The democracy of discipleship and the aristocracy of the saints

It strikes me that one of the sobering dimensions of the gospel is the democracy of its demands as it seeks to build an aristocracy of saints. Certain standards and requirements are laid upon us all. They are uniform. We don’t have an indoor-outdoor set of ten commandments. We don’t have one set of commandments for bricklayers and another for college professors. There is a democracy about the demands of discipleship, which, interestingly enough, is aimed at producing an aristocracy of saints.

– Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Full talk available at the Interpreter

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Ether 14

Came across the following passage today in my reading:

Nevertheless, Shiz did not cease to pursue Coriantumr; for he had sworn to avenge himself upon Coriantumr of the blood of his brother, who had been slain, and the word of the Lord which came to Ether that Coriantumr should not fall by the sword.

And thus we see that the Lord did visit them in the fulness of his wrath, and their wickedness and abominations had prepared a way for their everlasting destruction.

(Ether 14:24-25)

Several things struck me about this passage that hadn’t before:

  1. Firstly, perhaps the most obvious one (and crucial to what follows) was that Shiz was motivated to kill Coriantumr not simply because Coriantumr had killed his brother, but also specifically because of the prophecy Ether had given to Coriantumr. For whatever reason, it appears that Shiz wanted to falsify the prophecy in the most expedient and bloodiest way possible.
  2. If we keep this in mind, the “and thus we see” that follows takes on more specific meaning. It’s possible to simply connect the following statement (“and thus we see that the Lord did visit them in the fulness of his wrath”) to the preceding accounts of the war and the devastation it inflicted. But the Lord didn’t directly do that. But if we connect it to the immediate preceding statement about Shiz’s desire, then it begins to read a bit differently. Shiz sought to falsify prophecy by killing Coriantumr, and in doing so perpetuated the conflict that brought such devastation upon the Jaredites.
  3. Thinking about this, I thought about the prophecy itself, contained in Ether 13:20-21:

    And in the second year the word of the Lord came to Ether, that he should go and prophesy unto Coriantumr that, if he would repent, and all his household, the Lord would give unto him his kingdom and spare the people—

    Otherwise they should be destroyed, and all his household save it were himself. And he should only live to see the fulfilling of the prophecies which had been spoken concerning another people receiving the land for their inheritance; and Coriantumr should receive a burial by them; and every soul should be destroyed save it were Coriantumr.

    The prophecy Shiz was apparently so animated by was not, in this case, a positive prophecy for Coriantumr. If he and his household would repent, the people would be spared. But they didn’t, and he didn’t (at least at this time). Thus the alternative, that instead the people would all be destroyed, except Coriantumr, who would be buried by another people. The prophecy is thus a warning of destruction. Shiz’s response, however, and the fact that his response helps cause that destruction, makes the prophecy not only a warning, but actually one of the things that provokes that destruction. The Lord’s warning to them also turns out to be an instrument in visiting his wrath upon them.

  4. This makes sense of the last part of Ether 14:25: “And thus we see that the Lord did visit them in the fulness of his wrath, and their wickedness and abominations had prepared a way for their everlasting destruction” (my emphasis). It is the violent response of Shiz and others to that prophecy that actually creates the conditions for its fulfilment. Had they not responded so, it would not have happened. Instead its Shiz’s very attempt to falsify the prophecy that helps bring it about.

Link: Transgenderism and the Social Construction of Diagnosis – Quillette

An interesting article on Quillette about a topic I’ve touched briefly on before (well, one link here and some theological considerations here), namely transgenderism, in this case about the significant increase of adolescents being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. As the article makes clear, Western society’s increasing willingness to perform severe and irreversible medical interventions on said adolescents may have the consequence of sterilizing thousands of people who may feel very differently in adulthood. Critiquing this state of affairs, however, is becoming increasingly difficult as academic journals hew to a new orthodoxy on such issues. The article also had a number of interesting points on mental illness generally (including the interplay of biology and social factors):

Last week saw another attempt to silence debate and research whose findings diverge from an accepted orthodoxy. In the Advocate, transgender activist Brynn Tannehill decried a 2017 abstract that appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health, stating that the research into rapid onset gender dysphoria or ROGD was “biased junk science.” The research that Tannehill so strongly objected to was undertaken by Lisa Littman, MD, MPH. Littman surveyed parents about their teen and young adult children who became gender dysphoric and transgender-identified in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all the friends in a pre-existing peer group became transgender-identified in a similar time frame, an increase in social media use, or both. The findings of the research support the plausibility of social influences contributing to the development of gender dysphoria. The full research paper has not yet been published. Tannehill subsequently posted the article to the Facebook page of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). A discussion ensued in which some commentators asked WPATH leadership to request that the journal …

Source: Transgenderism and the Social Construction of Diagnosis – Quillette

The Atlantean Sword

Music has never been a big part of my life. That may seem very weird to most people, but it’s true. I never owned any music CDs, and the total cumulative time I spent listening to music as a teenager may be best represented by the Arabic numeral that resembles a circle (namely 0). In later years I’ve tried to experiment a little, and perhaps one of the things that has best helped me to understand and appreciate the role of music have been film soundtracks. Coming across the Alan Smithee cut of Dune helped immensely, demonstrating that it was no use having extra scenes if the mood of the movie was mutilated by a mistimed and mangled soundtrack.

Which takes me onto today’s scene. It may not be a popular opinion, but I genuinely believe Conan the Barbarian is a work of art, something that stands far above the standard Sword and Sorcery film of the 80s (I enjoy many of those too, but they are guilty pleasures). That’s not to say it doesn’t have have silly and schlocky stuff in it, as well as several scenes that are perhaps best skipped over. But I do not think the film as a whole has received the critical reaction it has deserved. Its cinematography is amazing (and from what I understand actually rediscovered some lost camera techniques), the battle scenes are clear and exciting, and there are a number of good performances (including – at least some of the time – from Arnold himself).

But perhaps one of the reasons it has been so under-appreciated (but one of the reasons I love it) is that its approach to story telling is so different from that of most films made in the West. There’s very little dialogue. Rather the burden of the story telling falls on the occasional monologue by the really good actors (Max von Sydow, James Earl Jones and so on), and upon the soundtrack itself. Basil Poledouris created for this film what I think is the greatest film soundtrack of all time, not least because how well integrated it is to the story telling in the film itself.

But since it is better to show rather than tell (or in this case, show and tell), here’s one particular scene that stands out, coming shortly after Conan has been freed by his slave master:

There’s so much I could say about this scene. It starts off with some silly patented Arnie sounds as he falls down the hole, which I’m sure connoisseurs of “eeaaarrrggghhh” really appreciate. After that however, as Conan finds himself in this tomb of the ancient world, the scene becomes achingly beautiful. The ability of this scene to evoke such a particular atmosphere – one filled with awe and mystery – dwarfs what I’ve seen in any other comparable fantasy film. It’s common for youtube comments to make statements like “they don’t make films like this any more”, but the truth is that few people made any films like this at all. And underpinning the scene, creating the atmosphere and telling the story is Poledouris’ soundtrack, for only one word is actually spoken in the entire (“Crom!”).

It’s such a wonderfully evocative piece. The low notes seem to me as if they could be the actual voices of the dead kings, speaking low out of the dust. There is an air of long-forgotten, long-dead power and grandeur. Then Conan finds the sword, which seems fitting, considering the role of swords both in mythology generally, and especially the role of steel as a motif throughout this film.  As Conan attempts to uncover the sword, the skeleton of the ancient monarch moves. In a more generic Sword and Sorcery flick (indeed, possibly in the original short stories), the skeleton would attack. But here it does not: it slumps over, its helm falling to the ground, its head bowed. The movement is ambiguous: it could simply be coincidence, the result of disturbing the body. And yet at the same time it appears as if the ancient king is paying respect to Conan, passing on the sword to its new inheritor. The soundtrack shifts, almost to one of mourning and of lost glories. It is at this point Arnold says his one line, but “Crom!” here is not simply an exclamation. Conan is being reminded of what his father taught him before his village got wiped out: of Crom, deep in the earth, of the riddle of steel and how men learned its secret.

Up to this point, Conan has still been a slave. While he had been freed by his former master, he did not actually want to go, and had to be driven away. While instructed in many arts, his will has been forgotten, and so it is fitting that to this point his still has his shackles on him, for he still wears slavery’s shackles on his mind. But with this sequence, claiming the sword also seems to be a reclamation of his identity and will. “What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” asks the villain, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) later in the film, and here the sword appears to be a symbol of strength of will and character that Conan now reclaims. As the music moves to a triumphant note, it is fitting that as Conan now emerges from the tomb he uses the sword to strike the remaining shackles from his feet, a slave no longer. All this, in a sequence that has but one spoken word. One may almost not notice how the breaking of the shackles is perfectly choreographed with the soundtrack.

And rather hilariously, we see the wolves move to attack, Conan give a determined look… and then in the next scene (not shown above), we see him wearing wolf-skins… I honestly love this film.

Edit: And for a critical take that does engage with the film as more than it is often caricatured as, I’ve come across this article here: A Critical Appreciation of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian by David C. Smith

Slippery Words

A phenomenon that I have been increasingly struck by is the role that different and shifting definitions can play in debates and arguments. I’m not talking here about mere loose or imprecise language (such as the use of cowardly described by Theodore Dalrymple here; I came across his similarly titled article after the title for this post leapt into my mind). Nor am I talking simply about how the same word can carry different meanings (that’s simply linguistic fact). Rather what I am describing is the situations in which both parties may be arguing over something, but be using different definitions for the same term, even without realising it. More recently, I have become increasingly aware of how participants involved in certain debates appear to be seeking to win an argument by default by redefining the very term from a more common definition.

I’ve written before about several theological examples amongst arguments in LDS circles, namely the terms inspiration and spiritual. But similar examples appear to about in many of the political and cultural arguments at large in society today. Terms such as fairness, justice, equality, consent, racism, privilege and a host of others have been increasingly subject to different and shifting definitions. This is not entirely new (the definition of justice, for example, has been argued over for millennia), but it seems increasingly the case that some of the loudest voices in particular controversies are insisting upon their own private definitions of key terms.

While some cases may simply be the result of different definitions, others appears to be cases where people are seeking to change or even manipulate definitions to win arguments by default. The connection between the thoughts we can have and the language we possess is a strong one, and Orwell and others have warned how changes in language may be used to control political thought. Furthermore, as I observed about the public endorsement of untruths, such manipulation of language can serve to erode the sense of right and promote acts of wrong. Witness, for example, the increasing trend to define the expression of particular ideas as violence. Word are powerful (or this subject would be hardly worth worrying about), but they are not physical force. The claim that they are, however, encourages the idea that actual violence may be used to suppress or retaliate against objectionable statements, and rationalises increasing political violence on the left and on the right.

At the very least, there is often the need to clarify definitions in any such discussion. If we are conversing on the basis of different definitions, then in practice we really have a different language. Like the inhabitants of Babel, our language will be confounded and so will we, and any discussion will profit little.

Furthermore, on some occasions, we must also notice and if necessary refuse to concede to attempts to manipulate or win an argument in advance by adopting a new or alternate definition. Such definitions are often, consciously or unconsciously, loaded dice, designed to win the argument in advance. Accepting them often concedes the argument, not because we are convinced it is right on its merits, but because we’d already accepted their presuppositions and frame of reference without realising it. Such alternate definitions can also limit thought and obscure actual concepts at stake by eliminating the very vocabulary used to describe competing ideas (for example, if the “spiritual” is defined down as simply an emotional event, what term is left to describe the literally spiritual). Accepting such redefinition can thus suppress communication, rather than promote it. Confusion over such terms can also be deceptive, seeking to claim approval for new concepts by cloaking them under more generally accepted ideas. And as described above, it can be used to justify violence and other such acts.

If we are to avoid being manipulated, or to be the manipulator, or simply to avoid confusion with others, then we need to be clear in our own language. This includes, where necessary, explaining how we understand any particular terms at stake and why we understand them that way. We need to allow others to explain their thoughts too. Perhaps we are also best served by avoiding jargon where possible. Language should clarify, not be used as a battering ram against our opponents.

I am reminded of Nephi’s words in 2 Nephi 31:3:

For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.

While there are occasions where less plainness may be required, clarity of communication is not just useful to man but is a divine ideal. If we are seeking to become more like him, then seeking to be likewise clear in our own communications seems to be something to strive for. Furthermore, I can’t help but feel that if we are to avoid being misled, or confounded, or caught up in some spiral of political violence or oppression, then we have a responsibility to keep language as something that illuminates rather than let it be used to blind and bind.

Link: “The Book of Mormon Witnesses and Their Challenge to Secularism”

An excellent article by Daniel Peterson has appeared on The Interpreter, “The Book of Mormon Witnesses and Their Challenge to Secularism”, addressing secularism, theism, the meaning of life, and importance (and strength) of the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses. I heartily recommend reading it.

His inmost consciousness

But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.
William James, The varieties of religious experience

“A New witness for Christ”

In the eighty-fourth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord decreed that the whole Church was under condemnation, even all the children of Zion, because of the way they treated the Book of Mormon. “And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent,” said the Lord, “and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon.” (D&C 84:57).

Zion cannot fully arise and put on her beautiful garments if she is under this condemnation.

 

Second, for whom was the Book of Mormon meant? Moroni, the book’s last writer, speaking to us said, “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.” (Morm. 8:35). God inspired Mormon, its chief compiler, to put into the book what we would need in our day.

 

Fourth, what is the major purpose of the Book of Mormon? To bring men to Christ and to be reconciled to him, and then to join his churchin that order.

We do not have to prove the Book of Mormon is true. The book is its own proof. All we need to do is read it and declare it! The Book of Mormon is not on trial—the people of the world, including the members of the Church, are on trial as to what they will do with this second witness for Christ.

Ezra Taft Benson, “A New Witness for Christ”, 154th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 1984

3 Nephi 1

star-jesus-birth-154378-tablet

Told you.

So as I mentioned, by pure happenstance I happen to have read the account of the signs of Christ’s birth on Christmas day itself. Since this is Christmas, I’ll keep it brief, but two points of observation from today’s reading:

  1. Christ is often described in scripture – especially in the gospel of John – as both “light” and “life”. Here, this is very literal: Christ’s birth is accompanied by literal light, so that there is a night with no darkness. Likewise, the appearance of the sign literally saves the lives of the believers, who were otherwise to be put to death (v. 9). Christ is also both our light and salvation for our lives, in many different senses: he shows us the way, illuminates our souls, is the source of the grace that will exalt us, and will redeem us from both physical and spiritual death..
  2. God seems to have this habit of letting timing be quite short. The passage doesn’t actually say when the assigned date for killing all the believers was in relation to when the sign appeared, but it was undoubtedly pressing in view of Nephi’s praying all day for those “who were about to be destroyed” (vv. 11-12). And it turned out that that night was the very time for the sign to appear. Likewise, the Israelites were trapped against the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies were upon them before the Lord saved them. The Lord will often test our faith, but redeem us at the very last moment, and I guess what we must do is simply hold on in faith. The example of the believers here is instructive: while they worried “lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass”, “they did watch steadfastly” (vv. 7-8). While they were worried, they did not let those worries stop them from holding on and hoping for the sign. And sure enough, in the Lord’s timing, that hope was justified and all things fulfilled “according to the words of the prophets” (v. 20). Likewise we may worry about the fulfilment of God’s promises to us, and wonder how long we must wait or whether such things will ever happen. Such worries are natural, but I guess the lesson is that we must not let our worries stop us from “watch[ing] steadfastly”, and that – in the Lord’s timing – he will fulfil his promises to us.

Helaman 16

Wherein Samuel the Lamanite’s account concludes… perhaps it’s best to get this out of the way first:

samuel the lamanite and stormtroopers

Anyhoo, there are several interconnected things that caught my eye while reading this passage today. Firstly, a verse that has caught my eye before:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

(Helaman 16:14)

Angels appearing declaring “glad tidings of great joy”, announcing the coming birth of Christ, and appearing to “wise men” seems obviously connected to the accounts in the biblical gospels. This is one of the passages which fuelled my rather speculative post about possible identities for some of the wise men that I wrote several years ago. However, reading it today caused me to reflect on what the existence of such wise men in this account can mean for us. It’s interesting to compare to the attitude of the majority of the people:

Nevertheless, the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, both of the Nephites and also of the Lamanites, and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom, saying:
Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken.
And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying:
That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, as it has been spoken, why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?
Yea, why will he not show himself in this land as well as in the land of Jerusalem?
But behold, we know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down unto us by our fathers, to cause us that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass, but not among us, but in a land which is far distant, a land which we know not; therefore they can keep us in ignorance, for we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true.
And they will, by the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one, work some great mystery which we cannot understand, which will keep us down to be servants to their words, and also servants unto them, for we depend upon them to teach us the word; and thus will they keep us in ignorance if we will yield ourselves unto them, all the days of our lives.

(Helaman 16:15–21)

It’s interesting here that the basis of their concerns expressed here is truly baseless, for (SPOILERS!) Christ will appear to the people here after his resurrection. Firstly, its useful to know that provoking such “foolish and vain” worries is a Satanic strategy, that he too will aim to disturb us by getting us to worry about things we actually don’t need to worry about. Secondly, the people here use this worry to rationalize away belief and explain away “the signs and wonders” (v. 23) that they witnessed. It’s interesting to compare this with the wise men mentioned here (as well as the biblical wise men, who perhaps overlap), who – rather than seeking to rationalize away seeing God’s hand – could see God acting even in events that many people couldn’t. Millions must have seen the star, or whatever astronomical phenomenon it was, that accompanied the Saviour’s birth. But only a few were in a position to see what it really meant. Perhaps, then, one important thing we can learn from this is that we can emulate the example of such wise men, so that rather than rationalizing away the experiences we do have, we too can be blessed to see God’s hand in things others might dismiss as mundane.