Sunday, January 24, 2016

Did Russell M. Nelson Take The Lord's Name In Vain?

Previously: Essential Mormon Books of 2015

(Note: The somewhat cynical tone of this post may lead some readers to dismiss it as some kind of anti-Mormon screed. So if you are new to this site, please be advised that the author is a devout believer in the restored gospel of Christ; that I revere Joseph Smith as a prophet of God; and I believe in the literal truth of the Book of Mormon.  What I am not keen about is corruption and guile, or what the apostle Paul referred to as "spiritual wickedness in high places."  So there's the disclaimer. Enjoy the rant.)

By the 3rd century B.C., Jewish tradition had succeeded in completely overturning the meaning of the third great commandment. So concerned were the Jews at the possibility they might inadvertently take Jehovah's name in vain, that over time it was ruled unlawful for anyone to utter God's name at all.  Today most orthodox Jews will studiously avoid saying "God," even in theological discussions about God; instead they will substitute the Hebrew "HaShem," which means "The Name."

This tradition of avoiding the name of the Creator had become so ingrained over time that even our Christian bibles came to reflect the practice.  Where most variants of God's name, such as "YHWH" or "Jehovah" appeared in the early texts, the King James translators substituted "The LORD" in capital letters to avoid doing what they felt might give offense to the Creator.

But merely speaking the name of God was never what Jehovah meant when he commanded his people not to take His name in vain. Neither does that commandment refer to using His name as a swear word, as most of us were taught as children.  If you think about it, if God was issuing only ten of the most essential commandments; why would he stop on the third one to dwell on something as petty as mentioning His name out loud?

It took centuries for the original meaning of that commandment to become lost in the fog of dogma, but the people in Moses' day understood fully what God meant when he first issued that commandment. Taking God's name in vain referred to the sin of misusing God's name; specifically by attaching God's name to an act or a decree that had not come from God.  In other words, God's people are strictly prohibited from claiming God said something that God never said.

Which brings us to the controversy currently surrounding Elder Russell M. Nelson, Senior Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and next in line to become president of the whole shebang. Did Russell Nelson actually make the claim that God said something that God did not actually say? In other words...

Is Russell M. Nelson A Blasphemer?
Happily, no.

According to reports, during a talk Elder Nelson gave to a group of young adults in Hawaii on January 10th, he disclosed the news that what had been presented two months earlier as a a Church "policy" barring children of gay parents from being baptized, had actually come about as a revelation from God.  Yet a careful reading of the transcript of that talk reveals that Nelson did not actually say as much -at least not in so many words.  Had Nelson actually said what everyone thinks he said, he would have been guilty of taking the Lord's name in vain, since the Lord has not seen fit to communicate any such revelation to the body of the church.   So that's the good news. The other good news is that Russell Nelson is not a liar.

Well, technically he's not a liar.

To put a precise point on it, Elder Russell M. Nelson is a prevaricator. (Which, I concede, makes him arguably worse than a liar.) A lie can often be detected on its face. But prevarication involves a very clever form of twisting the truth, as the prevaricator deliberately misleads in order to create an incorrect impression on the listener -an impression the speaker actually hopes the listener will take away from the encounter.

Think of the portrayal of Satan in our temple endowment ceremonies: Adam is awaiting messengers from God, when the devil appears and tries to trick Adam into believing he is that messenger.  That is how a prevaricator operates; he speaks in a manner deliberately designed to fool his listener into thinking he said a certain thing, but if he is caught in his prevarication, he can always say, "that's not what I said."

A close reading of Elder Nelson's words in that talk of January 10th demonstrates that his words were deliberately chosen with the intent to deceive.  The result is that his audience -and by extension the entire membership of the church after that talk was promulgated in the media- is left with the impression that Jesus Christ himself has openly contradicted an earlier revelation.

We'll analyze those words in a moment, but first let's take a quick look at the events that led a high ranking officer in the Church to commit such a foolish act of desperation.

How A Lie Becomes A Law
Some time around the end of October or first part of November 2015, bishops and stake presidents throughout the church were mailed a new page to be inserted into their looseleaf copies of the Church Handbook of Instruction. These local leaders are strongly cautioned to keep the contents of these handbooks out of the hands of the rank and file members, as they contain operating procedures that the corporate officers wish to keep confidential. This particular policy contained instructions that local leaders were expected to quietly implement, which can be summarized as follows:
Any member of the church discovered to be in a same-sex marriage, or in a same-sex relationship with another person, is considered to be in apostasy against the Church, and subject to excommunication.  
Whether or not God cares about this particular issue is a topic I have weighed in on already here, and to some extent here, and a little more here; so I don't intend to take up the gauntlet on either side of the debate again, and certainly not in this post. Suffice it to say that until this past November's policy change, it appeared as though the LDS Church was officially extending the olive branch toward people some of us might think of as a bit different.  But fine. The structural LDS Church (as differentiated from the church which Christ defines in D&C 10:67) is a private organization, and it can decide who it wants to include on its membership rolls.  You can quibble about that til the cows come home, but that's not my hot button issue.  My hot button issue is the second part of the policy change, so that's what I'm concerned with discussing today:
Any child of a parent in a same-sex relationship will not be permitted to be given the traditional name and priesthood blessing in the church; and any child of a parent involved in a same-sex relationship will not be permitted to be baptized until that child attains the legal age of 18 years; and then only after that grown child has renounced any same-gender relationships his or her parent has been involved in; and even then only after the child's application for baptism has been approved by a general authority of the Church.
So those are the controversial new Church policies.  It was not intended that these policy changes be revealed to the church membership at large, but within days someone had leaked these pages to John Dehlin of the Mormon Stories Foundation, who made those policies public.  As word spread throughout the church and these policies were reported in the national press, the reaction of most members of the church was disbelief; this had to be some kind of anti-Mormon lie, because we know Jesus Christ himself commanded in a revelation given in 1831 that all children in the church were to be baptized upon turning eight years old.  No one in leadership has the authority to institute policies that contradict the word of God. Eventually though, the Church PR department confirmed the validity of the policies. And that's when all hell broke loose.

Throughout the 70's, 80's, and 90's, if a young man went to his bishop and confessed to having homosexual proclivities, invariably he was counseled to find a nice girl and marry her in the temple. The thinking of Church leaders in the hierarchy was that homosexuality was a mental illness that was easily curable through marriage to a person of the opposite sex.  Find some sweet thing to share your marriage bed, get naked next to her, and nature will take its proper course. Eventually you'll have children and everything will work out fine.

A sizable number of young LDS homosexuals, both male and female, believed what they were hearing was God's counsel given through his servants. So they obediently complied, and got married to people they were not particularly attracted to in a sexual way.

Today most of those marriages have ended in divorce, as one spouse, or both, found they just couldn't keep up the charade and make it work. After these divorces, the spouse with a same-sex attraction might then move in with someone they were more compatible with, and custody of the children from the first marriage was often shared.

After faithfully obeying their priesthood leaders by entering into a marriage they never should have contracted into in the first place, now the Church is telling these hapless people that their children from that first marriage cannot be baptized because one of its parents is gay.

The Church PR department scrambled to "clarify" the policy, claiming that the rule on baptism would only apply to children living primarily with the gay parent. But that was no solution because it raised all kinds of custody issues that were already precariously in play. Rather than help families sort out their problems in peace, the Church was becoming the cause of further difficulties within various sets of families that were already struggling to keep things amicable.

Church PR put together a hasty "interview" with a junior apostle who attempted to explain that the policy was motivated by love, but no one was buying that story. The carefully crafted interview was intended to mollify the concerns of the members, but how could the members be satisfied with those screwy answers when the leadership had taken it upon itself to reverse a clear commandment of Christ?

Russell M. Nelson To The Rescue
It would appear that leadership expected the controversy to die down, but it hasn't.  As Jamie Hanis-Handy noted on a recent episode of Mormon Stories Podcast, the leadership were caught by surprise. They hadn't expected this thing to go public, and when it did go public they were forced to respond, and they took too long to do that. Then when they did respond, the more they tried to explain the need for these policies, the more transparently ridiculous the explanations became.

Things only got worse. Church leaders couldn't reverse the policy, because it was clearly instituted to protect the financial wealth of the Church from possible legal challenges.  Besides, how would it look if they admitted they hadn't really thought this thing through? This is the true church after all, and the true church doesn't botch things up.

So after two months of outrage and continued questioning from the lay membership as to how the leaders could have possibly instituted such an unworkable policy that stood in clear violation of God's previous commandment that all should come unto Him and be baptized, it looks like Russell Nelson thought the best way to get the Saints to shut up and fall in line was to pull out The Revelation Card.

It was a long shot, but what else could leadership do?  Naturally at this late stage, after all the discussion on how this policy had been debated and crafted and worked out in meetings among the hierarchy, it would be ludicrous (not to mention highly suspicious) if President Monson suddenly claimed the whole thing had originated with a revelation he received personally through Jesus Christ. Thomas Monson has been conspicuously AWOL throughout this entire ordeal, while flacks from the Church PR department have become de facto spokespersons in his place.  How would it look if Monson suddenly popped up to claim a revelation, especially after all that talk of how it was really such an important Church policy?

Plus, there's that sticky matter of protocol.  The prophet can't just announce he's had a revelation, then just hope the congregation will take his word for it when he fails to produce one for examination.

Open up your Doctrine and Covenants and take a look inside. Except for the Articles of Faith, a handful of essays on Church government, and a couple of manifestos, the rest of the contents -about 87 percent, by one estimate-consists of revelations given in Jesus' own words as he dictated them to His prophet, Joseph Smith, or a handful of others such as Oliver Cowdery.   Joseph Smith always followed the protocol the Lord instructed him to follow, which was to immediately publish any revelations given to him. Each of those revelations you see in your D&C was originally printed in the church newspaper so the members could pray about it and get a witness from the spirit that the words they were reading were an actual revelation from God.  Almost every revelation you see in that book is there because the membership voted on them individually and approved their inclusion in the canon.  Every man-jack who has followed into the presidency since Joseph Smith knows that if he were to receive a revelation from God, he is required to follow that same protocol. Why? Because that procedure is mandated by revelation given by the Lord Himself.

This is how these things are supposed to work: The Lord speaks to the prophet in the first person, His words are written down as they are received, then those words are published and made available to the membership of the church so they can read the words of the Lord and pray for a confirmation of the spirit to know those words did indeed come from the mouth of Jesus Christ, and are not just the opinions of a man. The membership then gathers at the next general conference session to vote as to whether they believe the revelation actually came from God, and whether they wish to accept that revelation as binding on them as a body.

So sorry, Elder Nelson. President Monson would not be able to fake something as monumental and controversial as the claim that Jesus Christ reversed himself on a commandment he originally issued by revelation in 1831.

But it looks like Russell Nelson thought he could.

Not in general conference of course; that might have met with some resistance.  If any one of the general authorities of the Church were to get up in general conference and announce this policy had originated with a revelation from God months after it had already been declared a policy change decided in committee by the leaders, there might be too many knowledgeable oldtimers who would expect to see the actual written revelation.  But what if Monson's wing-man Russell Nelson simply inserted a teaser into the text of the talk he was scheduled to give to a bunch kids in their twenties?

Worth a try, right? How many kids that age are even aware there are scripturally mandated requirements leadership has to follow when announcing a new revelation? These dumb kids have been taught from childhood to follow the prophet and not ask questions; they'll probably accept anything they're told by a general authority at face value.  Yeah, that's the ticket! Tell 'em the prophet received a revelation on the subject and that's the end of it. Maybe that will shut everybody up.

I think this was leadership's last best hope for selling this policy change and quelling the controversy swirling around it. There was too much resistance to this appalling ruling, and it looked like it would never quiet down. The members had to be convinced somehow that this decision came from above.

That's why I think Russell Nelson tried it out on those kids to start with. Nelson's talk in Hawaii, which he titled "Becoming True Millennials" was a flatter-fest centered around telling these young people how special they were, and what a wonderful time it was for them to be in the Church.  "You are a chosen generation," Nelson told them, "fore-determined by God to do a remarkable work-to help prepare the people of this world for the second coming of the Lord."

If those words sound eerily familiar to people of my generation, it's because we Baby-Boomers were told the exact same thing, right down to the part Nelson tells them about "living in the eleventh hour."

Except for one glaring difference: When my generation was repeatedly told how special we were to be sent to the earth at this time, it was also constantly stressed that we would be present to see the LDS Church experience massive popularity as it grew and grew until eventually the Church would fill the whole earth in our lifetimes.   Nelson's Millennials, on the other hand, were cautioned to brace themselves to expect something less celebratory. "Pray for courage not to give up," Nelson told these poor saps, "You will need that strength because it will be less and less popular to be a Latter-day Saint."

Bummer, man. Sucks to be you guys.

How To Succeed In The Revelation Business Without Really Trying
If you were to read or listen to Elder Russell's talk to the youth, you would be struck by how much of it rings true and valid.  You may wonder how I can possibly accuse him of prevaricating when there is so much in his words that are true and good.  Well, surely you've been taught the maxim that the devil will tell a thousand truths just in order to slip in one little lie?

"Whoa, wait a minute Rock!" I hear some of you exclaiming, "Are you saying the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is the devil?!"

No, I'm not saying that at all. I'm merely saying he's operating as a tool of the devil.

In retrospect, Russell probably wishes he had picked a different Halloween costume to wear at last October's opening session.
So let's take a look at Nelson's weasel words.  Near the end of his talk to the Millennials, Russell is counseling the youth to be open to personal revelation from the Lord.  He continues by describing how that process works for himself and his colleagues:
"We sustain 15 men who are ordained as prophets, seers, and revelators.  When a thorny problem arises-and they only seem to get thornier each day-these 15 men wrestle with the issue, trying to see all the ramifications of various courses of action, and they diligently seek to hear the voice of the Lord.  After fasting, praying, studying, pondering, and counseling with my Brethren about weighty matters, it is not unusual for me to be awakened during the night with further impressions about issues with which we are concerned.  And my Brethren have the same experience."
So far, so good. We are taught by the Lord to work out our problems in our minds and hearts to the best of our abilities, and then come to Him for the answer we seek.

But wait a minute. What was there to work out in this case? If the Lord had a message to deliver to the Church directing the leaders to stop baptizing the children of Gay folks, he would have simply issued the revelation through His prophet and that would be it.  There would be no weighty issues for the Brethren to struggle over.  It seems to me the only "weighty matter" the hierarchy had to deal with was a matter of their own making: "Now that same-sex marriage has been declared legal by the Supreme Court, what the fetch are we going to do about all these homos? And how do we make it so the children of gay people don't grow up in the Church sympathetic to gays?"

At the risk of repeating myself endlessly, if any of this was the Lord's idea, he would have explained His reasoning in the body of whatever revelation He issued.  But let's continue with Elder Russell's lame attempt at explaining things:
"The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel individually and collectively. And then we watch the Lord move upon the President of the Church to proclaim the Lord's will. 
"This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in the minimum age for missionaries and again with the recent additions to the Church handbook, consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries."
Wait a minute. Back up there. Is Nelson implying that the decision to lower the missionary age came through a revelation from God? I have watched Monson's announcement of that decision, and nowhere does he suggest that it was anything other than a change in policy.  President Monson himself delivered the news from the podium, but he did not stand there with a revelation in hand which he read to the congregation.

The leaders of the Church are entirely authorized to make minor Policy changes such as this. The minimum age at which a young man chooses to volunteer to serve a mission is not, I don't think, the kind of thing that requires an actual revelation.  Prayerful inspiration would seem to be sufficient in cases like this.  So why would Russell Nelson Announce five years after the fact that this policy change was instituted as a result of the special "prophetic process"?  This seems like revisionist history, and totally unnecessary.


Nelson may be using that inference to bolster his suggestion that the recent policy change on baptisms was delivered in the same divine manner.

But that's not my biggest problem with what Nelson has just said. He speaks of a prophetic process, of the Lord moving upon the president of the Church to proclaim the Lord's will, but then he glosses right over it.  He doesn't tell us anything about what that fascinating process looked like or how it worked.

Tell us, Brother Nelson! What actually happened when the Lord moved upon the president?  Did Monson's face seem to glow? Was the room filled with light? What really happened here?  If the Brethren didn't witness any supernatural manifestation, then what was it that Russell Nelson claims to have witnessed? Did Monson start quoting the words God placed in his mouth? In what manner, and by what method, did Monson "proclaim the Lord's will"?

If he really did proclaim the Lord's will, didn't anybody think to write those words down? It's been ages since the Lord has spoken any words through His appointed prophets, and now, in this monumental moment when a decision is being made to refuse baptism to innocents who desire it, Russell Nelson neglects to quote for his listeners any of the words he presumably just heard come from the mouth of the prophet.

But never mind. Perhaps Nelson will clarify as he continues:
"Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord's will in this matter. Ever mindful of God's plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration. And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation.  It was our privilege as apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson."
Well, that sounds really great, Russell. But again, you forgot to mention precisely what it was that was revealed to President Monson. There's some nebulous stuff in there about "when the Lord inspired His prophet," but nothing more.  And what were you wrestling about with all these concerns about the children unless you had already decided on your own that these children of gay parents would not be permitted to be baptized? Whatever it was you claimed President Monson was inspired about didn't occur until after you had done all this internal struggling and wrestling and faux compassion about "the children."

So come on, Russell. We're waiting. You've got the floor. This is your chance to make The Big Announcement. What was it the prophet was inspired to say?

Or did you simply mean to say that President Monson expressed an opinion on the matter?  Okay fine. So what was his opinion?  And if this was merely Monson's inspired opinion, it wasn't an actual revelation then, was it? "Inspiration" is not the same thing as a revelation, so don't go trying to trick us into believing Monson sat there receiving a bona fide revelation from God of the type regularly received through the prophet Joseph Smith, unless you are prepared to tell us what the revelation said.

And another thing, Brother Russell: You say you all "wrestled at length to understand the Lord's will in this matter" and you appear to have now been satisfied you completely understand it. So how come you've all done such a gosh-awful horrible job of helping the members understand how this obvious cluster-bomb is actually God's will?  I have a suggestion, and you can pass this on to President Monson: quoting God's actual words to the congregation might help.

But I guess just like everything else you guys do these days, it's all gotta be kept to yourselves.

Let's remember that although the prophet Joseph was frequently inspired in the sermons he delivered, he never once attempted to reverse and contradict a commandment of God.  Yet that is exactly what Russell Nelson is attempting to persuade his young audience has taken place during "that sacred moment" with Thomas Monson which he conveniently fails to describe.

What sacred moment? What did you see take place at that sacred moment, Russell? What did you hear?  All you do is make reference to some nebulous "sacred moment," but what the heck happened in that sacred moment that so impressed you?

I submit there was no such "sacred moment," otherwise Thomas Monson himself would be obliged to relate his epiphanous experience to the church. Certainly if the Lord revealed his will to Thomas Monson, Thomas Monson himself would have passed it on to the rest of us by now.  But as noted above, the purported Prophet of the Lord has not even been heard from on this matter, even though it's now been over two and a half months after the Church's legal department tried to slip a devastating policy change past the members in hopes nobody would notice.

Some revelation.

So here's where Nelson clearly prevaricates, and why I wouldn't trust this guy to sell me a Lime Squeeze at the Orem Arctic Circle: You'll notice that not once in this talk does Nelson come right out and declare that Thomas Monson actually received a revelation from God in this matter.  The closest he comes is with his use of the word "revealed" to describe what a privilege it was to watch Monson have  something -he doesn't say what- "revealed" to him.  And we still don't have a clue what that meant, other than the suggestion that Monson was somehow "inspired."

But then in the very next sentence, Russell pulls out the 'R' word, but in a way not at all related to what he has been implying: "Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process," Nelson tells the youth, "and so is your privilege of receiving personal revelation."

Well yeah. Both of those statements are true.  But neither part of  that sentence has any direct relation to the other. And the first part of the statement, "revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process" is a statement not related at all to the story Nelson just described (or more accurately, failed to describe) wherein Nelson suggested something astonishingly super-duper had taken place in that meeting with President Monson.

But here's what that sentence did accomplish. By using the word "revelation" twice in the very next sentence after the words "sacred moment," Nelson successfully planted in the minds of his listeners the idea that he had been privileged to witness a full-blown revelation from God through His living prophet.

That, Brothers and Sisters, is prevarication. I guarantee you that every young twenty-something walked out of that meeting fully believing an apostle of the Lord had related to them a miraculous event, when in reality he had told them nothing. He manipulated them into accepting a presumption that he and the other leaders of the Church desperately need the members to buy into, if their claims of authority over the people are to remain unchallenged.

I encourage you to read the entire talk Elder Russell gave to those unwitting young Millennials, and I hope you'll carefully parse the section where he's hoping to pass off this abhorrent policy change as if it came from God Himself. Then after you read Russell Nelson's hogwash, click on over and read Mike Ellis' essay titled Silent Revelations, which provides all the source material and scriptural documentation you'll need to understand how revelations are supposed to be received and disseminated in this church.

And while you're on Mike's website, take a gander at this analysis of the evidences the Lord expects us to see in any man claiming to be a prophet, a seer, or a revelator.

There is so much more I could write about the fallout from this deliberate fraud, but most of what I might have said has already been written by fellow blogger Adrian Larsen on his insightful site, To The Remnant.  Here you'll read about the strained efforts some in the Church hierarchy have stooped to in order to manufacture a fraudulent "revelation."  Read that analysis, then you tell me how you think Jesus Christ is truly guiding these men in their efforts.

One of my favorite parts of Adrian's post is where he quotes from a mutual friend who concisely summarizes the awkward quandary the Brethren now find themselves in. I was planning to use that quote myself, but Adrian beat me to the punch.

Aw, what the heck; I'm going to quote it here anyway:
"I find it interesting that we now find out this was a revelation received by Monson, which was declared by Nelson, after being "clarified" by Church PR, after being explained by Christofferson, after being published by an apostate, after being leaked by an anonymous source, after being published in a document most member's can't see. 
"God's work is mysterious indeed."
Or, as Sir Walter Scott memorably phrased it, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

What We Have Forgotten About Baptism In This Church
I should wrap this up, but I can't help mentioning that this matter wouldn't even be a controversy if Mormons did not improperly conflate baptism with membership in the church.  We have somehow come to confuse the terms "getting baptized" and "joining the church" as being essentially the same thing. And our leaders don't appear to be any better at telling the difference than the average member.

I covered this point in a previous post three years ago, but the gist of it deserves repeating here:
I don't think the importance of baptism in this church can be overstated. It is a fundamental tenet of our faith that Jesus Christ desires everyone to be baptized. That was the prime directive he gave to his apostles prior to his ascension. Our founding prophet considered baptism a "holy ordinance preparatory to the reception of the Holy Ghost" and that "there was no other ordinance admitted whereby men could be saved." We Mormons consider baptism of such importance that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on temples and untold thousands of man hours in an attempt to make sure everyone who has ever lived on the earth gets the chance to have this ordinance performed for them, by proxy if necessary.
It's clear our leaders no longer understand the true purpose of baptism, or they would not have introduced a policy that denies the ordinance of baptism to some because of the supposed sins of the parents.
We have come to think of it as a rite that initiates a person for membership into our Church. It is no such thing. Gaining membership in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ancillary to baptism at best, but the ordinance of baptism has little to do with "joining the Church" as we often erroneously conflate it.
"Always keep in mind," Joseph Smith preached, "that it is one of the only methods by which we can obtain a remission of sins in this world, and be prepared to enter into the joys of our Lord in the world to come." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg 262) "It is a sign," the prophet taught, "for the believer in Christ to take upon himself in order to enter the Kingdom of God." (ibid, 198) 
And in case you need reminding, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the Kingdom of God. One of the primary purposes of the Church is to provide saving ordinances such as baptism, in order to prepare us for the coming Kingdom; it is not the Kingdom itself. As Brigham Young pointed out, a person need not even be a member of our church to have a place in the future Kingdom of God. (See my post, Where Did The Oracles Go? for an analysis of the what the Kingdom of God is, and what it is not.)
We make a grave mistake in placing baptism for the remission of sins on par with entrance into our particular denomination, for such assumptions inevitably lead to tests regarding whether we think certain persons are good enough to join our little club. John the Baptist did not conduct interviews to determine the worthiness of those who entered the water. Neither did Alma, who performed hundreds of baptisms quickly and in secret to keep knowledge of those baptisms from the unapproving eyes of governmental authorities. The only actual requirement for baptism is repentance, and a desire to be baptized.
We deserve to change our thinking on this. As Charles Harrell writes in This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, "Scholars note that baptism was initially performed by John the Baptist and Jesus's disciples as a cleansing rite to prepare them for the coming kingdom of God, which was perceptually distinct from the Church."
It appears that equating baptism with joining our particular denomination is something we picked up in the 19th century from the protestants, as it was not an issue in the primitive Christian church. As LDS religion scholar Kevin L. Barney explains, "[Baptism's] full significance as a rite marking formal initiation into the church is a later Christian innovation." (Quoted in Harrell, ibid.)
In other words, if a person was "saved" through the efforts of Methodists, he tended to be baptized by Methodists and naturally joined with the Methodists after being baptized. If he was converted and baptized by Presbyterians, he tended to become a Presbyterian. Thus, when candidates are converted by Latter-day Saints and baptized by Latter-day Saints, they usually end up joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the ordinance of baptism is a separate thing from membership in the Church, as evidenced by the confirmation process which is a separate ordinance that often isn't even performed until the following Sunday.
If, as Joseph Smith taught, "there is no other way beneath the heavens whereby God hath ordained for man to come to him and be saved, and enter into the Kingdom of God" (TPJS 198), what then are we to make of a mission president who orders the missionaries under his control to deny this sacred ordinance to those who might desire it? 
If you see baptism primarily as a means of initiation into a particular church denomination, and yourself as the gatekeeper to prevent the riff-raff from getting in, the next step is believing you have a sacred charge as to who you'll accept and who you won't. 
Well, that's fine. After all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the trademarked name of a private religious association. It has the right to refuse membership to anyone it pleases. 
But what we are not permitted is to deny baptism to someone who desires it. Baptism is an ordinance we are commanded to extend to all mankind, living and dead.
I would not want to find myself in Russell Nelson's shoes when he goes before the judgment bar of Christ, trying to explain how he and his cohorts colluded to deny baptism to innocents who desired it.  Nor would I want to find myself trying to justify fooling members of the church into believing that a policy that was instituted to protect the financial holdings of the corporation had been secretly revealed to us by the very being I was now standing in front of to be judged for that trickery.

If I was Nelson, I think I'd try to blame it on the lawyers. I'm pretty sure those words were carefully crafted for him by the shysters over at Kirton & McConkie.  But something tells me pointing the finger at others isn't going to get our favorite Senior Apostle out of the hot water he's gotten himself into.  God tends to hold us all accountable for our actions.

As Joseph Smith reminded the Saints two months before his assassination,
"If any man writes to you, or preaches to you, doctrines contrary to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Doctrine & Covenants, set him down as an impostor...Try them by the principles contained in the acknowledged word of God; if they preach, or teach, or practice contrary to that, disfellowship them; cut them off from among you as useless and dangerous branches."
(Times & Seasons Vol 5, pg 490)
No, I sure wouldn't want to be in Russell Nelson's shoes.  In fact, I wouldn't want to be anywhere within a hundred miles of that guy when God decides He's had enough.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Essential Mormon Books of 2015 (And One From 2012)

Previously: The Hidden Reason For the Policy Change on Baptisms

Professional book reviewers tend to present their lists of favorite books in time for their readers to buy them as Christmas gifts. But professional reviewers are not as lazy as I am.  I was sleeping through most of December with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head -or I might have been, if I had any idea what sugar plums look like.  When I was awake, I spent most of my time reading, so presented below are the half dozen Mormon-themed books I found most compelling during those brief waking hours.

2015 was a year in which many strange changes took place within the LDS Church, all of them without even a pretense of having been initiated by revelation from God. Today the managing director of public relations for the Church has assumed the role of Church spokesman, where once we relied -at least nominally- on the president of the Church in that role. [2]
[1] The "clarification" last month of the Church's new policy barring certain children from being baptized is a recent example, as the head of the Church's public relations arm conducted a carefully crafted interview with an apostle so low in the hierarchy, that had it not been for the recent deaths of three higher-ranking apostles, he would still be second from the bottom in seniority today. Note also that while this baffling new policy completely overrides a clear commandment which Jesus revealed to the church in 1831, there is no mention in this interview -or anywhere else- of a revelation received in which the Lord changed his mind on that doctrine. We can be forgiven for wondering why such a momentous reversal wasn't announced by the president of the Church presenting a revelation from God, rather than by means of a staged interview between a PR flack and a junior apostle.

Antidote to Mediocrity
For more than half a century we have been spoon-fed a carefully managed narrative of our history and doctrines, with the result that much of Mormonism today is markedly different from what was introduced by our founding prophet. Occasionally I will get letters from members asking me to recommend books that tell the whole story of our religion, without the spin put out by the Church Correlation Committee.  I'm pleased, therefore, to present the first two books on my list as essential reading to anyone seeking to understand our religion as it was intended to be.

Preserving the Restoration, by Denver Snuffer
The first chapter of this remarkable book put me in mind of Apostle LeGrand Richards' classic A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. That book, first conceived in 1937 as The Mission of Mormonism, was an in-depth overview of Mormonism written well before the Church evolved into a global conglomerate of which religion is now only one of its many subsidiaries.  With the Board of Director's current focus on investing in high-rise office buildings, upper-class housing developments, and massive shopping malls, the Corporation has abandoned any pretense of a hope in the coming millennial reign of Christ.  Its investments are too long-term to abide the interruption.

In the early days of the church, the Saints were about building a Zion society. It was the crowning hope of our entire religion. Today there is absolutely no emphasis on Zion whatsoever. Our motto might as well be "We're Proudly Zero for Zion," for all it matters to the modern Church.

It was once understood that building Zion was the very reason the Lord restored his gospel on the earth in the first place. The presidency of Brigham Young represented the beginnings of a departure from that targeted goal, and things continued off track until the Saints began to simply refer to themselves as Zion.  Or was it Utah that was Zion? No one really knew anymore.  Was Zion a bank? The name of a dry cleaning establishment? A department store? A city center?  The name was up for grabs.

Our Mormon ancestors seem to have gotten derailed somewhere on the path until eventually we all gave up trying to figure it out and became content to put it into the hands of the leaders.  Denver Snuffer's book serves as a road map of sorts to put us back on track.  Adapted from Denver's famous series of 10 lectures in which he re-introduced the novel idea that we ought to be consulting our scriptures for answers, this insightful tome is nothing short of a godsend for believing Mormons actually wanting to live their religion.

Teaching For Doctrines The Commandments of Men: Tradition In Modern Mormonism,
by Robert Smith
This could be rightly considered the companion volume to Preserving the Restoration. This is a book I wish I had written, and I might have if I was about ten times smarter and knew how to write something without using snark and sarcasm.

I can't say enough good things about this book.  It is sorely needed in the church today.  This is the book you want to leave on your coffee table when the home teachers come over, because it will spark more conversations between believing Mormons than anything I can think of.  Brother Smith shows how our traditions have completely overshadowed -and in many cases completely replaced- the true doctrines Christ revealed to us in the early days of the church.

I don't like to overuse the phrase "I couldn't put it down," but I couldn't put this book down. We are losing tens of thousands of good members every year because our religion has been so watered down that there is very little substance to recommend it. The truths revealed in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants are mind-expanding, yet most of those truths are ignored as our religion's emphasis is now on the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.

I hadn't actually realized how serious the situation was until I saw the astounding number of false teachings Brother Smith catalogs in this book; false teachings that have all but replaced our reliance on the word of God. No wonder conversion rates are stagnant! We have become just another denomination among many. Our claim to being the only "true" church seems absurd to most outsiders who understandably can't tell the difference, except that our Sunday meetings are more insipid than theirs.  What does our church teach that is truly revolutionary anymore?  Why is the spirit of God not palpable in our meetings? Where is the joy in our worship services?

For that matter, where is the worship?

The scriptures charge us with obeying the commandments of Christ, yet very little of what we are taught in church and in general conference these days can be found in scripture or the revelations of Christ.  Just as the ancient Judeans over time replaced the scriptural Torah with the Talmud, we tend to elevate commentaries on the scriptures above the scriptures themselves.  Or we ignore the scriptures entirely and prefer our religion filtered through manuals, handbooks, and Church magazines.

Going to the source for our doctrine is virtually unknown in the Church today. We don't consult the scriptures for understanding; we look to the commentaries. Or we put our faith in men who quote each other quoting one another's commentaries, or who simply make stuff up on the fly. This has given us a rich tradition. But it is a tradition consisting of little but traditions. As author Robert Smith points out, tradition is sclerotic.
"Tradition has a way of being promoted to something more than it is; it becomes calcified and entrenched into the culture.  When it hardens in our cultural/collective memory, it becomes something more than it was originally intended.  Tradition almost always becomes policy, and policies almost always become commandments." (From the introduction, Pg 4)
 Or as Elder Ronald Poelman originally stated the problem in general conference,
"Sometimes traditions, customs, social practices, and personal preferences of individual Church members may, through repeated or common usage be misconstrued as Church procedures or policies. Occasionally, such traditions, customs, and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles."
As most of us now know, that section of Elder Poelman's talk disappeared from the official record along with many other obvious truths he presented in conference that day.  Apparently someone higher-up preferred the teaching of false doctrines to true ones.

Robert Smith has written and edited a number of remarkable books, and this more than any other will wake up your friends and family members who don't yet recognize that we have a problem.  But Robert does a lousy job of self-promotion. At a hefty 387 pages, the book could easily sell for $25.00 or more, but he doesn't care to make any proceeds on it so he has priced it on Amazon for just over 13 dollars, the minimum cost to produce it.  He further encourages people to download the pdf version for free here, but I recommend buying the hard copy because it's a beautiful book and you'll find yourself paging back and forth in it for reference.

Oh, and if you didn't get the ramifications of the cover illustration, just think it through a bit. You may have heard of the painting of Christ on the wall of a church in Spain. (See the header illustration at the top of this page.) Over the decades the paint had been flaking off that painting, so the painting was "restored" by a woman whose tragic lack of ability was not recognized until it was too late. She did such a gosh-awful job of restoring the painting that photos of her abominable work circulated all over the internet, to both laughter and dismay.

So how does that woman's horrid attempt at retouching a classic artwork relate to tradition in Mormon thought?  It has to do with what happens when some people think they know better than the artist, and set out to try and "fix" the original. Through the limits of the window of experience, along with willful ignorance of scripture and history, our Church leaders see flaking paint and decide to "fix" the doctrines, turning the church into a grotesque, comical caricature of the original.

There Are Save Two Churches Only, Volume II, by D. Christian Markham
I've always felt it odd that so many members tenaciously cling to the belief that this Church is incapable of failing, in spite of Book of Mormon prophets asserting that very thing will happen in our day. Such opinions are remarkably similar to those who are convinced against all reason that God will always smile with approval on the United States of America.

Yet if we believe that both the Church and America were instituted at the hand of  God, doesn't it stand to reason that is precisely where Satan would focus his efforts at chipping away? God was clear that He was the one who laid the foundations of our government, but can anyone truly say our government has not been corrupted?  Didn't ancient Israel fall? Was not the first century Christian church infiltrated and its mission diverted? And does not the Book of Mormon prophecy that the church in the latter days would eventually be polluted?  How then can we smugly assume that Lucifer has no interest in corrupting this institution?

I reviewed Volume I shortly after it was published two years ago[2], and I was just about to contact the author to ask him if there ever was going to be a promised second volume, when the notice arrived in my email box earlier this month. I'm delighted to say it was worth the wait; volume II is even more remarkable than the first, and that's saying something. (I see I've used the word "remarkable" to describe every book here so far, but that seems to be the most fitting description for each of them.)  This book deals with corruption in both church and state, with a focus on para-politics and hidden history in every major institution, whether domestic or global.  I've been an avid student of this stuff for well over thirty years now, yet Christian Markham has presented information in this volume I had not before contemplated.  He's done a very thorough job of researching his topics, resulting in an A-1 publication that I won't hesitate to recommend as much as the previous two books above.  The past few months have been a banner year for Mormon truth seekers, and this book is a must-have as well.
[2] My review of the first volume can be found near the end of this post; scroll down to the subheading labeled "Christmas Books."

Unequally Yoked: How To Preserve The Restoration And Still Save Your Marriage, by Bret and Samantha Corbridge

The best way I know how to describe this important book is to quote from the introduction:
In Mormonism today, there exists a growing number of LDS couples who find themselves in a complicated situation.  Generally speaking, these men and women have been married in the temple, are active in the church, and are working to raise children in this dark and difficult world. 
Although every story is unique, the basic challenge these couples face is similar.  One spouse, and it can be either the husband or the wife, determines to search deeper into the gospel of Jesus Christ and the glories of the Kingdom. (D&C 42:61) He or she studies scripture and then compares the holy word of God to what the LDS Church is currently teaching.  Making this comparison results in a spiritual awakening, which includes a realization of how much light and truth has been lost since the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.  This person may try to share their new understanding with those they love, only to find that others do not appreciate the additional perspective, and instead choose to stay in their religious traditions. (D&C 93:39)  
In general, the spouse in harmony with the mainstream believes in Jesus Christ, and that spiritual safety comes in following the prophet.  He or she is "active in the church."  Meanwhile, the spouse who desires to reclaim and preserve the Restoration believes in Jesus Christ, and that spiritual growth comes through following the Holy Spirit.  He or she is "active in the gospel."
In a day when many marriages have one spouse who has stopped believing in the Restoration altogether, it seems strange that there would be problems between two people who both continue to believe in the fundamentals of the gospel; but this odd and unfortunate situation is playing out all over the church right now.  Bret Corbridge, a marriage and family therapist in Colorado, is uniquely qualified to address this problem. This thin manual is essentially a Twelve Step Program for saving marriages between two people who have more in common than they often realize, and I'm happy to report that in most instances believing couples are easily finding that common ground.  They may feel at first as if they belong to separate religions (and in a sense, they do), but the Corbridges, who once found themselves at odds with one another over these very issues, eventually learned there was really nothing separating them except the desire to understand.  Each "step" in this wonderful little book fills about a page and a half with wise counsel geared to help bring couples back together in a godly marriage. Though one would think divisions on religious lines should be a non-issue among couples whose core religious values are virtually identical, the dichotomy is real enough for some couples.  For them, this little book will bring back the happiness.

I Knew Their Hearts: The Amazing True Story Of A Journey Beyond The Veil To Learn The Silent Language Of The Heart,
by Jeff Olsen
I've been meaning for some time to do a blog post about Near Death Experiences among latter-day Saints, but it looks like I won't get to that for some time, and I didn't want to postpone recommending this particular book any longer than I already have. (It was published in 2012, which shows you how long I've been sitting on it.)

The author fell asleep one day while driving, and the resulting accident killed his wife and youngest child, wiping out half his family in an instant.  He himself was seriously injured and clinically dead, at which time he found himself beyond the veil. To his surprise, he found himself face to face with his recently departed wife, who was just as surprised to see him, insisting he shouldn't be there and had to go back.

I won't go into his other experiences, because what has fascinated me about NDEs ever since I read the experience of Dannion Brinkley in Saved By The Light, is the personal transformation experienced by these people upon their return. Jeff reports having lost all fear; not just fear of death as one might expect, but all fear and anxiety over the day-to-day vicissitudes of life. Replacing that fear has been an overwhelming love and sense of connection to all other people.  I got a small taste of that "mighty change" myself following my baptism of fire in February of 2007, so I'm fascinated by how these feelings play out with those who actually had the experience of crossing over.

Although Jeff remains active in the church, he reports feelings quite similar to those of other Mormons who had near death experiences. In a Youtube snippet of an interview with Dan Wotherspoon at Mormon Matters, Jeff says "I have very little interest in 'religion' after my experience; I have an increased interest in truth, in light, and particularly in love."

Before he returned to his broken body, Jeff reports an encounter with Jesus Christ, who gave him two words of counsel: "choose joy."

The final set of books I wanted to mention here is the History of Joseph Smith And The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints, edited by Dan Vogel.

This is unusual for me, because the first thing I have to admit is I haven't read these books.  In fact, I'll be lucky if I ever even get to see them in my lifetime.  They were put on sale December 8th in a limited edition of only 250 sets total at $1,000.00 a set. They sold out the same day to folks who had a lot more money to spend on books than I do.

This is an exhaustively researched and annotated re-pressing of what we know today as the Documentary History of the Church, and the reason it's important is Dan Vogel has dug up everything there is to know on how these histories were compiled.  As we now know, after Joseph Smith's death the official histories were doctored under the direction of Brigham Young, who employed Willard Richards and others to present Joseph Smith as saying words he never spoke. (I first wrote about this unscrupulous practice here, where I included some examples of the forgeries.)

I would hope that at least some of these volumes were grabbed up by university libraries in Utah, so if you are interested in this sort of thing and want to see them, you might ask around. (Sadly, I live in California, so chances are slim these books will show up at the Sacramento Public Library.) Meanwhile, Signature Books has provided a lengthy excerpt from the introduction here.

Update January 2nd:I'm just informed that a handful of sets of these histories still remain available. As of this writing, Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City still has at least a couple of sets in stock, and Confetti Books in Spanish Fork is said to have six sets left.  So if you want these treasures and have an extra thousand bucks lying around, you'd better act fast.  (And if you have two thousand bucks lying around, pick me up a set too, will ya?)

Update Jaunuary 4th:
I've just learned that There Are Save Two Churches Only is available for free downloading in pdf format at the book's website, along with free multimedia material that includes audio samples from the book.  I also failed to note Brother Markham priced the softcover versions at Amazon's lowest price point, and in the book's description there are coupon codes that will take the price down to around $13.00.
Well, that wraps up another year of Pure Mormonism. I'm finishing this up just before midnight on New Year's Eve. This is how I celebrate holidays now, I guess.