Last week I went to a haunted house attraction for the first time. I went in with a larger than average group and they warned us that it would be better with smaller groups, but none of us wanted to split up. So maybe that's why I didn't find it very scary, but I don't think the concept itself is scary anyway. When you go to a place like this, your whole intention is for people in costumes to jump out at you in the dark and yell. You know they're going to do it, you know they're not even allowed to touch you, and you know the chainsaw isn't real because that would be a million dollar lawsuit waiting to happen. (The sawdust smell was a nice touch, though.) Some mystery remains as to the precise moments when the people in costumes will jump out at you in the dark and yell, and I did get startled a couple of times, but most of the element of surprise is gone. So I don't know why people find it scary enough to yell back. It's like in the remake of "When a Stranger Calls" (I haven't seen the original) when the protagonist finds the maid's body in the fish pond and you're supposed to be shocked even though you guessed it forty-five minutes ago.
Mind you, that's just my thought on the concept and not a criticism of this particular establishment, which had fascinating costumes and decor and atmosphere and was fun regardless. But then I'm not sure why humans go to a place to get scared for fun either. I'm not sure why activating the primal instinct that tells us we're going to die if we don't get the hell out of here is a source of pleasure. I've heard that it's cathartic to exercise this primal instinct in a controlled environment where we know we're not in real danger, and I guess that tracks. But I can imagine every other species on the planet, all the generations of our pre-industrial ancestors, and otherwise objective alien xenopologists looking at this behavior, throwing up their hands and tentacles and other appendages in consternation, and yelling at us in their various languages, "What the ----ing ---- is wrong with you?" And then when the alien xenopologists learned that a lot of humans also find pain sexually arousing, they'd blow up the Earth to save the rest of the universe.
I was in a group with five people I knew from the local YSA LDS ward - I still attend their weekday activities because I like most of them - but then somehow some girl I've never seen before ended up in our group, and she was real nice and I would have thought she was flirting if I hadn't learned from harsh experience that apparent flirting is nothing of the sort and true flirting is only discernible with years of hindsight. While we were still in line - so before the scary part, although some people found the clowns walking around with obviously fake tasers scary - she touched me on the arm. I thought about the sexual misconduct prevention trainings I had to take as both a student and a faculty member at Utah State University. As I recall, they straight-up said not to touch people at all without permission, and I rolled my eyes because we all know that isn't how neurotypical people live their lives. They don't touch me nearly as often as I'd like given that touch is one of my love languages (I have a three-way tie, which makes me thrice as needy as a normal person), but when they do, they just do it. And I never touch them in return because I don't know when it's okay and even if I did, the action would be scripted and awkward and not a spontaneous show of platonic affection like theirs are.
Some time after I had taken those trainings, no less a figure than university president Noelle Cockett touched me without permission. It was at an event where people were supposed to eat bagels and talk to her, and I think some aide signed her up for it and forgot to tell her, because she showed up late and confused. I was the first person in line who actually had to talk to her before getting bagels. So with an awkward look on her face she asked about my major and stuff, and she touched me on the arm while she talked, and that's setting a really bad example for the student body, don't you think? (Note: I'm not serious. Please don't anybody complain about her.) I don't remember where I was going with this. Happy Halloween. Anyone interested is invited to check out this post from a couple years ago on "Some of My Favorite Halloween Carols," which is hard to top, but also here's an underrated eighties song that really has nothing to do with Halloween but has zombies in the title and has been in my head lately.
My youngest sibling is far more tech-savvy than I'll probably ever be. My family didn't even have a computer until I was in second grade, but by the time my sibling was four they were drawing better with the mouse than I could with a pencil. Nowadays they collect old TVs and VCRs and VHS tapes, and recently they got a device that allows them to digitize VHS tapes and put their contents up on YouTube, which so far they've done with two. As a good brother who loves them and wishes them success in everything they do, I hereby promote these videos to both of my blog readers without being asked.
A Dozen Dizzy Dogs
This is a simple narration of a simple children's book that my siblings and I watched multiple times well after we'd aged out of the target demographic. Our dog Milo (to whom the video is dedicated along with me) didn't watch it as attentively but he did react to the barking dogs in the little live-action interludes. Now it appeals to me for the nostalgia. I don't remember why it appealed to me back then, but it was probably for the song at the end. If nothing else, watch the song at the end. It starts at 18:42. In a just world it would have won a Grammy.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King!
I anticipate that this one will be of interest to more people. My sibling's friend found this at a thrift store, and there's no information about it online. It's always fascinating, sometimes infuriating and sometimes refreshing in a weird way to stumble upon an unexpected gap in the internet's virtual omniscience. A lot of effort seems to have gone into this video for it to simply disappear from humankind's collective memory. For starters, ten children recite lines about Martin Luther King at a public gathering. Most or all of the children and some of the adults in the audience should still be alive to remember it. Then there are appearances of varying length by Dr. King's widow, Dr. King's sister, Rosa Parks, the Great American Mime Experiment, the Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir, ventriloquist Willie Tyler and dummy Lester, the hip-hop group Full Force, and a group of "friends of Dr. King" including Bill Cosby (awk), Sidney Poitier, and Stevie Wonder. So it's not the fanciest production ever but I would have expected it to be a slightly bigger deal than it is. In any case, I'm grateful that my sibling has rescued it from the dustbin of history.
A Nun Harassing Strangers
This video is from July but a page I'm following shared it the other day and I just have to talk about it. Two women in Italy are kissing for a TV show, and a nun physically separates them and yells, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph! It's the devil! It's the devil!" I would just roll my eyes at her being a crazy old lady who's probably jealous because she's not allowed to kiss anyone, but what really alarmed and sickened me was the cavalcade of commenters who lauded her behavior and condemned the women for laughing at her. Yes, a lot of people exist who think it's admirable to harass strangers for not believing as you do. I don't believe that God cares if two women kiss - like, at all - but unlike the people who insist that he does, I don't claim to speak for him, so let's assume for the sake of discussion that I'm wrong. Two facts still remain. First, nobody on the planet is going to repent and change their lifestyle because a stranger physically accosted and yelled at them. Of course they laughed at her. They would have been justified in doing worse. (Not a lot worse. I'm not saying they should have beat her up or anything.) Second, I'm not sure what Bible these people have been reading if they think this kind of behavior emulates Jesus in any way. He spoke his mind when people asked for it, but he didn't go around publicly butting into their business and trampling on their right to live as they chose. Sorry not sorry but I can't wait until the generations that think this way are extinct.
On Thursday, Benjamin Pykles gave the annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture at Utah State University. Before he became Historic Sites director for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he was my branch president in northern New York. Both he and his successor had moved there from California. I could understand why they left California, but not why they moved to northern New York. Dr. Pykles taught archaeology at the local community college. Once he accompanied the youth on a bus trip to the Palmyra Temple and nearby church history sites, and we stayed at the Palmyra Inn, which had an exhibit that was basically like "We found these arrowheads nearby and that proves the Book of Mormon is true." He explained to us all of the methodological problems with the exhibit and concluded with something to the effect of "But my faith is my faith and doesn't depend on archaeological evidence." His integrity and his faith both impressed me.
He was my branch president at the time I stumbled upon an "anti-Mormon" website and had my first faith crisis because of all the things the church hadn't taught me. I didn't talk to him about it because I didn't want to threaten his testimony. My instincts were spot on insofar as bishops and branch presidents received no training on this sort of thing and most of them would have been as clueless as I was. Dr. Pykles, however, would have been more qualified to help me than most. One day I overheard him telling someone else that another youth had come to him with questions about stuff on the internet. He lamented that the church didn't offer any guidance or resources for such questions. So then I emailed him and shared my own experience and the unofficial apologetics website FAIR that I had found in the meantime. The other night when I talked to him and his family for the first time in over a decade, he reminded me of that and said he had subsequently gone to a leadership meeting with apostle Richard G. Scott, where he brought up this problem and my email. So now he said that maybe the credit for the Saints books should be laid at my feet. Of course there was a lot more going on but I guess I did contribute in a small way to making this problem too big for the top church leadership to ignore.
Dr. Pykles welcomed the shift toward greater transparency, and so did I, but for me it came too late. Although I stayed in the church for almost another twelve years after my first faith crisis, it had broken my trust, and that trust was never fully repaired. I was never satisfied with the excuses people made for its lack of transparency (when they weren't lying that it had always been transparent and victim-blaming people like me for not having read everything it had ever published, that is). I could never be convinced that there was a legitimate reason for me to be raised in the church for seventeen years without knowing that Joseph Smith had more than one wife. In addition to my ethical concerns about it, the lack of transparency sure seems to demonstrate a profound lack of inspiration from the supposed prophets, seers, and revelators, since it caused them a lot of almost entirely self-inflicted problems when the internet was invented. (Not to mention the considerable suffering in the lives of the people who actually have the faith crises.) Elder Scott shouldn't have needed to hear about my email before he could take action. He and the others should have been inspired to be transparent before they had no choice.
I didn't want to put a damper on our reunion, so I didn't mention that I'd left, though I would have if it had come up. He asked if I'm still interested in Mormon history and I said yes and that was true. I bought his book the next morning and got it autographed, and I'm interested to read it because regardless of how I feel about the church's truth claims or values, it was a real historical phenomenon and Nauvoo was a real place with real people including some of my real ancestors. I thought I was supporting him by buying the book, but he said he it probably hasn't made him more than $300 in the twelve years since its publication. Ouch.
His specialization is historical archaeology, dealing with anywhere from fifty to five hundred years ago. The more recent it gets, the more documentation of history we already have from documents and photographs, so that some people think it's a waste of time to dig through historic trash too. In his presentation, Dr. Pykles of course disagreed and suggested that historical archaeology fills four (non-exclusive) functions: it confirms, completes, corrects, and/or confuses what we already know. Chicken bones and broken plates found in the basement of the Provo Tabernacle confirmed a 1908 newspaper ads for chicken dinners in the basement of the Provo Tabernacle. Excavation of the remains of the old Nauvoo Temple completed journal accounts of the patterns on its walls and floors by showing their actual colors. Comparing the ages of two different artifact troves corrected the presumed location of the Whitmer farm by revealing that the artifacts found in the current reconstruction's location are from too late in the nineteenth century. And most interestingly, multiple historical accounts of a cemetery in Far West, Missouri were confused by archaeologists' failure to find any human remains in that spot with any of the tools at their disposal. *Cue Twilight Zone music*
He also talked about his work at the former Hawaiian settlement at Ioseppa, Utah, and how talking to the settlers' descendants corrected the Eurocentric assumptions he had applied to their artifacts. (They had really nice plates, which Euro-Americans or Europeans would have used to show off to guests, but which Hawaiians would have used to honor their guests and demonstrate equality.) There are still a bunch of Hawaiian petroglyphs up on a mountain somewhere, but he hesitated to say exactly where because he doesn't want someone carving one off to stick on their mantlepiece. And he reaffirmed that in writing the history of Ioseppa it's important not to sugarcoat things or gloss over the bad parts of history, but to just tell it like it is. Of course, no one knows exactly how it is, because all the documents and artifacts and oral histories we have only allow us to reconstruct an estimate of what we think history looked like, and it will always have gaps that must be filled with interpretation and guesswork, which is why there can be three hundred books about Abraham Lincoln. Also, the church has altered the Hill Cumorah so much over the decades of its pageant that examining it and trying to determine where the golden plates were buried would be futile. His presentation was very good and well-received, but I'd bore everyone's pants off if I attempted to remember and summarize everything (insert your own quip about all my posts boring everyone's pants off here) so I won't.
I've been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book well-received by the public and less well-received by scholars. I certainly don't agree with everything in it. I reject the author's assertion that everything not empirically verifiable is fictional, and I most emphatically reject his assertion that human rights are fictional. I'm not exaggerating. He writes, for example: "Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity....
"Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, 'We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.' I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by 'imagined order'. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: 'I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.'"
I hope the same obvious thought that occurred to me is occuring to everyone else: If human rights are fictional, then the Nazis did nothing wrong. It really is that simple. And in fact he later mentions them by name and presents their philosophy as no better or worse than any other philosophy he describes: "Like liberal humanism, socialist humanism is built on monotheist foundations. The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God. The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives were the Nazis. What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of 'humanity', one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman."
He goes on to point out that "Biologists have since debunked Nazi racial theory," but that hardly matters because in his worldview there's nothing wrong with Nazis trying to create a stable and prosperous society by persisting in their imagined order that certain races are inferior and should be exterminated. Ironically, he's from Israel.
But it's still interesting to read about the history of civilization. One of the most fascinating parts for me was the agricultural revolution. I've read about the agricultural revolution before in vague terms that jive with his description, so I doubt this is one of the parts of the book that scholars don't like. Those vague terms are that the agricultural revolution formed the basis of our progress as a species, at the cost of making most people's lives significantly worse. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had more leisure time, healthier and more varied diets, less disease, little or no tooth decay, less arthritis, less risk of starvation, less anxiety about the future, and longer lives than the people who decided it would be a good idea to settle down in one place and depend for their lives on a few varieties of plants that they may or may not be succcessful in growing. Agriculture was supposed to create more food, but thanks to the commensurate population expansion it really just created more work, and then the population expansion made it impossible to go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle even if people realized they screwed themselves over. But that's how we've ended up with cities and infrastructure and writing and technology, so, you know, I guess that's cool.
So I was reading about that and had an epiphany: Oh my gosh, this is totally the fall of Adam and Eve. Like many Christians, I reached the conclusion some time ago that Adam and Eve were not historically real people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still "officially" insists that they are. (I use scare quotes because as likely as not, thirty years from now the church will have quietly abandoned that doctrine and apologists will insist that it was never official.) As recently as General Conference a week ago, Jeffrey R. Holland said "that the saving grace inherent in [the Atonement of Jesus Christ] was essential for and universally gifted to the entire human family from Adam and Eve to the end of the world," and I wondered why all the humans who lived for two hundred thousand years before Adam and Eve allegedly lived are excluded from "the entire human family." Years ago in General Conference he was more blunt: "I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that, but I do know these two were created under the divine hand of God, that for a time they lived alone in a paradisiacal setting where there was neither human death nor future family, and that through a sequence of choices they transgressed a commandment of God which required that they leave their garden setting but which allowed them to have children before facing physical death." I marveled at this substantial backtrack from earlier apostles who knew exactly what happened on this planet before that.
So when I was a member, I tried to reconcile a literal Adam and Eve in a literal Garden of Eden with the facts of biology and anthropology, and like many, I settled uncomfortably on some variation of the hypothesis that humans evolved like we know they did but then Adam and Eve were the first ones to be spirit children of God and be morally accountable. But as Holland's weak "I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that" suggests, this isn't altogether satisfying. It just doesn't make sense to treat this story as historical, and maybe it makes even less sense to treat some parts as figurative and others not, like the church does. Multiple leaders have taught that Eve being made from Adam's rib is figurative, and it's generally accepted that the talking snake is not really a talking snake (in the endowment ceremony it's depicted as a perfectly human Lucifer, which I'm sure would bewilder the authors of Genesis). But the tree with the magical reality-altering fruit? Apparently that's a literal historical event at the core of LDS theology. And if it wasn't, what does it even mean to refer to "the Fall of Adam and Eve" or to say that "we live in a fallen world?" I recall a quote that I can't find now of Brigham Young saying that the Garden of Eden was a fairy story and that we weren't advanced enough to understand the truth, but he taught that Adam was God so I'm not sure his alternative would be better.
However, setting aside literal vs. figurative for a moment and looking at general themes, in my opinion the LDS interpretation of the story is superior to the mainstream Christian interpretation. Framing the Fall as a positive and necessary step in God's plan without which humankind could not progress introduces its own plot holes (why did God tell them not to eat the fruit if they needed to eat the fruit, why did Eve say the serpent tricked her if she knew she needed to eat the fruit) but it makes a lot more sense than God being like "Oh crap, I just started and these stupid people I created have already screwed up my whole plan for this world. You'd think I would've had a little more foresight. Why did I put that stupid tree right there where they could reach it? Heck, why did I even create that stupid tree? Ugh, now I have to come up with a Plan B to save them and all their descendants whom I'm going to hold a grudge against just for being born." So I still bring that interpetive lens to the story, and that's probably why the agricultural revolution jumped out at me. It was an irreversible disaster and it was progress, and the two cannot be uncoupled.
I figured this seemingly obvious correlation must have occurred to many people before me, but I couldn't find much about it. I found someone asking about it on the RationalWiki forum and on the atheism subreddit almost a decade ago. On the former, it generated some legitimate discussion. On the latter, the top comment was "Personally, I think you're giving illiterate, nomadic, middle-eastern goatherds a little too much credit." The unconcealed bigotry there is pretty astonishing. Illiterate does not mean stupid, and I'm not sure what them being nomadic or Middle Eastern has to do with literally anything. Also, why does this atheist attribute a writtten narrative to illiterate people in the first place? Derp. Anyway, I don't presume that the authors of Genesis possessed a lot of modern knowledge about anthropology any more than they possessed a lot of modern knowledge about geology, astronomy, or biology. I don't presume that there's an intentional one-to-one correlation between every aspect of the figurative accounts in Genesis and the actual history of the Earth and humans. But if there is any objective reality to the theological concept of the Fall of humankind, I think it's more likely to be found in the agricultural revolution than in a magical fruit tree. And I'm fascinated by the possibility that this part of the creation myth developed out of some communal or genetic memory of real events even if the authors didn't understand those events. Or, you know, revelation, but that's actually less fascinating to me in this instance for some reason.
The other thing I found was a paper by Harry White of the Department of English at Northeastern Illinois University on "Adam, Eve, and Agriculture: The First Scientific Experiment." I don't know that he's an anthropologist or a biblical scholar, and there's a case to be made that English majors should shut up about topics outside their area of expertise. (Note to first-time readers, if any: this is funny because I have a bachelor's and a Masters in English.) I have seen neither a corroboration nor a refutation of the specific correlations he points out - in true English professor fashion - between the Bible story and the realities of hunting-gathering and agriculture (explaining, for instance, why the forbidden food item is fruit instead of peas) and I think their meaning would be impossible to prove or disprove anyway. I'll just pass along some less specific quotes that surprised me by how well they resonated with my understanding of the story. "If we would actually read the Bible in place of listening to what others tell us the Bible says, we will find that Genesis depicts no fall by which humankind dropped from a higher to a lower state of being. There was no ontological descent. The movement was horizontal and not vertical: Adam and Eve were simply displaced from the garden where food was abundantly available: 'No more free lunch.'...
"Despite the difficulties and frequent dangers of trial and error research, there are many advantages to learning on one’s own. One of the most important has to do with the difference between knowing that and knowing how. One may know that certain plants are poisonous because God, her husband or her mother told her so, but that kind of knowledge does not give the person the ability to discern poisonous from edible plants, or if need be, knowledge about how to make plants grow that are nourishing and good to eat. Knowing that something is the case does not automatically imbue a person with know-how....
"The word knowledge which appears in the phrase 'tree of knowledge' specifically indicates knowledge of an experiential type. The Tree of Knowledge which Eve and Adam eat from stands for what we would now identify as practical, empirical knowledge. What they bequeath to all humankind is neither evil nor sinfulness, but an understanding of the significance of practical knowledge gained through experience. What Eve acquires is very much the same kind of knowledge that the ancient Greeks understood Prometheus to have given to humankind....
"In the end we really aren’t told because it does not really matter what if anything Adam and Eve find out about the tree itself, whether what God told them about it was true or, as the serpent tells them, not quite so. What really matters is that Eve and Adam become like God by acquiring the skill needed to know things without having to be told; and if that’s the case, well then, they might as well leave God’s garden - 'If that’s what you really want, you don’t need me anymore' - and start cultivating plants on their own - which in fact is what they do."
In LDS theology, obtaining experiential knowledge is one of the primary purposes of life on Earth. Before our births we lived with God as unembodied spirits, and we were happy, but we couldn't make any more progress without being tested, making mistakes, learning from them, and yes, suffering so that we could learn to appreciate what it's like to not suffer. God, even with all His power, couldn't just download all the requisite knowledge into our brains. That's what I was taught, and of necessity I'm agnostic about it at the moment but it makes as much sense to me now as it did then. I don't know what to do with this insight, I just thought it was cool, okay?
I left the church but, as prophesied, I can't leave it alone. I watched General Conference for a few reasons - because I was curious how differently it would come across with my current perspective, because it's given me comfort and inspiration in the past and I was open-minded enough to see if it would still do so, because I have two nieces (so far) who will be raised in the church and I maintain an interest in the church's development for their sake if nothing else, because it gave some structure and purpose to my lonely weekend, and because I've written about every General Conference since I started blogging weekly on this platform and I might break that tradition but there's no need to do so yet. Here are my jaded, cynical, faithless observations and opinions.
Dallin H. Oaks talked about the monetary value of the church's humanitarian aid, which is being disclosed in unprecedented detail in obvious response to criticism about how little per capita the church gives in humanitarian aid. He gave a total of almost a billion dollars annually, which is almost one percent of the value of the Ensign Peak "rainy day" fund at the time whistleblowers leaked it in 2019. I'm not knowledgeable enough to criticize the church's financial priorities much, and unlike a lot of people I recognize that charitable donations are not the primary reason why religions exist, but I just wish members would recognize that context before jumping to the conclusion that almost a billion dollars is a lot of money. He talked about partnering with good people of other faiths, and the fact that God works through them because one church can't do everything alone. I liked that. I also liked that he didn't feel the need to remind everyone that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The For the Strengh of Youth pamphlet, which I critiqued slightly a few months ago, got an overhaul beyond what I ever would have anticipated. Dieter F. Uchtdorf discussed the new edition and totally threw all the previous editions under the bus. Since it first came out in 1965, it's been a list of do this, don't do that. Some of the this's and that's have changed in fifty-seven years but the overall approach has not. Now that's all been scrapped in favor of generic principles to guide the youth in making their own choices. For example, the sexist list of "immodest" clothes that girls shouldn't wear and the stupid injunction against multiple ear piercings have been replaced with, "Heavenly Father wants us to see each other for who we really are: not just physical bodies but His beloved children with a divine destiny. Avoid styles that emphasize or draw inappropriate attention to your physical body instead of who you are as a child of God with an eternal future" and "The Lord’s standard is for you to honor the sacredness of your body, even when that means being different from the world. Let this truth and the Spirit be your guide as you make decisions - especially decisions that have lasting effects on your body. Be wise and faithful, and seek counsel from your parents and leaders." Based on my anecdotal observations, I think this is the church's way of capitulating to the reality that its young female members are wearing whatever they want and getting as many piercings as they want anyway.
As I anticipated, the bit about homosexuality has been revised: "I am attracted to people of my same sex. How do these standards apply to me? Feeling same-sex attraction is not a sin. If you have these feelings and do not pursue or act on them, you are living Heavenly Father’s sacred law of chastity. You are a beloved child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. Remember that the Savior understands everything you experience. Through your covenant connection with Him, you will find strength to obey God’s commandments and receive the blessings He promises. Trust Him and His gospel." This is a nicer way of saying that God expects you to be alone until you die or marry someone you aren't attracted to and will probably divorce, and that you're better off dead because God will make you straight in the next life. (Never mind that no human has ever said the words "I am attracted to people of my same sex.") I know or know of scores, maybe hundreds of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who were miserable in the church and became happy after they left. That's why I stopped believing what the church teaches about them. Why didn't they "find strength to obey God's commandments and receive the blessings He promises?" Am I supposed to believe that every single one of them just didn't have enough faith? Even the ones who still attend church with their same-sex partners?
The pamphlet also includes this gem: "Is it wrong to have questions about the Church? How can I find answers? Having questions is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith. In fact, asking questions can help build faith. The Restoration of the gospel started when 14-year-old Joseph Smith asked questions with faith. Seek answers in the scriptures, in the words of God’s prophets, from your leaders and faithful parents, and from God Himself. If answers don’t come right away, trust that you will learn line upon line. Keep living by what you already know, and keep seeking for truth." I never heard this kind of stuff as a youth, but it's all over the freaking place now that the church is facing an unprecedented retention crisis (especially among the youth). I like that questions are framed as a positive thing, but also the constant emphasis on "questions" per se has really started to irk me. I didn't leave the church because of my questions, I left because of the answers. A big question I had was "Why did the church tell women not to have careers and then quietly stop telling women not to have careers?" And the answer was, "Because its past leaders were sexist and attributed their sexism to God, and its current leaders can't admit that its past leaders were ever wrong about anything because that would call their own reliability into question." The church promotes a circular assumption that the answers to the questions will always vindicate it and put it in a positive or at least tolerable light, and that simply wasn't the case for me.
Tracy Browning, the first black woman in a general presidency, became the first black woman to speak in General Conference. For those who say it doesn't matter, yes it does, for reasons I know you know, so shut up. She talked with a normal voice instead of a patronizing General Conference voice. I liked that. She hasn't been assimilated yet.
Russell M. Nelson spent much of his first talk condemning abuse. While he didn't directly allude to the recent Associated Press articles and child rape scandal that obviously motivated his remarks, it was nice to see the prophet kind of respond in some capacity instead of continuing to hide behind anonymous PR employees. It really annoyed me that the First Presidency delegated this issue to them while taking the time to write a letter about changing the name of tithing settlement to tithing declaration. He immediately went on to talk about truth and how we need to be careful about who we trust, which seemed to be a way of calling into question the integrity of Pulitzer-winning journalist Michael Rezendes in a way that won't get him sued for slander.
Kristin M. Yee's talk resonated with me the most, as she spoke about the difficulty of forgiving people who never apologize or accept responsibility for wronging you, a category that might, hypothetically, include ex-neighbors, police officers, so-called healthcare workers, deadbeat parasites, and/or elementary school administrators, hypothetically. In the absence of justice, my resentment feels like the closest thing I have. Giving it up feels like pretending that what happened was okay. I know I need to reorient my thinking for my own mental health. It kind of helps and kind of just pisses me off when I remember that many, many people have been abused and discriminated against far worse than me and never received any justice. This planet needs to burn.
Ulisses Soares spoke about the equality of men and women that doesn't yet reflect lived experience within the church, throwing in the obligatory patriarchal language to obfuscate the church's drastic evolution on this topic in the last fifty years. In all seriousness, I think he's a great guy who means what he says, I'm just annoyed at how the church teaches different things and then pretends it's always taught the same things. D. Todd Christofferson spoke about belonging and inclusion and diversity, which again doesn't yet reflect lived experience within the church but I guess that's why he needed to speak about it. The church would have less work to do in this regard if it had started rooting out racism in 1830 instead of 2020.
Gérald Caussé spoke about our need to use resources wisely and be good stewards of the Earth. Though not unprecedented, this kind of environmental message is almost unheard of within the church. It hasn't been a priority at all and it directly contradicts the political views of a majority of its American members. He said that left His creation incomplete and gave us the opportunity to contribute with art and music and I don't remember but I'm going to assume he said writing too. This came dangerously close to contradicting the political views of a majority of the church's American members, namely that artists and musicians and writers should have majored in something useful and don't deserve to afford to be alive. But this concept of being co-creators with God is a really great one. It first occurred to me in 2013 when I got chills from a slideshow of stars and nebulae set to the David Arkenstone track "Stepping Stars." God had left space silent and David Arkenstone had filled the silence with the sort of thing that we all somehow know space should sound like. That particular video is gone but this one is close enough.
Jeffrey R. Holland spoke about why Latter-day Saints don't (usually) use the cross as a symbol. He made the interesting claim that because the earliest Christians didn't use the cross as a symbol, this is an evidence that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the original Christian church. Actually, Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century often wore or decorated with crosses. They became less popular in the twentieth century and were made officially taboo by David O. McKay in the late 1950s, in part because he felt they were "purely Catholic." Holland expressed empathy for several of the various struggles that people face, including the struggles of LGBTQ people that are caused by the church.
David A. Bednar gave a talk that came across to me as a thinly-veiled passive-aggressive condemnation of the increasing number of members who don't wear their temple garments every day, mostly because he shared a parable about a guy who wasn't wearing garments and he said the word "garments" over and over. I thought the church was lightening up about that sort of thing.
Russell M. Nelson spoke again. I don't buy the narrative that the world is the worst it's ever been. I recently read a history of the 1970s, and talk about a decade that I'm grateful I didn't live through. I don't buy the teaching that the 0.2% of people in the world with access to temple ordinances in mortality have a degree of access to God's power that no one else does. That would make God a respecter of persons. And then I didn't pay much attention to the last session so I'll skip ahead to his final talk where of course he announced 18 new temples. I used to get so excited about new temple announcements because they meant that the church was growing and expanding throughout the world. Nowadays most of them mean nothing of the sort. Nelson keeps announcing them for areas where active membership isn't even large enough to staff them, let alone use them in appreciable numbers. The church will be scrambling to find a lot of senior missionary couples in the near future. At this point it feels like he's just showing off. He didn't announce 18 new temples because the church needs 18 new temples, he announced 18 new temples so the church can boast that it now has 300 temples operating or in planning stages, even though its annual membership growth has fallen from 2.19% to 0.85% in the last decade. But at least none of them were in Utah.
General observations: A higher percentage than usual of women (which isn't saying much) spoke and prayed, obviously in reaction to criticisms about the low percentage of women who speak and pray in General Conference. Bonnie H. Cordon was announced with her proper title of "President," not "Sister," which is such a small thing that shouldn't have taken until 2022 to implement but here it is and it's good. Most speakers continued the disturbing trend of quoting and fawning over our beloved prophet President Russell M. Nelson to a degree that I never observed with his two most recent predecessors. Neil L. Andersen was the most egregious. This prophet worship, coupled with the reality of how many things past prophets have gotten wrong that we're supposed to just not care about, was a big part of why I left.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.