Friday, September 11, 2009

The Mormon Jungle: "Latter-Day Cipher," by Latayne Scott

With its death oaths and blood atonement, Mormon cultural history provides plenty of raw material for a murder mystery. Remember how Brigham Young decreed death on the spot for interracial mixing of seed? Did you ever wonder what would happen if someone decided to carry that out?

If so, look no further than Latayne Scott's Latter-Day Cipher. It's an exciting mystery as well as an intriguing trip through Mormonism's dark history. As a fan of portraits of different cultures, I particularly liked how the author contrasts Utah Mormon culture with the Tennessee Christian heritage of some of the characters. The book also introduced me to a fun bit of Mormon history trivia (that I'm surprised I'd never heard of before, given my fondness for invented languages): the Deseret Alphabet.

This book is probably the most "anti-Mormon" work of fiction I've ever read, aside from A Study in Scarlet. I'm a little wary about making a statement like that because I think that the "anti-Mormon" label is extremely problematic, especially applied to literature (see It’s Time to Play: Anti-Mormon… Or Not?). However, in this case, the author has explicitly compared the work to The Jungle and Uncle Tom's Cabin (in terms of using fiction to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism), so I think it makes sense to analyze the author's criticisms of Mormonism. I'll tell you my reactions, and please feel free to re-analyze my analysis. ;^)

The book's central point about Mormonism is that the bad parts of Mormonism's past are smoothed over, but are still there, right under the surface. The author's key metaphor is that of a the gas fumes that still linger around the site of a plane crash that took place in the distant past. In Mormon terms, this corresponds to doctrines that are simply deleted from one edition of a manual to the next (see, for example this post on the new Gospel Principles).

This is a very real problem within Mormonism, which I think the author illustrates well: When a Mormon leader teaches doctrine X, and then doctrine X is not mentioned (neither confirmed nor disavowed) in General Conference or any official LDS church publication for several decades, that creates a situation where some Mormons are still actively teaching X as doctrine while other Mormons claim that it's a pernicious lie to suggest that Mormons believe X. And both groups -- those that believe X and those that think essentially no Mormons believe/teach X -- are innocently honest and sincere in their (incompatible) beliefs. We've discussed this problem at MSP in the post Why not denounce Brigham Young’s racist statements?

To use the popular metaphor, defining Mormon doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall. No matter what you say about Mormonism on the Internet, some Mormon will come by and say "That's not true!" And, while each individual Mormon commenter is sincerely trying to clarify the given point of doctrine, the aggregate of all of these conflicting claims is really, really, really annoying for an outsider (or even an insider) who is sincerely trying to figure out what Mormons believe.

The lingering doctrine that Latayne Scott dwells on most is blood atonement. Some major plot elements hinge on the idea that some Mormons might feel they need to be bloodily killed to atone for their sins. For example, a Mormon who sinned by drinking and driving, and accidentally killed someone as a result, might believe that he has to atone for that sin with his own blood in order to be saved. As someone who was raised Mormon, I find this incredibly bizarre and far-fetched. Most modern mainstream Mormons have never heard of "blood atonement", much less believe in it. And when you read about blood atonement from the days in which it was practiced, it seems a lot more like a threat to frighten "apostates", not something people would ever think they require themselves. I would suspect that some people who carried out the "blood atonement" felt they were doing their victims a favor (in accordance with Brigham Young's famous sermon on it, immortalized in the Journal of Discourses), but I'd be very surprised if anyone, ever seriously believed they needed to be on the receiving end of Mormon "blood atonement". (There's one claimed case mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, but that one looks a little suspicious.)

That said -- I as explained above -- one Mormon's experience isn't a good measure of what Mormons (in general) believe. For all I know, maybe some congregations are still teaching blood atonement, particularly in the Mormon fundamentalist churches (which figure prominently in Latayne Scott's book).

I suspect that the reason for the focus on blood atonement in this book isn't just because of the doctrine's deadly potential for abuse -- it's also because it's such a terrible heresy for Christians to suggest that anyone would atone for their own sins under any circumstances (as opposed to relying on Christ's atonement). In my personal opinion, this book suffers from the usual bias that Mormonism is wrong because it contradicts Evangelical Christianity. That's obviously not the only problem the author has with Mormonism, but I get the strong sense that the author sees it as the root problem.

One point in particular stood out as being typical of a Christian take on Mormonism. One character (who was raised Mormon) stops believing in Mormonism because she's upset by the doctrine that Heavenly Father was human and had a father. The character wanted a God who is far above all that. Again, as someone raised Mormon, I find this scenario bizarre and alien. To me, there's nothing strange or upsetting about the idea that God is a "Heavenly Father" who had his own "Heavenly Father." When the character gets upset about this doctrine out of the blue, it was (to me) as though she'd suddenly become disappointed that her parents have their own parents, instead of there being one true set of parents for everyone. (Note: I'm an atheist, but I strongly disagree with the belief that Christian monotheism is more natural or logical than polytheism, see here). By coincidence, another post appeared in the Bloggernacle just the other day (here) about how some people find the Mormon concept of an embodied parent-God deeply spiritually appealing.

I know, it's fiction, so anything is possible. And since I have an example in my blogroll of someone who was Mormon yet felt profoundly drawn to pagan-style polytheism (see here), it's clear that sometimes people do make this sort of dramatic shifts. Still, you shouldn't bank on it, and I feel like the book illustrates the standard misconception: You want to believe that other people -- deep down -- know that your concept of God makes more sense than their own concept of God. But it's just not the case.

So, overall, the book is engaging as a murder mystery, and -- as a warning story to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism -- at least it raises some interesting discussion points.

Note that the author will be give a talk about this book at the 2009 Exmormon Foundation Conference.


Aerin said...

I will have to take a look at this book. And I agree that it's difficult to tell what is and what is not doctrine.

Blood atonement wasn't mentioned that I remember, even during the D&C year of seminary I attended.

But I can see that it was regarded as LDS doctrine in the nineteenth century. And from my understanding, even "Mormon Doctrine" is not accepted as official Mormon doctrine by many faithful LDS members.

Holly said...

Interesting. The author will probably be disappointed that your review doesn't make me want to rush out and read the book, mostly because I think your analysis is right:

I know, it's fiction, so anything is possible.... sometimes people do make this sort of dramatic shifts. Still, you shouldn't bank on it, and I feel like the book illustrates the standard misconception: You want to believe that other people -- deep down -- know that your concept of God makes more sense than their own concept of God. But it's just not the case.

Re: blood atonement--have you ever read Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore, a memoir about how his brother Gary ended up murdering two young men in Provo, and then being the first person executed in Utah when it reinstated the death penalty? I LOVE this book--can't recommend it highly enough, and so far, everyone I've recommended it to who has read it has loved it as well. I'd like to know what you think of it, even though I realize that with my glowing endorsement, I'm practically daring you to hate it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

Yeah, the Mormon doctrine of blood atonement is difficult to pin down. Actually the wikipedia article about it (linked above) is really interesting because it gives a survey of the official pronouncements on the subject (in the Mormon scripture and from the Mormon prophets). They seem to contradict one another and/or are open to multiple interpretations...

BTW, the wikipedia article answered another question that we discussed when I was visiting you: What's the evidence for the claim that Utah's use of firing squads for execution is tied to the Mormon doctrine of blood atonement? I was thinking that it might just be chance, and that the connection to blood atonement is just an urban legend. In fact, I was wrong. The evidence for the connection between the blood atonement doctrine and the use of the firing squad in Utah is quite solid. That's why I ended up not doing a separate post about the question: wikipedia alone answered it for me.

Hey Holly!!!

I expect that the author will be a good sport about my critique of her criticisms of Mormonism. After all, I specifically told her that I don't think that Mormonism can be reasonably compared to slavery or even to the Jungle-era Chicago meat-packing industry, and she was willing to send me a review copy anyway.

I have a lot of items on my reading pile at the moment, but Shot in the Heart sounds intriguing enough to add...

Aerin said...

chanson - wait - you're going to believe wikipedia??!? ;)

I think it's great to research claims about things we hear, and whether or not they are actually true/based in fact.

Holly said...

I really do think SITH is worth moving to the top of your "to read" pile--it's just so creepy and dark and tragic and Mormon. Gilmore offers one of the best analyses of the BOM ever:

"Once you strip away all the BOM's pretenses of scripturual import, what you have is nothing more nor less than a lusty tale of America's favorite subject: families and murder....

"As Moroni looks at the blood-reddened land around him, and as he reviews the full reach of the history that led to the mass extinction, it is plain that the force behind all these centuries of destruction is none other than God himself. It is God who established the legacies that could only lead to such awful obliteration. God is the hidden architect of all the killing at the heart of America's greatest mystery novel, the angry father who demands that countless offspring pay for his rules and honor, even at the cost of generations of endless ruin."

And the story of Gilmore's own family's ruin is truly gripping and horrible. It's a great read.

Latayne C Scott said...

Actually, I knew that when you agreed to read and review my book that I would get an honest and thoughtful review. I am very grateful that you gave it your time and attention.

I am proposing (to the publisher (of Latter-day Cipher) a sequel in which the code messages are written in hieroglyphs from The Book of Abraham (from the Pearl of Great Price.)

About blood atonement as an active part of LDS life -- you're right about the fact that it is unknown to many LDS. But when I was Mormon, a young man I knew personally killed his pregnant wife and one of my LDS friends bemoaned the fact that if he were convicted and could receive death by firing squad (as was available in Utah) he could shed his own blood to pay for one death, but not two.

And of course Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven tells about how blood atonement has been recently practiced in FLDS groups.

All that aside, I thank you warmly and sincerely for your review of my book.

Latayne C Scott

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Latayne!!!

That's interesting that your LDS friend would express such a belief about blood atonement (that a person's own blood can atone for one death but not two). In the wikipedia article I linked above, they cite evidence that some Mormons have believed that death by firing squad wouldn't count as blood atonement (since the throat should be slit) and other Mormons have believed that hanging would count as blood atonement because the spilling blood aspect is metaphorical. As I said above, the fact that the leaders won't clarify the doctrine means that individual Mormons end up teaching and believing all sorts of strange and random things as doctrine.

I've seen this problem in my own life, with regards to a different doctrinal point: When I was in seminary, my teachers taught our class that black people were cursed because they were less valiant in the pre-existence. This was in 1989, ten years after the priesthood ban was lifted!! But the verses about Ham and the "curse of Cain" in the Pearl of Great Price were never repudiated, and no explanation was given for why this "curse" no longer entails being barred from the priesthood and the temple.

Now, Mormons will argue that the idea of blacks being less valiant in the pre-existence is not doctrine. But their leaders encourage the confusion by actively giving the members mixed messages. They quote the book Mormon Doctrine from the pulpit at General Conference -- giving it quite a lot of credibility as a source of doctrine -- but if you try to hold them to it as definitive, they'll say that it was never canonized and it's just some guy's opinion. And regarding the part in Mormon Doctrine about black people, it's not enough to just silently delete it from one edition to the next without explaining why. Naturally some people who learned that "doctrine" in their youth aren't going to stop believing/teaching it just because it's not present in the new edition.

Regarding using the hieroglyphs from the Book of Abraham: it's easy to write a message in hieroglyphs, but it would be hard to write an interesting message that uses Joseph Smith's translation of them.

Latayne C Scott said...

Wow. A seminary teacher was saying that about blacks AFTER the ban on blacks & priesthood was lifted? Amazing.

About the hieroglyphs -- I've figured out how to use some of the glyphs from Joseph Smith's "Egyptian grammar" for clues.... stay tuned..... :)

Again, my thanks. Isn't Mormonism just a mess?

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Wow. A seminary teacher was saying that about blacks AFTER the ban on blacks & priesthood was lifted? Amazing.

Yep. Not just after, but ten years later! For all I know, maybe the same ladies are still teaching this "doctrine"...

I think that this incredible variety of beliefs (heterogeneous orthodoxy) under a surface of cultural homogeneity (homogeneous orthopraxy) strongly characterizes the Mormon experience.

Jake said...

This book is FICTION!!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jake!!!

Yes, that's true. I mentioned that in my review. In other news, this is a book review. A book review is a short article analyzing a book.

simplysarah said...

Thanks for the link. Great points made in your review (love the nailing jello to the wall analogy).

Also, regarding the blacks/priesthood 2001 I had a bishop who quoted a friend's patriarchal blessing (the friend was a black man from africa who'd given the bishop a copy of his patriarchal blessing) to reiterate the lesser-premortal-valiance thing.

So as of this decade, it's definitely still being taught...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Simply Sarah!!!

Wow, that's awful that the blacks-were-less-valiant thing is still being taught today. It's not surprising, though, unfortunately...