Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

The Passing of My Father, a Man Who Taught His Children to the Very End

Every day for roughly 30 years my wife, Kendra Lindsay, has prayed that we might be near family when we are needed most, such as for the passing of our parents. We have lived away from them ever since leaving BYU and going to Wisconsin, Georgia, Wisconsin again, and then China. While many of our prayers have not yet been answered (except for the implied "sorry, no"), my wife was blessed to be able to return home in time for the passing of both of her parents. For my father, who passed away on the morning of July 27, a series of blessings allowed us both to be there at his side and my mother's side when he died. We could easily have both been stuck in China, where we lived for 9 years until recently, unable to return swiftly to the U.S. Or we could have been in Wisconsin where we now live. But we were in Salt Lake City at the ideal time, with tickets we had bought over a month prior. 
 
We were there at just the right time not only for my father's crisis, but also for my mother's, for she would fall and break her ankle as our plane was about to land, greatly escalating her care needs. We just spent a touch over two weeks filling in the gaps until an additional care giver could be hired, facing one of the most challenging times of our lives and yet also one of the most rewarding. Our small taste of day and night care for an elderly parent has greatly expanded our respect for those of you who care for an aging family member, especially those with serious physical issues and dementia. We feel so blessed that we could help my mother but also could be there for my father during that time.

I previously shared the unusual experiences around my wife's courageous return to China on what would prove to be the last plane from North America to Shanghai (as far as we know) before China cut off all foreign flights into China (see "The Last Plane to Shanghai" at Meridian Magazine and here at Mormanity). Another strange series of events allowed my wife to return from her work for her international school about a week earlier than expected, which made a huge difference for us. 
 
When President Trump recently declared that he was cancelling all flights from Chinese airlines to the US, Kendra's flight was cancelled and she had to scramble to find a new way back. The day of his announcement, I was fortunate to have my weekly Chinese lesson via Skype, and my Chinese teacher alerted me to the newly made announcement that Kendra and I had both missed. I abandoned the lesson, with apologies, and called my wife who was just beginning her day at work, unable to work on getting a new ticket for many hours. By then, it might have been too late. So I did the legwork for her and was able to get one of the last three or four tickets left on a flight to Toronto. Shortly before this, Kendra received some good news from her international school in Shanghai, where she was a beloved math teacher (yes, in Asia, math teachers can be beloved -- it's amazing to see how students in Shanghai react to her when they see her at the mall or elsewhere, shouting out in glee to "Mrs. Lindsay!!"). The principal told her that after all she had done to help them, she could leave a week early if she wished since the last week of the semester would be pretty slow. So the new flight I found through Canada  would bring her to the States a week earlier than would have been the case without President Trump's sudden ban on Chinese flights. 
 
If she could make it back safely, one of the first things we planned to do was to visit my aging parents in Salt Lake City.  With her new itinerary apparently settled, we bought tickets to go from Appleton, Wisconsin to Salt Lake on July 23, leaving time for a two-week self-imposed quarantine for the safety of my parents and others before traveling to Utah.

But the challenges weren't over. At the Shanghai airport on July 3, as her flight to Toronto was about to board, an agent of China Eastern airlines called her and told her to leave the gate and go back to the ticket counter because a new rule from Canada would not allow her to stay overnight in Toronto as she had planned. Going to the ticket counter would mean missing her flight because she would have to go through security and customs again even if she could resolve the problem, and getting one on the very few flights to North America was difficult and costly, and might add many days to her trek. She refused to go and instead called me. 

I was in the middle of rushing to meet the most urgent patent deadline I have ever faced for a critical patent application for my employer that we didn't know we would need until that day -- a rather complex story I can't share here. With my deadline approaching and too much left to do, I received a panicked call from my wife telling me that she needed to show the China Eastern agents proof of a new ticket leaving Toronto to the US on the same day she arrived, otherwise they would not let her go. Instead of panicking and complaining, as I might have been tempted to do, I felt calm and was able to work fast for this urgent matter. After a quick prayer, I called Delta and learned that there was a 3 hour wait to reach an agent. I requested a call back but that path was hopeless. In fact, it would be over 5 hours before they called, at nearly 3 AM, thanks to the amazing changes in customer service I see in so many parts of this rather foreign land I have returned to after 9 years in China, a land where customer service has gone from generally horrible to outstanding in many areas during my years there. I tried online searches and found that there was no way to get to Appleton from Toronto after her flight would arrive.

Then the right idea hit me: she doesn't need to reach Appleton that night,  just anywhere in the US. Then she could fly to Appleton the next day. So I soon found a reasonable route and bought a ticket to Detroit for July 3, and then a ticket from Detroit to Appleton on July 4. Problem solved! Then came another panicked call: the regulation also required that she could not transfer to a different terminal terminal. The ticket had to be on the same day and from the same terminal, Terminal 3 in Toronto. With growing fear, I checked and learned that the ticket I had bought was indeed departing from Terminal 3. Whew! This route worked. I had lost an hour on my patent project, but then, receiving another blessing, I realized I could take some shortcuts in the remarks and arguments I had to submit, enough to make up for the lost time. With about 15 minutes to spare, I met the deadline and felt good about my efforts, with no serious loss in spite of losing an hour to rescue my wife while also seeking to rescue my employer. 
 
My wife would arrive July 4, and then she went through the rather awkward but appropriately strict two-week quarantine to ensure she was COVID-free when she met my parents. She did not want to risk being the person who brought death and destruction to my family and to others in the US. 
 
As our July 23 departure date approached, we got a call from my youngest sister telling us that my father was declining rapidly. Should we change our tickets to go a little earlier? After prayer and seeking more information, we both felt we should and moved up our planned trip by one day to June 22 in order to see my father and perhaps comfort him in his extreme and painful situation. 
 
Plagued with pain and a host of serious health issues, my father has been suffering for many years. How he remained so cheerful and kind to others right up to the end is a mystery to me. In fact, it's a miracle. Perhaps the greatest of his burdens was the PTSD he has suffered from for many years due to the daily carnage and shelling he faced during the horrific Korean war, where he also mourned over the need to mow down so many poorly equipped young men whose lives were wasted by the thousands in hopeless assaults. So many vets with PTSD have not lived to his age, 88 years, because the temptation to commit suicide is so great. It was a temptation at time for him, too, one that he told me he had overcome in part because of his commitment to his dear wife and also because of constant help from the Savior. He was fortunate, though many very good people in similar circumstances don't have the same happy ending and long life he did. I am grateful he could hold on, and hope I would have been understanding had he not. 
 
The stories of what my father saw and endured in the war add to my abhorrence of senseless no-win wars fought far from our borders for the gain and benefit of others but not actually for the defense of our nation. He suffered so much because of that war, though he would be blessed to have many years essentially free of PTSD symptoms beginning with a miracle on his mission after the war that continued until it returned somehow after a serious heart attack decades later (I discussed this in a 2013 post, "A Father on Loan"). In spite of the ravages of PTSD, his faith and his love for my mother kept him going. Miracles kept him going. But it's been clear for years that he was near the end. 
 
With severe cardiovascular issues, diabetes, and other problems, his imminent death was a cold fact that kept on looming long after many of his healthier peers and relatives had passed away. For about 20 years, ever since his first series of serious heart attacks, I've been mentally prepared for my father's death. But I was not prepared for how sweet and joyous the experience would be. The last few days of my father's life were filled with touching moments that almost seemed scripted by a generous and merciful playwright. Wonderfully for my wife and me, we were there at his side, against all odds.

Being there at his side when he took his last breath, after so much joyous closure with family, was profoundly touching. I felt so blessed to be there. But I also felt it may have been even more important to arrive when we did to help my mother. She was hauled away to the Intermountain Medical Center  by paramedics three minutes before we pulled into her driveway. When I called my brother and sister-in-law who were there with her, I learned that the Emergency Room had a policy of no visitors, so she had been taken away from them while screaming and crying. With her dementia, she did not understand where she was or why people were taking her away from family. She was terrified and in distress. 

I am so pained by the bureaucratic inhumanity that fills our medical system based on an apparent overreaction to COVID fears. People are dying alone when family should be there with them in our hospitals. Women are giving birth alone when they should have the absolute right to have the father or someone they trust to be there at their side to not only provide essential comfort, but to protect them and their babies from improper treatment or any of the many mistakes that can happen in busy hospitals caring for multiple babies and new moms. And my poor 88-year-old mother, with serious dementia and in great fear and anxiety, was dragged away from those she knew and loved by strange people for unknown reasons as she screamed because "no visitors are allowed due to COVID." That's inhumane. Is there no way to bring in essential support with proper protective gear, even a HAZMAT suit if really needed, without infecting others in a hospital? Is our technology so backward, our hospitals so crowded (this one seemed surprisingly quiet with very few patients), that a family member cannot be brought in somehow to help in a crisis? Is the palpable distress and suffering caused by this draconian policy really outweighed by the minute COVID risk? Is there anything approaching real science behind this policy?

Perhaps one reason we felt especially blessed to arrive that day is that I seem to have been the only one among my siblings who not only understood how senseless and cruel that policy was, but also knew it could be opposed and was worth opposing. My weakness of being a complainer may have been a needed strength in that moment. I picked up the phone and called the hospital to complain and to demand an exemption for their inhumane policy. I would reach some personnel who understood that what was happening was inappropriate, and would soon be forwarded to the head nurse who listened, and took action to reach senior management to request an exemption. It took well over an hour, but the exemption was granted. Wonderful, how sad that we had to spend so much time and energy appealing a cruel policy to let a screaming, crying elderly woman suffering from dementia be given essential emotional support in a time of distress. As a result, my brother who had been there at the hospital with Mom was allowed to accompany her in the emergency room, and, after another round of requesting a further exemption, he and then I and later my sister would be allowed to accompany my mother in her hospital room. That alone made us feel our trip to Utah was worth it and was a blessing for which we should be forever grateful. It would still be just one visitor at a time, immediate family members only (in-laws not allowed), but that was enough. She really needed us at the hospital. Being there also allowed me to get some training from an expert on how to transport her between a bed and a wheelchair or between a wheelchair and other places such as a car or commode. That training would become helpful each day during our stay, and I gradually got amazing compliments from my mother. "Oh my gosh! That was perfect. You are an expert!" So sweet of her. 

The time with my mother was precious. I heard kind words I was not used to receiving when young. We had wonderful, spiritual, loving conversations in spite of her dementia. There seems to be an underlying mental core that comes in and out of focus, while the outer layers of memory that we interact with might be foggy much of the time. I believe it is wrong and heartless to assume that a patient with dementia doesn't know what you are saying about her in her presence or does not recognize your love or lack of it. She had to be reminded many times of my name, "Jeff from China," her son, but one morning when I approached her she looked up and said, "Oh, you are my son, my little baby. I love you so much!" She recognized me. And those were tender words I don't recall hearing before. She also said hilarious things with her frequently irreverent wit and enjoyed laughing with us. She can be so entertaining and sometimes a bit shocking or naughty. But at her core is a sweet and faithful woman.

My father, on the other hand, was sharp and often lucid near the end, with clear memory and a lot of his own style of humor. He used his mental clarity, when it was present, to love us and to teach us almost up to his dying breath. 

The Thursday after our arrival, as my wife and I were joined by my youngest sister and her Brazilian husband and his niece in chatting with my father and mother, something truly strange occurred. My father, who had been groggy for a while, began talking with remarkable clarity and force. One by one, he spoke to each of us with words of counsel and wisdom. He started with me and mentioned some specific attributes, and then gave recommendations for action, including the counsel to do more to serve others. He turned to my wife and spoke remarkable words about her including counsel regarding a son. It took us a while to realize what was happening and for me to start taking notes, but this experience struck me very much like the final counsel of the prophet Lehi to his children. Each of us came out of this encounter deeply touched. It was nothing he had prepared to say and he didn't even recall what he had spoken until I reminded him of some specifics from my notes. It was a profound moment. In this episode, the steady theme was service to others, often with a "Go now and serve!"

During this episode he made several references to a gathering on Saturday, and that Saturday would be the key day. We took that seriously, and asked the rest of his children and their families to come over at noon on Saturday. Five of his six children were able to do so. Saturday was wonderful. Though he was asleep until about 1 PM, he but then became very energetic as he met with his posterity. He was able to visit with all of us and talk remotely with a daughter in Chicago. He was loving and cheerful, as always, in spite of so much pain. 

Sunday he was closer to the end. His oxygen level was in the low 60s, causing a hospice nurse to wonder why he was even still alive. In the evening, my brother, the second child (I'm the first) and his partner came over to visit while others were there again as well. My Dad was so happy to see my brother and as always was so loving, even though some parents really struggle when a child has left the Church or is openly gay. They chatted about basketball and Dad's years with the Utah Jazz (V.P. of business for a while), mentioning Mark Eaton, a kind friend of my father's who attended the funeral. I was amazed at how much energy Dad had for this chat. My brother then left and I could hear from the voices in the kitchen that he and Salvo were about to leave. I believe that Salvo, out of respect, assumed that the personal visits with my father were for children only, but I knew Dad would be happy to see him, too, so I rushed into the kitchen and invited Salvo to also come in and visit. He seemed to glow with that invitation. When I brought him into Dad's room, my Dad lit up with the biggest smile I had seen all day and said with a loud and clear voice, "Salvo, I hear you and Mike are going to buy the Utah Jazz!" It was typical Dean Lindsay humor and love mixed into one. Everyone in earshot broke out laughing. Hilarious in context. They had a warm and funny conversation. My Dad expended a great deal of his dwindling energy to kind and warm to my brother's partner, and I was so glad to have been a catalyst for that sweet moment. He was teaching us by example right up to the end. 

Early the next morning, my father's oxygen was at 48, yet he was still alive. He struggled to speak, but could clearly hear. We spoke to him and there was responsiveness on his face. My sister from Chicago called and spoke to him on speakerphone. She reminded him of a time when she was angry with Mom and went to lunch with Dad to share her complaints. Instead of saying anything unkind about Mom, Dad reminded my sister of some of the rough things Mom had been through in her life and affirmed her goodness with some accounts that gave my sister a whole new vision of who her mother was. It really helped her. And then she told Dad of how her own struggling daughter had so often praised her grandfather for being such a loving man that gave her hope through all her trials. As my sister told these things to my Dad, even though he could not open his eyes nor speak, he began crying with a huge smile, straining in an effort to say something that he could not. Be could hear. He could feel the love being expressed. More kind and joyous closure. Moments later, as we quietly chatted with Mom and others, my wife observed that he stopped breathing. It was 7:49 on July 27, or 7, 7 squared, 7/27. As a hopeless math geek, I feel those are nice numbers to wrap up an amazing life. 

He was the toughest and yet the kindest man I know. He had flaws, some of which derived from or were exacerbated by his PTSD, but his years of pain were accompanied with miracles, blessings, and gifts of kindness to others. I hope I can live up to his final exhortations to do more to love, do more to serve, do more to help others. His full obituary (a little shorter than was printed in Utah papers) is available at the Serenity Funeral Homes website. (They did a great job, by the way, and were much more affordable than another local service the family initially selected.)

I should also mention that the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray was great. The large hospital seemed pretty empty, but the staff that worked with my mother were very kind, loving, and skilled. She needed surgery, and that went well, except for the splint. It was too long and the upper end had rough, abrasive fiberglass that protruded out of the soft protective wrap so it was gouging my mother's skin on the underside of her knee. She couldn't verbalize what the problem was, but seemed overly uncomfortable. It was only about 4 days after surgery when a nurse visiting her at home took off the upper part of the wrap on her leg and left it off that we could later notice what was happening. We called the surgeon's office and were told that nobody could come help but if we wanted to take the splint off ourselves and use a power tool to cut off the abrasive end of the splint, we were welcome to do that. But fortunately, that same nurse was able to return and knew what to do when we showed him the problem. No power tool required. He was able to bend the upper part of the splint back and forth to break it off, then bend the new upper portion back on itself away from the skin, and have it all nicely wrapped and protected. The surgery was done well, but someone's careless slip when installing the splint caused her great discomfort and made it hard for her to sleep for a couple of nights, contributing to what looked like a serious decline in her health. After the painful splint was fixed, she rebounded in sleep, appetite, etc. While I am very happy overall with the medical service my mother received, the one small but serious mistake she made reminds me of useful advice: don't fully trust medical professionals, but check, inspect, ask questions, and seek competent help when mistakes may have been made.

Thanks to the many kind ward members, neighbors, business associates (Mark Eaton included), and family members who showed their kindness before or after his passing. The funeral at his local ward was so wonderful, and the many visits and expressions of love from people during my time there in Salt Lake was really heartwarming. I am so grateful for all this kindness and for all the people who touched the lives of his family during that time and over the years. Funerals can be such great times to reflect on the things that really matter: love, service, charity, and the endless love of Jesus Christ, who breaks the bands of death and sin and gives us ultimate hope and joy. My father bore witness of Christ and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the end, and kept teaching us by word and by example right up to his last breath.

It was a privilege to be with him through his final days, to be able to attend his inspiring and well attended invitation-only funeral (still in compliance with Utah law) and then, a couple of days later, participate in his burial with full military honors at the Utah Veterans Cemetery & Memorial Park in Bluffdale. I was touched by the brief burial service and the military honors he received, but my mother was not impressed. As she looked around the cemetery and the dry surroundings of Bluffdale near Point of the Mountain, she complained over and over, "I just can't see why anybody would want to live here!" Indeed! I expect when the day comes that she has passed away and is buried next to Dad, she'll turn to him on the other side of the veil and say exactly the same thing again with her mischievous little smile and a joyous twinkle in her eye.



Sunday, August 02, 2020

Further Thoughts on the Nephite Interpreters and Mesoamerican Culture

An important new study on relationships between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican culture was just published on Friday by Mark Alan Wright: "Nephite Daykeepers: Ritual Specialists in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 38 (2020): 291-306. Several aspects of ritual specialists in Mayan society are examined, including those who use crystals or clear stones or glass to receive revelation of some kind. That aspect reminds us of the Nephite and Jaredite "interpreters" and their apparent relationship to the Urim and Thummim.

Here is an excerpt from Wright:

Zaztun and the Urim and Thummim

In modern-day Yucatan, the most common title for shaman or ritual specialists is aj-meen, which literally means “practitioner” or “one who knows and does.”3 The aj-meen use crystals, clear rocks, or even fragments of broken glass bottles as a medium through which they receive revelation. They hold them up to a light source and wait for three flashes of light to shine through, which indicates the revelation is about to begin. They interpret these three flashes as representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which scholars attribute to the heavy influence of Catholicism among the modern Maya. They call these stones zaztun, which literally means “clear stone” or “stone of light.”4 They are considered extremely sacred objects, and the ritual specialist who owns them does not allow the stones to be casually handled by others. But not all clear stones are necessarily considered zaztuno’ob (plural of zaztun). Anthropologist Bruce Love recounted meeting a shaman who keeps a jar full of glass marbles on his table and says they are mere toys that are used as “practice” zaztuno’ob for his apprentices.5

Maya shamans believe that true zaztuno’ob are gifts from the gods that have been intentionally placed along their paths for them to find. If the stone they are meant to find is not along a well-traveled path but is out in the uncultivated forest, they receive some type of spiritual guidance to lead them to where they will find it, sometimes even given vivid dreams or visions of where it is located. One ritual specialist named Don Cosimo was led out to the forest and found his zaztun embedded in the fork of a tree.6 The finding of these stones is a sign that they have been called and chosen to be a diviner and a healer. Zaztuno’ob are not only gifts from the divine realm, but they provide the means of communicating with the Otherworld and enable the ritual specialist to tap into divine powers.

An aj-meen named Don Jose once held his zaztuno’ob to the sky and when they flashed he said:

“Look! You can see the angels.” Ti’aan te ka’an ‘elo, “They are in the sky. This is how they speak to me. They are near. Their words come down. The spirit makes a blessing, makes salvation. The holy ones make a sign and then READY!”7

There is evidence that such divination stones were used anciently as well. For example, a burial from Copan dating to the Middle Classic period contained “five peculiar quartz stones, with ferromagnesium inclusions, probably used in divination rituals.”8 This burial was likely that of a royal priest or shaman rather than of a ruler, as these stones were found along with other paraphernalia common to ritual specialists.9

Now, what does all this have to do with the Book of Mormon? I suggest there are conceptual and functional similarities between the zaztun, which literally translates as “light stone” or “clear stone” in Mayan, and the Urim and Thummim, which means “Lights and Perfections” in Hebrew. In Ether 3:1 we read that the stones the brother of Jared made upon the mount Shelem were “white and clear, even as transparent glass.” Interestingly, the brother of Jared went up the mount with sixteen stones, but he came down with eighteen; the two extra stones were the interpreters that were given to him by the Lord. Just as Maya ritual specialists believe their clear stones are gifts directly from their gods, the brother of Jared was given his zaztuno’ob by the Lord himself.

We know that Mosiah I interpreted the engravings on a “large stone” that was brought to Zarahemla that told of the demise of the Jaredites, but we are not told exactly how he translated them other than that it was done “by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20). It is not until the days of Mosiah II, grandson of Mosiah I, that the Jaredite plates are discovered along with the interpreters that were given to the brother of Jared. We may presume that Mosiah I used an interpreter of some kind to translate the large stone, as that was the modus operandi among the Nephites. If Mosiah I did have an interpreter, it is unclear where he got it; we might speculate that it was a “found object” like unto the zaztuno’ob of Maya shamans (or Joseph Smith’s seer-stone, for a more recent analogy).10


The mystery of how Mosiah1 obtained the interpreters may have been resolved by a book whose late 2019 publication may have been after the time this paper was being written. Don Bradley's outstanding new book, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon's Missing Stories (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), explains that the Book of Mormon in the original text not only implies that Mosiah1, had the interpreters, but twice indicates that his son, King Benjamin, had them (Bradley, pp. 195-198), making it clear that the Nephites had them before King Limhi's people found the 24 plates from Ether that were brought back to be translated by Mosiah2. This seems problematic, for the interpreters were "sealed up" with the sealed Jaredite record from the Brother of Jared (Ether 3:23-24, 27-28) which readers might assume was part of the 24 Jaredite plates from Ether. Not so, Bradley explains. The text does not say that the sealed Jaredite record nor the interpreters were left by Ether for the future Nephites from King Limhi's group to find, nor does it say they also found the interpreters. They were already in the hands of Mosiah2 and had been in the hands of his father and grandfather. The Book of Mormon explicitly states that the 24 plates contained the record written by Ether, not by Jared (Ether 1:1-2, 6 and 15:33). There's no need to figure out how 24 plates could contain the voluminous account of Jared and the record of Ether as well, and no need to assume that interpreters were not around for the translation episodes that occurred prior to bringing the 24 plates to Zarahemla. But how, then, did the Nephites obtain the interpreters?

Bradley finds evidence that the answer was part of the lost "116 pages" (actually much longer than that) of the Book of Mormon manuscript. An account from Fayette Lapham describing an interview with Joseph Smith, Sr., may reveal some relevant content from the lost manuscript:

In his report on the interview he had with Joseph Smith Sr. prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, Fayette Lapham recounts a narrative of the Nephites that occurred after they had settled the promised land:

They . . . found something of which they did not know the use, but when they went into the tabernacle, a voice said, “What have you got in your hand, there?” They replied that they did not know, but had come to inquire; when the voice said, “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is.” They did so, and could see everything of the past, present, and future; and it was the same spectacles that Joseph found with the gold plates. The gold ball stopped here and ceased to direct them any further.

Lapham describes the interpreters’ finder using a tabernacle, the temple’s portable counterpart, indicating a period between stationary temples. This narrows the incident Lapham describes to one of two periods, because there are only two gaps between temples in the Book of Mormon—after Lehi leaves Jerusalem but before Nephi builds his temple, and during Mosiah1’s exodus.

The account also narrows to these two possible contexts by giving three indications that the interpreters were found on an exodus. First, the finder of the interpreters echoes Moses in that he has a Sinai-like encounter with God, who asks him, “What have you got in your hand there?” This evokes God, from out of the burning bush, asking Moses about his rod: “What is that in thine hand?” (Ex. 4:2). Second, the seer’s covering of his face after an encounter with God is also part of the Exodus. When Moses comes down from Sinai after communing with God, he has to cover his face with a cloth because it is still shining from God’s glory (34:29–35). (In assessing the validity of Lapham’s account, it is also useful to note its parallel here with Joseph Smith’s own practice as a seer or scyer of covering his face with an animal skin, his beaver-skin top hat, while using his seer stone.) Third, the seer has these experiences in a tabernacle his people have erected in imitation of the biblical Tabernacle that was first erected at Mount Sinai (33:7). Again, only the early narrative of Lehi and Nephi and the later narrative of Mosiah1 fit the context described by Lapham.

The small plates accounts of Lehi’s and Mosiah1’s distinct exoduses, however, do not describe the finding of the interpreters. The narrative of Lehi and Nephi prior to Nephi’s building of a temple is allotted some twenty-four chapters (1 Ne. 1–19; 2 Ne. 1–5), while the narrative of Mosiah1 is allotted only eleven verses (Omni 1:12–22), with Mosiah1’s actual exodus given only two verses (vv. 12–13). Had the interpreters been found during Lehi and Nephi’s exodus, we would expect it to be narrated there with the accounts of their acquisition of the other relics. Given that Mosiah1 is also the first person implied to have possessed and used the interpreters (Chapter 11), all available evidence points to Mosiah1 finding this relic during his exodus. (Bradley, pp. 251-253)
There's much more to Bradley's work that enhances our approach to the nature of interpreters and their role as a sacred relic in Nephite religion. But turning again to Mark Alan Wright's discussion of sacred revelatory stones used in Mesoamerica and the related concept found among the Jaredites and Nephites, let me also raise the question if Mesoamerican culture might provide further insight into issues related to the Nephite interpreters.

I've recently shared a rather speculative suggestion that perhaps the spectacle-like "interpreters" from the ancient Nephites might have a connection of some kind with the mystical "goggles" that were widespread across ancient Mesoamerica. Whether they are related or not, their existence and role in ancient Mesoamerica can at least overcome the objection that mystical oracular "spectacles" are a Book of Mormon anachronism since conventional spectacles or eyeglasses are a modern European invention. As for the possible relationship,  my suggestion was that Nephite "interpreters" might be related to Mesoamerican goggles via either of two distinct routes: 1) the widespread cultural use of goggles as an oracular, mystical tool associated with divine vision may have provided inspiration for how Nephite or Jaredite prophets chose to physically frame or depict the two oracular stones received by the Brother of Jared and used by seers in Book of Mormon lands, or 2) knowledge of the use of the "interpreters" among the Jaredites and Nephites may have inspired some aspects of the complex of ideas associated with goggles in Mesoamerican culture. The related posts are  "Don't Google 'Spectacles,' Google 'Goggles': The Nephite 'Interpreters' as a Book of Mormon Anachronism" (June 25, 2020) and "Ancient American Goggles and the Nephite/Jaredite 'Interpreters,' Part 2" (June 26, 2020).

Goggles are often associated with Tlaloc, the Aztec Storm God, with control over rain, a god related to the Mayan god Chaac (but a goggle-free deity, as far as I know). Wright's article also discusses the important role of Mayan shamans in seeking divine aid in bringing rain. Shamans used stones to receive divine messages and also sought divine help when it came to rain. Could these two roles, control over rain and revelation via clear stones or glass, point to association with Mesoamerican goggles as well as accounts of Nephite seers who also implored the Lord's help in ending famine and bringing rain again? Again, this is mere speculation, and further input from those more familiar with Mesoamerican lore is welcome. But Wright's article raises some potential links that may add further background for consideration of possibilities related to Mesoamerican goggles.

Update, Aug. 5, 2020: In the comments to Mark Wright's article, where I asked Mark about the possibility of a connection with Mesoamerican goggles, Brant Gardner, an expert in Mesoamerican culture, kindly pointed out some problems with my speculative inquiry. He observes that goggles as represented in Mesoamerican artifacts do not appear to contain anything inside the circles or tubes over the eyes. Further, when Mayan shamans use crystals or glass for revelatory purposes, they seem to just use a single object, not a pair of them. With that in mind, it may be that any resemblance in form or use of mystic goggles and Nephite interpreters is due to chance.

The possibility of a relationship could remain, however. For example, modern statues of people wearing glasses are often carved or cast without showing the transparent lenses, and in many old European statues, the transparent cornea of the human eye is often simply absent, leaving a concave region.  Perhaps a transparent object over the eyes in Mesoamerican goggles would be depicted with the same convention. As for one versus two, recall that Joseph began with a pair of interpreters but eventually just used a single seerstone for his interpreting work. One seems to be enough and is certainly more convenient, so it's possible that pagan divination in Mesoamerica inspired by the ancient use of interpreters may have quickly evolved to the use of single crystals, while the mythical representation for gods and warriors kept the goggles concept. All still very speculative, and, frankly, likely to just be wrong. But perhaps something to keep an eye on as we learn more about Mesoamerica.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Faith, Insurance, and Blessings from Disappointment: How Bad Programming Made Me Healthier

Sometimes our little setbacks or disappointments can open doors for big steps forward. One frustration and disappointment with my return to the US after 9 years in China was discovering how difficult health care and especially insurance has become in the U.S. It seems that foreigners in the Communist nation of China have more options and economic freedom when it comes to health insurance than US citizens do in the U.S.

To be more specific, my disappointment came in two parts: (1) the surprise discovery that US health insurance would not be available through my work as I had been counting on, and (2) finding that purchasing private insurance was extremely difficult. In China, if you want basic insurance or added coverage, you call an agent, choose from a wide variety of plans, and sign up right away. It's much harder here, but these disappointments led to unexpected blessings.

In the US, I found that healthcare companies didn’t return my calls and seemed to have no motivation to work with me. Those that I reached told me I needed to enroll through Healthcare.gov. I wasted hours trying to enroll there, ultimately finding that the US government’s system did not recognize me as a US citizen.

The system would not allow me to enroll for their expensive plans due to technical glitches in their poorly programmed website. Technical support could not resolve the glitch after nearly two hours of effort, having me try all sorts of variations in the application process for an engine that just would not recognize me in spite of having paid US taxes faithfully for the past 9 years in China and many years before that, always filing with the same US address where we have kept and owned our home while renting it out during our China years. In the end, the supervisor at Healthcare.gov admitted that, “Yeah, sometimes this just happens. Sorry.” I could not accept that and didn't give up as I think he wanted me to do. I pressed on and asked what they could do. He finally agreed to call the developer, then put me on hold, and after a few minutes predictably (according to a doctor friend of mine) just hung up on me. When it comes to health care, why does it seem that capitalism, choice, and customer service are more alive in Communist China, at least for privileged foreigners, than in the US?

With COVID raging, it seemed like health insurance was a necessity, so I was getting worried. Then I heard ads for Medi-share on the radio and saw a ray of hope, but they require a religious declaration that I could not sign in good faith largely because I believe their statement on the Bible contradicts the obvious existence of gaps and errors, however minor, that are clearly present, if only because of the challenges arising from the lack of original manuscripts and the numerous variants that exist for numerous verses in the competing texts that have been preserved. I accept it as the word of God, but can’t say it is “completely authoritative and entirely true.” It struck me as odd that my ability to get insurance would be limited by my faith. But this is a consequence of US law (the controversial Affordable Care Act), or rather the steps needed to avoid the very costly implications of US law. Such "healthcare sharing programs" aren't actually insurance per se but are collective efforts to share health care costs organized under ministries or other religious organizations, resulting in substantially reduced costs but also some reductions in coverage.

At last I found Liberty Healthshare (https://libertyhealthshare.org/), another healthcare sharing program. Their statement of belief required for members (https://libertyhealthshare.org/do-i-qualify) is actually more restrictive in some ways that Medi-share’s, but is one I can fully accept and actually like. To my surprise, their plan is not as expensive as the government plans, and the plan came with a wonderful surprise: a personal health coach who helped me set specific goals to improve my health, and encouraged me in periodic calls to pursue those goals.

I soon found myself motivated to exercise not just a time or two per week, but almost every day. I tracked blood pressure carefully for three months and paid lots more attention to diet, sleep, etc. I met the goals and feel better than ever and grateful. Regular exercise is a much bigger deal for me now, and with my wife back in the States now, our main date is going on bike rides around beautiful Appleton, which has become such a fun part of our life together, almost daily. I also found that I love going to Crunch Fitness in Appleton, the best gym I've ever been to. And I always look forward to going there -- such interesting equipment and friendly people.

Many thanks to Brooke Preston, my health coach, and the good people at Liberty Healthshare. Also special thanks to the programmers who developed the Obamacare software that governs the health insurance for millions. Had it not been so deficient, I'd be less healthy today!

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Book of Mormon Place Name that Teaches Us About Grace: Onidah

Both personal names and place names in the Book of Mormon once were a source of ridicule. Like many Book of Mormon weaknesses, recent discoveries have increasingly turned these weaknesses into strengths. Examples include Alma, long ridiculed as a modern woman's name misapplied by Joseph Smith to an ancient Nephite male, an embarrassment that became a strength when modern archaeologists examined the Bar Kochba documents from around 100 A.D. in Israel and found a deed signed by Alma, a Jewish male. But what is especially interesting about many of the names in the Book of Mormon is not just that they may be plausible, but that they are used in ways suggesting that the writers of the Book of Mormon understood the meaning (or range of meanings) of the name and skillfully drew upon the meaning with word plays or other literary tools. In many cases, this can strengthen the message being conveyed in that passage.

A recent find in these arena is the name of the hill where Alma and Amulek taught a group of poor people who had been mistreated by the lofty, arrogant Zoramites. A reader of the translated text may well wonder why the hill's name is mentioned at all. But when its plausible Hebrew meaning is examined, one sees that the meaning of that name is being exploited by a skillful writer to teach us about grace and the Lord's knowledge of our afflictions here in mortality. It's a fascinating case study of the beauty of names in the Book of Mormon. See Matthew L. Bowen, "He Knows My Affliction: The Hill Onidah as Narrative Counterpart to the Rameumptom," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 195-220.

Abstract: The toponym Onidah, attested as the name of a hill in Alma 32:4, most plausibly derives from Hebrew ʿŏnî /ʿōnî/ʿônî (ʿonyî, “my affliction”) + yādaʿ/yēdaʿ (“he knew,” “he knows”) — i.e., “he has acknowledged my affliction” or “he knows my affliction.” This etymology finds support in the context of the Zoramite narrative in which it occurs. In view of the pejorative lexical associations of the Rameumptom, the “high” and “holy stand,” with Hebrew rām (< rwm, “high”) and haughtiness, arrogance, and pride, we see Mormon using the Rameumptom, the “high” platform for Zoramite self-exalting worship, with Onidah, the hill from which Alma and Amulek taught the Zoramite poor and humble. The latter name and Alma’s teaching from that location constituted a sign that the Lord “knew” their “affliction.” Alma devotes a significant part of his message not only extolling the spiritual value of their state of “affliction” and humiliation or compelled “humility” (ʿŏnî Exodus 3:7, 17), but teaching them how to “plant” the “word” (even Jesus Christ himself) in their hearts through prayer — the word that would grow up into a “perfect knowledge” of God — experientially “knowing” God (Alma 32:16‒36) and being known by him (cf. Alma 7:12).


Sunday, July 05, 2020

A Heart on Fire: The Inhumanity of Neglecting Black Lives that Matter

Black lives matter. Of course they do. Sadly, the pains and sorrows faced by the victims of violence and inhumanity among black Americans is not adequately addressed by slogans and virtue signaling, or by giving support to any group or person that encourages or tolerate violence against blacks. The horror of violence from some bad cops is bad enough, but there is also brutality and inhumanity far more widespread in the violence that permeates too many communities across our country. The lives of those being shot and murdered everyday in largely black neighborhoods across America matter and deserve far more attention and compassion than they have received. Let's begin with the story of the murder of a young man, Horace Lorenzo Anderson Jr., who was murdered in Seattle. The story is told by a man with his heart on fire, a man who has been treated with callous inhumanity by the government in Washington. His story resonates with me, not because I have faced pain anywhere close to his, but because of what happened to him when he wanted to see his son at a hospital.


Watch at least the first 10 minutes of this interview with the father. The interview is part of the story, "Father of CHOP shooting victim speaks out in emotional 'Hannity' interview: 'All I know is my son is dead.'" It was written by Yael Halon on July 1, 2020 for Fox News. The video is an interview of Horace Lorenzo Anderson, Sr. and his friend, Andre Taylor, two remarkable and eloquent men who share perspectives that could help the entire nation move toward healing. They are sharing views aimed at building our future, at bringing our country together, and having more humanity. It's a healing message in the end and may we all learn from it. But the father's story may also leave your heart on fire as you realize what terribly inhumanity and stupidity has been heaped upon some precious black lives in our midst.

The inhumanity in this story is found not only by the callous neglect of irresponsible government leaders, blinded by their extremist ideology out of touch with reality, who allowed his son and others to be victimized and even killed without the basic protection of citizens that is the fundamental duty of the leaders of government to provide, the fundamental reason why we have government in the first place, but is also found in the neglect of the grieving father, by a system that did not inform him of his son's death and even refused to let the grieving father see his son at the hospital. When he went to the hospital that had his dead son, he was not allowed to go in to see his boy and at least confirm that it was really him. He was not given any information about how and when he died. He was turned away in what appears to be an expression of the brutal inhumanity that many of our hospitals have unwittingly adopted in their cruel overreaction to COVID fears.

I can slightly relate to his hospital experience. In June, I visited my 88-year-old father in Salt Lake City and the day before I was to return to Wisconsin, had the opportunity to take him to see a doctor for a check up. She noted that his blood pressure was low, probably due to dehydration from an imbalance in his complicated medications dealing with the many problems he has, so she recommended that he be given an IV for a couple of hours to get him rehydrated and stabilized. For this, I had to take him to the emergency area. While we were chatting, a medical worker came to take him away for his IV, and told me that I could not accompany him due to COVID-19 policies. But he's be done in about 3 hours, so I could come back then. And no, I could not wait in the waiting room of the emergency area but would have to leave the building and wait in the parking lot or somewhere else. They would call me when he was finished, they said, to let me know when I could come back. I would never get that call. In fact, I have not seen him since that day.

My father is still alive and I shall be going back soon to see him again this month, if all goes well. After giving him an IV, they decided he needed further care and admitted him without letting me know and without giving me a chance to see him and at least say good-bye. He spent several days there and returned home, but in the meantime I had to return home without knowing if I would ever see him again. This hospital and many others refuse to let family members come visit patients due to COVID-19 fears, but surely there are ways to manage that and keep risks low. They could show up in a hazmat suit surrounded by a plastic bubble and still not be allowed to visit a drying relative. Inflexible bureaucratic rules contribute to the inhumanity of the world. A friend of my sister in Salt Lake is grieving over the death of her father who died alone in a Salt Lake City hospital that refused to allow family members to visit her declining father. He was forced to die alone when he could have been surrounded by children who loved him.

These rules that keep family members away have some serious downsides. For a mother delivering a baby, keeping the father away strikes me as not just inhumane but also dangerous. Not only does the mother need that support, and should have the right to have that support during one of the most difficult and painful moments of her life, but for the protection of the baby, it is often vital that the father be there to ensure that the baby is properly cared for, not given unwanted or improper treatments without informed parental consent, not misidentified and confused for another baby later -- problems that are highly unlikely but still have happened, making it reasonable that both parents should be there to help watch over their child and reduce the risks of neglect or harm in a world where bad things happen every now and thing. There may also be the need to oversee treatments given to the mother and to help her with needs that medical workers may not be able to do.

Let's turn back to Mr. Anderson, the grieving father and his son, two black lives that didn't seem to matter to some aspects of Seattle's government and health care system. Who shot his son? Why? Is the murdered being pursued? What is known about the crime? Does anyone in Seattle care? Why can't a father identify the corpse of his murdered son? What COVID fears justify keeping family away from the dead? The father still doesn't have answers. I suspect that if it weren't for the interview with Sean Hannity, that man's voice and his son's story would be swept under the rug, neglected and ignored because it doesn't fit the narrative of the Revolution supported by most of our media and their wealthy Silicon Valley friends. And the healing non-political message on the importance of family, love, accountability, and safety in our communities shared by Andre Taylor and Horace Lorenzo Anderson, Sr. would not be heard. God bless these good men. 

The son was a victim of a disastrous experiment with chaos and the neglect of black lives and many other lives by callous officials. The failed experiment, of course, was CHOP, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, formerly known as CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, the lawless region embraced and tolerated by the Governor of Washington and the Mayor of Seattle, where the police were ordered to back down and leave a large swath of downtown Seattle in the hands of chaos since, in the bizarre mindset of those  leaders, a community without police would be some kind of "summer of love" utopia with power to the people, vegan snacks to the people, everything to the people. Power to the people, of course, seemed to quickly became power to some of the people with guns, the local thugs with muscle. The extremist ideal of America without borders was quickly replaced with a fence and with guards, keeping out police and making it extremely difficult or impossible to respond to 911 calls. Disaster.

Fortunately, the Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, after weeks of actually supporting the experiment in chaos, showed that she does strongly object to lawlessness -- but clear action seemed to only come after her own house was surrounded by protesters. But on the day the Horace Lorenzo Anderson was killed, she continued her support and Tweeted that "We have had some incredibly peaceful demonstrations." In spite of the violence with several being being shot and many others suffering from crimes and living in fear without the protection that should have been provided, she continued her support. James Altucher caught the gist of what happened in this Tweet:
After people began to threaten her very expensive home (how do so many public servants manage to get such expensive homes?), action was swift. Those demonstrators were driven out and then the order was given that caused CHOP to come down. Perspectives on the Mayor's actions are offered by The Federalist and by Jason Rantz. I can sympathize with the Mayor: if a potentially dangerous mob was gathering around my home or my vehicle, for that matter (thinking of the white "peaceful protester" who shot a driver in Provo, Utah recently when a mob surrounded his vehicle at University Avenue and Center Street), I'd be scared and would want the protection of armed police, even though some police are bad people. I'd turn to the police. But that instinct, according to the white women leading the Minneapolis City Council, is just an expression of white privilege. How do so many whites imagine that blacks don't want that kind of protection also from criminals that might approach them in their home, in a vehicle, or on the street?

Why is it so hard for elite white people to understand that black neighborhoods need and want protection also? I recommend a powerful essay from Charles Love, a black man who has explored what's up with the "wokeness" that is sweeping some parts of white society. His essay, "White Wokeness: It’s the new factor in our national life," was published in City Journal on June 25, 2020, and has since been adapted and used in other forums such as the New York Post in "What ‘woke’ whites get wrong about blacks’ priorities," June 28, 2020. Please read it.

Mr. Love was surprised by what he found and by how seriously wrong perceptions are among woke whites about life for black people in America. Those misguided perceptions are causing more harm than good, he feels, especially with the extreme notion of defunding the police.

As for what folks in Harlem think about the idea of defunding the police in their neighborhood, see Ami Horowitz's contrasting interviews of folks in a high-end New York neighborhood and those in Harlem. (I heard an interview of Ami about this survey. Of about 30 people he spoke to one the street in Harlem, all but 1 were clearly supportive of having police. The video only captures a handful.) Where violence is real, scheduling a social worker as a response to emergency 911 calls may not be the answer. We need more compassion, not neglect and virtue signaling, for those who face violence in their neighborhoods. Some can come from bad cops, but the vast majority of police are seeking to protect neighborhoods, not traumatize them.

Two good men in grief over the unnecessary loss of a young boy, a boy born at 25 weeks who struggled with developmental disorders and was among the truly disadvantaged in our society, among those who are most in need of our protection, was neglected and killed, and then his family was neglected as well. There is brutality and inhumanity that needs our national attention. There is also hope if we take action. The many issues involved here are complex, painful, and clearly beyond me in many ways. Still, there are things I think we can to help beyond slogans and fruitless anger.

For members of my faith and who are asked to be "ministering brothers" and "ministering sisters" to others, along with people of all faiths seeking to do good, this may be a good time to put expand our circles of influence and to minister as friends and neighbors more broadly. Looking to the example of Christ and others in the scriptures, the concept of ministering in all its forms can help us to reach out more to those around us, regardless of color and regardless of religion. There are too many who are neglected and too many without enough friends to help in times of trouble. Single parents with special needs children have overwhelming burdens and when things go wrong, face overwhelming pain. Staying close to them can make a huge difference.

For the millions in need with burdens of all kinds, I fear that big bureaucratic programs driven by failed ideologies aren't going to help, but loving neighbors and friends often can. Local government leaders also can if they fulfill their duties to protect their citizens and work for police reform and accountability but not the elimination of protection that is so desperately needed in high-crime neighborhoods. Health care leaders can when they fight to make sure their programs and policies are  humane and loving (some institutions and especially many health care workers individually do inspiring work in this regard), and to make sure that grieving family members are not coldly turned away when they need to see a boy who has been shot, or when a family member needs support. Citizens can also help by simply standing up to oppose dereliction and insanity from local government and demanding that resources be increased to aggressively promote safety in high-crime areas and that violence not be ignored. The children, the teenagers, the young people and old who are dying from violence deserve attention. Those lives matter, too, and need our help, not our neglect. I also offer my opinion that we must oppose some of the insane ideas from privileged  politicians who may have armed guards and live in secure gated communities and yet claim that turning the security of poor neighborhoods over to local gangs and occasional social workers will bring utopia. It's time to care more, to love more, and to stand up for sanity. We can do this. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Ancient American Goggles and the Nephite/Jaredite "Interpreters," Part 2

My previous post, "Don't Google 'Spectacles,' Google 'Goggles': The Nephite 'Interpreters' as a Book of Mormon Anachronism" (hereafter Part 1), raised the possibility that ancient Mesoamerican "goggles," sometimes depicted as gear for both deities and humans, might have some relationship to the Nephite/Jaredite concept of mystic stones for revelatory purposes. The Nephite "interpreters" that were buried with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon were said to comprise two stones set in a silver frame that looked like "spectacles." But perhaps "goggles" may be the right word to Google when determining whether the interpreters are anachronistic or not.

Adding to the images shown in Part 1, here's a relic found in Veracruz State in Mexico, as shown at Mesoweb.com, an "enormous terracotta brazier [that] depicts a deity with the characteristic round goggles and protruding mouthpiece that appear so frequently in Teotihuacan and later became associated with Tláloc, a widespread Rain/War god in Post-Classic Mesoamerica." Goggles seem to be most typically associated with the Aztec storm god, Tlaloc, also called the god of rain and a god of war.


The importance of Tlaloc is made clear in Teotihuacan, where the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl or Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest of the great pyramids in Teotihuacan, features 365 heads that alternate between Quetzlcoatl and Tlaloc. The image below is available at Wikipedia's article, "Temple of the Feathered Serpent."


Here's a detailed view of Tlaloc, which seems to have goggles on the forehead above the eyes:


Page 28 of the Aztecan Codex Borgia, housed at the Vatican Library, has several similar images of Tlaloc. Here is a detail, as labeled by Dr. Helen Burgos Ellis for the Khan Academy, showing the characteristic "goggle-eyes" of the god:


Humans are also depicted wearing goggles in Mesoamerican artifacts, with the goggles sometimes shown on the forehead (perhaps to more clearly show that there are sacred or mystic goggles present and not just big round eyes). Here's one example, also from Mesoweb.com, dated to 300 to 550 A.D.:



Looking more closely at the goggles, it looks like they aren't just circles stuck on the head, but have a supporting structure that disappears under the hair. If it were a cloth band, it would go over the hair. Could this be part of a solid frame, like those of modern spectacles, that can slide under the hair of the head? Looking closely, that might be the case. Color me speculative, but these could fool some of us modern viewers into thinking it looks somewhat like "spectacles" with a rigid frame.

Let's turn again to the excellent 2018 article, "Goggles," from the Hammocks and Ruins blog. Regarding the origins of Mesoamerican goggles, the roots go back to the Olmecs, whose chronology can fit with the Jaredite culture of the Book of Mormon:

Most images of a goggled sculpture refer to the Rain God Tláloc. His goggled mask stemmed initially from the Olmec sources, the first Mesoamerican civilisation, and moved simultaneously into the Teotihuacán, Maya and Zapotec. The mask from Veracruz is principally understood as a Jaguar being (worshipped first by the Olmecs); however there are also the overriding implications of the 'Midnight Owl'. The Teotihuacános are thought to have derived the infamous feathered-serpent from the image of an owl fetching a serpent from a cave (with the ability to traverse its darkness). Mexican art historian, Miguel Covarrubias, demonstrated that later images of Quetzalcóatl, feathered serpents, and rain gods like the god Tláloc were all derived from the Olmec were-jaguar (half jaguar and half human being), who served also as a rain deity for the Olmecs, and was associated with sacrifice and the underworld (the Olmec rain deity did not wear goggles; that was added later by other Mesoamerican cultures).

So the concept of goggles in Mesoamerica goes back to the Olmecs, but became prominent among later Mesoamerican cultures, just as the "interpreters" began with the Jaredites, and became important among the leaders of the Nephite faith. They are connected to Quetzlcoatl and other Mesoamerican gods, but can be used by humans, and are related to the concept of an owl traversing the darkness and seeing through darkness. That seems consistent with Alma's statement about the interpreters when they are passed to his son Helaman's charge in Alma 37:

20 Therefore I command you, my son Helaman, that ye be diligent in fulfilling all my words, and that ye be diligent in keeping the commandments of God as they are written.

21 And now, I will speak unto you concerning those twenty-four plates, that ye keep them, that the mysteries and the works of darkness, and their secret works, or the secret works of those people who have been destroyed, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, all their murders, and robbings, and their plunderings, and all their wickedness and abominations, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, and that ye preserve these interpreters.

22 For behold, the Lord saw that his people began to work in darkness, yea, work secret murders and abominations; therefore the Lord said, if they did not repent they should be destroyed from off the face of the earth.

23 And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.

But it's earlier in Mosiah 28 where we get a description of these ancient interpreters:

10 Now king Mosiah had no one to confer the kingdom upon, for there was not any of his sons who would accept of the kingdom.

11 Therefore he took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, and also the plates of Nephi, and all the things which he had kept and preserved according to the commandments of God, after having translated and caused to be written the records which were on the plates of gold which had been found by the people of Limhi, which were delivered to him by the hand of Limhi;

12 And this he did because of the great anxiety of his people; for they were desirous beyond measure to know concerning those people who had been destroyed.

13 And now he translated them by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow.

14 Now these things were prepared from the beginning, and were handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages;

15 And they have been kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord, that he should discover to every creature who should possess the land the iniquities and abominations of his people;

16 And whosoever has these things is called seer, after the manner of old times.

Two stones fastened between the rims of a bow: that sounds like a rigid bow, or a frame of some kind. Could it fit on the head as shown in the image above of the human with goggles on his forehead?

The Hammock and Ruins article also gives an example of a Mixtec mask with goggle-eyes that could have been worn in rituals by a priest. They also observe the close relationship between Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl, in which Tláloc in at leat one case "acts as Quetzalcóatl's avatar, the feathered serpent.... Scholar Cecelia Klein has suggested that the ringed eyes of Tláloc refer to a mirror, which represents fire or water, which are other attributes associated with the Feathered Serpent."

Reviewing the symbolism of the googles covered in the article, the author states:

So the symbolism identified so far is the social status, star (deity), water (symbol of the underworld), owl (ability to see in the dark underworld). Our ball player example fits the bill in that sense as well. The ancient ball game (invented by the Olmecs and adopted by the whole of Mesoamerica) was seen as a struggle between day and night, and a battle between life and death. Ball game courts were considered portals to the underworld. Through the game, the players (including the kings) confronted the forces of the underworld to obtain rebirth and fertility. By playing the game, they symbolically entered the underworld to match themselves against its leaders, to defeat death and recreate life. (I deal with this topic in more detail in my post Ball Players.) In the underworld, they would have needed the owl's ability to traverse through darkness, hence the use of the goggles. So it seems all the symbolisms are connected with each other.

Some of these concepts may relate to the Book of Mormon teachings on the interpreters (see above), which explain that the interpreters not only help bring revelation/light out of darkness, but help in overcoming and defeating the works of darkness pursued by the Adversary and his followers.

The role of goggles in Mesoamerican lore covers multiple cultures and many centuries, so there's not one simple idea to capture it all. But there are some potential overlaps with the Book of Mormon, enough to wonder if either Mesoamerican goggle themes might have influenced some Jaredite prophet to fashion a goggle-like device to hold the sacred revelatory stones he used, or if the use of such a tool by Jaredite and Nephite seers might have inspired related practices and themes among Mesoamerican neighbors. Your thoughts?

If nothing else, the next time someone says that Joseph's "spectacles" from ancient American were a ridiculous anachronism, you can admit that they are absolutely right -- based on what scholars understood in Joseph's day. But in terms of what we are learning today about ancient Mesoamerica, we can at least say that sacred "goggles" worn by priests and gods were known in ancient Mesoamerica, and theoretically could have some relationship with the Nephite and Jaredite interpreters. That's still speculative, but does suggest that Nephite "interpreters"/"spectacles" might not be as ridiculous as once thought.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Don't Google "Spectacles," Google "Goggles": The Nephite "Interpreters" as a Book of Mormon Anachronism

When Joseph Smith received the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, he also apparently obtained the Nephite/Jaredite "interpreters," said to be like "spectacles," that could be used to assist the prophetic work of translating the plates. Spectacles? From ancient America? Isn't that just a bit anachronistic, given that spectacles or eyeglasses are a relatively modern European invention?

First, when I hear statements about well-known modern European inventions, you know, things like the world's first mass-produced book, movable type, the blast furnace, paper money, and smallpox vaccination, it's often good to check if these things may have actually been invented in China, as was the case for all these items, as we've learned from decades of research by Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham and his successors. No, the Gutenberg Bible, wonderful as it was, came over a century after the world's first mass-produced book printed with movable type, the Nong Shu (or the Book of Farming) by Wang Zhen in 1313, an amazing story that was recently recognized and honored by the Paper Industry Hall of Fame in my town of Appleton, Wisconsin.

Eyeglasses can trace their origins to Italy, but China deserves some credit for sunglasses, as do the Inuit Indians of North America. The Inuits used ivory from walruses carved with small slits that could be placed over the eyes to reduce the intensity of light reflected from the snow and help them prevent sun blindness (see "Who Invented Eyeglasses?"). But surely that Native American innovation had nothing to do with the "interpreters" of the Book of Mormon, right? Right, as far as I know.

The story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon gave the world several apparent anachronisms before a single word of our Book of Mormon ever made it into ink. Some of these earliest Book of Mormon problems are are arguably no longer relevant in light of growing evidence for their plausibility, including the existence of ancient writing on metal and the use of stone boxes to bury sacred treasure in the ancient Americas. But one of these initial issues remains that I've seen used by critics several times recently, including in comments on this blog, to question the plausibility of the Book of Mormon. It's the argument that the Nephite "interpreters" (sometimes called a Urim and Thummim) that were included with the gold plates, are anachronistic based on their description as being like "spectacles." Actual spectacles or eyeglasses, after all, are a fairly recent modern invention that were not in use anywhere on earth, as far as we know, in 400 A.D. or earlier.

Are we sure the "interpreters" looked like spectacles? Several descriptions are shared in the Book of Mormon Central article, "Is There Evidence That Joseph Smith Possessed a Urim and Thummim and Breastplate?," Feb. 18, 2018:

Joseph Smith described the Nephite interpreters (which, over time, came to be known as the Urim and Thummim) as “two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Martin Harris said they “were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the center; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow.” He added that they were “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” John Whitmer called them “two crystals or glasses.” Lucy Mack Smith said they resembled “two large bright diamonds.”

David Whitmer reported that they were “white stones, each of them cased in as spectacles are, in a kind of silver casing, but the bow between the stones was more heavy, and longer apart between the stones, than we usually find it in spectacles.” William Smith further explained that a “silver bow ran over one stone, under the other, around over that one and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8 much like a pair of spectacles.” [footnotes omitted]

The word "spectacles" is used a couple of times, and the word "glasses" is also mentioned. That also seems consistent with the brief description of the ancient Jaredite interpreters that the Nephites had apparently received (a topic for discussion later, but see Don Bradley's excellent book on the 116 lost pages of the Book of Mormon), said to comprise "two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow" (Mosiah 28:13).  Based on the published history of spectacles or eyeglasses, those terms certainly seem out of place in Jaredite and Nephite times. The website AntiqueSpectacles.com offers a timeline for the development of spectacles or eyeglasses, dating the origin to Pisa, Italy in 1286 AD. The site also exposes several artistic blunders in which paintings erred by showing spectacles in use during the time of Christ.  See "Two Unique Anachronisms Showing Eyeglasses."

Unfortunately, it thus seems that anyone Googling "ancient spectacles" will quickly find evidence that it was unlikely for ancient Americans, Mesoamerican or otherwise, to have known about spectacles. Were there optometrists among the ancient Americansproviding the Nephites with eyeglasses or spectacles? Of course not. So is there any hope for plausibility for the Nephite and Jaredite "interpreters," one of the first issues that may arise in considering the plausibility of the Book of Mormon account? Trying to turn Inuit "sunglasses" into "spectacles" doesn't seem helpful: they were just slits in ivory, not glasses, and I don't believe we have evidence that they were in use well before 400 A.D.

However, this problem, as happens in many debates, may be influenced if not largely determined by the assumptions we make, which then affect how we search and what evidence we look for and find. The interpreters, though looking like spectacles or eyeglasses to some modern witnesses, were not spectacles that help correct vision in daily life. They were stones held in a frame, perhaps translucent, but certainly not simple corrective optics designed for any individual's poor eyesight. They were not ordinary tools for anyone to use, but were mystic, revelatory tools to help a prophet bring forth light out of darkness, to reveal information such as translating ancient scripture, in some kind of sacred experience involving vision. They were tools for a prophetic seer, not for ordinary seeing in ordinary light.

Maybe we need to consider something other than "spectacles" or "eyeglasses" when we explore the potential ancient parallels to the ancient "interpreters" Joseph had.

I'll offer one suggestion that didn't occur to me until I opened up a newly purchased used book on Mesoamerica and almost immediately saw this while looking for something else:

The book is Susan Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History, 2nd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008, first published 2004), and the image is from p. 306. This "goggle-adorned portrait" depicts the founder of the Copán dynasty. Here the goggles may be used to link the subject to the Storm God known as Tlaloc or to highlight his association with Teotihuacan, where goggle imagery abounded.

Goggles! Interesting. So here's one speculative suggestion for new perspectives on "spectacles": rather than Googling "spectacles," what would happen if we Googled "goggles" or, more specifically, "Mesoamerican goggles"? When I tried that, there was quite a surprise. The first hit for my search was a remarkable article showing and discussing numerous examples of figures from ancient Mesoamerica wearing goggles. The article is "Goggles," dated Dec. 18, 2018, from the outstanding website Hammocks and Ruins by a couple of Mayan enthusiasts and adventurers. Here are a couple images from the article and a few I've found at other sources:


Here is a Totonac culture figurine from El Zapotal in Veracruz at the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology (though the photo is of a replica in the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City) . See "'Spaceman'" at the Mexicolore website. This appears to be a human ball player. Are the goggles meant to be personal protective equipment or do they play a mystical role?


And here's a Mayan figurine also depicting the founder of the Copán dynasty, shown at Mesoweb.com:


Here's an image of the Storm God Tlaloc from Wikipedia:


Another from Wikipedia:


Based on their survey of the literature, the authors at Hammocks and Ruins say this about the meaning of goggles in Mesoameria:
The images above show that goggles were worn by gods, rulers, ballplayers and warriors. So what did they represent? Here is a summary of the various symbolisms of the goggles that I have found so far:
  • noble status, as part of the king's ceremonial headdress (not for eye protection, because there's no evidence that the goggles contained lenses of any kind)
  • penetrating gaze of the gods, which separated them from the common folk
  • the power of the Sun
  • Venus and its duality: twin stars of Venus, the movement of Venus in and out of the underworld as both Morning Star and Evening Star.
  • owl's eyes, the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the cave or the underworld
  • a symbol of water (found in caves/underworld)
  • stars/constellations/deity status
  • a symbol of sacrifice
  • a paradise of life after death
Could it be that legends of a mystical means for gaining divine vision spread from either the Jaredites or  Nephites and became associated with a mystical adornment associated with powerful gods, with seeing in darkness, and elite priestly status? Or could the transfer have gone the other way, with a Mesoamerica google-theme influencing the way humans framed the mystical stones used in the interpreters? In either case, perhaps it's worth further exploration.

Yes, highly speculative, but I hope you find it to be an interesting possibility.

More thoughts and information on this issue to follow in Part 2.