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Does Historicity Matter?

Here’s part of a FAIR article on the historicity of the Book of Mormon as quoted in a recent Meridian article:

The important question here is not whether or not scientific evidence can prove or disprove the Book of Mormon. The real question becomes: Does it really matter?

Other Christian religions seem to make room for members who see, for example, the creation story of Adam and Eve as a profound metaphor, in a way of explaining the ultimate truth of the creation without requiring any definite belief in the literalness of the story as it comes down to us in Genesis. Can’t the faithful LDS view the Book of Mormon as other Christians view the Bible — inspirational stories and myths, which may not be literally true?

Sure, I could get behind that. I don’t know how inspirational I would find most of the Book of Mormon, but that is no different than the Bible. If I could go to an LDS church and openly admit that I thought the Book of Mormon probably wasn’t historically true, I might be more tempted to stick around. That sounds like the beginning of honest, enlightened discourse. The Meridian article goes on:

The answer to that question is no.

Tease! Don’t toy with my emotions like that.

If someone comes to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is not historical at all, is there a place for him in the Church? Probably. We cast a very broad net. That person cannot go around teaching his heterodox views on the subject, but if he is willing to keep them to himself, he can be a contributing active member of the Church, simply bracketing the historicity issue.

In other words, come pay your tithing and babysit in the nursery but keep your heretical ideas to yourself. Anyone who makes us think about our beliefs is an apostate or an anti-Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: visitors welcome, check your brains at the door.

Nice. And you wonder why I wanted to leave once I started really thinking about my beliefs.

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Answers to Answers to 50 Anti-Mormon Questions

And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:21–22)

Meridian Magazine recently ran an article titled Answers to 50 Anti-Mormon Questions. This is my attempt to deconstruct the language of the article (my modern lit professor would be so proud) and then critique their answer.


One anti-Mormon ministry suggests 50 questions as a way to deceive Latter-day Saints.

The first sentence of the article provides a ripe field for deconstruction. The word “anti-Mormon” is a telling choice. It is meant to imply to the Mormon reader that the nameless ministry is antagonistic. On an unconscious level, it probably serves to convey the idea that this ministry is against Mormons, a kind of personal antipathy. It is far more likely that the ministry opposes Mormonism, a religious and philosophical disagreement rather than a personal hatred. This choice of words only serves to prejudice the reader against the positions of the nameless ministry.

This sentence has a notable lack of a link to the ministry in question (which is most likely 50 Questions to Ask Mormons). [edit: the source of this article did link to the ministry in a footnote. (thanks, Cybr) Please take this into account when reading my analysis.] It is simple and customary on the internet to provide a hypertext link to a website when referencing it. The sentence also fails to provide the name of the ministry. Refraining from linking to the website and keeping the website nameless demonstrates a lot about the mindset of the author. The author(s) of the article show that they fear open discourse. They intentionally obfuscate the identity of the ministry in question and make it difficult for readers to find the original criticism and ponder the weight of the arguments for themselves. This fearful mindset is usually given two justifications in my experience:

  1. The author(s) don’t wish to promote the opposing viewpoint by directing readers to it.
  2. The author(s) believe that some of their readers are not yet ready to face an opposing viewpoint. They are concerned that the faith of the unprepared will falter when they encounter objections. (1 Corinthians 3:2)

These justifications are based on a fear of the opposing viewpoint, as though the ideas themselves are poisonous. The justifications also assume a superior relationship to at least some of the readers, seeking to control the flow of information to protect those that they suppose are weaker than they. It prioritizes their concerns for the faith of their readers over the readers’ right to information that pertains to their religious choices.

Also, the word “deceive” is another prejudicial choice. The intent of the nameless ministry is more likely concern for the faith of members of the LDS church, the same kind of concern that motivated Meridian Magazine’s article in response. If my suspicion about the identity of the nameless ministry is true, this is what they have to say about their motivation.

Questions are a great way to witness to Mormons. Most cultists will turn you off if you begin to preach to them, however, asking questions gives them hope that you are genuinely interested in learning more about their religion. It also is a great way to get them thinking about things they may have never thought about and researching into the false teachings of their church. Questions are great seed-planters that the Holy Spirit can make grow in their hearts and minds and, ultimately, lead them to Christ. They are also great conversation starters.

The only note of deception is in the phrase “asking questions gives them hope that you are genuinely interested in learning more about their religion” which in context is a pragmatic deception to avoid having Mormons disengage from the conversation. This is indeed deceptive and unlikely to produce the hoped for results, but it is not the kind of malicious deception that the language of the Meridian article implies. In all fairness, the following sentences clarify exactly what the author(s) mean by deception:

These questions feign an interest in learning more about our religion. The real intent is to introduce anti-Mormon material intended to “de-convert” LDS.

The overall unconscious impression left with the reader, however, is likely to be the feeling that the nameless ministry’s intent is wholly deceptive not only in its tactics but in the arguments underlying the questions.

The use of the term “Latter-day Saints” for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems straightforward at first, but hidden within that language is a self-image of superiority over people who don’t share that membership, people who in times past were seen as “Gentiles”. In this context, the term serves to place a contrast between the deceptive anti-Mormons and the godly Saints. The first sentence of the article prejudices the reader against the position of the opposing view, not through logic and reason, but through appeals to emotional language.

Looking further into the article, we find:

Faithful LDS, when first confronted with such anti-Mormon questions, may not know that these questions have been answered.

There is an air of decisiveness to saying that the questions have been “answered”. While it may be strictly true that answers have been proffered, this language gives the impression that all those concerned have accepted those answers as the last word on the matter.

We see from these examples that this is not a neutral examination of the question. This should be a surprise to no one, but it is important to see how the language of the article can prejudice the reader on a subconscious level. The language serves to divert attention and discussion away from the question rather than to clarify it, examining it objectively. The reader’s mind, now properly prejudiced, is prepared to accept the article’s viewpoint less critically.


The only question the authors address in this article—they promise more answers in the future—is a question of failed prophecy:

Why does the Mormon Church still teach that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God after he made a false prophecy about a temple being built in Missouri in his generation (Doctrine and Covenants 84:1-5)?

These are the two verses at the heart of the question:

Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation. For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house.

The proffered answer centers on two tactics:

  1. casting doubt on the meaning of the word “generation”
  2. casting doubt on whether this passage was a prophecy or a commandment centered on the definition of “shall”

The authors then assert that virtually all critics of Mormonism make the following errors:

  1. misunderstand or misread LDS doctrine or scripture
  2. give unofficial material the status of official doctrine
  3. assume that Mormons must have inerratic [sic] ideas about scripture or prophets as conservative evangelical Protestants do
  4. apply strict standards to LDS ideas, but use a double standard to avoid condemning the Bible or their own beliefs if the standard was applied fairly to both.

While I’ll leave it to you to judge whether I will commit any of those errors, I must first warn that the first two criteria are impossible to meet in practice. First, no matter how well a critic understands Mormon doctrine and scripture, an apologist can always assert that they don’t know enough. Second, there is no clearly defined source of official doctrine. Even if criticism was limited to the LDS Standard Works, finding the official doctrine therefrom is a matter of interpreting those scriptures correctly. There is no official standard by which anyone can determine if an interpretation is correct. In other words, official LDS doctrine is an impossible target to hit because it is so ill-defined. Now, let me turn to my opinion about their answer.

The authors offer that a generation may be more properly interpreted as a long period of time rather than the common definition which invariably involves the idea of a single cohort of contemporary individuals. The authors ask the reader to accept a special definition of the word that is not attested in any of the eight dictionaries that I consulted. The most generous definition was from a Bible dictionary that stated that the ancient Hebrews reckoned a generation to be 100 years. That time has passed almost twice over since 1832 when this prophecy was recorded.

To justify this special definition, the authors appeal to biblical prophecies of Jesus’ immanent return within the span of a generation in Matthew 23:36 and 24:34. This objection may work on those who believe in the truth of those prophecies, but not on disbelievers. From my perspective, it looks like trying to justify one false prophecy with another. The promise of Jesus immanent return throughout the New Testament has failed even more resoundingly than Joseph Smith’s prophecy of a temple in Independence, Missouri. Supporting one with the other is an ironically fruitless tactic.

Also note that the passage reads “For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord”. (emphasis mine) The word “all” clearly indicates all of the generation of people then alive as the common definition indicates. If “generation” were intended to be a period of time rather than the lives of the people of the time, then “completely” or “entirely” would have expressed this thought, or perhaps leaving out the word “all” would have done the same.

The authors next wish the reader to accept that the word “shall” is a commandment here. Here is an explanation of the traditional use of the words “shall” and “will”:

—Usage note The traditional rule of usage guides dates from the 17th century and says that to denote future time shall is used in the first person (I shall leave. We shall go) and will in all other persons (You will be there, won’t you? He will drive us to the airport. They will not be at the meeting). The rule continues that to express determination, will is used in the first person (We will win the battle) and shall in the other two persons (You shall not bully us. They shall not pass). Whether this rule was ever widely observed is doubtful. Today, will is used overwhelmingly in all three persons and in all types of speech and writing both for the simple future and to express determination. Shall has some use in all persons, chiefly in formal writing or speaking, to express determination: I shall return. We shall overcome. Shall also occurs in the language of laws and directives: All visitors shall observe posted regulations. Most educated native users of American English do not follow the textbook rule in making a choice between shall and will. (, adapted from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary)

In other words, the use of the word “shall” in the third person (as it is used in these verses) expressed a determination on the part of the speaker, in this case purportedly God. It is also used in directives as explained in the quote. So it could be either meaning: a directive or an expression of determination. The reader is left to wonder which meaning was intended.

In that same passage, “shall” is used in ways that are clearly not intended as a directive to the hearers. The passage reads “For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord”. If we assume that “shall” is meant as a commandment here, God commands the generation to not pass away (this generation shall not) until they have built the temple. It doesn’t make sense for God to either command the people not to die until they have completed the temple or for the current age (if we accept their definition of “generation”) to avoid ending until the temple is completed. Then the passage reads “a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house.” Again, if “shall” is meant as a commandment, then God is commanding the cloud to rest on the temple, to be the glory of the Lord, and to fill the temple. Again, that makes no sense. This entire passage reads like a prophecy of things to come, not a directive to Joseph Smith’s followers (or to time or a cloud).

Further, the language in Matthew 24 that the authors tacitly accept as being a prophecy of Jesus’ return uses “shall”. It would be silly to assert that God was commanding Jesus to return again in these passages.

I grant, though, that I cannot offer an ironclad proof that this passage was not a commandment no matter how improbable that idea seems. If it was a commandment, I wonder why God would not have fallen back on the traditional “thou shalt” or “let my servant” or other similar usage to express a commandment. If, as the authors claim, God’s intent was to issue a commandment, it seems that he did so clumsily, in a way that was open for easy misinterpretation. It is as though God, the Creator of the universe, Lord of heaven and earth, was incapable of speaking precisely so as to be understood.

It is immaterial that Joseph Smith recorded another revelation years later that excused the Mormon faithful from building the temple. The simplest explanation is that a false prophet was seeking to cover his tracks by subtly misdirecting attention away from his attempted prophecy. The revelation does nothing to prove that Joseph Smith intended the previous revelation to be a commandment.

In the end, the authors do not offer a truthful examination of the evidence. They address themselves to the Mormon faithful in order to quiet doubt by offering possible but improbable explanations for problems in Mormon history and doctrine. Their answer to this question is not so airtight that no further debate is necessary, though that is the impression that they seem to want the reader to leave with. Their unlikely excuses and appeals to equivocal language do little to convince those outside of Mormonism of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, nor do they address the other instances of Joseph Smith’s plainly false prophecies. Their tactics remind me of Nephi’s warning about those who would seek to lull the members of the church into carnal security.

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Dark Night of the Soul

We have been provided an example of how the faithful deal with cognitive dissonance. The author of the post has hit on spiritual hard times after becoming accustomed to frequent experiences of a spiritual appearance. She hasn’t felt an experience which she would interpret as the Holy Spirit in a year. The last time she had such an experience (if I understand the sequence of her story correctly), she interpreted the experience as God telling her that her sister would be healed of leukemia. Her sister died shortly thereafter.

Now she has begun to doubt God. She prays for his reassurance and receives silence in return. She believed God loved her, yet he leaves her alone in her time of need. The longer she goes without receiving reassurance, the more she doubts. Surely, she reasons, God wouldn’t want her to lose her faith. So why doesn’t he help her?

It fascinates and pains me to read the tortured rationalizations offered to comfort this woman. It’s hard to avoid seeing a parallel to Mother Theresa who went decades without feeling a connection to God. Some of the rationalizations offered to the woman are also paralleled by those offered to Mother Theresa. I used many of these rationalizations to maintain my own faith.

  • Just hold on. God will answer you, someday.
  • God is testing you.
  • Don’t question your earlier spiritual experiences.
  • Believe me. I know that God loves you.
  • Perhaps you misinterpreted God’s message. Perhaps it was a spiritual healing rather than a physical one. Perhaps this healing will take place after death.
  • Satan is trying to deceive you.
  • People grow the most when they have no evidence to base their beliefs on yet continue to believe.
  • We shouldn’t expect God to always communicate with us. He gives us just enough to get us through.
  • Silence means that God trusts in your judgment.
  • Even Jesus felt alone on the cross. [Not according to the scriptural account he didn't. He was quoting Psalm 22 when he said "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He was teaching a lesson through the message of that Psalm, not expressing personal bereavement.]
  • You’ve probably withdrawn from God in some way, perhaps by sinning or not doing all that you can.
  • You’re probably feeling the Spirit, just not recognizing it.
  • Don’t question God. We don’t understand his way of doing things or his purposes.

This may be just what this woman needs to get beyond her doubts, but is it honest? Couldn’t the same methods be used to maintain a person’s belief in any false thing? Using this scheme, there is no way to find your way out of a false belief. If you feel good about it, that means it’s true. If you feel bad about it, take your pick from the above reasons why it’s still true.

All of those rationalizations serve to avoid the obvious, if painful, conclusion: the loving God she believed in was a product of her imagination. That’s not a comforting thought, and I’m not about to go for the exposed jugular like that. I doubt I have the tact necessary to put it gently. But it is the one answer that makes real sense out of what she is experiencing.

How desperately we cling to our comforts against the dark night!

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A Year and A Day

It’s been a year and a day since I first came out to my wife about my doubts surrounding God and Mormonism. Lacey has some thoughts in retrospect.

For my part, I am grateful for her continuing love. I don’t want anything to come between us. I’ve come to realize that there are some things that you can’t change. Even if my disbelief would have broken up our marriage, I couldn’t have changed it. I might have managed to dissemble, but my heart wouldn’t have been in it. I am grateful that I didn’t have to live a deception in order to preserve our marriage.

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Lithium for Jesus

For me, Jesus symbolizes two widely disparate ideas: profound, selfless love and soul-crushing shame and fear. The compassionate, endearing side of Jesus gets a lot of press, so please excuse me if I don’t mention that part of the story. I want to mention why I have a few problems with the idea that Jesus is kinder, gentler son of cranky ol’ Jehovah of genocidal fame.

First, Jesus symbolizes hell for me. No one mentions Hell in the Hebrew Bible, at least not in the sense of endless torment for the wicked. Prior to the arrival of Jesus, the Bible is actually pretty vague about the state of the dead. The word translated as hell in the Old Testament (שאול or sheol) is also often translated as grave. For the ancient Hebrews, Hell and the grave were synonymously defined as the place of all the dead, not just the wicked dead.

Between the Old and New Testaments as the Greeks were spreading their culture throughout the ancient world, it seems that some part of the Jewish culture adopted the idea of a place of torment for the sinful dead. Jesus introduced the idea of hellfire into Abrahamic religion. (e.g. Matthew 5:22; Mark 9:45,47; Luke 16:19–31)

I doubt that we can truly blame a single man named Yeshua of Nazareth for introducing this idea into Jewish culture, but he is emblematic for me of the adoption of the idea of hellfire because his followers made Hell the nightmare it is today: an eternal punishment for sins committed during the finite span of mortal life—a punishment out of all proportion to the crime.

And then there’s Satan and his minions. Though Christianity didn’t create the idea of malevolent unseen spirits, it did nothing to quell its spread. Christianity in my life taught me to fear the temptations of legions of demons.

Jesus also introduced the idea of thought crime. He was the first totalitarian. He declared that simple bodily appetites and emotions were sinful. (Matthew 5:22,28) Jesus could have been the leader of Eastasia punishing people for crimethink. I waged war on myself in Jesus’ name. He taught me to hate myself because I couldn’t control the stray thoughts and desires that crossed my mind. I spent my years as a Christian trying (but never quite succeeding) to feel Jesus’ love. At the same time I lived in fear and shame because of his cruel teachings and the doctrines of many of his followers. He has never apologized for the unnecessary pain he put me through.

In short, I’m much happier now that I’ve diagnosed Jesus as having bipolar disorder. Now if he’d only take his meds.

[bipolar jesus]

[This post was inspired by Eddie Lee's recent comment.]

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