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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Exposing a Dangerous Meme and a Powerful Cult: My Failed Attempt to Save Mrs. Jenkins

A few years ago in Wisconsin I tried to rescue an elderly woman who was infected with one of those silly religious memes that can spread like a virus. This meme, propagated by a lucrative cult, is based on the bizarre idea that ordinary mortals can somehow use "the force" or something to communicate across great distances with nothing but ordinary paper and ink if they carry out certain  rituals such as folding the paper, putting it in a cult-approved envelope, affixing a mystical adhesive icon purchased from the cult's many official outlets, and placing the envelope in a magic box controlled by the cult. True believers think that their message will somehow travel into the hands of the designated recipient even if they are in a state far, far away. It's a lot like the  old notion of personal prayer to a distant listening God.

I've heard that the cult running this scam has some kind of bizarre sci-fi name, something like the Universalist Pre-millennial Post-alien Supremacy teleportation service, or USPS for short, but this Post-alien "service" is often just called the Post-al service. You may have seen this "service" operating in your neighborhood without even recognizing that it was a cult.

Every week or so, that poor woman in my neighborhood would write her expressions of love or whatever to her grown-up son, and then fold it carefully and put in an envelope. She would then attach the adhesive USPS icon. These icons often had images of beloved dead people on them, or even alien (post-alien?) figures like Yoda. Maybe they are supposed to appeal to patron saints of some kind to move the message along its magic way. She would put her son's alleged location on the letter--someplace in California--and place it faithfully in an official USPS "mailbox" in front of her home. The USPS cult apparently has dozens of USPS jeeps and trucks that drive around collecting these envelopes, creating a sense that "something" is going to happen to the letters of their adherents (only if they had spent enough on adhesive icons, of course!).

Part of what make this sick meme so effective is the other end of the USPS business model. The USPS agent that comes around doesn't just take envelopes away. He or she dumps new envelopes in the box. This fuels a ridiculous thought: "Wow, a miracle--I've received something back!" Of course, upon inspection, nearly all these "blessings" are actually requests for money or advertisements for products to buy. What a scam!

I couldn't stand it any longer and tried to deprogram her from this destructive, wasteful meme.

"Mrs. Jenkins, excuse me for asking, but have you ever received a letter back from your son in California?"

"Well, not exactly." Her eyes teared up. Maybe I was reaching her!

"How do you think your letter will get to California?"

"Through the air--it goes by airmail"

"So it's just going to fly magically by itself all the way to California? You really believe that?"

"It doesn't fly by itself--it goes on an airplane, of course."

This was my chance to use a little logic. I asked her to think about the price of her magical USPS icon--about 41 cents at the time, a price that keeps expanding far faster than the rate of inflation (like I said, this cult is all about money--what a scam!). Now I asked her to compare that to the price of an airplane ticket. Even if that postal agent got the cheapest ticket possible to California, and even if he or she carried a whole bag filled with other petitions from believers with loved ones in California, there is no way that they could afford to buy plane tickets for every batch and still stay in business.

"Mrs. Jenkins, logic proves that this just can't work. Your son doesn't write back. They aren't flying your letters to California. It makes no sense. You've been deceived by a cult that is just a big business taking your money and exploiting your hopes."

I thought I had her, but she wasn't yet ready to be honest and admit that I was right. She resisted by offering anecdotal evidence of a friend or two who claimed they had gotten letters back from their children. Scattered, unreliable, second-hand stories. I asked her to come with me to the local library, where I would ask the librarian a question for which I already knew the answer: "Are you aware of any peer-reviewed, scientific studies that show that letters to children sent via the USPS cult actually reach them and cause communication to happen?" She thought it over and then said that wouldn't be necessary. I could see I was winning as she started to cry again. I gave her an awkward hug and said, "It's OK, Mrs. Jenkins. Welcome to the 21st century!"

Sadly, the next week I saw her sneak over to her mailbox and deposit another letter. And she even sorted through the pile of junk mail waiting for her to see if something might be there from her son.

So terribly sad. What an awful, powerful meme. How can anyone be so deluded as to believe such silliness and go through all those ridiculous rituals so devoid of logic and so lacking in reliable scientific evidence? What a sinister group that Post-al "service" is.

Pray for Mrs. Jenkins--of course, I only mean that figuratively.

Comment: This brief post was intended to illustrate how seemingly iron-clad arguments came sometimes fail because of flawed assumptions built into the logic. Many times I think the arguments used to "decimate" the Book of Mormon or the existence of God are that way.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Blue Letter Bible: My Bible Study Tool of Choice

I am so impressed with a free online Bible study tool, BlueLetterBible.org, which makes it easy to explore the Greek and Hebrew meanings behind the words, to compare multiple versions, and to search with flexibility and power. It's the best tool I've found and I'd like you to know about it. Here's a 5-minute video showing the many features.

There's even an app you can download from the Apple store.

As an example of the things you can find more easily, you can use it as a tool to examine some of the intriguing remarks Matthew Bowen makes about the wordplays in Paul's epistle to Philemon. His article, "You More than Owe Me This Benefit: Onomastic Rhetoric in Philemon," is the most interesting thing I've read about Philemon and one that increases my appreciation for the abundant wordplays in the scriptures (something quite characteristic of the Book of Mormon, by the way). One of the intriguing points he makes is that Paul appears to making an artful pun on the meaning of the word Onesimus ('useful") by using an unrelated Greek root chrestos to describe how the converted slave, Onesimus, is now "useful" in Christ as part of Paul's very diplomatic request to allow Onesimus to continue in the ministry with Paul since all three men are now on an equal plane as servants or slaves to Christ. Further, in light of the normal practice of epistles being read out loud in meetings of Christians, it is valuable to understand that in Paul's day, chrestos would be pronounced nearly identically to the word christos, referring to the Anointed One, Christ, adding further meaning to Paul's words:
But Paul also deliberately plays on the name-title “Christ.” The word χρηστός (chrēstos) in the Greek of Paul’s time also sounded almost exactly [Page 5]the same as Χριστός (Christos, “Christ”).23 Thus Paul is also referencing Onesimus’s conversion to Christ: “in times past he was ‘without Christ’ [i.e., ἄχρηστον ~ achr[i]ston]24 to you, but now he is indeed ‘Well-in-Christ’ [εὔχρηστον ~ euchr[i]ston] both to you and to me” — a clever pun on -χρηστός (-chrēstos).25 This homophonic wordplay adds additional nuance to Paul’s play on “Onesimus.”
Interesting. With Blue Letter Bible, you can verify some aspects of what Bowen has found and explore related issues. For example, it's easy to find other uses of the word chrestos, including Matthew 11:29, which is used to describe the "light" yoke of Christ. Is there a further connection intended to Christ and/or anointing? Of course, since Christ probably spoke those words in Aramaic, the connections in the original language may have been quite different.

In any case, there are many tangents to pursue and so many things to learn that are easier to explore than ever thanks to tools such as this. Kudos to Blue Letter Bible!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

District Conference in Shanghai

Elder Gerrit W. Gong and his wife, Susan Lindsay Gong, were with the Shanghai International District this past weekend for our District Conference. What delightful and intelligent people!

Apart from the big Saturday morning tours of Shanghai that we had organized for young single adults coming to District Conference, District Conference began with a Priesthood Leadership training session on Saturday afternoon. I had been asked to kick it off with a short talk (8 minutes), and used the theme of the Sabbath and its connections to the Temple. This is an area where modern revelation and ancient paradigms blend so well, IMO.

I began with a quick summary of the Sabbath connections in the construction of Solomon's temple. Built in seven years, dedicated during a seven-day festival in the seventh month, called a house of rest, a place where the Lord can rest, etc. I read a passage from Jewish scholar Jon Levenson on these connections, where the theme of rest connects the temple and Sabbath. That is beautifully amplified by Doctrine and Covenants 84, where modern revelation explains that Moses was seeking to bring his people into the presence of the Lord, which is the Lord's rest, the fullness of His glory. And then I referred to Elder Dallin H. Oaks' marvelous talk from April 1985 about taking the name of the Lord upon us and how it connects the Sabbath to the temple, for the covenants we renew in the sacrament point us not just to baptismal covenants but to the covenants of the temple, where we most fully take upon us the name of Christ, to which we witness our willingness to do so in partaking of the sacrament.

I then summarized by explaining that the temple, like Mount Zion, is sacred space that punctuates the plane of the mundane, while the Sabbath is sacred time that is distinct from the mundane week around it. The temple and the Sabbath are linked through the concept of divine rest, renewal of sacred covenants, and being sacred partitions (sacred space, sacred time) in the midst of the mundane. I urged us to help our members yearn for the spiritual uplift that the Sabbath should bring, as does the temple, and asked priesthood leaders to help members better develop their own personal observance of the Sabbath so it would be distinct from ordinary days, a time for preparing to enter into the presence of the Lord, and a time to renew and ponder upon sacred covenants, to help us draw closer to the Lord and to be more able to serve.

We then had a couple of panel discussions lead by Elder Gong and by our District President, Stephen W. Dyer, who introduced three-person panels and drew some valuable thoughts out of them. I really liked how the meeting ran. Topics were feasting upon the word of Christ, and how to follow the Spirit to better counsel members in dealing with their challenges.

What surprised me most was that after the meeting, Elder Gong came over and asked me where I had encountered the concept of sacred time and sacred space. I mentioned Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, and was surprised that he nodded and began discussing Eliade. I shouldn't be all that surprised, but it was quite pleasant. My wife reminded me later that he was a Rhodes Scholar and probably knows (and reads) a whole lot more than any of us ordinary mortals. A very thoughtful and kind man, too.

His wife impressed everyone as well. She is equally eloquent and interesting, with a love of great books and literature as well. I especially loved the story she told of an LDS man in India who impressed her with his love for his wife and his healthy, happy family. She asked him how he met his wife. Anil said that he first met his wife on her wedding day, the day she was supposed to be married to a different man. Anil came as a guest--this was before he became LDS. But something went wrong. He heard yelling as the groom's family was demanding a bigger dowry from the bride's family. They now wanted a car to be thrown in. The poor family had no car and no hope of meeting that demand. It turned into a big argument. Then Anil heard weeping, and saw the beautiful bride hiding, sobbing, and even threatening suicide, she was so humiliated. Anil felt that he needed to do something, and that he could do something. He approached the bride's father. Here's how I recall the story:

"Sir, I can solve this problem. I will take your daughter as my wife."

"You? What will you demand as a dowry?"

"I ask for no dowry.  But if you allow me to marry her, I promise you that I will make it my business every day of my life to make your daughter happy."

Deal! Anil married the daughter, lived up to his promise, and they are now a happy couple and happy LDS family raising wonderful children in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sister Gong was really struck by what a strong, happy family those two people had created, recovering so well from a disastrous failed wedding day.

Men who love their wives and treat them with kindness and respect are such a treasure, and one of the most important intended fruits of the Gospel. Thank you, Anil, for your commitment to your wife and your commitment to Christ.

Another story from Sister Gong made me chuckle. Once while visiting a large LDS church in the U.S., she saw her young son (age 5, I think) was running laps in the hallways around the gym. When she saw him running, she called him by name and asked, "Where are you right now?" He stopped and answered correctly: "In Heavenly Father's house." Sister Gong then looked at him and said, "And?" Naturally, she expected him to say something about how he needed to be reverent. Instead, she got this: "And he's got a place where he plays basketball!"

District Conference in Shanghai is always a lot of fun. Come join us!

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Mormons and Fear: Introducing One of Our Favorite Fearmongers

In the comments on a recent post here at Mormanity, one of our critics stated that the Mormon concept of accessing the grace of Christ in a covenant relationship that involves seeking to follow Christ and keep His commandments causes us to live a life of fear. It's a common objection from some Protestants who may see things quite differently than we do, but I think it is based on possible misunderstanding. My semi-serious offering here won't solve the perpetual gap between widely divergent approaches to interpreting the scriptures, but might at least offer another perspective for those interested in understanding the LDS faith.

For those who have heard that Mormons live in fear, I'd like to introduce you to one of my favorite Christian fearmongers, in fact, an early Christian fearmonger whose words rightly caused the great Apostle Peter to feel concerned. Indeed, Peter warned that this particular man wrote things that confused many people about the Gospel, for his writings contained "some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). So with that caveat, recognizing that there may be risk in relying too heavily on his sometimes confusing words, allow me to introduce you to the fearmonger named Paul.

Here is some of his fearsome preaching in Hebrews 4:
1 Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it....

9 There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.

10 For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.

11 Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.
In other words, "Folks, be afraid, be very afraid, for you can fall and depart from the promised rest God offers to his people. So don't slack off, but labor diligently to enter into that rest, lest you fall."

Paul was big on fear. In Acts 13:26, he told his audience that "whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent." And after his conversion, when he joined up with the Christians in Judea and neighboring regions, they were soon "walking in the fear of the Lord" (Acts 9:31). I bet it was his fault.

But plain old fear was not enough for Paul. He wanted something more dramatic, namely, fear and trembling. Wow. Thus, in Phil. 2:12, we have this extreme example of fear-based emphasis on obedience: "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Read the words in bold out loud, slowly, and then ask yourself if this man could possibly be a Christian? It was no mistake--he used that same phrase in Eph. 6:5 and 2 Cor. 7:15. I know, I know, with all that talk of works, obedience, and fear, he has no more right to be called Christian than any Mormon does.

Naturally, I recognize such doctrine is a horrible departure from historic Christianity (here I use the generally accepted definition of "historic Christianity," namely, "that particular branch of Christianity that developed in a portion of northern Europe about 600 years ago"). But frankly, I still rather like the man. Guess it's my life of fear as a Mormon that helps me appreciate Paul's words.

So when Paul tells us to cleanse ourselves and seek "holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1), when he praises those who respond to his preaching with repentance and fear (2 Cor. 7:11), when he tells us to submit "in the fear of God" (Eph. 5:21), when he encourages Church leaders to rebuke sinners so "that others also may fear" (1 Tim. 5:20), when he warns that willful sin will bring "a certain fearful looking" for the judgment of God (Heb. 10:27), and even says that it is a "fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:27), I'm willing to take his words with a grain of salt and, frankly, am still willing to accept him as a fellow Christian, in spite of Peter's warning about his words.

Peter, like many authentic early Christians, apparently had his own Mormonesque fear-based issues, as we see in 1 Peter 1:17: "And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear". Wow, Peter was also into that whole "fear God and obey him" Mormon-like thing. In fact, after warning his readers about Paul and the destruction that came upon some who misapplied Paul's words, he then tells them to "therefore ... beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness" (2 Peter 3:17). Beware, be afraid, lest ye fall and face destruction. Yep, Peter was something of a fearmonger himself.

But in the end, I know that both Peter and Paul also understood the love and grace of God. They both realized that we can fall from grace and depart from the living God (1 Cor. 10:12), and that we needed to endure to the end to receive the full blessings of grace (1 Peter 1:3-10, though Peter sounds way too Mormon there, so, uh, beware). So telling us to not slack off, to "fear" or respect God, and to have some healthy fear about the grim alternatives if we depart from Christ, all was actually intended as a kind, loving thing to help us.  I think their heart was in the right place, so I'm willing to give both of them a pass on this. Hope the rest of you will soften your hearts and give them a break as well.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Looking for Help with a Reference on Early Christian Initiation Rites

An early and interesting examination of links between ancient Catholic rituals and the LDS temple was published by Marcus Wellnitz in "The Catholic Liturgy and the Mormon Temple," BYU Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, 1981. There's one passage that I'd like to use in something I'm writing, but his documentation is incomplete. I'm wondering if some of you with better access to university resources could help me look this up. He refers to a sixth century document, but doesn't mention what it is and only refers to a modern book that seems hard to find. The book is Arthur McCormack, Christian Initiation, volume 50 in The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969). The citation is from page 50, though there may be material from pages 50 to 60 that I'd be interested in, if you have access to the book. Google Books and Amazon are no help in looking at content in this particular book.

Here is the excerpt from Wellnitz's article that I am examining:
Since Christ (Christos) means anointed, Cyril suggests that we can all become little Christs by the ordinance of anointing. By this imitation the person is now also "a priest . . . and a prophet, . . . royal in nature," as one theologian put it. 47 Oil is "the symbol of divine healing, the giving of strength and priestly power." 48 "The body is washed so that the soul may be purified; the body is anointed so that the soul may be made holy," wrote Tertullian. 49 He also associates it with the act of a ritual cleansing. 50 The oil is kept in special containers and is available to "cure, enlighten, pacify, and strengthen." 51 A person may be anointed on thirty-six different places of the body in the Coptic rite. 52 Touching various parts of the infant immediately after the baptism and anointing is still a ceremony of the modern Catholic rite; the priest touches the ears and the mouth of the child with his thumb, saying: "The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, and to praise the glory of God the Father." 53 The same ordinance in the sixth century employed the following monologue:
I sign your forehead. . . . I sign your eyes so that they may see the glory of God. I sign your ears so that you may hear the voice of the Lord. I sign your nostrils so that you may breathe the fragrance of Christ. I sign your lips so that you may speak the words of life. I sign your heart so that you may believe in the Holy Trinity. I sign your shoulders so that you may bear the yoke of Christ's service. . . . In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, so that you may live forever and ever ["Saeculum saeculorum"]. 54 [citing McCormack, Christian Initiation, 1969, p 50.]
If you can help me verify the McCormack reference and tell me what document McCormack is citing, please let me know. I've found some related sources from early Christian liturgy, but not one that speaks of signing or anointing the shoulders so that they may bear the yoke. If you know of that source or something similar, I'd be very grateful.

Update, Sept. 4:
Thanks to excellent help from kind readers, I've learned what McCormack was citing and found it on Google Books. So here is what I have so far:

Wellnitz cites Arthur McCormack, Christian Initiation, volume 50 in The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969), 50. McCormack, in turn, cites Pierre Paris, L'initiation chrétienne: leçons sur le baptême [Christian Initiation: Lessons on Baptism] (Paris: Beauchesne et Fils, 1944), 26-27; available on Google Books via http://tinyurl.com/jlinterp-1. Paris refers to a 6th century rite from the Gallican lands (pays gallican), or Gaul in France, from a source that is described as "le missel gothique", the Gothic missal. The actual document he refers to is unclear. It may be the Missale Gothicum or other early Gallican liturgical documents discussed at "The Gallican Rite," The Catholic Encyclopedia, NewAdvent.org, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06357a.htm. My ultimate goal is to track down the document that was the source for Pierre Paris. It may only be in Latin or some other language, perhaps. Versions of Gallican rite documents I've found so far don't get into the details of the anointing/signing. Any leads?