An Open Letter to Trent Horn

Hi Trent!

I heard you on the radio last Monday talking about Mormonism. I tried calling in but the lines were busy. I tweeted you on Tuesday asking to talk about it, but you haven’t responded yet–maybe you’re busy?

At any rate, I thought this post might be a good way to open a dialogue, if you’re OK with that. Feel free to respond to any and all of the items I discuss here, or proceed as you see fit. I look forward to a friendly and respectful, but candid and productive discussion!

I didn’t hear the entire program, as I was driving around and running errands at the time, but I think I got the gist of it; certainly, I heard enough to be able to address what I think your major points were.

First, I want to offer some general observations, in the form of questions, about what I heard you say on the radio. (I’d love to hear your actual answers to these questions, please–they’re not meant to be merely hypothetical!) Then I’ll cover a few of the biggest specific issues you raised.

10 questions regarding general observations

1. You invited Mormons to call in and discuss your teachings, and this leads me to wonder: have you engaged many Latter-day Saints in conversation about your claims regarding us? Have any of them had the equivalent education and training in their religion that you’ve had in yours? Do you feel you have a solid understanding of what LDS answers to your objections are?

What have their responses been? Have you found any of those responses compelling at all?

If not, doesn’t it strike you as odd that a religion with so many adherents should be incapable of adequately explaining *any* of your claims? Might that seem to indicate the presence of confirmation bias on your part?

Do you ever address these responses in your presentations on Mormonism? If not, why not?

2. If you have not sought out responses from qualified Latter-day Saints, why not? Shouldn’t someone who professionally teaches about the perceived negatives of another group seek out responses and even rebuttals from that group as assiduously as possible as part of their own preparation? Wouldn’t that bolster your credibility and, frankly, be the most civil thing to do?

3. What have been the primary sources of your education about Latter-day Saints? What would say are your top five sources? Continue reading

Movie Review: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

indexFirst things first: here’s my ranking of the Mission Impossible series, from best to worst: 4, 5, 3, 1, 2. Yes, this new movie comes in 2nd place overall, just edging out the J.J. Abrams-directed third film, in 3rd place, but not quite reaching the perfect popcorn heights of Brad Bird’s flawlessly fun fourth entry, Ghost Protocol.

I think we can all agree that the only really bad film in the series has been the second one. What garbage that one was! I didn’t like the original when it came out, either, but upon rewatching it last year, I was surprised at how well it had aged. Or maybe it was because of how well I had aged. Either way.

If I had to summarize what makes Rogue Nation work so well, it would be this: loyalty vs. subversion. RN works in commentary on a few themes, but none so much as loyalty.  It does this both by bald exposition and by narrative subversion, contrasting the two ideas.

(And I like my popcorn flicks to have just a little of that substance to them, and good action movies these days do it quite well, embedding the ideas they illustrate quite organically, and making those ideas more meaty than those in an after school special, but not exactly trying to be Nietzsche. Chris Nolan is also very good at this–The Dark Knight Rises is even better than most people gave it credit for.)

The subversion in Rogue Nation is both a plot point and a narrative method–nobody likes supposed mysteries that cheat you with contrived twists or random reveals, but those here are neither. I like how the subversion isn’t just the inevitable betrayals that we see in the MI franchise’s stories, but direct the viewer to examine their own conception of the format. This starts with the trailer, which very cleverly misdirects us.

On the commentary track for an old Simpsons episode, the writers talked about how consciously they tried to do that with the series, to subvert expectations in a way that illuminated for the audience expectations they didn’t know they had. That’s the source for a lot of the show’s classic humor. Such a technique is used here for suspense and resolution.

It should be noted at this point that Chris McQuarrie, who wrote and directed this movie, also wrote The Usual Suspects.

[One more comment, but it’s a big spoiler, so don’t scroll down unless you’ve seen the film.]

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The Depth of Time and Detail

I don’t remember individual tweets, blog posts, or status updates for very long. I do remember individual novels, vacations, and relationships.

Time and detail matter.  They have depth, and weight, and life.

And yet, I also feel the cumulative substance of the more ephemeral experiences in which I habitually engage: meals, sunsets, church meetings, and exercise, for example.

But even after years of overindulgence, reading tweets, blog posts, and status updates have very little cumulative substance.

A ton of feathers may weigh the same as a ton of bricks, but years of sunsets outweigh years of tweets.

I want to read the complete works of Charles Dickens. I want to spend years exploring and gardening the same patch of homeland. I want to be married to the same woman forever.

These are the kinds of things that take a lot of time and involve deep detail.  They do matter because they have matter.

(Inspired by Katrina Kenison’s introductory essay to The Best American Short Stories 2006. Copied from my journal entry, 1.24.2015)

The Book of Mormon Loves the Bible and Leads Us Back To It

Some anti-Mormon critics have pointed out that the Book of Mormon uses specific and unique phrases from the Bible several dozen times.  They’re wrong, of course.

The Book of Mormon uses specific and unique phrases from the Bible several hundred times.

This amazing presentation by a BYU scholar at a recent conference on the complex language of the Book of Mormon goes into this.  There’s no concrete explanation for how this phenomenon is to be accounted for: for the faithful, we don’t know exactly how so many of these non-quotation uses appear in the Book of Mormon; for the critics, since there’s so much subtlety and deep understanding evident in the phrasing (and it in no way helped any hypothetical hoax), there’s no way to simply write this off as lazy copying.

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NPR, ISIS, and Recognizing Identities

For over a year now, when I hear NPR reporting on terrorism in the Middle East, it’s always with reference to “the so-called Islamic State,” or “the self-proclaimed Islamic State.”  NPR always uses those two, and only those two, modifiers.  Is there some NPR style guide that dictates this?

The rationale is obvious: they don’t want to legitimize the group’s theocratic claims.  Fair enough.

But is the constant use of the qualifiers necessary?  Apparently NPR is afraid that calling them merely the Islamic State–even once–will result in people thinking, “Golly, I guess those guys are the official political leaders of all the world’s Muslims or something.”  And isn’t that really an insult to the intelligence of their listeners?

Approaching this from another angle, though, reveals some cognitive dissonance.  After all, who is NPR to imply that the identity ISIS prefers is not to be honored?  Are they saying that we are not obligated to celebrate someone’s sincerely held belief about their own nature?  Obviously, there has been an uncritical acceptance of some “self-proclaimed” labels and an ideological distancing from some others.  Why the inconsistency?  What’s the rationale for qualifying some labels and honoring others?

But again, the real reason here is obvious.  For mainstream American liberal media, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

A Spiritual Metaphor

Each of us is a complicated congregation.

Paul used this fact in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, where he used various body parts to represent different gifts and callings, showing that just as a body needs all its parts to cooperate in order to work best, so does the church need a variety of gifts and offices to best perform its duties.

It occurred to me recently that we could apply that metaphor to an issue in the church today:

Each of our individual “congregations” is led by a presidency: our spirit is called to preside over the rest of us, perhaps with the mind as first counselor and the heart as second counselor.

The rest of the things that constitute ourselves–the “members,” as Paul put it–have their various functions, but all work best in an established order, cooperating harmoniously and ever submitting to the leadership of the presidency.

Whenever a member decides to disregard the order–indulging in its own desires and placing its own wisdom above that of the presidency–the entire congregation suffers.  Whatever member that is–the stomach, the eyes, the genitals, the ego, etc.–risks apostasy.

In any congregation–the global church, a stake, a ward, or our own individual selves–the best way to live is to follow the order established by God.  That means training ourselves to live under the mentoring of our leaders.

Favorite Quotes from John Taylor

“I have no ideas only as God gives them to me; neither should you. Some people are very persistent in having their own way and carrying out their own peculiar theories. I have no thoughts of that kind, but I have a desire, when anything comes along, to learn the will of God, and then to do it.”

The Life and Ministry of John Taylor

The only question with us is whether we will cooperate with God, or whether we will individually work out our own salvation or not; whether we will individually fulfil the various responsibilities that devolve upon us or not; whether we will attend to the ordinances that God has introduced or not; for ourselves to begin with, for our families, for the living and for the dead. Whether we will cooperate in building temples and administering in them; whether we will unite with the Almighty, under the direction of his holy priesthood, in bringing to pass things that have been spoken of by the holy prophets since the world was; whether we will contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the Saints. These things rest with us to a certain extent. …

Chapter 1: The Origin and Destiny of Mankind

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Fahrenheit 451 is a Conservative Classic

9781451673319_p0_v7_s456x700And I don’t mean “conservative” here just in the sense that Bradbury is arguing for preserving an established way of life, though his most famous work certainly does that.

No, despite its perennial status as a staple in the counterculture, Fahrenheit 451 defends the ideas of the right far more than the those of the left.

It’s always fun to track the many items in our modern world that Bradbury basically predicted here: earphone radios, massive flat screen televisions, reality TV, etc.  Far more prescient, though, are the modern issues of the Puritanical, tyrannical left that he saw ascending to dangerous heights.

Consider these passages from Beatty’s exposition in the first third of the book.  I’ve labeled them with contemporary problems that Bradbury described perfectly.

Censorship comes from aggrieved special interests who don’t want to be challenged.  This narrowing of acceptable ideas helps dumb down the culture and focuses it on lurid media that stimulates the body and pacifies the mind. 

“All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag.”

A sprawling government bureaucracy can infantilize society through a shallow, technical education system and a coarse, hedonistic media culture.

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

“If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.  Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.  So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

9 Blue Jokes in Shakespeare That Made Me Laugh

I admit, these juvenile gags gave me a giggle, and I kept track of them in my notes.  In chronological order:

#9. Guys get teased about someone sleeping with their mother.

Shakespeare is full of practical life advice. Like this: let’s say you’ve been secretly sleeping with some powerful female executive, which would really cause a scandal if revealed, because you’re black.

But then she gets pregnant and the baby comes out black, so the cat’s pretty much out of the bag on that one. Then, her two spoiled brat sons start whining to you that your little scandal has ruined mom’s career. What’s a guy to do?

Don’t worry, Shakespeare’s got you covered:

Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother.

–Titus Andronicus, Act IV, Scene 2, emphasis added

That’s right: tease the jerks about it. When Chiron says, “Thou hast undone out mother,” he means that Aaron has spoiled their mother’s reputation. Perhaps Titus Andronicus is set in Mississippi. But Aaron replies with one of those clever plays on words that Shakespeare is so famous for. Aaron’s response also uses the word “done,” but here it means…something more literal.

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A Letter From Boyd K. Packer, Artist

PackerArt 3Besides being a bold firebrand of an apostle, the recently departed Boyd K. Packer was also an accomplished folk artist.

Ten years ago, my family and I toured the Church History and Art Museum in Salt Lake City.  One of the exhibits was of the painting and wood carvings Elder Packer had done throughout his life.  I was struck by how excellent they were, particularly the wood carvings of small animals and birds; clearly the result of careful real-life observation and exquisite technical skill.  (An example of his work is seen to the left.)

Later, I wrote him a letter thanking him for some talks he’d given and complimenting him on his art, especially the wood carvings.

He replied in a letter dated August 17, 2005.  One paragraph reads: “I am glad you enjoyed the museum visit.  That seems like another life as the years have moved on.  Because of causes incident to age, I am not able to do that fine work anymore.”

The pathos of those statements also struck me.  I noted that he didn’t blame his lack of recent art on the demands of his ministry, but only on the realities of advancing age.  (In retrospect, it’s inspiring that despite “causes incident to age,” he still maintained a vigorous and productive global ministry for another decade after writing that letter!)

Clearly, though, he loved those carvings and it hurt to not be able to do them anymore.  At least in his golden years he had all those great achievements to look back on, and the memory of the feeling of creating them in the first place.

Truly, this was a life deeply and well lived.

More examples of his art can be seen here and here.

Leo Tolstoy on Naive Liberals

Today I read chapter 10 in Part V of War and Peace.  Our hero, Pierre, having recently become enlightened, has set out to reform his estates accordingly.  He enacts some progressive ideas and then tours the area to see the results:

 

The southern spring, the comfortable rapid traveling in a Vienna carriage, and the solitude of the road, all had a gladdening effect on Pierre. The estates he had not before visited were each more picturesque than the other; the serfs everywhere seemed thriving and touchingly grateful for the benefits conferred on them. Everywhere were receptions, which though they embarrassed Pierre awakened a joyful feeling in the depth of his heart. In one place the peasants presented him with bread and salt and an icon of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, asking permission, as a mark of their gratitude for the benefits he had conferred on them, to build a new chantry to the church at their own expense in honor of Peter and Paul, his patron saints. In another place the women with infants in arms met him to thank him for releasing them from hard work. On a third estate the priest, bearing a cross, came to meet him surrounded by children whom, by the count’s generosity, he was instructing in reading, writing, and religion. On all his estates Pierre saw with his own eyes brick buildings erected or in course of erection, all on one plan, for hospitals, schools, and almshouses, which were soon to be opened. Everywhere he saw the stewards’ accounts, according to which the serfs’ manorial labor had been diminished, and heard the touching thanks of deputations of serfs in their full-skirted blue coats.

What Pierre did not know was that the place where they presented him with bread and salt and wished to build a chantry in honor of Peter and Paul was a market village where a fair was held on St. Peter’s day, and that the richest peasants (who formed the deputation) had begun the chantry long before, but that nine tenths of the peasants in that villages were in a state of the greatest poverty. He did not know that since the nursing mothers were no longer sent to work on his land, they did still harder work on their own land. He did not know that the priest who met him with the cross oppressed the peasants by his exactions, and that the pupils’ parents wept at having to let him take their children and secured their release by heavy payments. He did not know that the brick buildings, built to plan, were being built by serfs whose manorial labor was thus increased, though lessened on paper. He did not know that where the steward had shown him in the accounts that the serfs’ payments had been diminished by a third, their obligatory manorial work had been increased by a half. And so Pierre was delighted with his visit to his estates and quite recovered the philanthropic mood in which he had left Petersburg, and wrote enthusiastic letters to his “brother-instructor” as he called the Grand Master.

“How easy it is, how little effort it needs, to do so much good,” thought Pierre, “and how little attention we pay to it!”

He was pleased at the gratitude he received, but felt abashed at receiving it. This gratitude reminded him of how much more he might do for these simple, kindly people.

Heh.  And thus we see that human nature will conspire to constipate civic charity.  I also like Tolstoy’s clear message that one of the monkey wrenches in Pierre’s plan is the corruption of bureaucratic middle managers, who exist to perpetuate their own comfort.  It was ever thus, and thus always shall be.

Yet again, the Law of Unintended Consequences in action.  Truly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Hospital Humor

My 86-year-old father has been in the hospital for the last week.  He’s stable and comfortable, but will likely be there for a while.

Spirits are relatively high, though.  When I went in on Saturday, two nurses were changing his linens, meaning his legs were left bare for a bit.  “We’ll cover you back up,” one said.  My dad’s reply was, “Just be sure to cover me with a blanket, not dirt.”

Ladies and gentlemen: my dad.

When I dropped in after work yesterday, he was asleep, so I left a note: I took a bit of toilet paper and the marker from the nurse’s whiteboard in the room, and wrote: “This man needs 50 cc’s of BEER…stat!”  I scribbled on the bottom (because doctors have bad handwriting! Ha ha!) and left it on the whiteboard for him to get a chuckle out of.

A nurse saw it first and took it seriously.  She asked the doctor about it (and here I learned that the random number I’d picked–50 cc’s–is only about two ounces), and the doctor said, “I didn’t write it, but go ahead and let him have some; it won’t hurt.”

But alas, the old guy still hasn’t gotten any.  Sorry, Dad.  I tried.

On a more curious note, is it common for doctors to write emergency prescriptions for beer in blue marker on toilet paper and leave them hanging in patients’ rooms?  I had no idea I was perpetrating such a credible hoax.

One Lesson From South Carolina

This week I’ve read a lot from both sides of the political spectrum about the shooting in South Carolina, and one lesson has become clear: never trust any commentary or report that reduces anything to a single cause, a single effect, or a single meaning.

Life is more complicated than that.  Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to sell you on easy ideology.  If we’re ever serious about some issue, we have to approach it from all the messy angles, even the ones that challenge our worldviews.