Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's NaNoWriMo time again!

NaNoWriMo Participant 2009Last November, I finally took the plunge and participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. It was a blast, and I actually pulled it off!

Unfortunately, I can't show you the finished product, because... well, it's not finished. Although I wrote 50,000 words, the story was just starting to get interesting. In the past 11 months, I've only added about 5,000 more words, so the novel's current status is still "half-finished first draft". I've learned my lesson, and this year I will be completing a full story arc by 50,000 words even if I have to write scenes consisting entirely of a single sentence such as, "Here is the scene where two of the alien's three heads confess their love for our hero, while the third head spits in his face."

Here are a few more lessons I learned from last year's NaNoWriMo experience.

Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft. No, seriously. I pretended to do this last year, but in hindsight I wasn't really committed to it. I did a lot of re-reading, cleaning up dialogue, closing plot holes, etc. That is absolutely not the way to pump out a first draft in 30 days. During the month of November, your Inner Editor is your enemy. Sure, it will be your best friend on subsequent revisions, but not in the next 30 days. Go for quantity, not quality. The goal is to get it written, not to get it right. Detailing David's lovely locks before you even chisel out the bottom half of his body makes it less likely you'll finish the sculpture at all.

But just how shitty are we talking here? Without your Inner Editor, does this mean your plot may not make sense? Yes. Does this mean your characters may be boring stereotypes or wild caricatures of your cow-orkers? Yes. Does this mean your dialogue will be full of clichés, and will probably read like it was written by a second grader? Yes. Does this mean you will leave stray commas, parentheses, and adverbs where none are needed? Yes. Does this mean you will write run-on sentences from hell? Yes. Does this mean you will make up impossible fantasies instead of spending hours of research to ensure your sci-fi devices obey the known laws of physics? Oh, hell yes. Make something up. Pretend you're an expert. Write love notes to yourself and use them toward your word count. Don't worry too much about where this is going. Just go, go, go!

Don't fall too far behind. To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to average about 1,666 words per day. This can seem daunting, but less so if you write without the Inner Editor reading over your shoulder. However, even if you write like the wind, there may be times when you fall behind. Especially during Week 2, when the novelty has worn off and your story starts to get stuck. Last year on November 16, I was 10,751 words behind pace. I was supposed to have written 26,666 words, and I had only written 15,915. I saw the writing on the wall; unless I made a drastic change, I wasn't going to make it. I confessed to my wife that I didn't think I was going to finish. It was fun while it lasted, and I wouldn't feel too bad for falling short.

Fortunately my wife talked some sense into me, and I kicked it into high gear. Making up ground is possible if you fall this far behind, and it can even be thrilling, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's much better for your sanity if you can stay on pace by writing every day. Write a ton during the rush of Week 1, and you will give yourself a cushion that Week 2 will do its best to destroy.

If you do fall behind, catch up with sprints. Writing in short, focused bursts is a good way to crank out high word counts while avoiding burnout. I like to do what Simon Haynes suggests; write in chunks of 500 words, four times per day. Each sprint should last about 20-30 minutes. If you get behind, Simon also has a fantastic catch-up plan that will net you 7,500 words in a single day. I did this last year on November 22 and it made all the difference. I went from 6,000 words behind to right on track. Talk about a confidence booster!

So what are you waiting for? Have you ever wanted to write a novel but haven't sat down and made it happen? Almost no one has done it, but writing a novel is well within reach, and there's no better opportunity than NaNoWriMo. Sign up now, and while you're at it, add me as a writing buddy. Even if you're not participating, you can follow my progress at the link above, and I'll be posting about it periodically on this blog as well. Any questions? Let me know. Happy noveling!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Are you a Mormon?

(Cross-posted at Main Street Plaza.)

At Main Street Plaza, we recently discussed the various names we use to refer to ourselves (liberal Mormon, NOM, post-Mormon, ex-Mormon, etc.) depending on how we each perceive our relationship with Mormonism. I’m interested in much more direct question, which I’m never quite sure how to answer. Are you a Mormon?

It seems like a straightforward question, but I find it surprisingly tricky because it’s not always clear what is meant by “Mormon”. If it means a member of the CoJCoLdS, then my answer should be yes, because I am still on the records as a member of that church. If it means someone who has ever had the experience of being a Mormon, then my answer is also yes. If it means a person who considers oneself a part of the Mormon culture or believes Mormon doctrine, then my answer should be no, because I am neither. For others, the situation may be reversed; you might not be a member of the church anymore, but still consider yourself part of the Mormon culture. So are you a Mormon?

In my own mind, I’ve pretty much moved on from Mormonism, but to answer either yes or no without further explanation seems strange. I tend to give a different answer depending on the context. If a stranger asks, I’ll usually just say no unless I’m interested in having a conversation about Mormonism. If I actually feel like talking about it and they seem interested, I might start with something like, “Technically I am a Mormon, but…” I’ve heard of others using the phrase “I was raised Mormon,” which I would love to use, except that I was an adult convert. Do the details really matter? Maybe the phrase “I used to be a Mormon” is an acceptable substitute.

However, there is one situation in which I always say yes: whenever I run into LDS missionaries. I’m not interested in arguing with them, and I’m not interested in their attempts to convert me, either. So I just say yes, I’m a Mormon; no, I don’t have any referrals; good luck, elders, and have a nice day.

When I sat down to consider this question, I was surprised to discover that my answer depends mostly on whether I feel like getting into a discussion. In a way, my approach feels a little shady, but I think I’m okay with it. How about you? How do you answer the question? Are you a Mormon?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Should we beat this guy up for violating Leviticus?

The Friendly Atheist has an interesting post illustrating the dangers of cherrypicking from Leviticus. Apparently there was a brutal beating of a gay man in Queens recently, and one of the attackers' buddies proudly displayed this tattoo.

idiot tattoo

The tattoo reads, "You shall not lie with a male as one does with a woman. It is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22." Ignore for the moment that "abomination" means ritual uncleanness in the exact same way as eating shellfish or touching a menstruating woman. Ignore for the moment that Leviticus also prohibits eating pork, wearing clothes made of two kinds of material, trimming your beard or sideburns; and prescribes the death penalty for talking back to your parents. Ignore all that for now.

Let's simply skip to the next chapter, Leviticus 19:28, which says, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD." Levitical law is apparently very important to this idiot. But not important enough to read more than a single verse that appears to justify his prejudice. Well, Levitical law is very important to me too, and I think I would be justified in beating this guy nearly to death for violating it. Wouldn't I?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dallin H. Oaks is wrong again

It can be frustrating when the LDS church always insists on framing itself as the innocent victim, even when they are actively seeking to oppress others. They seem very interested in speaking out of both sides of their mouth in the past few weeks, first with Bruce C. Hafen's anachronistic address on the evils of homosexuality and now with Dallin H. Oaks's recent statements about religious freedom, in which he compares the LDS church to oppressed black people in the 1960s. (No, I'm not kidding.) I read the address from Oaks in its entirety, so I understand his statements in context. Here are my responses to Oaks's five points of counsel concerning religious freedom.

First, we must speak with love, always showing patience, understanding and compassion toward our adversaries. We are under command to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27), to forgive all men (Doctrine and Covenants 64:10), to do good to them who despitefully use us (Matthew 5:44) and to conduct our teaching in mildness and meekness (Doctrine and Covenants 38:41).

Yes, please. I'm on board. After all these press releases and the recent General Conference addresses attacking everyone from gays to unbelievers to parents who teach their children to think for themselves, I would love to see a little more mildness and meekness.

Second, we must not be deterred or coerced into silence . . . We must also insist on this companion condition of democratic government: when churches and their members or any other group act or speak out on public issues, win or lose, they have a right to expect freedom from retaliation.

I completely agree with this. However, what Oaks and his ilk seem to want is not freedom from retaliation, but freedom from opposition. That is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. There is nothing illegal or immoral about boycotting the businesses of those who contribute money to causes you disagree with. There is nothing illegal or immoral about denouncing bigotry broadly and loudly. Oaks did get one thing right, though: vandalism is wrong. Vandals deserve to be prosecuted and punished under the law.

This next statement seems to be the one that has gotten everyone riled up:

It is important to note that while this aggressive intimidation in connection with the Proposition 8 election was primarily directed at religious persons and symbols, it was not anti-religious as such. These incidents were expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest. As such, these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation.

Okay, in the context of his argument, the point would be technically valid if religious voters were actually intimidated against voting on Proposition 8. However, I haven't seen any evidence of this. All the "retaliation" he cited happened after the election, and most of it was not intimidation but simply free speech.

While I think I understand why he said it, I'm frankly amazed that he chose the "blacks in the South" analogy, and that he stuck by it when pressed. It's a very, very bad analogy for several reasons.

First, if any group is being deprived of its civil rights analogous to blacks in the 1960s, it is certainly not the LDS church. It is the gay people who are being denied the right to marry. Duh. I mean, mega-duh.

Second, as I said, it's not clear that anyone was actually intimidated against voting in the Proposition 8 contest. People didn't just boycott black businesses in the '60s. Call me when Prop 8 opponents start lynching and turning the fire hose on Mormons on their way to the voting booth.

Third, the LDS church actively discriminated against black members until 1978, at least a full decade after the rest of the country got with the program. LDS church leaders have made many extremely racist remarks in their official capacities as officers of the church. Most notably, Brigham Young spent three decades preaching racism and hatred from the pulpit, including the doctrine that "if the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." Considering the circumstances, Oaks's comparison of the LDS church to blacks struggling for civil rights is thoughtless and offensive.

Just because you have a persecution complex doesn't give you the right to compare yourself to every group that has ever been oppressed. Especially when you yourself were the oppressor then, and you are still the oppressor now. Come on now.

Third, we must insist on our freedom to preach the doctrines of our faith.

No problems here. Freedom of religion entails the freedom to preach bigotry. Freedom of religion does not entail the freedom to enact bigotry into law simply by virtue of its religious nature. However, all people, religious or otherwise, have the right to vote as they please.

Fourth, as advocates of the obvious truth that persons with religious positions or motivations have the right to express their religious views in public, we must nevertheless be wise in our political participation. . . . religious persons will often be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and positions in ways that are respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs and that contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that is essential in a pluralistic society.

Excellent. I assume this means the church is retracting the false assertions it advertised widely during the Proposition 8 campaign: that churches will be forced to perform gay marriages, that schools will be forced to teach young children about gay sex, that private adoption agencies will be forced to give children to gay couples, etc. Not to mention the biggest, most ridiculous lie of all: that gay marriage somehow takes away the rights of heterosexual people. Spreading lies about your opponents seems less than respectful.

Fifth and finally, Latter-day Saints must be careful never to support or act upon the idea that a person must subscribe to some particular set of religious beliefs in order to qualify for a public office. The framers of our constitution included a provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI). That constitutional principle forbids a religious test as a legal requirement, but it of course leaves citizens free to cast their votes on the basis of any preference they choose. But wise religious leaders and members will never advocate religious tests for public office.

Top-notch advice. This is in contrast to Rick Warren's statement, for example, that he "could not vote for an atheist", and the 2007 Gallup poll where 53% of respondents said they would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate. As a likely result of these kinds of attitudes, the number of Congresspersons who listed their religion as "unaffiliated" in a 2009 Pew Forum survey is exactly... zero. In fact, according to the survey, "In 2007, Representative Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a Unitarian who joined Congress in 1973, became the first and so far only member of Congress to publicly declare that he does not believe in a Supreme Being."

Far from "persons with religious-based points of view [being intimidated] from influencing or making the laws of their state or nation," as Oaks would have you believe, the current situation is the exact opposite. Lack of religious belief is political suicide. But it shouldn't have to be.

For the most part, I agree with many of the principles Oaks outlined. My main beef is that I don't believe the LDS church generally follows its own advice in this regard. And the comparison to "blacks in the South" was completely unjustified and ridiculous. I understand that playing the victim is a cherished LDS tradition, but sometimes you need to own up to your actions. Dallin H. Oaks, you're truly not the victim here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

General Conference impressions

I don't know why I keep putting myself through this. We spent the day at my in-laws' house, and of course they watched both two-hour sessions of the LDS General Conference on TV. I decided to pay attention, because even if I disagree with much of what is said, every once in a while someone will say something interesting.

The morning session was okay. I don't remember much except Eyring explicitly emphasizing that you and every member of your family need to be "worthy" if you want to be with your family in heaven. This strikes me as a particularly nasty mafia tactic. Awfully nice family ya got there; it would be a shame if anything happened to it. Every other religion that comes to mind already believes that you will be reunited with family after death. Only the Mormons make it conditional.

The afternoon session was much worse. Holland went off on a tirade about how Joseph Smith's miraculous story of the golden plates is the only possible explanation for the Book of Mormon, and that all other explanations are "silly theories" and "pathetic answers". Anyone who doesn't believe this story is "foolish" and "misled", and must... well, actually, I'll let you read the words for yourself.

[T]ell me whether in this hour of death [Joseph and Hyrum] would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as impostors and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

For one hundred and seventy-nine years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed, often silly theories about its origins have been born, parroted and died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spalding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for the book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather who said simply enough, ‘No wicked man could write such a book as this, and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.’

I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort for our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that's the case then such persons, elect or otherwise, have been deceived and, if they leave this Church, they must do so by crawling over or around or under the Book of Mormon to make their exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be ‘a stone of stumbling,… a rock of offence,’ a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe.

First, every religion has its martyrs. Joseph and Hyrum Smith did not go meekly to the slaughter, but died in a gunfight while incarcerated on charges of destroying a printing press that was being used to expose Joseph's polygamy and aspirations to set himself up as a king. All of this is well documented, and completely irrelevant to whether the Book of Mormon has divine origins. My point is that Joseph Smith did not choose to "die rather than deny". He was violently killed by a mob after continually provoking those outside his Latter Day Saint movement.

For the record, my personal assessment is that Joseph Smith probably did not consider himself an "impostor and a charlatan", but was a devout Christian and believed that the Book of Mormon would bring more people to faith in Christ. The Book of Mormon is like Christian fan fiction, except it desperately wants to be part of the canon. Joseph may have even felt "divinely inspired" while dictating the story from a rock in a hat. But I tend to think he knew on some level that he wasn't, which explains the extremely lame excuse for the lost 116 pages. Anyway, all of this is armchair psychology, and also irrelevant.

Here is what is relevant. Any of the explanations mentioned by Holland (Ethan Smith, Solomon Spalding), as well as the null hypothesis that Joseph Smith simply wrote the Book of Mormon himself, are much more plausible and better evidenced than Joseph Smith's miraculous story of angels, golden plates, seer stones, and a "Reformed Egyptian" language no one has ever seen before or since. This explanation is supported only by the testimony of Joseph's friends and family, who claimed they saw the plates "with the eyes of their understanding". Nearly everything that is falsifiable about this explanation has been falsified. If you're going to call unbelievers foolish for disbelieving the paranormal story that is contradicted by evidence, you're going to need to come up with some damn good reasons why this story is more likely than the null hypothesis.

Holland made a brief allusion to such an alleged reason when referring to "Semitic complexity", which I must believe refers to chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. The problem is that chiasmus also exists in James Strang's Book of the Law of the Lord, the INFORMIX-OnLine Database Administrator's Guide, and even, according to LDS apologists themselves, in "random" (unintentional) places in the Book of Mormon. The human brain is extremely adept at finding patterns where none exist, especially when one is looking for the pattern in the first place. The presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is evidence of its ancient origin just as the presence of the word adieu is evidence of its French origin. In other words, it's not.

Also, how do I account for the fact that the Book of Mormon has had a profound spiritual impact on millions of people? The same way I account for the fact that billions of people believe the Pope speaks for God. The same way I account for the fact that billions of people have been profoundly spiritually impacted by the Qur'an. Excuse me, I think misspelled a word. I said billions, but I meant to say BILLIONS. The only way Mormonism can win the numbers game is not to play. Oh yeah, and I should mention that the numbers game is, of course, irrelevant. Millions of Hindus can't be wrong either.

The point of Holland's talk seems to have been polarization. I believe his talk will strengthen believers while also pissing off and alienating unbelievers. Is this what we really need? Is it useful somehow? I can understand his frustration with the increasing numbers of Mormons leaving the church lately, but launching into a rant about how stupid you must be not to believe in the obvious truth seems like a bad long-term strategy. If the church wants a small group of fundamentalist fanatics, they should continue to make inflexible, literal-minded speeches like this one. If they want a large group of believers of various level of orthodoxy, they will need to be a little more tolerant.

Before this talk, I actually considered Holland to be one of the more understanding and compassionate members of the Q12. From what I've read, and the talks I've heard from his own mouth, I believed he had a bit of insight into the mind of an unbeliever, or at least a bit of empathy for anyone who has tried to believe but simply cannot. I am greatly disappointed in him. I don't know why I keep expecting people, religious leaders even, to be rational rather than polemic. I'm starting to realize that such a hope is completely naive. People simply do not change, and religion gives them the perfect excuse.

So to sum up. Is the Book of Mormon a stumbling block, something that must necessarily trip me up in my irrational desire not to believe? Hardly. As an unbeliever, must I hopelessly crawl through the muck, always to curse God and never to find true happiness? Not really. Is it going to be easy to continue dealing with the personal attacks and vilification from the octogenarians with chips on their shoulders and heads up their asses? Apparently not. I really have to get better at tuning this crap out.

Friday, October 2, 2009

General Conference predictions

(Cross-posted at Main Street Plaza.)

Back in the days when I paid attention to LDS General Conference, I always attended the priesthood session with my wife's father and brother. I enjoyed the tradition of returning to report some fantastic fictional revelation to my wife and her mother. I call this a tradition because I did it every time, but I was the only one who ever did.

When I returned from the priesthood session in October 2000, shortly after I was baptized, I reported that President Hinckley had a revelation that all worthy women should be allowed to receive the Aaronic Priesthood, beginning on the next Sunday. They were flabbergasted and asked if that was really true. "No," I said. "But he did say you're supposed to wear only one pair of earrings."

I think the reason I did this is because I longed for true revelation. Something that could make a real difference. Even as a new convert, I recognized that no longer do Prophets Of God boldly proclaim Revelations From The Lord about the Very Nature Of God And Humanity. These days, "thus saith the Lord" has been replaced with "thus saith the manual", and dress codes and style guides pass for revelation.

I've forgotten most of the fake revelations I came up with over the years, but every once in a while, I still wonder what kinds of "revelations" from the LDS church leadership I would actually be impressed with. Here are some things I would love to hear. They may be implausible, but hopefully not totally out of the realm of possibility.

- All members will be afforded the same opportunities regardless of genitalia, social standing, business background, or sexual preference.

- The church's finances will be made public again, as they were before 1959, so everyone can confirm the incredible charitable work that has been done with members' donations. And for the next month, all donations will be given to those in the Philippines who desperately need it.

- Members are encouraged to express concern or dissent with the church's policy or actions, because that is a necessary part of a healthy community. Church leadership will seriously consider members' feedback instead of excommunicating them.

- The Word of Wisdom means what it says. Don't scald your throat with hot chocolate and don't eat three Big Macs in one sitting. Beer is okay, as are tea and caffeinated drinks. Better yet, disregard the Word of Wisdom entirely and follow the recommendations of your physician instead.

- Members are encouraged to examine church history from all perspectives, thinking critically about the evidence for the church's claims and trying to be as objective as possible in reaching their own conclusions.

- Previous revelation states fairly clearly that a proper tithe is 10% of one's surplus. Especially in these difficult times, this interpretation is emphasized, without any subtle implications that you should pay 10% of gross income instead.

- An earthquake of epic proportions will hit the Salt Lake Valley on March 22, 2010. Everyone pack up your handcarts. We're heading to Missouri.

Okay, maybe it's too much to hope for. Sadly, I think the chance of any of these revelations is nearly zero. Almost any of them would be a good start in making the world a better place. Instead, what we will hear from the prophets, seers, and revelators is probably more like this.

- Obedience is the first law of heaven. But don't just obey any old person. Obey the prophet. He says exactly what God would say if God could talk.

- Tithing is the first law of heaven. We won't come right out and say how much you should give. Just give as much as you possibly can, or preferably even more. It would sure be a shame to miss out on all those blessings, wouldn't it?

- Speaking of money, we're building a dozen new temples. That's called faithful stewardship, and it's certainly not a wasted opportunity.

- For God's sake would you please stop sending your kids to church in skirts and flip flops! How many times do we have to say this?! The Lord is displeased!

- Pornography is bad. Really bad. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly bad it is. By the way, you can find lots of it very easily on the Internet. But don't look at it. Don't even think about it. In fact, don't even think about trying not to look at it. We shouldn't even be talking about it right now. But we can't stop talking about it. That's how bad it is!

- I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that this is the true church of Jesus Christ on the earth today. I know that Thomas S. Monson is a true prophet. We love our dear prophet so much. We are unworthy to kiss his feet, or even to unloose his oxfords. May the Lord bless him with good health, and long life, and lots of sweet widow stories forever and ever. Oh yeah, and nameofjesuschristamen.

What would you love to hear in General Conference? Got any predictions of your own?