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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas Coincidences, or the Blessings of Bureaucracy

If we were more skilled in listening to inspiration from the Lord and more diligent in seeking it, the Lord might not need to use so many blunt techniques to get our attention, including techniques like unusual coincidences to move us along. Perhaps. But some of these little blessings of chance and timing are so artful that I think they would continue just for the shear joy and wonder they can cause. In my life, Christmas seems to be a time with a relatively higher concentration of such blessings, like the story of the pink coat I once shared here.

To recap briefly, we once had a big group of Hmong people over at our house for a Christmas party. The Hmong people, many of whom settled in our part of Wisconsin, came to the US as refugees from genocide in Laos (see my "Tragedy of the Hmong People") after we got them involved in our deliberately no-win war in Vietnam (where the scope of that betrayal only became clear with the release of the Pentagon papers). That Christmas season was a time of bitter cold in Wisconsin. As our guests were wrapping up to return home in the cold, we noticed a sweet young girl getting ready to go out just wearing a sweater. What? Where's your coat? She didn't have one. Actually, other Latter-day Saints had given her a coat a few weeks earlier, but she was a girl who cared about style and wasn't going to wear an ugly coat. She'd rather freeze.

At that moment, I recalled that our Relief Society President had just given me a couple bags of clothes that might be useful for those in need. As we opened the closet and looked at the clothes, the first thing we saw was a pink coat at the top of a bag. We pulled it out and it looked like just her size. She lit up as she saw it. She put it on and it was a perfect fit. With a joyous smile, she was now able to step out -- in style. I think that moment warmed our hearts more than the coat warmed her. The perfect coat, in the right place and suddenly available at the perfect time to help. That's Christmas.

This season has also had its coincidences, including one that I think of as "the blessings of bureaucracy." China, a land rich in history, culture, and tradition, has also inherited thousands of years of tradition involving bureaucracy. Sometimes it can be very effective in maintaining order and keeping things flowing smoothly, but for foreigners coming to China, it can sometimes be maddening. The four scariest words in the Chinese language are "相关部门" or xiangguan bumen meaning "the relevant department." It's used in practical dialogs like this, which really need to be given more attention in Chinese textbooks:
Foreigner:  "Hi, could you help me? I need to fix a problem in my account."
Agent: "Sure. Do you have your official receipt [fapiao]?"
Foreigner: "Here you go."
Agent: "No, that's not official. You need the official document with the red stamp."
Foreigner: "Where do I get that?"
Agent: "From the relevant department."
Foreigner: "Relevant department? Where's that?"
Agent: "That's not my job. You should ask at the proper place."
Foreigner: "OK, what place?"
Agent: "The relevant department."
Foreigner: "But where?"
Agent: "Hmmm, maybe the 47th floor. Or the 45th."
Foreigner: "But this building only has 32 floors. Something is wrong here."
Agent: "If you want to make a complaint about the building, you'll need to go the complaints office."
Foreigner: "Let me guess, that would be located at ..."
Agent: "The relevant department. Next!"
We had a related experience recently when a newlywed couple stayed with us for a view days on China's visa-free 144-hour transit program, as I described on my blog at JeffLindsay.com.  We were on our way to the most beautiful downtown in the world (IMHO), the scenic Bund area of Shanghai to show them the combination of classical European architecture one one side of the river and bizarre gargantuan skyscrapers lit up in crazy beautiful lights on the other side. But first, we might need a few minutes (5? 10?) to stop at our local police station to get them officially registered.

Executive summary for what follows: Newlyweds + transit visa registration needs + surprise requirements (the bureaucracy part, but I mean this only in the most positive sense, of course) + accidental preparation = disaster averted and eventual success but a change in plans = accidental discovery of a fabulous new restaurant = a return visit a week later with a miracle in timing that leads to a joyous encounter with a recent convert = a Christmas dinner with her the next week and many blessings along the way. Call it the blessings of bureaucracy, the blessings of helping newlyweds, or the fun of being in China. 

With the transit visa (actually a visa-free pass for tourists), tourists can come into Shanghai and stay there for up to six days without having to get an official visa. Great system for a few locations in China. There are some restrictions, but the young couple had carefully researched that and were good to go. People using this program normally stay at a hotel who handles the important step of registering your location with the local police, but you can also stay with friends as long as you go to "a local police station" within 24 hours of arriving to register. That's what the official instructions said (in English) and what the immigration officer at the airport told them as they were allowed into China. So simple! What could go wrong? (Those are also four very scary words in China or anywhere else. If you hear them in your head, be nervous.)

Our friends had arrived at 4:45 AM on a Friday, so our time with them Friday night (we both had to work that day, after we got them settled) would be the only time to get them registered within 24 hours while police stations were still open. Our plan was to get a bite to eat at a local Taiwanese restaurant, then while it was still before 8 PM we would walk over to the nearest police station near our local subway line and from there move directly to the heart of downtown Shanghai for an evening of walking and marveling at the city. We would marvel indeed, but never made it downtown that evening.

Strangely, as were planning to leave, I had this thought that I might need my own police registration materials to update my residence permit. I had just overcome a grueling five-day battle (see "Five Days of Struggle to Renew a Visa: Some Discoveries in Dealing with Work Permit and Visa Issues") with various offices and relevant departments with numerous trips across town to renew my visa and work permit in time to be able to attend the World Intellectual Property Summit in Amsterdam, perhaps my most important and useful IP-related conference in recent memory, where I had the privilege of chairing day one and being a speaker, panelist, and panel chair -- so much fun in one of the world's friendliest and most charming cities. Yes, it worked out, thanks to a couple of kind officers who helped me overcome a big problem due to my timing, a slip up in an office at work, and recent changes in the rules. But were it not for some good officers being extra kind, it would have been disaster.

In the process of renewing my visa/residence license in September, I had needed to get a new local residence permit, but that was done with a temporary visa, and as we prepared to go out, I wondered if I might need to renew my own residence permit, and thus packed a few additional documents just in case. Probably not necessary, I thought, but maybe, just in case. Who knows? "Who knows?" and "just in case" are some of the best words to hear in your head, I've found.

As we walked to the restaurant for dinner, I thought about the time we had left and began to get nervous. Really nervous. Our logical plan to eat first suddenly seemed dangerous. "The instructions say 'a local police station,' but if something goes wrong, they might tell us to go back to the same police station we had to use when we registered our new address after our recent move [fifth move in six years -- aargh!] and that's further away. Since the registration service windows usually close at 8 PM, we might run out of time if we eat first and run into trouble. Let's go straight to the police and see." We were all hungry, but we agreed and went to the local Hongqiao police station.

We were first in line, nice, and were greeted by a friendly police woman. We explained what the young couple needed. She said, "OK, do you have your contract with your landlord?" Amazingly, I did! But first I protested. "Huh? The instructions don't mention a contract, and the authorities at the airport didn't tell them about a contract. Do you really need our contract?" She smiled, a very nice woman, and then laughed, "But of course you need a contract. Naturally we can't process this without a contract!" Naturally. But hurray, I happened to have it as part of the "just in case" documents I brought along. As she scrutinized the contract, she said, "Oh, you live down the street, that's in Minhang District. This is Changning District. You're across the border. You need to go to the local police in Minhang District." That was a long ways away. Again I pushed back, politely, explaining that the instructions didn't say there was only one relevant police station that we had to go, but merely say "a local police station." She laughed that off. "No, this is a different district. Of course we can't process it here." I smiled knowingly -- I should have been more knowing about this from the beginning -- and we thanked her and left.

On that busy street with dozens of taxis, it took over 20 minutes to get one for us. Then it took over 20 minutes to get to the world's one and only relevant police station where we could process the simple registration for our young couple. Time was ticking, but we still got there before closing, about 7:20 PM. And with passports and our contract in hand (such a blessing to have that!), we were ready.

We were greeted by another kind and helpful police woman. She looked at our documents, nodded her head (yay!), and then just had one question, one little question about one little relevant piece of paper. "Do you have the license from your housing management company?" This came as both a shocker and reminder of the Lord's tender mercies, for actually, YES, I HAD IT! In scooping up some "just in case" documents in case I might need to update my own residence permit (and no, I did not -- my current permit was fine), I had brought along a very obscure little scrap of paper from the company that manages our apartment complex that had our names and a nice big red stamp on it, many times one of the most beautiful things to see in China. But first, the protest: "What? Why is that needed? Nobody told them they needed that. None of the printed or published information seems to mention it. Are you sure it's needed?" Yes, absolutely sure. "Well, fortunately, we are very lucky because I actually have it. Here you go!" Ta da!

As we marveled at how blessed we were to have this with us, she scrutinized it and then observed, "But this is for you and your wife. We need a relevant registration for this couple." Now I was stymied. "How could we even hope to get that? This requires having a contract. They are just visitors. They don't need a contract to visit us. The management office isn't open now and won't be before their 24 hours expires, and even if they were open, they wouldn't give them a license since they are just visitors. Could you please help us and give us a break on this? Could you please just accept this license from us?" This woman was very kind to us. She thought for a moment and then, "This time I will let you use this. But next time, please bring the correct document." She could have sent us back to the relevant department, but showed us some tender mercy of her own. Whew!

When we finished, it was about 8 PM. We hadn't eaten and were far from a subway line. We started to walk to a busy street to find something to eat, but then saw an available cab drive by. We waved it down, and considered where to go. We felt like maybe we should just go back close to home and eat there and then maybe call it a night. So we told the cabbie to drop us off at the 1699 Gubei Mall, a new mall in our area with some good restaurants inside. But because we were coming from an unusual direction, we got dropped off on a side of the building that we haven't seen for a couple of months, the remote back side.

As we got out of the cab, we noticed that there was a new restaurant right there in front of that we hadn't seen before, even though we go to that mall every week. In fact, you can't see it from inside the mall. It's an external restaurant on the side most remote from us. But right away we were lured by it. It seemed so bright and very busy inside. I used to flee from busy places and still do if there's a big line to wait in, but now I generally like busy places because they are usually good and not too expensive. This place, the Xibei Restaurant, just looked great, so we went in and were able to be seated right away. The menu looked good -- lots of Western Chinese food, including specialties from Xi'An and other provinces. We had the best Chinese meal I've had in weeks and were delighted with every dish. A real winner and quite affordable. Each dish was worth talking about and revealed different aspects of China. We had so much fun talking and tasting. We got home feeling, strangely, "blessed by bureaucracy" and, of course, by the Lord and the many wonders the Lord has created in this world, including Chinese food. Seemed like a nice ending to a great adventure, but it was just an important preparatory step for our Christmas coincidence.

Newlyweds Leon and Nikita at Xibei Restaurant. (Photo and names used with permission.)

Clean open kitchen. Very nice, efficient operation with great service. 

An amazing wild mushrooms dish. Many varieties, so delicious.

From Xinjiang Province in the far western reaches of China, a flavorful noodle and chicken dish. 

One week later, after our friends had returned to the US and we were wrapping up a busy Saturday, my wife and I felt like it would be a good time to take a break and go get a bite to eat. Why not try that Xibei place again? Seemed like a good idea. It's within walking distance but we rode our bikes and were there in about 5 minutes. This time it was even busier, and there would be quite a lengthy wait to get a table. That's when I normally flee, but this time I felt relaxed, stayed calm and just thought waiting would be OK for such good food. But after six or seven minutes, I was wondering if maybe this would be a waste of too much time, and should we go someplace faster? There were dozens of choices nearby. That's when I saw Ling (name used with her kind permission), a friend of ours, a Chinese girl with a Singaporean passport and a recent convert to the Church. She's been facing some extremely trying challenges recently and has been in our prayers regularly. She was there with her son and parents. We were so excited to see them. They had been waiting for a long time, and invited us to join them as their table became available.

I was thoroughly puzzled about running into her. What is she doing way over here? She lives about 40 minutes away (an hour or so when traffic is especially bad). Meeting her in one of the hundreds of restaurants in our little corner of Shanghai is not quite like running into one of our friends at the mall in Appleton, Wisconsin, with a population of 70,000 people and fewer restaurants in the whole town that we have within walking distance of our home now. Shanghai has about 24 million people officially, maybe 35 or million if illegal or unregistered migrant workers from other provinces are properly counted. It's not just that there are 40 minutes of driving between Ling's home and our apartment -- there are probably at least 5 million people along the way, maybe more. In fact, most of the population of Shanghai is within a 40 minutes drive of where we live. We've never run into her or into most of our remote friends in China by chance like this before. To be there at the same time and to meet in a way that allowed us to dine together is just bizarre in this town (wonderfully, the restaurant had a big table for them that could fit two extra people, and a long wait for us got pared down to about 15 minutes -- whew!).

Strange events had brought her to this place so far from her home. In an truly unusual incident the day before, another person in their home, seeking to secure and protect the passport of her son who would soon fly back to Singapore with Ling and her parents for a few days, made the mistake of putting that passport in a bag that would be given to someone else living in our part of town. Could have been a disaster, but the other party noticed the passport and called her in time. She came out with her family to get it. While in the area, they chose to eat at a popular chain restaurant they knew of, Xi Bei.

Ling has been going through some real trials recently and has been in our prayers frequently. My wife, Kendra, feels especially tied to this family since it was her friendship with the husband that helped him start coming to church again and this helped Ling want to learn more. She's been such a precious and golden new member and we are so proud of her. This meeting was actually very important for us. We were so grateful to meet and to learn some critical information.

That wonderful, pleasant time at the newly discovered Xi Bei restaurant with her and her family would then lead to a Christmas meal with them again last night, this time at her home. There we would learn more about some of the challenges she is facing, including a business issue where an alleged friend of hers in another city has simply been copying everything Ling does with her business to create a completely fake copycat business online allegedly offering the famous Jamu post-natal massage products and techniques Ling has imported from Singapore in a rapidly growing business that is bringing amazing results to women who have just given childbirth, helping them to rapidly get back to their former skinny shape and fit into their old clothes. Ling's is an amazing business woman and a vibrant entrepreneur, but she needs some help in better protecting her business from thieves that some of my contacts might be able to provide (I am hoping to help encourage WeChat to take down a copycat site using her photos, a form of her business name, and photoshopped licenses). We'll see how this works out, but it certainly looks interesting.

Perhaps our meeting with her was just random chance, but we felt it was significant. We were so glad to meet and perhaps to be able to help and certainly to build better ties with her family and, yesterday at the dinner at her home that resulted from our visit, to also build tied with two of her friends, one of whom as a foreign passport holder was able to come to church with Ling today and also attended our Mexican-style "Posada" luncheon and singing activity in a suburb of Shanghai (more on that later -- such a fun Christmas tradition that I hope our branch can keep doing every year). It was all part of a joyous Christmas coincidence for us, once again.

For Ling, the Christmas coincidences continued after our chance encounter. Two days later in Singapore, Ling was on a hectic schedule and probably had no time to think about social visits. But as she was going down an escalator in that large city with millions of people and many dozens of malls, she saw one of her dearest friends from the Shanghai branch where she was baptized earlier this year (she now lives in and attends a different branch). That woman, as I understand, had played an important role in Ling's conversion and growth in the Gospel, but recently moved to Singapore. Among the millions there, to run into her dear friend by chance and have a sweet, joyous reunion that day was another strange and delightful Christmas miracle and coincidence for our sweet friend.  This was such a beautiful way for the Lord to remind her that she is noticed and loved. A spiritual pink coat for a great woman facing chilling trials. She, like all of us, may need more many miracles and coincidences along the way.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Two Christmas Gifts in the Same Week, After Months of Worry and Prayer

There are two people we have been especially worried about for the past five months or so. Almost daily these two people have been in our prayers. One is a relative with a world of potential who had fallen into old ways with bad people and drugs. The other was our part-time maid, part of the famous Chinese institution of the "ayi," a diligent, trustworthy woman living in Shanghai as an often unwelcome migrant from Anhui Province. Both were in deep trouble, one in the depths of addiction and one in a Chinese jail. And both just received a glorious shot at lasting freedom in the same week. One due to the kindness of a Utah relative who took on the risk and expense of rescuing a young lady in trouble, and one due to the kindness and diligence of several people, perhaps, plus a legal system that proved to be fair in the end.

Our maid has had a lot of trouble in Shanghai. "Anhui people are just bad" a friendly cabbie told my wife and our maid as the two were taking a cab together one day. He said that to her face. Others would say similar things right to her face. Most people in Shanghai are decent and polite, but there are some ugly biases that can crop up, as in anyplace with humans. Locals can often tell by looking or certainly from the accent that someone is from Anhui. This foreign land of Anhui, source of so many unwelcome and often illegal migrants in Shanghai, are not exactly foreigners. They are the province next door, about an hour or two by train from Shanghai. Anhui is to Shanghai like Idaho or Nevada is to Utah -- geographically, that is. Hope you Idahoans get treated well in Utah. I once made the move from Boise to Salt Lake, and it seemed OK, but perhaps I was too young and naive.

The story of our maid is one I've shared here before (see "An 'Ayi' for an Eye") while hopeful for an early release. A brawl in a mahjong parlor resulted in a man being blinded. Our maid tried to stop the fight, as we understand, but ended up getting blamed for being part of a group crime. After one month, we were hopeful that bail would be offered, but it was not. But after 5 months, as the case was about to be scheduled for trial, an officer in charge of reviewing evidence ruled that there was no evidence against her and issued a certificate of innocence and allowed her to go. The Chinese legal system worked in the end, and we are so grateful. Perhaps all our gratitude should be directed to the diligent officer who made that determination. But there are three other people who went the extra mile to help, and their influence may have made a difference as well, especially since the three other people accused in the fight will be serving from 3 to five years in jail. Ouch.

But now she is free! With her kind permission, I can include a few photos from the reunion we had shortly after her release. The setting, a plush mall next to where I work, is not the kind of place she frequents, for the record, but it was a good choice for the delicious Yunnan-style restaurant we took the family to for a celebratory dinner. When she saw my wife enter the mall, she rushed toward her and gave her one of the most heart-warming embraces I have seen. Two friends, long separated, back together. Such a relief.

Today in a board meeting for one of the best charities I've seen, the Huang Yi Cong Foundation of China, a major and carefully run charity funded by my employer and fellow employees (I am so excited to have just started this new role today, though I've been a fan and supporter of this incredible organization even since coming to China -- they have some expertise and experience that ought to be studied by the Church, IMHO), I got to publicly express my gratitude to one of the best Chinese leaders I've seen in the business world, the head of our legal department, for his kind action to help rescue our maid. When peers of mine told him about our maid's plight in jail, on his own he took the initiative of bringing in and introducing me to an excellent lawyer and old friend of his who was willing to charge less than half of the normal fee to help the family. Before we connected the lawyer to them, they didn't even know they could get the help of a lawyer (!), and through his help, they were able to finally visit their wife and mother and get a sense of hope. Having a good lawyer may have been key. Actually, I think a fair result would have occurred in any case, but the lawyer helped the family a great deal in the process, I think, and gave us vital information about what was happening.

I am also deeply grateful to two other Chinese men, one a highly honored Party member with a great deal of practical wisdom, and one now living in America but very influential in some major Shanghai circles. Both agreed to make an effort to inquire about the case to learn more. My hope was that by at least asking questions, it would encourage good but often overworked people to do their job well and not let things fall through the cracks. I really don't know if that could possibly do any good, but it was something I felt I should try. I am so grateful for their response and concern for a stranger. That really moves me when I think about it. There's a lot of goodness among Chinese people.

In the end, though, I think the lawyer and the other efforts people made might not have made any difference -- I trust that and hope that the system would have released her in any case -- but it made a difference to her and to the family, for it let them know that they were not forgotten. Sometimes that's the best we can do in our trials and afflictions, to let others know that they are not forgotten, and sometimes that's the most valuable revelation we can get from the Lord in coping with our afflictions: that He knows, that He has not forgotten us, that we are not forgotten by Him who descended below all things, and that in the end, there will be justice, mercy, and His abundant love to embrace us and welcome us home, free at last.

Two wonderful women and friends, both given new hope through the kindness of others. What wonderful Christmas news! Thanks to all who helped our friends in these trials, and thanks to all of you who help others in so many ways to have a shot at freedom, to have joy, or to know that they are not forgotten in their darkest days.

By the way, one of the advantages of China's Great Firewall, as much as I dislike it, is that this blog and all almost all things Google are blocked, so I don't have to worry too much about Chinese people seeing this site. This lets me praise people close to me without the awkwardness of being an overt brownnoser. But you would be genuinely surprised at how much brownnosing some people in my life deserve! I love the goodness that I often find in this grand country.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Buzz from Sweet Cozumel

This summer my wife's family had a brief family reunion on a ship that went from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico. Though much of what we saw on land was quite touristy, I loved Cozumel for the diving it provided, including a dramatic drift dive where the current took us past beautiful corals and wildlife, including many large turtles. (Scuba Tony was the service we arranged to use based on my wife's research and their decent price. Very happy with them.)

I wasn't the only one who was impressed with their first visit to Cozumel. Exactly 500 years ago in 1517, when Cordoba came to the Yucatan, Cozumel also impressed the invaders. They used the Spanish word "miel" in naming it. "Miel" means honey, which was abundant there and elsewhere in Mesoamerica. I just learned that today in some reading that began with "Honey: Sweet Maya Legacy" by Karen Hursh Graber at MexConnect.com, who discusses the ancient Mayan tradition of raising stingless honeybees. Trading honey from these bees was a part of their ancient economy. According to Graber,
When Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba arrived in the Yucatan from Cuba in 1517, he found bee yards with thousands of wooden hives, producing enough honey to be traded all over Mesoamerica. Honey was of utmost importance to the culture and economy of the Maya; this is reflected in the fact that one of the four surviving Maya books, the Madrid Codex, is devoted to bees and beekeeping.
This is interesting to me, of course, because a common misguided complaint about the Book of Mormon is that its reference to honey is anachronistic because honeybees did not exist in the Americas before the Spaniards came. It's misguided on several counts, as I discuss on my LDSFAQ page about apparently anachronistic plants and animals in the Book of Mormon (just updated moments ago).

Curious about Graber's statement, I soon found another useful source that led me back to Cozumel. The source is Marshall H. Saville, "The Discovery of Yucatan in 1517 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba," Geographical Review, Vol. 6, No. 5 (Nov., 1918), pp. 436-448, available at Jstor.org and also at Archive.org as plain text or as an image/PDF). Saville writes:
Cervantes de Salazar narrates that after leaving Cuba the expedition came into shallow water one night, and "at ten oclock in the morning with great joy they sighted land and came to the weather side of a small island that was called Cozumel on account of the great quantity of honey which was there." [Cervantes de Salazar, Cronicá de la Nueve España, Book 2, Chap. 1, p. 60, as cited by Saville, p. 445]
For those tempted to reflexively say that Joseph Smith, the inveterate bookworm, could have and or maybe surely would have been aware of Cervantes de Salazar and the history he wrote, Mayan honey and all, Saville has a valuable observation in a footnote on p. 438:
The fact that Francisco Cervantes de Salazar had written a history of New Spain was known, but the whereabouts of the manuscript, if indeed it had been preserved, was unknown until the end of 1911, when it was seen by Mrs. Zelia Nuttall in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid. Mrs. Nuttall communicated.
Of course that doesn't matter because the Book of Mormon doesn't really require honey in the Americas and even if it did, Joseph could also have learned that there was pre-Colombian honey from the great European naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, were Joseph the consummate literati he seems to have become today in the eyes of some critics who try to explain away the miracle of the Book of Mormon as a product of knowledge from Joseph's day. But Saville's note on Salazar's history is an interesting reminder of some of the limitations to knowledge that even avid bookworms faced in the 19th century. Not everything we can access from old sources was available in the 19th century, not even for those near the EIS (the Erie Information Supercanal) and especially not for those holed up in the information desert of Harmony, Pennsylvania, where the Book of Mormon translation largely took place, far from libraries and bookstores and circles of elite literati buzzing with the latest data on Arabian Peninsula geography and Mesoamerican fauna.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ward Council Thinking, Fast and Slow

At a recent branch council meeting for the Shanghai Branch, one of three branches for foreign passport holders meeting in Shanghai, I was asked to conduct some brief training in my role as a counselor in the District Presidency. In this training, I mingled a little scripture with some of the leading philosophies of men, especially the outstanding thinking of Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and author of one of my favorite books, Thinking Fast and Slow.

I began by discussing how easily experts can be deceived and make poor decisions. I turned to Kahneman's discussion in Chapter 19, "The Illusion of Understanding," and Chapter 20, "The Illusion of Validity," which address the many ways in which we can mistake luck for wisdom and the ways in which experts can be misguided and can falsely rely on their experience and confidence to make poor decisions, falling pray to various cognitive illusions. Kahneman discusses the terrible results obtained by managers of investment funds who often underperform the market, and high rate of misdiagnosis from doctors. My point in discussing these issues was to show why Kahneman warns against trusting our own opinions and why we need what he calls "the outside view" to help us have new perspectives and information to guide decision making. This is one of the reasons why the Lord's work is done through councils, not just a lone person calling all the shots.

Kahnemann in "The Illusion of Validity" refers to results of individual investors in the stock market, and notes that investors who trade the most tend to do worse, selling good stocks too early and holding on to poor stocks too long in hopes that they will turn around. Interestingly, he cites a paper showing that men tend to be worse investors than women (p. 214), for men tend to act more frequently on useless information they receive, resulting in more bad trades and general underperformance relative to female investors. My own experience is not highly inconsistent with that observation. Sigh.

I related this to the council given in the LDS Handbook of Instructions on ward councils, which tells us that the voice of women needs to be heard in councils, and that women can bring  perspectives that are often significantly different from those of men (this came as a complete shock to me, of course). As Kahneman explains, having access to different perspectives to help us get past our own cognitive illusions is critical for success in decision making, and this part of the inspired power of ward and branch councils.

I told the sisters and the entire group to never be afraid to share divergent opinions. Don't let the obvious view of the majority keep you quiet, but feel free to share what you see, know, or feel. It may not change the decision, but it may provide the urgently needed outside view that can help the council consider the right information and make a wise decision. Be patient and respect the results, but never hesitate to share your differing viewpoints. And for the rest of the council, never assume your perspective is clear and accurate. Humbly recognize that you may be facing a cognitive illusion and are desperately in need of further information that may come from a lone source. Be open and respect the input from all and seek the input from all. That's the secret to success in ward and branch councils.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Fabulous Gift for Book of Mormon Fans: Watch Lehi in Arabia for Free

Lehi in Arabia video: Book of Mormon evidences from Arabia
Perhaps the single best book related to Book of Mormon evidence is Warren Aston's Lehi and Sariah in Arabia, available on Kindle. Related to it is the delightful DVD, Lehi in Arabia, where you can see the places Aston has explored and learn the story not only of the remarkable discovery of the leading candidate for Bountiful, but also of the finding of costly altars from Lehi's day bearing the prominent NHM tribal name from the ancient Nihm tribe still in that part of Yemen today, a region that fits multiple requirements for the place called Nahom in 1 Nephi 16.

As a gift for anyone interested, it is now possible to watch the Lehi in Arabia video for free at Amazon.com. On Amazon's page for Lehi in Arabia, you can buy the digital video for $8, rent it for $2, or watch it for free if you sit through a short ad at the beginning. For the physical DVD, buy it directly at the Lehi in Arabia website (www.lehiinarabia.com), which I have done, for $14.95. While I encourage buying the DVD and or renting the DVD to support Warren's efforts, feel free to watch the video for free and have all your friends watch it for free, and then you can all just make a donation to the Khor Kharfot Foundation. That donation will support further research (not just LDS research -- a team of non-LDS specialists are also involved) at the unique site of Khar Kharfot, including Wadi Sayq, a miraculously fertile but endangered garden spot in the nation of Oman with unique species and a mysterious past. So beautiful, so interesting, so nearly due east of Nahom, and still essentially uninhabited because it is so hard to access unless you are, say, coming from the west and manage to enter just the right wadi by aid of a good map and compass or smart GPS (divine or otherwise), as Lehi did. Watch the video and realize just how impressive the growing evidence from the Arabian Peninsula is for the ancient plausibility of the Book of Mormon's account of Lehi's Trail.

I especially love the moment in the video (starting at 30 minutes in until about 33 minutes) where Warren's 14-year-old daughter turns out to be the key heroine in the discovery of Bountiful. A good case study for you leaders of youth encouraging young women to listen to the Spirit and make big contributions in their lives.

As you watch this video, it may help you sense as I do that the author of 1 Nephi was a real man, an ancient man who once lived in a beautiful green spot on the coast of Arabia before he and his family embarked on a dangerous voyage to his future Promised Land. This video, free or otherwise, could be a wonderful gift to share with others. Thank you to Warren Aston and his family for making this possible.

If you are grateful for this gift, consider making a donation to the Khor Kharfot Foundation. Also buy the book Lehi and Sariah in Arabia and write a review.

A Thanksgiving Gift: Our Maid Is Out of Jail, At Last

Just a few days after Thanksgiving came a gift we have been praying for daily over the past six months: the release from jail of our friend and our part-time maid ("ayi" in Chinese), a kind mother from Anhui province whose plight I discussed in an earlier post, "An Ayi for an Eye," back in July when I thought she was about to be released. 

After being accused of being part of a fight that blinded a man, she has spent nearly six months in jail under harsh conditions. After five months without the normal or common opportunity for bail, her case was about to be scheduled for hearing by a court, but the judge recognized that the evidence was weak. He gave the local police a month to update their evidence. I am not sure how that went, but suddenly this week our maid was released and given a certificate saying that the was innocent. How grateful I am that she has been released!

It is so good to see that the Chinese legal system here can recognize when a possible mistake has been made by local police and can free a prisoner that the police have accused. The quality of judges here and the professionalism of many in the system has advanced greatly, I understand. But six months is a long time to be in a place with very limited conveniences and perhaps not the best food in town. She is very thin now and quite weak, but is hoping after some recovery to get back to work soon. We will be going to dinner with them in a few days, after she rests a little more. It will be so good to see her again. Her husband and son are so relieved to finally have mom back!

Why was she in jail? Based on what I understand from reports from her family and the attorney, she was at a mahjong parlor when a fight broke out involving the boss of the parlor, a parlor that had an illegal gambling operation of some kind with a slot machine. Our maid was there to play mahjong, not the slot machine that the boss had in a side room.

It was in the side room where the fight broke out when a woman from her table, a relative, went in to play and won some money that the gambling boss reused to pay. The argument became a fight, aided with a man from our friend's table. From what we understand, our maid tried to break up the fight and protect an aunt of hers who was being punched by the boss, but she may have been thrown under the bus by the boss and the angry man who may have been the one who delivered the blows that blinded an eye. Our friend, according to her account and supported by other evidence according to her attorney, was not part of the fight.

I can speculate that both the victim (the mahjong boss) and the apparent perpetrator would have reasons in their statements for expanding the group of people involved, one to expand the list of people who could be forced to pay the huge compensation he was seeking (1.2 million RMB) and one to dilute his personal responsibility. In any case, one could say that by acting to help protect a woman being punched by a man, our maid got wrongly accused of a crime and was thrown into a holding facility. The local police of Huangpu District appeared to take a harsh stance against our maid and would not even offer bail. My experience with the Huangpu police has been very positive -- they once came to my home within about 10 minutes after I reported the loss of an iPad that I thought was stolen (my bad!), and were extremely friendly and professional, and they have done a great job in making downtown Shanghai such a safe place. I respect our local police in many ways. So I was puzzled about the seemingly harsh stance against our maid. Perhaps out of excessive sympathy for the injured boss? In any case, after one month, the Chinese system requires review of the reasons for holding, and they continued to pressure for her to be held in jail even though the evidence against her was weak. I was so disappointed that she had to remain incarcerated until her case came up for a hearing, which often takes about six months. Fortunately, the judge over the hearing saw the problem, questioned the reasons for imprisonment, and let her go home, innocent. Justice at last!

Our daily prayers now include a relative of a good friend who I strongly believe was falsely accused of domestic violence by her own husband and is wrongly in jail. It's an even more troubling case but there is powerful evidence for her that I hope will swiftly resolve her case. I cannot say more at this point.

China has made so much progress in so many ways, but as in any country, there can be painful problems from the bad behavior of some individuals. Justice can be found, but it may be slow. And prayers can be answered, but months or years may be needed. Keep praying and keep China in your prayers.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Freedom to Be Thankful For: My Pilgrimage to Xiaogang, Birthplace of China's Latest Revolution

One of the most touching and courageous moments in China's recent history is depicted in the painting below of a secret meeting of farmers in a tiny village that few people have ever seen or heard of. These farmers are gathered in a hut in a dark side room free of windows that spies might peer through. As they touched the red ink pad to sign an illegal contract with their fingerprints, they were putting their lives on the line. That moment in 1978 marks the birth of a revolution that has changed the world and blessed hundreds of millions in this land. It's a story rich in basic lessons that the West may need to relearn in order to survive.

The village is called Xiaogang (pronounced like "Shau Gong"). It's a tiny dot on the map in Anhui Province about an hour away from the major city of Bengbu, a city most Westerners have never heard of because, of course, it only has the population of Chicago. But Xiaogang Village is really small, I'd guess around a thousand people or less, and that's counting the outsiders who work here to staff their gargantuan tourist buildings that commemorate the economic revolution that began here. I shared the basic story of Xiaogang here at Mormanity ("The Secret Combination That Saved China") last year but my perspective changed this year when I finally made a pilgrimage to what is now a sacred spot. 

The story basically is that the village of Xiaogang had been suffering from the effects of the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. The confiscatory system of the day left people with no incentive to work hard and produce more, much less to take on the risks of innovation and entrepreneurship. They were starving. Whether they worked hard all day or just slept, they would still get inadequate food and risk starvation. Why bother? But they suspected there was a better way. Led by a brave man, the farmers met and agreed to pursue Economics 101 (IMHO). The contract they signed agreed to give a portion to the government and then they would get to keep the surplus for themselves. Wikipedia describes the Xiaogang miracle this way:
During the Great Leap Forward, Fengyang County, along with much of the rest of the country, experienced a period of famine. A quarter of the county's population, 90,000 people, died of starvation. In Xiaogang village alone, 67 villagers died of starvation out of a population of 120 between 1958 and 1960.
In December 1978, eighteen of the local farmers, led by Yan (NPR's name is a typo, there is no YEN in Chinese romanization) Jingchang,[2] met in the largest house in the village. They agreed to break the law at the time by signing a secret agreement to divide the land, local People's Commune, into family plots. Each plot was to be worked by an individual family who would turn over some of what they grew to the government and the collective whilst at the same time agreeing that they could keep the surplus for themselves. The villagers also agreed that should one of them be caught and sentenced to death that the other villagers would raise their children until they were eighteen years old.[2][3] At the time, the villagers were worried that another famine might strike the village after a particularly bad harvest and more people might die of hunger.
After this secret reform, Xiaogang village produced a harvest that was larger than the previous five years combined.[2] Per capita income in the village increase from 22 yuan to 400 yuan with grain output increasing to 90,000 kg in 1979.[3] This attracted significant attention from surrounding villages and before long the government in Beijing had found out. The villagers were fortunate in that at the time China had just changed leadership after Mao Zedong had died. The new leadership under Deng Xiaoping was looking for ways to reform China's economy and the discovery of Xiaogang's innovation was held up as a model to other villages across the country. This led to the abandonment of collectivised farming across China and a large increase in agricultural production. The secret signing of the contract in Xiaogang is widely regarded as the beginning of the period of rapid economic growth and industrialisation that mainland China has experienced in the thirty years since.
This is dramatic stuff, and it's been recognized by the Chinese government as a key moment in China's history. Deng Xiaoping embraced the Xiaogang miracle, which was vital inspiration for the economic reforms he introduced. The timing was just right, and as a result, when local police came knocking on the door of the main farmer behind the conspiracy, it was not to take him to his death as he expected, but to ask for help in expanding their illegal system across many more farms in China. He came away from the police station as hero, not as a criminal, and China awoke to a revolution that continues to roar. Some of you will call that capitalism and an abandonment of Chinese socialism, but over here I think it's more officially viewed as an important modification in socialism, part of the unique Chinese approach, that overcomes empty "bubble talk" and lack of commitment to work that many faced. However you want to package it, it was a huge step for China. I have seen the burden of poverty in this country and yearn for China's economic success, and applaud the brave farmers who started the revolution and the policy makers who recognized and learned from their wisdom. What a revolution it has been. 

I hope you'll consider a trek to Xiaogang someday. (I might even join you if you give me advance notice.)

Getting there wasn't too difficult from Shanghai. It required two or so hours in a high-speed train, often reaching 300 km/hr, to reach Bengbu, and then about an hour in a taxi to reach the village. The town is pretty much just one side road on the main highway. But it has a big arch as you enter, and then a giant tourist center, and then you find that the tourist center is not about the historical event that should make this town famous, but about its current geography, agriculture, climate, etc. Not what IO came for, but nice to have, I suppose.

Only after inquiring did we learn that the place celebrating the key historical event is on an even bigger building about one kilometer down the only side road off the main highway the the town seems to have. 

When my wife and I with two other Western friends finally arrived at the primary building about the Xiaogang miracle, I was amazed at how large it was. And what a thrill to finally be there! But where were all the crowds? The place was obviously built with the expectation of big tour groups, but it seemed rather vacant on the Saturday when we showed up. Never mind, I was so excited to finally be here. 

As we entered and paid a small fee, it was about 11:50 AM, and the staff informed us that it would be lunch in 10 minutes and we would have to leave until lunch was over at 1:30 PM. Since we had a 3 PM train to Nanjing for additional plans and would need to leave by 2 PM, waiting until 1:30 would be a huge set back. I politely pleaded our case: "We are foreigners who have traveled a long way to see this vitally important site in Chinese history. We have looked forward to this for so long and now are here on a tight schedule. We have to go to Nanjing this afternoon and would not be able to see all the museum if we wait until 1:30. We won't cause any trouble and don't need any help. Can we please just stay and look around during your lunch? Please?" No, sorry, we are closed at noon. Come back at 1:30. We didn't get anywhere with diplomacy, so we rushed in and started looking and shooting photos. A friend suggested we just stay and keep looking. But soon a staff member came to escort us out and right at 12:00 the lights went out. There's no way people were going to miss lunch (or a nap) for the only foreigners who have set foot in this place for months. China has made huge progress in customer service attitudes during my six years here, but sometimes there is still room for progress. Tourist sites that close in the middle of a Saturday for lunch represent an opportunity for progress. 

The memorial had some frank information though it was very tactfully presented and balanced with reminders of the positive impact of many fine speeches given by officials over the years that greatly cheered and motivated the workers.  But repeatedly we can see hints about the "bondage of leftism" (utra-radical leftism, we are told, not the good moderate kind) and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The scene below from the museum is of a landowner being harassed for having taken the "capitalist road." Those scenes could be very tragic. 

During our 10 minute spree through the building, we realized it was just a museum and didn't look like it housed the site where the economic revolution began. On our way out, though, we asked some more questions. "Oh, you want to see the old hut? It's just down the street, about 200 meters, and it's open during lunch." Ah hah! Glad we didn't spend all our time in the museum to miss the most important site. There was the hut where it all began, and the side room with the table where the contract was signed. We sat there and put our fingers to the pad and thought of the brave farmers, tired of watching loved ones die of starvation, risking their lives for the right to keep a reasonable chunk of what they produce. Economics 101, but forgotten by too many in our world. 

The result of the conspiracy was a sudden boom in prosperity. About a 600% increase! It went viral and lifted one of the poorest parts of China. Farmers rose out of poverty and could afford luxuries like a television, a ceiling fan, and a sewing machine.  

The leader of China today, Xi Jinping, paid tribute to Xiaogong with a 2016 visit. Of that moment in history and of those brave farmers, he said this:
"The daring feet that we did at the risk of our lives in those days has become a thunder arousing China's reform, and a symbol of China's reform." 
Whatever you think about the politics of China and the revolution that gave us the nation of China, I think all of us Westerners can embrace and learn from this second revolution of China that has lifted so many of its people and brought so much opportunity and hope. At this time of thanksgiving, the courage of those who brought about the Xiaogang miracle is one of the things that I am grateful for. And how grateful I am that I could visit that site and meet some of the locals of Xiaogang. Sadly, I was the first foreigner they had seen there for months, one worker told me. Wish more of you would come by and experience the spirit of this place.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Common Features in Written Languages and the Anthon Transcript

Michael Price's news story, "Why Written Languages Look Alike the World Over" in Science magazine's online edition (Sciencemag.org) might be of interest to some readers here. He discusses a recent publication on the nature of scripts used in written language. The study, published in  Cognitive Science, finds that scripts contain a vary high degree of vertical and horizontal lines (e.g., our T and L) relative to oblique lines (as in our X or W). Symmetrical characters, with either vertical or horizontal symmetry, also occur more frequently than one would expect from chance, and vertical symmetry (as in B or C) is more common than horizontal symmetry (as in W or A). Examination of how scripts evolve suggests that these features are present from the earliest stages of writing.

The study discussed is by Oliver Morin, "Spontaneous Emergence of Legibility in Writing Systems: The Case of Orientation Anisotropy," Cognitive Science, 10 October 2017, DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12550. Abstract:
Cultural forms are constrained by cognitive biases, and writing is thought to have evolved to fit basic visual preferences, but little is known about the history and mechanisms of that evolution. Cognitive constraints have been documented for the topology of script features, but not for their orientation. Orientation anisotropy in human vision, as revealed by the oblique effect, suggests that cardinal (vertical and horizontal) orientations, being easier to process, should be overrepresented in letters. As this study of 116 scripts shows, the orientation of strokes inside written characters massively favors cardinal directions, and it is organized in such a way as to make letter recognition easier: Cardinal and oblique strokes tend not to mix, and mirror symmetry is anisotropic, favoring vertical over horizontal symmetry. Phylogenetic analyses and recently invented scripts show that cultural evolution over the last three millennia cannot be the sole cause of these effects.
With this in mind, it is interesting to once again look at the Charles Anthon transcript to see examples of the characters that Joseph Smith copied from some portion of the gold plates for Martin Harris to show to some highly educated folks to help Martin cope with his doubts.

When Martin showed them to the scholar, Charles Anthon, Anthon allegedly responded favorably. According to Harris, Anthon "said they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic" and that they were "true characters." Whatever Anthon said, Harris came away convinced that Joseph was not a fraud. To say that the characters were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic, if accurately quoted and sincerely meant, would seem to mean that Harris saw similarities to these other scripts, and indeed, it's not hard to see many similarities. In light of Morin's publication, part of the similarities include a very high degree of vertical and horizontal strokes, a low degree of oblique lines (curved lines were excluded in the study), and a high degree of symmetrical characters, all typical of many real scripts. However, in the small sample from the Anthon Transcript, the symmetry is primarily horizontal, though there are some characters with vertical symmetry.

After examining the Anthon characters, it is easy for a naive viewer like me to see apparent similarities to numbering systems in Demotic (like a long curved line for 100 and then vertical strokes above it for multiples of 100) and also Mayan (the bar and dot system). Probably coincidental, but I can sort of see why someone could say that there are features like those of ancient Old World scripts, for they have some common general features similar to what Morin observed.

Had Harris brought Anthon some of the fraudulent Kinderhook Plates, I wonder what his response would be?

These characters to me just look a lot different than the various scripts I've seen from the Old World. To me they appear to have a high emphasis on oblique lines, contrary to Morin's observation. I'm not saying his findings represent an accurate test for distinguishing a lone forger's contrived script from a real civilization's practical script that developed according to common cognitive aspects of our brains, but it may be a topic for further research. Just a fun tidbit to consider that may help explain why someone might feel the Book of Mormon characters resemble other ancient scripts they've seen. 

FYI, Tolkien's fun work in developing the Tengwar script for Middle-earth seems to do well in its abundance of cardinal strokes, but then it seems to draw heavily on Tibetan and related scripts and is rooted in his deep scholastic knowledge rather than being fabricated out of whole cloth.

A hat tip to Jennifer Mangelson for alerting me to this Science story.

For some background on the fraudulent Kinderhook Plates and their relation or lack thereof to the Book of Mormon, see my related LDSFAQ page on Book of Mormon problems.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Yemen Needs Your Help As Millions Face Starvation (Another Fruit of the "Military-Industrial Swamplex")

Many of you have heard about the stunning archaeological site in Yemen found by a German team that gives us three ancient altars from Lehi's day bearing the name of the Nihm tribe, close to the ideal site proposed for the ancient place name Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34). The lands of the Nihm tribe, sometimes spelled Nehem, to this day are still in that general region, around 25 miles northeast of Sanaa, the capital. This is a place I would love to visit, and I hope many of you share that desire.

Sadly, precious few have been there. I can only recall one person apart from a Yemeni friend in Hong Kong who has traveled to Yemen, and that would be Warren Aston who did field work in Yemen and Oman in his quest for knowledge about Lehi's Trail. Warren Aston is the author of the best book I've read relating to external evidences for the Book of Mormon, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia. (Related to that is the best DVD: Lehi in Arabia, a must-see documentary.)

Mormons ought to be highly interested in Yemen and its peoples, including the Nihm tribe. I'd love to go there, but right now travel is impossible. Yemen has become a dangerous place in recent years with civil war and heavy bombing from one of our putative allies, Saudi Arabia.

Saudia Arabia just imposed a blockade on entry points to Yemen that has cut off badly needed humanitarian aid. Without outside help, the war-torn country faces starvation. As reported in the New York Times, Mark Lowcock, the UN's coordinator of humanitarian aid, Yemen could face a disaster in which millions die unless external aid is provided. The EU's commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, Christos Stylianides, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that Yemen “is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than two-thirds of its population in need of humanitarian assistance.” Stunning.

Feeding the "Military-Industrial Swamplex"

Michael Krieger, a Wall Street finance guy who became disgusted with the industry and quit, now blogging at Liberty Blitzkrieg, called my attention to the disaster in Yemen and to our role there as well, through our good buds in Saudi Arabia. Our role? What could our role possibly be? Michael delicately puts it this way in his recent post on Yemen:
What we’re looking at here is potentially the worst famine in decades, and it’s important for decent U.S. citizens from across the political spectrum to admit our government’s hands are soaked in blood.
Soaked in blood? I'm afraid he has a point. He backs it in part with this quote from The Intercept:
Saudi Arabia relies heavily on the U.S. military for intelligence sharing, refueling flights for coalition warplanes, and the transfer of American-made cluster bombs, rockets, and other munitions used against targets in Yemen.

Congress, however, has never authorized U.S. support for the war, which has caused 10,000 civilian deaths and has spiraled in recent months into one of the worst humanitarian crises of the century. For two years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a sea and air blockade around Yemen. Now, more than 7 million Yemenis face starvation and thousands, mostly children, are dying from cholera. Coalition warplanes have repeatedly struck crowded markets, hospitals, power plants, and other civilian targets.

Several members of Congress indicated an interest in the issue, noting that the Obama and Trump administrations’ reliance on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force [AUMF] to justify U.S. involvement in the conflict is absurd. That authorization, after all, was designed to fight the terrorist groups responsible for the September 11 attacks, not to intervene in Yemen’s civil war.

For 16 years, the executive branch has pointed to the AUMF as legal justification for its involvement in conflicts across the Middle East and Africa, a strategy that is legally questionable. But the use of the AUMF in the Yemeni context is especially bizarre given that the AUMF’s target is Al Qaeda, and the group AQAP — Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – is fighting alongside the U.S.-Saudi coalition against the Houthi rebels.
For those of you who thought we were draining the swamp, we've just shuffled a few swamp creatures while continuing on the same warlike course we grew numb to during the daily bombings around the world under the Obama Administration and during the assaults on other nations during the Bush years.

As one of my good friends put it when I once dared to criticize our invasion of and endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., "at least we were doing something about the problem of terrorism!" Indeed.

And now we are once again truly doing something about the problem of terrorism, though perhaps a tad more counterintuitive in appearance, by joining forces with the one nation most directly linked to 9/11 whom we provide with weapons and never, ever invade, and by simultaneously joining forces with Al Qaeda (!) to help carpet bomb civilians in Yemen. Please don't confuse a lack of patriotism with my discomfort with the Military-Industrial Swamplex. (Hey, I like that phrase!  You heard it first here.) One can love a spouse but dislike the cancer taking his or her life. You don't have to love and feed the cancer. In fact, the loving thing, the patriotic thing, is to excise it or do whatever possible to curtail its growth. Some of you thought we'd be draining the swamp in Washington. So sorry about that delusion!

As a patriotic American who lives his country and believes the Constitution should be followed and was a relatively inspired and precious document that could help preserve our liberty and rights if followed, I think it's time we get out of selling weapons to the Saudis, get out of giving weapons and support to terrorist groups (who often start as apparent allies in the first place and then use our weapons against our real or putative allies and eventually against us), get out of being the world's policeman when we can't even tell good guys from bad anymore, and immediately find ways to get aid to Yemen.

This graph from the Washington Post shows the explosive growth of weapon sales to the Saudis:

Krieger on the Liberty Blitzkrieg site points out that we are involved in a clearly unconstitutional and illegal war effort in Yemen that has killed many thousands and could soon result in millions dying. But our elected officials -- your Congressmen -- have been largely silent. They don't want to even discuss this. Give it a try and let me know what you experience! Watch the video on Michael's site for a preview of what you might encounter.

As reported in the Washington Post, “The shameless arms supplies to Saudi Arabia … may amount to lucrative trade deals, but the U.K. risks aiding and abetting these terrible crimes,” said James Lynch, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International. Lucrative for the winners, devastating for the people being carpet bombed and now starved.

Yemen should matter to Congress, but it doesn't. But if it matters to you, we can change that. Let's change that now.

Let's stop aiding the carpet bombers of Yemen. Let's quit flooding the world with weapons. Let's get aid to Yemen. And may we, in a short while, be able to visit and maybe even strengthen that precious land and its more precious people.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

John Gee's Introduction to the Book of Abraham: A Lifetime of Book of Abraham Scholarship Distilled into a Valuable Book for a Broad Audience

It was a pleasure to read John Gee's recently published An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017). This book is aimed for a broad audience with an interest in the Book of Abraham. While Dr. Gee is an expert in Egyptology, he does not get into overwhelming technical details of Egyptian language and lore while delivering clear and useful information that can help people of any faith better understand the origins and nature of the Book of Abraham.

Confusion over the Book of Abraham has flustered many members and investigators of the Church. About 20 years ago I personally had a similar crisis of faith while serving as bishop after considering a convincing argument on the Book of Abraham from a well-known anti-Mormon source. This was a few years after a previous bishopric member and his family in my town had left the Church initially over Book of Abraham issues and then started his own anti-Mormon website. The argument that I think stung both of us was compelling: Joseph claimed to have translated Egyptian by the power of God, apparently like he translated the gold plates. Now the Egyptian manuscripts have been found that Joseph used, and today we can read Egyptian and objectively evaluate his divine translation skills. Bottom line: He didn't get anything right. The work is a complete fraud, as was Joseph. End of story. Ouch!

If Gee's book had been available then, it would have greatly helped. In my case, after prayerful consideration in which I reviewed my testimony of the Book of Mormon but pled great confusion over the Book of Abraham, I felt that I needed patience and further seeking of knowledge. That knowledge soon came when I got my hands on a book by H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), another excellent resource, where I learned what ought to be common knowledge among all Latter-day Saints, but isn't: the Joseph Smith papyri, the recovered fragments from the original papyrus collection, are merely a fraction of the larger collection that Joseph used. Longer documents were sent to the St. Louis Museum after Joseph's death, and from there they ended up in the Chicago Museum, where they apparently burned in 1871.

The existence of other significant scrolls was not mentioned by the anti-Mormon source. The statements of witnesses describing the documents Joseph used and the gap between those descriptions and the Joseph Smith papyri were not mentioned. I felt that I had been deceived with an argument that was largely accurate except for a few crucial details that were artfully left out and which changed everything. I have since encountered many cases where critics artfully whittle away data and mitigating factors in what they report to create a shocking case to shake the faith of their readers. Caution and patience is usually a wise initial response when we don't know where to turn for answers. But let's get back to Gee's excellent book.

Gee's 197-page book is a well-written and richly illustrated source for answers on what the Book of Abraham is and what it is isn't. It offers a careful discussion of the history of book and various theories regarding what the translation is, how it was done, and what relationship it has to the sJoseph Smith papyri as well as to the rest of the original papyri. It is written as a general overview of many aspects of the Book of Abraham, with an emphasis its origins and its relationship to antiquity, as well as its significance for Latter-day Saints today.  Along the way we encounter some pleasantly surprising issues that can strengthen our respect for this work of scripture, including a variety of issues with apologetic value, though that is not Gee's overarching purpose, so don't expect a complete list of the many apologetic gems that could be cited.

Gee also provides valuable insights into the Abrahamic covenant and Abraham's teachings on astronomy, the preexistence, and the Creation. He closes with a look at the role of the Book of Abraham as a part of LDS scripture, and finally provides a succinct but excellent set of answers to frequently asked questions.

The book is nicely illustrated with samples of the Joseph Smith papyri, original documents from Joseph Smith and his peers related to the Book of Abraham, the facsimiles, and related images from Egypt and other areas. It is well organized and tightly written to deliver what often seems like just the right level of detail to help a non-specialist understand important issues without getting caught up in unfruitful detours.

The book is distilled from a lifetime of research into issues related to the Book of Abraham, including his expertise in Egyptology. It will be a valuable addition to the library of almost anyone with an interest in LDS issues or in the Book of Abraham.

Particular Points of Interest
One of the most interesting and original portions that draw upon Gee's extensive scholarship is his discussion of the ancient owners of the papyri in Chapter 5. The owners "were among the most literate and educated people of Ptolemaic Egypt" and one of them, Horos, "served as prophet in three different temples in the Karnak temple complex" (p. 59). Situated in Thebes, he would have had access to grant "Theban temple libraries, containing narratives, reference works, and manuals, as well as scrolls on religion, ritual, and history" (p. 61). Further,
Ptolemaic Thebes had a sizable Jewish population; some of them served as the tax collectors. The Egyptian religion of the time was eclectic. Foreign elements like deities and rites—including those from the Greek religion and Judaism—were added to Egyptian practices. The papyri owners also lived at a time when stories about Abraham circulated in Egypt. If any ancient Egyptians were in a position to know about Abraham, it was the Theban priests. (p. 61)
Gee's discussion of the various roles Horus would have played implicitly suggests he would have had interest and familiarity with various temple themes, creation stories, rituals and other elements found in the Book of Abraham and its facsimiles.

Gee carefully discusses some of the interesting connections  between the Book of Abraham and evidence from antiquity, such as the many ancient accounts of Abraham being threatened as a human sacrifice and accounts of his father's idol worshipping, accounts not available to Joseph Smith. Sometimes there are especially significant points that, from an apologetics perspective, I wish had been given more emphasis or at least an exclamation mark or two. One of these cases involves the unusual place name Olishem mentioned in Abraham 1:10. It turns out that there is in fact such a place name from the ancient Levant in a plausible location. Here is John Gee's treatment:
Biblical scholars have not agreed on the time and place that Abraham lived, but the Book of Abraham provides additional information that specifies both. In the Bible, Abraham must flee his homeland (môladâ) in Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 12:1). Later he sends his servant back to his homeland (môladâ) to find a wife for his son (Genesis 24:4, 7). The servant is sent to Aram-Naharaim in modern-day northern Syria or southern Turkey (Genesis 24:10) and not Mesopotamia as the King James translators rendered it. This location of Aram-Naharaim must have been the location of Abraham's homeland. The Book of Abraham also indicates that Abraham's homeland was in that area. Olishem (Abraham 1:10), one of the places mentioned near Ur, appears in Mesopotamian and Egyptian inscriptions in association with Ebla, which is in northern Syria. (pp. 98, 101)
The discussion of Olishem is limited to a single sentence casually mentioning that an unusual place name in Joseph's translation is mentioned in ancient inscriptions. There is further information in the notes under "Further Reading" pointing to valuable sources on this potentially sensational find. But many readers may not notice how interesting or even sensational this issue may be. It was already interesting when Akkadian documents were noted that mentioned the place Olishem, and it got much more interesting when a Turkish team reported finding the site and noted that ancient documents indicate this was place where Abraham had lived. See the press release Prophet Abraham's lost city found in Turkey's Kilis in The Hurriyet Daily News, August 16, 2013. On this matter, Gee has noted the potential value but urges patience as more work is needed. See John Gee, "Has Olishem Been Discovered?," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 104–7.

Finding the place name Olishem was interesting enough in many ways before the actual archaeological site was found and its connection to Abraham made. In a rather technical 2010 post, Val Sederholm explores the significance of Olishem and related Egyptian and Semitic words in "The Plain of Olishem and the Field of Abram: LDS Book of Abraham, Chapter One," I Begin to Reflect, April 27, 2010. "Is the place of Ulisum or Olis(h)em the plain of Olishem? Conclusions remain premature, but it would be remiss not to point out the similarity and, by so doing, show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look." Sederholm then explores the rich association of meanings related to Olishem that may make it an entirely appropriate name for a place with a hill, suggesting the possibility not only of a phonetic connection between the Akkadian account and the Book of Abraham, but also a semantic connection. Indeed, there are many such fascinating issues in the Book of Abraham, leading Sederholm to make a strong but supportable statement:
Exactly how does a book of 14 pages produce dozens upon dozens of linguistic, cultural, thematic, theological, and literary points of comparison to the Ancient Near Eastern record? The numbers are no exaggeration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with no hesitation whatsoever, not even a hint of abatement, continues to post the canonical Book of Abraham on line and to print copies by the tens of thousands in scores of languages. There is a lot of explaining to do.
Gee, however, is more restrained and focuses rather on explaining to broad audiences the basic of the Book of Abraham and some of the fascinating connections to the ancient world, including hints of evidences for authenticity without making too much of the evidence. This is not an primer for apologists, but one that defenders of the faith will definitely want to study.

There were many other sections that I felt are especially important. His discussion on the so-called "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" a.k.a. the Kirtland Papers was clear and helpful (pp. 32-39). He ably demonstrates that this was not the tool Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon, but appears to be an attempt by others after the translation was done to make sense of Egyptian.

His treatment of ancient connections to the Book of Abraham is especially meaningful (Chapter 4, pp. 49-55), though brief, and the "Further Reading" section points to some significant treasures for further study. In light of many references to Abraham in Egypt by the time the Joseph Smith papyri were created, Gee concludes that "the Book of Abraham fits comfortably with the literature about Abraham that was circulating in Egypt during the general time period of the Joseph Smith Papyri" (p. 52).

In reviewing competing theories for the origins of the Book of Abraham in Chapter 7, "The Relationship of the Book of Abraham Text to the Papyri," Gee quietly dismantles some common theories on the basis of evidence. For example, the theory that Joseph used the surviving Joseph Smith Papyri fragments for the translation does not fit descriptions from witnesses of the long scroll that he was translating (this and other parts of the collection apparently are what was later sent to the St. Louis Museum and then later to Chicago, to perish in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). The fragments, in fact, were mounted on glass by 1837, while witnesses saw the unmounted long roll in the 1840s and 1850s (p. 85), so the fragments cannot be what Joseph used as the basis (or pretended basis, if you insist) for the translation, however he performed that work.

Another theory popular in the Church is that Joseph created the Book of Abraham by inspiration without being connected to any papyrus. Gee makes some interesting points in discussing this:
The theory, however, also has some problems. In a discourse given on 16 June 1844, just before his death, Joseph Smith said, "I want to reason — I learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house — I learned a test. concerning Abraham & he reasoned concerng. the God of Heaven — in order to do that sd. he — suppose we have two facts that supposes that anotr. fact may exist two men on the earth — one wiser than the other — wod. shew that antr. who is wiser than the wisest may exist—intelligences exist one above anotr. that there is no end to it — if Abra. reasoned thus." Joseph Smith prefaces a paraphrase of Abraham 3:16–19 with a statement that he "learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house," and ends by saying that it is Abraham's reasoning. This quotation supports the theories that he translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that he had in his possession, but seems to be the only statement from Joseph Smith on the subject other than the preface to the published Book of Abraham that it was "A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt" that presumably Joseph Smith authored. The quotation, however, comes from fragmentary and incomplete notes of a sermon Joseph Smith gave and thus the evidence is not as solid as might be desired.  
Given our current state of knowledge, the theory that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that we no longer have accounts for the most evidence with the fewest problems. Even so, for none of the theories is the evidence as neat or as compelling as one might wish. (pp. 85-86)
Another noteworthy issue is introduced immediately after Gee points to the find of Olishem in a region near the northern Ur that he strongly favors. It is a clue regarding the specific time when Abraham lived:
Abraham's homeland was incorporated as part of the Egyptian empire under the Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs Sesostris III and his son, Amenemhet III, but it was then lost to the subsequent pharaohs. This provides an historical date for the events of the first chapter of the Book of Abraham. (p. 101)
That date is not given in this section. Sesostris III ruled from 1879 to 1839 BC, and Abraham may have lived in that era as well. That's a remarkable detail, if accurate, and it may bring several other issues into better focus. For example, Gee explains that around this time, historical and archaeological evidence shows that Egypt did practice human sacrifice as a ritual against religious offenders and it could take place in areas Egypt influenced, consistent with the Book of Abraham account. Gee provides readers with two references from Kerry Muhlenstein to support the statements on human sacrifice. Gee also states that, "Three of the four deities mentioned, Elkenah, Libnah, and Korash, are attested for the approximate time and place of Abraham" (p. 101). I've read some of the work supporting such a sensational sounding statement, but it won't be clear to a reader which of the "Further Reading" sources to turn to. In this case, I believe the relevant source is Daniel Peterson, "News from Antiquity" in the Jan. 1994 Ensign. Sadly, while most of that issue is accessible at LDS.org, Peterson's article currently is not (a link is there but it gives a "page not found" error), but it is available at Archive.org. The article with all its extensive footnotes can also be accessed on the free LDS Library app. Footnote 5 from Peterson offers the references that should have been cited for this tantalizing tidbit (this is one of a few gaps in the book that I discuss in more detail below).

Many more insights can be gleaned if we can estimate the date of Abraham's life:
Because Abraham's life was in danger, he left his homeland, which was controlled by Egypt, and crossed the Euphrates to Haran, which was outside of Egyptian control (Abraham 1:1, 2:3–4). After the reign of Amenemhet III [Jeff's note: this would be after 1814 B.C., per Wikipedia], he left Haran and went to Canaan, which was then no longer under Egypt's control (Abraham 2:6–18).

When famine set in, the closest steady supply of grain was the land of Egypt, the northern part of which was now under the management of the Fourteenth Dynasty. These pharaohs were "partaker[s] of the blood of the Canaanites by birth" (Abraham 1:21) and bore Canaanite names. Abraham seems to classify all pharaohs as Canaanite, though the Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs whose servants tried to kill him were not. Since Abraham never met the Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs, he may have assumed that all pharaohs were like the Fourteenth Dynasty ones he did meet.

Although the dynasties in northern Egypt might have changed, pharaonic power and prerogatives had not changed. Abraham was instructed by God to refer to his wife, Sarah, as his sister (Abraham 2:22–25). This takes advantage of an ambiguity in the Egyptian language: the Egyptian word for wife (hime) means only wife, but the Egyptian word for sister (sone) means both sister and wife. Thus, the term that Abraham used was not false, but ambiguous. It was also necessary: since numerous Egyptian texts discuss how pharaohs could take any woman that they fancied and would put the husband to death if the woman was married, this advice saved Abraham's life. God was willing to save Abraham's life on more than one occasion. (pp. 101-102)
Fascinating. This brief passage resolves several significant questions regarding Abraham and the Book of Abraham. It's not the only time in this book that Gee applies his knowledge of Egyptian to illustrate how an Egyptian word play strengthens the text and turns something confusing or troubling into some quite interesting and logical (see also his discussion of astronomy and the word play that naturally allows Abraham to move from talking about stars to talking about matters of the soul and religion, indirectly challenging Egyptian religion without offending others and getting killed, pp. 116-119).

Some Gaps
For all its merits, there are also some gaps that I should point out. One gap is the uneven use of footnotes. Most chapters lack footnotes, but key references are listed at the end of the chapter in a "Further reading" section with occasional comments. These are helpful and often adequate, for a reader can usually deduce which reference might be the one that supports an interesting, unexpected, or potentially controversial statement Gee has made, but in other cases one is left to guess when a footnote seems required, as I demonstrated above on the fascinating issue of pagan gods mentioned in the Book of Abraham, a complex and still controversial issue that wold seem to demand more details in specific footnotes and perhaps some additional clarifiers as to how settled or controversial the claims may be.

Some editors strongly dislike abundant footnotes and many readers find footnotes distracting. For the intended audience, Gee's approach is probably about right, but I would personally like more footnotes, especially for controversial, nuanced, or sensational issues that may be important to serious students of the Book of Abraham. Again, that information is usually there, but there are a few gaps.

Another example of uneven and perhaps problematic treatment in documentation is in Chapter 13, "The Creation," where 11 footnotes from rather technical sources are provided in a section on the Egyptian background, but none are provided in an arguably more important section, "The Book of Abraham and Source Criticism" on the views of modern biblical scholars. Some relatively strong claims are made in that section that seem to require specific documentation. What is provided on the topic of source criticism in the "Further Reading" section is simply one reference from 20 years ago, which turns out to be rather casual editorial remarks from Daniel Peterson made in the introduction to an issue of the FARMS Review of Books. See Daniel C. Peterson and John Gee, "Editor's Introduction: Through a Glass, Darkly," FARMS Review of Books 9/2 (1997):v–xxix. John Gee is listed as a co-author, but the article is written in the first person by Peterson, who relies on an unpublished report of Gee that refers to an unpublished report from an anonymous student who concocted a "test" of source criticism. The student, "Gadfly," wrote 3 one-page quasi-biblical stories and had two friends combine these the way biblical redactors might have.  He then gave his professor three very short documents for analysis, one written entirely by him, one that had portions from two documents, and one that was changed slightly by a student editor. He gave these to the professor and challenged her to discern which portions of the product came from different sources. I am surprised the professor, whoever she was, agreed to this test. In any case, the professor was mostly wrong. Not a surprise.

While that anecdote is useful, it was hardly a scientific test nor even a fair one. Peterson's personal discourse in introducing the FARMS Review of Books surely was not meant to be a solid scholarly challenge to source criticism but an interesting anecdote shared by Peterson with Gee's assistance to illustrate the need for healthy skepticism with some of the claims of scholars. That point is well taken, but skepticism may also be in order for conclusions based on unpublished, anonymous anecdotes from students trying to trip up a professor.

Apart from the unsuitability of Gee's sole reference on source criticism, there is a more serious issue that could be used by critics to assail this important work. The issue is a minor gaffe which most charitably can be overlooked as sloppy terminology. In the section "Source Criticism" on pp. 136-138, Gee discusses the tendency of biblical scholars to view the account in Genesis as coming from multiple sources that have been patched together by a redactor:
In the late nineteenth century, a theory called source criticism developed, arguing that the Pentateuch (the five books attributed to Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) was composed by a number of different authors in separate books and then shuffled together in such a way that the separate accounts told one story. This combining of accounts supposedly took place sometime after the Babylonian exile. Source critics claim that their modern separation of the biblical text into narrative strands somehow matches hypothetical ancient sources. (p. 137)
The problem is that the theory Gee refers to is not "source criticism" itself but a specific fruit of source criticism known as the Documentary Hypothesis. Conflating the two is an easy mistake to make for those of us not schooled in biblical scholarship and not terribly serious in my opinion, but it weakens the discussion on that topic and can be used for guffaws from critics. In a general sense, source criticism itself, for all its weaknesses in attempting to recreate long-vanished ancient sources of the Bible, is a valuable tool that has been of great help to Latter-day Saint studies. Efforts related to source criticism from Royal Skousen and others involving years of scholarship on the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and its various editions have helped us better understand the original text, including the miraculous translation process and the apparent present of Hebraisms and other fascinating artifacts that can enlighten and strengthen our appreciation of the text. Some principles related to source criticism can be examined in action as we explore the complex document of the Book of Mormon where its authors and editors draw upon numerous sources, often stated but sometimes implied, in crafting a complex text that has some of the redundancies (e.g., the small plates of Nephi vs. the lost 116 pages) and other issues that are often a starting point for biblical source criticism. Source criticism is not the enemy, though it can be applied with false assumptions, errant data, or poor methodology to give many erroneous results, and may necessarily involve much speculation.

While I agree that source criticism may lead to excessive dissection of text and has serious limitations, and also agree that some conclusions from the Documentary Hypothesis can be and should be challenged, Gee does not treat this topic adequately or point readers to useful sources to understand the issue. Since he is writing for a general audience, he might well have pointed readers to the very accessible work on the Documentary Hypothesis by Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, 2nd edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) or many other works. And in response to those who argue that the Pentateuch was faith-promoting fiction made up during the Exile, he might have cited works such as Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003). The challenges arising from modern biblical scholarship must be considered in treating the Book of Abraham since, according to many scholars, the Genesis account of Abraham not only comes from multiple conflicting sources written long after Abraham's day, but Abraham himself like the other patriarchs probably did not even exist.

The Documentary Hypothesis and the classification of Abraham as a fictional or mythical character has challenged the testimony of Latter-day Saints and other Christians. It raises questions not just about the Old Testament and the Book of Abraham, but also about the New Testament, where Christ speaks positively of Abraham with no apparent awareness that He was referring to a non-existent character.

In fact, given the tendency of modern scholars to undermine faith in God and Christ and certainly in the Restoration with their views on the origins of the Bible, the evidences of historicity or plausibility that Gee touches upon in several parts of his book may be of great value in reassessing the limitations of scholarship in ways that are far more meaningful than the student anecdote mentioned above. While the discovery not only of the name but more recently apparently also the place Olishem in the Book of Abraham may not be as monumental as the archaeological and linguistic evidence pertaining to Nahom in the Book of Mormon, it nevertheless does, as Val Sederholm said above, "show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look." In fact, evidence from the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon may eventually be just the thing to correct some flaws in the Documentary Hypothesis or other theories, and to anchor and guide future source criticism of biblical texts.

I have said far too much about a few problematic pages. The shortcomings of Gee's brief section on source criticism are not characteristic of the entire book.

In general An Introduction to the Book of Abraham is a work of careful scholarship and thought, one that those in and out of the Church can appreciate, with some significant original contributions and exciting directions for further research and discussion.

Highly recommended!