It's a month almost to the day since the nasty incident with my neighbors, and though I've put it behind me as much as possible, and though by objective measures little else has developed, of course I still remember it every day and have had plenty of time to think about it a little more. It's for my own closure more than anything and I'm sorry if it bores everyone else (insert your own quip about all my posts boring you here).
The next day, open enrollment began for summer and next school year, and I went to sign up. I love my current location, and I had to move thrice last year and I would be damned if I was going to do it again so soon. If my neighbors had a problem with me then they could leave, and I've since heard that they will, though I don't know if it has anything to do with me. I also soon returned to opening my blinds for most of the day as I've always done to maximize natural light and minimize my electricity bill (though most of it is still blocked by trees and recycle bins) but now to also send the message I'm not afraid of you, I mean I am, but I won't let you intimidate me out of living my life. While sitting in my living room on a Sunday morning I've seen them look in my living room window at me before scurrying past like anxious little rodents. Like they're literally scared of me when all I ever did was be nice to them. Such idiocy is so unreal I don't even know how to feel about it.
I've been able to avoid more than occasional glimpses of them, with one notable exception. One Sunday evening I walked into the Spectrum, the basketball stadium on campus where the annual Joseph Smith Memorial Devotional was being held, and there C stood not three meters in front of me, in her campus employee uniform, facing a perpendicular direction. Terror paralyzed me for a moment that seemed like an hour, but I quickly realized that if she turned her head to the left and saw me she would probably call a SWAT team, so I bolted past her, through the crowd, at least halfway around the stadium, not slowing down when I heard some guy behind me say "Hey, there's Nick! Hey, Nick! Nick! He's got headphones on. Nick!" Of course I knew he was talking about/to me because Nick is second only to Christian on the list of things that people think my name is. I found a nice isolated seat close to the action where I could relax a little and process the unwelcome moment.
Now, I was unfairly biased the first time I saw her, as I was trying to close off my heart to the opposite sex entirely, and I thought she looked plain, homely, awkward, and forgettable. I've since come to realize that she is in fact widely regarded by humans as "cute", and I can accept that. But she's no Gal Gadot by any means. She looks like an upside-down exclamation point with glasses, hair, and possibly the worst case of Resting Bitch Face Syndrome I've ever seen. Our first encounter held not the slightest foreshadowing that soon, the slightest hint of a smile on that face would be sufficient to turn my internal organs into jelly. It was what I thought I knew of her mind and personality that transformed her into God's most beautiful creation. This, I thought, is one hell of a woman. This is one of the most mature, intelligent, genuine people I've ever met. This is someone I could have deep, intellectual conversations with for hours. It's not even an issue that she's four and a half years younger than me even though most girls that young don't appeal to me because they look and act like high school students and I'm just not into that.
And then she showed her true colors and I completely lost respect for her, along with faith in my ability to judge character at all, and I was/am embarrassed that I wasted so much emotional energy on someone so unworthy. And then I saw her up close by accident with this new frame of reference and she was still, inexplicably, God's most beautiful creation. So that added another layer of confusion and fear which I was in no position to assuage.
Another little act of bravery was attending home evening even though they're both assigned to my group, and neither of them were ever there so it was fine and for once I was glad I didn't let fear hold me back. After three weeks of going elsewhere on Sundays I decided to return to my ward altogether when it became apparent that few people had heard about the incident and those who did were on my side. Even with C's and T's garbled version of events, it seems, the general feeling from others is that they overreacted to whatever I was or wasn't doing. To their credit, I've obviously told far more people about it than they have, but not so much to their credit, my version isn't dishonest and totally irrational. So I went to church, they sat a bit in front of me with their arms around each other and I realized they make the cutest couple ever.
The final deciding factor was learning that one of their own roommates had stood up for me in a meeting, saying they had jumped the gun, that I wasn't a threat, and that they resented me for treating their dog better than they do. (Guilty as charged. I do have an unfortunate track record of being nice to dogs.) I was surprised to hear about this because, while I knew the complaint had to have come from the two of them, I just kind of assumed all five roommates were on the same page about it. The cop they sent to harass me just kept saying "Your neighbors" this and "Your neighbors" that and made it sound like I wasn't allowed to communicate with any of them at all ever. And I barely know this particular roommate, but on the rare and brief occasions when I talked to her, usually when I knocked on the door looking for someone else, she always seemed to think I was strange and have this What are you doing? kind of look on her face even though I wasn't doing anything. I assumed that when C and T announced I was a stalker she would have just been like I always knew he was sketchy. It warmed my heart very much to hear otherwise.
My friend Jen sent me cookies. She sends me cookies on my birthday but now she doesn't have to for my next three birthdays.
Another friend suggested, "That one girl (the one who saw visions) sounds like a pathological liar."
I asked, "Literally, do you think?" Because I've used the phrase "pathological liar" perhaps a bit too casually in my day, but now I was really intrigued by the possibility of a legitimate pathology here.
"Yeah," she said. "Every person I know who claimed to see visions or auras turned out to be a compulsive liar. (Not that there aren't people who can see visions, like the prophets in the Book of Mormon.) There is a hierarchy of who can have revelations for who. Like parents can have revelations for their children or the bishop for his ward. I bet she got uncomfortable with you asking questions because she couldn't keep her lies going without exposing herself. But I wasn't there and I can't read minds. That's my guess."
You know, I think she's right. I never suspected anything amiss about T's "gift" because she didn't seem to use it for her own profit or self-aggrandizement, or have any intention of usurping someone else's authority. I just thought, well, this is unusual but cool, whatever. I may seem like a colossal idiot to those who don't believe in anything like that to begin with but we'll just have to agree to disagree. Looking back I can maybe see a few inconsistencies in her claims, and how she moved the goalposts and always had a little too quick and easy answer for everything. If she could really read my aura or see the color of my heart she wouldn't have been so very, very wrong about me in the end, and if she were really as wise as she pretended (though always putting on a show of humility when I pointed it out) she wouldn't have reacted like a fifth grader. And she demonstrably did lie to me at least a couple of times and had no discernible qualms about breaking her promise to me in a heartbeat.
Part of me wants to believe that she has a toxic influence on her best friend C, that everything is her fault and that C really is at heart the kind of person I thought she was. Who knows? I never likely will. But I received more support for this hypothesis from my old friend Marie, a character whom only long-time readers of my blog will remember.
Incidentally, a couple months ago she delighted in pointing out to me that C's lovely name is a sacrilegious swear word in Quebec. If I hadn't been so blind, I would have recognized that as a massive red flag.
I've thought a bit about my story in relation to Joseph Smith's First Vision. In this event, to which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all breakoff sects trace their founding, and which celebrates its two hundredth anniversary this year, Joseph Smith reports that at the age of fourteen he went into the woods to pray and was visited in person by Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Over the years he wrote a few firsthand accounts, and a few more were written by associates who heard him talking about it. There are two main perspectives on these varying accounts. The critical perspective is that because they aren't identical in every detail, Joseph Smith must have made the story up as he went along. The faithful perspective is that he emphasized different aspects of the event at different times for different audiences. Now obviously I'm biased, but I think the critical perspective is pretty infantile, and that only one of these differences (the number of heavenly beings mentioned in the 1832 account versus the other accounts) even comes close to something that could rationally be considered a discrepancy.
I've thought about it because, though it's only been a few weeks as opposed to Joseph Smith's twelve years, I've told my story to several people and I haven't told it the same way each time. I haven't consciously adjusted the story for my different audiences but of course in each case finite constraint on people's attention spans and I have to select what strike me as important, representative details. I've often just started with a simple statement like "My neighbors thought I was stalking them and called the police" or "I had to go to the hospital for being suicidal" and let the ensuing comments and questions guide my additional exposition. I've even gone back to my original post - which was already too long - and, through the power vested in me by George Walton Lucas Jr., revised a few word choices and added details that I didn't include the first time around. There are still more I could add but I don't want it to become so long and rambling that nobody on the planet cares to read it.
Does that make me dishonest? Of course not. All it means is that it was a really big, emotionally impactful event and that I can't think of or include everything all at once, let alone every time, nor would anybody actually want me to. The First Vision was much bigger and much more emotionally impactful, albeit in an altogether more positive way. That's not even taking into account how memories are reconstructed from scratch every time we access them based on our current perspectives and emotions, or the obvious evolution in how Joseph Smith would have viewed the event's significance as his life continued and more events followed. I only hope that the significance of this event for me will turn out to be more than God giving me the finger. Listen to a very long but well worth it historians' podcast on the historical context of the First Vision.
And speaking of church history, Saints Volume 2 is out now and I'm a few chapters in and I intend to binge-read the rest as fast as possible.
A recent article caught my attention, entitled "Feds take down the world's 'largest dark web child porn marketplace'." A more accurate headline would have been "Feds take down the world's 'largest known dark web child porn marketplace so far'", but nobody wants to hear that. The marketplace was jointly taken down by Germany, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with additional cooperation from fourteen other countries. This is a beautiful example of international brotherhood and also a beautiful example of what federal law enforcement can accomplish when it isn't busy trying to arrest people for smoking a plant. The main guy behind it, Jong Woo Son, is now serving a prison sentence of - eighteen months. I kid you not. That better be just the beginning of his problems, because even the judge who sentenced Brock Turner is looking at that and going "Seriously guys?" Personally, I think everyone with any degree of involvement should be shot and used as Halloween decorations, but nobody asked me.
I imagine that seeing all of this child pornography and tracking down the children and infants involved must be traumatic enough for the investigators. But on top of that, they knew about this marketplace for a couple years, even figured out Jong Woo Son's identity, but were forced to be patient and cautious, even to buy some of the porn themselves, in order to eventually take the whole thing down. That must have been hell. And I'm not gonna lie, it disturbs me very much to imagine God watching every second of this rampant child and infant abuse and doing nothing to stop it. But the alternative is even more disturbing. The alternative is that these children and infants just got very unlucky with their one shot at life, and nobody is ever ever going to make it up to them, and the bastards who did this to them will never get what's coming to them because nothing that mortal justice can do to them, let alone what it will actually do, is good enough. At least God offers a long-term solution.
I believe that God allows injustice in this life for at least three reasons. One, so we can learn to appreciate joy by contrasting it with suffering. Two, so we can develop our character by choosing how to react to our circumstances. Personally, I think anyone who applies either of these reasons to children and infants getting raped should be punched in the throat, but nobody asked me. The third and, I believe, only relevant reason in this case is that our freedom to make our own choices and decide what kind of people we want to be - indeed, the primary purpose of being alive in the first place - is too sacred for God to take away, even when those choices and those people are terrible. Jong Woo Son and his ilk have made their choices at the expense of countless innocents. But they won't live forever, and they won't avoid being held accountable for those choices.
"It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones." - Luke 17:2
Yet another recent headline, this one of a Pew poll, reports what everyone already knew: that the number of self-identified Christians in the United States of America is in rapid decline. The natural impulse is to blame "the wickedness of the world", but I think Christianity more or less has itself to blame for this. Now I believe that the vast majority of denominations and individual Christians are, on the balance, good, and this is not an attack on anyone in particular. But one can hardly blame young people for leaving in many cases when they realize that the Earth is more than six to ten thousand years old, that their gay friends and family members aren't evil, that the Republican Party platform isn't scripture, and/or that a god who sends a solid majority of his children to live in circumstances where they will never have the opportunity to avoid burning in hell forever is unworthy of worship. The historical atrocities and the scandals and hypocrisy of various preachers, priests and bishops probably don't help either.
"Fundamentalists are to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art." - Robin Tyler
And yet the "liberal" churches aren't doing better. If anything they're doing worse. It's a bizarre fact of life that while countless people are leaving Christianity over LGBTQ issues, every single denomination that has embraced same-sex marriage is plummeting. Some are on course for swift extinction. I would imagine this is more a case of correlation than causation. I would imagine it has more to do with the the denominations in question loosening, softening, and dumbing down their doctrine to the point where Jesus is just a guy who said we should be nice to people. And many, many people want to believe in that version of Jesus, but by and large they have little to no interest in organized religion. Why go to church for the same sermon you could get from an episode of "Barney"? So appealing to them is a doomed endeavor from the start.
"[I]t is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds." - Jeffrey R. Holland
Of course the main reason I'm hearing about this poll is what it says about my denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those within the Church may or may not have noticed how all the bragging about how fast we're growing has quietly disappeared in the last few years. That's because it's not true anymore. It's also not true, as detractors assert until they're blue in the face, that we're shrinking. In fact this poll reports that we're holding steady at 2% of the American population. (Probably less than half of that percentage actually goes to church on a semi-regular basis, but whatever, we still love them.) So, yay? Other churches are shrinking but ours isn't. The bar for success has been set pretty dang low nowadays.
My church is certainly not devoid of real and perceived problems, and has also lost thousands of members (though not as many members as it's gained, which is where the detractors' basic algebra skills suffer a critical failure). But I believe it's managed to hold steady by making adjustments and compromises where it needs to, and standing firm where it needs to. It makes constant course corrections, as it's done throughout its history, to hew to the state of "optimal tension" described by Armand Mauss and others. For example, President Russell M. Nelson has made changes to reduce the amount of time that the Church takes members away from their homes and families, yet church standards and callings remain rather "strict" and "demanding" by the standards of most denominations, which ensures that participation actually has significance and makes lasting changes in people's lives.
"Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation..." - Joseph Smith Jr.
The negative reputation of organized religion is not entirely undeserved. But the great strength of organized religion that gets overlooked, that individuals simply can't replicate, is its ability to unify and empower people to accomplish good in the world. Organizations like my church and the Catholic Church are able to leverage their collective faith into countless local and global humanitarian efforts that of course no normal person could ever hope to replicate. That's not to say secular charities aren't wonderful, obviously, but just to illustrate that as far as faith is concerned, working together has far more practical efficacy than being "spiritual but not religious" on one's own. Believers, when they aren't being pricks, also edify and strengthen each other when they unite. This sense of community is such a basic need for most people that those who leave religion, or even those who are openly hostile to religion, struggle to find a secular replacement for it. And even when believers are being pricks, like me, they can still teach us how to love, if we choose to learn, which I usually don't because it's hard.
"In the life of the true Church, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve - or possibly even associate with - and thus opportunities to learn to love unconditionally. There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be 'active': to have a 'calling' and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other people's ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures; to attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people's sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response; to have leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blindness, even unrighteous dominion; and then to be made a leader and find that you, too, with all the best intentions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous. Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline. It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, physical, and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (or may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them. It stretches and challenges us, though disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be - and thus gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose to be, but ultimately need and want to be." - Eugene England
In the fabulous speech/article "What Happened to My Bell-Bottoms? How Things That Were Never Going to Change Have Sometimes Changed Anyway, and How Studying History Can Help Us Make Sense of It All", which I recommend reading in its totality because it's very interesting, Craig Harline says,
"We can start with something as simple as language. My good-hearted mother sometimes washed our mouths out with soap when we used slang words she thought were bad, so imagine my surprise when I learned decades later that some of the slang words she used herself were originally obscene. (I won’t repeat them so I don’t torment her or anyone else who uses them, because heavy is the burden of historical knowledge.) At a recent BYU devotional, the fairly young speaker used a word that originally was even more obscene than my mother’s favorites, and no one batted an eye, because to the speaker and most of the audience it was just a fun noun. Or how about the phrase 'Good grief,' so wholesome that even Charlie Brown says it? Turns out it’s just another minced swear word, with the 'good' referring to God (as it does in any English minced swear word containing 'good'). In fact, there are hundreds of such words, and most people reading this probably say some of them regularly without thinking them bad while thinking certain other words definitely bad, which I know because I and the rest of the historical police hear you."
I can add that in the Game Boy version of the classic "Lego Island 2", which is entirely devoid of objectionable content of any kind unless shooting robots with pizzas offends you, a couple of the medieval knight characters say "Gadzooks!" and/or "Zounds!" These terms are also in Shakespeare's works and probably thousands of other sources. Harmless, meaningless medieval slang to express shock or surprise, right? No, because "Gadzooks" is a minced swear word for "God's hooks" and "Zounds" is a minced swear word for "God's wounds". Ick.
My first thought when reading this passage, in any case, was that it sheds some light on my parents' perplexing aversion to me saying "sucks" like literally everybody else in my peer group, and why my dad hit me for saying "fricking" after I heard it in Sunday school from my twenty-something Sunday school teacher. My second thought was that it really highlights the absurdity of "swear words" as a concept to begin with. We've decided to have words in our language that we're not allowed to say, but euphemisms that evolve from them, and alternate words that mean exactly the same thing, are fair game. I'm sorry if the following is a weird example to use but it seems like a good one because it includes not two, but three words at varying levels of acceptability. One word for female genitalia is clinical and objective, another is vulgar even though it used to mean "cat", and another used to be clinical and objective but now is so offensive that even people who toss around f-bombs to their hearts' content usually shy away from it. And that makes no fricking sense.
Nor are swear words consistent across cultures. As far as I can figure out, the United States of America is the only part of the English-speaking world where "damn", "hell", and "bastard" are considered swear words. I don't know why but I assume it's just another case of Americans thinking they're better than everyone else and then being stupider than everyone else instead. Even here, though, an overwhelming majority of people drop those words in casual conversation with a clear conscience. While I am hardly an advocate of argumentum ad populum in most situations, it seems relevant in this case because literally the only reason swear words are "bad" is that people decided they are. So if people become entirely desensitized to their use and nobody cares anymore, shouldn't that mean by definition that they're no longer "bad" and no longer swear words at all? Just like in the rest of the English-speaking world?
Sometimes people argue that swearing is bad because it's "unintelligent" and/or "lazy". I actually agree that excessive swearing (such as when I have problems with my computer), sounds very unintelligent (but not lazy, as I'm generally very energized at the time). But so do a billion other slang terms, catchphrases and buzzwords that aren't considered obscene. "Oh my heck" sounds so ridiculous that when I moved to Utah I was surprised to find that people actually say it unironically, that it isn't just a stereotype, and by all rights according to this logic it should be one of the worst swears out there. Most people, including and especially myself, are not the epitome of articulation and thoughtfulness when they speak. Most people regularly say a lot of things that provide no benefit to the world and wouldn't be missed if they hadn't been said. Kind of like my blog.
I thought I had a lot more to say on this subject, but I don't, so you all get to go home early.
ADDENDUM: I don't often do this, but I found this passage from a paper by Ben Spackman that's too good not to include. Speaking of the Bible...
"Another issue of register concerns differing cultural expectations in terms of sacred writing and language. That which is taboo, shocking, or offensive in one culture may not be in another. While a few originally inoffensive passages became so by translation into a different time or culture, sometimes the prophets intended to shock and offend. One scholar even advises, 'If you do not wish to be shocked and disgusted, then stay away from reading the prophetic texts.' Some of these difficult passages have been bowdlerized in the past, some overlooked due to archaic language, and some just never noticed due to their relative obscurity. For example, 'The Hebrew Bible regularly uses the root ŠKB... "lie (with)" as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. But on four occasions the more direct verb ŠGL... occurs. Scholars agree that ŠGL was a word for sexual intercourse, but it may or may not have been vulgar (therefore, we cannot supply an exact English translation). In each of the four instances, ŠGL appears as part of a threat or condemnation, and always with the clear intention of shocking the audience... Obviously, the authors of these lines [in Deuteronomy 28:30, Isaiah 13:16, Jeremiah 3:1–2 and Zechariah 14:2] deliberately chose strong language—if not actual vulgarity - in order to horrify, upset and rattle their audience.'
"The English in 1 Samuel 25, involving David, Nabal ('Fool'), and 'every one that pisseth against the wall,' was not offensive when first published, but has now become so as American English has shifted. Translating in such a way as to avoid offending readers, as most modern translations do, turns out to obscure important connections within the story. Even if justifiable 'to provoke revulsion and disgust' and contextualized within its own time and culture, the graphic sexual, violent, or scatological imagery used by several prophets, particularly Ezekiel, challenges scholars and those who hold the Bible in high esteem.
"How should translators deal with these passages, far more numerous and problematic than most readers realize? They are not limited to the Old Testament. For example, Paul's use of 'you foolish Galatians' may be deliberate use of an ethnic slur to forcefully grab the attention of his audience, equivalent to 'you stupid rednecks!' In Philippians 3:8, he disdainfully describes as 'dung' (KJV) all he gave up to gain Christ (potentially a considerable amount) but some scholars bluntly suggest a different four-letter word is a more accurate translation. The NET Bible notes that skubalon 'was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers.' Complicating matters, the same skubalon letter contains 'the admonition of Paul' to seek out whatever is pure and commendable, among other adjectives (Philippians 4:8). How does Paul reconcile his use of language with this admonition?
"Why are these passages so troublesome? Setting aside those examples in which prophets intended offense, other reasons exist. Modern readers have come to apply certain assumptions and expectations to the idea of 'Holy Scripture' which were foreign to its authors. John J. Collins remarks, 'When [certain Old Testament] stories are read as Scripture, they become more problematic, because of a common but ill-founded assumption that all Scripture should be edifying,' i.e., positive and uplifting. Ancient prophets did not labor under many of the assumptions we attach to scripture today, because they are largely modern assumptions. The contents of our 'Holy Scriptures' did not become such until long after they were written or preached. 'Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah et al. had no sense of the white-covered, gold-cross embossed Bibles in which their prose was to be packaged, nor had they been briefed on the standards of Western literary decorum against which they would inevitably offend.' Even our basic concept of 'scripture' today would be somewhat foreign to them. Certainly they would have thought they were operating under the Spirit of the Lord, but they were rarely conscious of authoring something that would become canon or 'Holy Scripture,' because it did not exist as such. Few prophets have ever written with the idea of 'I am adding to the canon,' because there was neither a formally established canon nor a concept of canon (generally in the Old Testament period), or because the canon was something other and past; in the New Testament period, 'scripture' referred broadly to the writings of Old Testament prophets (as in 2 Timothy 3:15), not things such as Paul's letters or the Gospels which were being written at the time. Indeed, Peter and Paul (and sometimes Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants) were simply writing letters to congregations, not attempting to produce canonized and inspired writing fit for all Christians in all times.
"The writings eventually canonized as the Bible accurately reflected life in its variety, with language humorous and serious, sacred and profane. But once combined with other books (Greek ta biblia, source of the term 'Bible,' means 'the books,' not The Book) and canonized as 'Holy Scripture,' certain expectations and assumptions came to be applied to each book and passage as though these criteria existed at the time, and prophets had written with them in mind. Consequently, the kind of language expected by the target community does not always match the kind of language used by the prophets. Should the translator privilege sensitivities of the target community, who may expect 'Holy Scripture' to use elevated, archaic, antiseptic language, or should they provide culturally accurate translations of the text, which would create the same kind of reaction among its readers as among its native audience?"
Remember the demonic mosquitoes I wrote about? The mosquitoes that, before I bought a handheld bug zapper, attacked me en masse every day on the way to work and bit me more times than I can begin to estimate? Yeah, so I read the other day that some of them, this exact mosquito population on this exact block, were trapped and tested positive for West Nile virus. I'm sorry, what century is this? What country is this? And why in the seven levels of hell hasn't anyone in Logan done anything about this mosquito infestation, which has existed for years, until I bought a handheld bug zapper?
So by my calculations, there's a zero percent chance that I haven't already been infected with West Nile virus several times. Nothing has happened yet and maybe nothing will happen because actually 8 out of 10 people who get infected with West Nile virus aren't affected at all. And only 1 in 150 people develop super severe and potentially fatal symptoms. If that does happen to me, though, I don't have health insurance so I'll just be screwed. Yay, America!
Probably I'll be fine. But the unwelcome revelation prompted me to think even more about my mortality than usual. What would I do if I found out from the doctor I can't afford to visit that I only had a few days or weeks to live? I would tell my least favorite people in no uncertain terms exactly what I think of them, write a brief list of instructions for what I want done with my corpse, and then relax and look forward to never having to worry about money again. I have no fear of death. None whatsoever. I do have a considerable fear of death being preceded by protracted high levels of pain, but the actual prospect of transitioning out of this craphole into a far better plane of existence is a happy one. I think about it at least once a day. Every morning, and I do mean every morning, I wake up so exhausted that I fantasize about slipping into oblivion so I don't have to get up or open my eyes. Meanwhile President Russell M. Nelson, who turns 95 tomorrow, says "I can hardly wait to bounce out of bed each morning."
Maybe on resurrection morning, for the first time, I won't wake up more tired than when I went to bed. I read all about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 this week with a study group, and was touched by the entire chapter but particularly verse 19: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." If I believed that this life was all I'm going to get, I certainly wouldn't tolerate it for another moment. And my life isn't even that bad in the big scheme of things, but it's completely not worth drudging through if I'm not going to be compensated at some point.
I was struck also, for related reasons, by this comment from an anonymous twelve-year-old who's recently decided to spend his one and only life drive-by trolling the Deseret News Facebook page. In its few sentences, wisely ignoring the centuries of Christian theologians and philosophers whose prior musings on the subject would only bog him down in semantics and critical thinking, and refusing to be baited into actually engaging with or demonstrating the slightest cognizance of the contents of the article on which he posted it, he undertook to singlehandedly once and for all resolve an issue that lesser minds have debated for as long as they've grasped their own mortality. Behold:
I'm not sure which he needs more - the gospel of Jesus Christ, or a grasp of basic English grammar. And what kind of responses, I have to wonder, do such simpletons think their asinine comments are going to trigger from the faithful? "Oh, you mean to tell me there's suffering in the world? I had no idea! That completely disproves my heartfelt beliefs in a higher power, which were entirely contingent on my misconception that the world was made of rainbows and butterflies, and on my never having considered the problem of evil until just now, thanks to you, you brilliant free thinker, you! This also explains the mystery of why the least prosperous nations in the world have the lowest levels of religiosity, except actually the opposite of that is true, but who cares because reasons!" That's what I'm going to say the next time I accidentally read such mindless blathering from one of these jackasses.
Also, "cult members"? I've never been called that before, and it really hurts. Really.
To my shame, though, I must admit that I took a couple minutes to actually look at his page. This is his cover photo:
I guess the implication is that God can't exist because stars exist? Or something?
If the worldview he's proselyting for is correct, then the existence of life, let alone sapient life, is a tragic accident of astronomical proportions. Even the happiest life on this planet is a pointless existential nightmare from which one is only released by the endless and inescapable void of death. There is no ultimate justice. Nobody ever really gets what they deserve, for good or evil. Any and all "lasting" achievements that people may focus on to delude themselves that it's worth it anyway, that they can take comfort in collective progress and some cheap bullcrap counterfeit of immortality, will die with the human race in a couple centuries at most, to say nothing of the eventual demise of the entire known universe. If I believed this, I would also believe that my only rational course of action as a thinking person would be to kill myself and escape the nightmare as soon as possible, and that's exactly what I would do.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that I think atheists, either those who coexist in mutual respect like adults or those who spend their pathetic lives taking personal offense at other people's sense of purpose, should kill themselves. I'm just being honest about what the problem of evil looks like to me. In pretending that theists are the ones who can't solve it, Mr. Delusional has got it exactly backwards.
Dr. Daniel C. Peterson said it very well: "Most of the world's population, historically and still today, does not live, well fed and well traveled, to a placid old age surrounded by creature comforts. Most of the world has been and is like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Cairo, the backward rural villages of India, the famine-ridden deserts of northeastern Africa, the war-ravaged towns of the southern Sudan and of Rwanda. If there is going to be a truly happy ending for the millions upon millions of those whose lives have been blighted by torture, starvation, disease, rape, and murder, that ending will have to come in a future life. And such a future life seems to require a God.
"Yes, the problem of evil is a huge one, but to give up on God is to give evil the final say. It is to admit that child rapists and murderers dictate the final chapters in the lives of their terrified and agonized victims; that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot really did triumph, forever, over the millions they slaughtered; that, in the rotting corpses of Darfur and Iraqi Kurdistan, we see the final, definitive chapter of thousands of lives; that there is, really, no hope for those whose health is in irreversible decline; that every human relationship ends in death, if not before.
"This would not be good news, and I see no compelling reason to accept it. In fact, I see numerous persuasive reasons to reject the claim. But that is a subject not just for another occasion but, necessarily, for a great number of other occasions."
I love these words, even if the God I depend on for this hope is the same guy who thought it was a good idea to invent mosquitoes and West Nile virus.
I consider myself an intellectual. In making this statement, I'm not claiming to be particularly smart, or to have any legitimate scholarly credentials beyond a Bachelor's degree in English, or to be in anything approaching the same league as scores of deservedly more famous intellectuals whom I idol- um I mean wor- um I mean admire. I actually do think I'm rather smart, and I think almost anybody who knows me would vouch for that fact, and I think most of my writing speaks for itself, and for whatever it's worth I probably know more about the history of black people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than almost anyone else in the world, but that's not what I'm primarily referring to when I say that I consider myself an intellectual.
What I'm referring to is the way I look at the world, and especially at faith, which is probably the most core component of my worldview. Every faith will have its mysteries and its inconsistencies, but I strongly believe that any faith worth embracing will, to a reasonable extent, satisfy the mind as well as the heart. I believe in analyzing and researching and asking questions and not being satisfied with stupid answers. An "I don't know" is always better than a stupid answer. Without downplaying the spiritual or "inspired" nature of religion, I enjoy looking at it through secular paradigms to see what insights they bring. For example, much of the success of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many of the changes in it over the decades, make sense in light of Armand Mauss's theory that a religion needs to find an "optimal tension" with the surrounding society to stand out as different enough without alienating everyone.
There are those who think this kind of worldview is borderline sacrilegious, that secular paradigms are prideful or something, that religion occurs in a vaccum and every word or action or change is inspired for no other reason than that's the way God wants it, full stop. I used to be rather fundamentalist in my thinking too. When I had my first faith crisis and started finding information to deal with it, I tried to put my faith back together exactly like it was before, and doubled down and became even more fundamentalist. Everything in the Church is perfect; there are no problems here except the ones fabricated by evil and dishonest anti-Mormons. But this way of thinking turned out to be untenable because it was, frankly, wrong. The world isn't simple and it isn't black and white and religious matters, no matter how much we may want to deny the human element that the divine will always be filtered through and hampered by, are no exception. Just writing that makes me feel pretentious, but it's true so whatever.
Here's what it comes down to. God gave me a brain. Because he expects me to not trust solely in my own brain, it does not therefore follow that he expects me to turn it off. Because he left unanswered questions, it does not therefore follow that I'm not supposed to look for the answers. There's a thing called nuance. Anyway, Nathan B. Oman recently published this Interpeter article that I think every Latter-day Saint should read.
Abstract: This is a challenging moment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints. Both its efforts at retention and missionary work are less effective than they have been in the past. At this moment, what is the most important task facing Latter-day Saint intellectuals? In contrast to those who argue that faithful thinkers and writers should focus either on defending the faith or providing criticisms of the Church’s failings, this essay argues that the Latter-day Saint clerisy should focus on celebrating the Restoration and finding new language in which to express what makes the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ a compelling and attractive force in people’s lives. The language which we have used in the past no longer seems to be as compelling as once it was. This is unsurprising. The history of the Church shows a cyclical pattern focused on missionary work, with seasons of harvest giving way to fallow times and seasons of planting. However, over time the Church tends to transform itself in the image of its most successful messages for proclaiming the Gospel. Latter-day Saint intellectuals have an important, albeit subordinate, role in finding such messages. Pursuing the project of celebrating the Restoration need not involve either usurping the prerogatives of Church leaders nor compromising one’s intellectual integrity. In this moment in the history of the Church, it is the most important project to which Latter-day Saint thinkers can turn their attention.
Sounds great, right? So this is one of those aforementioned other intellectuals who's way out of my league, since I don't typically use so many fancy words, but I feel I still have something to offer along the lines he's suggesting if I can just figure out what it is. I note also his very clear humility throughout. Some people assume that we self-proclaimed intellectuals don't know our place and think we're better than everone else. Okay, so I'm a bad example because I'm not all that humble and I do think I'm better than some people who are idiots. Sue me. But even so, my analytical and inquisitive approach is precisely because I know that I don't know everything and I'm not satisfied with my ignorance. Anyway, this was apparently one of those people:
*puts on mansplainer glasses* Well, ackchewelly, rocket science is part of the gospel. Literally. *takes off mansplainer glasses but keeps them nearby for my next post about abortion* I mean, I get where he's coming from, really, but the article is a call to action to address real issues and he basically responded with "Everything is fine and we don't need to do anything." I don't believe that's what faith is about or what God would want. I replied - or rather I meant to post this as a direct reply to his comment, but I appear to have made it a separate comment instead, but I never said I was infallible, okay - so anyway, I commented:
And a few minutes later I received this email:
And of course that made me feel like
I do wish to add, though, that while Oman's observations about secularism and the decline in church growth and decreased success of the missionary program are all accurate, they are of course not universal. Some countries are enjoying exponential growth that's simply failing to make a dent in the prevailing trend because it's such a small percentage in the total. For example, Nigeria. The Church is doing very well in Nigeria. It's just still very tiny and unknown to most Nigerians. And really the main reason I wanted to bring this up is so I could change the subject to my friend Chichikana El'Shadai Shungu, a Congolese missionary serving in the Nigeria Enugu Mission, who returns home in a couple weeks and recently shared with me pictures from his latest baptisms. This is from a group (a step below a branch) in Oju, Benue State. Pictures re-shared with permission.
Elder Shungu says, "I am very happy for this privilege that has been given to me to help my brothers and sisters to know the restored gospel of Jesus Christ."
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C. Randall Nicholson
This is where I occasionally rant about life, the universe, and/or everything. I'm a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate me without guilt, but I'm also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual.