Sunday, March 14, 2010

A First Visit to the LDS Church

So this morning I made sure to get up in time for a rendezvous with a family from the ward near my college; since I don't have any transportation on campus, my missionary friends had kindly arranged me a ride today. They arrived pretty close to on time, and it wasn't a terribly long ride to the church. From the outside, it looked quite a bit like a stereotypical American Protestant church, but without a cross atop the steeple and without any stained glass. Although we'd anticipated being a bit late to sacrament meeting, we were in luck--it hadn't started yet.

When I entered the "chapel" - which in other churches would be termed the "sanctuary", ordinarily - it didn't take long for Kallinos to spot me. As (apparently) the only missionaries serving their mission at this ward, he and Demophon were sitting up front, since Demophon was playing the organ. The chapel was perhaps half the size - at best - of my own church's sanctuary, but I've come to realize over the past couple of years just how large my church is compared to some. The congregation here was of mediocre size; if I had to hazard a guess - and I'm terrible at estimating the size of a crowd - I'd venture anywhere from 60 to 70 people. As I looked around, it was mostly small families, largely couples, and I saw one older man with a magnificently full beard--especially striking considering the status of facial hair in contemporary LDS subculture. Anyway, it wasn't especially long before sacrament meeting got started, with "Amythaon", the second counselor in the bishopric, presiding. (Speaking of facial hair, by the way, Amythaon has a goatee.) Like essentially any church service, it started with a welcome and various announcements; however, a major difference soon became very apparent. With respect to a number of announcements, Amythaon asked for a show of hands of those able to sustain various motions. Sacrament meeting struck me as a hybrid of a Protestant church service, a mass, and a committee meeting, to be perfectly honest. Not that I'm necessarily complaining, I suppose, since I frankly enjoy committee meetings far more than any sane person does (I certainly don't fall into that category), but it was strange. Is this normal? (Also, I should mention the screaming babies. Several babies screaming throughout basically everything.)

Anyway, the first hymn, "Does the Journey Seem Long", was #127 in the Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All I remember is that it struck me as... well, to be honest, terrible. Now, a major factor was that as far as I could hear, no one was singing it very robustly at all, nor were we terribly synchronized. As for the actual music and/or lyrics, I'd be hard-pressed to say--it might well have been quite beautiful in itself, for all I know--but singing in sacrament meeting was a somewhat painful experience. After the invocation, we sang hymn #176 ("'Tis Sweet to Sing the Matchless Love") as the sacrament hymn. Again, not exactly a musical performance worth remembering--and that's not chiefly a criticism of the LDS church by any means, since I'm pretty sure that in a singing competition, I'd lose to a coprolalia-afflicted raccoon being slowly tortured with a thousand tiny, sharp icicles.

So then we had the administration of the sacrament, and a number of priests came forward to administer it. By "priests", of course, I mean boys - teenagers at the most, and definitely no girls allowed - considered to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. First over the bread, and then over the water - not wine, not grape juice, but water, which is a move I may never quite grasp - they recited the liturgical prayers prescribed since the early days of the LDS Church:

O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.

O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this water to the souls of all those who drink of it, that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them; that they may witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him, that they may have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.

They did the bread first, and then the water. The priests carried the sacramental elements in specially designed silver trays, which they passed down rows. I thought that this was somewhat a shame. As I watched it pass from hand to hand, it seemed unbelievably rushed and perhaps a tad mechanical. There was no time to linger over it at all. The water, perhaps, was even worse. (I will admit that, when it came to the bread, I still felt uplifted in spirit simply from the aroma of it, which connects me viscerally to the many moving experiences I've had taking communion, even though I of course didn't partake here.) First of all, the priest for my section of the chapel wasn't paying close attention to the way in which he was holding the tray, and as a result water was spilling out onto the floor--not exactly a good start when it comes to a substance that's supposed to be representing the blood of Jesus Christ at the time. They used the same little cups that are fairly common for communion in many Protestant churches, and I have to say that seeing them filled with water was a wholly alien feeling. It's amazing what a difference that made, even visually. It was just so difficult for me to associate this act with communion at all. What's more, because the tray was a thing in motion and the used cups had to be deposited into a special receptacle in the tray, it was even more rushed than the bread. One would have to take the tray, grab a cup, immediately down the water, and quickly slip the cup into the receptacle while handing it off to the next person--all ideally within maybe two or three seconds.

When all of that was finally done, we were supposed to have two speakers, but the first hadn't yet arrived, and so the second speaker, Amythaon, went first. (I'll also add that since Kallinos and Demophon didn't have to be confined to the front of the chapel anymore, they joined me in my row.) Things had been interesting... up until this point. I have no idea exactly what Amythaon was talking about, but I think it'd take a while to draft a list; the topic seemed to jump around all willy-nilly like, see? To be perfectly honest, during the talk - which perhaps lasted over a half-hour - I struggled very hard to stay awake. Since I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before (and Daylight Savings Time was no help), nor did I have anything to eat in the past 18 hours or so, that may not exactly have been the sacrament meeting's fault. Nonetheless, Amythaon - and I could tell that he was a nice guy with a decent sense of humor - nearly put me to sleep. Then, after hymn #241 ("Count Your Blessings"), the other speaker - who had forgotten to change her clock and was thus later to church than she ever had been before - gave perhaps a 15-minute talk, during which she basically burst into very sentimental tears over how God had given her strength to carry through some difficult times. After hymn #142 ("Sweet Hour of Prayer"), the sacrament meeting closed with the benediction.

All in all, sacrament meeting lasted almost as long as a service at my home church. But... there was more. After a bit of a break, I accompanied Kallinos and Demophon to Gospel Principles class (also known as Gospel Essentials class, but since they called it "Gospel Principles class", so will I) in one of the classrooms in the church. There weren't too many people in there. Kallinos handed me a copy of Gospel Principles, and as it turns out, it's the very latest edition. The teacher of the class ("Polyxena") had recently returned from a trip to Utah, from the sounds of it. Today in Gospel Principles class, we covered the tenth chapter of Gospel Principles, which deals with the subject of Scripture. [Note: From here on out, when relating dialogue in which I'm not sure who was speaking at some point, or don't want to specify, I'll just mark them with an "O" or something like that.] Elder Kallinos kicked off with prayer:

Kallinos: Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this day and we thank thee so much that-- for the opportunity to be here this Sabbath day in Gospel Principles class, we thank thee, Father, for being able to feel thy Spirit and learn from it and learn what we can do to better follow the gospel of Jesus Christ and to incorporate it into our lives, and help us, Father, to learn what we need to today, we pray in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, amen.

All: Amen.

Polyxena: Okay, today's lesson is on the Scriptures. I know I've said repeatedly in this class that I love how the book [i.e., Gospel Principles] builds upon itself. And so last week your lesson was on prophets. And prophets are the Lord's mouthpiece on earth, and where those words get recorded is in the scriptures. If you recall when we talked about the Fall and being spiritually cut off from Heavenly Father, there are ways that we've discussed that we can still maintain a relationship with him. One of them is prayer, another one is listening to the Spirit, we talked about those. Today we're gonna talk about the scriptures, which are the recorded words that Heavenly Father wanted us to know and so when we turn to the sScriptures, that also gives us the opportunity to hear God's word for us, and it was mentioned today--hey ['O']-- umm, it was mentioned today in sacrament meeting about, um, the scriptures came up a couple of times, didn't they? They are-- even though I think Sister ['O'] said, even though sometimes the stories in the scriptures have to do with people that lived on the planet in different times in a different culture, their trials are the same, they've experienced the same frustration, the same setbacks that we experience today, and so we can always turn to those stories and find comfort in our own lives as we ponder the things that helped them get through their trials. What are some of the blessings that we enjoy today because we have the scriptures so readily available to us? Is there anything that I haven't already mentioned? Yep.

O: We have the written word in book form--

Polyxena: Yeah--

O: And that's something that, some places they don't have it or their government comes down on 'em for having it.

Polyxena: Yeah, you know, we take-- I think sometimes we, we, uh--not us in this room, I mean "we" as in this nation--take the scriptures for granted because we've always had them in our lives, haven't we? Up until-- what was it, was it Martin Luther, back during the Reformation that occurred in Europe, what, just a few hundred years ago--there were no sets of scriptures! People didn't have scriptures in their home, they just didn't, they-- they existed in monasteries and-- you know there weren't that many written copies of the scriptures, they were on probably papyrus and, um, like in Alexandria, in the archives, in the Greek archives--

Demophon: Yeah, and when people copied it, they had to do it by hand.

Polyxena: Yeah, think about that! Can you imagine having to write that out by hand? So they didn't have the written word during the-- has anyone ever played the game "Whisper Down the Lane" when you were a kid?

O: Yeah.

Kallinos: Telephone.

Polyxena: Telephone? Is that what it's called? [...] in all different forms. Basically the point of that game is, you have people in a circle or a row and you tell somebody something in their ear quietly, and they have to whisper it down the line, and what usually happens when it gets to the end?

O: Totally different story.

Polyxena: It's a totally different story! And it's not intentional, is it? It's just, you know, you might miss a word here or there, or you might explain it slightly differently, but by the time it gets passed down, it's almost unrecognizable from what it started out as. Another thing that I think about too is the advent of the copier. Have you ever seen a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy? Holy cow, you can barely read it. I had to take a test, I had to take a test about four years ago to be an Italian genealogist, and, you know, I had just learned Italian not much longer before I took the test, and the first part of the test they gave me twenty-five documents in Italian that had been on a microfilm of a book that was a hundred years old. They took a picture of the original book, which had faded a bit, and they photocopied it... since 1970. Repeatedly! For the last forty years. And that's what they gave me and said, "Here, translate this." It was barely legible, it was like looking at Morse code or something or Braille, little dots on the page, and so this is what happens when you don't have things available like that: it-- it's left for interpretation, and quality degenerates over time. And so we have a huge blessing to have the scriptures so available to us--and I've just been thinking of all the different ways that we have available to us, so, okay, I have my quad here, I can flip it open and read any scripture I want. I have a smart phone, I have a scripture application that has the scriptures on it, I have the Mormon Channel app which I can listen to somebody read the scriptures to me, I can go out to the Internet on this and I can go to and I can look up the scriptures there. We have such availability of the scriptures, there should never be an excuse of why we wouldn't be able to, um, look into those. So-- so the blessing that we have to have these words available to us, um-- how do we get scripture? How do we get scripture?

O: [...] men were directed by the Holy Spirit, and they recorded it.

Polyxena: They recorded it.

O: Also with Joseph Smith and the plates.

Polyxena: Yeah, he actually did a transcription from the original record. Um, the reason that we have scriptures, it says here in our lesson that "from the beginning the Lord has commanded His prophets"--which we learned about last week--"to keep a record of His revelations and His dealings with His children. He said: 'I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their words, according to that which is written' [2 Nephi 29:11]" [(Gospel Principles, p. 45)]. So that-- So that's a big expectation, isn't it, that the Lord has put upon us? He has commanded people to record these revelations, and then he commands us to read them, to apply them to our lives. They're not just nice books that, you know, you sit on a table. That was from my previous life before I joined the Church, and I have friends, you know, who are not members now, and I'll go into their homes and I see their lovely set of scriptures on the endtable with the doily underneath it, you know, "Holy Bible" and it might have their family tree in it, and that's where it stays. It's just a decoration like something you would put on your mantlepiece. That's not the intent that the Lord had for us. You can't sleep on this as a pillow and learn the scriptures, you have to open them up. So, ours look a little different, don't they, than most sets of scriptures that you see, and there's a reason for this. We have four separate sets of scriptures that makes up the LDS canon, and we're gonna delve into each one of these today a little bit and talk about what's contained in each of these books of scriptures. The first one, everyone should be familiar with, the Holy Bible. What parts make up the Holy Bible?

O: The Old and the New Testaments.

Polyxena: The Old and the New Testament. Alright, what does the Old Testament contain?

Demophon: The writings of the ancient prophets up to the time of the-- the years before the coming of Jesus Christ.

Polyxena: Okay. So, it starts from the beginning of time, doesn't it, with Adam and Eve and the creation, and it goes up to, what is it, about four hundred years before Christ?

Kallinos: Something like that, yeah.

Polyxena: And of course you know what happens often in the Old Testament is, they're not-- they don't keep their covenant, so generally speaking somebody comes in and takes them all captive and makes slaves out of them, overruns their cities and they become captives. And so this is what happens during that time period, the Israelites became captives of, I think the Babylonians? The Persians?

O: The Assyrians-- [I think he also muttered something about Alexander the Great]

Polyxena: The Assyrians--take your pick. Somebody over there took them captive and they-- there was no canon of scripture in the Bible that-- between Malachi and the four hundred years that the Per-- that, during the four-hundred-year period before Christ comes. And then we have the New Testament. And the New Testament contains what?

O: Four Gospels.

Polyxena: The four Gospels--

Kallinos: The epistles from the apostles to the believers.

Polyxena: Right, right. Those were generally letters and things that the apostles-- and they were communicating with people that they had taught. Think about the New Testament, um, it starts at the Gospels talking about the life of Christ, it talks about him calling his apostles, about sending them out into the world to teach the gospel. Who did they teach first?

Demophon: The Jews.

Polyxena: They taught the Jews first, and then where did they go?

O: The Gentiles.

Polyxena: To the Gentiles, they went-- they left the holy land and they went out into the surrounding areas and into places like Greece and Rome and, um, around that Mediterranean area, probably into the areas of, like, Turkey and Macedonia. So because they didn't have the luxury of things like telephone and Internet and Facebook, they would have to travel--sometimes for many months--to get out and teach the people, so what they would do is, they would go out and they would set up the church in that area--kind of like the missionaries do today, they go out and they teach the people--people join the church, they set up local leadership, and then they have to leave. They don't have a sattelite broadcast from headquarters or all those things, and they didn't have a lot of written word, so oftentimes it required the apostles to write letters back where they would write and have questions. And so a lot of the New Testament that you'll see are letters that the apostles wrote back to these areas where they had gone out and proselyted [sic] and set up the church to help them clarify things that they didn't always understand. And so, um, I think it's amazing, when I study the New Testament and I think about the fledgling Christian church and how difficult it must have been for them to not have really a central leadership and have no way to, um, have that contact where they could continue learning the precepts and learning the organization of the church. And it amazes me that it continued to grow. Ummm, so those-- those are the parts of the New Testament-- the Old Testament and the New Testament that comprise the Bible. [...] One thing that I do want to touch on is, there are some parts of the Bible that Joseph Smith was required to go back and correct, because just like that game "Whisper Down the Lane" or Telephone", over time and over translation, you figure that this was written in ancient languages and over the years it's been translated and re-translated and re-translated, and sometimes if you speak more than one language you know sometimes it's not always possible to get an exact meaning, is it? And so something that I know in English, so I would say in Italian, it's not quite the same. Sometimes I'll watch a movie in Italian and I'll watch the subtitles and I giggle to myself because I think, "Well that's not what he just said. It's close, but it's not what he just said."

Demophon: And you've also got different denotations and connotations [...] hear a word, it evokes different emotion, and that same word translated into the other language just doesn't mean the same--

Polyxena: Yeah. And so what happens if, look, let's start, say you guys speak Spanish, okay, so let's start, you have something in English and translate it into Spanish, right? What happens if I come along and take your Spanish and translate it into, like, Russian? And then that guy in Russia, he wants to translate it into, like, you know, New Guinea or something? It's not going to look exactly the same as it did when I first told it to you in English, is it?

O: No.

Kallinos: Especially if I'm not inspired by God.

Polyxena: And that really is the crux, isn't it? And so there were some scriptures that Joseph Smith was inspired-- some passages that he was inspired to correct. And they are called the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, and if you have a set of Church scriptures, if you look at the footnotes, oftentimes you'll see "JST", and that's the Joseph Smith Translation. You can flip to the Joseph Smith Translation, it's usually after the Bible dictionary, and you can see the scripture. And so they're in here, it's mostly the New Testament, um, and it may just be some little tweak of a word or a phrase that helps to clarify the original intent of that scripture. Okay, so the second book we have contained in here is the Book of Mormon, and this was, as we just talked about, transcribed from plates that Joseph Smith was directed to go and dig up. Those plates were written in a reformed Egyptian, and the reason why they were written in that language and not in Hebrew which is probably what they spoke, is because the reformed Egyptian characters were less wordy, they could fit more of them on the plates. Can you imagine, like, having to hammer out a piece of metal and then carve in what you were writing? So it really helps to keep that simple.

Demophon: So, like, if I said, "Please open your big, brown book and dust off the pages," you'd just-- you could say that in Hebrew and then in English, or reformed Egyptian, you would say, "Open the book."

Polyxena: Yeah. So it was a condensed, more condensed language, easier to be able to put on these plates. The Book of Mormon spans about a thousand years, starts about six hundred years before Christ was born, which takes us in parallel with the Old Testament to, I think the time of Jeremiah the prophet, and goes up to about four hundred years after his death. We often are told that the Book of Mormon contains the fullness of the gospel. Does anybody know what that means, "contain the fullness of the gospel"?

O: I think [...] ancient people's history?

Polyxena: Okay, it does contain the ancient peoples' history. Think about what we've talked about with the problems we have with the Bible.

Demophon: The Book of Mormon explains the gospel, teaches the gospel, more purely, more simply, more directly than the Bible does, and it was only translated once, so there's a lot less, you know, margin of error.

Polyxena: Right. There were no-- the other thing about the Bible, the word "Bible" just means a collection of books, and what it is is just a collection of writings, and if you go to different churches around the world you have all-- like, we use the King James Version, but some Catholics use a Catholic version of the Bible and it contains other books like the Maccabees, the Book of Wisdom, it contains extra psalms, it has extra writings in it that the Catholics deem to be canon for them, and so they've added them. I think the Russian Bible has books that the Catholic Bible doesn't have and the King James Version doesn't have, and so there's lots of versions of the Bible that are collections of writings. Um, I-- this is one of the reasons why in the Articles of Faith we say we believe the Bible "insofar as it is translated correctly" because, um, and that we don't believe that it's solely the only canon of scriptures, it's not the only Word of God that's out there, it just happens to be the collection of books that a council agreed upon at that time. Were there other writings? Most likely. Um, are there writings that are still out there that haven't been discovered? It's very possible. Very possible. The Bible as we have it today is what was assembled at, I believe in the Council of Nicea during the Constantine's days [sic], and so that just happened to be the collection of books. So we don't know that it contains the fullness of the gospel; but the Book of Mormon, we know it does. We know it does. It contains all of the teachings of Christ, and the way that he set up his church when he was here on earth. And again, it was only translated one time from the original source. Yes, the Book of Mormon exists in many different languages, but we translated it from one language, the original language that we have it in, which is in English, and we translate it into different languages so that people can have this book. But we don't translate it from English into Spanish and from Spanish into Greek and from Greek into Russian and from Russian into Chinese and from Chinese into Portuguese. It's always only translated a single time. And so it's a very pure-- as you said, it's very simple, it's a very pure version of the scriptures. Um, one of the things it says on the title page of the Book of Mormon is that it's "the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book". That's a very powerful statement, isn't it? Ezra Taft Benson, who was a prophet of the Church about forty years ago, "helped us understand how the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion" [(Gospel Principles, p. 46)]--does everybody know what a keystone is? Before I start talking about it? We're in the Keystone State, aren't we? Okay, the keystone, it's shaped like this, so think of a square but wider at the top, smaller at the bottom.

O: Triangle.

Kallinos: Trapezoid.

Polyxena: And ancient architects discovered that when you want to build an archway, in order for it not to collapse you put the keystone in there. And what does it do?

Kallinos: Holds it all together.

Polyxena: Holds it all together, right, so the arch doesn't collapse. It's a specially formed stone that is the foundation of that arch and that, without it, everything would fall apart. So it's a very apt description of the Book of Mormon. But Ezra Taft Benson said there's "three ways in which the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. It is (first) the keystone in our witness of Christ. It is the keystone of our doctrine. (And) it is the keystone of testimony. The Book of Mormon is the keystone in our witness of [Jesus] Christ, who is Himself the cornerstone of everything we do" [(cf. ibid.) Parenthesized words are additions by Polyxena, while bracketed ones are printed in the text but omitted verbally. Words bracketed in the text are not bracketed here]--he is often referred to, isn't he, Jesus, as the cornerstone, he has been referred to as the keystone--"It bears witness of His reality with power and clarity.... It broadens"--this is on page 47, if you're looking at the book--"It broadens our understanding[s] of the doctrines of salvation.... The Book of Mormon... was written for our day.... In it we find a pattern for preparing for the Second Coming" [(cf. Gospel Principles, pp. 46-47)]. The people that lived oftentimes in Scriptures, the people that lived during the time that the book was recorded, were not the beneficiaries of what was being written; they were living it. This book was written for us; it came forward in our time, in this dispensation. "The Book of Mormon teaches us truth and bears testimony of Christ.... But there is something more. There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book. You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. The scriptures are called 'the words of life,' and nowhere is that more true than it is (in) the Book of Mormon.... 'Every Latter-day Saint should make the study of this book a lifetime pursuit'" [(cf. Gospel Principles, p. 47)]. I have a friend who's been studying the Book of Mormon and the Church for almost a year now, and it took him about four months to work through the Book of Mormon. And it's fascinating to me, as we have these daily e-mails back and forth, to see him changing. And when I was in Salt Lake City last week, I was talking to my friends about him, and I was reviewing some of the e-mails with them, just kind of grabbing one here or there that I felt was important, and I thought it was really interesting to me to see the transformation in this individual over the time that he was studying the Book of Mormon, the truths that were revealed to him, the way that he understood his faith was profound, and I am just so amazed at watching that, I mean it's sometimes easier to see that in someone else than it is in ourselves, especially if we're in the middle of going through it, we don't often have that perspective, but it's really easy when we see it through someone else. And so it's just been really great to see as he applies those principles in his life, watching that transformation for him, and so I know what Ezra Taft Benson says is true, that you will find great power in these scriptures. Does anyone have any questions about the Book of Mormon, before I move on to Doctrine and Covenants?


Polyxena: Okay, so the Book of Mormon was written by ancient peoples here in America, it was written for our time. We also have another canon of scripture called "Doctrine and Covenants". And this is a collection of modern revelation, and I like to think of it-- when I was looking at this lesson, I started thinking of Doctrine and Covenants-- if the Book of Mormon and the Bible and especially the New Testament are more like the doctrine of the Church, I think of Doctrine and Covenants more like the operational manual. Would you agree? Elders, would you agree?

Demophon and Kallinos: Mmhmm.

Polyxena: It's sort of the operational manual because it tells us things like... it talks about the organization of the Church, it defines offices of the priesthood and their functions, um, it talks a lot about, um, it talks a lot about the work we do for the dead in there. It really goes into detail about why we do it, why it is important, and it really gets into, like I said, the operations of things. Some sections of Doctrine and Covenants contain prophecies of things to come. God has commanded it to us to study his revelations in Doctrine and Covenants, he says, "Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled" [(D&C 1:37)], and it's really funny because I got an e-mail when I woke up this morning, my friend sent it to me at six o'clock this morning and I thought, "This is so great, it's perfect for my lesson today." He, uh, he hasn't joined the Church though I bought him a quad because he's in such a serious study of the scriptures that I thought it would be beneficial to him 'cause he likes to cross-reference everything on the footnotes, and so he started reading Doctrine and Covenants, and I asked him-- he said that he was reading this while he was donating blood yesterday and so I asked him last night, I said, "What section are you on?", and he said he was in section 9 and 10, and this is what he said about it, this is a guy, he read the Book of Mormon last year and he's worked his way-- he's working his way through the Old Testament, I think he's just about up to Isaiah, and in his spare time when he's not in the deep study of the actual Old Testament, he's been reading Doctrine and Covenants, and this is what he said to me, and I thought this was so profound: "I found it interesting to have such a conversational tone about what was going on between God and Joseph Smith and ultimately to Oliver Cowdery. However, now having read a good bit of the Old Testament, I'm not so surprised of this. It just 'works'", he put it in quotes. When you-- when you have put yourself into a study of the scriptures, you will start seeing patterns, patterns of the way God communicates with man, the way God communicates with the prophet that he's established on the earth, you will see that pattern repeated over and over and over and over again. When-- when he first started reading the Old Testament, he said to me, "I never even bothered with the Old Testament because, well, there's nothing important in there for us in our times, right? Those are all the laws and Mosaic laws, we don't live the Mosaic Law anymore, what does that have to do with anything, why even bother with the Old Testament? It doesn't even talk about Christ." And I said, "What? The entire Old Testament is about Christ! Everything in the Old Testament speaks of Christ, it prophesies of Christ, it's a similitude of Christ! Everything in the Old Testament, if you go back and you look at it, you will see that everything in the Old Testament is like a big red flashing arrow pointing to Christ! That's what you're gonna find." And that is exactly what he found in his study of the Old Testament, and now when he goes back and he says, "Now I want to go back and read the Book of Mormon again, because I really got the Book of Mormon the first time but now that I got the Old Testament I want to go back and read the Book of Mormon so I can see even more of how much it works!" And now that he's reading Doctrine and Covenants, he's getting that same feeling: "God speaks to man through a prophet, I get it, I get it, it's true." And now if he would just join the Church! He's close, he's close. He's, he's-- lemme just tell you a little, this guy, he's a professor, he just got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, he's very smart, he was the valedictorian of my high school graduating class, he was one of the smartest people I ever knew. And this is his, this is his challenge, he's so smart he wants to figure everything out before he makes the decision. And I would just all laugh, don't we, because you know, you can spend the whole rest of your life studying this, and you will never, ever have all the answers. You will never have it all figured out. So I keep hoping that he gets there and he's like, "Okay, I know enough, I know enough to make a decision." So anyway, we'll keep praying for him. Alright, so in our last few minutes I want to talk a little about the last book that we have in our canon, this is called the Pearl of Great Price. What does the "pearl of great price" mean? It's from, it's from the scriptures, what's the "pearl of great"-- think about pearls, they're not a gem but they're hard to come by, aren't they?

O: Mmhmm, it's a treasure.

Polyxena: It's a treasure, isn't it?

O: Yes, and it's what we should sell everything we have to buy that treasure. And it parallels on the--

Polyxena: Yeah, think about a pearl, think about where it comes from, it grows over time, doesn't it? It's very valuable, they're hard to come by, you can open a lot of oysters and not find one usually and just end up with a slimy little piece of meat. So you come across a treasure like a pearl, that's wonderful, but a pearl of great price, I believe there's a scripture in the Bible that talks about the pearl of great price, but anyway, the Pearl of Great Price in our canon of scripture contains the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and some inspired works of Joseph Smith, so it's just like his history and his story of the First Vision and all of that. "The book of Moses contains an account of some of the visions and writings of Moses, revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith. It clarifies doctrines and teachings that were lost from the Bible and gives added information concerning the Creation of the earth" [(Gospel Principles, p. 48)]. I love the Doctrine-- I love the Pearl of Great Price version of creation because it's much more specific and I know when we were studying creation, we flipped back and forth between Genesis and the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham, didn't we? We talked a lot about the specific things that were just enough-- just enough light clarification that it just cast an entirely different view on things, like remember when we talked about, as they created-- as the Gods created different parts of creation, whether it be, like, putting the earth together or, you know, building plants or things like that, they would wait to see if it was good. And you see that these were creation periods, that they would take what was there and they would do something to it and they would wait to see if it would work. And then once it was good, they would say, we'd wait to see if it was good, and they went on to the next thing. And so it's little tiny things like that when I go on and read the Pearl of Great Price that I find such treasures in there, just gems of knowledge. Um, the Book of Abraham was translated by Joseph Smith from papyrus scrolls taken from the Egyptian catacombs. So this is what I was saying before about the Bible, it was the collection of materials that some council decided, "This is what we want in here", and again, maybe not inspired by God. There may have been other books that were necessary that contained parts of the gospel that were lost, which is why we're so lucky to have the Book of Mormon to give us the fullness of those things. And so I know that the Church has done extensive study into the Dead Sea Scrolls, there's something that in like the last twenty or thirty years we've heard a lot about the Dead Sea Scrolls. They continue finding these papyri and different things that, um, stone tablets and-- I was watching something, I don't remember where it was, it wasn't Church-related, it was like on the Discovery Channel or History Channel, that they actually had these kind of, um, wooden things that they would write on, and they were hinged together and they would fold up like an accordion, and this was another way that they used to record things in tablets, a soft pulpy part that they would scratch in their writing, but it was, like, wooden and it was on this wooden frame that would close up. And so they're constantly finding as they dig up archaeological sites, they find different things, and so Joseph Smith happened to come upon this papyrus scroll and there's actual images of it in the Pearl of Great Price that you can look at. And again, Joseph Smith--History and history of the church and Articles of Faith. Umm, almost out of time! I want to talk a little bit about people's personal favorites, but, um, one thing that I wanna really use, a quote that's left [...] today, is--besides the fact that we should study our scriptures all the time, we should set aside time every day to read them, ponder them, pray about what we've read. I know that there's times when we need counsel in our lives, we flip open those scriptures, again, it happened to a different people in a different time in a different culture, but I know that there are scriptures that I have read that applied directly to me, and I want you to know that the words of our living prophets are scriptures for our time, the Ensign, the Liahona, those things, General Conference talks--that is our version of scripture, those are our prophets speaking to us today, they are being recorded and they are being archived, and that things are continuing to be revealed to our prophets today.

And this time, one of the missionaries chimed in to make sure that everyone knew when General Conference would be (April 3 and 4), and that it could be viewed at the church via broadcast; they talked about that for a while; Demophon also noted that "it's been said among the prophets of years past that the living oracles, or the living word of God, is more important than the actual canon of scriptures that we have. The words of the prophets that live today are more important than the words of dead men." Alright, everybody got that? What you hear at General Conference is not just scripture but is in fact more important than the contents of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Anyway, the lesson eventually managed to wrap up--finally. It was interesting. I have to say that there were a few times when I had to restrain the urge to laugh, particularly when Polyxena was discussing the formation of the canon or the transmission and translation history of the Bible. (Hint: virtually every English translation currently in circulation is translated directly from the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. All those steps of translation invoked as a spectre? Yeah, not an issue these days. They haven't been since, well, since before the time of Joseph Smith, largely. And the process of transmission is hardly akin to "Whisper Down the Lane"/"Telephone", but is a considerably more reliable process, for all its difficulties. Thanks to the science of textual criticism, we can be reasonably confident that our critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek text are more or less in tune with the original manuscripts--and while Latter-day Saints are free to believe that a whole bunch of things have been removed that were there before, that doesn't strike me as much more reasonable than most conspiracy theories.)

So with that done, I learned that there was even more to do yet; one of my missionary friends, might've been Kallinos, referred to the LDS Sunday morning experience as "a three-hour marathon", and he's right! (Incidentally, Kallinos told me that I was free to keep the copy of Gospel Principles that I'd been using--sweet!) The third installment of my visit was constituted by accompanying Demophon and Kallinos to priesthood meeting, after some customary visits to the lavatory (in turns) while waiting for the chapel to empty out from whatever had been there before. So there I was, with Demophon and Kallinos, near the front of the chapel for priesthood meeting. (Interesting note: although, because LDS missionaries are instructed to refer to themselves, and have other people so refer to them, as "Elder So-and-So", without a first name - which is viewed as a matter of controversy by some outsiders - I noticed that both Demophon and Kallinos had their full names embossed in gold lettering on the back covers of their quadruple combinations.) Now, priesthood meeting is just for the dudes; there's something different at that time for the women of the church. And while that struck me as somewhat unfamiliar in one sense, in another sense, I have to say that I actually enjoyed it. For some reason, paring it down to just the guys gave the room a somewhat different feel; hopefully the women, wherever they happened to be, had a similarly freeing experience.

Anyway, at the start of priesthood meeting, various priesthood holders gave reports on what they've been up to, on various committees, upcoming events, etc. Demophon and Kallinos reported very briefly on their activities, too. We also sang hymn #105, "Master, the Tempest is Raging", which I remembered as one of Elder Gerald Causse's favorite hymns--and with us all in closer quarters and without the women, it sounded much better. And then it was time for the lesson; the guy teaching it was a rather loudspoken man who intimated that he might be a sociology professor somewhere; I'll be calling him "Pterelaos". The lesson for this time around was on creation, drawing on the fifth chapter of Gospel Principles. Rather than quote anything verbatim, I'll summarize the main points I found interesting. First of all, I'd forgotten that traditional LDS interpretation holds that Genesis 1 is about the "spiritual creation", while Genesis 2 concerns the subsequent "physical creation". Everything was created "spiritually" before it was created "physically"; what this means, precisely, I'm not totally sure. But this interpretation was considered to be simply obvious on what was, in fact, quite a slim scriptural basis--allegedly stating that various things were created again (i.e., physically) in Genesis 2 that were already created (spiritually) in Genesis 1. (The argument hinged chiefly on Genesis 2:5, which says that God made "every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew"). Pterelaos also added that Moses 1:33-35 shows that our cosmos is only one of vastly many of God's created realms; and, discussing obtaining knowledge of God and quoting Moses 1:5, he said:
But seriously, you know, he basically told him, 'So no man can behold all of my glory and yet remain in the flesh.' Now what that tells us is that when we are no longer in the flesh, a lot of these mysteries that we have - necessarily so - they'll be shown to us as we see things from an eternal perspective, as we get to the other side of the veil, we'll be able to see things like our Heavenly Father sees them, and then we'll know exactly what he's talking about.
There was also, naturally, the customary misuse of Genesis 1:26-27, as though physical similarity (Pterelaos claimed that the Father "used himself as the blueprint in terms of our creation, our bodies") were really the point of the passage--which, as later passages make clear, is not the point of being made in the image of God, nor does other ancient Near Eastern literature indicate that any sort of physical similarity would be at all required. Pterelaos, in asserting that we and God have the same sort of bodily form, supposed that the alternative would involve God being "some mist out there", which of course is not what any sensible orthodox Christian believes, but is rather a caricature born out of the LDS tendency towards materialism. The plural pronoun in the passage was also claimed to indicate our Heavenly Parents, both Father and Mother--though even distinctively LDS scripture such as Moses 2:26 refers this to God the Father and God the Son.

Pterelaos also talked about how in our pre-mortal life, we learned everything we could from Heavenly Father before taking the step into mortality. I'm not sure I consider that possible; I suspect that, even assuming the overall structure of the pre-mortality narrative, one would have to concede that there's vastly more that we could learn that we haven't already, even assuming that we've forgotten a great deal by passing through the veil of ignorance. Just my thoughts. Also, one person in the audience--and Pterelaos agreed--considered the best biblical evidence for our pre-existence to be Proverbs 8... which, granting that line of interpretation, is exclusively about Jesus, not about us. Whenever Pterelaos mentioned the "Book of Revelations" [sic], I cringed, and in particular when he and everyone else there assumed as patently obvious that we--that is, our spirits--are the ones symbolized there by stars. Job 38:7 also got a weird twist--the reason for the morning stars (i.e., us, in LDS thought) shouting for joy is that we saw that we could become like the Father. (In actuality, the verse is talking about the angels rejoicing in God's creation out of their intense love for God and for his works.)

There was also discussion of John 1:1-3 and the Joseph Smith Translation's rewrite of it; Pterelaos asserted that the priesthood authority that they have is the same power by which the world was created. His exact words, to the best of my recollection: "So actually if we go back further the Word was with God, and it was through the Savior that-- now why would they even make reference to that? In other words, the Word of God and the way all these things were created-- by what power were all these things created? By the priesthood, exactly. And the priesthood, by definition, is the authority to act in the name of God." (Uh, question on that, actually. If authority to act in the name of God is the priesthood, but women aren't allowed to hold the priesthood in the LDS Church, do women have any authority to act in the name of God at all?) In addition, Pterelaos took a question from the 'audience' about what it means to call Jesus the "only-begotten Son of God", and here was the reply given:
Right, right. And that's why the Savior was created in the way that he was as well. Notice, he's the Only-Begot-- we read that in chapter 1 [of the Book of Moses], he's the Only-Begotten of the Father; what does that mean, to be the Only-Begotten of the Father? Unlike you and I, who are born of two mortal parents, he's the only person born in the flesh on this earth who has literally a mortal mother and an immortal father. Okay, that union presented an individual that could take upon himself the flesh and yet remain perfect in spirit. He inherited those qualities of body being able to live and die, but those qualities of perfection to be totally in tune with the will of the Father, he inherited from God himself, and that's what enabled such a sacrifice and atonement to take place. That's what makes him the Only-Begotten of the Father, because of that ability to exist in that manner.
Also, turns out that one of Pterelaos' hobbies is ranting about intelligent design. Loudly. And for quite some time. There were a number of references to evolutionists believing in "life coming from mud" and other such things. Now, I make no secret around here of my general stance on the subject of evolution, though I have no intention to make any creationist readers feel particularly uncomfortable; having once been a very ardent creationist myself, I'm sympathetic. But I found it quite interesting that Pterelaos was using essentially the same arguments (and, oftentimes, caricatures) found in the writings of many creationists and/or other ID theorists. Here's an excerpt from his rant:
You know, it's kind of interesting, you know, when you look at the creation, it's interesting if you look at, you know, the people who make fun of intelligent design, okay? And, you know, basically if you look at Darwin in The Origin of the Species, if you read that book, Darwin's hypothesis is that all man evolved from the very beginning from a single-celled organism, okay? And it's of course nature that, you know, allows this to happen and brings us forward, but you know it's kind of interesting because if you look at that theory-- I mean, to me it is illogical to assume that life happened without a creator. Most scientists will tell you, you know what produces life? It's DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid; Crick and Watson discovered this, okay? And basically what we see is that we have strands perfectly aligned together in a double helix comprised of amino acids. Now, just to give you an idea that we can understand in terms of numbers here, for the most primitive form of life, a one-celled creature, you need about a minimum of 250 proteins for this building block of life, in order for life to exist, alright? With these strands in sequences of four, in terms of the DNA strands. Now, to put this in vaguest terms, in order for that to happen by chance in nature, imagine if you will - and this is what would have to happen, by chance - you have to go to Vegas, and each slot machine not having three but four mechanisms, come up boom-boom-boom-boom, A-B-C-D, all of them come up the same, okay, all A's, all B's, all-- okay? You would have to hit 250 slot machines and win at every single one of them in the proper sequence, boom-boom-boom. So you would have to hit 250 slot machines, all with-- and win at every single one of them in the exact same order in order for that to happen by chance. How does life come from mud? And what scientific experiment can you show me where life comes out of nothing? Where it reproduces without one of its own kind, without one of its species? Where in science-- and I remember asking a philosopher this, I remember engaging in a discussion because you gotta understand, as a teacher, you know, as a professor of sociology I interface with-- and I-- and basically a lot of your philosophers, they are atheists, okay, by nature, because generally what they learn is that their mind, if you can't prove it, if you cannot wrap your brain around it, so anything that they don't understand or cannot logically prove, they dismiss as bunk, okay? This is what teachers (?) do oftentimes. And I remember, you know, talking about evolution, and, "Well, it's, you know, God is a problem (?), why would you believe that... [trails off here]", and I says [sic], "Name me one scientific experiment where life comes from nothing, where a species can reproduce without a member of its own kind." "Well, in laboratories they've done--", and I started laughing, he says, "What, what's so funny?", I said, "You just said the magic word, 'in laboratories'. And who sets up a lab? A scientist. Therefore the scientist would be the creator in the very example that you just put forth! It didn't-- that lab didn't just come together on its own; it was organized by a scientist, by a chemist. Every example that you've given me points to the origin of a creator, somebody who put that lab together, somebody who had orchestrated the phenomena that brought this life together!" I said, "To try and convince me that life comes from-- how do we go from mud to life? Name me one example of that."
So that, in essence, is my summary of Pterelaos' talk delivered during the priesthood meeting. (After the part I quoted, someone in the audience got him going about entropy, which took us on yet another brief wild ride, but one that didn't take quite as long because the audience member also wanted to pontificate on climate change and the Tower of Babel, and then Pterelaos got back into natural selection. I think it was Demophon who also chimed in with a note about how great composers were divinely inspired to write the music they did.) After some concluding remarks on gospel principles, the atonement, self-discipline, the remission of sins, and "return[ing] to our Heavenly Father", he concluded with the phrase, "And this testimony I leave with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen", to which all naturally replied, "Amen", followed by a closing prayer. After everything wrapped up, I chatted a bit with the missionaries and a couple other folks (one guy actually thought to ask if I was LDS, and I infomed him that I'm an evangelical) before my ride was ready to leave; I returned to campus just in time to catch brunch with a couple friends and share with them my initial thoughts on the experiences.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Carlos Woke Up

I've decided to write a reply, of sorts, to a post I ran across a little while ago on another blog. That blog, the Jehovah's Witness Blog, is run by a former Jehovah's Witness who goes by "Carlos Scienza" (which, I think, he's intimated is more or less an anagram of his actual name). Carlos finally left the Jehovah's Witnesses several years ago, and has been an atheist since then. By and large, when it comes to many of the intellectual and social problems regarding Jehovah's Witnesses, I'd surmise that Carlos as I are quite in agreement. Needless to say, because he's an atheist and I'm a Christian, there are quite a few other issues on which he and I differ quite widely. So as I said, I ran into his blog a while ago and found him to be an atheist when I stumbled across the post, "What made you wake up?", about what finally drew him away from Jehovah's Witnesses. (Carlos included a particularly entertaining scene from the comic strip Bizarro; that alone would make Carlos' relatively brief post worth looking at.) I tried to leave a comment or two for Carlos there, but they appear to have gotten lost in cyberspace. Not an uncommon problem for me. It thus seems more efficient for me to just write a post in response.

The first big issue is the reliability of the Bible's accounts of Jesus, and Carlos has this to say:

I wanted to find out what the bible was, when it was written, and why. I discovered that there were other accounts written about Jesus, such as those found at the Nag Hammadi site. I got to watch a documentary called The God That Wasn't There. If you thought you knew the truth about Jesus Christ, you'd better check your facts.

A plethora of books and websites helped me see that the New Testament was certainly not prophecy, but written after the fact by people who never met Jesus. Paul was the first Christian writer whose works survived, but his Jesus was more like a Star Wars Jesus - A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...

Read Paul's writings again. You'll find no time period for Jesus, no lineage, no ride into Jerusalem, no being put to death story. What you will find, is that Jesus was a mythical man. Did Jesus ever live? Maybe, I don't know? But nobody wrote of such a miracle worker during his lifetime.

I learned that many God-men of many religions came down to earth and were born of a virgin. Apparently, that is the basic formula - A God-man is larger than life if he visits people. People know that he was born of a woman, so they have to say that his birth was miraculous and pure. Look up Horus and Mithra.

Now, I'm not sure whether or not Carlos realizes it, but the vast majority of what he's said here is in direct contradiction to essentially all contemporary scholarship on all of these subjects. The degree of contradiction is, in fact, every bit as extreme as the Jehovah's Witnesses' insistence that the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians occurred in 607 BC--see here. A first comment, though: the title of the movie that Carlos references is actually The God Who Wasn't There, not The God That Wasn't There. A very minor nitpick, I know, but I want to make sure my readers (well, alright, the vast empty halls of cyberspace, then) know the correct title of the movie.

Now, first, it is true that we have no surviving documents that mention Jesus and that were written during his earthly life. This is, as a matter of fact, wholly unremarkable. Jesus was a peasant leader in a backwater of the Roman Empire, a backwater in which literacy rates were not nearly as high as they are today; furthermore, this society was predominantly oral in its modes of communication. In fact, the prevailing attitude of the ancient Mediterranean seems to have been a preference for orality rather than literality. Furthermore, Jesus' ministry lasted, most likely, for around three years. Before this time, Jesus did not perform any acts that would be likely to have made a serious impression on any of the literate elite; and thus we have, essentially, a three-year window in which some expect there to have been literary activity regarding Jesus, a figure who operated solely in Judaea and Galilee--places from which we have no surviving documents that date to precisely those three years, so far as we can tell. It is, in short, not a historically reasonable expectation. Moreover, contemporary literary documentation is not the standard demanded by historians; it is not sound historical methodology. If we were to limit our historical knowledge to exclusively contemporary sources (along with, of course, archaeological findings), we would know exceptionally little. Moreover, we would have no reason to believe in the historical existence of figures such as:

  • Gamaliel, a first-century rabbi
  • Hillel, grandson of Gamaliel and another important rabbi
  • Shammai, another leading rabbi of his period
  • Honi the Circle-Drawer, a charismatic Jewish sage
  • Hanina ben Dosa, another charismatic Jewish sage
  • Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha
  • Apollonius of Tyana, first-century Pythagorean sage
  • Alexander of Abonoteichos, a religious charlatan posthumously lambasted by one of my heroes of the ancient world, Lucian of Samosata
  • Speusippus, Plato's successor as head of the Academy in Athens
  • Alcetas of Epirus, a great-grandfather of Alexander the Great - although he was mentioned by Demosthenes, that great orator was only 14 when Alcetas died, and so the speech doesn't count as strictly contemporary evidence
More importantly, if just a few works had failed to survive, we'd have to add others to this list, including Socrates (if we get rid of Aristophanes' Clouds). And, for that matter, without archaeological evidence like coinage, we'd have nothing certain and contemporary for even someone so crucial as Alexander the Great; all of our surviving literary documentation for him comes from long after his time. I could probably augment the list even further. For example, I'm not sure that we have any contemporary evidence for, e.g., the Roman consul Quintus Fabius Vibulanus (our knowledge of him derives from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita Libri, if I recall correctly)

Carlos also talks a bit about the story of Jesus (or, rather, the purported lack thereof) in the letters of Paul, which are without doubt the earliest surviving Christian documents. Does Jesus lack any sort of lineage in Paul's thought? Well, Paul talks in his letter to the Christians in Rome about Jesus, "who is descended from David according to the flesh" (Gk. autou genomenou ek spermatos Dauid kata sarka--Romans 1:3). A similar reference appears in the Pastoral Epistles at 2 Timothy 2:8. David, as was well known from the Hebrew scriptures, was a historical human king of Israel, founder of the dynasty that would govern the Israelites for centuries. Even if one wants to be especially skeptical and suggest that there was no historical king David (which is, I think, contrary to the best archaeological and historical indicators; I'll also note that Carlos appears to accept a historical king David), Paul and his contemporaries accepted that David was a real human, a real king--and it would seem difficult to chart a genealogy between a human David as an ancestor and a descendant named Jesus who lived in a mythical realm. The opposite direction has precedent--one may consider the putative descent of the Merovingian Dynasty from Merovech's alleged father, a sea monster of some sort--but I know of no other case in which, apart from apotheosis of a human figure, a completely heavenly, mythical figure was thought to be descended from a flesh-and-blood human who had lived at a particular time in human history.

What of Jesus having "no time period"? Well, the Pastoral Epistles mention that Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13), which specifies a ten-year window. Admittedly, not all are in agreement that the Pastoral Epistles are authentically Pauline, though I think that they are. So we can at least say that perhaps Paul made a reference to Pilate. We may also gather a reference to Jesus' earthly life in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, which most certainly places Jesus on earth. Apart from that, Paul doesn't give any specific chronological data of use. He wouldn't have had to, in his context. There would have been relatively little reason to mention it in his surviving letters, all of which were written to people well aware of when Jesus had lived and died. We cannot simply make the jump from 'Paul never mentions exactly when Jesus lived on earth' to 'Paul doesn't believe that Jesus ever lived on earth'.

Perhaps an analogy would be at least marginally helpful. We may imagine a world in which our surviving sources for early Jehovah's Witness history were Joseph F. Rutherford's Religion, his Comfort for the Jews, his Salvation, and the three volumes of his Vindication. In this collection--much, much larger in size than the existing Pauline corpus--there is absolutely no mention of Charles T. Russell. The name "Russell" is utterly absent; only a mention of "Russellites" can be found in the second volume of Vindication. It is true that Russell is not the subject of any of these works, but by the same reasoning by which Paul's lack of detail means a mythical Jesus, so too perhaps Rutherford's lack of mention in these works would, to some people in that alternate world, mean a mythical Russell. (Of course, if we add a few more works by Rutherford, such as Harp of God or Millions Now Living Will Never Die, then we gain both Russell's name and some chronological indicators--made possible by the convenient dating scheme used in twentieth-century America.) Moreover, were everything before the tables of contents lost, not even Russell's own Studies in the Scriptures (excluding the seventh posthumous volume) would offer any information about Russell that would aid in dating him. With the exception of the letters from C. Piazzi Smyth and a missionary in China quoted in Thy Kingdom Come, and one brief reference in the sixth study of The New Creation, even Russell's name would be entirely absent.

Now, Carlos also comes to mention the "many God-men of many religions" who, he says, "came down to earth and were born of a virgin". He cites two examples, Horus and Mithra, to whom I'll return momentarily. I'd first like to say that divine incarnation of any sort comparable with that found in Christianity is exceptionally rare in world religions; in the most precise sense, I'd say that it's in fact totally unique. It is true that many divine or heroic figures of the ancient world were thought to have had peculiar conceptions... but few of these actually fit the bill of being virginal conceptions. To take the case of the Egyptian god Horus, for example, he was most definitely conceived during an act of intercourse between the Egyptian god Osiris and his wife/sister Isis, as can be confirmed by consulting Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride (well, the Greek title would be Peri Isidos kai Osiridos). I've yet to come across a primary source that claims that Isis was in fact a virgin when she gave birth to Horus.

As for Mithras (or Mithra), there's the tricky question: which Mithra? There was the Mitra spoken of in the Vedas, the Iranian deity Mithra, and finally the Mithras of the Roman mystery religion of Mithraism. They need to be carefully distinguished in certain regards, since their stories frequently differ. Generally the extravagant claims about Mithras rely to an extent on the outdated scholarship of Franz Cumont, who worked under the outdated assumption that Iranian Mithraism and Roman Mithraism were substantially connected in a way that more recent Mithraic scholars have wisely rejected. As for the virgin birth of Mithras, it should be noted that the Roman Mithras was born from a rock (see, e.g., the thirteenth section of Commodianus' Instructions for the statement that "the unconquered one was born from a rock"). The Iranian Mithra, on the other hand, was in some accounts a direct creation of Ahura Mazda, being numbered among the yazatas, and so not born at all. Neither of these options gives Mithras a virgin birth.

Similar analysis reveals that many of the other claims made to this effect (viz., that the story of Jesus derived from those of pagan deities) are similarly incorrect; they largely derive, originally, from 19th-century freethinkers who failed to substantiate much if any of their data from primary sources. Those few claims that do initially appear to have some connection with the primary sources are generally either inconsequential (i.e., no more significant than noting, for example, that both the English king Henry VIII and the Chinese emperor Jianwen (Zhu Yunwen) had special headgear) or else are rooted in a misinterpretation that has since been corrected by the advance of scholarship.

In general, when it comes to these topics, the one book I'd recommend reading is called Shattering the Christ Myth. And I'm not just recommending it because I happen to have been one of the contributors (Chapter 22, the longest in the volume, is mine). There are certainly other very relevant books, such as The Jesus Legend (which I haven't read yet), but Shattering the Christ Myth deals accessibly in depth with essentially every issue that Carlos raised. The 'silence' of Paul? Check. The lack of reference to Jesus in surviving strictly contemporary records? Check. Horus? Check. Mithra? Check. Other alleged similarities to pagan deities? Check. The movie The God Who Wasn't There? Check, and for a bonus we'll throw in a second movie, Zeitgeist. In short, perhaps the most thorough published response to date to those who espouse some of the views that Carlos has adopted since breaking ranks with Jehovah's Witnesses.

Finally, I'll also note that Carlos makes reference to the finds recovered at Nag Hammadi. This was an immensely important archaeological discovery, uncovering a cache of documents, many of which otherwise had been lost to the ages. They tell us a great deal about a fringe group (or family of groups) very active in the second and third centuries AD. They do not, however, tell us terribly much about the historical Jesus, although some of them (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas) can at times be useful for checking sayings of Jesus recorded in both the canonical gospels and in the Nag Hammadi texts. What these documents contain, however, is very, very foreign to the soil of first-century Palestine, the setting of Jesus' life. Many of these documents contain highly non-Jewish ideas that would have been extraordinarily strange to find in the mouth of Jesus. To try another analogy, if archaeologists in the future were to unearth some Jehovah's Witness's "theocratic library", those future scholars would undoubtedly learn a great deal about the Jehovah's Witnesses, a fringe group very active in the nineteenth, twentieth, and (so far) twenty-first centuries AD. They would not tell us much about contemporary biblical scholarship or mainstream American religious life. It would seem peculiar if those future scholars were to seriously re-evaluate their views of either of those fields on the basis of that recovered theocratic library; likewise, although I've read a number of the documents from the Nag Hammadi library, nothing in it has given me reason to re-evaluate my views of the historical Jesus, precisely because they shed no new light on him, but rather use him as a spokesman for ideas that he is historically very unlikely to have ever held.

Carlos also wrote in his post:

I already saw that science could easily debunk the Old Testament stories of the flood and Genesis in general. I learned from documentaries and websites that archaeology and science proved how man is much older than the Bible makes room for, there is clear evidence for evolution, a global flood could not have happened, the Jews didn't have an exodus from Egypt, David was the king of a small empire that never included the entire 12 tribes, and that the Jews were still clearly polytheists in the days of David and Solomon, and they never ever actually lived under the Mosaic Law (which could not have been handed from God to Moses).

I learned that the Bible came out of a group of captive people in Babylon, possibly from more ancient writings but edited. I learned that it's stories were much like the stories of the Sumerians.

Both the Old and New Testaments were written chock full of legends that were full of fables (short stories, based on half-truths), but certainly not literal accounts. It seems that Judaism started out as allegory that nobody really believed, just as nobody really believed there were actual gods residing on Mount Olympus. Someone forgot it was a fable along the way. Same with the Jesus stories.

Well, where to begin my comments! I first want to focus on the first part, and then I'll no doubt skip around a bit here and there. I really have little objection to the first part of what Carlos said. As I've said on my blog before, I'm an evolutionist. I don't believe that the earliest sections of Genesis, up to and including the Flood narrative, were meant to be taken as history in anywhere near the sense that we understand it; this means that I, of course, don't see an inevitable collision between biblical authority and the general scientific consensus about the biological origins of humanity--both of which I accept.

(A caveat, however: documentaries are a notoriously poor source of information and have a strong tendency to sensationalize and interject bias through unbalanced selection; they inevitably involve sound bites. Generally speaking, I avoid documentaries unless I'm in the mood to yell at the television set. I prefer to get my information, not from documentaries nor from websites, but chiefly from published work by scholars in the relevant field.)

As for the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and various other things Carlos mentioned, I do accept the substantial historicity of those events, which are probably too complicated to discuss in any reasonable detail here. I will, however, recommend K. A. Kitchen's book On the Reliability of the Old Testament, which I've found to be an exceptionally persuasive treatment of the Old Testament. There are other books devoted to the exodus, such as James Hoffmeier's Israel in Egypt, but I haven't read it yet and so don't know to what degree I'd recommend it or not. I'm somewhat intrigued about what Carlos does think about the scope of the Davidic kingdom (which, while a 'micro-kingdom' of the sort common at the time, does appear to me to have included all the Israelite tribes). As for the Jews being polytheistic in their early history, we need to consider whether this statement is meant to cover normative Jewish religion or popular Jewish religion, which can be two quite different things. The Kuntillet Arjud ostraca, for example, are hardly surprising as examples of popular Jewish religion; the biblical authors are quite clear that much of the history of Israel and Judah was full of idolatrous deviation from normative Jewish religion, which was monolatrous at the least, if not necessarily explicitly monotheistic (primarily because, at least in the beginning, monolatry would have been the most pressing matter). I'm very curious, too, about what Carlos is saying with respect to the Mosaic Law.

Carlos is right when he says that many of the things in the Bible have parallels in Mesopotamian literature. (That doesn't necessarily indicate direct borrowing of those elements during the Babylonian Captivity, however. Many of the relevant motifs and narrative structures were commonplace in the ancient Near East.) I'm a lover of ancient Near Eastern literature, which means that I've read plenty of creation myths, flood narratives, and a whole slew of other documents from ancient Near Eastern civilizations.

When it comes to the general tenor of the Old Testament and New Testament, I'll have to disagree with Carlos. First, his definition of "fable" is non-standard insofar as it references "half-truths". Also, in the accepted sense of "fable", the biblical narratives do not consist of them. I think that genre and context are highly important for understanding the Bible, and I do agree that the Old Testament contains ahistorical narrative genres, particular near the beginning of Genesis; I do not, however, think that the New Testament should be read this way, because the genre is different. The story of Jesus is told in four Greco-Roman bioi ("lives", or ancient biographies--see Richard Burridge's What Are the Gospels?), not a collection of fables. One can reject the historicity of those biographies if one wishes, but they do not seem reducible to the level of allegory. I'm also not certain that it's true that no one ever believed that the Greek gods actually dwelled spatially on Mt. Olympus. (I considered trying to climb Mt. Olympus while in Greece but didn't have the opportunity; if I'm ever back in the area, I wouldn't mind tackling at least the Skolio summit.) I'm not entirely certain what Carlos means when he says that "Judaism started out as allegory that nobody really believed", though it appears to flatly contradict what Carlos said elsewhere to the effect that "in early times, the Bible was taken at it's [sic] word". Whatever Carlos precisely means when he speaks of early Judaism as wholly allegorical, if it means anything beyond the mythical character of, e.g., Genesis 1-11, then I'd be quite interested to hear more and also to hear some of the reasoning behind the claim.

While I'm offering a few assorted comments, I'll add in that, if Christian faith were indeed as Carlos describes it, I don't think I could have it. One popular definition of "faith" is, sadly, "firm belief in something for which there is no proof". (Technically, that isn't necessarily a problem, if we distinguish properly between "proof" and "evidence". Strictly speaking, I have no proof that Carlos even exists; I do, however, have strong evidence. Strictly speaking, I'm not even sure I have proof, per se, that the earth exists, but I certainly have far more than sufficient evidence to warrant that belief.) Generally speaking, I'm not a large fan of having "firm belief in something for which there is no [evidence]". I believe that God exists; I would contend that I do so at least in part because I perceive that such is a reasonable belief to hold and is warranted by evidence. I wouldn't say that I have faith that God exists, because I strive to use "faith" more in the sense of pistis, the Greek word used in the New Testament and commonly rendered as "faith". It gives more the sense, usually, of conveying the sense of loyalty and trust, which is perfectly compatible with having good reason to extend that loyalty and trust. It is in this sense that I have faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (This way of speaking survives in speaking of a "faithful" spouse; this clearly has nothing to do with "firm belief in something for which there is no [evidence]".)

To conclude this post, though, I want to say that although I disagree with Carlos on issues such as God and the Bible, his site is definitely worth reading, particularly for interesting insights on what it was like being raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses and what it's like transitioning away from loyalty to that group. That's why I'm happy to include it in the blog sidebar here.