About Corazon

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn



The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution.  By Robert P. Watson.  (Da Capo Press., August 31, 2017.  Pp. 256).   

The history of the American Revolution is a field that has been thoroughly plowed, on multiple occasions, by historians of every generation.  To find a unique parcel of this fascinating era of history that hasn’t already been cultivated is a chore to say the least.  Robert Watson’s The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn is one of those rare instances when a historian stumbles upon this rare piece of uncharted land. 

Watson’s book is focused almost exclusively on a British prisoner of war ship called the HMS Jersey.  On this boat, thousands of American prisoners of war (or those accused of disloyalty to the British crown) were confined in the dark, wet and disease-ridden hull of the Jersey. Food was scarce while sanitation was almost completely absent.  Watson points out how such conditions led to a death toll that rivaled that of combat fatalities during the war.

Due to these intolerable conditions, the Jersey developed a reputation throughout the American colonies (more specifically throughout New York).  In fact, the ship became a symbol of British tyranny and oppression, which galvanized the American rebels to support the cause of independence. 

The depth of Watson’s research is clearly evident in the book.  He regularly references the first-hand accounts of American colonists who had experienced confinement on the Jersey.  In addition, Watson relies on the records of the British themselves, who kept a detailed account of all prisoners incarcerated.  Watson’s attention to these sources adds credence to his claim that British prisoner ships did just as much (if not more) to bolster the cause of American independence as events like the Boston Massacre. 

The book’s prose has a pleasant flow that is easy for the reader to follow though the depth of Watson’s research may prove daunting for some (the book does, at times, repeat itself).  Watson presents the history in an entertaining manner, which makes the book feel more like an engaging story than a textbook.  Watson’s ability to frame the history in a compelling narrative will increase the appeal of this work to not only history enthusiasts but to a broader readership.

Overall, I found The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn to be an enjoyable and enlightening read.  Its unique contribution to the history of the American Revolution should not go overlooked.  My overall grade: B+

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Star-Spangled Fiction: Guarding Against Pretended Patriotism



"Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." -George Washington

Patriotism is a wonderful thing.  It inspires citizens of every nation to take pride in the best parts of their respective motherland.  Patriotism is what motivates the bravest among us.  It causes soldiers to willingly take up arms, fight and even die for their country.  Yes, patriotism is one of the most cherished commodities of any nation, which is why we all must, as the great American George Washington reminded us so long ago, “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

It is the topic of “pretended patriotism” that I wish to address today.  Over the past few years, I have (on various Facebook posts from friends) come across a popular YouTube video on the origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  The video, in various forms, has received over 5 million hits.


As you can see for yourself, the narrator of this video (a Baptist pastor by the name of David C. Gibbs) creates for his audience a solemn, even sacred atmosphere in which pure reverence for Francis Scott Key and the brave men who defended “Fort Henry” swells in the heart of the listener.  So why am I complaining about it, you ask?  The video is almost complete nonsense and Pastor Gibbs is either a liar or so historically illiterate that he has no business speaking about this or any other matter of American history!  His errors are many, his embellishments aplenty.  Let’s dissect them one-by-one shall we.

1.) At the beginning of the video, Gibbs states that Francis Scott Key wrote a song “called the National Anthem.”  I’m guessing this was just a mishap on his part but he’s still technically wrong.  The song (actually a poem) was originally called, The Defense of Fort McHenry and was later changed to The Star-Spangled Banner.   Key’s poem was later put to the music of, To Anacreon in Heaven, a popular 18th century British drinking song by John Stafford Smith, and finally emerged as the National Anthem of the United States in 1931.

2.) At the 0.50 mark Gibbs states, “The colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country, Britain.”  This is a MASSIVE historical faux pas on the part of Gibbs and reveals (right from the start) that he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.  “The colonies” hadn’t been “the colonies” for AT LEAST 30 years!  The 1783 Treaty of Paris (signed by Great Britain) secured American independence.  Those “colonies” had been states for at least 31 years!  Even more if you trace their genesis to the 1776 Declaration of Independence.  Gibbs doesn’t seem to realize that the War of 1812 was a completely different war than the American Revolution.  In fact, it was the United States that declared war on Great Britain during the War of 1812, not the other way around.
 
3.) At 1:09 Gibbs begins to describe a fictional situation in which “both sides” (the Americans and the British) had accumulated “prisoners.”  Gibbs then states the American government negotiated to exchange those prisoners and that Francis Scott Key was to act as chief negotiator.  Gibbs states that Key made his way to the British war ships via a “row boat” (Key was actually in a truce vessel, not a row boat) where he began negotiations for the release of American prisoners being held on British war ships.  This claim is ABSOLUTELY FALSE!!!  First, the British were not holding any American prisoners.  Second, Francis Scott Key was not sent by the American government to negotiate for the release of prisoners.  He was actually attempting to secure the release of just one man, Dr. William Beanes, who was a friend of F. S. Key.  Dr. Beans was an elderly non-combatant who had been taken prisoner outside of Washington D.C. after the British burned the White House (and much of the city).  Dr. Beans had not been mistreated in any way during his “captivity” with the British.  In reality, both Dr. Beans and Key were considered "guests" on board a British command frigate, where they dined with other British "gentleman." From the Library of Congress website:

When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend's capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes's release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement.

The notion that Key was sent to rescue “hundreds” of men, being kept in “chains” is completely bogus.  Pastor Gibbs should know better. 

4.) At the 2:30 mark Gibbs makes reference to “an ultimatum” that had been issued by the British to the soldiers at “Fort Henry” (the fort is actually called Fort McHenry).  According to Gibbs, the British demanded that the American flag be lowered, thereby signifying the surrender of the fort.  If they refused, the British intended to annihilate the fort.  Again, this is completely and utterly false! There was no ultimatum issued by the British, nor did they have any intention (or capacity frankly) to destroy Ft. McHenry.   

5.) At 2:55 Gibbs states that “the entire British fleet” consisting of “hundreds of war ships” were approaching and preparing to attack Fort McHenry.  This is another outright falsehood. The British only had 19 ships at Baltimore, nothing more. In addition, only 8 or 9 of those ships actually fired on the fort, since the other ships didn't have the guns capable of reaching the shore.  Also, it is important to note that Admiral Cochrane (the man in charge of the British fleet) had sent a landing party of British soldiers to attempt to gain intelligence. Cochrane then ordered his ships to pull back and only attack the redoubts of the fort. He clearly didn't want to destroy the fort or inadvertently kill his own men.  In addition, it is worth mentioning that Great Britain was involved in a war with Napoleon and France in Europe at this same time.  The overwhelming majority of their forces were being deployed in that theater, not in America, so the claim that the “entire British fleet” was coming to attack Ft. McHenry is idiotic at best.  In addition, the area of the Chesapeake Bay that meets the mouth of the Patapsco River where the British ships were located, when F. S. Key was with them, is nowhere near the sea. You'd have to go over 130 miles south to get a view of the Atlantic Ocean. So Key could not have "scanned the horizon of the sea" to see "hundreds of little dots" aka "the entire British war fleet.”  Another lie by Pastor Gibbs!

6.) In that same nonsensical rant, Gibbs states that this attack on Fort McHenry would “end the war.” NOT SO!  In fact, negotiations between the British and the Americans were already underway in the Netherland city of Ghent.  Even if the British had somehow destroyed and/or conquered Ft. McHenry it would have had little to no bearing on the outcome of the war.  As stated above, Britain was involved in a far more serious conflict with Napoleon in Europe.  The War of 1812 in America was a mere distraction that the British wanted to resolve as soon as possible.  This is why, despite the destruction of many key cities (including Washington D.C.), the United States escaped from the War of 1812 relatively unscathed.  The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, established what became known as Status Quo Antebellum, or in other words, America and Britain simply went back to the way things were before the war ever started.  No land was lost, no demands were made.  Britain washed its hands and moved on to the bigger Napoleon fish to fry.  If we owe anyone a debt of gratitude for getting us out of the War of 1812 it isn’t Andrew Jackson, James Madison, Francis Scott Key or any other American.  Our thanks should go to French General Bonaparte.

7.) At 3:18 Gibbs states that Fort McHenry was “full of women and children” and that it was “not a military fort.”  Both of these claims are completely inaccurate.  Fort McHenry was a very strategic stronghold that protected Baltimore and other neighboring areas.  It garrisoned 1,000 soldiers who were under the command of Major George Armistead.  It was most certainly a military fort!  Why else would the British want to attack it?

8.) At 3:35 Gibbs states that the British stated to Key, “Do you see that flag way up on the rampart?  If they will lower that flag the shelling will stop, we will know they have surrendered and you will be under British rule.”  There is a lot of nonsense here to unpack so take a breath.  First, the mythology about the flag at Fort McHenry has grown to legendary proportions.  In fact, you can visit the Museum of American History in Washington D.C. and see it for yourself.  It is a behemoth flag, measuring 30 X 42 feet.  But this wasn’t the flag that flew during the battle.  In fact, the soldiers at Fort McHenry had made a tradition of hoisting the oversized flag (made by Baltimore local Mary Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter), every day as a part of their morning reveille.  Second, as stated in a previous comment (#6), the destruction/defeat of Ft. McHenry would have had little to no bearing on the outcome of the War of 1812.  The United States was not going to be “under British rule” in any way, shape or form.  Gibbs is simply piling horseshit on top of dogshit. 

9.) At 4:40 Gibbs states that “the prisoners” kept asking Francis Scott Key, “Tell us where the flag is?”  As stated earlier, there were no prisoners on these boats, and Key wasn’t even watching the attack from a British ship!  The story is completely bogus.  Let’s move on.  
  
10.) At 5:30 Gibbs states that Francis Scott Key quoted George Washington, who allegedly said, “The thing that sets the American Christian from every other person on earth is the fact that he would rather die on his feet, than live on his knees!"  Washington never said this!   In fact, the quote actually comes from Jose Marti, a Cuban freedom fighter.  His words were later made famous by a man named Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), who was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution.  For whatever reason, the quote has been associated with George Washington, a laughable lie for anyone who knows anything about Washington’s true religious beliefs.

At the 6:00 mark Gibbs states that the British became upset at the fact that the flag had been “hit many times” but was still standing.  As a result, the British focused all their guns on that one point in an effort to bring down the flag.  In response, all the American “prisoners” (who weren’t there to begin with) joined Key in prayer that the flag would remain.  Images of George Washington in prayer overlay the scenes of Fort McHenry’s bombardment.  Morning comes…the flag is at a crooked angle…but it STILL REMAINS!!!  This is the climax moment of Pastor Gibbs’ bullshit speech, and unfortunately for him is complete fiction.  The British were not fixed on the flag.  They didn’t even have the capacity to do such a thing!  In addition, George Washington never prayed at Valley Forge!  Oh, and the bombardment didn’t begin at nightfall.  It started in the morning. 

At 7:10 Gibbs drops his biggest lie of all.  He states that Key made his way to “Fort Henry” (again, it’s called Fort McHenry) where he beheld scenes of utter carnage and devastation.  The flag had received multiple direct hits and had almost fallen, but hundreds of patriots gave their lives to ensure that the flag remained.  One can almost hear the tears of those who heard this stupid presentation live!  The true historical record, however, tells us that the flag wasn’t destroyed or in any danger of being destroyed.  And even more important, hundreds of men were not killed trying to hold up the flag.  In fact, the most reliable sources tell us that no more than 4 or 5 men were killed during the bombardment of Fort McHenry!  The image of hundreds of dead patriots, huddled around a bent and broken flag pole, is a made up fiction spewed by a man who clearly needs to go back to middle school and get a refresher course on American history.  

In conclusion, I would like to repeat George Washington’s admonition:

                “GUARD AGAINST THE IMPOSTURES OF PRETENDED PATRIOTISM.”

I’m not going to question Pastor Gibbs’ patriotism.  I’m sure he loves his country.  I am, however, happy to call him out on his nonsense.  On the off chance that you one day Google your name and run across my blog, Pastor Gibbs, let me simply say this: your attempt to inspire through historical fiction doesn’t help your cause.  Lying and embellishing the truth (and yes, I believe you are guilty of both) cannot be justified, even if it creates an inspiring, patriotic myth.  Yes, you are far from being the first person to play fast and loose with the truth in order to bolster your cause, but take the high road, sir!  I’m sure it’s nice having several YouTube videos with over 6 million views but was it worth the deception?  Can you invoke the words of Francis Scott Key (“the home of the brave”) when you cowardly lie about the past? 

I think these are fair questions for you to ponder, Pastor Gibbs…along with the rest of us.    

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review of the Newly Renovated LDS Church History Museum (the Good, the Bad, the Ugly...and the Inspiring)

This past week I had the opportunity to take my family, while on vacation in Utah, to the newly renovated LDS Church History Museum!  Ever since the proposed renovation in 2014 I have wanted to see what improvements the church would make to its exhibits, and our family vacation provided the perfect excuse.

First off, it is important to understand why the LDS church chose to renovate their history museum to begin with.  To make a very long story short, the motivation behind this renovation came down to two factors: first, the museum was quite old and lacked many of the modern interactive features commonly found in other museums (one of the biggest complaints was that the museum was boring for kids). Second, with the dawn of the Internet Age, new questions regarding church history and doctrine have come under scrutiny.  As Assistant Church Historian Reid Neilson stated:
Every generation asks different questions of our history...We hope to be completely and totally honest about our past, both good and bad...The goal of the Church History Museum is to build the faith of the next generation of Latter-day Saints and to help others outside our faith understand our history.
In short, the goal of this renovation of the Church History Museum is to help the rising generation better engage with the church's history by employing better technology and by addressing some of the most common topics of concern.

So, without further delay, I present to you all my review of the new and improved LDS Church History Museum!  My review will give each individual exhibit an overall grade, after which I will give the museum in general my critique.  I will caution the traditional believing Mormon by stating that some of the issues presented in the museum (and in my review) can be difficult to hear.  I will also caution the skeptic by stating that the church has EVERY RIGHT to put its best foot forward. Yes, historical integrity is important but the church is ultimately a church, not a history class.  The traditional believer may esteem some of my review as being "blasphemous," while the skeptic will see some of it as "propaganda."  Oh well, to each their own I suppose.  Let's get on with the matter at hand...

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

THE GOOD

The Book of Mormon Translation Process:
The very first exhibit upon entering the Church History Museum focuses on the translation process of the Book of Mormon.  For many members of the LDS church, this exhibit will present a very different narrative from the one taught in Sunday School and Seminary.  I even had the chance to speak with a church historian who happened to be answering questions at this particular exhibit. She informed me that of all exhibits in the museum, most traditional members found this one to be the most shocking or eye-opening.

And why is that?

Simply put, it is because the traditional LDS explanation for the translation process of the Book of Mormon depicts Joseph Smith, carefully reading over the golden places with the Urim and Thumim, while a scribe listens intently to Smith's dictation.  The scribe would be separated from the places by a sheet of some kind, preventing his/her ability to see the plates for him/herself.  For example (on the left):


From a historical perspective, this depiction is completely inaccurate.  From the records we have (and they are quite clear on the matter), Joseph Smith actually translated the Book of Mormon (at least the majority of it) by placing a seer stone into a hat (the same seer stone he found in 1822 while digging a well for Willard Chase). Smith would sometimes not even reference the golden plates during the translation process (as seen in the pic above on the right).  Below are some pictures I took from the church's new exhibit on the translation process of the Book of Mormon:


According to the church historian present at this exhibit, some of the common questions asked by members are, "If Joseph used a seer stone why then does the church still publish illustrations depicting the translation process as something quite different?"  Skeptics commonly ask questions like, "If prophets and seers need a special stone to receive revelation, then why hasn't any recent prophet used such a stone?"

These questions are certainly fair, but for now I will leave the reader to decide for him/herself the answers. I have my own opinions on the matter but this post isn't the place for that.  I will simply offer my overall grade of this exhibit.

In the end, I believe this exhibit was THE BEST exhibit of the entire museum.  The church has clearly made a serious attempt to address the historical truths regarding Book of Mormon translation. I have little to no critique of this exhibit, and as a result give it a resounding A+.  This exhibit was extremely well done.

The First Vision:
Another issue that is sometimes troubling for members and critics of the church is Joseph Smith's First Vision account.  To make a very long story short, those who find the First Vision troubling will point to the fact that there are nine surviving First Vision accounts, and that each account presents different details that some find contradictory (you can read all nine accounts of the First Vision by clicking here.  You can also read a detailed essay on these accounts that the church has published by clicking here).

The exhibit starts off with a short, seven-minute video that depicts the First Vision in a unique 180 degree surround theater.  I found a YouTube copy of this video that somebody must have taken.  The quality isn't great but you will get the gist of the video presentation:



As you can see, this presentation is somewhat different from the traditionally taught narrative of the First Vision.  As the video states (at the beginning), all nine versions of the story were incorporated to create this depiction of the event.

In reality, everyone should read for themselves all nine accounts of the First Vision in order to better understand the story.  In addition, it is worth noting (because skeptics will point it out) that Joseph Smith claimed to have his First Vision in the spring of 1820.  The first recorded account of the First Vision doesn't appear until 1832.  I will again allow the reader to decide for themselves what this means for the validity of the First Vision story.

As for grading this exhibit, I give it a very solid B+.  The video was certainly the best depiction of the First Vision produced by the church that I have seen.  The church is clearly making strides in terms of its transparency.  They could have given each account of the First Vision somewhere in the exhibit and maybe addressed the issue of waiting twelve years before Smith recorded the event, but in the end I found this exhibit to be quite solid overall.

THE BAD

The Nauvoo Expositor:
Every Mormon knows the story of Joseph Smith being incarcerated at Carthage Jail.  It is the sad location where the Mormon Prophet and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered on June 27, 1844. Surprisingly, however, few know why Joseph was incarcerated to begin with.

Joseph's arrest was primarily the result of his dealings with William Law and the Nauvoo Expositor. The Nauvoo Expositor (the full text of which can be found here) was a local newspaper that essentially exposed some of the ugly practices of the Mormon Saints in Nauvoo.  The primary issue mentioned in the Expositor was the practice of plural marriage (polygamy), which church leaders, to include Joseph Smith, had publicly denied but privately endorsed.  The main author of the Nauvoo Expositor was William Law, the former member of the church's First Presidency, who had fallen out of favor with Joseph Smith.

Below is a video presentation of the Nauvoo Expositor as presented at the Church History Museum:


There are, in my opinion, quite a few problems with this explanation of events.  First off, William Law is made to look like the bad guy who betrayed the church and Joseph Smith.  What the video fails to mention is the fact that William Law had very good reasons for being upset with the church and its prophet.  The biggest issue not mentioned was the allegation that Joseph Smith had propositioned William Law's wife, Jane, to enter into a polyandrous affair with him.  Jane Law later told a friend that, "The Prophet asked her to give him half of her love; she was at liberty to keep the other half for her husband."

You can find more details regarding Jane Law and the allegations of polyandry at the following links:

"Why William and Jane Law Left the Church" by Grant Palmer
"Polygamy Persecution and Power" by Hal Schindler
FAIR Mormon's rebuttal

The other issue in the video deals with the destruction of the printing press itself.  The video suggests that Joseph Smith was "ordered" by the Nauvoo City Council to destroy the press, but there is zero evidence to support such a claim.  In fact, surviving records suggest that it was Joseph Smith himself who issued the order.

In addition, the notion that the Nauvoo City Charter, which granted the authority to suppress anything deemed a nuisance, was sufficient justification to stop the printing of the Expositor is a stretch to say the least.  This is EXTREMELY WEAK justification when juxtaposed with the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  I don't doubt that the men involved in suppressing the Nauvoo Expositor used this as grounds to justify their actions, but they were still absolutely wrong!  The suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor and the subsequent destruction of the press were both illegal actions. Keep in mind, those who didn't want the Expositor published (namely Smith and his supporters) were upset over the fact that polygamy was going to be exposed to the public. The rumors were finally going to be confirmed by men who had once been on the inside.  The Expositor was only a "nuisance" to those who didn't want the truth to be told. In short, to say that a random city charter granted powers that trump the First Amendment of the Constitution is a tough argument to make.

In addition, if you read the Nauvoo Expositor itself, it is quite evident that William Law & Co. got most of their facts right.  There is very little in the Expositor itself that isn't the truth.

In the end, I have no choice but to give this exhibit very low marks.  I give it a generous D+.  It avoids failing completely because I give the church credit for even mentioning this ugly fact of history.  They could have simply avoided the issue altogether.

The Succession Crisis:
Traditionally, Mormons have been taught that following the death of Joseph Smith several men stood to make their claim as the next in line to lead the church as its prophet.  Eventually Brigham Young emerged as the clear and obvious choice, due in part to a number of miraculous events.  Some who witnessed Brigham Young speak for the first time following Smith's death stated that Brigham's voice and demeanor changed to match that of the Prophet Joseph.  This, and other similar accounts, proved to be the needed evidence to justify Brigham Young as Joseph Smith's rightful successor.  The Church History Museum presents the rise of Brigham Young to power in the following manner:


Though the church does depict correctly the rise of Brigham Young, is also omits a tremendous amount of fascinating history regarding what has become known as the "Mormon Succession Crisis." First, it is important to note that no clear successor to Smith had even been named.  This is why the succession crisis happened in the first place.  Sydney Rigdon, who was initially the "front runner," presented a very convincing claim, due to his position in the First Presidency (the only surviving member left) and his having been Smith's vice-Presidential running mate.  James J. Strang, who is relatively unknown to most Mormons, also presented a case that convinced the likes of Lucy Smith (Joseph's mother), William Smith (Joseph's brother), William McLellin and even Book of Mormon Witness Martin Harris (who would later serve as witness to Strang's alleged golden plate record as well).  In addition, it is important to also note that Joseph Smith had suggested, on two occasion, that his successor would be his heir, Joseph, III, who would eventually lead the Reorganized Church.   

In short, the history of the Mormon Succession Crisis is anything but clean cut.  The Museum obviously presents its case that Brigham Young was the rightful successor and I believe they do an admirable job in that endeavor.  It would have been helpful to mention that the accounts of Brigham Young changing (either in voice or person) into Joseph Smith did not exist until Joseph, III's ascension to the presidency of the Reorganized Church, which could cast doubt on the legitimacy of such claims.  In the end, however, I do believe that this exhibit was...ok.  It certainly could have covered more of the history (entire books have been written on the Mormon Succession Crisis) but as I stated at the beginning of this blog post, the church has every right to put its best foot forward.

Overall, I give this exhibit a very ho-hum C-.  It could have been more detailed.

THE UGLY

The Book of Abraham:
When I heard that the church was renovating its museum and that part of the goal would be to address some of the more controversial issues of its history and theology I was ecstatic!  This was FOR SURE a move in the right direction!  And to the church's credit, they have made so many endeavors to be more transparent.  The museum renovation, the church essays on controversial topics, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, etc., etc., etc.  I truly believe that a new day in transparency is upon us.

One of the most controversial topics for the church (and for me personally) has been the Book of Abraham.  In fact, a recent study (that the church itself later looked to when making changes) concluded that the #1 reason why Mormons today choose to leave the faith has to do with historical issues, and the #1 historical issue is the Book of Abraham.

So what does the Church History Museum have to say about the Book of Abraham???

.........

.........

.........

NOTHING!!!  Absolutely nothing!  In fact, this was the ONLY reference to the Book of Abraham in the entire museum:


This was quite disappointing for me, but I can also understand why they didn't include it.  To be perfectly frank, there isn't any good rational explanation for it.  I won't dive into the issues surrounding the Book of Abraham here (you can do that on your own) but I will say that the sheer lack of anything on the Book of Abraham was extremely unfortunate.  As a result, I have to give the museum a big fat F- on this one.

Polygamy:
There was, sadly, very little material on what is obviously the most controversial issue Mormons have faced over the history of its existence.  Polygamy is a difficult topic, and I certainly hoped the museum would do its best to address the issue.  Sadly, there was little more than one small kiosk and the following pictures:


I was very happy to see that the museum provided the hand-written dictation of the revelation that eventually became Doctrine and Covenants Section 132.  This is noteworthy because for too long people have suggested that the New and Everlasting Covenant had nothing to do with polygamy.  I believe this clearly shows otherwise.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of how polygamy was taught as an essential component to salvation.  There are an endless number of quotes to support the teaching that polygamy wasn't some side show Mormon issue...it was THE ISSUE!!!  Early church leaders made it abundantly clear that polygamy was part and parcel to salvation.  The fact that the museum presents the story of polygamy as merely an Abrahamic test is unfortunate to say the least.

As a result, I must give this exhibit a very sad F grade.  It just dodged the issue entirely.


THE INSPIRING

The Artwork, the Relics, the kids:
When it comes to inspiring its patrons, I must say that the Church History Museum did a PHENOMENAL job!  Having seen the old museum many times I can confidently say that the new museum is a TREMENDOUS upgrade.  There is so much in this museum that believer and skeptic alike are going to enjoy.

The museum has dedicated an entire floor to new forms of artwork that are on display.  If you are a fan of art (paintings, sculpture, etc.) you WILL NOT be disappointed. The ambiance is similar to any art gallery and the pieces on display, which come from all over the world, are spectacular.

In addition, the new historical relics are amazing to say the least.  Everything from personal items from every single church president to the very clothes Hyrum Smith was wearing when murdered at Carthage (to include bullet holes) are on display.  If you are a history geek like me, I promise that this stuff will take your breath away:


Kids will also be thrilled at this new museum.  There are so many interactive kiosks for them to play with (and touching is HIGHLY encouraged for most of them). There is a "Church History Detectives" game they can play as they explore the museum.  Heck, an entire section is specifically dedicated exclusively to the little guys!

It is for these reasons that I give the Church History Museum a very well deserved A+ when it comes to presentation, artwork, relics and kid friendliness.  They simply went above and beyond and are very deserving of the high marks.

So how would I grade the Church History Museum as a whole?  It's difficult to say.  Overall, my family thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The museum is far more interactive and interesting than before.  There is much more to see and do. The use of technology is outstanding.  The history is catching up but is still lacking in certain specific areas.  In the end, I will say that I do HIGHLY RECOMMEND the Church History Museum to both believer and skeptic. As I stated above, I'm sure the believer will find plenty to rejuvenate/affirm their faith, while the skeptic will see plenty of propaganda.  With that all being said, here are my final overall grades:

General Ambiance: A-
Staff Friendliness: A+
Use of Technology: A+
Kid Friendliness: A
Historical Integrity: C-
Faith Promoting: B
Effort to "Get Things Right": B-

If you get the chance, go check out the new and improved LDS Church History Museum.  It's every bit as worthy of your time as Temple Square.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Raging (Mor)Hormones: Mormonism Enters Its Teenage Years

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11).
My dad was my favorite superhero. He did no wrong, he said no wrong, he could leap tall buildings and fix my bike without breaking a sweat. Everything he said was the gospel, everything he did was the coolest and everything he liked became what I liked. He was the strongest, bravest and smartest guy I ever knew...

...and then I became a teenager.

I remember vividly the occasion when I first questioned/doubted my father. I had gone to work with him on a summer day when I had no school. We were discussing basketball over lunch. I had recently completed two basketball camps and was very excited about the upcoming season. While talking basketball I mentioned how I was certain that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who had or would ever live. There was no doubt in my mind that I was right. After all, it's Michael Jordan I was talking about! My dad, however, was not sold (the year was 1991, so Jordan had not yet become the champion we know him to be today). Instead, my father suggested that Magic Johnson, who had achieved far more (at least at that point in time) was a far greater player than Jordan. I couldn't believe my ears. Blasphemy! This old man actually thinks that Magic Johnson could hold a candle to the great Air Jordan!?! Has he gone mad? To make a long story short, he and I disagreed on the matter. I recall thinking, for the very first time, "Maybe this old man doesn't know everything after all. In fact, maybe I know better!"

And so works the mind of all teenagers! Though I loved and revered my father to his dying day (heck, I still love and revere him, he will always be Superman to me), I, like all teenagers, occasionally succumbed to the delusion that I knew better than my parents (even though Michael was clearly better than Magic). As much as I worshipped my dad as a child, I have no doubt that he, like most fathers, wanted me to grow up and become my own man. To get there, I first had to be a teen.

The teenage stage of life may seem like an endurance challenge for parents, but in reality this is a critical period of development in which the birth of individuality comes to life for the very first time. Though saturated with hormones, peer pressure and delusions of grandeur, the teenage years are essential to the evolution of all humans.

When thinking about human growth and development patterns we usually apply such ideas to individuals; the children we raise/know. We rarely if ever consider collective or institutional development along these same developmental lines. This is unfortunate because like individuals, many institutions experience these same "growing pains" in which similar adolescent, teenage and adulthood stages can be observed over time. This is the purpose of my silly little blog post today. I intend to show how one institution (the Mormon Church to which I belong) is experiencing this same developmental pattern. Having gone through our own critical formative years as an adolescent, it is my contention that Mormonism is currently on the cusp of transitioning to its "teenage" stage. How we make that transition is likely going to determine what we look like as a mature adult faith.

I am a 9th generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). As such, Mormonism has become as big a part of my DNA as the genetic material given to me by my mother and father. I have more polygamist ancestors than Hillary Clinton has missing emails! It is my heritage and I love it.

When it comes to Christian churches, the Mormon faith is extremely young. We have only been on the scene for a little under 200 years. That may seem like a lot but compared to more "mature" faiths, we are very much a new kid on the block. Unlike other religions like Catholicism and many branches of Protestantism, which have already gone though their own adolescence, teenage years and are now mature adult faiths, Mormonism has only barely kicked off the proverbial training wheels.

But we're growing up fast!

Our Adolescent Years

The Mormon religion was born in tough circumstances. As an infant faith, we endured the pains of persecution, migration and entrenchment. In some respects we could compare our earliest years to that of a child forced to grow up witnessing the death of a parent, along with repeated moves from one location to another. It was a tough childhood but eventually we emerged as a healthy and vibrant young faith.

Due to the hard knocks endured in our earliest formative years, Mormonism grew up somewhat paranoid, defensive, exclusive and alarmist. Even after finding a stable home in the West, the fear of further persecution (both real and perceived) caused us to distrust anything deemed "anti-Mormon" or "gentile" in nature. That which wasn't officially "church approved" was oftentimes considered alien, dangerous and toxic, and was subsequently dismissed without much debate. Like an abused dog, Mormonism learned to both hide in a corner and growl while showing its teeth at anything it considered unsafe. As Mormonism grew up, church leadership (like any good parent) hoped to ensure the further growth, protection and development of its young but increasing membership. As a result, leaders established a standardized set of rules, doctrines and teachings (through what has become known as Correlation), which served to codify, simplify and homogenize the Mormon message. The effort to standardize the Mormon faith proved extremely successful as members across the globe studied the same material from the same manuals. The member in Bolivia and in Utah read the same lesson from the same book on the same Sunday. In fact, Correlation became a source of pride for the young Mormon Church. It was common to hear a member proclaim, "No matter where I go, the gospel is the same." Here is a comical take on Correlation and it's impact on the church:


And like any blissful, loving child, Mormons happily gobbled up this easy to digest correlated message as if it had been produced by Gerber. The message was pure, easy to understand and not dependent on further detail/expansion. Correlated Mormonism had all the recommended daily nutrition needed for spiritual life. And even if we wanted more, our parents were always quick to remind us that milk came before meat. In short, Mormonism's youth was inundated with the message that the "church is perfect," "prophets cannot/will not lead you astray," and there is "popcorn popping on the apricot tree." Like a child who is told to eat his/her green beans, wash his/her face and be in bed before Santa comes, the youthful Latter-day Saint faith never had a reason to doubt its parents.

The Dreaded Teens!!!

As sweet as they are, children do not remain children for long. Everyone eventually outgrows their superhero capes and their Flintstone vitamins. Child-like innocence and acceptance is replaced with a healthy sense curiosity and even doubt about everything we see and experience. The days of quietly submitting to the authority of parents is replaced by a desire to assert one's growing sense of individuality.

The same is true of Mormonism. But instead of hormones like testosterone flooding the bloodstream, the church's veins are being bombarded by the chemicals of the information super highway...a.k.a. the dreaded Internet! As Mormonism has entered the 21st century it has been met with a plethora of historical, doctrinal, theological and cultural issues that it never had to deal with during its adolescence. Like a parent trying to educate his/her child about sex, college prospects, etc., Mormon leadership is currently assessing how best to address the mounting issues of doubt, disaffection, etc. As former Church Historian Marlin K Jensen stated:
[S]ince Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now...we are trying to create an offering that will address these issues and be available for the public at large and to the church leaders, because many of them don’t have answers either. It can be very disappointing to church members.”
And it is here that we find the nucleus of the problem. The parent (church leadership) is wrestling with how best to address the growing doubts/concerns of their teenager (the member). Unfortunately this process also goes through growing pains. At times, church leadership has resorted to addressing its membership by referencing the old adolescent narrative. This warn out script that employs absolute unquestioning authority in place of inclusive dialogue and effective listening skills has sadly put many on the defensive. "Because I said so" and "Just do what you're told" work well with little children but not so much with a teenager.

It comes as no surprise that the devout within the faith see this change as fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus taught that even "the very elect" would fall away from the church (Matt. 24:24), and that some seeds would fall on the rocks and thorns and be "devoured" or "choked" (Matt 13). And while these arguments hold merit in many specific cases, I contend that it would be foolish for us to lie this down as a blanket explanation for the changes we are currently seeing.

In addition, the doubting membership, often afraid to express themselves, have developed a sense of betrayal (whether real or perceived) when it comes to the church. For many, discovering troubling issues has caused them to question just how trustworthy the current Mormon narrative is. Like a teenager whose pubescent hormones are beginning to swell, these doubts and concerns are gaining momentum. The religion they once esteemed to be perfect, flawless and above reproach, as seen through the eyes of a child, is now seen for what it ultimately is: flawed, imperfect and oftentimes in error. The child no longer believes the parent is Superman, as evidenced by some recent opposition to something as simple as sustaining leaders in General Conference

What we are left with is the perfect breeding ground for mutual frustration. Parent and teen alike are digging in their respective heels and refusing to budge. One feels disrespected, the other unvalued. The parent seeks to control while the teen resorts to defiance. Mom and Dad know they have the high ground of age and wisdom while the child knows it's just a matter of time until he/she is out the door.

And everybody loses.

So how can be prevent mutual defeat? I'm no expert but I want to propose one simple skill that I believe both sides (the parent and teen/the believer and doubter) are missing.

We need to LISTEN to one another.

This probably seems like a no-brainer but if there was one key attribute in successfully raising teenagers (or successfully seeking a meaningful relationship with anyone) it would be listening. As Dr. Aletha Solter, an acclaimed Development Psychologist explains:
Teenagers frequently complain that their parents don't listen and don't understand. This lack of good communication can lead to a feeling of disconnection from parents, which can put teens at risk. Good listening involves reflecting back your teen's feelings so he feels fully heard. This is called "active listening" or "reflective listening."
Active listening and reflective listening are much more than simply hearing sound. It requires sincere interest and a willingness to understand somebody on their terms. In short, good listening requires us to check our egos, biases and even some of our beliefs at the door.

Too often effective listening is one of the first casualties in the battle between believers and skeptics. Both camps (the believer and the doubter) usually end up talking over and past one another. Each feels a deep need to have their opinions/beliefs recognized and legitimized. There is nothing wrong with that. Where we go wrong is when we perceive the "other guy's" position as being hostile to our own. This needs to stop. It's time to start listening to one another. Instead of expounding and exhorting we simply need to open our ears and shut our mouths.

In the wake of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999, parent, teachers and the media at large desperately looked for someone or something to blame for the travesty. What had caused Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two teenage friends, to murder fifteen of their fellow classmates? As the debates raged on everything from video games to gun control was blamed for the tragedy. In addition, rock personality Marilyn Manson received plenty of scorn for his loud brand of music (Manson's music happened to be popular with both Harris and Klebold). In what is perhaps the most ironic twist of all, it was Manson who pinpointed what the real issue had likely been all along:


Could the Columbine tragedy have been prevented if a parent, a teacher, a fellow student had stopped and honestly listened to Harris and/or Klebold's concerns? We'll never know and I certainly don't want to Monday morning quarterback that terrible tragedy. With that being said, I think we can all agree that listening to one another, honestly and sincerely considering what is being said, even if we loathe it, can go a long way toward healing wounds and building bridges.

In his bestselling book, "Just Listen: Discovering the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone" author Mark Goulston states:
Managers, CEO's and salespeople often tell me, "Talking to so-and-so is like hitting a brick wall." When I hear those words, I reply: "Stop hitting the brick wall and look for the loose brick." Find that loose brick -- what the other person really needs from you -- and you can pull down the strongest barriers and connect people in ways you never thought possible.
This advice works not only with managers and CEO's but with parents and teenagers, believers and skeptics. If Mormonism ever hopes to emerge as a vibrant and healthy adult faith we will first have to learn how to listen to one another.

In conclusion, allow me to direct your attention to the world's greatest living listener. He is a man who assumed control of an organization that was literally drowning in scandal and corruption. His position is such that billions of people the world over hang on his every word. His name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, but you probably know him better as Pope Francis:




In his short tenure as Pontiff, Francis has actually not said much. His contributions to the Catholic canon, along with his exhortations to members on specific points of doctrine are relatively small. Yet he is, without question, one of the most beloved popes in the history of Catholicism. Why? I contend it is because Francis LISTENS to people. He shares in their doubts, their concerns, their fears and their frustrations. He doesn't judge but instead serves as best he can. As a result, Catholicism's popularity has gone up, even in the wake of terrible child sex scandals and an ever increasing movement of secularization. Francis understands that it isn't doctrine or history that matter to people when the rubber of life meets the road of affliction. It is that caring, listening hand.

As Mormons we would be very wise to learn from this example. Too often we write off our "apostates" without so much as an afterthought. "They got what they deserved" is the standard salve used to justify our cankered hearts.

Imagine for a moment the progress we would see if we as a church would sincerely listen to one another. If the church as a parent would cease the lecturing of the "teenage" member and choose instead to listen to their concerns without passing judgment, I believe we would see far fewer "teens" electing to leave the flock. Yes, it is much easier to preach, exhort, condemn, chastise and even excommunicate, but where is the growth? In the end everyone loses and everyone fails to progress. There is greater strength to be had when the parent and the teen work together in the spirit of mutual love and respect. As Jesus reminds us, "If ye are not one, ye are not mine."

It's time we shake off the adolescent mentality and embrace being a teenager! After all, who wants to remain forever a "Child of God?" I think he, like my earthly father, wants me to become my own man. It's time for us to work on becoming an "Adult of God."

But first, let's get through our teens...hopefully without too much acne! =)