Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Dealing with weird stuff in church history

[I wrote this on Election Day 2020 but posted it here later. The original, formatted document is here.]

I should say at the start that I have a strong testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that Joseph Smith is his prophet. I'm grateful for the peace and perspective the gospel has given me, and the blessings I've received as I have tried to live it. For the most part, the history of the church strengthens my testimony - there have been many miracles that show the hand of God in it, and the church has been a positive influence in the world.

It's also fair to say that some parts of church history aren't great. Some people react to this by just rejecting everything about the church. Others make excuses and may even perpetuate some of the unfortunate cultural issues from the past. I have been thinking lately about how to address the negative aspects of the history, so I figured I'd better write it down. Fair warning - this post is long.


The church has never claimed its leaders were infallible. It's actually very important to be able to see a prophet's role as distinct from their identity as a person, because prophets make mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. We need to be able to see and acknowledge this without it shaking our faith in God, or in the core doctrines of the gospel.

When I was young, I imagined the prophets and apostles as being in direct personal contact with Jesus Christ all the time. He told them what to do, and they just did it. I imagined something similar with local church leaders, except through the Holy Ghost instead of visions. As a missionary and in interactions with church leadership, I have since learned that most of the time God leaves decisions up to us and guides us in subtle ways, many times through other people. Most of the time he is fine with the direction we choose, and will only "warn us off" if we're headed for something immoral. We can get extra direction when we seek it (study, ponder, pray). But very seldom does God give us course-altering direction when we haven't asked for it. This is true even for prophets. God reveals truth "line upon line, here a little and there a little". (See 2 Nephi 28:30, Isaiah 28:30.)

This is important to understand with regard to church history, both ancient and modern. The clear modern example is the racial distinction on the priesthood, which was started a few decades after the church was created and wasn't lifted until 1978. I'll say more about this later, but for now I'll just point out that the church has disavowed all of the attempts at explaining the reasons for it using scripture. In other words, it was a mistake. A big, harmful one. Why didn't God correct it sooner? We don't have a direct answer, but I think a part of the answer has to be that not enough people were prepared to follow the direction to stop being racist. It was only when enough people were willing to follow that direction that the change came. (And yes, that means that racism was a huge problem in the development of the church.) Some might hear this and think "How could Brigham Young have been a prophet if he believed such racist ideas?" One answer could simply be a matter of existential priories: God needed a church with a strong community. There had to be enough members in Utah and worldwide to hold the church together. If too many people left too early, no amount of truth would have preserved the church long-term. But having a lot of people in strong communities was something God could work with, and fine-tune their moral failings bit by bit, as they were ready. In any case, I think separating Brigham Young's character as a man from his role as a prophet is actually liberating from a faith perspective. You can criticize one without throwing away the other.

Here's another example: Moses and Joshua wiped out a lot of people on their way from Egypt to the promised land. The Book of Exodus suggests that God told them to exterminate entire communities - men, women, and children. Really? Or is it possible that Moses received revelation about moving people, and commandments about how they should behave, and misinterpreted some of the "how"? I think it is. One might ask again, "Why wouldn't God stop him from committing genocide?" Well, he needed a group of people that wouldn't sink into idolatry. He needed people who would believe in him and pass on the covenant he had made. He knew he could work on the "love your neighbor" stuff later, so he gave them just enough to establish the basics. They weren't ready for any more than that. This is speculation, but it makes sense to me.

One more quick example before I get back to Brigham Young. A lot of people instrumental in forming the United States were guilty of atrocities. George Washington owned slaves. And without him, we would not have this country in the first place. He was a hypocritical white supremacist. And he did great things, for which we are indebted to him. We can believe both. Thomas Jefferson: same thing. Christopher Columbus: he did even worse things. And he was instrumental in the hands of God in forming a free country, and by extension, in the restoration of the gospel. I'm not saying I would vote for any of these men if they were running for office today, but we can acknowledge the good they did even while condemning their immoral behavior.

In a lot of ways, Brigham Young was the George Washington of the early church. God needed someone with leadership skills, and a vision of how to build a community. Brigham Young drove the creation of industry all over Utah and other places the church created settlements. He negotiated a peaceful situation with the United States and the Native American communities in the area. Without him, that church of refugees probably would not have survived its first fifty years.

He was also profoundly racist. He wasn't as bad as a lot of people in the South - he didn't advocate all of the atrocities committed against slaves. He didn't even own slaves. But he did believe in slavery. He strongly believed that black people were inherently inferior. And, while some might say that it's not fair to judge him against modern morality, his actions don't even stand up to the morality of the church at the time. The Book of Mormon condemns slavery, as does the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph Smith wanted to abolish slavery. But Brigham Young upheld it.

And then there is polygamy. In some ways this is even weirder than the racism thing - not just because polygamy is messed up, but because the early church had a much easier time backing up the doctrine of polygamy with scripture. But women suffered a lot under the practice. And I'm not going from rumors or anything here - most of what I know about the subject comes from the Church's own publications. It was pretty bad. Did God set it up? Well maybe - the whole thing was wrapped in secrecy at the start, so it's not super clear what Joseph Smith said, or which parts of it were direct revelation from God, versus something that another imperfect man might have misinterpreted. (The section in D&C that mentions it didn't come out until a long time after Joseph Smith was murdered.) But even if we accept the institution as created by revelation, the implementation was not great. Women's rights and wellbeing were not respected as much as they should have been. Again, there were a lot of mortal people running this thing, and we shouldn't be surprised when we learn that they messed it up.

So how should we react? I think there are three important things.

First, I think it's very appropriate to be offended. I am offended. Racism is awful. Slavery is a betrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ on every level. And hypocrisy makes bad things even worse, maybe because it is so effective at convincing people that they are good. We don't need to make excuses for others' wrong choices. It's okay to be outraged.

Second, we need to have a clear idea of core doctrine versus what I'm going to call "interpreted doctrine", versus practices and policies. (See this talk from General Conference, and this one.) There's a broad spectrum of how directly-from-God the things we believe and do fall into. That's just the nature of living in a mortal world. If we're clear on which things came directly from God, we can hold onto those things without getting thrown off when we realize that a human leader has made a mistake. Or even an atrocity.

And third, once we have that clear distinction about church history, we need to apply it to ourselves. We need to ask ourselves, "What part of my beliefs and practices are susceptible to human weakness? Are there perspectives I have that God would like me to change, if only I'd open myself up to changing?" (See Matthew 19:20)

Sometimes it will be policies that will change. But sometimes the doctrine of the church will be added to or clarified in a way that contradicts what members of the church had come to believe. When black people received the priesthood, a lot of members rejoiced - not just for the blessings of their black brothers and sisters, but because they no longer had to make excuses for a racist policy. They were beyond ready. But other members of the church had a hard time with this. They had been immersed in all of the theological rationalization for the policy. The idea of having a black bishop went against their religious beliefs. Of course, this means these people were racist. But the point is that they sincerely believed that God wanted them to be. At least up until that day. After that day, those who had embraced the racism of the time had a choice to make. Some left the church, or stayed but harbored racism. And others opened their minds and hearts and received a witness from God that white people aren't actually superior. Those people changed, and they're better people now.


I want to point out one more concept that I think is in flux in the church today - in culture, if not in doctrine. This bit will involve a lot of speculation - this comes from me, not the church, and I could be wrong in either direction. But it's something that I think about.

It has to do with how we approach homosexuality. Now, the church is pretty clear on the law of chastity - no sexual intimacy except between married people, and marriage is between a man and a woman (because the essence of marriage is creating an eternal family). Most people and cultures in the world today don't believe in or support that standard. We can live with that. We don't walk around glaring at our heterosexual neighbors and thinking of them as unclean. And we should not do that with homosexual people either. The church certainly does not advocate looking down on other people based on who they're attracted to. But in the culture among church members, there is a stigma attached to being gay.

Growing up, I feel like I was raised with a relatively open-minded view of people. Racism always seemed and felt evil. But gay people? I have to admit that I felt an "ick" factor attached to that idea. Like, the idea of two dudes kissing still feels wrong to me - although I think this has more to do with bias than it does with morality. Not all of this bias comes from church - this is in the whole world. But let's examine the church bit.

Let's say you have two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The boy asks the girl on a date. They see a movie and eat food, and the boy pays. They hold hands. At the end of the night he kisses her on the cheek, and then they part ways. Nobody would call that a violation of chastity. Why? Because it's not sexual. It's just feelings, and social interaction. But if you change that story and replace the girl with a boy, all of a sudden you've got a problem. If these are BYU students instead of teenagers, you have an Honor Code violation. Why? If the law of chastity is about sexuality, and sexuality is only okay between a married couple, and romantic behavior is okay outside of marriage, then why are we concerned with non-sexual behavior between two men or two women? Why do we even care?

Of course, the perceived problem is that romantic behavior between people of the same gender "gives expression" to feelings that could lead people to break the law of chastity or to make other decisions that will stop eternal progression. That feels super weak to me. For one thing, two dudes on a date are no more likely to break the law of chastity than a heterosexual couple. The hormones are the same; it's just who they're targeting that's different. And if you're not attracted to the opposite gender, then you're not going to get married to them, so a same-gender relationship isn't competing with a potential opposite-gender one. (I mean if you're bisexual, then maybe it is, but that feels like a technicality that doesn't really sway the argument here.)

So the conclusion that I draw is that we should chill out and get off the backs of gay people. We should try really hard to stop feeling that "ick" factor, and acknowledge that it comes from the societal messaging we were raised with, not from God.

"But, But…" that biased voice in my head says, "how does being gay fit into the Plan of Salvation? What happens in the Celestial Kingdom?" To be honest, I do not know the answer to this. Growing up, my impression was that being gay was a birth defect, so it would be "cured" in the resurrection. That is an awfully insulting position to take. That doesn’t make it untrue, but then there isn't any scriptural evidence to back it up, either. Perhaps Brigham Young might have said that gay people are the way they are because of some spiritual deficiency, like he felt about black people. Of course that is even more insulting, and it feels deeply wrong on a spiritual level. I'd have a hard time even respecting someone who claimed that. The only other answer I can think of is that there's a celestial path for gay people, but it hasn't been revealed yet. Why not? Well maybe it's because the church isn't ready for that revelation. Because we have too much bigotry in the membership. Again. Still.

And if that's the case, then we are just like the members back in 1978 before President Kimball removed the restriction on the priesthood. We have a choice. We can hold onto the traditions of the past and be total jerks to our neighbors, damaging the image of the church and causing our descendants to be ashamed of us. Or we can be ready. We can move past the biases we've been fed and do a better job of thinking of everybody as equals. Neighbors. You know, the way Jesus Christ commands us to treat everybody.


Saturday, October 3, 2020

Why personal character matters in political offices

I realized that in my recent posts on political offices, I haven't explicitly stated why I think that the character of a political candidate can make them unworthy of an office even if their opponent's policies seem unacceptable. Here's why.

When a person is in a position of power, the way they view power will affect how they use power. And that use will spread to other people in power. A corrupt president will breed more corruption. A leader who is guilty of - or even apathetic about - sexual violence will spawn more sexual violence. A racist leader will encourage more racism. There are very few political issues that can override these sorts of problems. Violence and corruption will ruin any society, no matter how "right" the leaders may be on any particular issue. But more to the point, individuals will suffer at the hands of their leaders if those leaders don't meet a certain bar of morality. So to uphold an immoral leader is to share responsibility for the suffering that they cause. Of course I'm not saying that you're responsible for every action of the people you vote for. But if you know that their world view justifies abuse of some group of people, and you support them anyway, then you are responsible.

I want to share a quote that I think is relevant here. It's from church, so I want to make it clear that I'm not claiming that the church endorses my position exactly. But here it is. It's from a letter from the First Presidency that is read in church (in this form or something very similar) pretty much whenever a major election is near:

...citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest.

Now if you read it in context, the candidate's morality isn't the only thing mentioned. Issues matter too. But to me, the fact that this doesn't say "seek out and then uphold leaders whose views are on the right side of the issues" is significant.

So, why would a good person vote for someone immoral? I'm afraid that one reason is that sometimes an immoral leader will benefit you. Their policies might actually grant you additional wealth, freedom, or (ick!) some special privilege over another group. Sometimes the opponent is even worse, and I understand the desire to vote for the lesser of two evils to prevent the larger one. But I fear that some people stop thinking even that way, and happily uphold leaders who are downright evil, because those leaders are (for the moment) providing some benefit. And of course, if you find yourself in that group, then you are absolutely responsible for the actions and policies that you are supporting.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Election 2020 :|

This election, like the last one, presents an icky choice for conservatives. I mean, if you're a democrat, the choice is easy. If you're moderate, the choice is also pretty easy. If you're a conservative, you have to make a nasty choice. One candidate is on the wrong side of some important issues (abortion, religious freedom, government overreach in various areas). The other candidate could be argued to have made progress in some areas, while grossly violating social justice in many others (racism, sexism, permanently separating children from their parents, etc.). I have seen a lot of vitriolic Facebook discussion about how to go about responding to this. Just like last time, lots of people I know firmly believe that you have to keep the democrats out of office no matter what, while others firmly believe that Trump isn't worthy of the office and must be kicked out, regardless of the cost in other areas. I don't want to wade into the mess of Facebook comments, but I do want to go on record for where I stand on it all. And then I have one final comment about voting in general.

As I said four years ago, Trump's moral failings make him unworthy of the office, and even if I agreed with him on every policy issue (which I don't), I could never vote for someone who is sexually abusive. Never someone who uses racist comments to attack his opponents. Never someone who tries to make national enemies of a religion to rally his voter base. Never someone who takes children from their parents and says it's to protect national security. Never, never Trump.

[Edit] I realized I hadn't said why his personal character matters in the decision to not vote for him. More on that in this post.

But what about Biden? Well if I lived in a swing state, I might be persuaded to hold my nose and vote for him. But I live in Washington State, where all of the electoral votes will go to Biden anyway. So I'm comfortable voting for someone else, someone who has no chance of winning. (I haven't decided who yet.) Hopefully this vote (and those of other voters like me) will send a message to the party system that not all conservative votes can be assumed based on just a few issues, or on the grounds of  "I'm not that other guy". The idea of a major third party might be a crazy dream, but it is where we should go, so I'll take a little step in that direction. Biden is terrible.

Now, about voting - I've also heard a lot of comments to the effect of "my vote doesn't count". Some people say it in frustration, and others say it to explain their intention to not vote. To that I ask, what do you expect your vote to do? Be the one that decides the election? If your vote is always the decisive one, you don't have a democracy or a republic. You have a monarchy. It's a fallacy to think that a vote that doesn't contribute to the win doesn't count. If everybody thought that way, nobody would vote. The whole point of voting is that opinions are expressed in aggregate. You either participate or you don't. I'll admit that I don't vote on every position that ever shows up on my ballot, but I feel like I have a moral obligation to participate when there's a moral issue on the ballot. And the presidency seems to always have moral issues attached to it. So I guess I'd say that even if the voting system makes your vote unlikely to sway the results of the election, if nothing else you can see it as taking a side. You are making it known that one person is standing up for your position. And personally I feel like I'm standing accountable for what I believe in.

And as a final note, if everybody who doesn't like Trump or Biden voted for a third party, that third party would win. Everybody needs to vote.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Legend of Korra

I just finished watching The Legend of Korra, and I feel like I have to weigh in, since lots of people hate it.

I don't hate it. Actually I thought was pretty cool, although (like in Avatar: The Last Airbender) the episodes that focused on the spirit world were a little wonky. I do see how some people are disappointed with how some of the old characters are treated, particularly the fact that a couple of them are portrayed as having been lousy parents. But if that's the only objection someone has, I think one can look past that and just treat this as a totally separate show, and leave TLA in its own canon. (That's what I've had to do with the new Star Wars and Star Trek movies, and Korra doesn't destroy the past nearly as much as those do.) The show had good characters and a compelling story, and it's nice that each season has a solid ending. (I think each season was at risk of being the last.)

I was a little confused about some of the events in the final battles and stuff. And by that I mean there are some plot holes. But maybe they can be explained away, and since they're toward the end, they don't exactly mess with the show too much. Speaking of the end, it is kind of abrupt. It wraps up the season, but it doesn't exactly tie the show together the way the ending of The Last Airbender did. But it would have been worse if the writers had tried for a four-season story arc and then had to leave it unresolved, so I can't complain about that.

So basically, while it wasn't as epic or endearing as the original, I enjoyed it.

< Spoilers below here >



Okay so the main thing I thought didn't make sense was at the end of the big battle. When they destroyed the power core in the exo suit, it blew up the suit (and damaged surrounding buildings). But when the cannon explodes, it blows a hole in the town. It's worse than that, because didn't they eject all of the ammo for the cannon? And when it was attached the suit, it could only fire for like two seconds before needing a reload. But at the end it fires a steady stream for like thirty seconds. Maybe the spirit vines in the area were giving extra power. And of course, it's not at all clear how Korra managed to absorb the energy, or why she even thought it was worth trying. I understand wanting to save someone from getting blown up, but why risk her life for the enemy warlord? And of course, if she could absorb that laser, why didn't she do it during the battle? I'm just telling myself that the spirits were interfering somehow.
(Although on that note, if I were her I'd be furious at the spirits for not helping. They didn't have to fight the war; all she needed them to do was reclaim the spirit vines so it would be a fair fight.)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Wishes

I've said before that time travel is always a bad plot point. Writers can use it for suspense, but as soon as you step back and analyze the logic of a story that uses time travel, you end up seeing major problems, all boiling down to the question of "Why didn't they use it to solve that?" And that's to say nothing about causality loops.

Well I've decided that using wishes are just as bad, if not worse. (And by "wish", I mean that a character gets to specify some nearly-unlimited action as a reward for something they did.) Wishes pretty much guarantee that the viewer/reader/player will come up with a better, obvious wish that the character could have used. And then it's just annoying. I recently finished a game that ended with a wish that made most things better, but had one very obvious and terrible side effect. Why didn't the character just say "except for this thing" at the end? And then there's Aladdin - I'm sure we can all think of more effective ways that Aladdin could have used his wishes. And why didn't Jasmine take a few wishes before Aladdin made his third? Wind Waker is another game that completely botches it.

To be fair, there might be a few exceptions. Wishes might be okay if they have very strict limits, or guaranteed side effects (like a malicious wish-giver who will look for loopholes). And I'm okay with a wish as a plot ender if the wish is just "fix everything", and everything does get fixed, like in A Link to the Past. (In general, I feel like there are some implied restrictions on Triforce wishes.)

 

That said…

 

The idea of wishes does raise an interesting question: if you were given the chance, what would you wish for?

 

Again, there have to be limits. If there aren't, your wish would have to be "maximize overall happiness for me and as many other good people as possible, for the greatest amount of time possible". Of course, if you're looking at the eternal perspective, God will make that happen anyway, so that would sort of be a wasted wish, but you could iterate on the exact wording. But to be interesting, the scenario has to have things scoped down. No asking for multiple wishes of course.

 

I think you'd want to disallow general commands, like "whatever will make me happy" - it has to be specified. Also it should have to be something that can take effect in an instant, and then be over. That would make the wisher think about long-term effects.

 

You'd probably also want to disallow the word "and", and maybe limit the number of words. Someone told me about a character in Dungeons and Dragons who was granted a wish. He presented a list of very specific things. The dungeon master (acting as the wish giver) didn't even read it, they just said "yep". Very effective in that context, but not a very good story element, so if you're designing the question, you'd want to disallow that.

 

One more limitation would be useful, I think: you might want to limit the scope of its effects. See, if you can create world peace, then morally you must do it, right? Like if you're Superman, then you'd feel guilty doing anything other than rushing around saving people. So if you want a character to make a more relatable decision, you sort of need to force them to have a certain amount of self-interest in the request. "No affecting the lives of others in ways that don't directly involve a benefit to you", or something like that.

 

So what would I wish for, given all of those limitations? My gut reaction would be to make me a Plasma Master. (That does have the risk of approaching the Superman problem, but I could set limitations that would reduce the scope of power.) If I had to scope it down even more, I might go for some localized mutant power, like not needing to sleep, or perfect health until the instant I would have died of old age. (But that would have the side effect of making you outlive your kids, which would be lame.) Flight is always a good option. Of course a billion dollars in an unhackable, untaxable bank account would be pretty life changing too, but that's boring. (Plus a well thought-out superpower could make you money - teleportation, for example.) You'd have to use a wish on something that no one could acquire in any other way.

 

But dude, whatever you wish for, don't make it stupid. Don't be like the time travelers.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Skyward

I had some time to kill on vacation so I downloaded Skyward by Brandon Sanderson and read it. I really like it.


I guess it's a "young adult" novel, but only in the sense that it's not as graphic in the violence department as Mistborn (also by Sanderson and also really interesting and well-written, but a little harder to recommend). It's about this girl who wants to become a starfighter pilot. That's cool on its face, and the setting and sci-fi mechanics are definitely original. It takes place on this planet were a group of humans have crashlanded and then lost their history due to an alien attack. The planet is protected by a shell of automated defense platforms, so the aliens that attack them have certain disadvantages too, so there has been sort of a stalemate, where the humans have managed to defend themselves, but they're slowly losing.

Sanderson is well-known for creative magic systems - magic in his books always follows specific rules, so it never feels like a hack. This book replaces magic with technology, but it's a similar thing - there are a few specific weapons and items that the humans have available, and it's interesting to see how the characters use them creatively. (The flight/shield/weapon mechanics are definitely a little clunkier than I'd want, versus Star Wars or The Plasma Master. But the limitations are unique and help drive the story.)

The characters are great too. Several of them are delightfully funny. And the starfighter battles are pretty vivid. And importantly, while there are few plot elements that feel like obvious foreshadowing, things don't turn out quite the way you'd expect. There's good suspense right up to the end.

So basically, go read it!

Here's my favorite passage:
"Well?" I asked Doomslug the Destroyer. "Think it will work?"
This is the first time the name "Doomslug" is used, so I was a little confused at first. Glorious.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Thunder Force AC


Back around the time I was introduced to Life Force for the NES, I was also exposed to Thunder Force III for the Genesis. I didn't actually play it, but I saw it enough to be intrigued by the power up system. You can get various weapon configurations which you can switch to at will, and when you get hit you only lose the current one. This is an interesting difference from Gradius and Life Force, where you power up and then stick with what you have, until you  make a mistake. (Also, in Thunder Force III you can change the speed of your ship on the screen at any time instead of having to power up to get to a decent speed like you do in Life Force.) When I made a game as my senior project in high school, I based the power up system on Thunder Force III.


But I was always a Nintendo person - I never owned a Sega console. And I didn't realize that this game was eventually released (with some changes) as Thunder Spirits on the SNES. So I didn't get to really play the game until this week, when the arcade port was released on the Switch. It's very satisfying to be able to switch from one configuration to another depending on the situation: strong forward lasers, vertical missiles that then scour the floor and ceiling, a rear-firing cannon - even when starting a new life on Arcade Mode. And weaker wave and homing shots. Sometimes the obstacles and enemies feel cheap, but overall the power-up system (and nice graphics) offset all that.


The music isn't quite as catchy as the stuff in Life Force or Gradius 3, but it's still pretty good.

The difficulty level is crazy as you'd expect, but there are various difficulty settings and a "Kid Mode" - which gives you extra continues (plus the ability to give yourself more, but that's cheating), plus you don't lose power ups when you use a life. That itself almost feels like cheating, but Super R-Type has Novice mode, which is pretty much the same thing, so I figure it's legit. After a few tries I beat the game on Kid Mode using three continues, and with later [with more practice] I finished it on Arcade Mode / Easy. My middle-school self would be so proud!