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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Prayer and the Journey of Two Thousand Kilometers That Begins the Thousand Kilometer Trip

According to a modern Chinese proverb, a journey of a thousand kilometers begins with a single ordeal involving two thousand kilometers of back and forth trips to get approval to travel. At least that’s what the proverb should say to describe my life recently. After five days in a row of endless worrying and numerous trips, I finally found a route and submitted an an application that would seem to solve my problems, and today, a little over a week later, I would receive my passport back containing the temporary visa I needed. 

Friday morning Sept. 8, I made my fifth trip to the Shanghai Immigration Bureau in Pudong, nearly an hour from my home and office. With the help of two kind officials there and the help of others at my work and elsewhere, I ultimately solved what looked like a disastrous problem with my visa (residence permit) in China. As a result, I will be able to leave China later this month to attend a major international IP conference in Amsterdam that I’m partly in charge of (chairing a day, serving as a keynote speaker, a moderator, and an advisory board member), but throughout the entire week leading up to that Friday, there was reason to worry that I would be a shame-faced no-show at my  event.

Along the way, I learned that foreigners needing to attend international meetings can get special help that many experts don’t seem to know about. This help allows them to be able to leave the country and return while using a temporary M visa, which normally would not allow a return entry. Knowing about this option could come in handy for foreigners having trouble getting their work permit and residence visa renewed in time for the meeting they wish to attend.

I also learned that persistence pays off when facing visa challenges. I also learned that officials can be extremely helpful and professional, and even when they seem to be barriers, they may just be doing their duty faithfully and may give you important clues on what to do next, even if it seems like they are closing the door on you. Don’t give up, follow their directions, and you may soon find your problems over.


China has strict regulations regarding foreigners in China. Working here requires a visa to get into the country, a work permit, and a then a residence permit (often simply called “visa”) to stay here. In my case, the work permit and residence permit need to be renewed each year, and the rules can change and catch individuals and companies off guard. A key lesson is this: don’t passively rely on your company or outside agency. Pay attention to your visa expiration date. Make sure you will be able to have your work permit renewed well before your visa expiration date because you can’t begin the renewal process for your visa without your work permit, and the work permit may require at least month of time.

I learned several other important lessons. One important one: always deal with officers with great respect and be cautious in every word. I thought I was doing this, but I said something that unintentionally offended one, and that nearly resulted in disaster. Further, I learned that a major roadblock at one office might turn into an easy pass at the same office, on a different day with a different official. Sometimes the rules in China are flexible and can be implemented with harshness or flexibility, depending on whom you talk to. There are many basic requirements that cannot be avoided, but there can be many other details that are subject to human interpretation. Understanding when the roadblock is due to a single human having a bad day or a rigid rule is key to negotiating complex situations.

So here are the details I faced and the paths I took that eventually resulted in success. My visa was set to expire Sept. 12, 2017. I was also scheduled to travel to Europe on Sept. 25, just after midnight, so it’s really like leaving Saturday, Sept. 24. My work contract was renewed in mid-August, shortly after I returned from vacation in the US, and then the HR department of my employer began an application for a renewed work visa. Near the end of August my work told me they needed my passport for a few days. I discussed my visa expiration with them and also my travel plans, and was told there would be no problem and that I would have my passport back soon. I somehow thought they would be processing both my work permit and my visa at the same time, but that was incorrect.

On Sept. 4, they returned my passport to me, but I could see that the visa issue had not been addressed. So I asked some questions and found that they could not submit my visa renewal request until they had the work permit approved by the government, and they didn’t know when it would come. Would it come by Sept. 12? Because if I don’t turn in a visa application by then, I’ll be illegal and in huge trouble. I was told my work permit could be approved by Sept, 12, but they were not sure. If the work permit did not come by that day, they would have to apply for a temporary M visa, and then later we could apply for the residence permit once we had the work permit. But upon further questions, I learned that applying for an M visa would lock up my passport for a couple of weeks, so starting an M visa on the 12th would not leave time to complete the process and have my regular visa in hand to allow me to leave and return to China.

HR told me that the M visa would allow me to leave the country once, but not return. To return, I would need to go to a Chinese embassy elsewhere and apply for a tourist visa to get back to China. This began to look risky. The city I would be in Europe, Amsterdam, has no embassy or consulate. I could go to another city after my conference, but it would be right before the National Week holiday, and I would expect the consulates to be closed. I also have heard that European Chinese consulates will process documents for Europeans but not Americans. Is that right? I sent an email to the Chinese embassy in Holland. That was about 2 weeks ago – still no response. Given the uncertainties of location, the possibility of complex rules and the likelihood of Chinese embassies everywhere closing down for the national holiday, the idea of getting a tourist visa after leaving China looked far too risky.

On Tuesday morning I had the brilliant idea of relying on my wife’s work to get me a spouse visa. We gathered the numerous documents that might be required and prepared for a rush application. But after contacting her school and my HR department and making additional inquiries, we learned that this route is not possible for an employed spouse and would require that my current company issue a document declaring that I had left work and was not employed. Definitely not a desirable solution. And even doing that in appearance only would destroy my existing and pending work permit and result in months of hassle and delay before getting a new one, if it would even be possible. Forget that.

So our choices became: 1) hope for the best and get the work permit by Sept 12, and then apply for the residence permit, with just enough time to have it by Sept. 22, the last business day before my trip, or 2) assume the worse and begin the M visa application process now. After receiving the M visa, I could immediately seek accelerated processing of the residence permit by paying a 2000 RMB fee  (about $300) out of my pocket, and there would be just enough time, if all went well, to get the residence permit before my trip to Europe.

After prayerfully considering things, my wife and I both chose option 2, assume the worst. This would involve a great deal of hassle and some expense, but would reduce overall risk. Of course, if we were wrong about assuming the worse and if, instead, my work permit was approved by Sept. 12, it would be too late to abandon the M visa, and we would be pursuing a path that would waste a lot of time and money and even increase the risk of disaster because any glitches in the process might cause enough delay to overthrow my plans.  It would be so nice if we could just get that work permit approved by Sept. 12, and then have time for a normal visa application. But we choose to assume the worst.

With a cluster of documents in hand, on Wednesday morning, Sept. 7, I began the long trek to the Immigration Bureau in Pudong, about 1 hour by taxi from our home.  I was one of the first in line. When it was my turn, I talked to an official behind a window and explained my situation with a meeting in Europe I needed to attend, an expiring visa, a work permit in process, etc. She looked at my documents and said I was missing an operating permit/business license for APP. Could I get that? And then she said there may be a route for me but I needed to first talk to a leader. “A leader? Where?” I asked. “Over there, at windows 6 through 8,” she said. So I went over to a special section where people were waiting to see one of these mysterious “leaders.” While waiting, I called my colleague at work, our IP manager, and he was able to immediately fax a copy of our business license to the fax receiving office at the Immigration Bureau, which I was able to quickly pick up while my place in line was held by my bag and the help of the line attendant. I came back and felt I had all my documents ready and soon it was my turn to talk to a leader.

I spread out my documents and called attention to the printed information about the World IP Summit I was attending in Amsterdam, where I am the chair for day one and also a keynote speaker, panelist, moderator, and board member. This “leader” (as I assumed she was) said since this involved an urgent international meeting, the Immigration Bureau did have a special route that would help me. I could apply for an M visa plus receive a one-time-exit-and-entry pass that would allow me to come back into China. Wow, problem solved!

But the letter my HR department had issued with my documents, the letter describing my problem and need, was wrong. It made no mention of my meeting and needed to be rewritten to request that special exit-and-entry pass in order to attend an international meeting. China did have a solution for such situations, reflecting a wise awareness of the importance of having professionals attend international conferences, exhibitions, etc. Until that moment none of the experienced people I had talked to in APP and outside of APP in my numerous attempts to get help had shown any awareness of such a route. It would prove to be a surprise to all of them. Since it is not well known even among those handling visa issues all the time, I feel it is important that I share this information for those it may help one day.

The kind, helpful “leader” had suddenly filled me with hope and confidence. All I needed was to rush back to the office, get a new introduction letter written and stamped (nothing is official it often seems unless there is a red official stamp on it), and then rush back to the kind “leader” to hand her my documents for approval and smooth sailing.

Back in the office, with the help of our IP manager, I soon had the corporate stamp on a newly drafted letter. The letter requested that the M visa be valid for 2 months from today (30 days is the max, I would later learn) to leave enough time to still process the regular visa after my return on Oct. 7. My colleague also got my more formal stamped copies of our business license and operating permit. And so, back I went to the Immigration Bureau, happy and confident with the end in sight at last.

On my way, I would be joined by Paganini, a Chinese artist who sometimes is an extra Chinese teacher whom I pay for occasional help with translation or bring along when I might need a native speaker. He had called asking if we could meet today, and instead of putting him off, I felt he could help with the final touches of the visa process, and so invited him to come along with me to the Immigration Bureau. He would spend the whole exhausting afternoon with me.

I got right back in the same line to see the “leaders” and soon had my chance to go over to the kind woman who had given me such hope. She recognized me and then seemed to scowl – what? just my imagination? – and in a curt, jerky motion pointed to the empty window next to her and told me to sit there and wait. Huh? Something had changed., I feared. What’s going on? After a few minutes a  woman in a police uniform came over and began the interrogation. “What do you want?” From her voice, I sensed something was wrong already. Had my case been discussed and found wanting? Maybe it’s just the endless stream of clueless foreigners that takes its toll on the hard-working, very professional police staff who work there, I don’t know, but she seemed to know I was trouble. Perhaps my sense of relief and confidence from the morning was annoyingly present, I don't know.

I explained that I had a meeting in Europe and was chairing part of it and .... She suddenly asked me to quit talking so much. This was not an encouraging response. “Who told you could get a pass to come back into China?” Then came my biggest mistake, I think. “A leader.” “A leader? Who?” “Yes, the leader next to us.” “No, she’s not a leader. I’m the leader. She’s my employee.” Oops. I had assumed that everyone working at windows 6 through 8 were the “leaders” and did not recognize that there was just one actual leader, and so perhaps I had insulted her and downplayed her authority. Maybe it didn't matter to her really and she was just clarifying things for me, but I felt I had done something very stupid. This was the appropriate time to break out into a vigorous and humbling sweat, abandoning all hope as the glorious light at the end of the tunnel was replaced with a massive locomotive of doom coming straight at me. She glanced at my documents and said, “Where is your work permit?” “Why don’t you have it?” When was it applied for?” “Why don’t you know?” At this point I saw nothing but doom, but she was actually just being professional, direct, and helping me understand what was missing. But in my mental state, I just heard, “Abandon hope. You aren’t going to Europe.”

I pointed to the printouts HR had given me from the work visa submission portal, but she wouldn’t look at the details there because these were not official documents – no stamp! My friend, Paganini, jumped in an tried to help explain things. She asked who he was, told him to not interrupt, and was not impressed. She began speaking rapidly with some kind of directions. I apologized that my Chinese was not very good and asked if she could she please speak more slowly. Instead, she switched to English, rather good English, which caught me by surprise. But it was hard to hear clearly, especially in my panicked mental state, in a noisy environment, as she spoke from behind a glass window. She told me that I needed to go to the Label Department. The Label Department? Yes, and then I can get a label stamp. A label stamp? Yes, the label stamp. I didn’t dare ask too many questions, and was desperately hoping that our HR people might know what a “label stamp” was.

“Excuse me, could you tell me where to go to get the label stamp?” She handed me a sheet of paper with many offices listed and circled one. Bingo, a ray of hope. Perhaps I could go there, get the label stamp on my printout or something, and maybe come back and try again? But, she warned, my request seemed unreasonable and at best she might give me a pass for a few days but not for such a long period of time. Alas, no hope. Ok, I get it, thank you, so sorry to have bothered you, and now we’ll just go away and abandon hope, thank you, or maybe try to work on that label stamp. So sorry for the trouble! And off I went, dripping in sweat and consternation. I must have looked even more ridiculous than when I started.

It would be about three hours later, after Paganini and I had faced further disappointment, that I finally understood what I should have understood immediately. The stamp we needed was not a label stamp from the label department – I heard her incorrectly (her English was excellent) – but a stamp from the Labor Office that handles work permits. A labor stamp! One mystery solved. That recognition came after we had already gone to the office she had circled for us to visit. It was the Jingan District labor bureau and after waiting there about an hour, we finally talked to a very kind, smiling officer – everyone there seemed friendly and service oriented, such a delightful place that filled me with the hope of getting some help. This smiling officer looked at my printout and said it looks like my work visa was being handled by the Hankou District labor bureau, not this office. Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. Sigh!

She kindly wrote down the address of the Hankou office that we would immediately rush to: 123 Zhongshan North Road, or so I thought. So both of us thought. It took 3 tries for a taxi to be willing to take us there (the first two rejected us because we only had an address, not a cross street). The third used GPS and took us on the long journey to what suddenly looked like the wrong place. No sign of a government office there. The cabbie then looked at out little slip of paper and noticed two overlooked tiny little marks that turned the address into 1230 Zhongshan North First Road, a place still quite far away. By the time we got there, just minutes after 4:30 PM, the labor office was closing, which was a shock since the Jingan office we came from was opened until 6 PM, so I thought there would be plenty of time. Missed it by minutes. A loss. But there was probably no hope anyway.

The leader at the Pudong bureau seemed to have put us back to option 1, hope for the best and pray that we get the work visa by Sept. 12. I was sick of wasting so much time on this fruitless chase. Three days had been ruined. Tomorrow I would get back to my innovation conference and do something more productive for my company than chase after an elusive visa.

One of the many blessings along this path, a painful path in which every step helped and ultimately blessed me to get what I needed, was that the innovation conference was particularly poor, at least in terms of my needs on that Thursday morning. It’s one that I had spoken at previously and now had a free ticket as a former speaker. While the lineup looked great, there was something about the setting and the audience that hinted of low energy right away, and then the first two speakers I heard disappointed me. I wasn’t getting anything out of this event and was feeling more and more antsy, feeling that I was wasting my time here and actually began feeling that it was time to get back to my visa process, that I couldn’t stop yet and couldn’t give up on my plans or fall into the “hope for the best” option. Go!

So as a speaker was fumbling around trying to help the conference organizer find her PPT slides on her jump drive, I just walked out quietly and decided to go the Hankou labor office again. I reasoned that if I could just get their help to ensure my work permit is approved by Sept. 12, my problem would be solved. I’d go there for a few minutes and then go back to the innovation conference in an hour or so. But I would never return.

The Hankou labor office staff member was very friendly and kind, but told me that could do nothing to accelerate the process, and that it might not be ready by Sept. 12. Sigh! Could I get a stamp on my printout from their website to answer questions for the police woman at the Immigration Bureau? No, they couldn’t do that, but there was a stamped document they had already given my work that I should go get. I called HR and they said the document I needed was with our visa service firm that handled visa work, and their office was just around the corner from the labor office where I was. So I went there and surprisingly was able to get help right away from a man who is normally quite busy. He produced the stamped labor document for me, giving me the original and a copy, and also was the first one to give me detailed answers to my questions. He explained that the safest route probably was to get the M visa. If I applied for it that day, there would be time to get my M visa and then, with an accelerated residence visa process, just barely enough time, not a day to spare, to pick up my visa and passport on the last business day before my trip.

Time was of the essence, though, so off I ran once again to the Immigration Bureau. I got there during their lunch and had to wait an hour before processing began. I took a number for the regular service windows, but seeing that there were about 40 people ahead of me, figured I would have time to first go through the special line to see the “leaders,” where I decided to risk talking to the police woman again and apologize profusely for my stupid mistakes and ask for mercy. I was soon invited to the dreadful window where my hopes had been dashed yesterday, but this time it was a different leader, a man in a police uniform. I humbly sat down and tersely explained my situation, handing him the letter. He asked to see information about my meeting and proof of the tickets I had bought, and then he said, “What you need is an M visa with a one-time in-and-out pass to attend an international meeting. Here, I’ll sign a note to that effect for you on your M Visa application form. Your pass will be good up to the day you return, Oct. 7.” Boom. In seconds, my dashed hopes were restored. He sent me back to the regular processing area where I was already queued in the system. Wonderful! Could it be so easy after all?

As I went back to the regular waiting area, I had another moment of panic. I was suddenly missing the passport photos that I had printed and had in a clear plastic bag inside a larger for safekeeping. I had them moments earlier and would need them now. I traced the few steps I had taken, looked under chairs, talked to a maid, talked to the line attendant, looked around the window where I had just been seated, checked my belongings again – they were truly gone and I never figured out what happened to them. In about 10 meters of walking I had lost them. Now what? It looked like I still had about 5 minutes before my number came up. I remembered that you could get passport photos taken on the ground floor, two stories below, so dashed down the escalator, ran over to the photo area, was amazed that there was no line to wait in, and immediately had a photographer taking my photos. I paid for them and then they were printed, and I dashed back up the escalator. When I arrived, my number was listed. Window A10 was open and waiting for me. Seconds later I would have lost my place and would have had to start over with a long queue.

She examined all my documents and the signed note from the leader. She said she could give me a 30-day M visa that would expire on Oct. 7. I recalled that my airplane was scheduled to arrive t 11:15 PM on Oct. 7. If it was a little late, it would be Oct. 8 when I reached customs. That would be a problem. What could I do? She said I could come back the next day, Sept. 8, and get a visa that would expire Oct. 8, giving me some extra cushion. But I was so sick of all the time I had spent already that I just wanted to hope that the place would be on time and that all would be well. I told her to process it today. OK, and she gave me a printed receipt for my M visa, including the electronic photo I had just taken (it was probably for the best to have the convenience electronic photo in their system) and folded up all my papers and passport and put them in a stack somewhere.

Off I went, relieved to be finished – and then I began to worry that I had made a terrible mistake. Even if the plane was on time, it would be hard to get to customs before midnight. Lines could be huge and slow. And it could take a long time to deplane. What was I thinking? Gave it a bit of thought and prayer and realized that of course, yes, I needed to change. So I turned around and went back to the same woman and apologized. “I’d like to start this tomorrow if possible.” She was OK with that and handed my back my materials.

Friday morning I was back and the same woman who was familiar with my situation and had examined my materials took them again, reprocessed my M visa application, and moments later handed my new receipt. My passport would be ready Sept. 19, today, and I would indeed receive it with a beautiful M visa that expires on Oct. 8, with a one-time entry pass and a note that I get another 30 days once I enter China again. Whew! Problem solved.

The part about restarting the clock with another 30 days was something I didn’t understand at first. In fact, after turning my materials in on Sept. 8, I was halfway to work again when I began to worry again. I would come back Oct. 7, my  visa would expire Oct. 8, a Sunday, and then I would be illegal on Monday, Oct. 9, before I would have time to apply for a residence permit. What to do? So I turned around and went back to the Immigration Bureau for my 5th time and asked the same woman this question, who kindly explained that I would get another 30 days upon re-entering China. Nice!

So many frustrations and problems, but the problems were solved as helpful officials explained a route that I didn’t know existed. But next year, I’ll be careful to avoid travel plans that might run unto these kind of trouble near visa renewal time, and I will take more initiative to make sure my work visa is being renewed well before my visa expires so there is enough time to be sure of getting it back first. Don’t want to go through these experiences again! But am grateful I did. I feel like I learned a lot about China in the process, and feel so grateful that everything I needed was provided in the end, just in time.

I also was reminded that even when things go wrong and disaster seems to be looming, positive steps to take can be found through prayer. The whole journey of this process was the result of many small blessings that ended up teaching me many things, some of which may be beneficial to others later. Don't give up prematurely and never give up on prayer in dealing with all your challenges.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Provident Living Just Got Harder, Courtesy of Equifax: Some Steps You Can Take (Hint: You Need a Credit Freeze)

Equifax is one of three large credit agencies that provide a valuable public service. They collect, gather, and store vast amounts of information about you and your purchases and payments, all without your consent and with no opt-out feature, thus providing a vital central source of information for the benefit of the community -- the hacker community, the spy community,  the organized crime community, and the financial services community (not necessarily mutually exclusive communities).

Equifax, like some of the communities they serve, sometimes has certain "issues" that might affect us. Issues like gross incompetence in protecting the sensitive data they collect without our permission. Issues like failing to take appropriate corrective actions. Issues like failure to act swiftly when there is a hacker attack.

You may have just learned that 143 million consumers just had their personal records hacked at Equifax. You learned it this week. Equifax executives learned about it on July 29 when the breach was discovered. One of the largest and potentially most harmful data breaches in history, one that most likely involves you and your data, addresses, many credit card numbers, social security numbers, and almost anything an identity thief might want. About half of Americans are now at risk for identity theft--actually about 2/3 of all Americans with a credit history.

This hacking attack had been going on for over two months before Equifax, with their horrific security, finally noticed the attack. Hackers had been progressively going deeper and deeper into their system. Ten weeks of probing, downloading, stealing, before Equifax woke up.  They failed to learn, for this was the third time in 16 months that Equifax has been hacked (other attacks were earlier in 2017 and in May 2016). Why so slow? And why was the response so slow when they found out?

Oops, my mistake, there was a swift response. The breach was discovered on July 29, a Saturday. It probably was shared internally among top executives by Monday, July 31. Then on the next two days, Aug. 1 and 2, right after  Equifax discovered this devastating attack that surely would result in heavy selling of their stock, 3 top executives at Equifax acted swiftly to protect, uh, their own interests as they sold $2 million of their sharesAccording to CNBC, "Chief Financial Officer John Gamble Jr., workforce solutions president Rodolfo Ploder and U.S. information solutions president Joseph Loughran, sold $2 million of Equifax stock on August 1 and August 2, ensuring that those shares would not face the pummeling that Equifax stock might face once the news broke out (down 13% right after the news -- is that all? no serious pummeling?).

Back in the good ol' days, this kind of thing might have been called "insider trading" and was strictly illegal. People would go to jail for it -- yeah, imagine that, it really happened! Real jails, even. But avoiding legal nuisances and being free to act as you wish seems to be the primary benefit of being a real insider with strong inside connections to the people supposedly in charge of enforcing what we used to call "the law." Per CNBC, Equifax has admitted that these executives sold "a small percentage" of their shares but insists that they really, really didn't know anything about the data breach. Nope, not a thing.

Perhaps those executives really don't know squat about their business. Perhaps just being an "information solutions president" doesn't mean you have access to actual information such as IT knowledge. Maybe it was just lucky timing, all a coincidence. Yes, it could be. But to me it seems like there should be a serious investigation and some bullet sweating here.

Over a month after discovering the massive attack, Equifax leaders finally decided it might be good to let the victims know what was happening to their data. Not like there's a need to hurry or anything, right? There was also a very fitting apology from the elites, issued directly from the mouth of Equifax CEO Richard Smith, who kindly took the time to say, or have his secretary say, “I apologize to consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes.” There you have it. There might be some frustration down the road as you, say, lose all your assets and find your life ruined, but know that Equifax understands that this can cause "concern" and has apologized. Check.

Simon Black of SovereignMan.com suggested a better apology:
Due to our utter incompetence and failure to learn from recent mistakes, we totally screwed 143 million people who never even consented to us monitoring them. And rather than even let them know right away, we quietly took care of ourselves first. We have that little respect for the public.
But let's not quibble over the ideal wording. The elites have done their duty with a standard apology and have gone back to business as normal. But for the rest of us, now what?

There are some steps you can take now to protect yourself. The most important one, though, will be to get a credit freeze on your account to stop criminals from opening accounts in your name.

First read CNET's "A guide to surviving the Equifax data breach (without Equifax's help)."  Also see the CNET story, "Equifax data breach: Find out if you were one of 143 million hacked." You can get started in protecting yourself by going to Equifax's page for one year of their weak "Trusted ID" program of credit monitoring. Enroll for that service here: https://trustedidpremier.com/eligibility/eligibility.html.  You can get the "Trusted ID" service for one year this way (but the stolen data will be used against you for many years, even decades to come, as Clark Howard wisely warns). Enter your last name and the last 6 digits of your social security number to get in line to enroll (how ridiculous that you can't enroll in one step!). If you get a response that says "Based on the information provided, we believe that your personal information was not impacted by this incident," don't trust that because it has been shown to be unreliable (what, something unreliable at Equifax?). Assume you have trouble and continue to enroll.

Clicking on the "enroll" button will give a date on which you can come back and continue enrolling. Snazzy, eh? I love what advanced programming skills can achieve. Please carefully note the enrollment date it gives you and go back on or after that date to try your luck in enrolling.

Obviously, Equifax believes that there's nothing urgent about this whole security business thing and that fear-mongering buzzword, "identity theft." And Trusted ID boils down to trusting the company who snatched and released all your private data to now somehow protect you from identity theft. Well, don't depend on that, but if it's really free for a year, might as well get it. It adds a level of security to your records and some form of insurance but doesn't begin to solve all the problems. You can also enroll relatives who aren't computer literate. (If you don't know their social security number, just ask any local hacker to check Equifax records for you, or give your relative a call to get the last six digits. And then, for good measure, lecture them for giving even part of their social security number out over the phone, given all the people who are probably listening these days.) 

For real protection, freezing your credit accounts, which we did long ago, is a smart step. This makes it very hard for a thief to open a credit card account in your name (also hard for you to open new credit card accounts, but still possible). Clark Howard thinks Equifax's Trusted ID is a waste of time and on his page, "Equifax breach: How to protect yourself from what’s coming next," recommends this instead:
The only way to truly protect yourself is with a credit freeze.

Lets say your information was exposed and criminals do try to open new lines of credit in your name — well, they won’t be able to if your credit file is frozen.

A credit freeze seals your credit reports and provides a personal identification number (PIN) that only you know and can use to temporarily “thaw” your credit when legitimate applications for credit and services need to be processed. So even if criminals try to use your info, they won’t be able to actually do anything with it.

And this goes for anyone, not just those impacted directly by this breach.

How to protect your identity: Take these 2 steps

1. Sign up for Credit Karma’s free credit monitoring: Go to creditkarma.com to sign up for a free account and you’ll get access to free credit monitoring. If they notice any suspicious activity, you’ll get an alert. Plus, Credit Karma also gives you free access to your credit scores and reports, as well as tips on what factors are impacting your credit.

2. Freeze your credit with all three main credit bureaus: By freezing your credit files, you can prevent criminals from using your information to wreak havoc on your financial life. Even if your info was not exposed by the Equifax hack, this is the best way to protect your identity and your money.

Check out [Clark Howard's] Credit Freeze Guide to learn how to freeze your credit with each main agency.
Please get a credit freeze.

The impact of this data breach on American lives could actually end up being greater than Hurricane Irma. Once hackers take your identity, you might as well have a hurricane rip your home to shreds, it can be that painful and costly.

Meanwhile, carefully examine your credit card activity for unusual charges and also get a free credit report to see if there are unexpected events happening like accounts with late fees or something that you never opened. You can also sign up for a free 90-day fraud alert. Details on all that are provided in the second CNET link above (here).

Our critics charge that Mormonism is all about money, which is not true. But having all your money stolen makes it a lot more difficult to enjoy certain aspects of life related to our religion, like having a home for family home evening, a vehicle or bus pass to go to church, food for food storage, a suit for that missionary you are sending off, and so forth. You can still get buy, but I'm hoping you will avoid unnecessary loss and be in the position of being able to generously help others with your resources. Get a credit freeze and be safe.

For those of us who already had a credit freeze in place, one legitimate question is this: did the hackers also access the PINs or passcodes that can be used to override a credit freeze when a customer wants to open another account? If so, then I might have a problem. I'll try to find out. If you know, please tell us. Meanwhile, I hope regulators will investigate Equifax for insider trading and the gross negligence in allowing this breach, catching it so slowly, and not alerting the victims promptly. And may consumers be given the ability to opt-out of such services that make us and our identity sitting ducks.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Fifty Years of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: The Story of Its Discovery

One of my favorite stories from the world of Book of Mormon studies is the discovery of chiasmus in the text by a young missionary serving in Germany. Fifty years later, the scholarship of Jack Welch on this topic has stirred significant related work from many who have looked at the Book of Mormon with new tools and insights. Here is a video from Book of Mormon Central which beautifully shares Jack Welch's story.

I have been inspired by his work and many of us have come to better appreciate the richness and antiquity of the Book of Mormon, aided by Dr. Welch's scholarship in this area.

Many thank to Brother Welch and the good folks at Book of Mormon Central. A video of this quality takes a great deal of effort. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Heroic Salt Lake Woman Stands Up for Law, Order, and a Patient's Rights -- and Gets Arrested by Salt Lake Police

I am a law and order guy. I was raised in a family with a mother who had a "Support Your Local Police" bumper sticker on our car, and I was proud of that. It's a motto that I still use and stand by. But we live in a society where local police are increasingly becoming militarized in attitude and hardware, and sometimes depart from their role of defending our inalienable rights. I've previously mentioned the horrific problem of "civil asset forfeiture" in which local police can seize your assets without a trial, without a warrant, without due process, and then profit from what they take (getting to keep 80% of the takings, with 20% going to the Federal Government). About 80% of those cases never have criminal charges filed, so the excuse that it's just being used to go after criminals is unfounded. It's a grotesque violation of the Bill of Rights that the Trump Administration firmly supports.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions just lifted a weak restraint against this corrupt practice that had been imposed during the Obama Administration, showing us that the Bill of Rights really is becoming meaningless. But the US Constitution is still there, it's still the ultimate law of the land, and those liberties are God-given regardless of what corrupt officers say. Citizens are still right to insist on their rights and to stand up for the rights of others, though preserving those rights often requires courage.

That brings me to the story of Alex Wubbles, a heroic nurse in Salt Lake City.  Alex showed great courage in standing up against a Salt Lake police officer who was clearly breaking the law and seeking to violate the rights of an unconscious patient. This woman stood up for the law and for that patient, and ended up being manhandled and arrested by the officer, and then rudely lectured by his supervisor as if she was the problem. Those who denounce police in general, sometimes in the interest of agitating and stirring up revolution, are especially interested in this story, but it should be most meaningful for those of us who want to support our local police and yearn for a civil, peaceful society with the rule of law under the largely inspired principles of the US Constitution.

A good overview of the story is "Infuriating: Police Arrest on Duty Nurse For Refusing to Break Law" at ZeroHedge.com (warning: that site tends to have a lot of profanity in the comments). Watch the video there or below to see Alex's calm courage. She appears at about 5:27 and the violent arrest occurs shortly after that. You can also read a follow-up story at the Salt Lake Tribune. An excerpt from the ZeroHedge story follows:

“Is this patient under arrest?” Alex Wubbles asks the officer, being instructed by legal counsel on the phone.
“Nope,” the officer says.
“Do you have an electronic warrant?” She asks, searching for a way to legally comply with the officers.
“No,” The officer admits bluntly, getting annoyed.
The police did not have a warrant. The police did not have probable cause. The man was not under arrest. The unconscious patient could not consent.
The nurse, Alex, printed out the hospital’s policy which the Salt Lake City Police Department agreed to. She showed it to the officers. She clearly and calmly listed the three things which would allow her to give the police the blood sample: a warrant, patient consent, or a patient under arrest.
The police had none of these things.
“Okay, so I take it, without those in place, I am not going to get blood?” The Officer Jeff Payne is heard saying behind his body cam.
The legal counsel on the phone tries to tell the officer not to blame the messenger, and that he is making a big mistake.
Then, the officer attacks the nurse, Alex Wubbles. He drags her outside, and handcuffs her, while she cries.
“What is going on?!” She says exasperated, wondering why they are doing this to her.
She couldn’t just break the hospital policy and put her job in jeopardy because some police officers illegally told her to. She couldn’t simply collude with the lawbreakers–the police–and illegally hand over a blood sample on behalf of an unconscious patient.
That would have opened her up to lawsuits and job loss.
The officers were, in fact, breaking the law. They had no legal right to demand blood from an unconscious patient who could not consent.
The man they wanted blood from was a truck driver who had struck a vehicle being pursued by the police. It is unclear why they would even need a blood sample from the victim.
But none of these legal facts stopped the police from placing the nurse under arrest.
Wubbles was handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle. She was never actually charged.
You could chalk this up to one crazy officer, Detective Jeff Payne with the Salt Lake City Police.
But then his supervisor showed up to the scene. While the nurse was handcuffed in the cruiser, the supervisor started to lecture her.
“There are civil remedies,” he said, telling her she should have broken the law when the officer told her to. Of course, this ignored the fact that she would have been caught up in the civil action against the officers!
It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone as the Supervisor lies and says the nurse was obstructing justice. All the nurse wanted was a warrant signed by a judge, the legal requirement to execute a search! And yet not just Officer Payne, but his Supervisor insist that she should have given them what they wanted, without a warrant.
What? Yes, go get a warrant! That is what you have been repeatedly told by the nurse and hospital staff!
You can tell from the video she is not some anti-cop crusader. She was legitimately trying to do her job and follow the law to the best of her ability. Before she is arrested, you can tell she is worried and uncomfortable, trying her best to keep the situation calm and professional.
And then the police handcuffed and dragged a crying nurse out of the building to intimidate and harass her further.
She is a strong woman. She stood up to their bullying and lies and did not give in. Despite the best efforts of the police, she would not help them violate the Fourth Amendment rights of her patient.
The supervisor told the nurse that she should cooperate, and if something was illegal in their request, that there would be "civil remedies" later. Ridiculous. She would have been violating the law and very likely would have been sued for so doing. She could lose her job, lose everything, while also losing her integrity. That's what the supervisor expected of her. This reflects not just one rogue cop having a bad day. It reflects a mentality that needs to be rooted out. It reflects a growing loss of personal liberty in the United States. Citizens need to understand their rights and stand up for them. 

Thank you, Alex Wubbles, for defending the rights of an innocent, uncharged, unconscious patient. Thank you for standing for law and order in an increasingly lawless society where the law breakers aren't always just hoodlums running from the police.

A badge and a gun do not define the law, although some people feel that law is whatever those with the guns say and demand. May we return to a safe, civil society with the rule of law and law that conforms with and protects the inalienable, God-given rights of individuals.

Fellow Utahans, don't ignore this troubling story. Don't ignore the loss of personal rights as long as it's just someone else being dragged away in cuffs for doing what's right. Once liberty and basic rights are lost, they are not easily regained. Speak up. Support law and order, and help our local police become the kind of local police who not only refuse to participate in illegal civil asset forfeiture, but who won't abuse their power to get their way and trample on the rights of others.  We need effective local police whose leaders ensure that they follow and respect the law, particularly the Bill of Rights. Local police who respect their local fellow citizens should be a part of our local community that we are all proud of. Change is needed in Salt Lake and around the nation to regain that.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ancient Temples, Shrines, and Altars Outside of Jerusalem

An old argument against the Book of Mormon is that no self-respecting Hebrew would even think of building a temple outside of Jerusalem as Nephi did in the New World. Since Hugh Nibley's day that argument has been handled by pointing out that legitimate Jews at Elephantine, Egypt had built their own temple for worship there, and even had some degree of approval from authorities in Jerusalem. See my Book of Mormon Nugget, "Lessons from the Elephantine Papyri Regarding Book of Mormon Names and Nephi's Temple." Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? is also of interest, among many other sources, on the evolution of the notion of centralized worship only in Jerusalem. 

A related issue came up in an LDS doubter's list of reasons for rejecting Nephi's account, for he argued that Lehi would not have built an altar and offered sacrifices as Nephi described (my response in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 1 of 2" at The Interpreter also includes a reference to Elephantine).

Recently I learned of a useful resource that lists a variety of Jewish temples and other holy places outside of Jerusalem, with most mentioned in some way in the Bible, supporting the notion that the centrality of worship decreed in Deuteronomy is not the end of the story of widespread and non-blasphemous worship outside of Jerusalem in ancient Israel. See "Israelite Temples outside Jerusalem" at the Pronaos Blog. The list is bigger than I realized. Worth reviewing.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Human Cost of Drawing People Away from Faith

Anti-Mormon zeal brings a high human cost, in my opinion. Sometimes I see people who seem to value attacking Mormonism more than actually helping the people they are supposedly trying to save. For some it seems more desirable to drag people into anything other than Mormonism. For some any tactic seems justified to "rescue" a Mormon. A painful example I am watching involves the ex-husband of a relative of mine who is so keen on keeping his troubled young adult daughter away from Mormons that he did all he could to pull her out the safe setting she had finally found with LDS relatives and bring her back near a place where she had previously been entangled in drugs and other horrific problems.

She has been rescued from the Mormons, where she was engaging in such vices as prayer, attending sacrament meetings, and having a steady job and a drug-free life. Back near her old friends and away from the support she needed, she is now on the path of tragedy and self-destruction. But at least she isn't acting like a Mormon. It's not all his fault, of course, but his intervention to bring his daughter away from Mormons, fueled by his anti-Mormon zeal, was a critical turning point. We are praying that there will be another turning point toward healing and happiness again.

I know many who leave the Church publicly declare how much better their lives are when they leave. It may be so, and some did face genuine problems, pressures, or disappointments in the Church. There are good people who leave the Church for what may be good reasons to them, and I know some who go on to have productive, happy lives with good relationships and good careers and meaningful service to society.  I hope people of any faith will experience such blessings and success. But I think there is great joy that the LDS faith, properly lived and understood, brings into the lives of its members. Breaking that connection is not worth the zeal that many put into their anti-Mormon efforts.

The LDS faith has never been an especially easy religion, and our human mistakes in the Church can make it much worse and unnecessarily difficult for some. Yes, there are genuine complaints that sincere former members can raise. But a high fraction of the people I know who have left the Church seem to have lost a great deal in their lives. Especially when the move out of the Church is into a world without the grounding of religion, the loss and the pain seems to be great, as it is for the young adult woman we know and love who is entangled again with destructive influences. Is her father's gain worth what she has lost?

For those whose goal or end effect is to replace Mormon or any fervent Christian faith with atheism, their work seems especially misguided. Of course, when it comes to religion and its benefits, I am biased. So was Nobel Literature laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (d. 2008), quoted by Daniel Peterson in his outstanding presentation at the 2017 FAIRMormon Conference, "What Difference Does It Make?" (transcript and video available at FAIRMormon.org). Peterson quotes from the opening lines of Solzhenitsyn's 1983 lecture sometimes titled “Godlessness: The First Step to the Gulag”:
More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.
Those who remember God, at least those who believe in God and participate in organized religion based on studies in the US and Europe, as Peterson discusses in his presentation, experience higher mental health, physical health, healthier marriages, higher rates of charitable giving and service, and many other factors that our society should welcome and encourage. Instead, though, religion, particularly Christian religion, is disparaged from numerous angles by the elites in our society.

Among several sources Peterson relies on is Dr. Rodney Stark, a leading authority on the sociology of religion with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society and later was professor of sociology and professor of comparative religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. Peterson draws upon his 2012 book, America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists. An excerpt from Peterson;s presentation dealing with Christian religion in general and not Mormonism in particular, is still relevant to my concerns regarding the occasional loss of faith resulting from casualties of anti-Mormon zeal:

As I’ve already noted, fashionable schools of psychology have long taught that religion either contributes to mental illness or is itself a dangerous species of psychopathology. But the evidence, says Professor Stark, “shows overwhelmingly that religion protects against mental illness.” For example, persons with strong, conservative religious beliefs are less depressed than those with weak and loose religious beliefs. “They are happier, less neurotic, and far less likely to commit suicide.”

Religious people are more likely to marry and to stay married than their irreligious counterparts, and, on the whole, they express greater satisfaction with their marriages and their spouses. They are far less likely to have extramarital affairs. In addition, “Religious husbands are substantially less likely to abuse their wives or children.” Mother-child relationships are stronger for frequent church attenders than for those who rarely if ever go to church, and for mothers and children who regard religion as very important, they’re stronger than for those church-attenders who don’t value religion so highly. Precisely the same thing holds for the level of satisfaction of teenagers with their families. Greater religiosity means higher satisfaction.

Strongly religious persons seem, all other things being equal, to enjoy reduced risks of heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure or hypertension than those who are less religious, and seem to recover better from coronary artery bypass surgery. The average life expectancy of religious Americans is more than seven years longer than that of the irreligious. Moreover, “a very substantial difference remains” even when the effects of “clean living” have been factored out.
Religious students tend to get better grades than do their non-religious counterparts, as well as to score higher on all standardized achievement tests. They are less likely to be expelled or suspended or to drop out of school, and are more likely to do their homework.

Religious Americans are also, on average, more successful in their careers than are the irreligious. They obtain better jobs and are less likely to find themselves unemployed or on welfare.

Committed religious believers are less likely to patronize astrologers or to believe in the occult and the paranormal than are nonbelievers. On the other hand, though they’re often caricatured as ignorant, churchgoers are more likely to read, to patronize the arts and to enjoy classical music than are non-churchgoers.

“Translated into comparisons with Western European nations,” writes Professor Stark, addressing an American audience, “we enjoy far lower crime rates, much higher levels of charitable giving, better health, stronger marriages, and less suicide, to note only a few of our benefits from being an unusually religious nation.”

None of these facts proves religious claims true, of course. But they certainly undermine the old accusation that religion is unhealthy and antisocial.

As Harvard’s Robert Putnam expresses it in his famous book Bowling Alone, believing churchgoers are “much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups.”

“So,” asks Mary Eberstadt in her book How the West Really Lost God, “is it in society’s interest to encourage Christian practice?” She then provides her own response. “The answer is: only so far as it is in society’s interest to encourage quality of life, enhanced health, happiness, coping, less crime, less depression, and other such benefits associated with religious involvement.”
Perhaps not all of these benefits are experienced by Mormons, but in my experience all or nearly all  are.  Fortunately, some members of the Church if they choose to leave stay involved in many of the good things they were doing before -- service, family prayer, diligent study, temperance, etc. -- but too many drift into other paths, far from their roots, far from where they should be, and find themselves allegedly happier but without the grounding the Restored Gospel gave them. Losing faith in God is not a healthy step, in my opinion. Giving up on prayer and the grounding of a personal relationship with Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit represents a tragic loss, in my opinion. May we do a better job in helping our people grow in their faith and find the fullness of joy that is possible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is much to lose, and yes, it does make a different because, as Peterson explains, Christ makes all the difference.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Elder Holland on LDS Apologetics

Recent weeks have been interesting for the unofficial, highly heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory cluster of so-called "LDS apologists." I fall into that motley group. In fact, I was doing LDS apologetics online since the early 1990s -- long before LDS apologetics became cool. (That's a somewhat futuristic statement: the date of "becoming cool" is roughly March 18, 2045, based on my hopeful projections.)

First we had the Church provide a useful list of external resources for study on a page called "Gospel Topics, Essays, and Other Resources," published in the Seminary area. Under the section, "Gospel Study Resources," the Maxwell Institute website is listed, where one can find decades of great LDS apologetics along with their more recent emphasis on Mormon studies. The link is provided in this manner:
The single asterisk means that the website is "maintained by a third party that is affiliated with the Church," which is BYU in this case.

In the following section, "Additional Resources for Answering Doctrinal, Historical, and Social Questions," the list of resources includes several that are of interest to LDS apologetics:
  • Book of Mormon Central**: Information that was created to explain, engage, inspire, and encourage greater knowledge and appreciation of every aspect of the Book of Mormon.
  • FairMormon**: Well-reasoned and faithful responses to doctrinal, historical, and social questions.
  • Mormon Scholars Testify**: Messages of faith from scholars who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • The Interpreter Foundation**: Nonprofit, independent, educational organization that focuses on the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They publish a peer-reviewed journal, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.
Here the double asterisk means the sites "are maintained by a third party that is unaffiliated with the Church."

I was quite happy to see these resources listed at LDS.org. I find Book of Mormon Central. FAIRMormon, and The Interpreter (MormonInterpreter.com) to be extremely useful in exploring and understanding the LDS faith, even if I don't always agree with some of their content (as demonstrated by my recent criticisms of a recent three-part series at The Interpreter). By the way, the Interpreter just published my review of Brian Stubbs' outstanding work. See Jeff Lindsay, "The Next Big Thing in LDS Apologetics: Strong Semitic and Egyptian Elements in Uto-Aztecan Languages," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 26 (2017): 227-267. There are some good questions already that I am trying to respond to.

Then on August 16, 2017, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve dared to show his face at an apologetics fest of sorts at BYU, the celebration of 50 years of chiasmus research in the Book of Mormon. He not only showed his face, he spoke to teeming crowd (I wasn't there, but can only imagine the throngs of LDS folks and investigators keenly interested, as they should be, in this inspiring area of Book of Mormon scholarship -- there could have been literally dozens, for all I know). Not only did he speak, but a transcript of his important remarks were quickly posted at the Church's news site, MormonNewsroom.org. I am not kidding! And not dreaming, either. See "Transcript: Elder Holland Speaks at Book of Mormon Chiasmus Conference" at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/transcript-elder-holland-speaks-book-of-mormon-chiasmus-conference-2017.

Elder Holland had much to say about intellectual defense of the Gospel. Here are some excerpts, but please read his entire speech:
I wish to say at the outset that the presiding officers of the Church appreciate and applaud the exceptional work being done by so many to search and to substantiate, to defend and promulgate the history and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including and especially the Book of Mormon, in a way both scholarly and spiritual. Obviously one of the influential, representative figures in this generation of such work is our friend and colleague John W. Welch, being honored tonight. I have known and loved Jack and other members of the Welch family for at least 40 of the 50 years we are commemorating. In deference to the clock I will not recount all of his academic accomplishments (much of which has been referenced here tonight), but suffice it to say, Jack, that the Brethren are grateful for your faith, your loyalty, your productivity, and what is increasingly your scholarly legacy in defending the kingdom of God. That compliment is, of course, extended to a legion of other men and women across the Church who are putting their shoulders to the wheel of reasoned, determined, persuasive gospel scholarship.
I would also like to thank the many donors and other supporters who have aided the scholarly pursuit and publication of materials important to the Church of Jesus Christ in these latter days....
He then goes on to explain why it is important to have intellectual reasons and tools to defend the Gospel, and explains that testimony involves both heart and mind, affirming the need for intellectual understanding to help support faith and overcome the obstacles to faith. In other words, there is a need for LDS apologetics. Thank you, Elder Holland!

Regarding the defense of the faith through scholarship and intellectual argument, the domain of apologetics, I've heard a variety of misconceptions over the years. Some LDS voices say the Church is embarrassed by apologetics and thus refuses to give credibility to those efforts. On the other hand, some say the Church relies heavily on apologetics to defend the Book of Mormon, for example, to support missionary work and keep members believing, but due to the weakness of the LDS position, the Church officially keeps a large distance publicly from apologists. That way, when apologetic efforts fail miserably, the Church can ignore the problem and avoid direct embarrassment.

Critics often ask why the Church doesn't directly do the work of apologists and get involved in an official way in issues like Book of Mormon geography or other issues in apologetics. The answer to me seems rather simple. As in most major religions, central leadership is involved in the administrative and spiritual aspects of running a religion. Dealing with the endless arguments against faith that can be made and responding to critical works ranging from deep scholarship to lurid rumor-mongering is simply not the primary focus of headquarters, and must rely on others. Scholars, schools, and publishers may be encouraged and helped in various ways, but the secular arguments and scholarship needed to better understand or perhaps buttress the faith is not something that normally is handled directly by official efforts from headquarters. There are counterexamples, of course, but in general, it is entirely reasonable that the details of say, the defense of the Bible against the claims of "biblical minimalists" should be left to outside scholars.

The Church usually does not need to take official positions on matters of science and scholarship. It can proclaim that God created man without needing to decide how the Creation accounts can be squared with modern science. It can declare that the Book of Mormon is a genuine, ancient document delivered to us through the power of God, without taking official positions on the significance of Hebraic poetry like chiasmus or resolving the location of Zarahemla or the specific animal species that Book of Mormon writers were looking at when they described "horses," "wild goats," or "cureloms" in the New World.

While the Church did turn to a variety of scholars for input in responding to popular criticisms of the Book of Mormon based on DNA research and issued a helpful "Gospel Topics" paper, "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," that exceptional paper still leaves most of the thinking to us and primarily serves to remind us of how much we don't know. Likewise, regarding chiasmus, the Church does not need to take a position on its use and significance in the Book of Mormon. But it's cool, very cool, that Elder Holland would come to the jubilee celebrating the discovery of chiasmus and give a pro-apologetics speech while there.

It's been an interesting month for LDS apologetics, a field on its way to one day, perhaps -- who knows? -- becoming cool.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thinking About Marriage: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Elder D. Todd Christofferson's 2015 General Conference talk, "Why Marriage, Why Family," recently came up in a dinner conversation as an intriguing example of helping LDS people to think more deeply about marriage. A new friend, a professor, observed that it was interesting that Elder Christofferson chose to draw upon a Protestant theologian for a lucid explanation of marriage, and wondered if perhaps LDS writings on this topic have not been sufficiently thoughtful and eloquent to provide an abundance of equally valuable insights. In any case, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers a  valuable perspective on marriage that takes it beyond the romantic love we tend to emphasize. Here is the relevant excerpt from Elder Christofferson:
Above the Great West Door of the renowned Westminster Abbey in London, England, stand the statues of 10 Christian martyrs of the 20th century. Included among them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian born in 1906. Bonhoeffer became a vocal critic of the Nazi dictatorship and its treatment of Jews and others. He was imprisoned for his active opposition and finally executed in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was a prolific writer, and some of his best-known pieces are letters that sympathetic guards helped him smuggle out of prison, later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

One of those letters was to his niece before her wedding. It included these significant insights: “Marriage is more than your love for each other.... In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.”  [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (1953), 42–43.]
Bonhoeffer gives a clear reminder of what marriage is meant to be, in my opinion. Terribly unpopular words today, but worthy of consideration. This won't win arguments with critics, but for those wondering how to approach the topic of marriage from the perspective of faith, Bonhoeffer's words and Elder Christofferson's further comments might be helpful.

Of course, we live in an era of complexity where we often need to work closely with and respect those with many different perspectives, tendencies, lifestyle choices, and beliefs, perhaps even in our own families. But somewhere in there, understanding our own beliefs and being able to explain them when someone wishes to understand is a positive step.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Science and Mormonism: An Insight from LDS.org and an Update on the So-Called 1910 "First Presidency Statement"

Science and religion are two independent witnesses of God's Creation, according to a beautiful video interview of LDS scientist Dr. John Lewis, formerly of the University of Arizona and MIT, which is prominently provided at LDS.org. Lewis makes a very pro-science statement in his interview, though the emphasis is on expressing his faith and his witness of the divine Creation.

For those dealing with some of the tensions between science and religion, it's helpful to understand that the Church does not take an official view on the details of the Creation process for the earth and does not require the earth to be young, nor does it deny the possibility of evolutionary forces being an important tool in the creation of life.

There have been conflicting statements over the years, and even some confusion about the nature and content of some statements. Some LDS publications, for example, have cited an open-minded 1910 statement as a "First Presidency Statement" (one example). In my recent post on day two of the 2017 FairMormon Conference, I mentioned that one presenter referred to a 1910 First Presidency Statement, but I wasn't sure if that reference was accurate. The presenter, Ugo Perego, who had taken the quote from a secondary reference that described it as a "First Presidency Statement," kindly followed up and found the source of the original text. It comes from an unsigned editorial in the 1910 Improvement Era (the official Church magazine of that day), vol. 13, p. 185. At this time, the editors listed were Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church and Edward H. Anderson. Brother Anderson was not a General Authority; at the time, based on his Wikipedia entry, I believe he was in the Weber Stake High Council, which is not quite the same. President Smith might have helped in writing it and most likely approved it, but that doesn't make it an official First Presidency Statement. But I like it.

Images sent to me from Brother Perego follow (click to enlarge):

The text is available at FairMormon.org:
Origin of Man.-- "In just what manner did the mortal bodies of Adam and Eve come into existence on this earth?" This question comes from several High Priests' quorums.

Of course, all are familiar with the statements in Genesis 1: 26-27; 2: 7; also in the Book of Moses, Pearl of Great Price, 2: 27; and in the Book of Abraham 5: 7. The latter statement reads: "And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, the man's spirit) and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."

These are the authentic statements of the scriptures, ancient and modern, and it is best to rest with these, until the Lord shall see fit to give more light on the subject. Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God. For helpful discussion of the subject, see Improvement Era, Vol. XI, August 1908, No. 10, page 778, article, "Creation and Growth of Adam;" also article by the First Presidency, "Origin of Man," Vol. XIII, No. 1, page 75, 1909.

Editorial (unsigned) [Joseph F. Smith as president of the Church and Edward H. Anderson were editors], "Priesthood Quorums’ Table," Improvement Era 13 no. 4? (April 1910), 570.
This leaves open the possibility that evolution played a role in developing the human bodies of Adam and Eve and all of us. It's a noteworthy moment in the history of LDS teachings relative to evolution. For more details, see David H. Bailey, "History of the LDS Church's view on the age of the earth and evolution," Jan. 1, 2017, at ScienceMeetsReligion.org. David H. Bailey is a scientist from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (recently retired) and the University of California, Davis. Also see his collection of 14 LDS-related pages on science and religion.

Also see my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) page, "Questions about Science and Mormon Views."

Disclosure: In fairness, I have to admit that I love science and my religion, and am invested in both.

Friday, August 04, 2017

FairMormon 2017 Conference, Day Two

Day two of the FairMormon 2017 Conference offered another series of outstanding speakers with messages covering a broad spectrum of topics. (See also my summary of day one.)

Ben Spackman
The day began with an outstanding presentation from Ben Spackman who discussed what it takes to properly understand scripture. He discussed the reality of accommodation, wherein God's words to us do not necessarily refute all our misunderstandings and ignorance at once, but address us in ways we can understand. Further, he stressed that we can consider scripture like a map. A map inevitably leaves out a great deal and often deliberately distorts reality in order to achieve its purpose, just as a two-dimensional map of the earth such as the Mercator Projection will distort distances, or as a map of a subway system will not only distort distances but also be useless for navigating streets, hiking, or mining. Taking Genesis as a map useful for understanding 21st century scientific issues such as cosmology and the literal scientific details of the Creation might be like using a subway map to plan a mining expedition.

Understanding God's accommodation of human understanding helps us temper out expectations of what we can extract from scripture and the words of the prophets. The Old Testament is infused with the geocentric view of the cosmos that was the only model human minds had at that time. God worked with rather than refuted that understanding. More significantly, perhaps, Christ explained that in terms of policy and commandment, God accommodated human hard-heartedness in allowing divorce, though it was contrary to God's desires. Matthew 19:8: "Jesus replied, 'Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.'" (

Ben recommend a good list of resources on dealing with scripture from the excellent blog, Benjamin the Scribe.

I liked how Ben used a poem from Emily Dickinson, "Tell All The Truth,"  to help illustrate God's tendency to guide us gradually toward the truth, accommodating our weaknesses and errors:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Ugo Perego on Evolution
Ugo Perego, a scientist with a strong background in genetics and DNA, spoke about the Church's position on evolution, which as you should know leaves us open to accept what science teaches and does not require us to force-fit our beliefs into young earth models of the Creation. 

He began with Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-34 which points to a future science fest in which the Lord will tell us all about the things of the earth, the way it was made, etc. This indicates he will be revealing things we don't know. If we think we know it today, we may have a surprise coming. In my opinion, this passage is one of many that should encourage us to care about science since the Lord obviously does.

While the Church has said relatively little about evolution, Brother Perego discussed a 1909 First Presidency statement on the "Origins of Man" and also referred to a First Presidency Statement in 1910 that he said clarified the previous statement and said that whether the mortal bodies of man evolved over time or were transplanted to earth or were born here, are "questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God." But I think this may be in error,  and that the 1910 statement that has often been widely quoted was not really a First Presidency Statement. He's checking on that (based on a chat with him afterwards). I hope the 1910 statement is legitimate, but while it is printed in a variety of books and articles, it may be problematic. If you have definitive answers, let me know! It is not at LDS.org based on my searching.

Another interesting article form the Church that he shared with us is "What does the Church believe about dinosaurs?," New Era, Feb. 2016:
Did dinosaurs live and die on this earth long before man came along? There have been no revelations on this question, and the scientific evidence says yes. (You can learn more about it by studying paleontology if you like, even at Church-owned schools.)

The details of what happened on this planet before Adam and Eve aren’t a huge doctrinal concern of ours. The accounts of the Creation in the scriptures are not meant to provide a literal, scientific explanation of the specific processes, time periods, or events involved.
More recently, in the October 2016 New Era, we have a clear statement in the article, "What does the Church believe about evolution?":
The Church has no official position on the theory of evolution. Organic evolution, or changes to species’ inherited traits over time, is a matter for scientific study. Nothing has been revealed concerning evolution.
Bruce R. McConkie noted that a "day" could be an age, an eon, or a division of eternity. He said there is no revealed guidance that the days of Creation were 24-hour days.

As Hugh Nibley noted, Abraham 4:20 says that God prepared the waters to bring forth life such as whales. Sounds as if they weren't instantaneously created, but the waters were made ready to allow them to develop.

Perego then turned to the topic of DNA and the Book of Mormon. While not specifying what geographic model of the Book of Mormon is best and warning that we need not do that, he said that the Heartland Model advocates who are claiming DNA evidence proves the Book of Mormon is true are abusing science. In specific, the hapotype X2a DNA that has been found has no bearing on the Book of Mormon, but is a New World DNA from the ancestor of Kennewick Man and was present in the Americas long before the Book of Mormon. It does not support a Great Lakes model of the Book of Mormon. 

Perego has studied and published on more sequences of X2a than any other scientist and is an expert on this topic. As of today, clear genetic evidence of ancient Old World transoceanic migrations other than Bering Strait migrations does not exist.

Regarding a recent study on ancient Mayan DNA samples, Perego noted that the authors in correspondence with him said that one sample "did not work." Perego asked what that meant. Answer: "The DNA was not what we expected." It was rejected during review and they were asked to remove the unexpected sequence. (This is a danger I have noted in my paper on the Book of Mormon and DNA evidence, where I give some examples of unexpected DNA results being discarded that might have pointed to Old World ties in ancient Native American DNA.) Perego emphasizes that there is still much that we do not understand. For example a 2107 publication in Nature on the genomic era shows that there are studies showing possibility of genetic contact between South America and Polynesia. Which way was the gene flow and how? There is still much we don't known.

Perego advises that DNA and the Book of Mormon is an interesting topic, but not one to tie your testimony to, and certainly not a good reason to reject the Book of Mormon or the Church.

Janiece Johnson
Dr. Janiece Johnson delivered a strong message on the need to pay more attention to the women of LDS history. Dr. Johnson observed that too long women's voices have not been recognized in the Church, and we have suffered for this. There have been some bright spots, but many women's voices have been overlooked.

When asked what women were involved in the Restoration, Lattre-day Saints typically give a list of four women: Mary Fielding Smith, Emma Hale Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Lucy Mack Smith. Dr. Johnson is pained that the many women of the Restoration have been largely reduced to these four voices. "We need to hear women's voices. We need to read their words. We need to hear their experiences."

To illustrate the diversity in the lives of major women in the Restoration, she contrasted Eliza R. Snow and Zina D.H. Young. Zina had a dramatic conversion experience by reading the Book of Mormon, with an almost instantaneous conversion. Eliza, on the other hand, took four years of study to get past her fears that it might be a hoax and become a firm believer. The diversity in the conversion stories of early LDS women reminds us of our diversity today and the different approaches and needs we have as we encounter the Gospel. There is much to learn from the stories of these early Saints.

Johnson covered aspects of the life stories of several other early LDS women, all with lessons for our day. One was Desideria Quntanar de Yañez. She would become the first women baptized in Mexico. She was a woman of faith who had a dream that guided her to send her son to Mexico City. Here is the story, as documented in Wikipedia's article, "Desideria Quintanar de Yáñez":
In February 1880, Desideria claimed to have a dream about a pamphlet called "Una Voz de Amonestación" being published by foreigners in Mexico City. Missionaries from LDS Church were, in fact, in Mexico City in the process of publishing a Spanish translation of Parley P. Pratt's pamphlet, "A Voice of Warning," which contained introductory information to the Church. This dream had a great effect on her, and she felt very strongly that this pamphlet would help her spiritually. Because of poor health, she was unable to travel to Mexico City to investigate the veracity of her dream. Her son, José María, went in her place, and was able to meet the apostle Moses Thatcher and other missionaries that had accompanied him, including a Spaniard, Melitón González Trejo (es), who had assisted in the translation of Church materials into Spanish, and James Z. Stewart. José María returned to the village where his mother lived with news of the foreign missionaries and their pamphlet. Since "A Voice of Warning" was still being translated (in part by Plotino Rhodakanaty, a Greek convert living in Mexico City), the missionaries sent other pamphlets back with José María.
In 1880, Desideria received the translated "A Voice of Warning," as well as the newly published Spanish translation of selections from Book of Mormon. Desideria was baptized by Melitón González Trejo into LDS Church in April 1880 in her village of Nopala. She was the 22nd person to be baptized into the Church in Mexico, as well as the first woman. Her oldest son, José María and his wife, as well his daughter, Carmen, were also baptized that day.
Dr. Johnson reminds us that we can lose ourselves in this world, and through studying the lives of early Mormon women, we can better remember who we are and find our way. It is not only women who need to hear women's stories; we all do.

Tyler Griffin, "Book of Mormon Geographical References: Internal Consistency Taken to A New Level"
Tyler Griffin has been leading some amazing work on mapping the scriptures at http://virtualscriptures.org/, which include a detailed internal map of the Book of Mormon.

Brother Griffin began by reminding us how young Joseph was as he produced mountains of scripture. He was 24 as the Book of Mormon was published and 31 by the time the Kirtland Temple was dedicated, all with three years of elementary frontier education. As Emma later recollected, "Joseph could neither write nor dictate a coherent well-worded letter" when he dictated the Book of Mormon. It was a marvel to her, clearly far beyond any abilities she had found in him.

In November 1832, Joseph begins a personal journal. It begins with a botched paragraph that he crosses out. And it reads like the writing of a farm boy, not like the Book of Mormon. One of the interesting things about the Book of Mormon is what went to the printing press: pretty much the rough draft as dictated by Joseph. When you compare Joseph Smith the man to Joseph Smith the Prophet, there is a world of difference, as Brother Griffin observes.

There are over 500 references to geography in the Book of Mormon. Once Nephi gets us to the New World, his interest in geography is negligible. We don't pick up details of geography until we get to Mormon's abridgements. Mormon, unlike Nephi, cares about geography a great deal. Given Mormon's military career where a mastery of geography is a regular matter of life and death, this makes sense to me. Nephi, though, is largely focused on theology. Thus we have different flavors in the Book of Mormon relative to geographical detail depending on the author and context.

The vast majority of geographical references are in the land of Zarahemla, which is what Mormon knows best. With over 500 references to geography and stories separated by hundreds of pages dealing with the same places, we somehow maintain nearly perfect consistency. "This book is so good that even when it's wrong, it's right." E.g., Alma 24, they "buried their weapons of peace, or, they buried their weapons of war, for peace." A remarkable textual clue pointing to a real man engraving text on an unerasable medium and making an alteration to fix a mistake. If a farm boy were making this up and made that mistake, he's say, "Oliver, scratch that and write "weapons of war for peace." Here we see Mormon making a mistake and moving on. A subtle hint of the authenticity of this ancient text.

After Ether 12:27, Mormon does not compare himself to others again regarding his weakness in writing.

Griffin has worked on making an internal map based on internal evidences. One of the key references for the map is Alma 22, where there is a description of the land southward and northward with a narrow strip of wilderness, etc. There is a wilderness west and east of Zarahemla. Many geographical issues. Some come from migrations. Migrations of people tend to be north. This was completely contrary to Joseph's environment, where migrations would be south or west.

Alma 63:5-9 involves Hagoth who leaves from the west sea on a large ship and they go north. He comes back and build more ships and goes again. Helaman 3:3-14 mentions other groups leaving and going far north, even until they came to a land covered with many waters and rivers. This northward tendency opens up opportunities for research. Where should we look for linguistic evidences or other traces of Nephite and Lamanite culture?

If Book of Mormon were written to show where Indians came from, the Book of Mormon does a poor job. No teepees, no tomahawks, no mocassins or peace pipes. Nearly all of the traditional trappings of Native Americans likely to be known to Joseph Smith and his audience are absent.

Three week's journey separated Mulekites from the Nephites for 350 years. Nephite enter their home turf and take over politically. This sets stage for later people to challenge the Nephite political system and claim to be of noble birth -- probably a reference to descent from Mulek.

Any lens you use to look at the book, whether political, cultural, geographical, linguistic, theological, etc., the book is remarkable, and difficult to explain as a farm boy's rough draft.

The land of Nephi is always up, Zarahemla is always down, across the Book of Mormon. Remarkable consistency (I think that is just like Nephi always speaking of going up to Jerusalem and down to the wilderness). For 19th century people, northward is usually up, so this doesn't fit Joseph's environment. Even today, I would say, Americans tend to go "up" when going north and "down" when going south. 

Moroni on east coast, lowest, followed north by Nephihah, Lehi, Omner, Gid, and Mulek. Land of Bountiful has to be close enough to sea shore for Teancum to go in the night to slay Amalickiah in his sleep. Last thing he would have done would be to choke on his own blood, in contrast to his oath to drink Moroni's blood.

My question was this: "Don't some major geographical details like apparent volcanism in 3 Nephi or a Sidon that flows north immediately rule out some geographical models?" His answer is that he seeks to leave open possibilities. Some deeply believe the Book of Mormon took place in Baja or South America, etc., and doesn't want to rule things out for them. He prefers to keep things open as much as possible. I guess I can't complain about that, though I think we need to help people think about the plausible physical places where the text could actually have taken place.

Brant Gardner: The Book of Mormon as a Seer Stone: Having Faith In and Through the Book of Mormon
Brant Gardner began by asking why in the world would Joseph have thought of putting a rock in a hat as a way to solve his problem, the problem of translating the unknown language on his gold plates. Brother Gardner suggests the reason is that he thought of something he was already familiar with.

Gardner suggests that Joseph initially used the interpreters that came with the plates only to do that which he had always done with seer stones: to find things, namely, to check on the location of the plates.

Gardner notes that the use of the hat to block out light might be a way to let others know that the seeing taking place is something unusual and miraculous.

He explained that we struggle with the problem of "presentism," citing Lynn Hunt's "The Problem of Presentism." The things that bother us the most are when we find people in history who should be like us but aren't. If we learn of something strange from people living on a remote island, we can accept it. But if we say Joseph Smith used a seer stone, it will bother us. Joseph's divining cup in Genesis 44:5 doesn't bother us. Omens were based on the appearance of liquids in the cup -- weird, but not something we have to worry about. If Joseph Smith had used a divining cup to translate the Book of Mormon, we would find it strange and troubling.

Money digging is weird today, but was common in Joseph's day. Wayne Sentinel, Feb. 16, 1825, mentions there might be 500 respectable men in the area engaged in diligent money digging activities. Fawn Brodie quotes this. Today we have the lottery -- same silly reason. People in difficult circumstances often look for easy way to gain wealth.

Gardner suggested that the Book of Mormon itself can act as a seer stone, a tool to help us learn directly from God and experience divine communication. It has changed people's lives, helped them find divine guidance, and brought long-lasting blessings to many lives.

Gardner was asked about Stanford Carmack's and Royal Skousen's theories on translation of the Book of Mormon (e.g., generally tight control to give a text often showing Early Modern English influence that cannot be accounted for by theories based on copying KJV language). Gardner has a difference of opinion about what the data means. That's pretty much all he would say for that question.

Gerrit Dirkmaat, "Lost Teachings of the Prophets: Recently Uncovered Teachings of Joseph Smith and Others from the Council of Fifty Record"
Dr. Dirkmaat is an assistant professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University with a PhD in American History from the University of Colorado. He worked as a historian and writer for the Church History Department from 2010 to 2014 as historian on several volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers project. Since taking his position at BYU, he continues to work on the Joseph Smith Papers as a historian and writer. He currently serves as Editor of the academic journal Mormon Historical Studies, published by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, and on the Church History editorial board for BYU Studies. He is the author of dozens of scholarly articles and is the co-author, along with Michael Hubbard MacKay, of one of my favorite books, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, published by Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, 2015.

He began by telling the story of Joseph's decision to run for president after becoming disenchanted with the Democrats and the Whigs, who were unwilling to bring relief to the persecuted Mormons. American democracy had failed the Mormons.

Interestingly, in the 2nd paragraph of his declaration of his views on "Powers and Policy of the Government" was an attack on slavery.

Dirkmaat then turned to the newly published documents from the Council of the Fifty Record.

Joseph wanted the Council to speak their mind, and if they wouldn't, they'd be no better than a "doughhead."

The Council sought to propose a constitution for the kingdom of God on earth, a bold and daunting task. But their discussions reflected a great deal of disappointment toward the government of the US and their failure to protect their rights. Sense of loss of bitterness is reflected, and a feeling that they are being driven out of the nation. They consider various places that will be outside of the United States in order to live their religion in peace. Texas in one candidate, and representatives are sent to discuss possibilities. But is during one of their meetings, as Texas is being discussed, when a messenger comes in with the news that Texas was just annexed by the United States. Upper California in Mexico and Oregon were also considered.

Dirkmaat noted that Joseph wanted non-Mormons to be on the Council and that he was passionate about religious liberty for all. He wanted all in the Council to have total liberty to embrace the light they saw. He was not afraid to have ministers from other religions preach to his people. He preached against religious intolerance and wanted to preserve the rights of all to believe as they wished. "We must not despise a man on account of his infirmity; we ought to love the man more for his infirmity." He urged others to "drive from us every species of intolerance." Those who reject the Gospel should be embraced with the same charity from the Latter-day Saints and should enjoy the same rights to liberty in our midst as those who fully accept the Gospel.

Dirkmaat noted that after reading the Joseph Smith papers, one thing that especially stands out about Joseph Smith is that he had a great love for other people. His statement that we should not despise others for their infirmity is one of the most beautiful expressions from the 19th century. 

Daniel Peterson, "What Difference Does It Make?"
The closing speaker will be the venerable Daniel Peterson, one of the most vilified and respected defenders of the faith. It has been great to meet Daniel and other major forces in LDS apologetics here, many for my first time.

Daniel began by referring to a young man with whom he had corresponded, who left the Church and now was bitterly opposed to Mormonism. Daniel had tried to help him without success. The dialog suddenly ceased, and based on what Daniel knew of him and his state, he was worried for his well-being. He soon learned that the young man had committed suicide. Dr. Peterson cannot help but think that the man's loss of faith only compounded whatever problems he had that led to his suicide. "These things matter," he intoned. [Note, added Aug. 5: Peterson was not making a general statement about suicide or ex-Mormons, but a statement about an individual whom he knew and cared for. He would later note that a great many studies show that religious belief is strongly correlated with lower suicide rates, so the suspicion that a retained faith might have helped the young man does have a logical basis.]

Faith is viewed as a mental illness by some of the intellectual elites of our day. Is atheism healthier than faith, Peterson asked? Armand Nicholi, Jr., in The Question of God has C.S. Lewis debate Sigmund Freud on various topics. Though the two never met, Lewis was in a good position to consider both sides of the issues since he spent about half of his life as an atheist. Lewis arguably led a healthier and happier life than Freud.

Peterson points to studies showing the benefits of religious faith on the health and happiness of believers. This doesn't prove that religion or belief in God is true, but does discount the claim that faith is an illness. Rather, it seems to make us healthier.

Andrew Sims in Is Faith Delusion? Why Religion is Good for Your Health, he notes that a majority of studies exploring the impact of faith show that it is linked to reduced rates of suicide, healthier lives, reduced mental illness, less criminal activity, better marital stability, better social support, better coping with crises, reduced depression rates, and better general health. If study after study were showing that religion is harmful for numerous areas of health, it would be shouted from the front pages of the media. But these studies get very little attention.

In 84% of 68 studies, those with religious faith are less likely to commit suicide. "The nagging question we are left with is why is this important information ... not better known?" Governments and health care organizations should be rushing to encourage faith to elevate the heath and well-being of the nation, Sims suggests.

In Gross National Happiness (2008) by Brooks, religious people of all faiths are markedly happier than secularists (42% vs. 28% reporting they are happy in their lives). Those who pray daily are much more likely to consider themselves happy. Oddly, agnostics tend to be less happy than atheists.

People in religious communities are more likely to be financially successfully. There are benefits that accrue to a community as a whole when there is a high level of religious activity. The more your neighbors go to church, the more likely you are to be financially successful, according to Brooks.

Atheists sometimes, rather condescendingly, tell believers that they should enjoy the amazing ride of this life rather than spending so much time fretting about the next life and preparing for it that they miss out on the present life. But this is an erroneous statement, for there is no evidence that believers miss out on the joys and benefits of the ride here in mortality, or that they spend so much time preparing for the next life that they miss out on this. In fact, those with faith tend to live richer, more fulfilled, and longer lives than those who tell us to quit fretting about the next.

Peterson quotes from the chilling words of Iago in Verdi's Otello:
I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.
From the cowardice of a seed
or of a vile atom I was born.
I am a son evil because I am a man;
and I feel the primitive mud in me.

Yes! This is my faith!
I believe with a firm heart,
so does the widow in the temple,
the evil I think
and proceeds from me,
fulfills my destiny.
I think the honest man
is a mockery,
in face and heart,
that everything is in him is a lie:
tears, kisses, looks,
sacrifices and honor.
And I think the man plays a game
of unjust fate
the seed of the cradle
the worm of the grave.

After all this foolishness comes death.
And then what? And then?
Death is Nothingness.
Heaven is an old wives' tale!
On what grounds can a follower of Richard Dawkins demonstrate Iago's lethal immorality to be wrong?

Peterson also turned to Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.  
Starks shows that Christian communities were more likely to survive disaster (plagues, etc.) than pagan communities apparently because of their willingness to serve and care for each other in times of trouble.

Religious people are far more likely to support charities, to help the poor, and in general to strengthen their communities and serve others. They are more likely to be active in civic matters and donate their time to build their communities.

Stark points out that religion shows that rather than being a mental illness, those with religious faith are far more likely to have mental health. In addition, religious husbands are far less likely to abuse their wives and children (contrary to the images the secular Hollywood community tends to feed us).

The average life expectancy of religious Americans is more than 7 years longer than for the non-religious. Religious Americans are more likely to be successful in their careers. They are less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal, and are more likely to patronize the arts.

The accusation that religion is unhealthy and antisocial is strongly contradicted by data from numerous sources. Religious people are more likely to be involved in club, social organizations, etc.

If societies wish to encourage better health, happiness, and stronger communities, they should encourage religion, not bitterly oppose it.

Religion matters. Faith matters. Truth matters. And the truth is that religion in general is healthy. And for that reason, I might add, the ability to defend religious faith from spurious attacks, no matter how vocally and popularly proclaimed, is vital for those of us wishing to make this life better, happier, and healthier for our families and neighbors.

Update, Aug. 5, 2017
I concluded my post yesterday thinking that Daniel Peterson was about to finish. I published it just  before my computer would run out of power. But there is more to add.

The bulk of the studies referred to, as I learned during the Q&A, came from work done in North America and Europe, which means they were evaluating the impact of Judaeo-Christian religion. Conducting similar studies in, say, China or Islamic nations tends to be more difficult.

At the point where I thought Peterson had beautifully illustrated his point about how religion matters and was about to wrap up, he made what seemed like a surprising turn as he illustrated the sorrow and disappointment of life by reviewing some details from the lives of remarkably capable human beings like Max Planck and Beethoven. He told the story of Beethoven's loss of hearing and tragically short life, unable to hear his greatest masterpieces,  and asked how much more this man might have achieved had he been healthy and able to hear? So many previous lives are filled with missed opportunities, with potential unfulfilled, with sorrow and tragedy. Are the atheist right that all this is cause for despair and grounds for denying the existence and mercy of God?

Then Peterson turned to the core message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and spoke of the Savior and His infinite love and sacrifice for us, His conquest of death and sin that is able to embrace all of us and life us from our tombs of despair and give us joy and eternal hope. Through Him and His victory, all of our tears from our failures, the injustice we suffer, the tragedies and sorrows of mortality, can be wiped away in His love. We can rise again and have endless joy and opportunity, being lifted to a path of eternal growth and beauty. We can realize our endless potential through Jesus Christ.

Peterson's conclusion was truly inspiring and poetic. Perhaps my favorite moment of many outstanding ones during the two-day event. It caught me by surprise and brought the message of the whole conference together, leading us to contemplate in reverent awe the real reason for defending, teaching, and understanding our faith.

Yes, religion matters. Christ matters. He changes everything.