Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Remembering Thomas S. Monson: The Painful Obituary from the New York Times

Scott Gordon at FairMormon.org offers a firm but gentle rebuke to the New York Times for their embarrassing and painful obituary of one of the world's best men, Thomas S. Monson. The obituary was written by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Robert D. McFadden. Though frustrating to read, it is a helpful piece, for it reminds us how politicized and biased journalism has become, twisting the knife even as its ideological opponents are being buried.

The obituary's opening sentence sets the tone as it complains of Monson's insensitivity to women and the issue of same-sex marriage community: Monson "rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage." And then the opening words of the article continues with this:
Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.

Mr. Monson displayed a new openness to scholars of Mormonism, however, allowing them remarkable access to church records. But as rising numbers of church members and critics joined the internet’s free-for-all culture of debate and exposé, his church was confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and Scripture.
The negative tone persists with little recognition of who the man was or acknowledgement of his life of loving, Christian service. The article even gives the URL to and quotes from an anti-Mormon website from some Baptist group.  If you read NYT obituaries for others like Hugh Hefner and Fidel Castro (both saints, perhaps, in the NYT worldview), it is clear that President Monson has gotten short shrift. And much less flattering photography.

Moving past the overall negative tone and many omissions from what would have been a fair obituary, Gordon tackles the issue of serious inaccuracies. I'll quote from that part of his excellent rebuttal:

Here they are in the order they appear, not necessarily in order of importance.
  1. “Many Mormons faced sanctions for joining online forums questioning church positions on women’s roles.”
I am not aware of ANY Mormons who have faced sanctions for joining an online forum or for questioning the Church positions on women’s roles. They will need to give examples. We have thousands, and probably millions of members who belong to many forums. We have members who are advocates of women rights and roles who are faithful members. I know some who work in the Church Office Building. I know members who hold differing views on women’s roles, homosexuality, and many political and social issues. Kate Kelly is cited in the article—perhaps the author thinks she is an example of this, but Kate Kelly was not excommunicated for joining a forum or even questioning the Church’s positions. There is a difference between questioning and actively campaigning against the Church and its teachings. Kate Kelly did the latter.
  1. “As the 16th president of the Latter-day Saints, succeeding Gordon B. Hinckley, Mr. Monson faced another test when church members, increasingly scouring online sources, found apparent contradictions between historical records and church teachings, which the church regards as God-given and literally true.”
Perhaps I am nit-picking on this one, but I take some umbrage with the idea that since Gordon B. Hinckley apparent contradictions have been found. The Church has an exceptional history department and there are numerous conferences on Church history – including the FairMormon conference. We have been discussing these topics for years. Additionally, we aren’t fundamentalist evangelicals in that every doctrine and practice is directly from God. This would be especially true with items related to history and science which are full of discovery. Yes, we have divinely inspired teachings, but they typically don’t have anything to do with history.
  1. “Some critics, including the website OnceDelivered.net, which identified itself as an expression of the Baptist faith, said the Latter-day Saints church had previously contended that Smith had been happily married to only one woman, and said the new teaching had used Scripture to “address the inconvenient truth of Smith’s polygamy.””
There are two issues here: First, one has to question why the New York Times reporter sought out a Website that states, “Mormonism fits a classic definition of a cult” and “So, is Mormonism a cult? According to our definition, yes.” Most LDS would rightfully classify OnceDelivered.net to be an anti-Mormon Website. There are many Websites out there that attack Mormonism with little understanding of what we actually teach and believe. It seems odd that the New York Times would be quoting from one for an obituary.

Secondly, the claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the term Latter-day Saints church would be incorrect and is offensive to most Mormons which underscores the lack of source reliability) previously contended that Joseph Smith was married to only one woman is incorrect. Yes, there are critics who have falsely made that claim, but the idea of plural marriage is taught by Joseph Smith and is part of our scripture in Doctrine and Covenants section 132 which can be found online at https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132. That section was written in July 1843. Another activity you can try is to go to the Official Church Website LDS.org and type “Plural Marriage” into the search box. Many of those articles listed were written prior to Thomas S. Monson becoming prophet. There are many books that talk about this. One of our FairMormon volunteers stated he has 40 – 50 books on his shelf that discuss this topic. It was one of the main topics of the Reed Smoot Hearings in congress from 1904 – 1907. There is no new teaching on this. Ask most New Yorkers if early Mormons practiced polygamy and they would say yes. Many probably believe we still do. To say that we taught otherwise would be unbelievable.
  1. “In recent years, the church allowed historians access to church documents and records to a remarkable degree. Some published their findings online and in printed volumes, although they were usually vetted by church leaders.”
Having worked extensively with Church historians and independent historians, I have NEVER heard of Church leaders vetting anything except what is posted on the official Church Website to represent their position. Just the opposite is true. The Joseph Smith Papers are being published in their entirety on the Church Website. I have had complete freedom to publish anything without any vetting or oversight. There are LDS History conferences that are attended by Church Historians and many controversial and difficult topics are addressed. FairMormon has a conference every year where we talk about Church history. No one has ever vetted our talks.

The New York Times Obituary on President Thomas S. Monson needs a retraction and a rewrite. I’m sure the Times is interested in accuracy. Not correcting the record looks mean spirited, or ignorant. Neither of those positions is something that most newspapers aspire to be.
Thank you, Scott, for your response. And thanks to President Monson and his family for giving us a man who did so much to advance the cause of the poor, of the needy, of the hopeless. He brought real relief and real progress to men and women. How incredible that he would be treated so harshly, while the Times would essentially celebrate someone like Hefner, who exploited and degraded thousands of women for his gratification and financial gain. More than a retraction is in order -- if the Times really were about journalism and truth.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Surprise in Alma 7:11

Thomas Wayment's "The Hebrew Text of Alma 7:11" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005) makes a surprising observation (the link is to the PDF file -- there is also an HTML version for faster loading of the text). Alma quotes a small phrase from the brass plates, and the quoted passage turns out to be Isaiah 53:4. But it doesn't follow the KJV for Isaiah. It doesn't follow the KJV in Matthew when Christ quotes the same line. It doesn't follow the translation given in the Septuagint. But it does rather precisely follow what the Hebrew text has. One tiny little detail, but rich in significance.
Masoretic Hebrew: Surely he has borne our pains and sicknesses (MT ʾākēn ḥôlāyēnû hūʾ nāśāʾ ūmakʾōbênû sebālām)
LXX: Thus he bears our sins and our pains (LXX outōs tas amartias ēmōn ferei kai peri ēmōn odunatai)
Isaiah 53:4 KJV: Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows
Alma 7:11: he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people
Matthew 8:17 KJV: Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses (autos tas astheneias ēmōn elaben kai tas nosous ebastasen)
Compare to Alma 7:11: "he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people."

While the KJV seems to be used heavily when it is "good enough" to keep things familiar to the audience, Hebraic subtleties come through in many cases that are difficult to explain with the theory of Joseph as the author of the text.

There's always more than meets the eye in the Book of Mormon, waiting for the open-minded reader to explore and discover.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Valley of Alma and Another Candidate for Janus Parallelism in the Book of Mormon

In my last post, I offered an update to my article at the Interpreter on Janus parallelism in the Book of Mormon, suggesting that there were additional reasons to suspect that Alma 8:9-10 employed a known Janus function in which one word can mean "hedge in, fence in" and "pour out." In pondering that this morning, I realized that I had been too quick to dismiss the first potential candidate I had noted in the Book of Mormon.

Mosiah 24:21 also uses "poured out":
Yea, and in the valley of Alma they poured out their thanks to God because he had been merciful unto them, and eased their burdens, and had delivered them out of bondage; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them except it were the Lord their God.
This was the first verse I identified as a potential Janus parallelism in my notes as I read Scott Noegel's book,  Janus Parallelism in the Book of Job. But dismissed it or overlooked it after that because it didn't seem very solid. Alma and his people had just been liberated from captivity in Helam and were now passing through the Valley of Alma and apparently holding a ritual of thanksgiving there. They weren't really hedged in. Sloppily, I forgot about this candidate and moved on as I prepared my research note for The Interpreter.

Mosiah 24:23 provides the clue that I should have remembered that reveals why the Valley of Alma is associated with the sense of being "fenced in" or "hedged up." After the people give thanks, the Lord speaks to Alma in Mosiah 24:23:
And now the Lord said unto Alma: Haste thee and get thou and this people out of this land, for the Lamanites have awakened and do pursue thee; therefore get thee out of this land, and I will stop the Lamanites in this valley that they come no further in pursuit of this people.
The Valley of Alma, given great emphasis and mentioned three times in short order before "poured out" in Mosiah 24:21, is the place where the enemies of Alma's people will literally be blocked by the Lord, hedged in or fenced in. If the Book of Mormon were fiction, we'd probably have an omniscient narrator tell us how that happens. But the Book of Mormon consistently offers clear provenance about where information came from in its written record, and since no witnesses to the miracle of hedging come into the circle of Nephite writers, we never find out how it was done. But the Lord promised to "stop" them there, and we can safely trust that they were in fact stopped, or rather, hedge in, fenced in, or perhaps enclosed in some way. While the vital clue about the hedging occurs after the Janus pivot in Mosiah 24:21, the pivot read as "hedge, fence in" looks backward to the Valley of Alma in the first stich which shortly would be the place of hedging, while also looking forward to the following "Spirit" which is the natural object of the meaning of "pour out" or "annoint."

By way of background, here is what I said of this particular form of Janus parallelism in Job in my article at the Interpreter:
On page 39, Noegel examines Job 3:23–24 and the dual meanings of וַיָּסֶךְ from the roots סָכַךְ (cakak, Strong’s H5526 ) meaning “hedged in, fenced in, enclosed, cover, covering” and the root סוּךְ (cuwk, Strong’s H5480 ) meaning “pour out, anoint.” In Job 3:23, this word plus the preceding text can be translated as “to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has fenced in.” But if given the alternate meaning of “poured out,” then “whom God has poured out” anticipates “my groans are poured out for me as water” in the last part of Job 3:24. It’s a nice example of the two-sided technique of Janus parallelism.
Mosiah 24:21 is part of a moment of pious praise to the Lord, and an appropriate time for poetical elements like Janus parallelism. The same parallelism apparently is later used, as I have previously discussed,  in Alma 8:9-10. It is possible that both were in the original records from Alma and Mormon has preserved them in his account, and that's what I presume, but it is also possible that Mormon as editor worked them into his account. In either case, the fact that the hedged in/ pour out parallelism seems to neatly fit in a couple of places and is used meaningfully and appropriately might increase the odds that "something interesting is going on here" versus just making too much of random word patterns.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Update on Tentative Proposals for Janus Parallelism in the Book of Mormon

About a year ago I published several articles here at Mormanity on the topic of Janus parallelism, where one Hebrew word or phrase with dual meanings can invoke both, one linked to or looking back to the preceding words and the other meaning looking forward to the following words. It's a fascinating case of deliberate ambiguity in the Hebrew, and it is used heavily in Job, as scholar Scott Noegel has demonstrated with his exploration of over 50 examples in Janus Parallelism in the Book of Job. Building on my past posts, I recently published a book review of Noegel's work in The Interpreter, and then on Friday The Interpreter also published my follow-up research note on the possibility of Janus parallelisms in the Book of Mormon. I tentatively look for examples of known cases that Noegel has identified by searching for related English words and usages in the Book of Mormon. It's a very speculative effort fraught with risk of false positives, of course.

There's an update to that note already that might be of interest to some of you. Still speculative, of course, but I'd appreciate any feedback.

One publication that would have been useful to cite, had it come out a little earlier, is the work of Matthew Bowen published a few weeks ago: "Jacob's Protector" also at The Interpreter. Bowen explores several subtle themes in the Book of Mormon involving the patriarch Jacob, and in discussing Jacob’s divine “wrestle” in Genesis 32, observes that the word "wrestle" can also mean "embrace." To me, this strengthens the proposed Janus parallelism for Alma 8:9-10 (my tentative Example #1), where I proposed that a Hebrew word meaning "poured out" that can also mean "hedge in, enclose," looks back to the earlier "wrestled" in that passage. The "enclose" sense would seem to be particularly suitable for alluding to a Jacob-like divine embrace/wrestle in seeking aid for the people Alma is ministering to.

Bowen sees a reference to a wordplay involving Jacob's wrestle/embrace in this passage. In light of the possible Janus parallelism in Alma 8:9-10 and Bowen's discussion of Book of Mormon word plays involving wrestling, there may be even more parallelism to consider in this possibly artful passage.

If the use of "wrestling" deliberately alludes to Jacob, perhaps we should consider that possibility as well in the opening stich regarding Satan's "hold" upon the hearts of the people (Alma 8:9). Could this use the same root that Gen. 25:26 uses to describe how Esau "took hold" of Jacob's heel? The Hebrew root is Strong's H270, 'achaz. This root can also mean to enclose (Piel), which might resonate with embrace/wrestle and the potential dual meaning proposed for "pour out" in the passage in question.

The phrase in verse 9, "Satan had gotten great hold upon the hearts of the people," is paralleled in verse 11 by the response of the people to Alma's words: "Nevertheless, they hardened their hearts...." Could "hardened" here be related to Strong's H2388, chazaq? This root can mean to harden or to hold or contain. It is translated as "harden" 13 times in the KJV, as in the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in Exodus 4:21, 7:13, and 7;22, But it is also translated as "hold" 5 times.

Chazaq and 'achaz may be part of an intriguing passage with meaningful parallelism and potential word plays.

It might be tentatively structured like this:

A. Now Satan had gotten great hold ['achaz = hold / enclose] upon the hearts of the people of the city of Ammonihah ...

B. Nevertheless Alma labored much in the spirit, wrestling with [embracing, being enclosed by] God in mighty prayer,

B. that he would pour out [Janus pivot: enclose, fence in, hedge in / pour out] his Spirit upon the people who were in the city; that he would also grant that he might baptize them unto repentance.

A. Nevertheless, they hardened [chazaq = harden or hold] their hearts....


A. Hold ['achaz] on hearts
B. labor + wrestle [embrace, wrestle] in Spirit
B. pour out [looking back: hedge in, enclose / looking forward: pour out] Spirit
A. Harden [chazaq] hearts

Possible? In any case, the passage is even more interesting now. Feedback is welcome.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Lengthening Our Stride: Globalization of the Church: A Valuable Book for the Increasingly International Church

The day I learned of the passing away of President Monson was a rainy day here in Shanghai. It was a day on which I would contemplate his legacy and the new role that Russell M. Neslon would play. My pondering led to thinking about President Nelson's unique ties to China and his recent visa to Shanghai, where he shared some of his thoughts on the international role of the Church. He is profoundly qualified and prepared to continue and accelerate the momentum of the Church internationally and to further develop its potential to do good and make life better for people across the globe. (See my previous post at Mormanity, "Learning from Russell M. Nelson's Response to an Inspired Recommendation from President Kimball.")

On rainy days, I usually try to take a bus to work instead of riding my bike, resulting in some extra time to read. That day began with a glance at newly received, still unopened book, Lengthening Our Stride: Globalization of the Church, edited by Reid L. Neilson and Wayne D. Crosby (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2018). On something of a whim, I put Lengthening Our Stride in my heavily worn black bag before I rushed out the door, hoping to catch the next bus and have time to read instead of walking for 30 minutes in the rain. Mercifully, I caught the bus with only seconds to spare and peeled of the plastic wrap and began reading. It would prove to be the most inspiring bus rides I've had in a long time, and what I read that morning influenced my thinking when I learned later that day of President Monson's passing. With many other tasks before me since then, I've been drawn to that book and its many intriguing perspectives. It has been a valuable read and I would recommend it to anyone seeking to understand the growing international presence of the Church, the role it can play in blessing others around the globe whether they care about our missionary message or not, and the challenges yet to be overcome in many lands in a world that desperately needs the Gospel to be preached to every people and in every tongue

 Lengthening Our Stride has 5 parts with 21 chapters from a host of prominent thinkers and servants with deep international experience. Part 1, "Poverty and Humanitarian Work," addresses some of the global needs that are addressed by the teachings, programs, and resources of the Church. Part 2, "Public Perceptions and Relations," deals with the international public relations progress the Church has made along with ongoing challenges to overcome, as well as perceptions of the Church related to its humanitarian work. Part 3, "Peacemaking and Diplomacy," is a reminder of the need to continue proclaiming and promoting peace in spite of the ongoing tragedy of war between nations and among peoples, one of the most crucial things the global Church can do, in spite of our small numbers. I found particular value in Part 4, "Religious Freedom and Oppression," a section treating the brutal reality that many people in the world lack religious liberty, a need often marginalized these days when it can be just as important to many as access to food and water. Finally there is Part 5, "Growth and Globalization," dealing with some of the challenges and opportunities the Church faces in the global community, including issues such as migration, tension between religion and law,  as well as the tension between the Church and the Islamic world.

The vision of the book expressed in the Preface captured my imagination and turned my mind to the inspiring words of President Kimball many years ago when he expressed the need for the Church to prepare for its global mission (see the July 1979 First Presidency Message, "The Uttermost Parts of the Earth," which could well have been reprinted in  Lengthening Our Stride). Those words, spoken while I was on my mission in the international hot spot of Switzerland (taught people from a total of 56 countries while there, by my count), inspired me to sign up for Mandarin Chinese classes when I got back to BYU to continue my chemical engineering education. Those few extra-major classes gave me a head-start when I came to live in China decades later and helped open doors for numerous friendships and cherished experiences. If only I had been more diligent!

The decision to begin the book with consideration of the painful needs of people in many parts of the world was a wise one, in my opinion. It sets the stage for why the Church needs to be increasingly global.  It is not about expanding numbers of members, but expanding the good that the Church can do in a world with perpetual poverty and pain. Many of the programs and activities of the Church as well as the service and zeal of numerous members internationally will often make little sense unless one understands the caring that ultimately motivates the globalization of the Church and the expansion of its influence in the world.

As I began reading Part 1, I was completely captivated by Valerie Hudson's essay, "Demographic and Gender-Related Trends," a rather tame title compared to her moving and eye-opening discussion on gendercide and the "profound devaluation of female life" in many parts of the globe. I recalled the Hmong woman we once had over for dinner, a refugee from genocide in Laos who had been able to flee to Wisconsin. In our conversation, she explained to us in all seriousness that as a woman, her opinion did not matter and that her voice and her life was just "a leaf blowing in the wind." We tried our best to persuade her otherwise, but it was not easy. In her experiences and in later tragic experiences we would share in part with her older daughter, my wife and I could see up close some of the sorrow that the devaluation of female life brings.

Hudson, well known as a Mormon feminist and intellectual, has a perspective that needs to be shared and contemplated. After raising the devastating problems of gendercide, devaluation, and abuse facing women across the globe and exploring the different stages of evolving misogyny in society (sometimes celebrated as liberation and progress), Hudson then offers a profound vision of how these problems can be cured: "The restored gospel of Jesus Christ is the strongest and most progressive force for women in the world today. The most profound feminist act one can commit is to share the gospel." She explores the revolutionary views the restored gospel brings and points out that the Church is the place to find the kind of men who have been trained to respect women, to be faithful to them, to actively take part in raising children, and to abhor abuse and neglect.
As the Church rises in support of women and as priesthood holders begin to conceive of themselves as part of a covenant of brotherhood that has sworn to uphold, among other things, the equality, safety, and flourishing of all the daughters of God, you will see the eyes of all women turn to this Church. And as the eyes of the women turn and they begin to assess their men according to the Lord's criteria, you will see men begin to turn as well. For men are clearly no victors in any of the forms of civilizational misogyny -- they suffer profoundly a well. Misogyny breeds misery for men as well as women. (p. 13)
How great the need to let the women and men of this planet know who they are!

There are many other outstanding chapters. Sharon Eubank's discussion of LDS Charities in "Zion's Foundations" reminds us of the importance of our humanitarian work -- not because of its potential to lead to missionary work later, as many wrongly assume, but because our brothers and sisters around the globe are in need and need our love. Many underestimate how sincere and intense Latter-day Saint yearning for the physical welfare of others is. My years in China have shown me numerous examples of Latter-day Saints doing much to help others faced with poverty or illness with no absolutely no hope of converting others or expectation that missionary work would be done. Silent, selfless service abounds in the Church and is one of the key things that members naturally do around the world on the own and with the help of Church organization as well.

Other essays I particularly enjoyed include Cole Durham's significant "Protection of Religious Liberties," coming from one of the world's great advocate of religious liberty. He critiques the world's downplaying of religious liberty, often swept aside as something we can ignore until we've taken care of poverty and other needs. Here he quotes Paul A. Marshall: "It is a travesty of the highest order to maintain that because people are hungry or cold, it is legitimate to repress their beliefs as well." Exactly. Durham treats some of the secular and political threats to religious liberty and discusses initiatives to preserve it. The work he has launched needs ongoing attention and support. Thank you, Brother Durham!

William Atkin's "Let Them Worship How, Where, or What They May," emphasizing the importance of religious liberty, is another valuable contribution, as is "Erosion of Religious Freedom: Impact on Churches" by Michael K. Young, former president and chancellor of the University of Utah.

On the other hand, one of the weaknesses of this excellent book is that some of the essays are dated. Michael Young's valuable contribution is from a 2011 presentation. Much of that essay retains its currency, but a particularly important and alarming portion addresses a pending (at the time) case before the US Supreme Court that threatened the elimination of the "ministerial exemption" that allows churches to select their own clergy without having to comply with local employment laws and their anti-discrimination policies. Young implies that the possible outcomes of that case could include having to apply all employment laws in selecting bishops, stake presidents, and all the other lay leaders we call in the Church. The concern was legitimate and remains a cause for vigilance, but fortunately, the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC was decided in favor of religious freedom with a 9-0 vote (for details, see SCOTUSBlog.com). That decision was issued Jan. 12, 2012 -- six years ago. An update of some kind would have been appropriate for the book.

Elder Lance B. Wickman's essay, "The Church in the Twenty-First Century" in Part 2, was from 2008. It discussed the rapidly evolving status of the church in a variety of nations, including Vietnam, China, and one disguised as "Andalasia" due to the sensitive nature of the topic at the time. In the decade since Elder Wickman's presentation, much has changed and the book would be stronger if there were at least an addendum of some kind to update the information. Still, the basic issues and the nature of the challenges we face globally remain valid and for places like Russia (not mentioned, at least not overtly) and China, religious liberty remains a delicate issue requiring faith, patience, and especially caution from members, including visitors who may not understand local regulations. In China, for example, there has been remarkable kindness from the government shown toward the expat congregations of the Church, but the healthy relationship with authorities requires careful observance of the rules we have to maintain trust. I constantly worry that one well-meaning tourist or new resident could result in painful setbacks.

A few others essays would also benefit from an update of some kind, perhaps on a website to support the book. For example, Warner P. Woodworth's chapter, "Private Humanitarian Initiatives and International Perceptions of the Church" is from a 2008 presentation. There is so much more that has happened then. Elder Anthony Perkins' "Out of Obscurity" also helps us understand how the Church has risen in visibility in Asia and elsewhere, but much has happened since his 2012 presentation. Michael Otterson's essay, "In the Public Eye," gives his inside perspective on public relations progress for the Church around the world, from his role as managing director of the Public Affairs Department of the Church, but that was back in 2012 when he gave the speech that is printed here.  His discussion of the impact of LDS celebrities and politicians is now somewhat dated though still useful. I'll also give bonus points to Otterson for mentioning LDS bloggers as having something of a role in the public perception of the Church.

The book would have been stronger with a 2017 addition covering recent development such as the refugee crisis from the Near East and elsewhere and some recent developments on various continents. Being completely current is an impossible moving target for a book, but it would have been helpful to get some updates and added perspectives from 2017.

In spite of such weakness, this is an inspiring book that will prepare us for the years ahead.

We are an international Church, and many more of us need now to lengthen our stride to step into the global community. President Russell M. Nelson will continue to be a powerful example of that. In spite of his age, I was deeply impressed when he strode into the ballroom in Shanghai where foreign LDS members meet and walked to the stage. As a very tall man, his physical stride is truly impressive. Ninety-two years old at that time, yet so vigorous. But his spiritual stride is one that will challenge even the fastest of us. May be lengthen ours and prepare for the ongoing globalization of the Church, that we may better bless the lives of our brothers and sisters in every land, whether they care about our missionary message or not.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

DNA Science vs. Scripture: The Book of Mormon is Not the Only Target for Confused Attacks

Misunderstanding of both DNA-related science and the nature of the Book of Mormon led to premature rejoicing in some circles over the alleged refutation of that key scriptural text for Latter-day Saints, as previously discussed here and on my LDSFAQ essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon. DNA data is only a problem for the Book of Mormon is one makes unjustified and extreme assumptions about what the text requires.

The religious bias and serious misunderstanding shown in some coverage of that story is also illustrated in recent media coverage on the allegedly embarrassing discovery in DNA data that the ancient Canaanites were not wiped out but have descendants alive and well in Palestine. On Dec. 31, Evolution News ran the story, "#2 of Our Top Stories of 2017: Clueless Reporters and Canaanite DNA." There is some terrific irony in the very unintelligent designs of the popular media when it comes to reporting on religion and science. Here is an excerpt from the story:
The science story itself is fascinating and to all appearances solid. Human remains dating to some 3,700 year ago from ancient Canaanites yielded DNA revealing a startling overlap with modern-day Lebanese. The latter thus appear to harbor descendants of the long-ago population (“Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” American Journal of Human Genetics).

Wow, that is interesting. How will they spin it? The headlines tell the tale:
The only problem with this reporting? The Bible is detailed and unambiguous in relating that the Canaanites survived Joshua’s invasion. So it’s no wonder they have living descendants. I’m not here to pass judgment on ancient Canaanites or ancient Israelites, on the Bible, Joshua, or anyone else. But come on, reporters, where’s your elementary cultural literacy, of which knowing a thing or two about the Bible is a key element?
The author points out that Judges 1 lists all the places where the Canaanites continued living. Interestingly, one of those cities was Sidon (Judges 1:31) where the ancient DNA was found with genes that have persisted to this day in Lebanon.  Yet these stories insist that the Bible has been refuted because the Canaanites were not completely wiped out.
Even the reputable journal Science, in a reporting article, had to backtrack with an editor’s correction, blandly styled as an “update”:
This story and its headline have been updated to reflect that in the Bible, God ordered the destruction of the Canaanites, but that some cities and people may have survived.
Not “may have survived.” In the Bible’s account, they definitely survived, in large numbers. The original headline? “Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites.” It should be, “Ancient DNA confirms biblical account…”
No doubt about it, the war against the Canaanites is among the most politically incorrect narrative elements in the whole of Scripture. That it was incompletely carried out is attested to by the Bible, and now demonstrated by modern genetic analysis. That’s news, whether your interest is religion or science. Who will tell the reporters?
Such irony. DNA data from Lebanon is consistent with or even confirms one aspect of the biblical record, and yet through ignorance it is gleefully painted as yet another embarrassment refuting the Bible. While there are obvious problems in some aspects of that record and in the story of the conquest of the Promised Land, the fact that Canaanites survived and have living descendants today is clearly not one of the challenges Bible believers need to struggle with. Properly understood, the DNA data for the Canaanites considered in light of the Old Testament is what we should expect, actually. What we should expect from the media, though, seems to be very little when it comes to accuracy in reporting religious topics.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas Coincidences, or the Blessings of Bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Buzz from Sweet Cozumel

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

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

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ward Council Thinking, Fast and Slow

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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