Sinister Regard : Joseph Smith
            

Wired.com's Geek's Guide to the Galaxy Podcast
Though it doesn't officially come out until tomorrow, my interview with the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast is now live and available through iTunes and elsewhere.

I really enjoyed doing this interview. Host David Barr Kirtley asked great questions, and we chatted not just about the writing of The Accidental Terrorist, but also how charismatic religious leaders manage to get away with so much and why there are so many Mormon science fiction writers.

Dave does a heroic job with this podcast in general, and if you're not listening to it regularly, you should. In fact, you should listen to a few of the many great past episodes and then help support the show.

Listen below now!

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Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!

My mission began around the time the prophet Ezra Taft Benson forcefully reaffirmed Joseph Smith’s declaration that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion.” It was the absolute center of our proselytizing efforts, the axis around which all else revolved.

Joseph published the Book of Mormon in 1830, when he was 24 years old, in the wake of a revivalist firestorm that swept through western New York. New religious movements had sprung up left and right, and utopian societies were a dime a dozen. The region was fertile ground for experiments in faith, having already given rise to such charismatic figures as Jemima Wilkinson and Mother Ann Lee. Joseph and his book would go on to eclipse them all.

Joseph Smith, Jr.—named, like I was, after his father—was born into precarious circumstances in Vermont on December 23, 1805. He already had two older brothers and an older sister—another brother had died in childbirth—and his father shuffled the growing brood from one New England town to the next, hounded by bad luck and debt. Joseph’s was a childhood steeped in magic and visions from his father, but also, from his mother, in deep love and reverence for the Bible.

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Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!

Two years earlier, my father and I were driving back roads somewhere east of Victorville in the California desert when he sprang a terrifying question on me. “Son,” he asked, “do you want to serve a mission?”

I didn’t know what to say. I must have fielded that question hundreds of times growing up, from relatives, family friends, or congregants at church, and the expected “Yes” was always my reflexive answer. But the look on my father’s face told me this time was different.

He wanted a truthful answer. I didn’t know how to give him one.

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This essay is excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, available everywhere November 10, 2015.

WARNING: This essay contains graphic descriptions of primitive surgery that some readers may find disturbing.


In January 1994, when I was 26 years old, I sat down in my bare, cold room to write my first novel.

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Joseph Smith's "capital" idea

            

As I was working through the very final set of revisions on The Accidental Terrorist, I had to hunt down the original source of a well-known Joseph Smith quote on the topic of the accuracy of the Bible. I found what I was looking for in his History of the Church, but I also found a nearby paragraph that was equally interesting.

Joseph was obviously frustrated by the persecution he and his people had been suffering, and was perhaps even more frustrated by his inability to get protection or redress from the courts, or even much sympathy from President Martin Van Buren in a face-to-face 1840 meeting. In Volume VI, Chapter 3 of History of the Church, he wrote:

The Constitution should contain a provision that every officer of the Government who should neglect or refuse to extend the protection guaranteed in the Constitution should be subject to capital punishment; and then the president of the United States would not say, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you," a governor issue exterminating orders, or judges say, "The men ought to have the protection of law, but it won't please the mob; the men must die, anyhow, to satisfy the clamor of the rabble; they must be hung, or Missouri be damned to all eternity." Executive writs could be issued when they ought to be, and not be made instruments of cruelty to oppress the innocent, and persecute men whose religion is unpopular.

Think about that for a minute. The death penalty for failing to protect everyone's rights under the Constitution. Can you imagine the irony had Joseph's fancy become an actual amendment? Can you imagine the implications for the attorney generals and county clerks who refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples? Can you imagine the implications for district attorneys who failed to indict white officers for shooting black civilians?

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[Looks like marriage is in the air. For more info on what the heck is going on here, click here.]

The modern church has plenty of embarrassing historical specters hanging around, but few haunt it the way polygamy does. The church has tried to distance itself from the practice in the past century, but with mixed results. If you ask most Mormons today whether or not they believe it's proper to practice polygamy, they'll tell you no. But if you ask them whether or not it's a correct principle, they'll say yes.

In fact, the practice of polygamy is an excommunicable offense, and has been for many decades. This has not always been the case, however—polygamy was once, deservedly (and still is, erroneously), the chief distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism in the minds of most Americans—and many Saints believe it may not always be the case in the future. They look forward to the day when the moral and political climate in the United States and other nations has cooled enough to permit the church to reinstitute the practice—though the more reasonable of these don't expect it to happen until Christ's Millennial reign on Earth. (Note that I specified "the more reasonable.")

So, what is polygamy, and how did the practice arise?

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For the remainder of the hour, Elder Fowler and I wound Buddy Van Rijk in an increasingly constrictive net of dogma, woven from strands—even by Christian standards—of ever more tenuous logic. It was the type of snare that can only constrain a willing captive; one misstatement on our part, one question or concern unsatisfactorily addressed, and the whole careful construct falls away like trick ropes from an escape artist.

Elder Fowler explained the role Jesus Christ plays in the Plan of Salvation, negating through His sacrifice the effects of death and sin that would otherwise prevent us from returning to God's presence. (Being a sports fan, Van Rijk was surely familiar with the supporting New Testament verse—John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son"—that Fowler asked him to read aloud from the family Bible.) I described the process by which God makes the Plan known to His children: instructing prophets to pass His words along to all the Earth's inhabitants, which come to us as scripture. Relating an abbreviated version of Joseph Smith's First Vision as anecdotal evidence, Elder Fowler affirmed that God continues to speak to prophets in our modern day and age. Then I put forth the Book of Mormon as one of the premier fruits of Joseph's holy calling, and briefly summarized its premise and contents.

In these latter parts of the discussion, we painted Joseph Smith for our investigator the way weak sunlight paints a stained-glass saint for the parishioners inside a cathedral—we rendered him beatific and blessèd, aglow with a numinous radiance, yet for all that curiously flat, distant, and inscrutable. We applied no brushstroke that might have brought life to that colorful rogue, teased out no overlooked detail that might have shed light on his enormous charisma (a force so powerful that Mormons still love the man fiercely and recklessly more than a century and a half after his death). In our singleminded quest to prove both Joseph and his magnum opus modern witnesses of Christ, we certainly recounted no tale like the one I'm about to tell. But stories like these are as great a part of the appeal of Mormonism as the doctrine of eternal families—to long-standing members, perhaps even more so. Check this out:

It was probably late in 1812 that typhoid fever swept through Joseph Smith's family. The previous year his parents had settled with their six living children in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where, after a series of financial disasters, they had begun at last to regain their footing. Joseph would have been nearly seven when he and his siblings, including the new baby Catherine, took sick. All seven children eventually recovered, though Joseph's older sister Sophronia nearly died and Joseph himself developed a painful abscess (what he called a "fever sore") in one shoulder.

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