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The Republican Party Is a Cult

The Republican Party has changed considerably in my lifetime.  When I was a kid, my impression was that conservatives dressed conservatively, were well groomed, well behaved, spoke intelligently, and valued principles.  I never expected to see a vulgar reality TV star like the Duck Commander, Phil Robertson, delivering folksy speeches at conservative political events in a full beard and camouflage.  But they’ve had more than just a cosmetic makeover, with the infusion of the Tea party the GOP has undergone dramatic ideological and epistemological changes.  Their positions may have remained more or less the same, but what is noticeable is how much their principles have changed in order to remain static.  For instance, the party defended the federal Defense of Marriage Act while simultaneously championing “states’ rights” to regulate marriage, so long as the end result was a ban on same-sex marriage.  Republicans also criticize the Obama administration for dereliction of duty in not defending DOMA at the Supreme Court, but were then silent when Governor Scott Walker refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  This ends-justified mentality seems closer to what I’ve observed in cults, and in many ways I would argue that’s exactly what the Republican Party is becoming.

Cults love to catch people off guard with new information, this is the signature tactic of a successful cult.  It’s precisely why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses still go door to door, as prepared speakers trying to catch unprepared people in their homes, or why Scientologists try to catch passersby in a public park to offer a “free stress test.”  It doesn’t even matter if the information they offer is true or not, the fact that the listener is unfamiliar with it gives the cultmember illusory superiority.  The advantage is that the cultmember doesn’t actually have to be more knowledgeable on a subject, they just have to have knowledge of something that the other person doesn’t.  It matters little how much a Christian knows about the Bible, if they don’t know anything about the Book of Mormon then that’s a weakness the Mormon missionaries will focus on.  Zealous Christians trying to convert the missionaries would have to know more about the Book of Mormon than the Mormons to have any hope of succeeding. 

It doesn’t stop with converts, either.  Secret doctrines are the stock in trade of cults, and even the initiated are incrementally bombarded with previously hidden information as a means to keep them advancing further, like when Scientologists reach level OT III and are finally shown L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi creation myth.  The distinction between a religion and a cult can sometimes seem arbitrary, but students of religion can easily recognize a cult when they reach the limit of information that can be acquired as an outsider.  You can learn everything about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. without having to convert to those religions, but you can’t learn everything about Mormonism or Scientology without being a member (although the internet is changing that).  Even then, the selective information that is taught on the inside differs from the total information available on the outside.  Cultmembers characteristically operate with a different set of “facts” than nonmembers.  A conflict between the cult’s “facts” and reality are dismissed as a conspiracy by their organization’s perceived enemies–which can literally include anything outside the cult.

The most frustrating part of debating with today’s Republicans is having to be on top of all the latest conservative conspiracy theories.  It can be difficult to discuss any political topic with a Republican because they frame most subjects with assumptions that aren’t based in fact.  Claiming Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, or socialist can derail any serious talk about the President or his politics.  And just like with a cult, it doesn’t matter how knowledgable an outsider is on factual information, because the Republicans are more knowledgable on false information.  Though they might really not know anything about economics or ecology, they’ll consider an opponent ignorant if he’s unfamiliar with Cloward-Piven, Agenda 21, Saul Alinsky, or climate change denial.  The secret doctrines of conspiracy theories have become the norm for the GOP as it has become more and more cultic, to the extent that members might not even be aware of how pervasive they are.  Even conspiracies that originated on the Left, like 9/11 truthers and birthers, have found their forever home in the GOP.  As with cults, their more extreme beliefs tend to be omitted from content accessible to the general public, aside from strategically positioned dog whistles.  Nevertheless, although not all Latter-day Saints are initiated in the temple rituals, all Mormons must accept that all of Christianity is a Satanic conspiracy against the one true church and the Bible, not just a theological disagreement.  Similarly, issues that are in reality just disagreements on politics are interpreted by Republicans to be conspiracies of gays, atheists, or liberals to intentionally destroy marriage, the church, or America.  Republicans seem determined to steer the political conversation towards outlandish claims which inhibit rational political debate.  Rightwing positions on meteorology, sexual orientation, evolution, and U.S. history actually require a conspiracy of elitist academics and liberal media to explain why the overwhelming majority disagree with them.  As with religious cults, if there is a real conspiracy it is to be found inside the party. 

Cult doctrines are notoriously difficult to rebut because they tend to be circular and interdependent on each other.  The Book of Mormon being true depends entirely on Joseph Smith being a true prophet, and faith in the LDS church as the only true church rests on belief in the Book of Mormon.  It’s simple enough to logically articulate why it’s wrong, yet trying to short circuit this reasoning in the Mormon mind can be an insurmountable challenge.  Although their worldview is really a fragile house of cards that should be able to topple with the removal of one or two fundamentals, their belief systems can be so convoluted that they actually forget when information has been refuted and still rely on that false information as the basis for other beliefs.  Similarly, it can be difficult to unravel rightwing doctrines.  Even when Republicans admit that birtherism is a fraud, it doesn’t seem to shake their underlying belief that President Obama is somehow ineligible to be in office; at its worst, birtherism was never more than a pretext for a preconceived prejudice.  Trickle down economics doesn’t work yet Republicans still blindly push it because it supports their tax policy.  Failure to find WMD’s in Iraq hasn’t diminished their faith in the justification of the Iraq war.  Half of Republicans still believe they were found, and Republicans have shown to be more confident in this erroneous belief after being told correctly, like a Mormon “testifying” that the Book of Mormon is true when confronted with evidence to the contrary.  On top of that, cultmembers are trained to distrust sources critical of their religion, and the Republican Party’s distrust of the so-called “liberal media” has only worsened with the rise of blatantly biased conservative outlets and forwarded emails beneath the radar of fact checkers and peer review.  In a sea of conservative misinformation, too many Republicans are helpless to discern truth.

Cultmembers generally resent the allegation that their organization is a cult.  Republicans reading this are probably thinking the same thing right now.  While it’s understandable that nobody likes the stigma associated with the term “cult”, cultmembers are often more concerned with perception than with actually being less cultic.  Cults tend to have several predictable responses to this accusation, none of which involve being less controlling or open to facts.  The first strategy is to argue that if their group is a cult, then every other religion must be a cult too.  This false equivalency projects the cult’s own secretive, conspiracist, and controlling qualities onto religions that are demonstrably dissimilar.  And while theology, like politics, can be unproven hypotheticals, factual disagreements, such as the origin of your sacred text, are verifiable.  Likewise, politicians on both sides will have differing opinions on the possible outcome of a policy, but currently only the Republicans want to have their own facts.  In the end, “both sides do it” is a weak defense for a religion or party that considers itself exceptional compared to its competitors. 

The second strategy to deflect the cult label is to argue against a stereotype of a cult, a uniformed commune of groupthinkers.  But the truth is, most cults aren’t isolated communities of identical people who all dress alike and think exactly the same, yet they’re nevertheless cultic.  Their membership may be from all walks of life and diverse on a spectrum of ideology and loyalty to the organization: some beginners, some moderates, some extremists.  Structurally, however, the organization is still a cult, and they just exploit the demographics of their membership to make people think otherwise.  The Mormon church goes to great lengths to station minorities in visible missions, both as an attempt to dispel the effects of generations of racial segregation, but also to make themselves appear less homogenous.  Their “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign was trying too hard to fight the stereotypical image Mormons themselves had created.  The GOP has been just as obvious lately in trying to push minorities, women, and young people in front of the cameras, despite its older, whiter, and manlier base pushing them out of the party.  But it’s one thing to make a woman the face of your organization when she’s just volunteering at the front desk of the temple visitor center, it’s another to make an unqualified person your vice presidential candidate because she’s a woman.  Both are undeniably deliberate and shamefully desperate, but at least they’re only superficial. 

The way cults exploit individualism and ideological variances is far more troubling.  No matter how brainwashed people are, they still can’t be programmed to think and act exactly the same all of the time.  Unlike normal religions, members of cults pass through different phases, a fake diversity that the organization will often use to give the illusion of personal variety even if the end goal is to eliminate those differences.  The Church of Scientology perfected the technique of separating novices from the advanced, which helps put a more friendly, relatable face to the general public while isolating the brainwashed zombies.  Full disclosure can be a catch-22, somebody unprepared to receive a ridiculous doctrine could easily be turned off to the organization with that information.  From my own personal experience, the GOP’s fringe tends to be more guarded about its conspiracy theories when interacting with moderate Republicans than with me.  They don’t expose sympathizers to questionable information that could potentially alienate them, but they don’t mind wasting their enemy’s time with those arguments.  Those at the lower level can also serve as a distraction from the more extreme initiates, providing a moderate voice to attack their critics while never criticizing the organization itself.  Although cults strive for complete assimilation, they can also use a member’s individuality for self-serving marketing.  Scientology wrote the book on this strategy by intentionally seeking out charismatic and eccentric celebrities as brand ambassadors.  The Republican Party has taken this to the next level, recruiting the Duck Dynasty cast in full costume, turning politicians into cable news pundits and infomercial hosts, and making candidates and reality TV stars interchangeable.  It’s not just the striking absence of this hucksterism in the Democratic Party, it’s that the Republican Party seems to have no problem being the agency for stardom in the same way that the Church of Scientology has been for aspiring actors.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has become more conservative in the last 15 years.  Ideological purity has pressured members to take gradually more extreme positions, to the extent that even revered Republicans like Ronald Reagan probably wouldn’t be conservative enough to survive in today’s party.  Every four years the GOP goes through a succession crisis comparable to the Mormons after the death of Joseph Smith, and it will only keep getting worse as they keep losing. In Republican campaigns, every election seems to be the end of the world.  That’s not really hyperbole, they literally believe that.  Democratic candidates may also believe it would be disastrous if they lost (they’re usually right), but they’re not literally apocalyptic about it.  The Republican Party actually mobilizes their base to vote by speculating that their opponents may literally be the eschatological Antichrist.  But this isn’t just exploiting evangelical’s beliefs, because this eschatology has been hijacked to become something that’s no longer distinctly Christian but rather distinctly Republican.  For example, it didn’t matter that Mitt Romney was a Mormon of polygamous descent, who created the precursor to the Affordable Care Act in a state with legal same-sex marriage.  Billy Graham considered him the only candidate standing up for Biblical values, even though it’s only due to political expedience that Mormons today no longer practice polygamy, and only coincidence that Mormons oppose homosexuality (Mormons only believe this because it’s what their current prophet says, not because of anything in the Bible; their prophet could change this at any time).  Somehow a Mormon candidate couldn’t be the Antichrist just because he’s a Republican.  Every election cycle, the alarmist GOP positions themselves as the only hope between mankind and doomsday.  Their repeated failed predictions don’t seem to have eroded faith in the party any more than the Watchtower’s multiple failed Second Comings.  Cults often fatalistically condition their followers to self-destruct if they lose faith, making them think that if the cult’s teachings are untrue, then no religion can be true either.  Similarly, Republicans seem to be conditioned to abandon hope in politics or the country if their party can’t get their way.

There is no easy solution, without a fundamental demographic upset I think we may be past the tipping point.  For the Mormon church to stop being cultic would mean to stop being Mormon, and I think this may be true of what the Republican Party has become.  Too many definitive Republican positions are based on arguments which are verifiably false, to abandon those arguments would be to entertain the possibility of different conclusions.  The Republican Party has shown their willingness to change their principles to continue holding to a pre-determined conclusion, not the other way around as they need to do. 

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When Joseph Met Pliny

While studying the book of Acts, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of historical context surrounding the Candace of Ethiopia mentioned in Acts 8:26.  According to Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 AD) Natural History book VI, chapter 35:

“They stated that a female, whose name was Candace, ruled over the district, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

This struck me as rather similar to a pivotal passage in the Book of Mormon:

Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings.  The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.  Jacob 1:9-11

This passage is crucial because it is the visible point where Joseph Smith grafts the 116 lost pages into the finished Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith had creatively avoided having to retell the stories that had been lost by simply re-writing the prophet Isaiah for most of 2 Nephi, but at some point he would have to resume his fabricated history.  No doubt, the lost pages included detailed genealogies which would be impossible for him to duplicate from memory–the retelling of the lost pages is noticeably sparse in names compared to the rest of Mormon’s book.  Calling each successive king “Nephi” was certainly a brilliant idea to avoid that embarrassment, but could Joseph Smith have received this inspiration from Pliny?

I can already hear the Mormon apologists combating with the usual defense that Joseph Smith was an uneducated man and this theory requires an academic level beyond the reach of a poor farmer.  First of all, this theory is not essential to proving the Book of Mormon a fraud, the lost pages alone are sufficiently incriminating for that.  This theory is merely further ammunition against a fraud, but even if this theory were proved false it wouldn’t make the Book of Mormon true.

Mormons will typically say that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known Pliny’s Natural History, but that’s rather impossible to prove.  It could logically be argued that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known the Great Gatsby or 50 Shades of Grey, but the works of Pliny chronologically precede Joseph Smith and had been available in English for over 200 years at that time.  If an idea existed in print anywhere in the world at a certain time, then we can conclude that anyone could have known it at that time; to argue that somebody could not have is futile.  I don’t have to prove that a copy was available at his local library.  Of course, Mormonism is handicapped in this sort of logic considering how they explain away anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, like quoting the Sermon on the Mount verbatim, through divine inspiration.

Was Pliny unknown in Joseph Smith’s immediate community?  Unlike today, even unlearned, nominal Christians were more Biblically literate, and educated Christians were more familiar with other ancient works.  Josephus was the most frequently owned book by Christians after the Bible.  Given that the name Candace appears in the Bible, this historical background from Pliny could have easily been communicated by a knowledgable preacher to a congregation, and from there absorbed by an avid churchgoer like Joseph Smith.

Curiously, Joseph Smith had practically given up his golden plates project after the loss of the 116 pages, but he resumed after meeting his second scribe: Oliver H. P. Cowdery, the “P” standing for “Pliny”.  Even curiouser, Oliver Cowdery discontinued using his middle initials right after the Book of Mormon was published.  While I’m usually not given to conspiracy theories, this seems to suggest Cowdery could have provided Joseph Smith the catalyst to complete his book and then covered their tracks after it was published.

Olivercowdery-sm

Mormon scribe Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery

 

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The Pentateuch, Part 1: Migratory Patterns

I’ve resolved to blog more consistently this year, which means I’m ready to start a series of a textual analysis of the Pentateuch.  Actually, I’m not sure I’m really ready for this, the more I study the Torah the more amateurish I feel about it.  While I’m sure I’ll never be studied enough for my own satisfaction, I do feel confident nevertheless that I’m capable of dispelling some of the common misunderstandings about the writing processes of the Torah.  From my experience, most Christians don’t seem to acknowledge a writing process is indeed involved in the creation of scripture.  But even if they may admit to that, it doesn’t necessarily mean they intellectually understand the ramifications this has for the interpretive process.   Yet Christians both learned and ignorant have high esteem for the Books of Moses, some to the point that they believe it contains a rulebook for the ideal civilization, even if they don’t really follow that in practice.  Hopefully in the next few weeks I can impart some of the theories and conclusions I’ve made from my personal study, and help you see these books in a radically different way.

One interesting feature of the Pentateuch as a whole is that the entire text has a migratory pattern that reflects the internal migration within the narrative.  The ante-deluvian stories share many similarities to Sumerian creation and flood myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh.  After the call of Abraham from Ur, however, the text becomes more apparently self-reliant: there are three interdependent sister-wife narratives within the book of Genesis  (Gen. 12:10-20, Gen. 20, Gen. 26:1-11) and incrementally fewer references to outside source material with each passing patriarch.  By the time we get to Joseph the book has a decided cultural identity, but upon the Exodus traces of multi-culturalism resurface.  The rescue of Moses from the Nile has similarities to exposure narratives of the Assyrian legend of Sargon and others, coincidentally right before this exiled prince would end up in the land of Midian, later to be part of the Assyrian empire.  Returning to Egypt as a prophet, the text shares some similarities with ancient Egyptian stories: in Se-Osiris and the Sealed Letter, an Ethiopian magician turns a sealed roll into a serpent (similar to Aaron’s rod in Ex. 7:9), and also casts a spell of darkness on the land for three days and nights (Ex. 10:22); a lake is parted in the Golden Lotus.

When Moses gives the Law on Sinai, the text itself is in between Egypt and the Promised Land.  The Ten Commandments echo the Negative Confessions from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, while the influence of the surrounding legal systems of Babylon’s Hammurabi, the Hittite Code of the Nesilim, the Persian Avesta, and others is undeniable.  It’s also interesting to note that the Hebrews acquired the punishment of stoning while wandering in the Arabian desert, where this method is still in effect to this day for the same sins, although the Jews seem to have discarded it after settling in the Holy Land.  While the Qur’an was a book of rules written by an authoritarian seeking inspiration in a dark, desert cave with little outside exposure, the Law of Moses is clearly written from observation and experience.  Aside from the more familiar “thou shalt not’s”, it includes a great deal of casuistic legal rulings that demonstrate the experience of a lawgiver who had settled cases himself from morning till night (Ex. 18:13).  Occasionally, contextual narratives are joined to the rulings to give insight into the case process (Lev. 24:10-16, Num. 15:32-36), but other times the reasons are frustratingly lost to the ages, such as the prohibition on boiling a kid goat in its mother’s milk (Ex. 34:26, Deut. 14:21).  Nevertheless, we can see these were not arbitrary rulings dictated by a single-minded tyrant, there is no attempt to hide or disguise the writing process and rely solely on a claim of divine inspiration to demand blind obedience, as the writers of other holy books have done.

The narrative doesn’t just move through time as it progresses forward, it also visibly moves through space.  It has a timestamp and a location stamp that corresponds perfectly to where the text ought to be at a specific time and place.  Parallels to contemporary literature sometimes make the more hardline fundamentalists uncomfortable, and they react either with outright denial or the insistence that the Bible was always the original source that other cultures borrowed.  This obsession with primacy is really just to satisfy the fundamentalist’s psychological need for closure, but they really need not be so threatened at the thought of the Biblical authors borrowing from another source.  That fact certainly discredits the Rabbinic tradition that the five books of Moses were dictated to a single author in their final form except for the last chapter of Deuteronomy, however, anybody who understands the process of how a book is written and edited can reconcile that process with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  A believer who can’t do that simply has a flawed understanding of what divine inspiration actually means.

Rather than disproving the Bible, as the skeptics jump to conclude, the migration of the text is a strong testimony of its authenticity.  This book has indeed travelled through the cultures and periods that it claims.  On the other hand, fraudulent holy books like the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are easily disproven by how they do neither.  Muhammad’s Qur’an does not have a linear concept of time, and all the Biblical characters simultaneously inhabit a continuous, mythical present.  His book never left the Arabian desert until his followers did.  The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is more careful to tell a linear story but fails to visit any other culture except the one Joseph Smith imagines; he doesn’t dare attempt to give specific cultural details until his characters have safely stepped outside of the Holy Land, and history.  Even then, the animals and technological advancements he depicts contradict with what we know factually about pre-European America.  The only conclusion available is that both these books are frauds, and no amount of belief in them being divinely inspired can change that.  Quite the opposite, the Bible’s authenticity is reinforced by comparative study, and could be trusted without any belief in its inspiration at all.

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Joseph Smith: Reformer?

Joseph Smith is a complicated personality to explain.  Despite numerous inconsistencies, the failure to identify definite ulterior motives for his claims and actions causes many Mormons to accept Joseph Smith’s account of his own life without question.  After all, why would somebody lie about being visited by an angel, or finding and translating a buried testament of Jesus Christ?  On the surface, these claims can seem too fantastic to be made up, and if critics are unable to convincingly present an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith, then the Mormon will never abandon the official church version (even when they know that to be not exactly historically accurate).

My own stance on explaining the complexity of Joseph Smith’s personality is the same as my view on the Book of Mormon itself.   I only need to present evidence of plagiarism or source material that would be unavailable to the book’s purported authors to disprove the Book of Mormon’s authorship claims, I do not have to be able to explain in every minute detail how Joseph Smith came across his source materials and authored his fiction.  Similarly, embarrassments like the Book of Abraham caught Joseph Smith red-handed in his lies, I don’t need to psychoanalyze him to know that this is deception.  Questions of “how” and “why” are irrelevant or secondary at most, all that really needs to be demonstrated is that the book and its author are frauds.

For instance, one likely source for the Book of Mormon that I recently stumbled upon is the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  This text is a pseudepigrapha of undetermined Judeo-Christian origin probably finalized in the 2nd century of the Christian Era.  Scholars are undecided on whether it was a Christian document or a Jewish document with later Christian interpolations, but all agree it is a forgery.  Possible influence on the Book of Mormon is loose, but its structure of the Patriarchs writing their testimony on their deathbeds is eerily similar to the last entries in the small plates of Nephi.  Some Mormon apologists have even attempted to cite similarities between the two as proof that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, apparently oblivious that this argument is essentially saying the Book of Mormon must be real because it resembles other known forgeries.  Of course, the standard Mormon response is to say that even though the Testaments were first translated into English in the 1820’s, Joseph Smith would have been unlikely to have had access to that information.  I counter that it’s impossible to conclude to any degree of certainty whether Joseph Smith could not have known something, but as long as it was a fact published within his lifetime, then it’s not impossible for him to have had some direct or indirect exposure to it.

I admit I can’t prove any solid ties to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Book of Mormon, but I bring it up to point out the flip side of the Mormon defense of Joseph Smith.  Why did this author and others in antiquity and throughout history write books and then attribute them to Biblical figures?  If an inability to explain why Smith would lie forces us to accept his word, then wouldn’t it force us to accept every other pseudepigrapha as well?  I doubt I can fully explain the motivations behind Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad either.  But if a Mormon is to give Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt, then they must be willing to give these other false teachers the benefit as well, or prove without a doubt their falsity.

The Mormon resistance to admitting Joseph Smith as a fake is usually because they could only envision him in that role as a deliberate liar with evil intentions.  This is an unrealistic view that really isn’t typical of the false prophets that have walked the earth; the reality is that most of them have been psychologically complicated personalities known as pious frauds, not very different from Joseph Smith’s profile.  My theory is that self-proclaimed prophets–especially those closely tied to an existing religious tradition–emerge more out of a desire for reform than to deceive; the deception is merely an unavoidable side-effect of their reform methods.  Perhaps out of desperation when traditional reform methods have failed, such as the Bab’s frustration with the state of Islam in Iran.

While religions can often be reformed through conventional means, they also demonstrate a unique phenomenon of charismatic reform.  An example of conventional reform is the Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther.  His 95 Thesis were not intended as a new revelation or scripture, but rather as logical reasoning from within the framework of the accepted canon.  The resulting doctrine of sola scriptura is the apotheosis of rational reform, being a wholesale rejection of arbitrary authority like personal revelation.  On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation exemplified the opposite, weighing its claims, dogmas, and creeds on the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy, an office considered to be infallible by its followers.  While conventional reform is based on logic and reasoning accessible to any human being, charismatic reform is by fiat, and available to only a select body or individuals.  Conventional reform tactics are the prevailing trend in Western civilization, even permeating the secular arena, such as in the way Americans interpret and amend our own Constitution.

While Catholicism embraced charismatic reformists, other religions have built-in defenses against it.  Islam, for instance, strictly prohibits its adherents from claiming any divine revelation after the time of Muhammad.  Although they are often far from rational, juristic rulings or fatwas are really the only acceptable means of advancement available to Muslims.  Conventional reform in Islam, however, has been stunted due to the fact that Muslims consider these majority rulings to be infallible, and therefore irreversible.  Thus after a millennium, Islam was left behind by the modern world, and could advance no further.  But out of the school of one theological reformer Shayk Ahmad would come the Bab, who would break the boundaries his predecessors could not, simply by declaring himself a new prophet.  Overnight, theological innovation and social progress heretofore undreamed of in the Muslim world was effected.  The Bab’s movement would go through a succession crisis after his death, but would emerge as the Baha’i Faith and commence a new wave of women’s rights, racial equality, and religious tolerance.  Almost.  While charismatic reform can be a shortcut to progress, its fatal flaw is that it can usually go no further than the most advanced point of its prophet.  Although Baha’i views on gender equality surpassed those of Muhammad, yet Baha’i women are forever prevented from serving in the highest governing body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, just because Baha’u’llah failed to envision society becoming even more egalitarian than his own views.  Other rulings, like his ban on homosexuality, have been a legacy of frustration to dissenting Baha’is who could only hope for another charismatic reform after 1,000 years (the soonest that Bahai’s believe a new Manifestation of God would be revealed).

Returning to the subject of Joseph Smith, it must be pointed out that his theology developed in a Post-Revolutionary American Protestant climate that, while receptive to conventional reforms, frustrated many in its slow progress towards equality, especially in the recent failure to outlaw slavery in the Constitution.  Abolitionists were just one of many groups anticipating an overnight advancement.  While Mormonism has earned a reputation for its racist history, Joseph Smith is often unfairly castigated for views held by his successors, when in reality his own opinions were radically progressive for the pre-Civil War period.  I would go so far as to argue that Smith was assassinated not because he was a prophet, but because he was a pro-abolition prophet.  Following the LDS succession crisis, however, the church would be grounded in the racial doctrines of Brigham Young until cancelled out by another revelation in 1978.  Just as Baha’i gender equality remained locked in the revelations of the 19th century, so the LDS church was unable to reform itself through conventional means.  Of course, since Mormons didn’t have the impediment of having to wait another 1,000 years for a new prophet, there’s really no excuse for their lack of progress.

As for theological reforms, the Book of Mormon was not so much an innovation as it was an affirmation of folk-American Christian beliefs.  Smith sided with Protestants on infant baptism and, although he would later recant and try to edit it, provided proof-texts for a flawed Trinitarianism in his first edition. Ultimately, what we see is Joseph Smith attempting to circumvent the debate of conventional reform under the authority of a new divine revelation.  Since the Book of Mormon was the only LDS scripture in print at the time, we could reasonably speculate that Smith could have rationalized it as a necessary fraud if he thought he was merely resolving theological questions in favor of what he believed were in line with God’s views.  But as we’ve already seen, forging sacred texts to settle theological disputes is hardly a new development in history.

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The Transition

Skipping over 2 Nephi, probably the most useless book in the Book of Mormon, I’ll resume with the minor books of the so-called small plates of Nephi: Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni.  For those interested, 2 Nephi isn’t worth covering because half of the book is text copied nearly word for word from Isaiah, with some occasional changes.  Two facts are evident at this point in Joseph Smith’s creative process:  First, he had mentally moved on from his project of “translating” the gold plates and had already started his next project of re-writing the King James Bible, which he would commence after writing these last few books.  2 Nephi’s Isaiah is a precursory exercise, identifiable by Smith’s obvious obsession of removing all the italicized words from the KJV text, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness.  An in-depth study of his process isn’t really very interesting or reader-friendly, however, and would be more suitable if this blog ever gets up to what’s known as Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible.  The second and more obvious fact is that Joseph Smith is just filling space at this point.  Apparently, even in this supposedly abridged version he felt he had to cover a certain number of pages to make up the lost material.

With the original manuscript conveniently lost, we can only speculate why Smith decided at this moment that he had rambled on enough to resume the narrative.  Whatever the reason, he abruptly abandons the character Nephi and for these next few transitionary books, pretends to pass the plates down from father to son.  I call these transitionary books, because during this period Joseph Smith is decidedly trying to connect this re-told beginning with the rest of the book he had already written after Mosiah.  This transition is far from smooth, making the grafting point one of the most confusing sections of the whole book, as we’ll see later.

The books get progressively smaller, and by the time we get to Omni the plates are supposed to have passed through five different authors in one book.  This suggests that Joseph Smith was aware that he had rambled a little too long in Nephi’s voice, and if he was going to bridge a gap of hundreds of years then Nephi’s descendants could not be so long-winded.  He lets the character Jacob ramble on a little, interestingly making the Book of Mormon the only sacred text in the world to explicitly condemn polygamy (Jacob 2:27), and giving an early glimpse into Smith’s own psychological preoccupation with plural marriage.  Enos and Jarom aren’t given nearly as much space, but Smith still had not learned to economize words, these still read like the same ramblings only shorter.

Finally, we get to Omni, perhaps one of the most fascinating sections of the Book of Mormon.  As Jerald and Sandra Tanner have pointed out, this is the very moment that Joseph Smith safely passes the black hole made by the 116 lost pages.  In this book, the plates pass from Omni, a self-confessed “wicked man”, to son Amaron, to son Chemish, and Abinadom.  These writers tell us practically nothing, and only seem to etch a paragraph or two on their death bed.  My theory of the Book of Mormon as a parallel Bible suggests that Joseph Smith has arrived at the book of Judges in his Bible reading and is influenced by accounts of the lesser judges: Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.  Interestingly, the passages here seem to be considered Mormon scripture solely because they were written on the same plates as the others, as Chemish even suggests that divine revelation has ceased altogether at this point (Omni 1:11) .

Finally, we get to Amaleki, the point where the “small” plates crash awkwardly into the (as of yet) incomplete book of Mosiah and the finished book of Ether.  Here it helps to have read the rest of the Book of Mormon first, but even then it can be difficult to understand, especially if one tries to abide by the Mormon interpretation.  The Nephites venture out to the land of Zarahemla, populated by another group of Jews who crossed to the Americas during the reign of Zedekiah.  Not only this, the people of Zarahemla had been in contact with Coriantumr, the last survivor of the Jaredites, and had the plates of the book of Ether.  What Joseph Smith attempts to do here is rather brilliant, by tying together his post-Tower of Babel Jaredites to the Nephites in a form of foreshadowing; his actual execution, however, is lacking and raises a lot of questions.

First, this Amaleki serves a king named Mosiah, the father of king Benjamin.  In the next book, however, we’re introduced to king Benjamin, who has a son named Mosiah, who in turn sends a man named Amaleki to Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:6).  The LDS explanation, unsupported by the text, is to refer to these duplicates as Amaleki I and II, and Mosiah I and II.  While this certainly helps the narrative flow, I think the more logical explanation is that Joseph Smith intended these characters to be the same person, but his memory had faded in the re-write process.  The book of Mosiah is the actual point where the lost pages cut off, but where exactly is unknown; nevertheless, it had been almost a year since Smith had worked on Mosiah until the time he wrote Omni.  Furthermore, we also know that Mosiah received substantial editing by Joseph Smith before the printers manuscript was delivered, but even then, Smith had failed to catch errors in the first edition, as he continues to refer to King Benjamin (Mosiah 21:28, 1830 edition) well after his death.  I suspect he originally intended Mosiah to be the father of Benjamin, but by the time he came back around he accidentally reintroduced them in reverse order and killed off Benjamin prematurely.  Although the narrative makes less sense that way, I think it seems much more likely to conclude that these were supposed to be the same people in different tellings of the story.  The Mormon interpretation, after all, presupposes that this is a story that’s supposed to make sense to anybody other than Joseph Smith.

Omni ends with Amaleki wasting precious space to tell the reader that the “plates are full”, which would have been obvious to the reader had there actually been any real plates.  Time and time again, purported authors describe parameters about the plates that are not only unnecessary to anybody who would have actually handled them, but rather tedious to chisel into metal.  For unknown reasons, Smith seems to have paced himself to fill up a precise amount of pages and once that is accomplished he brings it to an abrupt end.  Mormons struggle just to derive a coherent narrative from this transition, yet without the LDS church’s guidance I think most Mormons would be at a loss to make sense of these different characters.

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Who Is the Book of Mormon’s Target Audience?

The focus on the Book of Mormon usually centers around Joseph Smith, which can sometimes present more questions than it answers.  Though many have tried, Smith is admittedly a difficult person to analyze, and many Mormons unable to thoroughly determine his motivations for deceiving so many people tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The authors of holy books are, however, usually complicated personalities, many with questions that may never be fully resolved.  Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and countless others display dual traits of seeming to believe their own claims or theology to a certain extent, while simultaneously demonstrating awareness of the deception.  Clearly, we cannot just give them all the benefit of the doubt.  Personally, I don’t think I have to be able to explain the motivations for why any holy book was written, I actually think more can be learned from looking at its target audience instead.

For starters, the Book of Mormon’s own descriptions of itself hardly sound like conventional scripture.  As the story goes, the gold plates were the only copy in existence, guarded more as a private journal or a secret book than one for the spiritual benefit of an entire civilization.  The fictitious Nephites didn’t make and distribute copies of their scripture as the real Jews did the Law and the prophets, nor did they create liturgical structure like the Jewish parashot,  or commentaries.  The Nephites seem to be the most unique sect in history for being so incapable of spreading their own holy books, that even believers would have to admit that the Book of Mormon didn’t become scripture in the traditional sense until Joseph Smith started to publish it.  It was only then that he and his followers actually started to treat it as such, carrying it to church, preaching from it, and creating study materials.  It’s ironic that Mormons today are so aggressive in printing and scattering their word around the world, when there seems to be no explanation why their supposed predecessors couldn’t do the same.

Next, the contents of the Book of Mormon aren’t very applicable to its supposed audience.  So-called prophecies about Columbus, the Revolutionary War, or even the book’s own discovery would be meaningless to a civilization that would perish centuries before any of these events occurred.  And since  its remarkably specific prophecies end abruptly at the early 19th century, it seems obvious that was its target audience, which logically points to Smith and/or his companions as the author.  Furthermore, the Book of Mormon anachronistically quotes or paraphrases many New Testament scriptures that would have been unavailable to an audience in the Americas, totally defeating the purpose of quoting, as only a later audience could have appreciated the connection.

Finally, the theology of the Book of Mormon and the LDS church bears an undeniable resemblance to American folk beliefs of the period.  While New Testament authors took it for granted that future generations might not preserve the exact method of baptism practiced by John and later followers, the Book of Mormon is practically written as an instruction manual.  Similarly, disputes over infant baptism, works vs. grace, and even polygamy were all-too-conveniently resolved by the Book of Mormon in one pretty package with ribbons, even though this same book seems to have been useless to preserve the religion of the ones claimed to have written it.

If Mormons treated the Book of Mormon as the Nephites supposedly did, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to plant a copy of it in every house and hotel room.  It would be a more secretive book like the embarrassing Book of Abraham, which they withhold from prospective converts until they’re ready to swallow its absurdity.  The reason they don’t act like the Nephites, though, is because the Book of Mormon wasn’t written for the Nephites, it was written in the 19th century for Joseph Smith’s 19th century contemporaries.

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The Mormon Mind Prison

Well, it wouldn’t be quite fair on a blog that’s supposed to be dedicated to Mormonism (sorry folks, 2 Nephi is just sooo boring it’s hard to blog about) to do an entry on the “Muslim Mind Prison” and not follow-up with an essay on the Mormon Mind Prison.  Islam and Mormonism have a lot of similarities in how they were founded, but their present-day practice and social integration couldn’t be further apart.  Unlike Muslims, Mormons are well-integrated into most societies and cultures, have literacy rates up to Western standards, and (believe it or not) are more open-minded.  Nevertheless, Mormons have several intellectual barriers that can make dialogue or debate a frustrating exercise.

Mormons Cannot Engage the Book of Mormon as Literature

I’ve pretty gone as far as I can with the missionaries at the temple visitor’s center.  After a certain point of discussion, they all but stop volunteering information or answering questions to any degree of satisfaction, and instead seem to be reading from a script.  It’s not really their fault, however, because I’ve tried to take them outside the perimeters of their mind prison.  The most obvious way in which we’re on two irreconcilable wavelengths is my stubborn refusal to accept the Book of Mormon as fact in any way.  My open rejection of its historicity is met with aggressive, dogmatic claims that saturate the entire discussion.  If you don’t believe the Book of Mormon, it will eventually take its toll on the conversation, as if the missionaries seem to be trying to gradually wear away at your defenses, fatigue you into conceding to their belief for the sake of advancing the conservation, or possibly get you to inadvertently agree with them in some small way.  It’s life or death for the Mormon in this scenario, because the Book of Mormon absolutely has to be literally true or else the entire faith unravels.  This contest of wills is possibly one of the keys to the missionary’s success rate, since even people who are challenging the claims of Mormonism need to overcome this hurdle to move the conservation forward, and agreeing with or ignoring their claims about its origins and authorship seems like a small compromise at first.

Mormons Give More Weight to the Book of Mormon than to the Bible

For a religion that claims to use the Bible, you almost wouldn’t know it from how the book is handled in the church.  The LDS’ Eighth Article of Faith states:

“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”

While it’s common for people to view canons as flat, with lesser books still bearing the same weight as the major ones, in the Mormon mindset the Bible is unreliable without the body of other Mormon literature and the footnotes to the Joseph Smith Translation.  The damaging effect this has cannot be underestimated.  Anybody engaged in a Biblical discussion with Mormons needs to be aware of this fact, or they will be assuming a level playing field where one does not actually exist.  A sola scriptura Bible-based approach to trying to convert the Mormons is ultimately doomed to fail, because ultimately, the Mormon’s understanding of the Bible is filtered through Mormon theology, and in their minds the two are indistinguishable.  Mormons often cannot relate to how a Biblical interpretation would differ in the absence Joseph Smith’s doctrinal peculiarities, and even though they think they grasp it, they’re not easily capable of understanding Christian theology until they mentally divorce Mormon thought.

Mormons Think They Know about Other Religions

Because their canon encompasses the Old and New Testaments in addition to all their other books, Mormons often see themselves as more knowledgeable about scripture than Jews and Christians.  This isn’t in itself entirely the fault of Mormonism; a lot of Western Christians mistakenly believe they know more about Judaism than Jews, when the reality is they know very little of the Old Testament outside of the narrative.  This aspect of American folk religion permeated into the Book of Mormon, in which it appears Joseph Smith was entirely ignorant of ancient Hebrew culture.  There may be vague references to keeping commandments or festivals, but absolutely no specifics are cited from Mosaic Law.  It reads like what a Gentile would envision Hebrew society was like, but falls short of any identifiable facts.  Not only that, Joseph Smith continued to write his own scriptures that sought to correct the “mistakes” of mainline Christianity, but really only demonstrated his ignorance of Christian theology.  As a result, Mormons think they know what the Trinity is, when their anti-Trinitarian arguments are usually addressing Modalism instead.  Their smug know-it-all attitude about Christianity shouldn’t be as successful as it has been, but unfortunately most of their prospective converts are just as ignorant.  They may not know Christianity, but they do know more than a lot of Christians.  Not to mention they’re better dressed and prepared for the uninvited meeting, all of which give them a confident edge over their prey.

Mormons Fall Back on Their “Testimony” When All Else Fails

Obviously, the greatest intellectual barrier separating Mormons from the rest of society is their emphasis on their personal “testimony” that the Book of Mormon is true (in their mind, anyway).  Never mind that if every believer used this argument to defend their holy book nobody could ever be reasoned into changing religions.  Mormonism is the epitome of irrational and illogical faith, yet it is only within the domain of reason and logic that one can engage them.  It goes without saying that a Mormon cannot leave the church until they overcome this barrier, yet all too often its influence on the Mormon mind is not fully grasped by the one trying to reach them.  However, it can be very frustrating when reason, facts, and logic vanquish Mormonism in a debate but the Mormon still holds to their faith by this single thread, truly retreating into a mind prison.

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