America’s Greatest Mystery Novel

Once you strip away all the Book of Mormon’s pretenses of scriptural import, what you have is nothing more nor less than a lusty tale of America’s favorite subject: families and murder….

Murder and ruin are written across the breadth of Joseph Smith’s pre-American panorama, and because violence always demands an explanation or a solution, the Book of Mormon’s unexamined greatest revelation is a truly startling one: As Moroni looks at the blood-reddened land around him, and as he reviews the full reach of the history that led to this mass extinction, it is plain that the force behind all these centuries of destruction is none other than God himself. It is God who brought these wandering people to an empty land, and it is God who established the legacies that could only lead to such awful obliteration. God is the hidden architect of all the killing at the heart of America’s greatest mystery novel, the angry father who demands that countless offspring pay for his rules and honor, even at the cost of generations of endless ruin.

The single strongest instance of blasphemy in the Book of Mormon occurs when a charismatic atheist and Antichrist named Korihor stands before one of God’s judges and kings and proclaims: “Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgressions of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty of because of its parents.”

For proclaiming such outrageous words, God strikes Korihor mute, and despite Korihor’s full-hearted repentance, God will not allow him forgiveness. Korihor is left to wander among the people of the nation, begging for mercy and support, and the people take him and stamp upon him, until he dies under their feet. –Mikal Gilmore, Shot in the Heart

You’ve never read a book quite like Shot in the Heart. Even if you’ve read The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which deals with some of the same subject matter, you’ve still never read a book like SitH, which is a lot shorter and far less boring than The Executioner’s Song (which I am convinced went to press without any serious editing, because it’s such a bloated mess). People admire TES because of the power of Gary Gilmore, the person at the heart of the story, not Mailer’s sloppy thousand-page account of Gary’s life, crimes, death, and notoriety.

Gary Gilmore, in case you didn’t know, murdered two young Mormon men in Utah County on subsequent nights in 1976, for no reason but meanness. He was swiftly tried for one of the murders, convicted, and sentenced to death. He then refused to appeal his death sentence, which enraged people. The most devoted supporters of the death penalty had no interest in killing someone who wanted to die, because that was no punishment; they only wanted to execute people who wanted to live. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was shot to death at the Utah State Prison in Draper (if you’ve ever driven from Salt Lake City to Provo, you went right past it; it’s just to the west of I-15), and became the first person executed in the United States in almost a decade, after the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1976.

Gilmore was in Utah because he had family there; his mother was born in Provo. Gary was never Mormon, but his mother and his younger brother Mikal both were, though Mikal went inactive as a teen–he was asked to stop attending when it became obvious just how much he loved girls and rock & roll. (Mikal wrote for Rolling Stone for years and has published a history of rock & roll entitled Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll.) Mikal’s insider knowledge of Mormonism makes his analysis of it all the more compelling. He gets a few details wrong (for instance, misremembers some of Mormon lingo across three decades), but he really nails some things, as when he describes his Utah cousins as “prissy and mean at the same time–in the way that only well-bred Mormon children can seem.”

Shot in the Heart is both a Utah story and a uniquely Mormon book on the one hand, and, on the other, a harrowing tragedy that transcends place and religion. Like the Book of Mormon, it is about love and loyalty and devotion and murder and intergenerational violence and children punished for the sins of their parents. It’s a ghost story and a family history. It’s scriptural exegesis and true crime. It’s an elegy and a polemic about the US prison system. it’s grim and despairing–it’s really hard to be cheerful when your brother is the most notorious murderer in the country–and still somehow uplifting. It’s a work that should help inform the mission and scope of Mormon Alumni Association Books.

It was made into a crappy TV movie in the early 2000s. Skip that and just read the book, even though it’s long. It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius in ways Dave Eggers’ work can only hope to be.

Serious Fun: “Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon” edited by Holly Welker and Marc Edward Shaw

book_of_mormon_musical_book Since its opening, the Book of Mormon musical has been surrounded by controversy over its degree of vulgarity, its treatment of Mormons, and various other issues. It has also been tremendously popular in the US and abroad, notably sweeping the Tony Awards. It’s natural to ask whether it’s just fluff appealing to the lowest common denominator or whether there’s some substance there — and if there’s substance, let’s tease it out and have a look.

Welker and Shaw’s book Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon does just that. They’ve collected a remarkable set of original essays by various authors analyzing every facet of the play including its treatment of Mormon culture and beliefs, its treatment of Africans and women, its messages about faith in general, its use of bawdy humor, its illustration of Joseph Smith’s techniques and trajectory through the character of Elder Cunningham, and many other points.

Even for those of us who have been following the online discussion of this musical, there are plenty of fascinating new ideas in this collection. In the discussions I’ve read online, the consensus has generally been that the errors in the portrayal of Mormonism are small and superficial, especially compared with the deeper cultural themes the play got right. Some essays in this book expand upon that point, but I think the book really shines when the authors go beyond the obvious question of “Is it fair to Mormons?” and start to tackle its treatment of other groups. Here’s a taste:

As Max Perry Mueller writes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “Say what you will about the accuracy of the ‘Africans’ depicted in The Lion King musical, at least ‘Hakuna Matata’ actually means something in Swahili.” “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is akin to a modern Broadway musical, set (for example) in China, including a number entitled “Ching Chong Bing Bong”—-an unthinkable occurrence. Yet, because this is Africa, this cultural appropriation receives a pass from its predominantly white audience.


More shocking and upsetting still was seeing Nabulungi reduced to an accessory—not someone who assists in accomplishing an action, like an accessory to a crime, but in the sense of being an object that completes an outfit. Nabulungi does something that’s a punch line in “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”: she literally stands next to [Elder Cunningham] and watches.

One of the running jokes in the musical is the white Mormon missionaries’ ignorance about Africa — yet ironically the musical itself is just as ignorantly Eurocentric, treating Africa and Africans as cardboard cut-outs whose real-life counterparts are irrelevant and uninteresting to the (white) audience. As much as I want to love this play for how well it nailed so many aspects of Mormon culture that I remember from my Mormon upbringing, I can’t overlook its blind spots and treat them as minor issues. I’m glad to see that this book gives those questionable points some serious scrutiny.

I’d like to thank the editors and authors of this book for their insights. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys textual analysis and has an interest in the musical.

[disclosure note: I am listed in the acknowledgements of this book for having provided some feedback on one of the essays.]

Obligatory Violence and the Book of Mormon

Like so many people, I have spent the past two days convulsed with grief and horror at the events in Charleston. Also shame: America’s latest accused mass murderer claimed he had to kill black people because they “rape our women,” and it’s as repugnant to me that anyone would murder a human being in defense of mythic white female purity as it was that another angry young man murdered people in Isla Vista 13 months ago because women wouldn’t put out for him.

Just in case anyone of that persuasion is reading this, here’s a message: No. Women, white or otherwise, are not your possessions and you don’t have the right to kill in their name.

I’ve also been really bothered by all the comments I’ve seen about the guy’s mental state. It’s bullshit, part of an overall racist attitude that says that when black people do something “criminal,” well, it’s just part of their nature. No need to dig much deeper.

But when a white guy kills a bunch of people, well, it’s a symptom that something was amiss that made him act contrary to his nature.

Essentially–and it is a matter of essentialism–it comes down to the fact that white America always know that the person in the black hat (skin) is the villain who deserves our fear and scorn, while the person in the white hat (skin) is the hero who deserves our sympathy, understanding and concern–no matter what the actions of each, or who kills whom.

Likewise, I’ve been bugged when people have called him a monster. It reminds me of an assessment I read of World War I:

War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a particularly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime. –Frederic Manning, 1929.

I think the same applies to mass murder. It is committed “by men, not by beasts, or by gods” (unless you really believe that stuff about Noah and the flood).

To call Lanza or Roof or Rodger “monsters” or even “mentally ill” is to miss the extent to which we make killing those we hate part of our story about ourselves as human beings.

All of these were things I said in conversations on Facebook today. And then so many things fell into focus and clarity, via this amazing article by Tage Rai arguing that people are violent because their moral codes demand it:

Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations…. Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.

After all, isn’t that the first lesson of the Book of Mormon, that “it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief”?

Rai’s thesis seems inescapable and obvious to me now that I’ve encountered it. If the mechanism didn’t work, we couldn’t persuade our nice young men and women to travel to other lands to kill other nice young men and women.

But it sure makes the Book of Mormon more repulsive and inadequate as a moral compass. I really, really want no part of it.

Have something to say about “The Book of Mormon” musical?

For the past few years, a colleague and I have been working to compile a collection of scholarly essays about “The Book of Mormon” musical. We’ve got a signed contract with a press and some really great essays, but there’s room for one or two more. If you have an idea for an essay of 4,000 to 6,000 words critiquing the BOM musical from any discipline, send an abstract ASAP to: bom.musical.interp @ gmail.

Missionary Chat: Native Americans cursed?

I had another question I wanted to run by “Mormons on the street”: Are Native Americans cursed?

Emily: Hello!

Sam (me): Hello!

Emily: What brings you to chat today?

Sam: I have a question about Mormon teachings.

Emily: Okay… we will do our best to help you

Sam: A friend of mine is LDS and he mentioned something that I thought was odd. I’m Native American, part of the Cherokee Nation. He said that the history of my ancestors is described in the Book of Mormon. That seemed interesting.

Emily: Oh wow! Well the Book of Mormon The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains the fulness of the everlasting gospel. oops said the book of mormon twice.. sorry! (She then posted this link.)

Sam: Well, I’ve been reading the Book of Mormon and found a passage disturbing: 2 Nephi 5:21: And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. Does that mean I’m cursed?

Martha: so the blackness of the skin was not the curse.. the curse was that the lamanites didn’t want to hear the words of God so they were cursed to be not of God meaning they can no longer feel his presence in their lives because they chose to live in their sin.. the color of their skin was just a sign, so that nephites could recognize them.. so the skin color at that time served as a reminder for them that they have chosen not to follow God

Sam: So, dark skin is just a symbol of a curse?

Martha: There is a difference between the mark and the curse. The mark placed upon the Lamanites was a dark skin (see Alma 3:6). The curse was not the dark skin but being “cut off from the presence of the Lord” (2 Nephi 5:20). Notice that in both Alma 3:7 and Alma 3:14 the conjunction and is used between the curse and the mark. This implies that they are not the same thing. The people brought the curse upon themselves: “And even so doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation” (Alma 3:19). Through righteousness the curse may be removed, but the mark may remain as it has with the Lamanites (see commentary for 2 Nephi 5:20–25 on page 62).

Martha: so we don’t believe that you are cursed.. unless you choose to disobey the Father willingly now.. and the same curse would come upon me if I would choose that.. but the mark was something that they needed to have in that time recognize the people.. that will not happen again.. the mark has remained in their ancestors.. but that shouldn’t affect you today if you choose to follow God.. does that make sense?

Sam: Yeah, sort of. But it seems kind of racist for god to mark people with dark skin to symbolize a curse, don’t you think?

Martha: well at that time those people were very wicked.. and God did that for various reasons.. one of them being to protect the people who followed God, so that they wouldn’t mix their blood with the wicked at that time.. but as you read in the book of mormon a lot of Lamanites changed but in several hundred years.. and accepted God.. but we don’t know all of the reasons why God needed to do that…

Martha: I don’t know the meaning of all things, but I do know that God loves His children and He wants them to be happy and His ways are higher.. and we with our minds cannot understand it all, but if you know that God loves you and you want to follow Him nothing can stand in your way

Sam: Okay. Thanks.

Martha: did this help you at all?

Sam: Yep.

Martha: so are you interested to learn more about the Church?  do you have other questions?

Sam: That was my only question for today. I may have others in the future, but that’s good for now. Thanks.

Martha: maybe you would like to keep in touch with us?  and we could help you in the future?

Sam: If I have more questions, I can always come back here, right?

Martha: but what makes you interested in our church?

Sam: I just thought what my friend said was interesting and what the Book of Mormon said was interesting. I might think differently about my friend if he really believes skin color is a curse from god.  But you said it wasn’t.

Martha: so have you been reading the Book of Mormon?

Sam: Parts of it, yes.

Emily: Well we hope we have been able to help you today. But as missionaries and members of the church we would love to invite you to pray and ask God if the Book of Mormon is true, we know that he can give you a personal witness that it truly is the word of God. We haven’t learned that this church is true and that the Book of Mormon is true from others telling us but from searching ourselves and asking God.

Martha: that is cool! we know that only through reading and praying about the Book you can find out if this is the truth

Martha: maybe you could read one chapter today ? it is in Moroni 10 it is in page 500 something.. 529  it talks about the promise that God has given to everyone who want to know if it is true

Sam: That seems like an odd way to determine whether or not a book is true. Why not study it from a scientific perspective to see if the factual claims the book makes are accurate?

Martha: well ,… we cannot convince you about the truthfulness of this word but we can invite you to ask God.. because there will be many opinions and “evidence” of different things.. but if you truly receive a witness from God you cannot deny it

Martha: do you believe in God?

Sam: Well, it depends on what you mean by God.

Martha: I just want to ask you Sam, what if you find out at the last day when you pass away from this life that everything we tell you was true.. and you never tried to find it out for yourself when you were here on earth?

Sam: That seems kind of like a manipulative tactic. You’re trying to induce me to feel fear to manipulate me into believing. That seems kind of disingenuous to me. Doesn’t it to you?

Martha: well , I don’t know.. I am just saying these things because I have received a witness from God.. and my life has been so blessed because of this Gospel.. my purpose is not to persuade you to believe in it but to invite you to try it for yourself.. I think me trying to persuade you with facts .. if I would pour different facts over you and tell you everything I know and would ask you to believe because I believe I think that would be manipulative.. but I am just inviting you to try it for yourself.. and then it is all up to you – your desire to know and your communication with God

Martha: but how can you know that these “facts ” are true or not?

Sam: Providing people with facts isn’t manipulative. It’s persuasive. It’s using evidence and logic and critical thinking. Praying relies on emotions. Emotions are manipulative. Well, I’m pretty sure the earth revolves around the sun, even though it doesn’t seem like it.  I think we know that is true.  Or are you saying the only way we can know that is by asking God?


Martha: I know that praying is more then emotions.. answers from God are not only emotion based..

Martha: well but people believed hundreds of years ago that the earth was flat.. and it was a fact to them

Martha: God knows everything

Martha: He created the universe

Martha: He has all of the answers even about science, because He is Father of that all

Martha: and again this is what I believe is a fact

Martha: but to you it is only my theory ..

Martha: so that is why we invite everyone to pray and to find out for themselves

Martha: if there is God .. if He loves you , you should be able to receive answers.. something that is hard to explain .. but it is up to you to try it or not

Sam: But how could you know the answer is from God?

Martha: that is a good question and it takes time and practice to really recognize, but something that helps you too recognize these answers and receive them is Faith.. faith – trust in something you don’t see but believe is there. and hope that God will answer

Martha: and this is again.. up to you.. if you have at least a little degree of faith .. or a desire to believe you can receive an answer

Sam: So, you don’t actually know if God is answering your prayers? Could it be aliens? Or evil gods? Or just emotional manipulation?

Martha: well I know it is God.. because of the scriptures, and because of the feelings I have felt .. and because of everything that has happend in my life.. and all of the experiences when I have received an answer from Him … that is why it is so important to get to know Him through scriptures.. .. yes it is scary to think all of what you are saying.. it could be but if you don’t ask you will never know.. and you can say that those are theories.. or facts based on something someone has said to you.. but do you really want to know for yourself?

Martha: do you want the answer to this question?

Martha: if you will study the book of mormon with real intent and will pray God humbly in the name of Jesus Christ you will receive a witness from the Holy Ghost

Martha: and Holy Ghost will manifest unto you the truthfulness of these things..

Martha: and it is not an emotion it is something greater.. and it is hard to explain it.. but it is something you have to experience to know

Sam: You seem really determined to convince me that praying to get an emotional response will actually work. Are you trying to convince me or you?

Martha: you keep talking about emotions.. I know that this witness is not based on your emotions.. yes they are there too but it is something grater as I said.. and I am not here to convince but to testify of something I have witnessed in my life.. I wouldn’t be here on my mission if I hadn’t felt an answer from God.. if I hadn’t got to know my Father and most of all if I hadn;t received my own testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.. His Sacrifice and His love for me

Martha: and if you want to believe and know it for yourself you have to decide.. but I can’t deny what I have experienced and what I know.

Martha: because I have tried to do it before.. I wasn’t always so sure of what I belie in.. I tried deny these things and I was so unhappy.. I was lost.. I have never been happier ion my life , because I finally understand the truth

Sam: Is the response “something you feel”?

Martha: well it is hard to explain and describe it it is something you have to witness for yourself.. until then you will think that I am deceived or confused with my own emotions or something else .. of course it is easier to think that way

Martha: and I don’t blame you for it

Martha: all I can do is to invite you to try it for yourself

Sam: Well, I think you could do more. Like provide scientific evidence that the Book of Mormon holds up under critical inquiry. That would be pretty compelling.

Martha: so I was saying.. there are so many things I have studiesthat I could tell you and provide evidence.. but do you need them because you want to know that the book is true just because you are curious or because you would want to know if there is God and that the Christ lives? .. there were many people who saw the Golden plates in real life when they were here on the earth .. they wrote down their witness but then changed their minds and decided not to follow the teachings.. this proof really didn’t change their lives.. they never denied that they saw the plates

Martha: so the question is why do you want evidence? do you think you will follow God if you will have it?

Sam: So, where are the plates?

Sam: If there was overwhelming empirical evidence that God existed, I would follow that God.

Martha: well if everyone knew with perfect knowledge that there is God they wouldn’t want to sin , they would only make the choices they think God wants them to and that would take away their agency.. of you have faith and you want to believe and want to change your life and become better and you truly search for Him you become greater than the person who has full knowledge of that.. I don’t know how ot explain it

Martha: for example- if you knew there was a test in school on a certain date you would only prepare couple days before and wouldn’t really learn.. but if you would know that it will come sometime you would actually study and learn more and would gain more from that

Martha: so God is wise .. He knows why it was so important for us to come here on this Earth to grow and He knows what is the best way for us to grow

Martha: but we need this experience … we need tomake mistakes on our own and fix them and learn from them .. we need to feel sorrow and pain here so that we would know the difference..

Martha: but God can give you a witness that you are moving in the right direction He can send you a witness from Holy Gost so that you would know which book to read which Church to join to know what is the truth and what to follow in this Earth to return back to Him,..

Martha: one day everyone will know that God is real with perfect knowledge.. and they will look back on this life and will say – I wish I had done this and that.. I wish I had tried to known this before..

Martha: because I would have made other decisions

Martha: and the truth comes from the scriptures.. from the prophet.. and you have every right to ask God if this book is true.. if this is a direction that He wants you to go

Martha: because there are many ways to go in this life many opportunities to follow different if you want to know if there is one way.. if there is the surest way to happiness.. in this life and life to come God will bear a witness to you if you will ask Him.. but it depends on that if you really are searching for that.. so… it is up to you..

Sam (Martha paused for about a minute here, so I interjected): Okay. Thanks. Got to go now.

Martha: well I hope you will at least think about it and if you ever have questions.. you know that you can always turn to your friend..or here I guess.. it was nice talking to you!

Martha: if you ever want to talk to us again.. you can leave your e-mail or something

Sam: Bye.


Commentary: These missionaries were better prepared than the last ones.  I’ve never found the distinction between the “curse” and the skin color all that compelling, but at least they knew what apologetic argument to use.  Of more interest to me, however, was their clear belief that the Book of Mormon is a literal history of Native Americans.  I guess they missed the memo about it being about a book about some people “among” the ancestors of Native Americans.

And, I apologize for the length of this one.  Martha was really determined.  I wasn’t even trying to lead her on, but she wouldn’t let it go.

Sunday in Outer Blogness: No planet for you edition!

As cool as it was when the CoJCoL-dS dumped its racist doctrines, it was clear (even at the time) that there are disadvantages to giving the keys of defining Mormon doctrine over to the quorum of the anonymous website maintainers. Officially endorsing questionable apologetics on the Book of Mormon (like limited geography) was bad enough. Now they’re repossessing your planet.

Some say they never really wanted a planet anyway, but others (including me) are understandably disappointed. (We talked about this way back when they first started floating the idea of denying the “own planet” thing.)

I especially think it’s a shame because the doctrine of eternal progression is an interesting one (that the article could have expanded on), and it’s no more ridiculous than the doctrines of other religions. But it looks like the new church essays are determined to deny anything that could embarrass the CoJCoL-dS in any way. I just hope that in the next essay they decide to deny they ever claimed that masturbation is a sin. Hey, website prophets — remember how people were laughing at Mormons for that BYUI masturbation-as-war video (* hint, hint *):

And, while Mormons who are at least 30 generally remember learning in church that the purpose of this life is to learn to become Gods of our own worlds, it’s surprisingly tricky to find quotes to back it up. It’s a tribute to the effectiveness of the church’s strategy of disseminating doctrine through anonymously-authored manuals that are updated every year (and now in anonymous web pages). Maybe the CoJCoL-dS did openly teach us this doctrine 20 years ago, but good luck proving it!!

I can understand why the CoJCoL-dS may want to de-emphasize some of Joseph Smith’s more science-fictiony doctrines — after all, it’s right there in the Mormon scripture that the sun’s light comes from Kolob. The problem is that is you want to claim that you are getting information directly from an omniscient God, it’s hard to explain why that info is so often wrong. One strategy is to give up on having doctrines, which is great, but leaves some wondering why they should be obeying the church leaders. Other religions have consistency problems as well, but Tim made a valid point about how the new essay is unfair to Christians:

I’m happy for the church to clarify its own beliefs on this doctrine but found myself frequently frustrated by their justifications for the doctrine. On the one hand the church ask that its beliefs not be caricatured (having your own planet) but it has no problem creating a caricature of Eastern orthodoxy and the early church fathers for its own benefit.

Last week’s topicthe gay agenda — is still resonating. Just Jill helpfully posted her gay agenda, and Mormon X found a pro-mutant message in the film Frozen. Both J-G W and Joseph Broom explained that the existence of successful mixed-orientation marriages doesn’t mean mixed-orientation marriage is a viable option for everyone.

Then there were some more ripples of discussion about that Ensign article about “The Lord’s Standard for Morality”. Holly Welker wrote that it promoted rape culture (what else is new?), so Dan Peterson called on faithful women to tell Holly how wrong she is. Some rose to the challenge, but they also felt the original article had some major problems. (Tangential: Here are some interesting women.)

Now for scripture study!! In this week’s Book of Mormon readings, some ancient American prophets predicted Jesus’ life in some detail but failed to predict some Mormon doctrines that Joseph Smith didn’t think of until after translating the Book of Mormon. Daniel Midgely’s Old Testament lesson was about how the Old Testament is in fact a really terrible guide for morality, contrary to Dallin Oaks’ recent claim:

Those who have used human reasoning to supersede divine influence in their lives have diminished themselves and cheapened civilization in the process.

Actually, several people objected to Oakes’ recent talk.

As a general trend, America is secularizing, including from moderate religions and the rest, largely because the Religious Right is so intent on making religion look rotten. (Plus the gospel of un-god is really convincing.) Not everyone, though — Thunderchicken wrote an elaborate allegory explaining some reasons for staying the the church. And church attendance may be increasing in some places!

In individual stories, Profet left the church largely for his kids’ sake. Andrea outlined some of the specific problems in the CoJCoL-dS. Aerin and Jen reflected on the role of Mormonism in their lives. And Knotty has had to move on from epinions.

In random stuff, “Cosmos” is coming back!! Plus we have some tasty looking recipes, a rave review for Joanne’s book.

Have a great week — and let’s all try to make this our paradise planet, since we won’t be getting our own new ones!!

Sunday in Outer Blogness: BoM DNA edition!!

The voting for the Brodies is off to an excellent start, with tons of votes coming in from the exmo subreddit and other places!! If you’ve been nominated and would like to win, you may want to send your fans here. And whether you’re in the running or not, please take the opportunity to review some of the best LDS-related content of 2013, and vote for your favorites!!

(Related: The results of the Wheaties/Tareific awards are in and analyzed!)

The big news this past week is that the CoJCoL-dS posted a new essay claiming that DNA evidence does not disprove the Book of Mormon.

Now, if you’re like me, you may be wondering why this is news. I mean, what do you expect them to say? “Wow, looks like the evidence disproves the Book of Mormon after all… I guess we’ll just have to close up the church and give everyone their tithing back!” lol. But it turns out that there’s some really interesting stuff in there!

The biggest, most doctrinally significant point in this essay was explained by David T:

The essay never directly admits that these “others” already here came 10,000 – 30,000 years ago, but says, loosely that “…people migrated from northeast Asia to the Americas by way of a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska.” For this claim, they reference a paper by Ugo Perego, Mormon geneticist, which does date the migrations to older than 10,000 years ago.

Indeed the essay references over a dozen scientific articles (several more authored by Ugo Perego) to support its discussion on why ancient American DNA studies do not discredit the claims of the Book of Mormon. All of these references state directly or imply strongly that the DNA studies of ancient American migrations date to more than 10,000 years ago, pre-dating any events described in the Book of Mormon, or the bible and Pearl of Great Price, for that matter.

The upshot is, the LDS Church concedes that humans in America arrived before Adam and Eve were on the earth.

Regardless whether or not the DNA of the Lamanites, Lehites, Mulekites or Jaredites are lost in the sea of population dilution, the desert of genetic drift or even the confusing city of religious myth, the LDS Church now affirms that humans lived before the “the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also” called Adam (Moses 3:4).

This is a huge concession. It has many implications.

Implications outlined by Steve Bloor:

The Mormon Church has just unintentionally admitted there was no Great Flood, or Tower of Babel. That people existed on the Earth many thousands of years before Adam and Eve, and that there was no Fall.

It looks like the CoJCoL-dS is moving towards admitting the BoM stories didn’t really happen. There were some other interesting insights such as the fact this means that the CoJCoL-dS is officially accepting evolution. But it was a tangential point in this post that really jumped out at me:

On this point, I lost all faith in any Church published book last year when I found that the book Articles of Faith by Apostle James E. Talmage had been significantly altered on this point sometime between the first printing and the 1989 edition that I had as part of my missionary library. Talmage was absolutely certain in 1901 that the Nephites and Lamanites filled the whole of North America from east coast to west coast. Pseudo-Talmage in 1989 only says that a traditional belief was that Nephites spread into some part of North America. The book contains no note/forward/appendix/introduction saying that significant passages had been completely rewritten. This is considered completely dishonest without question in the publishing industry. (I wrote a post about this a few months back with exact quotes and page numbers.)

Of course, despite DNA and archaeology, the Book of Mormon still has an argument in its favor: its absurdity.

The second scandal of the week arrived when Newsweek published a portrait of the exmo community that was less-than-flattering. Andrew S explained that this says as much about Mormonism as it does about leaving Mormonism. And Runtu countered with a beautiful portrait of his own experiences with the exmo community:

That’s the key for me. Whether I’ve wanted to admit it or not, I had that big void in my life, and I filled it by becoming part of the ex-Mormon community. And I thank God they were there to understand and support me when I needed it. I’ve met some of the greatest people I know in that community, and as different as they are, the one thing they have in common is integrity. I have never met a group of people with as much integrity in my life. I think their integrity is part of what led them to leave the LDS church in the first place: they couldn’t just go along to get along or pretend or quietly sit in the pews. They did what they thought was right.

I laughed at the meetings devoted to learning how to drink alcohol or purchase underwear, but these silly things illustrate just how jarring the experience is and how much of your life you have to figure out, even to the level of what kind of underwear you’re going to wear (boxer-briefs, in case you were wondering).

It’s inspiring each week to see people have learned some profound lessons in their journey through Mormonism and out: Mormon 411 encouraged fellow atheists to reflect on the humanity they share with believers. There’s a stereotype that exmos are just flipping to some equal-and-opposite rigid ideology, but what I see time and again is folks like Mablun encouraging former believers to avoid “the anti-halo-effect” of simply dismissing everything about the church and its members as bad, stupid, etc. I agree, and have said many times that if the CoJCoL-dS were 100% harmful, it would not have lasted so long — it’s interesting to analyze the ways that it works for some people.

An exmo thanked his TBM marriage counselor for encouraging both parties to respect each other and treat each other well regardless of religion. I love to see people put their family before their ideology. Interfaith interactions aren’t easy — see this fail. (See also some good tips on what to say when your Mormon friend comes out as gay.)

The third kerfluffle this week began when Nate Oman decided to post some musings on the Inevitable Failure of the Ordain Women Movement inspiring a pointed response. The inequality is hard to deny — maybe you’d like to take this survey about it. Also, I don’t know if it’s related, but there was some harsh criticism of attempts at being an ally (but some positive views as well), plus some feminist poetry.

Then there was quite a bit of sexy stuff to follow up that wacky BYUI masturbation-as-war video. The Mormon Sex Girls’ position is basically that Well, we can’t get away with claiming masturbation is not a sin, but….. If you’re short on material, check out Tom Clark’s beautiful nudes. I loved Emma Smith’s tales of losing her virginity and especially of finding people to celebrate her joy! And there were some very poignant personal stories touching on romance and sexuality and the consequences of viewing women in terms of their uteruses (sp? uteri?).

This week’s scripture study included some interesting points about the benefits of a social safety net (a idea that’s pretty dramatically unpopular in Utah). The Bible predicts both teams as winners of the Superbowl, and even predicts the score, but Satan favors the Patriots. Related, Heather has been sharing her YW lessons. But my favorite is Daniel’s lesson about the official disavowal of racist doctrines:

The Church’s statement on ‘Race and the Priesthood’ is something of a landmark. Thankfully, it repudiates racism among its members.

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse…. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

It also lists a few things members have believed in the past. Here’s one:

According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.

Ask: Where might Latter-day Saints have gotten this idea?
Read: Moses 7:22

22 And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.

In other fun, since Utah has outsourced the office of Utah Attorney General to an Idaho lawyer, why not outsource the legislature? Not to mention a protest of the opening of a Starbucks in Provo and how Mormonism makes you fat!

And what do we do when we’re not talking about Mormonism? Well, Varina is knitting up a Christmas Mitten-pocalypse, Roger Hansen is visiting the Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Erin explained why her toddler is crying, Heather is making pesto-chick-pea sandwiches, littlemissattitude is reading defaced library books, and Suede Swayzee is learning some amazing lessons in happiness from a little girl.

Sorry to give you so much new stuff to read right after asking you to get down to business on the Brodies, but it was just an amazing week in terms of interesting topics!!! Good luck, and happy reading!

What do specialists think of Mormonism’s claims?

On August 11th, 2013 I posted a compilation on the exmormon subreddit. I worked every day for many hours during a 3-4 week period. The compilation consisted of responses from university professors who specialize in the fields of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Archaeology, Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Anthropology, and Egyptology. Their responses were directed towards my letter asking their opinion on the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon and/or the Book of Abraham. I acquired their emails from their university’s website. I emailed a total of sixty professors and received responses from twenty-five of them. Out of those twenty-five, fourteen allowed me to share their names and responses online.

Here is the template email I sent to the Mesoamerica professors, and here is the letter to the Egyptology professors.

I usually added something to the letter that was specific to the receiver like their work in a specific country, or their particular field of work.

Without further ado, here are the responses.

I hope everyone found the responses as insightful as I did. In my short seventeen years I find this compilation to be one of my favorite experiences. The professors were kind and generous enough to share their knowledge with an interested stranger.

Best Wishes. Zachary (a.k.a cagelessbird)

The profound truths of the Book of Mormon

A few weeks ago — after more than two years of loving the album — I finally got to see God’s favorite musical performed live! I love all of the songs, and in particular, I think that the song You and Me (But Mostly Me) is my #1 favorite Broadway show tune of all time. It’s not just clever and funny — I love it because it so perfectly captures my own Mormon experience. I’m happy to enjoy the abstract beauty of music, but I really love songs that express real emotions — songs I can sing with my whole heart.

In this case, as I’ve said:

it was listening to “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” that made my whole youth and childhood pass before my eyes. Standing there, happy to supportively sing “my best friend…” while somebody Awesome! sings his heart out about serving God. [..] I completely agree with Holly’s assessment that this would be perfect sung as a duet between a young LDS guy and his fiancee. I don’t think that’s reading anything into it that’s not there. Hierarchy colors so much about Mormon interpersonal relationships. And the (officially unequal) partnership between missionaries sets the model for marriage.

One point that is pure genius is the fact that their unequal relationship isn’t quite the central focus of the song. The leader’s earnest desire to do something great for mankind and God is as central (if not moreso). And the fact it’s tied in with his own ego is winked at. […]

focusing the song on his grand dream — that is exactly the right way to illustrate it. There are probably songs where the subordinate sings about his/her feelings about being in someone’s shadow. But that’s wrong. As soon as you shine the spotlight on the subordinate’s feelings, then s/he’s now in the spotlight — and you’ve completely missed the boat on portraying what it’s like in the shadow.

And I loved seeing the visual, where — as soon as Elder Price went into his heartfelt song about how he’ll do something incredible — a backdrop was added to highlight him, and Elder Cunningham had to awkwardly go around it in order to be visible on the stage and continue singing his admiration for his best friend. 😉

Many people had a similar reaction to the song “Turn it off”. The tremendous pressure not to simply act happy but to be happy (no matter what) can train people to turn off feelings “that just don’t seem right” — and those people felt the song really validated their experiences.

As a wise person once said: “The Book of Mormon musical is not without error, but it seems to me that a person can get closer to Mormons by studying it than by just about any other work about Mormons.”

This post so far has been essentially review, but I have a few new points I’d like to discuss that weren’t covered in the earlier posts I’ve read and written. I don’t promise to avoid spoilers, so don’t read this if you don’t want the musical spoiled for you (and there’s something to be said for that — there are some really funny surprises!)

Spooky Mormon Hell Dream

We’ve talked about how it’s true that Mormons are often plagued by irrational guilt over minor offenses, but my initial objection to this song was even more basic: As soon as I read the song titles, my first thought was, “O M Gosh, don’t they know that Mormons don’t believe in Hell?”

Buuuuut… Mormons do believe that Satan literally exists and is a real being with demonic fallen-spirit minions that try to harm and tempt the faithful. Mormons don’t believe in Hell in the sense that they don’t believe that the less-saved will be tortured for eternity (they’ll simply be less rewarded and prevented from progressing). But “Hell” is in the scriptures, and it actually does have meaning for Mormons. Look it up in your LDS Bible Dictionary, and you’ll see that Hell is the name of the realm of Satan, and it is also used as a word for the spirit prison where the spirits of unrighteous dead people await the day of judgement. If they’d had someone use the term “Spirit Prison” in reference to the dream at some point in the play, the impression of inaccuracy would evaporate.

Like most Mormon Theology, the concept of Spirit Prison is kind of vague, so there’s a lot of room for speculation, but being trapped in a place with Lucifer and demons and the spirits of dead evil people basically captures the essence of it.

Can you leave your mission?

I vaguely remember reading a complaint on a faithful LDS blog that the musical gives the impression that you can request to be transferred to another mission if you’re not happy with the one you got. There’s definitely something to that complaint — like why’d they have Elder Price say, “We don’t really have final say over where we get sent.”…? They don’t have any say at all.

But missionaries having breakdowns and/or running away from their missions (like Elder Price did in the play) really happens. I don’t think the play has the responsibility to take the audience aside and explain, “If Elder Price had succeeded in getting to the Mission President to request a transfer to Orlando, he wouldn’t have gotten it — Mormon missions don’t work that way.” It’s a story, not a documentary.

The making of a prophet

One of the principal themes of the story is essentially a response to C. S. Lewis’s trilemma about what Jesus must have been: “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.” The obvious problem with the trilemma is that those aren’t the only possibilities — I can think of two others that are more likely than those three.

In Jesus’ case, everything we know about him was filtered through a few decades of the game of telephone before being written down — and in particular we have only tales written by his followers. Even if nobody intentionally lied, it’s just the way that memory works that — as the group increasingly moves towards the belief that their founder was a messiah, and maybe even a God — that colors the way they remember the things he did and said. This principle is illustrated in the way Joseph Smith was elevated by his followers to almost divine stature shortly after his death (see Praise to the Man), and it was also hilariously illustrated in The Life of Brian, where Brian’s followers attach profound meaning to every random thing Brian does once they’ve decided he’s the messiah. I don’t think that we have sufficient evidence to conclusively state that the historical Jesus claimed divinity during his lifetime.

The fifth possibility (in the now quintelemma) is illustrated by Elder Cunningham in the play. He understands that he’s “making things up again, kind of” and that he’s “taking the holy word and adding fiction.” But he feels that it’s justified as he sees that his teachings are helping people. His ego is a part of it, but he’s not a cynical, lying con-man. Instead he begins to believe that he’s called and inspired to help people by teaching them his new doctrines. As I recall, this is essentially the portrait Fawn Brodie painted of Joseph Smith in her groundbreaking work No Man Knows My History. In a recent podcast, my brother described Joseph Smith’s motivation in much the same way, as an explanation for why it’s reasonable to venerate the Book of Mormon as a holy book even though Joseph Smith was aware that he was making it up. The same scenario might also apply to the historical Jesus, though, really, so little is conclusively known about what he actually taught that we can’t do much more than speculate about him and make educated guesses based on what we know about religious leaders that we have more information about.

Tomorrow is a Latter Day!

After Elder Price gets tired of Elder Cunningham constantly chirping “Tomorrow is a latter day!” he explains to Elder Cunningham that the term “Latter-day” refers to the afterlife.

Wrong. In terms of inaccuracy, that ranks right up there with having the Mission President randomly interject “Praise Christ” in discussion. The term “Latter-day” refers to the millennialist belief that we are living in the last days before the second coming of Jesus.

But, if you’ve been following General Conference, you probably know that the CoJCoL-dS has been toning down the millennialist rhetoric. So maybe it’s helpful to come up with an alternative interpretation. Plus, I thought the whole “Tomorrow is a latter day!” thing was cute and clever.

Also, I think this one is probably more a case of artistic license (changing their fictional version of Mormonism to fit the story) than it was an error. The “wrong” line was included as a setup for a very nice line in the finale:

What happens when we’re dead?
We shouldn’t think that far ahead!
The only latter day that matters is tomorrow.

Who gets to be a Mormon?

In the play, after the Mission President learns that the missionaries in Uganda have been teaching a bunch of new, made-up doctrines, he closes up the mission, sends the mishies home, and tells the new converts that they’re not Latter-day Saints.

Could that really happen?

Yes, it could. If a part of a mission goes rogue and forms a new sub-sect of Mormonism, the mission can be reorganized (in such a way that the offending parties are excommunicated). The story is unrealistic in the sense that LDS missions are generally in close contact with headquarters in Salt Lake, so there’s little chance of a sub-sect forming. But if an isolated zone started teaching all new doctrines like in the musical, the Mission President (after conferring with headquarters) would close it up, send the mishies home, and excommunicate the ringleaders.

On a more “everyday experience” level, the incident in the story highlights a profound truth about being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: The leadership hierarchy gets to decide who’s in and who’s out. They can and do kick people out, and there is a strong cultural belief that you have no right to consider yourself “Mormon” if you don’t believe in the divine authority of the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

People (like me!) fight against the idea that the hierarchy of the CoJCoL-dS gets to decide who’s “Mormon” and who’s not. The CoJCoL-dS doesn’t own the term “Mormon” and they’re not even the only “Mormon church” — they’re simply the biggest, most visible one. But the idea is really ingrained, so if you’re a non-believer, it’s very hard to identify as any kind of Mormon except “ex-Mormon” or “post-Mormon.” That’s why I love the lines leading up to the finale. After the Mission President has told the missionaries and their converts that they’re not Latter-day Saints, Elder Price explains:

We are still Latter-day Saints. All of us. Even if we changed a few things, or break the rules, or have complete doubt that God exists… We can still work together to make this our paradise planet.

And we can! 😀

Joseph vs. The Gold: Help me script it!


Ever since seeing this not so good version on youtube, I’ve been wondering what a good recreation of the Joseph Smith run with the plates might look like.  It’s all based on Lucy Smith’s account:

“The plates were secreted about three miles from home… Joseph, on coming to them, took them from their secret place, and, wrapping them in his linen frock, placed them under his arm and started for home.”
After proceeding a short distance, he thought it would be more safe to leave the road and go through the woods. Traveling some distance after he left the road, he came to a large windfall, and as he was jumping over a log, a man sprang up from behind it, and gave him a heavy blow with a gun. Joseph turned around and knocked him down, then ran at the top of his speed. About half a mile further he was attacked again in the same manner as before; he knocked this man down in like manner as the former, and ran on again; and before he reached home he was assaulted the third time. In striking the last one he dislocated his thumb, which, however, he did not notice until he came within sight of the house, when he threw himself down in the corner of the fence in order to recover his breath. As soon as he was able, he arose and came to the house. He was still altogether speechless from fright and the fatigue of running” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Smith, pp.107-108).

So, if you wanted to recreate this incident, what would be the ideal script?

  • How big/tall would the person playing Joseph have to be?
  • How heavy would the plates have to be?  Does the size/shape matter?
  • How far would the Joseph character have to run?
  • What about the people chasing him: How big/tall would they need to be?
  • How about the logs he hurdles?  How big would they have to be?

I’m thinking about trying to recreate this, though I wouldn’t be offended if someone else did it first.  I just thought I’d get some input on how to recreate this such that it would satisfy the apologists.

(Also, if there are any readers in Florida who want to help, make a note in the comments and maybe we can work out a date/time for our recreation.  I have a decent camera and tripod that would work.)