About Corazon

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Excommunication: A Purifying Fire

"When you complain, you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation, or accept it.  All else is madness." -Eckhart Tolle

This past week, I have watched as many of my Facebook friends (mostly Mormon) have expressed their feelings on the Kate Kelly/John Dehlin excommunication saga.  For those who are not familiar with these names let me offer you a very brief introduction. Kate Kelly is the founder of Ordain Women: a group that is dedicated to bringing about gender equality by seeking ordination to the priesthood. John Dehin is the creator of numerous websites (most notably Mormon Stories) that are dedicated to discussing some of the more difficult aspects of Mormon history.

To make a very long story short, both Kelly and Dehlin have come under fire as of late, even being issued letters of warning from their local church leaders that included the possibility of excommunication.  For Kate Kelly, the threat became a reality as she was excommunicated from the Mormon church early yesterday morning.

Excommunication is nothing new to Mormonism or to the whole of Christianity.  Jesus himself even prescribed the appropriate situation in which to remove a fellow Christian from among the masses. In Matthew 18: 15-20 we read:
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
The bolded text above has been used by many a Christian sect to justify the practice of excommunication.  In other Bible translations, the word heathen is translated as gentile. In other words, he/she who will not heed the counsel of the church is to be cut off from that church.

What I find most interesting about this particular Bible passage is the fact that it is sandwiched between two other important teachings that Jesus emphasized regarding forgiveness.  In verses 12-14 Jesus references the 99 and 1 sheep and the commandment to go to the one lost sheep.  In verses 21-23 Jesus tells Peter that we are commanded to forgive "seventy times seven."  In short, the guidelines for excommunication are neatly placed between Jesus' admonition to succor the one wayward sheep and his commandment to forgive as often as needed.  Coincidence?  I think not.

As far as Kate Kelly's excommunication is concerned, I know that feelings on both sides of the isle are quite tender.  Kelly has had a great deal of support for her cause and many of her supporters see this action as an insult not only to Kelly, but to them as well.  The following video clip from Kate Kelly's rally illustrates just how intense feelings have become over this issue:


It isn't my place or my intent to weigh in on whether or not Mormon women deserve to have the priesthood. Besides, what I have to say on the matter isn't going to change anyone's opinion. Instead, what I do hope will happen from all of this is people on both sides will come to a better understanding of how excommunication can be a great equalizing force for good.

First, let me say that I support the right of the Mormon Church (or any church for that matter) to implement disciplinary standards as they see fit.  It is their right to do so.  And to those who believe that Jesus' love would prevent him from ever excommunicating anyone, I simply say remember the Bible verses mentioned above, along with other verses such as:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Matt. 5: 29-30).
Jesus wasn't some hippie who accepted the beliefs, behaviors and ideas of everyone.  Instead he was a revolutionary who believed in unconditional love and preached repentance.

Regardless of what we may think, excommunication is, in many cases, an act of love.  It releases a person from further liability and condemnation.  I realize that this interpretation of excommunication may come off offensive to some so let me explain:

When I was on my mission (in Antofagasta, Chile) I met a bishop who unfortunately lost his wife in an accident.  It was a tragic event for his family and it completely rocked their world.  In an effort to ease his burdens, the church immediately released him from his calling.  He was very grateful for that.  As he later told me, there was no way he could meet up to those responsibilities any longer.

And so it is with excommunication (at least in some instances).  The person has had a life-changing event in which he/she needs to be released from their responsibilities as a Christian.  They cannot live up to those responsibilities any longer and as a result, excommunication is a tool that can help them in the long run.

I am fully aware of the fact that this is easy for me to say.  After all, I have never been a part of, nor have I witnessed a church disciplinary proceeding.  I also recognize that my above description doesn't apply to all cases either. As hard as it may be to admit, there are good and bad cases of excommunication in all faiths, but in the end I believe they almost always lead to positive things.

Just this past week, Pope Francis (my favorite Pope ever) excommunicated members of the Italian Mafia for their lengthy and extensive history in committing a variety of crimes.  I think most of us would applaud Pope Francis for this brave and bold move.  But nearly 500 years ago, another pope made the terrible decision to excommunicate a young radical named Martin Luther, who opposed a number of teachings of the Catholic Church.  And though most everyone would agree that the decision to excommunicate Luther was the wrong one, I also think that a great deal of good came from it.  After all, Luther's excommunication became a galvanizing force for many of his followers and helped to pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.

And the same can be said of my own faith.  During its early years, Mormon leaders excommunicated dozens of members who opposed the doctrine of polygamy.  Some of those members were later reinstated following the 1890 manifesto that officially abolished polygamy in the church.  There are even better examples in recent years.  In 1942, a young 17-year-old German by the name of Helmuth Hübener was excommunicated for opposing the ideas of one Adolf Hitler.  Hübener was later reinstated as a member, but only after being put to death for opposing Nazi tyranny.  He never lived to see his reinstatement.  And then there's the case of Douglas Wallace and Byron Merchant, who were excommunicated in 1976 and 1977 respectively for opposing the church's ban on Blacks not being able to receive the priesthood.  It was only a year later that the priesthood ban on Black members was to be lifted for good.

So how does all of this apply to Kate Kelly?  To be honest I have no clue.  Maybe the day will come when Kelly will be hailed as a hero for having stood upon her principles.  Maybe those responsible will one day eat their words and feel remorse for the role they played in her excommunication.  Or maybe the day will come when Ordain Women simply loses support and those involved come to regret their involvement.  If so, hopefully they will be reconciled to the church and be welcomed back into the fold. Either way, I do believe that Kate Kelly's excommunication has the potential to bring about a great deal of good.

Regardless of how this all plays out, I hope that we will all be able to glean some important lessons from this week's events.  Here are a few lessons that come to mind for me personally:
1.) There are no winners here. Kelly's excommunication does not vindicate anyone. It is a sad day. Even if you disagree with her and her movement we should all agree that our job is to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who need comfort (Mosiah 18: 9).
2.) Jesus really was all about love, but that doesn't mean he was about accepting everyone and everything.  There's enough in that statement to keep us humbly pondering for guidance for the rest of our lives.
3.) Excommunication really can be a good thing, so long as the individual or institution is humble enough to admit that change is necessary.
4.) Even though Jesus prescribed the manner in which to excommunicate, he sandwiched that teaching in between his commandments to care for the one lost sheep and to forgive as often as is necessary.  
In conclusion, I can think of no better way to help us all come to terms with these difficult discussions than to appeal to the Serenity Prayer, which next the the Lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer is my all-time favorite prayer.  It's wisdom is endless:
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,The courage to change the things I can,And the wisdom to know the difference."
Amen, and Amen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mormonism: The Third Most Hated Religion in America???

In a recent post on her website, Mormon author and blogger Jana Reiss references research conducted by Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, who reveal data in their book, American Grace regarding which religions are the most disliked in American society.  To almost nobody's surprise, Islam tops the list, followed (surprisingly) by Buddhism, while Mormonism took home the bronze medal.

To be honest, I believe that what this research reveals (for the most part) is the fact that Americans are, by and large, astoundingly ignorant when it comes to the topic of religion.  Our hatred for Islam, for example, is chiefly driven by misguided prejudice and extreme paranoia.  And Buddhism!?!  I fail to see how anyone could esteem that religious group as one of the more "undesirable" sects to have around.

Again, I believe that this survey illustrates the fact that Americans are completely illiterate when it comes to religion.  In a recent article in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof notes recent data that I believe supports my general thesis. He writes:
Secular Americans are largely ignorant about religion, but, in surveys, religious Americans turn out to be scarcely more knowledgeable.
“Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion,” Stephen Prothero noted in his book, “Religious Literacy.” “Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.” 
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s basic questions. Yet only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. 
Many Americans know even less about other faiths, from Islam to Hinduism. Several days after 9/11, a vigilante shot and killed an Indian-American Sikh because of the assumption that a turban must mean a Muslim: Ignorance and murderous bigotry joined in one. 
All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius — and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.
As for the extreme disdain that many Americans have towards my own faith (Mormonism), I believe this data reveals at least part of the answer but not all.

Throughout most of its history, Mormonism has been a recipient of bigotry and persecution on the part of the American populace.  Everything from the Haun's Mill Massacre, the murder of Joseph Smith and the eventual expulsion to Western territories in its early years, to more recent events like the Reed Smoot hearings and even questions about Mitt Romney's possible church allegiances during his presidential bids, Mormonism has had the proverbial target on its back for some time now.  And though these (and many other) events demonstrate just how deep anti-Mormon sentiment can go, I believe there is another mitigating factor that explains why Mormons are one of the most disliked religions in America.

In short, it's OUR fault...and by our fault I mean us Mormons.

As mentioned above, blogger Jana Reiss references a study by Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, which reveals that Mormons are the third most disliked religion in America.  In addition to this finding, the study also revealed what members of each faith thought about their own respective religions.  To their surprise, Mormons came out on top:
Mormons ranked highest in “in-group attachment,” a finding the researchers felt was surprising, especially since three of the other groups that made the top five–Jews, Catholics, and Black Protestants–have their bonds cemented by a shared ethnicity. About 85% of Mormons say they feel a great warmth toward their own tribe. 
In short, Mormons really, really think highly of themselves.

So what do we make of a study that finds Mormons as one of the most hated religions in America, while at the same time emerging as the religion that loves itself the most?  I believe Jana Reiss (a devout Mormon herself) provides the best answer possible:
It would help if we stopped regarding ourselves as the finest people on the planet. We ought to take a long, hard look at the fact that we voted our own group tops in this research. It’s one thing to be proud of our religious group and its teachings, but it’s another thing entirely to communicate, as many Mormons seem to, that we feel we have a monopoly on religious truth and strong families. A dose of humility is in order here.
I couldn't agree more.  I for one have grown tired of the old Mormon rhetoric which suggests that we alone are the guardians of all that is right and good in the world.  We Mormons pride ourselves on our own delusions of grandeur.  We prove more than willing to dismiss or belittle the beliefs of others by clothing ourselves in the blanket of pious superiority.  Only our families are eternal, only our baptism counts, and only our priesthood heals.

Don't get me wrong here, I love my faith and I am proud of it.  In my estimation, Mormonism is an awesome life choice and it has brought me a tremendous amount of happiness.  With that being said, I must also admit that I have seen how we as a faith tend to ignore reality on too many occasions.  We prefer the "hear no evil, see no evil" mantra as a way to reassure ourselves that "all is well in Zion."  After all, the "church is perfect" isn't it!?!

Sorry, but it isn't that simple.  We as members of the Mormon faith need to quit seeing ourselves as a people who are separate and apart from the evils of the world, or as having some sort of preferred status in the eyes of God.  We would do well to remember the words of Christ, who reminded the Jews that God could raise up seed unto Abraham from mere stones (Matt. 3: 9). Instead of standing tall on our personal or communal "Rameumptoms" and thanking God for giving us "more truth," "more love," or "more righteousness" like the Zoramites of old (Book of Mormon reference for those not of my faith), perhaps we should first follow the advise of Will Rogers, who reminds us to "never miss a great opportunity to shut up."

***On a side note, have any of my fellow Mormons ever wondered why the Zoramite/Rameumtom story is in the Book of Mormon to begin with?  Maybe it was meant for us?***

In addition, there is another reason that we as a faith need to be willing to not think so highly of ourselves and return to earth.  Too often, members of the LDS faith suffer from the tremendous burden of having to "be perfect."  We succumb to the false portrayals of what a "good Mormon" is supposed to look like, act like, feel like, etc.  As a result, we become far too critical of ourselves and of others.  We use the excuse of "righteous rebuking" to justify gossip and other forms of trash talk.  In so doing, we make life VERY hard on anyone who doesn't fit the Mormon mold.  It's no wonder why Utah leads the nation in the use of anti-depressants.

And shame on us!  It's time that we as a faith recognize the FACT that not everyone is content in Zion.  Popcorn doesn't pop on everyone's apricot tree, some families are not so glad when daddy comes home, there are some houses where love is not spoken there and some people find it too hard to turn their "frowny face" into a smile.  And newsflash: IT'S NOT ALWAYS THEIR FAULT!!!  Try as they might, they cannot pray away, fast away or obey away all the pain.

There has been many a member who has done a great deal of harm with the best of intentions.  We may proudly sing of families being together forever but ignore the fact that some in our respective wards struggle with part member families or "wayward" children.  We may give thanks to God during our testimony meetings for our awesome spouses or for heavenly healings granted to sick loved ones, while at the same time ignoring the single mother/father in the audience or the widow whose husband didn't receive divine intervention.  Like it or not, maybe there are some instances when it is better for us to guard our tongues than to sing God's praises.

I don't mean to be too critical here.  Mormonism is an AWESOME faith!  I love it.  In my estimation, we do more for one another than virtually any other faith.  We care for one another, we pray for one another, we fast for one another, we serve one another, we bond with one another. But do we only do these things for those who "fit the mold?"  Unfortunately, I think that sometimes the answer to this question is: yes.  Mormonism is awesome when you are one of the 99 sheep, but it's not so awesome when you're the lone black sheep.  It is my hope that we as a faith can be less critical of one another, more accepting of those not of our faith (along with their beliefs) and more willing to show Christ-like humility as opposed to ecclesiastical arrogance.  When we learn this lesson, I think you will see us give up that unwanted bronze medal for most disliked faith in America.

Some awards just aren't worth having on your wall.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why Noah Matters

On March 28th, movie (and I suppose Bible) fans across the world will get their first glimpse at Darren Aronofsky's Noah, starring Russel Crow, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson.  According to the film's website, Noah is the "epic story of courage, sacrifice and hope" and this film "brings to light an untold story" (I'm assuming the cast has uncovered new ancient documents about the Noah flood because I was under the impression that this story was quite familiar to almost everyone) of the Noah that nobody has seen before (you gotta love that Russell Crowe guy. Noah was in desperate need of a makeover!).

To be honest, I am actually pretty excited to see this movie, even if it ends up being historically and/or theologically bogus.  The story of Noah has always been one of my favorites of the Old Testament.  Besides, the preview looks pretty good.  See for yourself:


The story of Noah, as found in the Book of Genesis, is arguably the most controversial tale of the entire Bible. The notion that a global flood, just a few thousand years ago, killed every living thing with the exception of the animals and people Noah brought with him on his magical Ark, has spawned debate for centuries. Scientists, historians, geologists, physicists, etc. have (at least in my book) closed the case when it comes to Noah being a literal and absolutely factual history.  It is not.

Despite this fact (and yes, it is a FACT), the story of Noah is not without merit, and that merit goes far beyond a simple bedtime tale or a cool Hollywood movie. The Noah story matters. It has deep theological and moral value that should be recognized, regardless of whether you esteem it as infallible history or a cool ancient myth.

To understand why the Noah story matters, we must first take a brief look (and I do emphasize brief) at how this story came to be.  Most people with even a relatively limited understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) recognize that the Noah story has its origins in even older tales outside of the Hebrew tradition. Whether it be the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim or the Hindu tale of Manu and Matsya, deluge myths are common motifs of the ancient world.  The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but as Yale University Professor of Religion Christine Hayes points out:
The ancients placed creation within the primordial soup of water. In the Babylonian creation myth, it is the blood of the slain Tiamat that sprays forth from the firmament as rain and from the earth as lakes and oceans. Water is the breeding ground for the gods who use this soup to give life to the earth, the plants, the animals and finally to mankind himself. But water is also what takes life away, allowing the gods to start anew their creative process. 
Keeping this idea of water as the primordial soup of creation and destruction, we can better understand the significance of certain verses of scripture found in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis:
2.) And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit (translated as "wind") of God moved upon the face of the waters.
6.) And God said, Let the there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let ut divide the waters from the waters (a verse obviously influenced from the Babylonian epic of Marduk and Tiamat).
7.) And God made the firmament, and divided the waters (much as Marduk spliced open Tiamat) which were under the firmament from the waters which wee above the firmament: and it was so.
8.) And God called the firmament Heaven.
9.) And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10.) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good (just as Marduk called one half of Tiamat the heavens and the other half the earth).
It is through the vehicle of water that the Hebrew God (not to mention the Babylonian and even earlier Sumerian God) is able to bring about creation.  Ironically enough, evolutionists would agree (in a roundabout way) with this claim, since they too maintain that much of life came from the primordial soup that is earth's oceans.

As for the Noah story, the flood becomes more than just a destructive force.  It is the life-giving "soup" that brings about a new beginning.  As a result, the Noah flood saga is less about a vindictive god bent on destroying man and more about a loving creator trying to breathe new life into a corrupt and dying world. The Noah story is a shared motif that early Hebrews borrowed from their neighbors and not a unique creation they came up with on their own. As historians Victor Matthews and James Moyer point out in their book, The Old Testament: Text and Context:
The Israelites shared much of the worldview of ancient Mesopitamia. As a result, a great deal of the material contained in the primeval epics in Genesis is borrowed and adapted from the ancient cultures of that region. This is what makes the study of nonbiblical epics so valuable. By making comparisons and by seeing the general religious and literary environment of the ancient Near East, it is possible to understand more fully how the Israelites perceived their world and their place in it.
Regardless of its origins, Noah presents to both the ancient and modern reader a lesson on how important and precious life really is. The primordial waters that give life can also take it away, but from terrible destruction and devastation comes new life. As Utnapishtim (Noah) teaches the great hero Gilgamesh (ancient Sumeria's version of George Washington):
"Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."
From Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh learns the important lesson that life should be cherished because it is not going to last forever.  For the Biblical Noah, mankind's ultimate zoologist, sailor and colonizer, the importance of cherishing life...all forms of life...is a lesson he knew all too well.  Caring for plants, animals and humans became the central purpose of Noah's existence, and is the principal lesson he teaches us today. We are, whether we want to admit it or not, responsible for how we treat not only our fellow humans, but how we treat the earth and its abundant plant and animal life. Yes, we need to devour plant and animal life in order to sustain our own, but this is an intimate relationship that binds all life as opposed to dividing it.  Noah honors his sacrifice of a "clean beast" and a "clean fowl" upon his altar, and God accepts it with a "sweet savor" (Gen. 8:20-21). God honors the sacrifice of all His creations. After all, His covenant isn't just made with man.  As we learn from Genesis chapter 9, verses 5, 12 and 13:
5.) And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of EVERY BEAST WILL I REQUIRE IT, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.
12.) And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you AND EVERY LIVING CREATURE that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13.) I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me AND THE EARTH. 
In short, God's love for His creations includes far more than just us. It is human arrogance that we think God cares only for the Homo Sapiens.  Just as God saved the male and female Adam and Eve from the mistakes made in the Garden of Eden, so did God save the male and female versions of all animal life from the corruption of a degraded world.  The ark was meant for the lion, tiger, bear and rabbit every bit as much as it was meant for man.  

Noah's legacy is far more than just a tale of a great shipbuilder or divinely inspired zookeeper. It is a lesson on how to appreciate life on all levels. Tragedies of all kinds (floods, fires, earthquakes, famines, etc.) will always abound.  Such is the state of our existence in mortality. Whether you believe that God caused/causes these tragedies is irrelevant. Death and destruction is here to stay. Our job is simply to enjoy the ride on our own arks of life, regardless of whether the waves take us out or not. We, like the animals or Noah himself, enter our arks, side-by-side with those who are embarking with us on the journey of life.  As Morgan Freeman put it in the film Evan Almighty:

For me, the story of Noah is not one in which death and destruction come from an evil and sadistic god who could care less about giving humanity a second chance.  Instead, it is the story of how God helps man deal with the inevitable tragedies of mortality. From death and destruction comes new life and happiness. Our job is to recognize the rainbow in the tempest by changing our attitude. In so doing, perhaps we too will be able to sing with Gilgamesh the song of joy in the face of tragedy:
"The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of his life is sorrow. But from death comes new life, but its days are numbered, whatever he might do, it is but a wind."

The Truth About the So-Called "Dark Ages"

Like so many eras of history, the period known by most as the "Dark Ages" is one of the most (if not THE most) misunderstood moments in the annals of humanity. The simple fact that we label these years (roughly 400-800 A.D.) with the idiotic label of "Dark Ages" shows just how little most of us know about a period of time that is shrouded with more legend and lore than actual fact.

For whatever reason(s), the "Dark Ages" have come to symbolize a terrible time in the history of mankind, in which savagery, brutality, ignorance and religious intolerance were the name of the game.  We clothe the "Dark Ages" with the robes of wicked men, hell-bent on world domination and the subjugation of all within their realm, having their hands and garments drenched in the blood of those who stand in their way.

And while it is true that the "Dark Ages" had their fair share of evil doers and tough life circumstances, the reality is the years between 400-800 were quite liberating, enlightening and peaceful when compared to other eras of human history.  Contrary to the generally accepted stereotypes, the "Dark Ages" were a time of human progress and improvement in which its citizens experienced more "light" than they did "dark."

It was the Italian scholar and philosopher Petrarch who first coined the term "The Dark Ages" in the early part of the 14th century.  He did so because of his erroneous belief that these years were marked by the illiteracy and ignorance of the masses who roamed the earth aimlessly in the wake of the "fall" of the Roman Empire.  Later, Protestant reformers, who were more than happy to label any and all things with a Catholic bend as being "heresy," embraced the term "Dark Ages" as the perfect moniker for a world that was almost entirely Catholic.  The derogatory term "Dark Ages" came to signify the epitome of Catholic ignorance, human depravity, intellectual idiocy and dictatorial brutality.  But as is often the case, those who levy unjust accusations are usually the ones who deserve to be accused, and those who jumped on the early "Dark Ages" bandwagon did so at the cost of their own ignorance.

In reality, the "Dark Ages" (hereafter referred to as the Early Middle Ages) were a period of remarkable progress and light.  As Historian Jamie Frater has pointed out, the Early Middle Ages are marked by some remarkable advances in human society.  For example, the Early Middle Ages witnessed the dawn of the university.  It was within these early universities that the foundations for science were laid. Contrary to popular belief, the Church did NOT censor science during this period.  As Historian Ronald Numbers states, the battle between religion and science was an invention of the later Middle Ages.  The "Dark Ages" were actually okay with the idea of science and religion existing together.  In addition, these universities became the incubators for the birth of fields like Algebra, architecture and art, which became the foundations of the later Renaissance and Enlightenment eras.

The Early Middle Ages also saw the dawn of new literary styles.  Contrary to what Petrarch believed, the "Dark Ages" witnessed at least two literary periods that could and should be called a "Renaissance" of their own.  The "Carolingian Renaissance" and "Byzantine Golden Age," both of which came to fruition during those dreadful "Dark Ages," were defined by their advancements in literature, writing, arts, the development of laws, and perhaps most important, dramatic developments in theology and scriptural study. Men like St. Augustine and Pelagius gave the world profound insights into Christian theology, most of which remain with us today.  In the East, men like Justinian were laying the foundations of jurisprudence and other legal protections that provided for many people a world that was relatively free and safe (at least more so than it had been or would be in the centuries to come).  The implementation of new laws eliminated (for the most part) slavery and gave even common citizens more rights than many even experienced during the heydays of the Roman Republic/Empire.

The Early Middle Ages also enjoyed the fruits of a better climate and advancements in agriculture. Contrary to what most probably think, the "Dark Ages" were not dark, cold and empty of food. Quite the opposite is the case. The Early Middle Ages actually enjoyed a climate that was extremely friendly to agriculture.  The warming of the North Atlantic region is what allowed "barbarian" nations to thrive.  The ability of the Vikings to prosper in Greenland and sail into the Atlantic with such ease is a perfect illustration of this warming trend. Increased food production meant that humanity was able to flourish and spread into the frontiers of Europe, and this is precisely what took place during the "Dark Ages."

As you can plainly see, the "Dark Ages" were anything but "dark."  The Early Middle Ages were a period of tremendous prosperity, growth and innovation that set the stage for many of the advances of later movements like the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and even the Scientific Revolution.  Can we now PLEASE do away with the archaic nonsense that continues to perpetuate the myth surrounding the "Dark Ages?"  It's time to get rid of this History Channel-type crap once and for all.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

President Monson Accused of Fraud

This week, news that Mormon President Thomas S. Monson has been accused by an English court of fraud went public.  News outlets of all kinds have been reporting the story since it broke a couple of days ago, each providing its own spin on how these charges will (or won't) play out, along with the impact they will have on the Mormon church.

The criminal complaint that levies these charges against President Monson (and Mormonism in general) are the workings of one Tom Phillips, a former member of the Mormon faith who had served the church in a number of positions, including Stake President and Area Executive Secretary.  Long story short, Mr. Phillips withdrew from the church, due to what he calls "the lack of historical evidence, of any kind" to support the church's claims.

Since his departure from the Church, Mr. Phillips has made no qualms about his disdain for Mormonism.  As the managing editor of the Mormonthink website, Mr. Phillips has attempted to bring to light many of the issues that have troubled him (and many other Mormons) and eventually led to his departure from the faith. Mr. Phillips is also a regular commentator on the ExMormon website, where he posts under the name "anointedone."  The clever moniker is the result of his having gone public about receiving the "Second Anointing" within the walls of the London Temple some years ago (you can listen to his very detailed interview with John Dehlin about this experience by clicking here).

The complaint that Mr. Phillips has levied essentially states that since serving as church president, Thomas S. Monson has acted "dishonestly" and has intended to "make gain for himself" by defrauding one Christopher Denis Ralph, who was "misled" and "induced" to pay tithing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Below is a copy of the actual court document:

The allegations of fraud center on the claims that President Monson knowingly teaches that which he believes to be false (i.e. that the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, etc. are fraudulent documents).

Of course, how one chooses to view these accusations depends greatly on how one chooses to view Mormonism.  For the critic, the accusations probably make sense.  After all, the Book of Abraham, which has been hailed by Egyptologists as an outright fraud since the 19th century, is a difficult hurdle to jump for even the most devout Mormons. For faithful Mormons, however, these allegations only serve as further evidence that adversity will always come knocking at the doors of the righteous.

Whatever your personal views may be, the fact of the matter is that this case will be judged based on the rules of law.  Does Tom Phillips have a case?  Has Thomas S. Monson actually committed fraud against Mr. Ralph, thereby enriching himself and the church?

In my opinion, the answer to these questions is a resounding HELL NO!!!

First off the accusations of fraud brought by Mr. Phillips are dependent upon the British Fraud Act of 2006, which "prohibits false representations made to secure a profit or to cause someone to lose money."  Based on this law, Mr. Phillips must convince the British court of two things:
1.) President Monson KNOWINGLY made false representations of Mormon beliefs (i.e. he stated that the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, etc. are "true" while knowing they were not).
2.) President Monson made these representations in order to profit from others.  
The first point is virtually impossible to prove.  To ascertain whether or not somebody believes in his/her religious convictions or is simply giving them lip service is completely speculative and hardly a matter for any legitimate court to determine.  And even if President Monson were to say that he didn't believe in the tenants of his faith, it is still virtually impossible to prove fraud. Simply put, Mr. Phillips' accusations are more bark than bite.  In the words of another English citizen, they are "Much Ado About Nothing."

And I am far from being along in that sentiment. Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on British religious freedom, responded to this criminal complaint against President Monson by saying:
I'm sitting here with an open mouth.  I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I'm frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it. 
Harvey Kass, a British solicitor, is also stunned by the summons, calling it "bizzare," and adding: "I can't imagine how it got through the court process.  It would be set aside within 10 seconds in my opinion." I couldn't agree more.  Regardless of how one feels about Mormonism, the right to religious freedom is a fundamental principle that should not be toyed with.

In reality, Tom Phillips' quest to "expose" the "myth" behind Mormonism will probably do more to bolster the faith of Mormons than anything else.  It's hard to see how this accusation could be motivated by anything other than resentment for the faith he has left behind...but can't seem to leave well enough alone.  In my opinion, this accusation will be dead on arrival.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review of the Mitt Romney Netflix Documentary

Last night I finally had the opportunity to take advantage of some of the insomnia that I've been experiencing as of late by watching the Netflix original documentary, "Mitt," which highlights the ups and downs of the Mitt Romney presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012.

The documentary, which chronicles the personal moments of the Romney circle, attempts to provide audiences with a "rare intimate look" into how Romney and his family balanced their political aspirations with their personal convictions.  We see Mitt and family kneeling together in prayer, thanking God for the blessings they have been given.  We see Mitt and family huddled together in various hotel rooms, critiquing speeches and preparing for debates.  We see Mitt and family dealing with the realities of lost campaigns.  In short, we see Mitt and family face the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

But the main point is this: we see MITT AND FAMILY!

If one thing is clear from this documentary, it is the fact that Mitt Romney is a family man.  For good or for bad, Mitt placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on what his family thought and felt about his running for president, along with their advise during the campaign.  There is a very real and genuine bond between family members that doesn't feel forced or simply for show.  The genuine love and devotion of the Romney family is, without question, the most striking aspect (at least for me) of this documentary.

Second only to his devotion to family, it is the authenticity of Mitt Romney the man that comes across most in this film.  The public image that is Mitt Romney is replete with examples of him as a "flip-flopper" and a "detached white man" who doesn't understand the needs of the masses. Whether or not you believe these stereotypes is irrelevant because what this documentary enforces is the fact that Mitt Romney really is who he says he is.  I was struck by the fact that Mitt's public character was, in many respects, identical to his private persona.  Love him or hate him, Mitt Romney seems to genuinely believe what he said during his campaigns.  To some, this will serve as proof that Romney is a man of good character; for others it is another reason to be glad he lost the election.

And though Mitt Romney seems to genuinely believe and stand by his moral and political opinions, he doesn't do so without a sense of reservation.  The documentary presents a number of occasions in which Mitt and family doubt their chances of winning, and even seem happy at the prospect of returning to "normal life."  On at least two occasions in the film, Mitt refers to himself as a "flawed candidate" who "cannot win."  In addition, Mitt and family seem to lack the killer mentality that is so necessary in a national campaign.  They do not support the "win at all costs" mentality and even seem mortified when they discover the back door dealings of other candidates (when former Florida Governor Charlie Crist breaks his word and endorses John McCain you see the Romney family's collective stomach begin to churn at the alleged betrayal).

The film also highlights the fact that Mitt Romney and family were both impressed and intimidated of Senator/President Barack Obama.  Time and time again, Romney comments on how Obama had "changed the game" and that he was "clearly a step ahead of everyone else."  When John McCain insists that the strategy to beating Obama would be to highlight his inexperience with foreign policy, Romney accurately decried such a strategy as a surefire way to lose.  During the 2012 campaign, Romney and family seem awestruck at the prospect of sharing the debate stage with the President, even though they sincerely believed that Obama's policies were bad for America.  

Through all of the campaigning, speeches, debates, etc., Mitt reveals a man who is torn between two worlds: his desire to serve his country in its highest office v. his desire to serve his family and his God. This introspective tug-o-war creates both confidence and hesitance for the Romney campaign. They detest Obama's politics but cannot help but admire and even be intimidated of the President. They see the problems within the GOP but cannot break free of them.  As a result, Mitt Romney finds himself in the middle of a war he cannot win.

The film concludes with the Romney family, huddled together in a hotel room, once again facing the realities of another lost campaign.  They do so with remarkable poise and even gratitude.  One can only wonder if a part of them was glad they had lost the election.  Mitt and Ann Romney then return home, together, refusing the aid of Secret Service agents.  The final scene also feels as though Mitt and Ann had never campaigned in the first place, as they sit next to one another in their living room, reflecting on what had transpired and on the uncertainty that lies ahead.

In short, the Netflix documentary, Mitt is unlikely to change anyone's opinion of the man.  If you loved him before, you will love him even more.  If you disliked Mitt during the campaign, you will probably find more reasons to continue disliking him.  But what the film does do is prove once and for all that Mitt Romney really is who he says he is.  Love him or hate him, Mitt Romney is not a pretender.  He's a genuine family man who loves his God, his country, his heritage and his posterity.  Mitt Romney was probably right when he called himself a "flawed candidate" but I believe he is also an honorable man, and this is coming from somebody who wasn't a fan of the "flawed candidate."

My final grade for Netflix's Mitt: B+.  It is worth the time to watch it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Roger Williams Survives the Cold

It has been a cold couple of months for virtually everyone in the United States (with the obvious exception for those in Florida, California, etc.). In some places, the cold is breaking records with temperatures that have not been touched in a century. And as the thermometer continues to plummet in various parts of the eastern states, it's no wonder why so many are growing concerned for those who either cannot afford heat or don't have a warm place to rest their heads.

In the great state of Massachusetts, frigid winter temperatures are a perennial norm. A cold New England weather is what gives character to that part of the country. But for one native New Englander, the cold January weather became a matter of life and death.

After months of hearings regarding matters of theology, Massachusetts Bay officials finally elected to banish Roger Williams, a former Puritan preacher who taught a number of controversial religious beliefs that flew in the face of "traditional" Puritan theology.  Williams, who was granted the courtesy of remaining in the colony until Spring, was eventually forced to flee from the colony, due to his continued efforts at preaching what many saw as heresy.  As Dan Hinchen, a blogger with the Massachusetts Historical Society, explains:
As a blizzard and accompanying gale blustered out of the northeast, the ailing Williams received a secret message from none other than Governor John Winthrop, alerting him to the approaching soldiers. By the time Underhill and his men arrived, Williams had been gone three days. 
Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. "He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows.
"But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford."ii A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.
It is remarkable that Williams was able to survive at all in such conditions.  It is a testament to both his resolve and his ability to negotiate with the native people of the area.

What I admire so much about Roger Williams is the fact that he maintained such incredible resolve in the face of constant difficulty. Not only was Williams undeterred by the fact that Puritan officials were extremely intolerant of anyone preaching anything different from their own interpretation of Christianity (wait, I thought the Puritans came to America to establish "religious freedom"?) but he also remained resolute when faced with expulsion from the colony.  Williams could have remained in Massachusetts until the Spring, but he chose to preach instead, thereby accelerating the need for his rapid departure.

Such devotion based almost exclusively on personal conviction is a rare thing in the world. Maybe that is why I like Roger Williams so much.

[Hat tip: John Fea]

Unigenitus Dei filius

Medieval popes were some of the most influential people of that era. As the walking, talking vicars of Jesus Christ on earth, the authority of Medieval popes was virtually unquestioned. Their will became the will of the church, the will of the people, the will of God.

One of the most influential popes (though also one of the most overlooked) of the Medieval era was Pope Clement VI. Clement is most notable for being the Pope who reigned during the worst years of the Black Death. As a result, Clement was forced to reconcile the horrors of arguably the greatest challenge the Medieval world ever faced with the heavenly will of God. Was the Black Death a divine punishment for sin? Was is God's wrath being poured out upon a wicked and sinful people? For a world that revolved almost completely on the axis of Catholic primacy, the answers to these and other questions couldn't wait, and Clement was the man who had to stand and deliver.

As one of his first official acts as Pope, Clement issued the now infamous Papal Bull, Unigenitus Dei filius.  The Bull was meant as an official declaration to justify the church's use of indulgences as a godly function of the faith.

Indulgences were nothing new to the Catholic world.  The first recorded record of indulgences date back all the way to the 5th century, in which the practice was used to justify and absolve small matters like farming rights, etc. Most indulgences insisted upon a period of fasting, prayer and alms as a way to seek forgiveness for various sins. Indulgences took off in the 11th century, in the wake of the Crusades. Crusaders were regularly granted a remission of sin by faithfully fulfilling their role in a given crusade to recapture the Holy Land.

For Clement VI, this Bull was simply a way to "canonize" the already common practice of indulgences. For the Medieval world, however, it was seen, at least by an emerging minority, as a possible cause for the Black Death. Christian reformers of the 14th century, though still relatively small and intentionally obscure in their outward criticism of the Catholic church, were beginning to question some of the decisions made by church leaders. They were also growing tired of what they saw as hypocritical and sinful behavior on the part of the clergy, which was being swept under the rug by the practice of indulgences.

These early reformers, who essentially served as the "grandfathers" of men like Martin Luther, laid the initial groundwork that would later catapult the Protestant Reformation into existence.  We can therefore conclude that the Papal Bull Unigenitus Dei filius was a tremendous success...though not for the Catholic church.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Joseph Fielding Smith and the True Nature of Prophets

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be
In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due. 
-Alexander Pope

This year brings with it another lesson manual in the "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church" series. Joseph Fielding Smith, the 10th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be our guide for Priesthood and Relief Society lessons every 2nd and 3rd Sunday of the month through 2014.  This is the 12th manual in this series dating back to its conception in 1998.

If I am being perfectly honest, I am not particularly excited for this year's manual.  Not only have I grown somewhat tired of the "Teachings of the Presidents" manuals (which, in reality, are all the same basic lessons, sprinkled with quotations from the church president who graces the cover of that year's respective manual), but I am not a fan of President Joseph Fielding Smith.  Yes, I realize that this probably isn't the most popular thing to say, and many Mormons will tuck tail and run as far away from this blog post as possible at my saying so, but these are my honest feelings and I don't shy away from them.

I'm not trying to come across as cynical or "anti-Mormon" here.  I have, after all, praised the manual of my favorite church president in a previous blog post. Nor am I suggesting that President Joseph Fielding Smith was a bad man. In reality, I believe that President J.F. Smith was a very good, kind and caring person who left behind a legacy of love, especially for those who knew him best. With that being said, I still have my issues with President J.F. Smith, particularly with regards to some of the wild and crazy things he said and passed off as being Mormon "doctrine."  For example:
"Not only was Cain called to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race. A curse was placed upon him and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures.  Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with a black skin and have been denied the privilege of the priesthood and the fullness of the blessings of the Gospel. These are the descendants of Cain. Moreover, they have been made to feel their inferiority and have been separated from the rest of mankind from the beginning. Enoch saw the people of Canaan, descendants of Cain, and he says, 'and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.'" -Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, Pp. 101-102.
"There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. I, Pp. 61.
"I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the negro. Darkies are wonderful people and they have their place in our church." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Look Magazine, Oct. 22, 1963, Pp. 79.
"Creation did not take millions of years. We can hardly be justified in trying to harmonize the days of creation with the extended periods of millions of years according to the reckoning of the so-called scientists." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. I.
"It has been truthfully said that organic evolution is Satan's chief weapon in this dispensation in his attempt to destroy the divine mission of Jesus Christ." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny, Pp. 184.
"You cannot believe both gospel and evolution.  I say most emphatically, you cannot believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation as set forth by the Lord our God. You must choose the one and reject the other, for they are in direct conflict and there is a gulf separating them which is so great that it cannot be bridged, no matter how much one may try to do so.
If you believe in the doctrine of the evolutionist, then you must accept the view that man has evolved through countless ages from the very lowest forms of life up through various stages of animal life, finally into the human form. The first man, according to this hypothesis known as the "cave man" was a creature absolutely ignorant and devoid of any marked intelligence over the beasts of the field." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. II.
"Some of the functions in the celestial body will not appear in the terrestrial body, neither in the telestial body, and the power of procreation will be removed.  I take it that men and women will, in these kingdoms, be just what the so-called Christian world expects us all to be -- neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings having received the resurrection." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. II, Pp. 287-288.
"We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books this will never happen." -Joseph Fielding Smith, May 14, 1961, address given at Honolulu Stake Conference.
Some may wonder why I have elected to share these unpleasant quotes (and there are many more) if I profess to be a believing and practicing Mormon. After all, what possible good could come from pointing out the negative comments that were made by a church leader from the past? In addition, aren't we as Mormons counseled to avoid speaking ill of church leaders?

My answer to this questions is: yes and no.

Yes, it is true that sometimes the ugly facts of history don't always need to be brought to light, and yes, it is not right to speak ill of church leaders.  This simply is not my intent. You may find that hard to believe after my pronouncement that J.F. Smith is not my favorite guy, accompanied with my brief list of some of Smith's less-than-pleasant quotations, but I'm serious. It is not my intent to defame President J.F. Smith or any other church leader.  My intent is simply this: to use the example of President Smith (along with the examples of other church leaders and apostles) to prove a very basic point: church leaders are NOT what we have come to believe they are.

One of the major problems that exists within Mormonism today is the struggle between church DOCTRINE and church CULTURE (I have expressed my feelings about this phenomenon in the past here, here, and here).  Oftentimes, we as members of the church will come to embrace an ideal that is based entirely on our PERCEPTION of how things should be as opposed to the way things ACTUALLY are.  A good example of this would be the fact that many Mormons today, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believe that evolution is a fraud and that a belief in said scientific theory is sinful.

Another example (the one I want to focus on in this post) is how many members erroneously bestow church leaders, particularly members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with demigod status. For many Mormons, these leaders are seen as larger than life figures, endowed with a greater measure of intellect, understanding and foresight than the average person. And though as a practicing Mormon I too believe that church leaders are afforded moments of heavenly clarity to help address a given problem (revelation), I also believe that we Mormons do ourselves (and our leaders) a terrible disservice by assuming too much in respect to their abilities, understanding and even character.

Sure, most Mormons accept the obvious fact that church leaders (past and present) are imperfect human beings that are simply trying to do their level best, but we usually only recognize these deficiencies in a very loose and unassuming manner.  Brigham Young may have been a bit rough around the edges and Ezra Taft Benson may have been a little too politically polarizing but that is usually the extent to which we will accept prophetic error.  After all, church leaders will never lead us astray!

But when we speak of some of the serious human frailties that beset our leaders, most Mormons will run for the hills.  If, for example, I call Joseph Fielding Smith a racist (and yes, I believe he exhibited some racist tendencies), or accuse him of being scientifically illiterate (as I believe he was), many a Mormon may sound the trump of blasphemy, assuming that such accusations are unfit for a Prophet, Seer and Revelator.  This is simply not the case.  Pointing out the sometimes painful realities of the past, along with the implications they bring in tow, does not mock our leaders, but rather liberates them.  For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, insisted that he was a deeply flawed individual who was not to be held up as a standard for moral decency:
"I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, and administering to the poor and dividing his substance, than the long smooth faced hypocrites. I do now want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not. God judges men according to the use they make of the light which He gives them." -Joseph Smith, Words of Joseph Smith, Pp.204. May 18, 1843.  
Perhaps we really should take the Lord at his word when he tells us, time and time again, that he chooses the "weak things of the Earth" to complete His will (Doctrine and Covenants 124: 1).

So why then are we as a church so reluctant to admit when church leaders go wrong?  We shouldn't be.  As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf reminded us in the most recent church conference:
"There have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us -- His imperfect children -- and imperfect people make mistakes.
President Uchtdorf is spot on!  Again, this doesn't simply suggest that church leaders will make the trivial mistakes of day-to-day life, but that they, like us, will make serious blunders that are "not in harmony with our values principles and doctrine."

Of course, this doesn't mean that we have the right to accuse church leaders of wrongdoing in a reckless or wanton manner. We should use sound judgement and even caution and restraint in our critiques.  Blanket accusations driven by misguided intentions usually reveal the character of the accuser more than they do the accused.  So when I make my assertion that Joseph Fielding Smith was a racist, or that he was scientifically illiterate, I do so not out of animosity for the man, but rather to point out the painful but important FACT that many of our church leaders (even those of the recent past) failed our brothers and sisters of color, and distorted the realities of provable and observable science, thereby misleading and confusing many in the church.  These weren't just trivial mistakes but were, in fact, substantial errors of judgement.

So what are we then to conclude from such mistakes?  For many members, these (and many other) errors on the part of church leaders suggests to their conscience that the church is not what it says it is. The sins and mistakes of those endowed with the prophetic mantle become the catalyst for the decay of faith.  Many may proclaim, "How would God allow a prophet to say such racist things?" or "Polygamy is just so obviously wrong that I cannot believe God would command it."  These and many other justifiable concerns have been the understandable grievances of many a church skeptic. On the other hand, such skeletons in the proverbial Mormon closet have been a source of embarrassment to many devout Mormons who either prefer to turn a blind eye to such facts (see no evil, hear no evil), decry such truths as heresy ("It's just anti-Mormon propaganda"), or justify prophetic blunders as "the will of God."

All of this, I believe, serves to illustrate the validity of my original claim that church culture has distorted the reality of what a prophet actually is.  Prophets are not Herculean figures of absolute and infallible character but rather imperfect (and dare I say even sometimes weak) human specimens called to a unique and sometimes confusing position.  Case in point: Christ's original Twelve Apostles.

It has always puzzled me why so many members of the Mormon church know so much about the prophets of Mormonism (we study their lives, teachings, etc. with great interest), while knowing relatively little about the original apostles of old (can you name all 12 of the original apostles?).  In my opinion, their lives, their calling and their respective ministries provide the blueprint of what a prophet ultimately is and is not.

Christ's original Twelve Apostles did not represent the best and the brightest that ancient Judea had to offer, but rather they were a hodge-podge rabble of men from diverse backgrounds.  At least four were fishermen (a common trade of a layperson in that era), while one (Matthew) was a tax collector and another (Bartholomew) was a nobleman of royal blood.  The Twelve had diverse opinions on the topics of religion and politics, not to mention dramatic differences with regards to upbringing, socio-economic status, etc. Some of the Twelve were extremely charismatic (Peter and John), while others were more reserved (Phillip and Andrew). Some were militant absolutists in their understanding of theology (Simon the Zealot), while others were more skeptical by nature (Thomas).  Despite their differences, we can say that Christ's original Twelve shared at least two things in common: (1) they were products of their time and (2) they were flawed human beings.  

As products of their time, Christ's original apostles understood their world through the very narrow prism of ancient Judea.  As opposed to seeing themselves as "Christians" (that term didn't even exist, let alone what such a term might actually mean), these men were Jews living under the yoke of Roman rule.  The political rhetoric of their day suggested that not only was the arrival of the anticipated Jewish Messiah close at hand, but a showdown with "Gentile" forces was brewing. When Jesus came on the scene, they were oftentimes confused by his message. Christ's doctrine of forgiveness and his apparent willingness to submit to the legal authority of his day didn't always jive with the apostles' preconceived notions of what a Messiah would be. Jesus' insistence that he had "not come to destroy the law" but rather to "fulfill" it (Matthew 5:17) must have been a hard pill for a bunch of Jewish men, indoctrinated with the Law of Moses, to accept. Even after Jesus had been resurrected, these same men struggled to understand what Jesus meant by "feed my sheep" and to teach the gentiles.

As Elder Holland aptly points out:

No matter how hard they tried, these men could not fully understand everything Jesus was telling them.  Some struggled more than others; some made greater mistakes than others.  Peter denied Christ three times, while Judas completely betrayed him.  Fairly egregious mistakes for an Apostle of Jesus Christ, wouldn't you say!?!

So why then do we understand how Peter, Judas, etc. could screw things up in such spectacular fashion and be apostles, but not extrapolate this concept to men like Joseph Fielding Smith?  Sure, J.F. Smith is not guilty of denying Jesus, but he is certainly guilty of not accepting an entire race of people. Would Jesus have approved?

And such is the case with many prophets of old.  Instead of being the great men we want them to be, they are oftentimes deeply flawed individuals who made serious mistakes.  For example:

- Abraham was a serious coward who didn't stick up for his wife: Genesis 20.

-Jacob and Rebekah deceived their husband and father, the Prophet Isaac, and thereby stole Esau's blessing: Genesis 27.

- Moses killed an Egyptian and hid him: Exodus 2:12

- Joshua could not detect the deception of the Gibeonites and was forced to make a deal with them: Joshua 9.

- David had sex with Bathsheba and then sent her husband to die in battle to hide the affair: 2 Samuel 11.

- Jonah hated the people in Nineveh and wanted to see them destroyed (or be but to death himself) rather than be sent to preach to them: Jonah 4.

Those are just a few of the many blunders made by prophets of old.  Why then are those today somehow different?  Why do we speak of the serious errors in judgement made by David, Jonah, Peter, Judas, etc. but not of the serious blunders made by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc.?  Do we feel the need to "white wash" our history because it doesn't agree with our incredibly over-sensitive spiritual palate? Are we seriously THAT insecure?!?

Prophets are going to make mistakes.  There is no avoiding it.  Sometimes those mistakes are going to be downright severe.  Sometimes they are going to misjudge things due to their own biases, shortcomings and prejudices.  As Paul reminds us, "For now we see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). Or as the Lord reminded Joseph Smith:
"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and are given unto my servants IN THEIR WEAKNESS, after the MANNER OF THEIR LANGUAGE, that they might COME TO UNDERSTAND" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24) My emphasis.
Nowhere does it say that God will give the perfect, infallible and unfiltered truth in a way that transcends all of the social, cultural and linguistic issues of the time in which a given prophet might find himself. In reality, God tells us the exact opposite.  As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reminds us:
So be kind regarding human frailty -- your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a church led by volunteer, mortal men and women.  Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but he deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of this work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil's fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can't quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
So yes, it's true, Joseph Fielding Smith said some wild and crazy things.  He isn't my favorite church president.  I'm not completely thrilled that we are studying him this year.  But with all of that being said, this year is a WONDERFUL opportunity for us all to remember that being a prophet is not about being prophetically perfect.  It's about helping those under your charge to do the very best they can in order to become better human beings and sons and daughters of God, and in this respect, Joseph Fielding Smith, like many other prophets, was a resounding success.  As President Smith taught:
"Look for the good in men, and where they fail to posses it, try to build it up in them; try to increase the good in them; look for the good; build up the good; sustain the good; and speak as little about the evil as you possibly can."  
Words that were spot on for his time and unsullied for the ages.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Glenn Beck Check, Part X: "The Constitution is Based on the 10 Commandments"

It has been a while since I checked in with America's favorite conspiracy theorist/doomsday prognosticator.  To be honest, I've grown tired of listening to this clown, as have most Americans. Glenn Beck's audience numbers (for radio, Internet and books) have been dwindling for quite some time now, as most people with a functioning brain have grown wise to his antics.  For the most part, Beck is left with just the extremists on the right, who gobble up his ilk like candy. If Beck were to say that the Founding Fathers were the Vulcan offspring of Spock they would probably all rush out to buy pointed ears! But since I am looking for a quick blog post to do this morning, debunking Glenn Beck (a relatively simple task) will have to do.

Last week, on his radio program, Glenn Beck was discussing the proposed Satan monument that has been suggested as a compliment for the 10 Commandments monument already standing outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol.  The monument is the brainchild of a small New York-based religious group called The Satanic Temple.

To be honest, I'm in 100% agreement with Beck when he rips into this stupid and insignificant organization that is simply looking to stir the pot and gain attention in the process.  Their movement is bogus and their proposed monument is a mockery.  Pure and simple.

But Beck didn't leave the issue on those terms.  Instead, Beck decided to go on a tirade in which he proclaims that the United States was founded as a "Judeo-Christian nation" and that the 10 Commandments "is a monument of where we got our laws."  See for yourself in the following clip:

Again, I agree with Beck when he essentially argues that our society is not as moral as we could/should be. That's probably a true statement, even though one could argue that today's society is more moral than ever (we've abolished slavery, given women equal rights, etc.).

It is with Beck's assertion that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" that his argument derails. This argument, which is getting REALLY old as well, simply baffles me.  The notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation is not only bad for America, but it's bad for Christianity.  The separation of church and state is a good thing, folks...for everyone!  And it's not anti-American or anti-Christian to point out the FACT that the United States was NOT founded as a Christian nation.  But don't listen to me; listen to what these folks said on the matter:
1.) "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." -1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (my abbreviation).
2.) "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian religion." -John Adams, Treaty of Tripoli, 1797 (my emphasis).
3.) "We may safely affirm that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." -Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Feb. 10, 1814. 
4.) Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions more than our opinions of physics or geometry." -Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1777. 
Those are just four out of literally hundreds of examples of our Founding Fathers explaining (in the plainest of terms) that the United States is NOT a Christian nation. Unfortunately for Beck, who regularly cherry-picks his history, these FACTS do not fit with his political agenda.

The second part of the Beck clip has him ranting through his microphone that, "the 10 commandments" is "where we get our law...We get our law from the laws of Moses."

It completely baffles me how anyone who HONESTLY thinks about what Glenn Beck said could actually believe it.  Sure, it sounds good to our Christian and patriotic instincts to say that the 10 Commandments serve as a foundation for our Constitution but reality is this couldn't be further from the truth, and either Glenn Beck is too stupid to recognize this or he just doesn't care.  To prove my point, let's look at each of the 10 Commandments and see just how constitutional they really are:

1.) "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."  This one should be obvious to everyone.  To force anyone to believe in any god is a clear violation of the 1st Amendment. In the good ol' U.S. of A., everyone is free to believe in whatever god they want, as many gods as they want, or to believe in no god(s) at all.  Clearly the 1st Commandment has nothing to do with where we get our laws.

2.) "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." Again, this one is blatantly obvious. Any American is free to have as many graven images as they see fit. There is no law prohibiting it. The 2nd Commandment is out as well.

3.) "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Another obvious one here as well, folks. Yes, it's crass when people swear and use the name of God to do so, but it isn't a crime.  No way, no how.  The 3rd Commandment is out.

4.) "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." Heh, if this one isn't obvious then maybe you should just ask the NFL, NASCAR, shopping malls, public parks, etc. if they face any legal repercussions for the various activities they carry out on every Sunday across the nation.  The 4th Commandment is out.

5.) "Honor thy father and thy mother." This is some great advice, and I would hope/encourage anyone I know to abide by this counsel, but is it in our Constitution? The 5th Commandment is out.

6.) "Thou shalt not kill." Winner, winner, chicken dinner!  We have one!  Yes, the laws of our land do not allow you to kill others.  Glenn Beck finally has one in his column.  The 6th Commandment is in.

7.) "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Again, this is some really good advice, and I believe anyone with half of a brain would agree, but it is NOT protected by law. It used to be in some colonies/states, but case law has shown this to be unconstitutional.  The 7th Commandment is out.

8.) "Thou shalt not steal." Here's another one for Beck's column.  The laws of the land do not allow you to steal.  This is considered a crime.  As a result, the 8th Commandment is IN!

9.) "Thou shalt not bear false witness." This is a tricky one. I'm going to go ahead and give this one to Beck (and I'm being VERY generous here) because it is a crime to lie in court and in a few other settings. It's called perjury.  So the 9th Commandment is in...but BARELY!

10.) "Thou shalt not covet." Nope, in America you are free to covet to your heart's content.  Heck, in some respects it is even encouraged.  The 10th Commandment is out.

So, in the end, we have 3 Commandments (and barely 3) that fit with what Glenn Beck is saying, while 7 are clearly out.  Again, this impulse to say that the United States is a "Christian" nation and that the 10 Commandments played a role in the establishment of our laws sounds good and may make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it simply isn't based on reality...and we should be glad for this. The separation of church and state is as beneficial for religion as it is for government.

Sorry, Beck, but once again you have revealed to the world just how little you know about history, constitutional law, etc.  Go back to telling everyone to prepare for the apocalypse by stocking up on their supply of pointed Vulcan ears!