Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: Offenders for a Word by Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks

The subtitle for this book is How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints, and that about sums up the book right there. This book is not for the faint of heart as it is packed full of scholarly references, page numbers, author lists, historical references, philosophical and theological terms and esoteric arguments. The book Offenders for a Word is essentially a collection of responses and research that the two authors collected over many years in response to numerous and dishonest attacks from anti-Mormons. They make no attempt to sugar coat their topic and respond to all the accusations with blunt force.

Even though there are a large number of topics covered, many of them are very similar and thus there does appear to be some repetition, but that is the nature of the topic they are dealing with. I would not recommend this book so someone who is struggling with their testimony (unless they are a serious scholar and like reading dense books), but it is a very good book to have as reference for someone who is helping people who are struggling with their testimonies due to an over exposure of anti-Mormon literature. The book can be used as a reference to draw ideas from and to get the facts straight and to understand and frame the arguments so that a more honest and enlightening discussion can be had.

Because this is a book written in response to a set of polarizing and (let's face it) dishonest anti-Mormon works it does have the tendency to draw out that polarization. This means that this WOULD NOT BE A GOOD BOOK TO GIVE TO MISSIONARIES, they have a different work to do and should not be arguing polarizing topics. Nor would this be a good book to give to someone who is only slightly interested in the Church, and would definitely not be a good book to give to someone who is already antagonistic towards the Church. But this book can be used as a reference to frame a discussion, but that discussion should be done in such a way as to minimize the polarization.

The bulk of the book is a section that deals with the question, "Are Mormons Christian?" The general thrust of the response looks at all the reasons why Mormons are accused of not being Christians and then goes through Christian history and finds examples of Christians who believed the exact same thing or at least something similar but were not (and still aren't) accused of being non-Christians. To which the authors argue, "If they can be called Christian, then why can't we?"

For a large portion of the first section of the book the authors go through 22 specific claims made by anti-Mormon authors about why Mormons are not Christians and give detailed, referenced (with extensive footnotes) responses to each claim. It was a bit of a hassle switching between the text and the very extensive footnotes, where a lot of the interesting stuff was.

All the claims that the authors respond to can be broken down into two categories, those that are demonstrably false (or that rely on a very false and skewed interpretation of what happened), and those that come down to nothing more than a difference of opinion. An example of the former would be, "Mormonism is non-Christian because, in the nineteenth century, it practiced the hideous doctrine of blood atonement--killing heretics, adulterers, and the like." The response to that one was simple and short. An example of the latter would be, "Christianity teaches creation ex nihilo. Mormonism does not. Therefore, Mormonism is not Christian." That one took a little longer to explain.

One thing that I found interesting about the book was that a large number of the things that are used to exclude Mormons from Christianity can also apply to Catholics (which the authors note, by pointing out that many of the "Christian" ministries that write the anti-Mormon literature also accuse Catholicism of being a non-Christian cult. Interesting.). Another thing pointed out by the authors is that if one were to take the criteria used by the anti-Mormons in determining who could or could not be Christian then those criteria would end up excluding just about the entire population of Christians in the world from being Christian. In some cases the restrictions are so severe that it would restrict Christianity to one specific pastor and his church. The authors argue that if a definition of Christianity goes so far that in excludes a majority of Christians in the world, or even nearly all Christians in the world (and in the extreme case exclude Christ himself) then perhaps that definition of Christian is not an honest definition and should not be used in determining who is or is not Christian.

Overall the book was informative, if a little dense (and repetitive) but good. I would use it as a reference if I were helping someone who had been overexposed to anti-Mormon literature and was at a loss with how to respond.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: Muhammad, Prophet of God by Daniel C. Peterson

I have been wanting for a while to read something that would give a good basic introduction to either Islam or the history of its founding so that I could better understand the religion. So when I recently came across this book I jumped at the chance to read it.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and his book Muhammad, Prophet of God came highly recommended and I was not disappointed. The book is basically short biography written for a general (American) audience, with perhaps a slight bent towards an LDS audience, though that would not be an obvious fact. It is obvious that Dr. Peterson wanted to give a fair telling of the prophet's life. This is perhaps due to the fact that he spends so much of his time writing and defending the prophet Joseph Smith that he felt that the founding prophet of Islam should also get a telling of his story. In this respect Dr. Peterson is successful. The book comes across as honest and true to a believer's perspective. There is no obvious attempt to question or discuss theological differences but rather an attempt to explain them in such a way that his intended audience would understand the origins of Islam.

The book reads almost like a novel so if the reader is not knowledgeable about the history and geography of Arabia they can still follow and understand what is happening. There is sufficient background information given that the prophet's life can be put into context, though the reader is not inundated with more facts and information than can be handled. This is not perhaps a book for an intense study of Muhammad or of Islam, but it is a good place to start.

Dr. Peterson does cover some of the things that would be considered controversial about Islam and Muhammad specifically, but while he notes them and recognizes (mostly in footnotes) the differing opinions among scholars he does not try to debate theology or history. As I noted, the book is written so that a believer would find it acceptable (though you can always find that one who doesn't) so it easily blends stories of faith and miraculous events with more "established" and "recorded" events in a way that the narrative is not interrupted with a discussion of an explanation for these supernatural events. It is presented merely as is without trying to beat some theological drum. This does not mean that Dr. Peterson ignores or buries what some would claim to be the more controversial aspects of Muhammad's life, but seamlessly weaves them into the narrative.

If the reader is looking for a book that is heavily bent one way or the other (pro- or con-) this is not it. If the reader is looking for an easily accessible introduction to the life of Muhammad that presents matters of faith in an honest way then this is it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Stories from My Mission: My Companion Gets a Black Eye

Almost a year into my mission I was in my second area of my mission in the city of Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña (or Saenz Peña for short). My companion, Elder Palazuelos, was the District Leader, which meant that he was in charge of 3 companionship (6 missionaries). As the district leader he would also be in charge of interviewing people who wanted to get baptized. This meant that every time another companionship had someone that wanted to get baptized we would have to travel to their area so that he could do the interview.

One of the companionships in our district was located in the city of Las Breñas which was about 90 km southwest of Saenz Peña. There was a bus that ran between Saenz Peña and Las Breñas but it ran very infrequently. When no bus was running it was possible to hire a remís (kind of like a taxi, but with private cars and no government regulation) to take us from Saenz Peña to Las Breñas and back.

After one particular trip to Las Breñas where we stayed the night with the missionaries stationed there, we hired a remís to take us back to Saenz Peña. I was riding shotgun with my companion, Elder Palazuelos, in the backseat. It was very early in the morning and Elder Palazuelos was still half asleep. I had rolled my window down about two or three inches in order to get some air. We were traveling along at a good clip of 60-70 km/hr. As we were driving along I suddenly heard a cry from the backseat when Elder Palazuelos gave a very loud, "OUCH!". I turned to find out what had happened and found him rubbing his face just below his right eye.

He said that something very hard had just hit him in the face. He looked down and found a large, black scarab beetle sitting in his lap. Apparently the beetle had been flying over the road when we drove by and had been sucked in through the window. The hard shell of the beetle collided with Elder Palazuelos's face at about 70 km/hr (45 mph). The driver and I had a brief chuckle and then asked if he was OK. He grunted something and threw the beetle out the window.

By the time we got back to Saenz Peña Elder Palazuelos had developed a nice black eye on his right side. He was incredibly embarrassed and said that if anyone asked he would say that I hit him, just so he would not have to explain how a common beetle had given him a black eye. I pointed out that if he told people that I had hit him no one would believe him (and no one did) and in the end he had to explain to all the members who asked how he had gotten a black eye from a beetle. Everyone enjoyed a good laugh at his expense.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stories from My Mission: I Defend Renzo Sanchez

This is part of a series of posts about stories from my mission in Argentina. This story deals more with church policy than anything else. The actual story starts 7 paragraphs down if you don't care for the church policy stuff.

A few months into my mission I was working in a city named Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña (or Sáenz Peña for short). There were three companionships (we refer to a missionary and his companion as a companionship) in the city, one for each one of the three branches (local congregations) in the city. I worked in a neighborhood of the city known as Barrio Obrero (it was actually several different neighborhoods together but Obrero was the largest), which was on the east side of the city. The particular branch where I was has a problem with local leadership. There were very few people who were willing to work in a leadership position and the few who did felt overworked or had many other commitments that prevented them from helping out too much. While the basic functioning of the local congregation was fine there were other administrative things that needed attention and the local congregational leaders could not do them.

In places in the world where the church is not as established the local congregations are organized into branches, and several branches together form a district. Each branch is led by a branch president (and two counselors if possible) and the district is led by a district president and two counselors. The district, which was headquartered in Sáenz Peña had seven (or eight, I forget) branches, of which three were in the city of Sáenz Peña and the others were in other towns in the area. One of the problems facing local leaders is that they could not find many men to work in the Priesthood. All church positions are filled by what is called a lay ministry, meaning no one is paid and training is on the job. When a man has been a member of the church for a while he is allowed to be ordained to the Priesthood, or when he gets old enough he can be ordained to the priesthood. This allows him to act as branch president, a counselor or in some other position. The problem was there were too few men who where willing and able to fulfill these responsibilities.

This was compounded by the fact that there were some men who had previously been ordained to the Priesthood, but were not living according to the standards required to fill a leadership position. There were some men who said they were willing, and even came to church quite often but they were not keeping the commandments, as we say in the church, which means they were doing things that disqualified them from being able to hold or exercise the priesthood. One of the biggest problems was people living jutado, (literally "together") which meant that the Priesthood holder was living with a woman to whom he was not married. In Argentina this was a remarkably common practice for people to forego getting married and just move in together. These were people who may have been living with the same woman for several years, and even could have had several kids with her, yet they never legally got married (Argentina does have a common law marriage that can be resorted to in certain cases, but a great number of people just never take the time to go to registrar's office and fill out the forms).

The problem was that this practice was against the rules of the church. For anyone to hold the Priesthood and to fill a leadership position they could not be "breaking the commandments" which means they could not be living with someone to whom they were not married. In some cases there were complications involving a previous marriage and a messy divorce, but in many cases it simply was that they never bothered to take the time to go to the local registrar's office and fill out the forms. And if they weren't willing to put forth the effort to do something like that, and acknowledge, publicly and legally, that the woman they were living with and have had 3 or 4 or 6 kids with is their wife, then we (missionaries and local leaders) were concerned that they would not be responsible enough to fill a leadership position. But the only problem was that we were short on leaders, so we kind of needed them to get their acts together and make things right.

So that is where the missionaries came in. Part of what we did was to try to work with some of these men, who had previously held leadership positions, but were currently disqualified because of their lack of marital status, but their non-lack of domestic arrangements. When I got to the city the local leaders were just finishing up a concerted effort to bring these men back into worthiness (some of whom had also been missionaries many years ago). While there had been some success, there were others who did not take the admonition seriously and continued to live with someone who was not their wife. All of these men they had been members for years, had previously held a Priesthood office, and in that sense, they should have known better, and in most cases they actively acknowledged that they were doing something that is not allowed by church covenants and rules. That is to say, they had previously covenanted (made a religious promise) to not do the very thing they were doing.

So when I got there the local leaders had been trying for over a year to get these men back into accordance with the rules of the church but they had done little or nothing to fix their personal situations. So after a while the district president, his counselors and the district counsel decided to excommunicate all the men who had previously been ordained to the priesthood, but were now living in such a way that their worthiness was in question. I was informed of the decision by the second counselor in the district presidency, who happened to live in the branch where I worked, that they would meet soon to discuss removing the membership of the men who did nothing to live up to the standards set by the church. Special considerations would be taken in each case, and no decision would be taken lightly but all of them had been well informed of what was expected of them as members of the church and also as those who had been ordained to the Priesthood. So they decided that it was time to enforce the law of the church and something must be done.

This is about when I met Renzo Sanchez. He had been a member of the church for several years, had been ordained to the Priesthood when he was a teenager (he was only ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, which is an introductory priesthood), but somewhere along the line he had stopped coming to church. In the years after he had stopped coming to church he met a girl, fell in love and they moved in together into a modest house. When I met him he was in his early twenties, and had two children, but legally they were not married. Through previous efforts the missionaries and local leaders had contacted him and encouraged him to come back to church. He was very receptive and made the commitment to come back to church since he enjoyed it and still had a testimony that it was true. The missionaries taught his "wife" and she too received the message and wanted to be baptized (I think she really encouraged him to go back to church since she had a more enthusiastic testimony than he did). The only problem was that they were not married so she could not be baptized. The other problem was that she had been born in another city and all her personal records were in that city, and they needed the records so that they could get married. So they were kind of stuck.

I talked to the second counselor in the district presidency about their case, and his impression was that if they had wanted to do something about it they already would have, so it wasn't really a problem of logistics. It was in his opinion more a problem of desire, which was the problem with so many other men we were dealing with. But having dealt with a few of the other cases I could tell a distinct difference in the level of desire between Renzo and the other men in his situation. So I actively lobbied that no action would be taken on Renzo. The second counselor responded with incredulity, but as they had other cases to deal with that were perhaps more serious he agreed to put Renzo further down on the list.

When Renzo's case came up again a few weeks later I took a moment in a District Conference to speak to the District President directly and made the case for Renzo. He said he was not fully aware of the situation and thanked me for informing him. He agreed to hold off on any decision, but stated that they needed to keep some order in the Church because that was the nature of problem that they were dealing with. I agreed (because I had to deal with the problem myself as a missionary), but insisted that Renzo was working on it. I made sure to let Renzo and his wife know the situation and they added some urgency to their efforts.

About a week before I left the area I reminded them that I would probably be leaving and my companion might not lobby as forcefully as I had to keep him from being excommunicated. They told me that a relative had recently traveled to the city where the wife's records were kept and was able to secure them, which meant that they could soon be married. I got transferred out of the area before that happened, but almost a year later I got transferred back into Chaco and at a mission conference I asked around to find the missionaries currently stationed in Barrio Obrero. When I found them I asked about Renzo and his wife and found out that they had indeed gotten married and that his wife had gotten baptized. He had since received the Melchizedek Priesthood and was currently serving as a counselor in the branch presidency (the missionaries also had a moment of, "Wait, you're Elder Tanner?!? That was you? Renzo always mentions you."). After all the work that I had done I was happy that it had worked out.

Stories from My Mission: I Get to Know the Local Crime Boss

This story comes from my last area of my mission, in the city of Barranqueras in the province of Chaco. Barranqueras is a suburb of Resistencia, the capital city of Chaco. It is also a port city on the Río Paraná, and is the main port for all of Chaco. As a port city it is sort of a hub for all things illegal, including drugs.

Close to the port in Barranqueras, behind the local soda pop bottling plant, is a barrio (neighborhood), or a villa (slum), where the very poor people lived. The neighborhood had very little access to clean water, electricity and absolutely no telephone. Whenever people we knew spoke about this villa they would always remind us that we should not go there because it was too dangerous. Because I was new to the area I was not yet familiar with the names of all the barrios in the city. Thus whenever we were warned about this particular barrio I assumed that my companion knew which area they were talking about and was avoiding it. (It turns out that we were avoiding it, except for the few times that we went in to visit one particular family that lived there. For those brief visits we would enter the villa from the backside by way of the levee that ran along one side, but that is a different story.)

After my first companion left the area (typically we change companions every six weeks, though sometimes we go for 12 weeks together) and I became the "knowledgeable" companion I started to branch out into barrios that we had not worked in in my first six weeks in the area. It was a sizable area and there were many barrios that we just did not have time to work in in my first six weeks in the area. In one of these forays I unknowingly led us into the villa that we had been warned never to enter due to the danger of being robbed, beat up and/or killed. After passing by the vagos (a Spanish word that can alternately mean street urchin, or in some areas a general thug or "gangbanger"), I was a bit surprised to find an almost normal neighborhood with children playing in the street and house wives doing the laundry. Except for the fact that the neighborhood was underdeveloped (i.e. no street lights, one water facet for the entire street, most houses were mud or mud brick with mud mortar and the street was unpaved), it seemed like an OK place. We talked to a few people and at one house they said that "the man of the house was not there but that he would like to talk to us". We agreed to come back another day.

It was about this time that someone (I don't remember the particulars) gave us a reference to talk to a lady in a part of town that more well off. We went and found her and spoke briefly with her. She told us that the reason why she asked to see us was to give us the name and address of her brother who wanted to talk to us. Apparently her brother had previously talked to the missionaries about two years previously and wanted to talk to us again. We noted the directions (no address, just directions) and promised to visit. Using the directions and a map we figured out that the brother lived on the very street we had been on a few days previously. So when we had time we set out to find him and talk to him. It turned out that the person we were looking for was the same "man of the house" that had wanted to talk to us the other day. This time we found him and talked to him.

He told about how he had previously spoken to the missionaries and had even gone to church, but that was when he lived in another barrio and things were more complicated then which prevented him from attending more than once. But he explained to us that things were different now and some other things with his life would be resolved as soon as he talked to his friend who was a judge. As soon as he mentioned that it was like a warning bell went off in my head. The police and judiciary in Argentina tend to be very corrupt and when people talk about "my friend the judge" that usually involves some corruption.

Our new "friend" began to explain to us that he was very concerned about his young children and how he wanted them to have some type of religion that would keep them off the street (and that automatically ruled out the Catholic Church, he said). He was looking for a good family environment for his children where they could learn to be good people, and he decided that our church was the best option. That was all we learned that day, but over the next few weeks we met with him and his story filled itself out.

So in the city of Barranqueras there were a few sketchy neighborhood. There was one in particular that was quite bad, and had all the worst stories associated with it. But as I found out after talking to people, that barrio had been cleaned up by the police and while it was still bad it was not nearly as bad as it was. The clean up efforts occurred roughly a year and a half before I got to the area. At some point someone mentioned that all the people that used to live in the "worst part of town" had now moved to this other barrio that we were now visiting (which explained why people were so scared of it now). In other words, the major crime and drug ring of the city had just changed barrios. The clean up efforts by the police of the first barrio coincided with our new friend's sudden move to the new barrio. And as it turned out his sudden desire to move was due to the fact that he ran the drug and crime organization in the old barrio.

This realization also explained why we were allowed to enter the barrio without trouble from the vagos at the entrance. They all knew that we were friends with "el jefe" so they didn't touch us. But he was tired of the that life and wanted to get out, and now that he had three small children to take care of (and the fact that the police were after him) he wanted to turn a new leaf and start a respectable life. It was just so difficult to get out of that life. We worked with him as much as we could, but there was only so much we could do.

I never found out how the story ended since I had to go home before anything happened with him. It was just such an amazing experience to get to know someone like that and to see how much a life like that limited him, and his family, in what they could do. Even though he was the "rich" man in the barrio, they couldn't even afford a single light bulb. They only had a TV where they could turn it to a channel to have it display a blank blue screen, and that was their only light in the night time. The city could not (would not) run electricity or water to the neighborhood since no one paid any bills, and even if they did someone would most likely steal the wires and pipes to sell for scrap. So the trade off for being in charge of thousands and millions of dollars worth of drugs was that he was living in a mud brick hut with one electrical outlet that they had jerry-rigged so they could have the blue light of the TV screen at night. Even though he was a very nice and amiable person who sincerely wanted to change and have a better life for his family, he was trapped where he was by who he was.