Wednesday, December 23, 2009

JW Study Meeting #27

After my return from Greece, it wasn't long before I e-mailed Uriah to resume our Bible study. Our initial appointment for 19 December fell through because of a massive snowstorm; evidently, "neither slow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" is a good slogan for Persian postal couriers and for the U. S. Postal Service, but not so much for Jehovah's Witnesses. Hence, we rescheduled for today. With snow still heavy on the ground, though less so on the street, Uriah made his way to my door perhaps 10-30 minutes late, but no harm, no foul.

We didn't get down to cracking open any books today for an actual study; it was, rather, mostly catch-up and story time. I told, in brief, of my living arrangements in Athens, and of my travels to Corinth and Ephesus, assuredly standing in the very footsteps of Paul the apostle; Uriah asked, "You weren't beaten with rods or stones or anything, were ya?" Nope, no persecution for me this time around. I explained how, while in Turkey, I was mistaken for a Muslim recently returned from the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Finally, however, I mentioned that I hadn't run into any Jehovah's Witnesses while there, chiefly because the nearest Kingdom Hall that I knew about had been in a relatively distant part of the city. Hence, as I said, I had to "go with the second-best: Mormons". At this, of course, Uriah started laughing and said, "Gimme a break!" We then talked for a while about my studies with Latter-day Saints over there. I mentioned that the LDS missionaries had a fairly positive image of JWs, perhaps largely because in Greece, pretty much anybody who ain't Greek Orthodox has to stick together. I then went into some of my experiences in dialogue:

JB: I don't know how much you know about the details of what Mormons believe, but they believe that the Father is not Jehovah. They believe that Jesus is Jehovah, but that the Father is not Jehovah. Which is really quite the complete opposite--

Uriah: Yeah.

JB: --of what you guys believe, and of what I believe.

Uriah: I studied them years ago, and they kept me-- I have a hard time studying things in detail that I know going in are false. That's just too much time and effort to put into it. They have so many different levels of stuff that even they, in their literature, is made up on certain dates by certain men. Well, what's the point? I, uh-- It bored me pretty quick after I got the highlights of, 'What? Joseph Smith did what?'

JB: Actually I found out that I'm probably a distant cousin of Joseph Smith.

Uriah: Oh really?

JB: Yeah.

Uriah: So am I.

JB: Oh yeah?

Uriah: Yeah, we both have relatives on the Ark.

JB: Haha, I have 'em a bit more recent than that.

Uriah [laughing]: Okay.

JB: Back in like the 1600s or something.

Uriah: Is that right?

JB: ...So it was interesting, I finally got to attempt to convince somebody that the Father was Jehovah. And I remember one day--I'll tell you some of the arguments I used after... I remember one day, sitting down with the Mormon missionaries, and one of them looked at me and said, "The bad news is, Jehovah's Witnesses are right."

Uriah: One of the Mormon missionaries said that?

JB: Yeah.

Uriah: Hm! Yeah, yeah-- That makes your religion tough, if you don't believe it. Wow. Hm.

JB: But, uh, here's basically what I said to them when they-- They believe that there are multiple gods, basically--

Uriah: Right.

JB: --That the Father is a god and the Son is a god; they believe that the Son is Jehovah and that the Father is an even higher god still. So the first thing I asked them was, 'Okay, well, you look at the Ten Commandments, which you guys believe are still pretty valid, and you see Jehovah say in the Ten Commandments that you're not supposed to have any gods before him. But you believe that you are supposed to worship the Father, who is - in your belief - a god higher than Jehovah. What's the deal, aren't you breaking that commandment?' They sorta had to think about that one a bit oddly for a while, weren't quite sure what to do with it. Finally they just sort of had to say, 'Well, that was for the Israelites at the time, they didn't even know about the Father, so that wouldn't have been a problem...' I asked them, 'Okay, what if one of them did know about the Father?', and they just sorta said, 'Wellllllll.... *shrug*' And then the second thing I gave them was-- in an earlier conversation, one of them had said that Jesus had referred to the temple in Jerusalem sometimes as his house but other times as his Father's house, so I said to them, 'Okay, if that's the case, the temple that was built in Jerusalem was dedicated to only one god, Jehovah. If the Israelites didn't know about any other gods, such as the Father, then that's not who the temple was dedicated to. So you have Jesus say that it's his Father's house. If you say that the Father is a god other than Jehovah, how's that even possible?' Basically the only thing they could come up with there was, 'Welllllll, he had to sort of fudge the truth a bit to be understood...'

Uriah: Hoho! Wow!

JB: And I said, 'Ummmmm.... No.'

Uriah [laughing]: 'There's another Scripture you oughta bring up right now!' Haha, wow!

JB: And then the final argument I used - and this one probably drove them even more crazy - was-- I looked up a number of passages in the Old Testament that I read to them that clearly say that, 'Here's Jehovah, and here's the Messiah', two people. You know, like in Psalm 2:2, it says something like, 'Why do the nations rage, why are the kings plotting against Jehovah and against his Messiah?' And then I brought in, you know, Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 where, again, repeatedly, it distinguishes between Jehovah and the Messiah. So I gave them a few verses, and the first answer that one of them came up with was, 'Well, I've run into some things like this before, and when I look into the Hebrew, it usually turns out not to be "Jehovah" written there.' And I looked at him and said, 'I'm pretty sure you won't find that to be the case here. But, let's just you and me both go back, look at the Hebrew, and then next time we meet up, we'll talk about it again.' Sure enough, every single verse I'd mentioned had "Jehovah" there in the Hebrew.

Uriah: Yeah, the Tetragrammaton.

JB: So I confronted them with that later, and they sorta just smiled and said, 'Welllll.... those messianic passages, maybe the authors-- Jehovah was the only god they knew, so when talking about the Father they had to refer to him that way...', and I said, 'No. Even on your beliefs, they could have referred to the Father as "Elohim", since that's what you call the Father anyway, and that would've been perfectly good Hebrew at the time, and wouldn't have been wrong.' They sorta just smiled and said, 'Okay, yeahhh, but, here are some other scriptures that we think say that Jesus is Jehovah, and darn it, we believe in Jesus and that's what we're sticking to.' And I sorta just thought, 'You haven't been listening to a thing I've been saying.'

Uriah: Right.

I have a couple regrets about that exchange. Chiefly, I could have done a better job subtly reminding Uriah that I believe that both the Father and the Son are Jehovah; the way I presented it, my beliefs seem too compatible with JW beliefs for my taste, and I regret that. I suppose that, since it was our first meeting after the break and I'd had to use some persuasion to get him to come back, I didn't want to raise anything controversial right off the bat. I still think I should've been more clear on that, but to be honest, I don't have a personality that goes very boldly into confrontation and disputation, contrary to the way it might sometimes appear from some of my accounts. Also, it should be obvious that I did not portray the Latter-day Saints terribly sympathetically, and I probably should have done a greater job at that. Not, of course, that I think my account is in any way an inaccurate summary of the exchanges I had; far from it, I think that my queries did potentially expose some glaring problems with at least the theology of the LDS missionaries I met, if not necessarily the theology of better equipped Latter-day Saints. Still, I wasn't exceptionally charitable in my description, and I think in retrospect that my LDS friends deserved better than that, so I feel a twinge of guilt about it.

Anyway, Uriah asked where these guys came from, and so I told him where they'd originally come from, and then how I'd met them at the Areopagus, and how I came to get back in touch with them and set up the discussions, and so forth. And then, when I mentioned how in one conversation, the LDS had to basically plead faith over logic (and as I noted, whenever someone says that, my brain replies, "When you have to say that logic doesn't apply, you lose"). Uriah, of course, agreed; Jehovah's Witnesses have a more respectable epistemology than Latter-day Saints generally do. So we spent some time talking about how fideism and related sorts of things are a real problem. He noted that even many ministers in this country tend to punt to "mystery" (which, more often than not, really is a cop-out), and that the Bible was written for humans to understand, and hence even if there are deep things in it that require hard work to dig out, nothing in it is in principle beyond our capacity to get.

From there, he said that he loves that the more fundamental truths of the Bible can be understood by anyone. As he put it, some people within "Jehovah's organization" are geniuses, and others who "are struggling to get by, 'cuz they're not hitting it with all eight cylinders" (I'm going to have to remember that metaphor), and yet all of them can understand the Bible to the extent they need to in order to do Jehovah's will; as he put it, the Bible is "as deep as you are, or not". He explained that some people in his local congregation are "mildly retarded; I mean, they're functioning, but, you know-- and God bless them, I wouldn't want to have to go through this life like that, but they are, and they're doing fine, and they understand things about the Bible that Paul wrote and everything-- they understand enough to be accepted by God."

He also, on the other hand, mentioned that when he was still a fairly new JW, he went out for door-to-door work with another newbie, a ministerial servant, a congregational elder, a circuit overseer, and a district overseer. And the district overseer was, evidently, quite a sharp fellow; as Uriah put it, during breaks he liked to get into discussions of his hobby to unwind: quantum physics. (Sounds like my kind of guy!) And one cold morning, he'd felt rather intimidated by how accomplished they were, and was inclined to go home, but after sticking with it he realized he didn't feel embarassed, but rather great. They all stopped at the one local diner for a cup of coffee and donuts, Uriah said, and naturally the district overseer wanted to talk physics. And the other new guy had "kind of an ambitious spirit" and hence "kept brown-nosing", and on the way to the cash register to pay, the other new guy pushes through and tells the cashier that he'll pay for the two overseers as well as himself. The district overseer, a clever guy, thanked the new guy and said, "And these other brothers are with us too", and then all of them promptly walked out and left the brown-noser there to pay for everyone. (As Uriah said, the new guy was eventually disabused of the notion that "we have ranks, which we don't", and having matured and gotten his head on straight, he's pretty fine now.)

I told a couple more stories from my meetings with the LDS, mostly revolving around my penchant for reading and so forth, and how the addition of Admetus to the meetings didn't help the LDS to actually answer my questions satisfactorily, per se. And we went on to discuss how anyone who's going to belong to a religion should be willing to put forth the effort required in terms of labor and study to really do it well. Hey, no argument there! As he said for his part, being a Jehovah's Witness would be "way too much work" if he didn't sincerely believe in it; "if this was just something I was supposed to go through mechanically, I'm not doing all this. I'm not doing all this studying, I'm not going to all these meetings, I'm not going out in service, because I can go back to being a Methodist and do nothing! That was easy. It's just too much work." And I agreed, of course, that it's quite important to put in a real effort. I know for my part, I'm determined to study as much as I can, because "God gave us brains for a reason: to use them".

Uriah then mentioned that they'd gotten a new elder for their congregation lately, a quiet, "Gomer Pyle-ish" guy who's nonetheless "sharp as a task". He moved here from Minnesota and has twenty years or so of experience as a congregational elder. Uriah then talked for a bit about Christmas and how the real facts about it are readily available in newspapers and encyclopedias, but people just don't care, and etc., etc. He didn't go on about it for long, and I decided not to start an argument about it.

I asked how the publishing work was going, and he said it was going alright. They'd picked up a few studies while I was gone, and dropped a few too. He said that some of their studies are old people who just want some company for an hour or so every now and then, and who couldn't care less what they're studying, be it JW literature or the phone book, just to get some human contact. And those aren't fruitful studies, so they generally drop them when they're sure it isn't going to change. He said of the four or five new studies they've picked up, "most of those will wash out, too". He said that the congregation typically has 25-30 going on at any given time, which is less than one per JW. "About every third person usually has a study, give or take." After a quick story about how he covered another JW's study while the other guy was off in Trinidad, I asked how many studies he personally usually has going on. He said that his range has historically been between zero and five, but it's two these days, which he started after a period of having none a few years back. He also said that he, as a JW, typically has 25 return visits to do per month to drop off new magazines and gauge a person's spiritual interest, and that if he repeatedly detects none, he'll generally invite a person to a specific meeting, often the annual memorial service, and if they don't come, then he'll go back one more time and say, "Well, there's no point in continuing this, because you're not making any spiritual advancement, and that's what I'm here for." Most of the time, that gets met with apathy, though on rare occasions it'll spur the person to action. (I find it interesting, of course, that 'spiritual advancement' seems to have just one measure: external involvement with Jehovah's Witnesses.) He related a story of having regular 15-20 minute spiritual conversations with an octogenarian whose Lutheran wife disapproved strongly of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Uriah used to invite the guy regularly to meetings, but he never came. But Uriah figured, well, it's understandable that the elderly guy wouldn't necessarily want to drive a few cities over to get there. However, one time Uriah arrived and heard that the guy had just gotten back from a hunting trip to Maine, so clearly driving was no problem at all, and so Uriah "cranked the study up a little bit with him and told him that, you know, 'I'm gonna invite you to the memorial in March, and if you don't come, I don't really see any point in me coming here every month for nothing, for no progress,' because it's been four years, so... I lost that one, because he didn't come." He went on to say,
You try not to lose any, because although we do refer to them as "our studies", they're not. It's Jesus' study. He gave that assignment to the faithful and discreet slave, and as the other sheep we're helping them out, so ultimately it's Jesus' study, and I don't want the responsibility, I don't have the right to sit there and judge people's spirituality. That's up to them, that's between them and God, so... I'm just the tool that's supposed to be helping them through the book.
From there, he said that on many occasions, "the first thing we do in a study, by accident, is teach people how to read out loud", because that just isn't a skill that most people have cultivated and kept using in their lives, particularly when it isn't something that they themselves have written. For his own part, he said, he was forty when he started "studying the Bible", and he was "amazed at what [he] couldn't read out loud". So, naturally, one of the first barriers aside from sheer interest issues is to deal with the embarassment factor with public speaking. He said that "reading the Bible every day, discussing it with somebody every week, and going to the Theocratic Ministry School that teaches you how to do public speaking and then gives you the counsel on it every single week" is a huge benefit in keeping that ability alive and making it stronger.

He also talked about how difficult it can be at first to give talks in front of people like that; for the first year he was doing it, he said he should've brought a change of shirt because he'd soak his through with sweat during his talks. (I can sympathize. No matter how much I get complimented when speaking, preaching, or acting on stage, I'm typically panicking on the inside for about an hour before hand and most of the way through the thing!) However, it's a necessary skill for the evangelistic work that they do. Uriah said that the first "talk" they do in Theocratic Ministry School is generally a Bible reading of about 15-20 verses, which is still quite difficult for most because placing emotion and emphasis while reading is definitely an acquired skill for many. For his own part, he found that although for years he had managed several departments, run meetings for his employees, and read his own material aloud, he stumbled over words constantly when he started to work through Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life. And, while he was tempted to give up, he pressed through. And here I got to hear a little bit of the chronology of his indoctrination:
It took me a year. We started the book in June, and the following June... well, by November we were done with the book. And then I went out in service and I was preaching for about six months and then I got baptized. And, uh, it's been work. It's been work, it's been persecution, it's been blessings... it's been worth it. Even in times when I didn't have a job and money was short, I could think to myself, "Do I want to be me, poor, and in a good relationship with God, or do I want to be Bill Gates and have no Bible-based relationship with God and have billions of dollars?" And I keep picking me; my situation's better! So, yeah, I've had no regrets whatsoever. It's been work, and I'm willing to put more into it.
And then he gave some stories about how one year he was head of the installation department for a convention, and the next year he was just an assistant, and he was pleasantly surprised to find that he was okay with that, because "the work is still the work", and leading isn't the important thing. And he explained that a congregation is typically divided into service groups of 12-15 people so that elders can focus on a group and not get overworked, and each group takes turns cleaning the Kingdom Hall. And the elders have an unwritten agreement that they're the ones who clean the toilets, to send the message that they're not above anybody else. He added that one thing they tell ministerial servants who want to become elders is that "the reward for a good job is more work".

When I had a chance to ask how Shem was doing, Uriah revealed that Shem's started dating a woman from the JW congregation in Palmyra, and things are going well because "neither one's turned off by the other one". So Uriah filled me in for a bit and mentioned how some friends had managed to hook Shem up, and how things had been going since. Sounds like things are going well, and I'm happy for him. (They'll be meeting again soon at Japheth's house, but not Ham's. Ham "doesn't know anything about it, [Ham] would be judgmental".) When I mentioned that I hope I get to see Shem again sometime, Uriah said that they'd recently moved their small group's study location, but that he's still the group overseer and Shem's still his assistant, so if I want to keep studying, I'll be guaranteed to see Shem again, "so long as he isn't girl-crazy".

After some other discussion from there, largely about memories from the convention, Uriah said:
So, in case I never told you, that's my ultimate motive for coming here. To study with you, to familiarize you with the Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs, and hopefully you would progress on that, because like we said before, I'm not gonna try to teach you a religion I don't believe in. That would be stupid, that would be Southern Baptist or something. Or Mormon!
Then, after recalling that the last time LDS missionaries stopped at his door, Uriah had succeeded in placing literature with them after about a half-hour of conversation, he said that he feels sorry for Latter-day Saints, because he knows how tough door-to-door work is, whether for the "right religion" or the "wrong religion". And so he judges most of them to be sincere, but wrong, and noted that one doesn't have to study very hard to begin to see where they're wrong. He said he wasn't completely sure if Mormons consider themselves "literal Christians" (whatever that means, they do), and talked about how one is bound to stumble into believing some of Jesus' teachings just by accident.

After deciding where to pick up when we meet again on Saturday (chapter 8), Uriah handed me some of the latest magazines, including the Watchtower and Awake! from December, both of which include (naturally) some Christmas-bashing stuff dealing with the wise men, as well as the November Watchtower, which features a six-article series called "Exposed: Six Myths About Christianity". It tackles things like the soul, hell, the Trinity, the status of Mary, icons, etc., and while Uriah was impressed with how well they all hung together, I read through it afterwards and was... significantly underwhelmed. It basically included quotes from several scarcely relevant sources, some of which would only be even remotely authoritative for Roman Catholic readers, and then a few comments that wholly miss any sort of nuance. Each 'article' is maybe half a page, and half of each is just a couple quotes, and then the rest are very brief comments. Nothing for any educated orthodox believer to sweat for even a moment. Uriah, however, said that "in my mind, if somebody understands those six pages, and is attending meetings, then they're ready to join the School", referring no doubt to the Theocratic Ministry School. Presumably, "understand" has to also include "agree".

As the meeting ended, I talked briefly about the LDS understanding of the Fall (he had asked more precisely how LDS understand Genesis 3:15), and then about their identification of Adam with the archangel Michael and the Ancient of Days, which really shocked Uriah, who after a bit of silence said, "Apparently I need to go into business with some Mormons, they're willing to believe anything." He also said that he's glad that at least I can keep all this stuff straight in my head, because he doesn't think he could.

So with that, we parted, setting up our next meeting time while at the door...

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