Friday, December 30, 2005

Why I read anti material

Every so often, people I know question my judgment. And my testimony. That’s fine, I can handle it. But sometimes, I feel I have to set the record straight. This is one of those times. Recently, members of my wife’s family found out I read so-called anti-Mormon web pages regularly. They couldn’t understand why I would fill my mind with such filth.

Well, I only heard about the conversation afterwards, and my wife satisfied them, but I suspect they still wonder at me. People wonder enough about me, as it is. I suppose I should put their minds at rest. To start, I will give a little of my history.

Part I: Encounters on my mission
I first encountered anti material before my mission, but handily ignored its existence. It was not worth my time, I thought. Why bother, when I know the truth? Once, when I was about 15, I attended a local Baptist church with two friends, both of whom were Mormon. We did this instead of attending Wednesday night adolescent program called Mutual, which was boring to us. While at the Baptist meeting, we stood out as outsiders and many approached us afterwards. When they found out we were Mormon, well, they had plenty to say. We were told many awful things in an attempt to change our minds. Our prophet is evil, the Book of Mormon adds to the Bible and Revelation prohibits that, etc. It ended up being a Bible-bashing session, and little was accomplished for either side. I suspect that all of us left that encounter without anyone changing their minds.

While on my mission, I had many opportunities to discuss and debate what others called false doctrine of the Mormon church. I hated not knowing how to answer the hard questions that others asked and spent a good deal of time reading up on how to defend my faith. Just one example out of several from the early months of my mission:

One time, while I was a junior companion, my companion and I encountered a well-dressed and well-educated man on the street. My companion began telling him about the Book of Mormon and how we can know the truth. As a second witness of the Savior, it removes the confusion that is found in the rest of Christianity. The man asked us, “If the Book of Mormon is supposed to cut through the confusion, then why are there so many Mormon factions?” He had a good point. I don’t recall how that conversation ended, except that the man with whom we spoke did not pursue the discussions and we left largely disappointed.

That conversation bugged me, because I did not have an answer.
I decided that that line of reasoning might work for a new investigator, but there has to be more. The church isn't true just because the Book of Mormon exists, or the RLDS church and all the others would also be true. No, it is the principle of continuing revelation that makes a church true. It is the unbroken authority that makes a church true. The Book of Mormon helps, but is not the only thing. It is the Holy Ghost that confirms which is true. You can't just use the Book of Mormon, because it is not enough. Neither is the Doctrine and Covenants (or Book of Commandments). Again, it is the Holy Ghost that will tell you the truth of all things.

Later on in my mission, I went with my companion and another set of missionaries to an appointment the other elders had arranged, a follow-up appointment. Upon sitting down on their couch, the African-American couple said that their pastor had given them something to watch. They pulled out a VHS copy of the Godmakers. I knew what it was, but had never seen it before. Well, I got my chance. The entire room was quiet, the entire way through the film. There was a dark feeling, most definitely not the spirit of God. Afterwards, even the couple admitted they didn’t like the feelings associated with the video. We all discussed it and laid to rest some of the concerns. However, in the end, we couldn’t address every point of the movie, and did not want to. We each bore our testimony and asked permission to sing “I Believe in Christ.”

The meeting ended on a positive note, but that night opened up an understanding to me. There are people who go to great expense and expend a great deal of energy trying to tear down the church. Lies and distorted truths are not beneath them.

Part II: Post-mission encounters
These were not the last time I saw such information. At least once or twice a month, people would give me pamphlets and books to read about how horrible the church is. In my naivety, I dismissed much of it, just because it didn’t fit with what I knew. In other words, some things I thought were lies turned out to be true, but taken out of context or blown out of proportion. And some things were true and just not spoken of by the church. However, I did read all I was given, and compared how it sat with me to how the scriptures felt. I could feel the spirit as I pondered the scriptures, for instance, compared to the anti material I had seen that night.

In 1996 and 1997, I continued to explore LDS themes, but this time, online instead of in books. Like many people, I had recently discovered the joys and perils of the world wide web. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not have any official web presence at this time, and anti sites proliferated. I read a great deal of garbage about the church, but also plenty of truths I did not previously know. My mind was not changed, but I learned to take anything I heard about the church, positive or negative, with a grain of salt. Just about anyone talking about it seems to have an agenda, either to push it or to pull others away from it.

In 1998, I had a friend named Jamie who was not a member of the church. Her only previous experience with the church was a friend named Joseph Smith. This ironically named young man had been raised in the church but now hated it. He had a website on Geocities that attempted to discredit the church. He also claimed to still attend church, because LDS girls are “easy.” He and I never met, but I was more confident at this time, more able to speak my convictions and back them up with information. We passed a few debates by email before we both gave up trying to change the other person’s mind. While ultimately fruitless in changing either of our minds, the exchange was educational. To that point, I had not personally talked to a lapsed member about the church.

Part III: Which brings us up to the present
I laid off on actively searching out anti material for a few years. I still would see things occasionally, online and in print, and would read it. However, I spent some time reading more faith-promoting things, but only the deeper doctrines, such as those presented by Hugh Nibley. However, I had been maintaining a web page since 1997, in some form or another. I found myself with a plethora of LDS links, hosted on my web page, a listing that just kept growing. I started to organize it and eventually gave the list its own page. Then, in just the last few months (meaning, earlier in 2005), I decided to try my hand at writing LDS-themed articles. No real reason except that it interested me. My brother, who has long been interested in this topic, started contributing links and we started collaborating. Guided by the lessons I had learned in the past, I decided to maintain that balanced look at the LDS church.

I am still a believer and an attendee of church. However, I view the church as a human institution, no matter how divine the interventions that led to this church’s creation. Why? Well, I cannot escape the conclusion that imperfect humans lead the church and their fingerprints are on everything the church does. Is this bad? I do not think so. I believe that if it continues to ennoble and uplift, to inspire and uphold good values, it is a good thing.

Of course, there will be those bad elements who try to use guilt instead of teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves. There are going to be those who do not live the Christ-like life they claim to espouse, who are hypocrites, prideful and spiritually void. However, there are enough honestly good people trying their best to find salvation through Jesus Christ.

Part IV: Why I continue reading anti literature
I read an article not too long ago titled The Impact of Mormon Critics on LDS Scholarship, by Michael R. Ash. Michael builds on the statement from Hugh Nibley, "We need more anti-Mormon books. They keep us on our toes." Brother Ash tries to show how opposition to the church has improved the quality of Mormon research. He gives numerous examples of where lazy research and just wrong statements have been accepted for years by members. Eventually, our mistakes get aired and LDS scholarship flourishes around that mistake, bringing out new understandings. “Sometimes, the critics are right. Sometimes, they can help point out our errors,” opines Ash. I agree. Without critics, we are too blind to our own faults. It takes outsiders to keep us humble.

I have learned much by keeping my eyes open and reading other histories and essays not favorable toward the church. What I’ve learned is that these were ordinary men and women who founded and built up the church, not demigods. They had mistakes and flaws, passions and egos, intelligence and blind spots. I have learned that the gospel of Jesus Christ, in any dispensation, has been passed by God to men and women. It came to them perfect, but was and is distorted by the hands of humans. And I have learned that this distortion is OK. It is just how things work in this world. God works with it.

I’ve learned there is absolute truth, and relative truth. There are some things that do not change, that can be considered absolute to the belief system of a Latter-day Saint, like the belief that Jesus is the Christ, and Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Then there are things that can change. The mode of sacrament, from wine to water, is one such example. The temple endowment is another. These relative truths are the ones that get changed from prophet to prophet or dispensation to dispensation. They are not wrong for their changes, just altered. They still attempt to draw people toward the absolute truths. That is their purpose. See for more development on this subject.

The church is not perfect. I am the first to admit this. And so, I must say this: however much good it does, the LDS church must always strive to do better. We can never rest in our effort to do more, to go the extra mile, to extend beyond ourselves. If that means listening to critics sometimes, then it is worth it. I believe that for this reason alone, we should not dismiss anti-Mormon literature.

In addition, I dislike not knowing what others were saying about us. How could I make a rebuttal, or stand on my own knowledge when confronted by critics, if I failed to prepare beforehand? Those against the church are always searching for new ways to tear down that which is good. It is irresponsible to ignore those efforts. I think back to my ignorance as a missionary, and it bothers me. When confronted by Jehovah’s Witness material against us, bringing up the Adam-God theory, I had no idea what to say. My defense was indefensible, feeble. I remember doing the best I could, struggling with the quotes from out of the Journal of Discourses, and eventually, I came up with the explanation that it was a purposeful misquote. That was enough to satisfy the investigator who asked me, but I know now that it was not enough. I demanded more of myself. I feel we all need to have higher expectations of ourselves. Turning a blind eye does not solve the problem. Neither does hoping it will go away.

I would not suggest to all Saints to read “anti” material. It is not always easy. It can make you doubt. It is not always comfortable. Some people do leave the church after reading or watching this kind of material. I will not call such people weak-willed, where others might. I feel everyone has the right to feel and believe as they wish. I would only hope that any decision would be made after weighing all the evidence, but even then, it is your right to let another tell you how to believe. In the end, each person has to take a stand and decide what they really believe.

I cannot claim to be a great defender of the faith. I cannot claim my testimony is unshakeable. I cannot claim to know everything. I cannot claim I have never doubted. What I can say is that I have examined as many viewpoints as I could. I can say that I read “anti” material and give it equal time to faith-promoting material. I can claim to know enough on which to base a decision. And what is that decision? To stay where I am, despite historical discrepancies, despite the flaws and mistakes of men and women, despite valid complaints against the society of the saints. That is where I make my stand, willingly and with my eyes open.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

In honor of Christ

I don't have any fancy ideas for this. I just wanted to make a quick note.

I love the Savior. He is my finest friend. About two thousand years ago, God gave the world his most Beloved as a gift (John 3:16). 33 years later, Christ gave his life for the world (Galatians 1:3-4). They have given us the greatest of gifts. We cannot possibly pay for what was given to us. It was out of pure love that this gift was given. I would encourage us all this day to find something in our lives amiss, and make a change. Give the gift of your heart to the Savior by striving harder to be like him. I love him with all my heart, and I know that he truly came to this world. He was born for us, lived for us, died for us, and now lives again for us. This I testify is true. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Brigham, the Man and the Prophet (revised)

There are issues where I stand differently from others I know. One in particular is my defense of Church leaders. It may sound like nothing that different, but one thing that I have observed is that there are generally two camps: those who acknowledge the leaders and see them as near-faultless, and those who see their faults and look down upon them for it. I fall into what I believe to be a rather small third party. I note the faults in Church leaders, past and present, and I grow to love them all the more for it. I refer the reader to some of Mathoni's blogs on this matter (those addressing the beauty of the humanity of our leaders), as they are very poignant and deal with the matter very well.

I wish here to take up a little defense of the second president of our Church, President Brigham Young. I will not go into any real depth, but I do wish to show a few of his virtues. He was a man of faults, and is often criticized by any anti-Mormon and even a good many Mormons for those faults. He finds in this post, however, his praise, as he was the man called by the Lord to lead the Church of Christ.

One of Brigham's great virtues is his loyalty. Often portrayed as self-assuming, Brigham's humility is very well exemplified by his loyalty to the Prophet of the Restoration, Joseph Smith. Let us look at some quotes on the matter.

"Of the Twelve Apostles chosen in Kirtland, and ordained under the hands of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and myself, there have been but two but what have lifted their heel against me -- namely Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball."
-Joseph Smith
(May 28, 1843. DHC 5:412.)

"As the Mormon movement grew, Smith became larger than life, but he also ended up with a mixture of friends and foes - with difficulty knowing who was who. Many of those who denounced Smith were his closest friends, who referred to him not as a "false prophet" but as a "fallen prophet." Smith became so troubled by this that he frequently tested the people around him...On one occasion, he vigorously chastized Brigham Young - accusing the latter of something he had never done in what was clearly a harsh, cruel, unfair manner. As Brigham said, 'Joseph, what would you have me do?' - Smith broke down in tears and hugged him. 'Brigham,' he said, 'I was testing you and you have passed.' "
-Truman G. Madsen
(Joseph Smith, The Prophet)

In many ways, the true determinant of a man's greatness is his subjection to God and those leaders whom God has placed over him. Joseph was the Prophet, and Brigham never sought to undermine him. After Joseph died, Brigham still did not exalt himself above his friend and mentor.

"I feel like shouting hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith."
-Brigham Young
(Journal of Discourses, 3:51)

What I have received of the Lord, I have received by Joseph Smith; he was the instrument made use of. If I drop him I must drop these principles; they have not been revealed, declared, or explained by any other man since the days of the apostles.”
-Brigham Young
(Journal of Discourses, 6:279-280)

One of the greatest examples of trust comes from Brigham Young. The way he viewed Brother Joseph is the way we should view all the Prophets

“Though I admitted in my feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults.”
-Brigham Young
(Journal of Discourses, 4:297)

If a prophet called of God can look past the faults of another, I suspect that we owe that prophet the same courtesy. Brigham loved Joseph, there is no question there. He knew his place, and gave his heart in his humble capacity.

As we know, Joseph Smith was murdered, a signature to his work certifying its completion. But who would lead the Church? This issue was a problem not yet experienced by the Saints, and many did not know how to deal with it. People like Sidney Rigdon, James J. Strang, David Whitmer, and others saw themselves as the new leader of the Church, and denounced President Young’s claims as a usurpation of authority. This would not be in his character, nor necessarily was it his desire. He merely chose to accept the burden that was placed upon him. When he first learned of the Prophet’s death, he thought all was lost. It was only after pondering and prayer that he realized the duty that was his. When he spoke to the general assembly of Church membership in Nauvoo regarding his call to lead, this is what he said:

"For the first time in my life, for the first time in your lives, for the first time in the kingdom of God, in the nineteenth century, without a prophet at our head, do I step forth to act in my calling in connection with the quorum of the Twelve, as Apostles of Jesus Christ unto this generation—Apostles whom God has called by revelation through the prophet Joseph, who are ordained and anointed to bear off the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world."
-Brigham Young
(B.H. Roberts, Succession in the Presidency of the Church. p. 8, emphasis added)

Judging from this, I don’t believe he reached for more authority than was his. Perhaps he only sought to do his best at what God asked.

Some say that Brigham was iron-fisted in his governing of his people in the West. As a man who spoke what was on his mind, and as a man who had to conquer a desert, his methods may have seemed harsh, especially by today’s standards. John A. Widtsoe stated that one of Brigham’s defining traits was his loyalty to truth. He further said, “Brigham Young is reputed to have had a strong will. That was needed in the conquest of the desert. Many have failed to understand that in the exercise of his will and power he was not autocratic, but firmly determined that truth should be obeyed.”
(Gospel Interpretations, p. 224)

His loyalty to truth and demands for obedience were what the Lord needed at the time. That is why he was called.

Throughout his life, he taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“I am not bound to wife or child, to house or farm, or anything else on the face of the earth, but the Gospel of the Son of God. I have enlisted all in this cause, and it is in my heart, and here is my treasure.”
-Brigham Young
(Journal of Discourses, 14:19)

He loved the Gospel, and gave about 400 sermons, touching on numerous doctrines. Some will criticize him for some of his teachings (again, learn better perspective from Mathoni’s post), but he taught with power and authority, emulating the Savior as best as he could.

As Brother Brigham slipped from this world into the next, the final words to hang on his lips were, "Joseph, Joseph, Joseph." Those words were humble and loving, still acknowledging who was his mentor and leader. He loved Joseph. He loved Christ. From the moment he turned his life over to the Gospel after a two-year investigation, he never turned back.

Despite all I have shown, I can scarcely do justice to this spiritual titan. I do know however, that despite the bad light that some may cast on him, if we take a moment to reorient ourselves, we may see that he was a man of God in all respects. He was the one called to succeed Joseph Smith. He was the one called to ensure the continual rolling of the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

My Father, My God, part II

We know that God is our Father. With plenty of scriptural evidence, I have clearly illustrated this fact in part I. We’ve learned that he is corporeal, with a “body of flesh and bone as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22). It has been shown that we are begotten in his image. We are his offspring. All these were shown in part I. But knowing that he is our Father is different from knowing him as our Father. In other words, part II is devoted to the effects of having a relationship with our Father.

Now this may seem odd, but I will use some of the different names or titles of God to express our relationship with him, starting with the less personal, and drawing closer and closer.

God and Lord. These are titles that can refer to either the Father or the Son. They are the same titles that are also used for the heathen gods or lords of earthly dominion (at least when not LORD in all caps, in which case it is actually a translation of Jehovah). Despite the commonality of the occurrence of these words, that does not diminish the value of referring to him as such. The true God is the creator of all things, and reigns over all. His lordship extends to the infinite bounds of the Universe and we are his subjects.

Elohim. That is the name-title of God. It was used extensively by the Hebrews to refer to the God of their fathers. Elohim is actually is plural for Eloah, and both are usually translated as God in the Bible. In reference to the true God, the word “Elohim” is used 2,570 times in the Old Testament, as opposed to the 57 times that “Eloah” is used. It is a glorious title, and though the name is written as plural, it is to signify his greatness and glory, the God of gods, the Most High God (see Psalms 136:2, for instance). His name shows his deservedness to be worshipped, respected, and honored. It truly calls to mind his magnificence, and it should not be used wantonly or disrespectfully. It is the name to which he is referred in the temple, and we should treat that name with reverence and respect, honoring his glory through it.

Ahman. This is a name that is generally unused, and is not even particularly well known among the general population of the Church. It only has a couple of references within scriptures. What would be more enlightening is this quote by Orson Pratt: “There is one revelation that this people are not generally acquainted with. I think it has never been published, but probably it will be in the Church History. It is given in questions and answers. The first question is, ‘What is the name of God in, the pure language?’ The answer says, ‘Ahman’” (Journal of Discourses 2: 342-343). Immediately following, Elder Pratt explains that Christ is called “Son Ahman,” explaining D&C 78:20 and 95:17. In those revelations, it is the Son Ahman, or Son of God who is speaking to us. But what does this name mean? Well, the certainty of it is unknown, but Bruce R. McConkie feels that Ahman is Adamic for Man of Holiness (Mormon Doctrine, “Ahman”). Reference to Man of Holiness comes from Moses 6:57. The significance of this shows what God is: an exalted Man. God is a Man, one who has undergone mortality, and even now has a body. He is not a mere essence or substance. He has flesh and bone (see part I), and therefore has a great deal in common with us. He is a Man, and likewise we are gods (John 10:34), making us of the same race. Ultimately, we can be like him. But understanding this relationship leads to an even more personal name.

Father, or Heavenly Father. What a title! Of all his glorious names, the most commonly used and seemingly preferred is Father. A little doctrine may be discussed here. God is the Father of our spirits, as has already been illustrated in part I. In both respect and in love, I call my earthly parents father and mother, or other terms of similar nature. I never call them by their first names. Similarly, I call Heavenly Father my Father out of both respect for his authority, as well as out of love for our relationship. It is interesting to note that we actually have disowned him. This may sound somewhat shocking, but it is true. Upon our sinning and yielding to our fallen nature, we cast off that sacred relation. But through the Atonement of his Son, we are again adopted back into his family. We are forever his literal offspring, just like a child who may be adopted still has his biological parents, but we are restored to our former status as heirs to his throne through his Son. Let us look at some scriptures. "But as many as received him, to them gave he [Christ] power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12). “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:14-15). As my seminary teacher taught, a puppy grows to be a dog. A child of God grows to be a god. But our place as his children must be restored via Christ. Starting with verse 16 of the preceding chapter, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” As his children, literally and “legally”, we have the right to his throne, heirs to his kingdom alongside his Son.

Those who look at their own scriptures might note that in the quotes from Romans, a particular phrase was left out. Recognizing that we are God’s children, “we cry, Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). Likewise, we read in Galatians 4:6, “And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” The name or title of Abba will be my final focus. The Bible Dictionary teaches that Abba is “[a] personal, familial term for father as used in Hebrew…and later by Greek-speaking Christians, as an intimate name for the Father in Heaven.” It is this name that I find to be the most personal. It reminds me of a time when in lonely Gethsemane, our suffering Savior uttered these words: “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). Think upon the tenderness of the moment. Many have equated Abba with “daddy” in its intimate nature. Christ, pleading with the Father whom he knew so personally, the one with whom he had the closest relationship throughout his mortal life and all eternity, meekly asked, “Daddy, help me.” It is that same sort of intimacy that Christ restored to us immediately after that cry. His remaining hours were spent bringing us back to the point where we can look to our God, our Creator, our Father, and recognize him as “Abba,” our Daddy. He is our Father, and knowing this will give us the strength to do his will, because we will truly know who we are.