Joss Whedon is Amazing
As with many great posts on the Bloggernacle, even out here in Outer Blogness, let me start with an allusion to a work by the great hero of geek culture, Mr. Joss Whedon, in particular his series Angel. The main character of the show is Angel, a good vampire with a soul introduced in Whedon's first hit series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (there are some major spoilers for both series ahead, you have been warned). He and his friends attempt to combat the forces of evil in Los Angeles mostly through the form of a small company of private investigators for hire; by the point in the fifth and last season, Angel and his crew of fellow do-gooders have been joined by the sarcastic Spike, a vampire from Buffy that also regained his soul and, with it, the capacity for choosing good (they are also in possession of a large law firm, too).
In the "Buffyverse" vampires are demons who inhabit the bodies of humans. When a vampire is created, the demon destroys the soul of the human and the resulting creature is a monster of pure evil. Vampires don't just kill: they revel in it. They enjoy evil. And vampires are stronger, faster, and all-around better than most humans, so they're dang good at rape, murder, and destruction. Angel was, for decades after his being sired, one of the deadliest vampires of Europe until a gypsy curse "ensouled" him as punishment for his murders. With a soul, Angel now had the capacity for goodness and the years of death and torture he had caused haunted him for yet further decades. Spike was a vampire created by one of Angel's sires, and the two had actually been compatriots in chaos for a while in the late 19th Century. In the course of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Spike obtained a soul for himself, and while not nearly as haunted as Angel was, Spike also feels a deep responsibility for his actions in the past.
In the season 5 episode "Damage", some of the events of the now-cancelled Buffy have dangerous ramifications in Angel (and it's definitely one of the most twisted episodes of what is already a darker series than Buffy). A girl named Dana has been a resident of a psychiatric ward for years after she was abused by a serial killer that killed her family in front of her when she was a little girl before she was finally found by authorities. Because of actions that took place at the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dana has become imbued with the powers of a Slayer. In other words, think superpowers: Slayers are a special type of humans mystically empowered to be able to fight vampires. She's supernaturally strong, supernaturally aware of her surroundings, and her untrained fighting ability is already past what most trained humans can accomplish. Dana breaks out of the hospital she's in, very violently, and begins a deadly swath of death and bloody violence as she wanders Los Angeles looking for the man who killed her family.
Angel and Spike are made aware of her and begin an attempt to find her. Due to the fact that her being imbued with the power of Slayers also means that she has something of a connection to the Slayers of the past, Dana has memories of Spike, who has killed two Slayers in his pre-souled days, mixed in among her memories of being held captive by the serial killer. Confused and thinking that Spike was her family's murderer, Dana captures him and tortures him horribly (I'm not kidding; she even cuts off his hands at one point).
Angel eventually shows up and rescues them. The episode ends with both Angel and a physically-recovering Spike (hands magically re-attached), who have a very "odd couple" friendship, sitting in Angel's office reflecting on how even though Spike wasn't actually the man who broke Dana's mind and robbed her of her childhood, the old Spike and the old Angel were the sort of monsters who could have and would have done such a thing.
SPIKE There's hope for the little ponce yet. Though the tingling in my forearms tells me she's too far gone to help. She's... one of us now. She's a monster.
ANGEL She's an innocent victim.
SPIKE So were we... once upon a time.
ANGEL Once upon a time. [They sadly look into the night, as we fade to credits.]
It's an odd and troubling reminder that while these two heroes used to be villains, even before the villainy they both used to be rather normal human men. And in fact, all of the evil vampires seen in the Buffyverse were once regular human beings before they became evil demons lusting for carnage and blood. Behind every evil vampire is a victim.
What the heck does this have to do with Post-Mormons?
Let's step into the TBM mindset a bit.
I am an Exmormon (though personally I think I might be better described by the term Former Mormon or Post-Mormon). In the Doctrine and Covenants, the following description is given of male priesthood holders in the Church who abuse their authority, but it's often applied toward people like me:
... When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God. (D&C 121:37-38)
Some members of the Church ask themselves why people like me exist? I still care about the Church, but I do not believe in it. I poke and pull at the history because it is fascinating and with every new fact I learn, I cement ever further in my mind that this enterprise simply does not measure up to what it claims to be. Why? The reason, according to some, is that I have lost the Spirit of the Lord, and I have been left to myself and have begun to kick against the pricks and persecute the saints and to fight against God.
Also, because many of us found ourselves no longer believing in the truth claims of the LDS Church because of our research, some of us may have heard the words of Jacob in the Book of Mormon:
O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. (2 Nephi 9:28)
So again, the implication here is that my learning has caused me to set aside the counsel of God.
Take a Trip in My Shoes in Your World
That may be all well and good (I don't think it actually is), but have any of the believers ever thought to step into my shoes from their own worldview and see what the view looks like in here?
Have I actually lost the Spirit of the Lord? Maybe I have. I do not know for certain, but it could be. I still feel those feelings that I used to believe was the Spirit speaking revelation to my soul, but those feelings come randomly and not always at what most believing Mormons would view as the most opportune times. At times I can actually cause the same feelings to occur purposefully if I'm already calm. So I'm not sure if I've lost the Spirit or not, but let's assume for the sake of argument that I have. I have been left by God to kick against the pricks and I am now persecuting the saints and fighting against God. You know what, I'll accept that, for now for the sake of the argument.
And did this occur because I was "learned"? Probably. I'll freely admit that I lost my testimony because it could not stand up to the information I learned as I studied Church history from sources that were either believing members or neutral sources that had nothing to do with Mormonism. My testimony was not demolished by anti-Mormons. It was demolished by discovering Joseph's duplicity about his polygamy from both the public and his own wife in Mormon Enigma. It was demolished by learning about polyandry from Rough Stone Rolling. It was demolished by learning from Guns, Germs, and Steel about how beneficial western animals and agricultural technology were to Eurasian peoples to such an extent that if those animals and technologies ever existed in the Americas they would provide such a boon to their societies that we'd never expect to see them all disappear centuries before the arrival of Columbus. Sure, barley was domesticated in the American Southwest long after the timeline of the Book of Mormon, but the Nephites entire economic system was founded around barley, and there's no barley to be found in the time period of the Book of Mormon peoples, let alone in any of the proposed places where the Book of Mormon is supposed to have occurred. Stuff like that.
So did I lose my testimony because of my own foolishness in "setting aside the counsels of God"? I guess so, sure, again for the sake of argument I'll accept that for now. I let my belief in the importance of rationality and historical study blind me to the explanation that somehow everything still fit together in spite of the apparent evidence against it.
So here I stand, then. I am an Exmormon, unknowingly abandoned by God's Spirit and left to the influence of the devil. Interestingly, there is one more aspect of Mormon scriptures that often comes up about Exmormons. The Anti-Christ Korihor "explains" in the Book of Mormon:
But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth. (Alma 30:53)
Now, setting aside the always hilarious questions of how a person might believe it if a divine being told them there was no such thing as a divinity, Korihor accepts that he was "deceived". Another opponent of the Book of Mormon prophets, Sherem, also told the people he was "deceived":
And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell, and of eternity, and of eternal punishment. (Jacob 7:18)
What are we to make of this then? Apparently, it's not just that I've lost the Spirit. It's not just that I was too devoted to learning. I've also been deceived by the devil. Satan has tricked me.
Here's the thing, though: if we accept that I've been deceived by the devil into the loss of my testimony, I don't remember when that actually occurred. I do not remember there ever being a time where I thought to myself, "Self, I think I'm being tricked here, and I will consciously go along with this deception against my mind and my viewpoint."
Satan has apparently been so subtle in how he gained control of me that I never even knew it occurred. I still don't. I don't feel any different as a person. I mean, I feel smarter, happier, and as though I'm a better human being. But I don't feel somehow more evil, or more devoted to sins. I actually feel less. Well played, Satan! How very devious! In my many compounding sins as an Exmormon I actually feel more morally upright than I felt as a believing member! How blind I am! And I'm completely unaware of it.
How is an Exmormon like a Buffyverse Vampire?
This brings me back to the part at the beginning of the post, with Angel and Spike. As a TBM, we can easily view the loss of a testimony and the transition of a person from a believing member of the Church to a self-identified post- Mormon along the same lines as Whedon's vampires. It can, and does, happen to anyone.
There is no calling that will prevent someone from losing their faith within it. There is no location you can live that will better shore up the defenses of your testimony. Men and women, both old and young, can find themselves leaving their faith. Bishops, Stake Presidents, Mission Presidents, Temple Sealers, Stake Relief Society presidents, ward librarians, 2nd Quorum of the Seventy, Quorum of the Twelve, Provo, Los Angeles, Santiago, it doesn't matter. Converts and multi-generational members born in the covenant can leave. As with Whedon's vampires, it can happen to anyone. And once it does, it changes people in a way that they'll never be able to return to that faith again. Even if they do recover enough of their beliefs to attend again, their beliefs are now tempered by a flexibility that most average members would find heretical. Belief in a 19th Century Book of Mormon. Belief that Brigham Young was never really a prophet. Belief that Priesthood might merely be a tool God uses to help some of his simpler followers feel superior. Belief in their own personal revelation from God instead of institutional "revelation" from the Church figureheads. Basically, though, they can't go back, at least not all the way. We're changed, forever.
And if this happened because of the Devil deceiving us, then are we not victims in this narrative? Whedon often uses his vampires to illustrate issues with violence and victimhood. In the old story of the hypothetical woman walking down the alley at night alone who gets attacked, Whedon firmly comes down against saying that the woman has any responsibility for that attack. The responsibility lies at the feet of fate and circumstance and the attacker. What woman could stand up against a vampire, for example? What blame could she possibly hold? And in the Buffyverse, there's no such thing as simply being in the "wrong place". Vampires can attack anyone at anytime. Even the LDS Church has come to officially realize that in the case of actual violent crimes like this, a victim bears no sin or responsibility. Culturally? Well, there's still a long way to go there, but at least in their materials they're better now than they used to be.
And theologically speaking from Mormon scripture and practice, in the case of other "victims" of fate and circumstance, God also comes down on the side of not punishing. We are told that little children cannot sin, so they are saved through the atonement of Christ if they, through fate and circumstance, die. Are they baptized? No, they are not. It doesn't matter. What about those who, through fate and circumstance, never hear the gospel? God apparently has made allowances, as well, for those "who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it" (D&C 123:12).
So what about those of us who are also the victims of fate and circumstance? I never made a conscious decision to leave my faith. I never made a conscious choice to rebel. I do not remember ever having the option of going one way or the other, and even if I did, I never knew the ramifications of what that choice would be. Perhaps the Spirit nudged me away from picking up Mormon Enigma, Rough Stone Rolling, or Guns, Germs, and Steel, but if it did I was not aware of the eternal ramifications that lay behind that very gentle nudging. The still, small voice was, in this case, a little bit too still and too small because it didn't do a very good job of keeping me safe. I read, I pondered, my perspective shifted, and before I was even aware of it my beliefs had already changed.
This seems to even be part of the first scripture quote way up above: "ere he is aware". All of this happened even before I was aware of it. I still am not aware of it. I am being brutally honest here: I am not aware of how this change in myself occurred. I cannot pinpoint the time and place where I chose for any of this to happen. There was no light switch for me to flip from belief to non- belief. It was flipped for me before I even knew what was going on.
And I'm still ignorant of it. I know it's common for believing members to assume that I still know "deep down". I don't. At least not consciously, and if there is not deep part of my heart that is still converted and my mind is unaware of it, well then what's the point of that? What good does that little part do me if it's so powerless that I am completely unaware of its existence? I can't flip that switch back to belief because I don't even know where it was when it got flipped to non-belief in the first place.
I don't believe in the LDS Church anymore. I do not believe in the existence of Satan; there is real evil enough in our human world among us human beings that we don't need him to explain the bad stuff in the world. I believe in human agency, at least in the sense that if humans don't actually have free will then our brains are working in such a way that we believe we do. So I don't believe in a tempter when I believe that humans can choose to be good or evil. I don't even believe in the divinity of Jesus, though I think the case for the historical existence of an itinerant Jewish prophet named "Yeshua" in First Century Palestine who was executed (probably for sedition) is strong enough even without unbiased sources mentioning him.
But this post is about hypotheticals, specifically the hypothetical that I am wrong. And I will always allow that I might be wrong. There is always going to be a chance greater than 0% that the LDS Church's truth claims are actually valid and that I am wrong for rejecting them.
In this world we are exploring together where I am wrong and the LDS Church is right, we've already established that I have been deceived into my current actions even before I was aware of it. I am a victim. And we've established that God tends to make allowances for other victims.
In Alma 7:11-12, Alma tells the people of Gideon about the coming Christ.
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Most Mormons point to this verse to state how one of the purposes of Jesus's Atonement, his suffering, death, and resurrection, was so that he would intimately understand us and our lives. Apparently, Jesus knows what it's like to suffer every pain, hurt, heartache, and sin. This means that he knows what it's like to be me: someone who was blindsided by information before I was aware of it. I had as much of a conscious choice in losing my testimony as someone does of walking in front of a truck while texting. Were "bad" decisions made that led to this situation? Sure, but the effects are unexpectedly vaster in scope than I ever realized. But apparently, just as Jesus knows what it's like to be suddenly and unexpectedly smashed out of this life while innocently, and perhaps stupidly, texting, so too should he know what it's like to live my life. To love faith even before I was aware of it. To be so perfectly deceived by Satan that I don't even feel deceived. And I think it's very difficult for someone to understand the troubles and difficulties of someone else and not empathize with them a little.
So as I close this hypothetical and step back into my normal worldview where I don't believe in a devil and often not even a God, let me just say this: I think that Mormon theology has implications that victims are covered. So I'm not really too worried about being wrong. Unless I'm really wrong about all of this and am looking forward to an eternity of misery. But it's not like my life will be any worse or better if I send time being worried about that, so I'm just going to move on in my life and assume that God's love for me is because he understands me and he knows how honest I am when I will tell him that I lost faith in his Church, and even him, because he just made it so damn hard to believe in the face of so much contrary evidence with only a little happy fuzzy feeling occasionally to reassure me that it was all okay (a feeling that continues even today, sometimes at the oddest times which perhaps indicates that my antenna for receiving such spiritual messages might be a little broken).
And for those believing members who've gotten all the way to the end here, let me just say this. I understand you. I understand your perspective and I understand why I worry you, bother you, and sometimes confuse you. I understand why some of you think I've been continuously lying throughout this piece, and why others think I'm subconsciously lying to myself. Because I've been there. And yes, I've become a big scary vampire (well, maybe not that scary to you) and it was, to me at least, unexpected. And for some of you reading, it will be just as unexpected for you, too.
I'm not expecting you to stop fighting just as I don't expect to stop my own actions within this sphere for a while as long as so many of my family and friends are still part of LDS social circles and as long as LDS terminology and world views continue to permeate our conversations. But in the midst of the war of words between the critic and the apologist, I'm asking for you to have some compassion for us, some understanding.
Because no matter how evil I may seem to you, how scary, how dangerous to you or those you love I may appear, I was a victim, too, once upon a time.