Wednesday, December 18, 2013

about my Mormon thing...

In my quest to learn more about Mormonism, some ex or current Mormons may wonder where I'm coming from. Friends & family may wonder why I'm so obsessed with this weird religion that nobody we know even belongs to. Or most likely, nobody cares but I want to write it down anyway. This is my attempt to explain my Mormon thing.

No, I am not becoming a Mormon. I'm pretty much an atheist. But I do owe my very existence to Joseph Smith. That might have something to do with my fascination of the religion he started.

I grew up knowing, vaguely, that I came from Mormons. I really only knew two things:
  • 1) My ancestors were among the first Mormons who came over to Salt Lake City with Brigham Young.
  • 2) At some point the church did something bad to my one of my more recent ancestors and that's why our family hasn't been Mormon since.
My family rarely talked about it and I never thought about it much. I knew I had some distant relatives who were still Mormon, but my mom's parents never were and had moved the family from Salt Lake to California in the 1950s so we pretty much lost touch with all those left behind in the holy land. All I knew about Mormons was that the Osmonds were that.

In the late 80s I went through a fundamentalist Christian phase. In "cult class" we were shown this cartoon, which I now know was made by right-wing evangelical Christians for exactly the reason it was being shown to us: to shock us with their most bizarre beliefs so we would laugh at them, feel superior, and conclude that Mormon's weren't real Christians. "They worship the wrong Jesus." Seriously, my pastor said that. Also from the cult class curriculum: Proctor & Gamble is satanic because its symbol is a Muslim crescent so don't buy Dawn or Tide anymore.

In the 90s my boss was a 70-something-year-old Mormon bishop. When he was around other Mormons he was a lot different than he was when they weren't there. The public Mormon one was kind and wise; the one I worked for was holy-shit racist and kind of a dick. Mormons had leaders like that? Didn't say much for the religion in my estimation. (Only now do I realize how much grief I caused him- I wish I could apologize but he's probably dead by now). He gave me a Book of Mormon but I didn't get very far into it because I couldn't take it seriously; people didn't say "thou hast" in the 1800s, this is so obviously made to look Bible-y! Recently I heard a phrase that describes exactly what it looked like to me then: Bible fan fiction. I did admire what I learned from him about their social safety net, but was horrified when he told me one day that after work he was off to teach a class to young boys about how they should never masturbate. Seriously. I developed a sense that Mormonism seemed to work for people who have a natural inclination to just believe & do what they're told and be happy; those with a more rebellious or independent spirit I imagined were pretty much screwed.

My YouTube edit of Hello
In 2003 I learned a little more about Mormonism from the episode of South Park "All About Mormons". Dum dum dum dum dum! The last speech by the little Mormon boy really got to me, ("Maybe Joseph Smith made it all up. But I have a great life because of it.") but that was nothing compared to what was to come, when...

In 2011 came Book of Mormon the musical.
That show touched me more deeply than I believe anything ever has, ever. It allowed me to transcend my cynicism about how ridiculous religion is and feel the beauty and wonder of the humanity beneath it. The message I took away from it was: Look how silly and wonderful we all are. I truly believe it made me, on a deep level, a better person.

Penn Jillette said it well in his video review of the show, calling it the best thing he had ever seen: "It says Mormons are wonderful; Mormonism is bullshit." I know they're about as unrealistic a depiction of Mormons as any other musical heroes are, but I fell so in love with the Mormon characters in that, that if real ones ever come to my door again I'm going to be so super nice to them now.

Not that I saw the Mormon back story as anything in any way plausible. Here began the fascination:
How can perfectly sane & intelligent people dedicate their lives to such a blatantly ridiculous story that some guy so obviously just made up?

And, as the little Mormon boy at the end of that South Park episode claims, does believing it really make their lives better?

I delved into Mormon history, if watching documentaries and YouTube videos counts as delving.  I watched hours of Brigham Young University TV, continually astonished at how seriously they all took this stuff.  I was never laughing at them; I could see these were very decent, rational people whose worldview revolved around a very bizarre set of myths, probably because that's all they were ever taught. It was really a kind benevolent fascination. Which I imagine sounds totally condescending, sorry.

Then I discovered the ex-Mormons. I found out there are brave, smart people who are struggling to un-believe stuff that I'm struggling to understand how anybody could believe in the first place.  This guy in particular struck me to the core. His story is astounding and heartbreaking yet he courageously battled his way out using only his reasoning and genuine desire for the truth. I LOVE THIS GUY.

I can kinda relate to what they're going through in one very important way; un-believing all the Christian stuff was a slow and painful process. It's hard to give up the Bible especially. It's nice to think there's an authoritative guide book to life. I also had to struggle with the whole "is this the devil trying to trick me?" thing that recovering Mormons struggle with. So I can sympathize with them on that level, as far as the collapse of one's entire worldview. But my friends and family were mostly just relieved when I finally stopped bugging them about Jesus. This is where the ex-Mormons' bravery leaves me in the dust. They lose their friends, their family, their life's plan, and the entire community they grew up in, all because of their desire for the truth. That takes some serious moral courage I can't even imagine.

I'm trying to learn many things simultaneously; what practicing Mormons believe now (short of actually reading the Book of Mormon, which, as Elder Cunningham says, is so boring!), how it positively and negatively affects the lives of those brought up in it, and what the real history is.
"I've just been crucified on the
other side of the world, you guys"
There is a very nicely illustrated series of videos on the official church YouTube channel that tells the mythology from the BoM; about the ancient Jews who built boats and sailed to America. I really wanted Nephi and Moroni and all the rest of them to be actual characters I could wrap my mind around rather than just funny fake Bibly-sounding names. But even after watching all 54 videos, no dice. Theirs is an uncomplicated narrative. People act for only two reasons, because they love God or because they are wicked.
The characters are every bit as one-dimensional as Bible characters. Maybe in the actual book the characters are more complex than in the video series, but I kinda doubt by much. And the moral of all the stories seems to be the same: thinking for yourself is wicked. Good people just obey God. And at the moment, this guy here speaks for God.

From Grate God Almighty
It's hard to know who or what to trust when it comes to learning the real history of Joseph Smith & the early church. The official Church version of events is obviously highly sanitized and controlled. One of the most intriguing non-Mormon researchers is Christian so I have to factor in his "it's the wrong Jesus" lens. Some ex-Mormons researchers have been so hurt by the church so I have to factor in their (well justified) anger at the church. 

I think I have to accept the fact that there is no historical consensus to the real story of Joseph Smith or the first Mormons or where exactly the text of much of the Book of Mormon came from. It's very much a work in progress. But the more I learn, the creepier Joseph Smith becomes. The real story is gonna make a great movie someday.

It's also an exciting time because, as one of the ex-Mormon lecturers noted, the internet is to Mormonism what the English Bible was to Catholicism. Mormons now have access to non-church-approved information they never had in the past, and they're leaving in droves because of it. I feel kind of voyerustic watching and reading all the ex-Mormon to ex-Mormon stuff, but I think it's the most rational, realistic and heartwarming of everything I've found online.

Added 12/28/13: I forgot to mention that I think I did find the answer to the question that started all this:

Q: How can perfectly sane & intelligent people dedicate their lives to such a blatantly ridiculous story that some guy so obviously just made up?

A: Turns out it was right in the Book of Mormon Broadway song "I Believe" all along.

"If you believe, the Lord will reveal it
And you'll know it's all true, you'll just feel it" 

From the LDS church backed

How to Know the Book of Mormon is True
Of course it's one thing to read the Book of Mormon and another to believe deep in our hearts that what it says is true. This sincere belief, or testimony, in the truth of the Book of Mormon comes when God sends His Spirit to confirm the truth of what we read. We can feel this confirmation when we study the Book of Mormon with diligence and faith

This is what the potential Mormon converts are told: read the book, then pray about it and ask God if it is true, and he will tell you. And that's how it's done. People who need something like that right then in their lives will miraculously be told by God in their mind that it is true. Now they can start learning about being a Mormon from people who themselves completely believe it and who have the benefit of 150 years of people thinking this all through to make it look sane. And that's the only stuff they'll be taught, and they're told any information about Joseph Smith or Mormonisms that is not approved by the church is by wicked men who hate God, so just avoid it. Ta-da! "You'll be a Mormon; a Mormon who just belieeeeeeeeeeves!"

I also finally had the interest and internet to look up my own ancestors. I found out quite a bit from my mom's mom's side of the family. My great-great-great-great grandmother was my first Mormon ancestor, baptized into the church a month before Joseph Smith died. She left her husband, who didn't believe the Mormon missionaries, to go to Nauvoo, and then onto Salt Lake City. I was having a great time researching all of this until a couple of days ago when I found my great-great-great grandfather's name on the list of the men who carried out the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Suddenly it has stopped being fun. When I figure out a way to deal with that, I'll post the history of my ancestors that I've found.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Transcribing this Smithsonian historian talking about slavery, and just learned that in 1860, the combined monetary value of the 4 million enslaved people was greater than the entire rest of the wealth of the country, all land, private businesses, all government owned everything, combined. Whoa.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The banality of evil part 1

Just transcribed an interview by a Japanese news station of one of Clinton's top NAFTA negotiators, talking about the TPP. It was deja vu all over again. She was really sweet, really nice, seemed like she really thought TPP was just a wonderful thing for "Japan" and "The US" and "GDP growth"  but said there will be some problems Japan will have to address if they agree to it, including widening their safety net and worker "retraining."

I remembered a Tom Tomorrow cartoon from the mid 90s about the millions of workers who'll lose their job due to NAFTA will be "retrained", and the last cell was some middle aged guy flipping burgers. That sure came to pass... in yet another transcribing job I did for this Japanese news station a couple years ago with a high school ROTC coach in the south, the guy told the Japanese interviewer so many kids join the military because kids that age used to be able to get jobs at McDonald's but now their parents have all those jobs. And now here's this same woman spouting the same line. She also said, "No country has ever gotten poorer because of a free trade agreement." Well yeah, Mexico now boasts the richest man on earth, so I guess "Mexico" is doing just great!

It's just really chilling to hear people who are right up there at the top of the list of people responsible for ruining America, or at least the little economic slice of America me and mine occupy, who are completely oblivious to the damage they've caused, and want to keep causing more.  And are sparkly and bubbly and very nice about it!