Thursday, June 01, 2006

Review: The Worth of a Soul

Well, I couldn't finish the book. I've already posted a bit of a review of the first couple of chapters where the author describes his slide into sin which ended in a brief affair. I started trying to read the section on his excommunication, repentance, reform, and eventual return to full faith and fellowship in the church and just couldn't read it. The book is only 123 pages with pretty large type so it's not exactly long. So why couldn't I finish it? I suspect that a large part of the reason is the overwhelmingly gross oversimplifications of complex situations that are explained by superstitious beliefs in supernatural intervention in our personal lives.

For example,
  • When we are righteous and bad things happen we are being tried and should be happy in our trials.
  • When we are unrighteous and bad things happen then we are reaping the consequences of our sins.
  • When we are righteous and good things happen it is evidence that we are being blessed and should convince us of the wisdom of being righteous.
  • When we are unrighteous and good things happen then we aren't really happy. It is Satan telling us that we are happy, but it is temporary and we will eventually rue the day that we sinned.
  • When good coincidences happen then it is obvious proof that God has intervened. Even though we can't begin to understand how he might have arranged it, its obvious he must have intervened or else things wouldn't have happened exactly the way that they did.
  • When bad coincidences happen then it's the same except that now it was Satan that made it happen instead of God.
  • We should let others define what is sinful and feel guilty and shamed if we can't obey their arbitrary definitions of morality.
  • We should focus on the moral shortcomings emphasized by the church at the expense of recognizing the real sources of our problems. For example obsessing about the Word of Wisdom or masturbation but not worrying about neglecting family and personal needs so that you can fulfill time consuming church callings. Or faithfully paying 10% of your gross income to the church while going bankrupt. You get the idea.
It's not exactly irrational, because it is all internally consistent and every possible situation can be interpreted in a way that confirms Mormon beliefs. No matter what you do and no matter what happens the church's teachings are true. Isn't it wonderful!

What is sad is that it really isn't helpful except for reinforcing and confirming the believer's dependence and subservience to the authority of the church.

However, I would like to mention that I think that several ideas in the book have great metaphorical value. I don't think that they are literally true, but I think that the concepts behind the doctrines are.
  • Atonement: Christ will forgive us of our sins. I think that believing that a cosmic restitution for our sins has been made allows us to put our past sins behind us and stop beating ourselves up. It is essential to be able to let go of the past, the guilt, and the shame. A belief in the atonement helps people with this.
  • Punishment and restitution: I think that people need to take responsibility for the consequences of their choices. Sometimes saying you are sorry and that Christ has made you clean just isn't enough to mend the damage you've done. You have to make a sincere effort to make things right and help heal.
  • Accountability: I think that the beneficial role of church courts and is that some problems are very difficult to resolve on your own. Knowing that you will need to report to someone can help. I think that this is part of the role of sponsors in AA and other such programs.
  • Counseling: I think that having a confidant is important. A bishop or stake president can play this role. Again, in AA a sponsor and the group also help in this role.
  • Resolution/absolution: A church member who is rebaptized has symbolically completed an arduous journey to fundamentally change and reform his life. I think that this kind of power symbol can be an extremely healthy, confirming milestone.
The one overwhelmingly problematic teaching in the book for me is the necessity for public shame and humiliation as a motivator for change. Excommunication is very public in the Mormon church and serves as a virtual scarlet letter that brands that member for the remainder of his life. At the very point where the member is most at need for support and fellowship, the fellowship is withdrawn. For those that truly believe in the church, this is a HUGE issue. It is crushing. For this man it seems to have been a large motivation to make the personal changes that he needed to make. But not before crushing him even further while he had already bottomed out and needed a hand up. It seems to me that there must be a more Christ-like, compassionate way to support people struggling with problems such as alcoholism or sex addiction or any of the other many "addictions" that afflict our society.

The fundamentalist implementation of these principles in the Mormon church concentrate too much power in the hands of people with minimal training and knowledge in dealing with personal problems and then doesn't have any system of accountability to prevent abuse of the extreme power that they hold. The administration of "justice" within the church is very unevenly implemented depending on the personalities of the church authorities involved, the social and economic status of the sinner as well as the age, personality, and gender of the sinner. Refer to the Mormon Alliance web site if you want to see tragic examples where bishops and stake presidents have protected pedophiles to save the church from embarrassment, persecuted members for publicly stating their opinions, and punished individuals for relatively minor moral deviances.

While I appreciate the need for powerful personal change, I just don't think that the church provides a consistently positive, effective way of achieving it.

I'm glad that the author was able to successfully improve his life and reach a state of satisfaction and happiness. I'm glad that his superstitious beliefs provided a framework that he found valuable in understanding and coping with his problems. But I don't share his world view and beliefs and wouldn't make it through the process he describes. I think that professional counseling as well as non-demoninational support groups such as AA or SA leave open many more personalized approaches to rationally analyzing, understanding, and dealing with life's problems without having to submit to the doctrinaire dogma of any church.

Conclusion: Off to the round file with this one. I don't want anyone to come across this book because I think that the warped world view that it promotes is harmful and abusive.

1 comment:

Sideon said...

Thank you for the review.

The summary description alone was curdling my blood and making me look for a brick wall to bash my head into, repeatedly.