten by foot; it’s a rocky and difficult terrain. Probably took two days.

They were poor. As I understand it—I don’t speak Greek– Mark and Matthew use the word ‘tekton’ to describe Joseph. Tekton can be translated ‘carpenter,’ but more often, it’s translated ‘laborer.’ It’s the lowest rung in Roman society; Luke, writing years later, gave him a promotion to ‘peasant.’ And Nazareth was, literally, the punch line to a joke.

They arrived in Bethlehem exhausted. There was no room for them in the inn, because there is never room for the poorest of the poor. And then Mary went into labor, in a stable, the only shelter they could find.

We don’t just appreciate beauty, we create it. Which is hardly surprising, given who our Heaven Parents are, and who we are meant to become. As Sister Gayle Rice recently posted on Facebook, “as we awaken to our own creativity, we open ourselves to the power of God, and His influence and direction.” She would know; she’s a wonderful artist. So when we think of an event like the nativity, so simple and so packed with meaning, it’s hardly surprising that so many artists have chosen that moment, in that Bethlehem stable as their subject. One of my favorites is a painting by Brian Kershisnek. Tucked into the corner of a huge canvas, are the holy family. Joseph, looking terrified, as though he’s just begun to understand what he’s taking on. Mary, exhausted, of course. Baby Jesus. And filling the rest of the canvas, hundreds upon hundreds of angels. They also have a dog. The dog’s the only one who can see the angels. He seems quite delighted by them. It’s hanging at the BYU Museum of Art: check it out.

Art enhances, magnifies, intensifies, reinforces. Art can also distort; it’s a powerful force, and needs to be wielded carefully. And there are many paintings of the Nativity. But what I love most of all is the music.

And so I’m drawn to holy scripture. Specifically to hymns numbered 201 to 214 in the hymnal we open every Sunday. And when I look at those hymns, a couple of things strike me immediately. First of all, there are no LDS hymns among them. They’re all from the European or American Protestant tradition. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But it reminds us that Christmas really is for and about everyone. Our hymnal should appropriately expresses an ecumenical generosity of spirit.

And each hymn takes some small aspect of the Christmas story and amplifies it, directs our attention to it, urges us to contemplate it. The first hymn, 201, is Joy to the World, which is hardly about the nativity at all. Instead it looks forward, to his return, to the time when “Jesus reigns, and saints their songs employ. When “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.” It’s a triumphant imagining of an event that hasn’t happened yet. So we start with a comprehensive look at the entire mission of our Savior. 202, Oh Come all Ye Faithful, reminds me a lot of Kershisnek’s painting. Someone had to get all those angels there. It’s in the voice, I imagine, of the choir President, making all those reminder phone calls. Come along, everyone! It’s happened! Come, all of you, to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Come, let us adore him.”

203, Angels we have heard on High, takes a different tack. We’re not in the angelic choir anymore; we’re bystanders, wondering what’s going on. Oh, look, shepherds; they might know. “Shepherds, why this jubilee? What the gladsome tidings be, which inspired your heavenly song.” And we get an answer, but for some reason it’s in Latin. Gloria, in excelsis, Deo.

And then comes 204. Silent Night. I love this hymn. And here’s the thing; childbirth is never silent. And we don’t want it to be. We want newborn babies to cry, it signals vitality and strength, we want our new child to be healthy. But afterwards, after the mess and confusion and pain of childbirth, there comes a moment when the new mother holds the infant in her arms, and both of them, finally, rest. Silent Night is about that moment, as a bewildered but staunchly supportive Joseph stands watch, as Mary and her heavenly child enjoy a moment of reverential repose. And while a heavenly chorus was undoubtedly rejoicing musically, I hope they sang sotto voce, a focused and intense pianissimo, letting mother and child, holy infant, so tender and mild, get some sleep.

I don’t have time to go over the rest of our Christmas hymns. But I want to call your attention to the last hymn in the cycle, number 214. You’ll be invited to join the choir in singing it later in this meeting. It’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day, a lovely setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow wrote it in 1863, at the height of the brutal slaughter of that horrific exercise in incivility, American civil war. Longfellow had long opposed slavery, but the war depressed him mightily. Adding to his depression, his beloved wife Frances, known as Fanny, died shortly after the war began, in a house fire. Then his son, Charles, very much against his wishes, enlisted, and in his first battle, was badly wounded. The accumulation of political and personal tragedies find expression in the song’s third verse. “And in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.” When our choir sings in just a moment, pay note to the beautiful arrangement by brother Curtis Winters of that powerful verse. And which of us wouldn’t be similarly overwhelmed. By the horrors of war, by the hatred of people who had once been united, and by the death of a beloved spouse, and terrible injury to a beloved child?

But that is not the meaning of Christmas bells. That pain, that sorrow, though understandable, belays the hope that came to earth in that Bethlehem manger.  No heartache can exist that the atonement cannot heal. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail; the right will prevail. And the message of this Christmas season, the meaning of all Christmas seasons, is peace on earth, good will toward men.

The great and everlasting atonement is an all encompassing purpose. But it wasn’t the only message Jesus brought. Christmas does not just urge upon us a generosity of soul and spirit, but physical, temporal, active generosity of action. As James Martin, a Catholic priest, wrote in a recent LA Times editorial, “Is it any surprise that Jesus felt such intense compassion for the poor and marginalized? That he constantly asked his disciples to care for the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the stranger?” The child born in a Bethlehem manger was also born into the most abject poverty. And that choice, and it was a choice, was made for him by our Heavenly Father. And it was a magnificent event, a beautiful event, made even lovelier through the music by which we celebrate it. But let’s not be blinded by that beauty. The nativity also imposes on us an obligation, even unto the least of them, our poorest and most deeply suffering brothers and sisters. Remembering that obligation is perhaps the truest meaning Christmas has.

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2: Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 was one of the summer movies this year I was most looking forward to. I hoped that I could catch it in its opening weekend, but other family members wanted to see it too, and coordinating schedules proved a challenge. But last night, we finally gathered at the cineplex. And we had a good time. It’s a surpassingly strange film, far more interesting in terms of its theology–I’m not kidding–than as the goofy comedy action movie it purports to be. But it’s entertaining; I’ll give it that.

Let’s start by talking about dramatic structure. Hollywood action movies follow the basic structure of late nineteenth century melodrama. All of them, without exception. Hero, heroine, comic sidekick, villains and their sidekicks, bad guys doing dastardly deeds, ultimately defeated by good guys, usually involving a fight, with awesome stunts. The plots are often rather baroque, with multiple subplots all racing towards a satisfying and exciting final confrontation. Still, there’s always a discernible hero, with a strong objective. Often it involves some kind of quest. The hero is trying to blow up the Death Star, or steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, or steal a magical orb from one bad guy, and using it to activate an ‘infinity stone,’ or something. That last bit was, as far as I can remember, Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) quest in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In order to accomplish that, Quill assembles the team known as the Guardians of the Galaxy–Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (a raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (a tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). Comic sidekicks, in other words. It was an amusing, but frankly pretty conventional superhero action movie plot.

This sequel is very different in structure. For most of the movie, Quill and his pals are just trying to stay alive. As the movie begins, they have been hired by a gold-skinned, genetically perfect species called The Sovereigns, to protect Anulex batteries from destruction. A massive beastie attacks; they fight it, and win. But Rocket, the scamp, steals some of the batteries they were hired to protect. So the Sovereigns come after them, and destroy their ship. So there’s no noble objective, no quest. They’re just trying to stay alive, because they’ve infuriated an entire civilization for no good reason.

In my review of the first Guardians movie, I compared it to Star Wars. That would make this one The Empire Strikes Back, and sure enough, we get a “Luke, I am your father.” moment. (It’s not anything like Empire in any other sense). The father, in this case, is Ego (Kurt Russell), who we earlier saw, in a flashback, with Peter’s Mom, looking absurdly like Kurt Russell, age twenty. (I don’t know how they did that, but it’s a very cool effect). But the Ego who shows up and declares himself has aged, and says he has been searching for Peter for years. And so, Ego takes Peter, Gamora and Drax with him to his planet, leaving Rocket and Groot (now, baby Groot), behind to repair their badly damaged ship. Where they are captured by another group, the Ravagers, under the putative command of Yondu (Michael Rooker). They’re professional thieves, and Yondu essentially raised young Peter. But they’re on the outs from other Ravagers, who have rejected them because Yondu broke the Ravagers’ code, by selling children into slavery.

At this point, the movie gets very weird. We’re a third of the way in, and nothing like a plot has managed to reveal itself–no quest, no objective, other than just staying alive. And Ego is a generous and welcoming host, and his planet is beautiful, considering that he lives on it by himself, with one aid, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementiev). At which point, the movie becomes an exploration of the doctrine and theology of apotheosis.

Apotheosis: the process by which men become deified. Ego, turns out, is a God. He became a God over millions of years, during which time he constructed this planet to glorify, well, him. Peter’s his son, and Peter is divine. He has a share of Ego’s creative power. He can create worlds of his own, if he wants to. And he’s immortal. Human Mom, Divine Father. The music set it up beautifully. The songs are the best parts of this movie, as they were in the previous one, and as Ego’s ship descends to his planet, we hear George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

As a Mormon, I found this unexpected twist fascinating, because apotheosis is, sort of, a Mormon doctrine. “As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become.” Right. But the more Peter (and his friends) dig into it, the more we learn about Ego’s divine reign. He’s awful. He’s kind of a monster. Peter is not his Only Begotten–Ego’s fathered lots of children, who he then executed when he finds that they lack the divine spark that Peter has. Anyway, it looks like Ego’s kind of bored, and wants his divine son to hang around, for company. There’s also a bit of a ‘we can rule the universe’ vibe to it.

It turns out that his spark of divinity resides at the planet’s core, where it can be gotten to and blown up. Since Ego’s plan for ruling the universe involves mass slaughter, killing him seems like a good idea. He’s a God, and he’s immortal, but apparently, he can also be killed. So that becomes the big quest thing, the movie’s plot. But it comes very late in the movie. And has almost nothing to do with Peter, our protagonist, who does very little to accomplish it. Mostly, it’s pulled-off by Groot and Rocket, who escaped from the Ravagers (with help from Yondu, and also Gamora’s ferocious sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who wants to kill Gamora, because of how their father pitted them against each other as children.

And that’s another theme of the movie, isn’t it? The abuse and murder of children. Yondu’s great sin, the thing that got him excommunicated as a Ravager, is his sale of children into slavery. He loved his adopted son, Peter, but Peter’s childhood was grim; a series of petty crimes. And, of course, that’s Ego’s great sin, too; the murder of his own children. Although almost nothing in the movie establishes Peter Quill as a Christ figure, he’s torn between two fathers; the brutality of Ego, his biological/divine father, and Yondu, the Dad who raised him, a Joseph the Carpenter figure.

So this is a movie about apotheosis, about men becoming Gods, about the most profound ideas of divinity, and divine responsibility, and the endless challenge of eternal life: boredom. Eternal life without eternal progression, really: the Mormon conception of hell. And it’s a movie about child abuse, about fathers abusing their children, and even murdering them.

And absolutely nothing in the tone of the movie, the approach of it, suggests either profundity or tragedy. It’s a clever, fun, post-modern comedy action flick, stylistically. Self-referential, with lots of jokes and deadpan insults splendidly delivered by Chris Pratt. Peter imagined, as a child, that Nightrider-era David Hasselhoff was his father, and sure enough, Hasselhoff himself gets a cameo. The Looking Glass hit, Brandy, is solemnly declared, by Ego, the greatest piece of music ever written. I love this exchange: “We’re friends!” “You’re not friends! You do nothing but fight!” “You’re right. We’re not friends. We’re a family!” (And, of course, the music’s perfect yet again: Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain). It’s a clever, funny, self-consciously self-referential movie, with jokes based on the characters, yes, but on ’70s and ’80s pop music, and other tropes drawn from superhero movies.

It’s an odd combination: theology, and post-modern jokiness. It’s too genial a movie to dislike. But what do we say about it? That it’s reaching for a profundity it doesn’t ever earn? That it’s fun but plotless, and let’s just ignore the theology stuff? Or this: that the Divine can be approached many ways, reverentially, yes, but also through jokes and fight scenes and goofiness? Ambitious failure? Or better, deeper, more interesting than it needs to be, given its origins as a summer superhero movie? And do we even have to choose?