Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stories from My Mission: The Argumentative Missionary

A while ago I posted a story about a preacher from the Assembly of God who was rather argumentative and confrontational. This story is from the opposite side, where a missionary was the one who was argumentative and confrontational, with a similar negative effect on the person being argued with. I'll spoil the ending now and say that it is never a good thing to be argumentative and confrontational when you are supposedly a representative of God.

Coincidentally this happened in the same area where I had my confrontation with the preacher. The missionary I was with was not my companion, we were on what is called splits or exchanges where another missionary companionship comes to our area and we split up and go with an Elder who is not our companion to work in our area for a day or an afternoon.

Because I was the one who knew the area I was in charge of determining where to go. After leaving our house (we had a whole house with a yard! but we never cut the grass in back so it grew to be about 8 feet high), we tried to visit a few people that my normal companion and I had talked to previously, but no one was home. As we were walking down the street we passed the house of a lady who had talked to the missionaries previously but most of that contact happened before I came to the area and I had only visited with her once, though I had talked to her a few times but only briefly. I knew that she might be home and I thought that perhaps she would have time to talk to us.

I explained this to the missionary I was with, who had been in the mission for about a year longer than I had, and thus had more experience with teaching and also with speaking Spanish. He agreed that we could try and talk to her so we stopped and clapped at her house. She was home and she was willing to let us in to talk to her for a little while. After sitting down, exchanging some pleasantries, and the other Elder introduced himself and we then moved into what should have been the more religious portion of our visit. The other Elder asked her a few questions about her previous interaction with the missionaries and how much she had read of the Book of Mormon.

After a few questions the other Elder asked her why she had not progressed more and read more of the Book of Mormon. She answered with a simple response that indicated that she had her doubts about the veracity of what we were teaching. Her response was something along the lines of "Well the Bible says such and such, so I don't see how what you are teaching can be true." It was a response that now with many more years of experience I would know how to respond, but at the time I was a little unsure of how to respond and since the other Elder was leading the conversation I just left it up to him to address her doubts. That was a very bad thing to do. Looking back I now know better how to respond to doubts like that, and I would learn through the course of my mission what is needed to overcome doubts like that. A moment like that is a perfect time for tenderness and understanding with a good dose of knowledge and humility. What she got was just the opposite.

When she expressed her doubt to us the other Elder looked at me with a slight smile and a look that said, "I can't believe she just used such a stupid argument on us!" He then flipped open his Bible to a relevant verse and read it to her and explained in a somewhat condescending way why she was wrong. She countered with another argument from the Bible to which the other Elder again whipped out another verse to "thump" her with. At this point he was no longer interested in conversing with her, he merely wanted to Bible-bash with her. This continued for a while until she started getting nervous and stopped arguing back at the other Elder.

During the exchange I just sat there unsure of what to do. When it was over and the other Elder had "won" we gave a half hearted goodbye and left. After we left her house the other Elder looked at me and confidently proclaimed that he loved it when he got the opportunity to Bible-bash since the other people never know what they are talking about, and he can just "thump 'em" with a whole list of memorized verses from the Bible. He showed me his list of verses that can be used in case of just such an argument. He also recanted to me a series of his best "Bible-bashing" sessions that he had had. I was rather embarrassed by what had happened and unsure of what to do. For the rest of the time I was with that Elder I tried to steer clear of talking to anyone who might put up a fight.

A few days later I was walking down that same street with a member of the branch (so I was not with my normal companion again) when I heard her call out, "Hey Elder!" I went over to the fence in front of her house and she spoke to me and said, "I still don't know if you are from God or not, nor do I know if that Elder Whats-his-name [referring to my normal companion] is from God either, but I know that that one Elder you came by here with a few days ago is not from God. I don't know if the pastor of the church I go to is from God or if you are, but I can tell that that other Elder definitely is not from God."

In what was a moment of maturity beyond my years at the time I very graciously admitted that she was right, and with full sincerity I offered my apologies for what happened. I never spoke to her again.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"They came confessing their sins": What was the disputation about baptism mentioned in 3 Nephi 11?

As recorded in 3 Nephi 11, when the Savior came to visit the Nephites, He was very clear in his explanation as to the manner of baptism. What is notable about His explanation is the reason why He had to give the explanation. In verse 22 we read, "And [Jesus] said unto them: On this wise shall ye baptize; and there shall be no disputations among you." Thus Jesus was giving this explanation because there was a disagreement among the members of the church as to the manner, or maybe even the necessity, of baptism. Apparently there was some question as to how people were to be baptized as members of the church, and whether or not there was anything else that needed to be done.

After explaining how the Nephites should baptize Jesus continues his explanation by saying,
28 And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been....
40 And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; (3 Nephi 11:28,40)
Again there is the admonition that there should be no disputations and also a warning that if anyone adds to the doctrine, or takes away from it certain critical points, then those people are not building upon the rock of Christ, but on a sandy foundation that cannot weather the storms of life and temptation.

There may have been some question in some Nephites' minds whether or not baptism was even necessary. Approximately 34 years previous to this event when the sign of Christ's birth was given there were some who had insisted that the Law of Moses was fulfilled and that the Nephites no longer needed to keep it (see 3 Nephi 1:24-25). It is possible that there may have been a similar dispute at that time. The assumption that baptism was no longer required may have seemed obvious to many Nephites since they were all aware of the fact that the Law of Moses had been declared fulfilled (see 3 Nephi 9:16-20). The issue in their minds may have been that baptism, according to their understanding, was part of the Law of Moses, and thus they no longer needed to practice baptisms.

There also may have been some discussion about the actual mechanics of baptism, such as what needed to be said and other things. All these questions were answered by Jesus in his explanation of his doctrine. All of these possibilities that I have mentioned so far involve things that would have taken away from the ordinance of baptism but in verse 40 Jesus mentioned that "whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil" (emphasis added). In other words, the possibilities that I have presented of what was causing contention all fall under the "less" category, so now the question is, what were some Nephites proposing that fell under the "more" category?

For one such possibility let us look into references to "altars" in the Book of Mormon. (What to altars have to do with baptism you ask? Just wait and see.)

In the Book of Mormon there are several references to sacrifices. Lehi and Nephi offered sacrifice. King Benjamin offered sacrifice. Sacrifice plays an important part in some doctrinal sermons. The Nephites were commanded by Jesus to stop sacrifices by the shedding of blood. But despite all these references to sacrifices, which presumably happened on an altar, there are only four references to altars in the Book of Mormon. The first refers to an altar built by Lehi after leaving Jerusalem. The second reference comes from a quote of a vision by Isaiah. The last two references come from parts of the text in Alma where Mormon is explaining or commenting on the results of the missionary endeavors of Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah. It seems that Mormon is simply mentioning the altars almost in passing, like we would mention a pulpit or the pews in a chapel.

The first reference in Alma comes in chapter 15, which reads:
17 Therefore, after Alma having established the church at Sidom, seeing a great check, yea, seeing that the people were checked as to the pride of their hearts, and began to humble themselves before God, and began to assemble themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction— (Alma 15:17)
The second reference is in chapter 17:
4 And [the sons of Mosiah] had been teaching the word of God for the space of fourteen years among the Lamanites, having had much success in bringing many to the knowledge of the truth; yea, by the power of their words many were brought before the altar of God, to call on his name and confess their sins before him. (Alma 17:4)
The references in Alma to altars are so unremarkable that most people pass over them without thought. In the second reference, many people would read it and think that Mormon was waxing poetic when he said that the Lamanites "were brought before the altar of God". But if we return to the previous reference we read that the people began to assemble in their sanctuaries, where their sacrifices were presumably performed, "to worship God before the altar".

From this passage we can learn a little about the layout of the Nephite's (and later the converted Lamanite) sanctuaries. In their sanctuary where they met to worship there was, apparently, an altar much in the same way our church buildings have pulpits (this concept of an altar at the front of a church is not so confusing for Catholics, Orthodox and other similar creedal Christians, it's just unfamiliar to those of us who grew up in a Protestant influenced church culture). The exact size and configuration of the altar is not clear, but it may have been big enough for a single person to go stand on top of it (hmmm...suddenly the Rameumptom doesn't seem to come entirely out of left field, still imagine how surprised you might be if you walked into a church building and you find that the members of the congregation took turns standing on top of the pulpit, or sacrament table, and shouting out a memorized prayer at the top of their lungs).

The verse in chapter 15 simply calls it "the altar", but in chapter 17 it is referred to as "the altar of God". In Nephite phraseology saying that someone was brought "before the altar" may have been the equivalent of us saying we "filled the pews". The verse in chapter 15 merely states that the people "began to assemble themselves...before the altar" where they prayed, taught and exhorted each other, and made sure that they were all kept in the way.

But in chapter 17 the recently converted Lamanites were brought, "by the power of [the sons of Mosiah's] words" before the "altar of God" where they "[called] on his name and [confessed] their sins before him." This sounds like something a little more formal, organized and dramatic than a simple church meeting. We read elsewhere that the converted Lamanites had made a covenant, a very public covenant that the Nephites knew about, and apparently this covenant was made before the "altar of God", so it was a very serious thing.

When the converted Lamanites came to the land of Zarahemla being lead by the sons of Mosiah, one of the stipulations that the Nephites may have insisted on before accepting them and giving them the land of Jershon   may have been that the people of Ammon must appear before "the altar of God" and "call on his name and confess their sins before him" and covenant to never take up arms again. It may have been a condition for their acceptance into the Church of God, that they publicly confess and covenant to never fight again.

What may have unintentionally happened here is that an additional "step" towards salvation was added for those who were not Nephites, or who had previously apostatized from the church. For non-Nephites and perhaps for excessive sinners the church, or at least some of the church leaders, may have been requiring that certain people go through a public confession of their sins and make an additional covenant that was not required of Nephites. It may not have been a problem when the people of Ammon did it for the first time, but the practice may have continued and approximately 100 years later the practice had become established among some branches of the church.

Thus when the church met for their general conference at the temple in the land Bountiful, they were discussing what was required of new members to join the Church of God. Some Nephites may have insisted that baptism was not necessary since the Law of Moses was fulfilled. Others may have disputed the manner of baptism, and there may have been still others who insisted that all new members, or at least former Lamanites/Gadianton Robbers needed to perform the public confession and covenant making before the altar of God. This debate was causing significant contention in the church and it was apparently the primary reason why Christ came to visit them.

After settling the immediate dispute regarding baptism, and any other additional requirements, Jesus then proceeded to give them the new law and new covenant, just as he had done in Israel, the law that would replace the Law of Moses. While much of what I have presented is speculation, we can get a sense that the history, culture and societal issues confronted by the Nephites were a bit more complex than Mormon could have expressed given his size constraints. But we can get hints of the more complex issues dealt with by the Nephites if we are willing to read the Book of Mormon more closely and to consider arguments that we have never considered before.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Yes I have been neglecting my blog

It is true, I have been neglecting my blog. I have plans for brief reviews of ancient astronomy in the Book of Abraham, more posts about names in the Book of Mormon, and ancient rituals of conversion detailed in the Book of Mormon. But right now my time has been consumed with getting my code to work for my research. The other day I cleaned up two files that I had been working on for some time and I removed all the lines of code that I didn't need. All together I think I removed over 4,000 lines of code. It took me a few days to work through it and determine what I need and what I don't need.

In the meantime I uploaded a video of one of my simulations that I did as a proof of concept. I did this simulation to show my advisor that my fixes to the code are working and that more time should be devoted to the approach that I have been taking. He was impressed.

Here is the description that goes along with the video:

This is a short video that I made of a simulation that was done as a proof of concept. It shows a fractal distribution of density in the center of a star forming galaxy. This simulation is done using the MHD code Athena. The box size covers 1 kpc in each dimension and has a grid size of 128 in each dimension. The star forming region injects mass and energy into the center region of the simulation.

The proof of concept is for a flux fixer that allows the code to handle high kinetic energy situations where the total kinetic energy is a significant fraction of the total energy.

The visualization was done using Paraview.