Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Eden Found

“You put them in your mouth,” she laughed, “and you press your tongue against them, and you revel in the sweetness of the flesh and the juice, and then you swallow them. There, I told you that you knew nothing about life. Behold, your first experience!”
—Lilith to Adam in Eden, by Murray Sheehan
Book review (and promotion): Eden by Murray Sheehan (1928). Reprinted with an Introduction by Robert M. Price and Edwin A. Suominen, Tellectual Press (2015).

Last summer I stopped at one of our remaining used bookstores in town and picked up an old hardback “Treasury of Great Bible Fiction.” Most of the stories in it are pretty cheesy, but one of them really impressed me with its beautiful, powerful writing and realistic depiction of the underlying Bible tale. It was an excerpt from a 1928 novel Eden by Murray Sheehan.

An Amazon search led me to one of those oddball used & rare booksellers online. Soon I had myself a hardback copy of Eden, almost ninety years old. After reading through its 200 or so yellowed pages, I came away just as impressed with the rest of the book as I’d been with the excerpt. It’s a great retelling of the Genesis human-origins story, wonderfully written and still very engaging to read nearly a century later.

This thing deserves to be a treasured classic, I thought. Why isn’t there an ebook version of it, or at least a paperback reprint? To my delight, I found that it has passed into the public domain.1 Eden has been set free, the best work of Bible fiction I’ve come across yet. And now my indie publisher Tellectual Press is making a reprint available, not just as a paperback but also for the Amazon Kindle.


Bob Price, my friend and collaborator on another Edenic effort, agreed with my assessment of the book, and we co-authored an Introduction for the reprint. As we explain there, what Sheehan came up with was a fine contemporary example of a time-honored literary art known as midrash.2

Eden, Ch. 3 (paperback reprint)

The ancient rabbis peering through their treasured scrolls of the Hebrew Bible practiced this literary art, interpreting scripture passages (especially the difficult ones) by retelling them. They provided their own versions, wider in scope, which contained plot details and additional characters and circumstances that they hoped might make more sense of the originals. The biblical original was just the tip of an iceberg to be revealed by their literary sonar.

Their results are creative and charming, whether or not they really cast light on the biblical texts that inspired them. And, as shown by Sheehan’s fine novel as well as the release of Bible-themed movies from The Ten Commandments (1956) to Noah (2014), the art of midrash has never died.

Murray Sheehan’s midrash puts narrative meat on the bones of an old rabbinic effort to explain a contradiction between the Bible’s first and second chapters. They are both there in our Bibles today, contradictions and all, because whoever compiled them together didn’t want to omit anything. It had already became sacred tradition in a lot of people’s eyes, if not his own. Cut any detail and you could be sure that some busybody from the ancient Israelite equivalent of a KJV-only Bible College would complain.3

Eden, Ch. 4 (Kindle reprint)

And so Genesis 1:27 has God creating Adam with a wife at the very outset while Genesis 2:18-22 has Him4 making one out of the lonesome Adam’s rib after the dust of His creation project had already settled.5 That gives Sheehan a great villain for his novel, the wily and sensual Lilith.6

In Eden, Adam and Lilith have something of a relationship before Eve shows up, but it never gets consummated with anything other than “a wild kiss, the first in all Creation” (Part 1, Ch. 10). God doesn’t like the way things are headed, so He closes Adam’s heart to Lilith and brings Eve into the picture. He provides Adam with a mate who’s less likely to get him into trouble.

But He has counted Lilith out too soon. She manipulates Mr. Serpent into tempting Adam and Eve into eating that apple. (Then things go badly, as we all know.) In a clever twist on the Christian interpretation of the story, Sheehan replaces Satan with Lilith. She, not the Hoofed One, becomes the mastermind behind the Serpent’s mischief.

Creation of Man [Flickr page]

Another fascinating bit of midrash in this novel deals with the puzzling vestiges of polytheism that remain in the Genesis creation accounts. Understandably, those are never even noticed by most casual Bible readers. We provide some details in the Introduction, but the bottom line is that this is another biblical contradiction between older and newer texts.

The only thing Christian theologians could think of to account for the leftover polytheism was the Christian Trinity. And so, they figured, the Father was conferring with the Son and the Holy Ghost back in Eden. Sheehan follows this tradition, providing some snatches of dialogue between the Persons of the Trinity at a few points throughout his story. He has God shaking His head from His divine vantage point in the skies above, watching Lilith plot Eve’s downfall and muttering about it, consoling Himself with a “second Voice within the Father,” and–via yet another Voice–philosophizing about free will.

Sheehan showed a lot of courage in letting his dialogue explore the inevitable implication of a tree-tending Trinity in Genesis: God doesn’t just talk to Himself; He winds up like some poor guy off his meds who carries on a full conversation between separate voices in his head. And since nobody who defends Trinitarianism thinks God is psychotic, the inevitable result is that He is essentially polytheistic anyway!


Eden also bravely and cleverly tackles the dilemmas of omniscience and omnipotence vs. the Fall, the oddities of the First Marriage (perhaps the only one with any real claim to being a match made in heaven), and the sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel. And as a parting gift to the reader, he goes the old rabbis one better and answers the oldest of biblical paradoxes as no one has ever thought to do before.

It’s a great book, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

You can still get original hardbacks of Eden from those oddball online booksellers, for not much more than the $9.99 cover price of Tellectual Press’s paperback reprint. They obviously won’t include the Introduction from which I’ve adapted (in part) this posting, though, or the reprint’s crisp formatting, in both paperback and ebook. (The Kindle version is $6.99.) Plus, you can get the book in both formats for just an additional $0.99 with Amazon’s matchbook feature.

Cover image and Introduction are Copyright © 2015 by Tellectual Press, an imprint of Tellectual LLC. Used by permission. You may freely copy the portions adapted here and the cover image, with attribution. The statuary of Adam and Eve is from “one of the gorgeous new carvings around the west door of York Minster,” photographed by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. and CC-NC-ND licensed for free non-commercial use. Since I’m promoting a book that my company is publishing–in search of some modest profit–with this particular post, I asked Fr. Lew for permission to use his photo in it, which he graciously granted.
I’m planning to review Arthur and Elena George’s The Mythology of Eden soon. That excellent book deserves its own separate essay. Meanwhile, it’s available on It’s not cheap, but worthwhile if you’re interested in a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of the Eden story and its authorship.


  1. Based on some searches of Stanford University’s Copyright Renewal Database and then a perusal of the Library of Congress’s record of copyright renewals for books. Another book by Sheehan had been renewed, but not this one. 

  2. The remainder of this posting is adapted from the Introduction that Dr. Price and I co-authored for the Eden reprint, by permission of Tellectual Press. Though mine is a personal blog, this particular posting obviously has promotional value for both the company and myself. 

  3. See Arthur and Elena George’s analysis of the Eden story’s authorship and mythological underpinnings in their book The Mythology of Eden. The Georges agree that both accounts “had been well known for centuries and hardly could be ignored.” The task of the ancient compiler, they write, “was to unify the Israelite religion in the hope that this would help an Israelite state to rise again. So he opted for an inclusive approach.” Since he “was charged with restoring the Law to post-exilic Judea, it was important to have [the Gen. 1] version emphasizing the importance of the Sabbath.” The “Eden story and the remainder of his primeval history narrative also demonstrated the need for Yahweh’s strictures to guide human behavior.” Both “stories served his purpose. Despite the contradictions in the factual details of the two stories, the most essential truths that they convey about God and man’s relationship to God are fairly consistent, so [the compiler] and the Israelites were not concerned with the stories at the level of factual consistency” (loc. 680). 

  4. Neither Bob nor I typically use the pious convention of divine capitalization for pronouns referring to God. But we did so in the Introduction, and I’m doing so here as well, to stay consistent with Sheehan’s usage. 

  5. At Kindle loc. 669 of The Mythology of Eden, the Georges discuss Lilith’s “medieval rabbinic” origins, which “were made possible only because Genesis 1 already had mentioned the creation of at least one man and woman.” 

  6. Alas, “once we recognize that Genesis 1 was a separate story written by a different author much later and that it does not purport to dovetail into J’s story, any such possible connection with the woman in Genesis 1 is lost” (George & George, loc. 671). Sheehan knew his stuff, but Lilith sure is a great character for his fictional Eden


Thursday, January 15, 2015

God’s Kingdom

There are not many spirits by which we have access to the Father through Jesus Christ. There is only one, the Holy Spirit, which is of God. Neither are there many kingdoms, as the world would believe. There is only one kingdom that has the foundation of the faith and doctrine of the prophets and the apostles with Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone.
The Voice of Zion, September 1979
But what people find difficult to accept is the Church of Christ that emerged in the Philippines.
Pasugo (God’s Message), August 2014
The Kingdom of God–about 0.002% of the world’s population (click to enlarge)

One fascinating aspect of my old church is its claim to be “God’s Kingdom,” the one little flock of true believers that exists anywhere on earth. Almighty God, who wants everybody saved, has for some reason stashed his keys of reconciliation in a place where almost nobody would know to look.1 But, the story goes, he is going to damn almost everybody for not finding them.

The (Finnish) True Church

You see, after getting Christianity spread across the planet over the course of two thousand years, God has chosen those 100,000 or so Finns and descendants of Finns who were lucky enough to have been “born into a Christian home,” plus maybe another thousand converts, as his “grace children.” They comprise about 0.002% of the world’s population. Everybody else–other kinds of Laestadians (there are several), other kinds of Lutherans, all those generic Christians in their innumerable “dead faiths”–God is unwilling or unable to help.2

It’s quite a story, breathtaking in its audacity. Yet it’s so deeply ingrained into Conservative Laestadian doctrine that it’s hardly ever spelled out in sermons.3 When a preacher laments the loved ones who have given up this precious gift of living faith or forsaken the fellowship of God’s Children or left the Kingdom, everybody knows what he’s talking about. Those poor misguided saps are no longer members of the Laestadian Lutheran Church, and they’d better not die in that condition. It doesn’t matter if they still profess the basics of Christianity, perhaps more sincerely then ever, or became (spoken in hushed tones) one of those people who don’t even believe in God. They’re spiritually dead just the same, and headed for hellfire if physical death completes the equation to yield eternal death.

Just that one orange dot.

“God’s Kingdom has an address” is one old saying I heard in sermons and discussions from time to time. But the church doesn’t go out of its way to inform the outside world about just how detailed the directions are. “The kingdom of God is to be found on earth according to the teachings of Jesus,” says its How We Believe web page. “It is a kingdom of grace on earth and a kingdom of glory in heaven. The kingdom of God is one-minded in faith, doctrine, and love.” Another page, The Kingdom of Heaven, gives a few hints of something a bit more specific: “In this world God’s kingdom is hidden beneath the flaws and faults of believing people ... What we can offer you is God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.”

That’s a nice enough offer, but it omits the unpleasant yet absolutely essential detail that no other offer will do, from anyone else and that you will fry in hell forever if you don’t take them up on it. It’s like a doctor knowing that a certain 70-person clinic down a side road somewhere near the Maltby Cafe off Highway 522 has the only batch of experimental chemo in the entire Seattle Metro area that can cure your rare and imminently fatal form of cancer. Imagine her just telling you to head north from Olympia looking for a good oncology center, mentioning some obscure one nobody’s ever heard of that’s a two-hour drive away, and then hanging up.4

Why not just come out with the bracing truth and “call a spade a spade,” as one LLC preacher is fond of saying? If you believe that your clinic has this indispensable medication, that your church is the only way people can avoid the horrors of hellfire, it seems that you would want to convey the absolute urgency of the situation. “Don’t go anywhere else, you hear? This is the place!” I asked an LLC elder about it some years ago: Why wasn’t the church website clearer about who will be saved and who will not? He replied, “Well, we don’t want to scare people off.”5

Perhaps vagueness is considered desirable for PR purposes, but the exclusivity doctrine is certainly something that members are expected to believe. The LLC’s paper “Unity of Faith and Understanding” makes that very clear, at least to those who know the intended meanings of “house of God” and “saving faith”:

It is no small matter when an individual or group, either secretly or openly, begins to believe that the house of God is not necessarily “the pillar and ground of truth” in all matters of soul and conscience or that there is more than one saving faith.6

So I will provide the public with some clarity about one of my old church’s key doctrines where it declines to do so: All of the billions of mentally competent individuals over the age of accountability who now occupy this planet other than Conservative Laestadians are headed for an eternity of unthinkable torture. “Preciously believing” ones, that is, not those fence-sitting “New Age” believers or party animals with grievous hidden sin on their consciences. And, unless the world finally ends after two thousand years of failed expectations, that same horrible fate will be shared by almost all of the billion or so of the world’s children as they reach the age of accountability without any clue about how to be saved.7

Are you on board with this? Head back to church or visit if you have felt the call of God’s Kingdom. But first you might want to consider the other groups that each claim they are the only true church. Why should just one of them automatically be given the benefit of the doubt, after all?

The (Filipino) True Church

I was in Hawaii on a Sunday morning last month, and visited an Iglesia ni Cristo church I’d spotted while sightseeing the day before. The name means “The Church of Christ” in Tagalog. It was a group I’d written about in An Examination of the Pearl, and I just had to see for myself what its services were like. My wife slept in.

Iglesia ni Cristo church on Kauai, Hawaii

A surprised but polite usher escorted me to a seat near the back of their small sanctuary. The congregation was strictly divided between men and women on opposite sides of a central aisle. I sat down and flipped through the songbook as the congregation halfheartedly accompanied an organ and a choir of white-robed Filipino women.

It was interesting to see how similar the messages in the songs were to what I grew up singing. One of them told of “The kingdom, so glorious and blest,” into which, the singer was to recall aloud, “Motivated by faith, I gladly entered” and where “now I do receive / The care for my once-troubled soul.” It is “Within His kingdom”, the song said, where the “great mercy and grace” of the Father is found, along with “His teachings, great beyond compare.” Another song began, “This lonely land is not my true home,” expressing the same yearning for eternity as a beloved old Song of Zion I heard in warm little sanctuaries for nearly 40 years: My home is not here where I journey, ah, no, it is far, far away.8

Those sanctuaries were and still are filled with Finns whose ancestors (in my case, two Finnish grandparents) had left an earthly homeland on the other side of the Atlantic. And in the rough wooden interior of this little church in Hawaii, I sat amidst people whose ancestral origins lay across a different ocean, the Pacific. I was the only white person in the building, looking at the backs of about 150 dark-haired heads, plus the blond-dyed hair of a guy right in front of me who must have been the local rebel.

Actually, I suspect there were a few more rebels with me in those back rows, young guys who reluctantly dragged themselves to their mandatory Sunday morning church attendance. The one to my left was furiously bouncing his knee and shifting position the whole time. And I’m pretty sure I heard some audible snickering behind me at a few points during the preacher’s fervent oratory.

As an outsider, I certainly found it amusing, though I was far too polite to give any indication of that. Imagine stuff like “We cannot neglect our offering to almighty God!” shouted sing-song fashion over a jabbing pointed finger, by a guy with black helmet hair, a thick Asian accent, and a voice that bordered dangerously close to a squeak. Despite all his efforts, to which some people in the rows ahead of me responded with evident or at least well-acted emotion, I walked out of the place without the slightest pang of fear or interest in hearing more of his preaching.

You would have, too, whether you are religious or not. You simply do not take this group’s claims seriously. You may never even have heard of it before now. But it teaches that you are going to hell, and it has about five million members.

Sound Familiar?

The Iglesia ni Cristo began in the Philippines by the inspiration of one Felix Manalo in 1914, after reaching “a pivotal point in his personal religious odyssey.” He “embarked on a programme of evening evangelism,” which yielded about 100 converts within the first year.9

They think you are wrong, and there are a lot of them.

Fairly early in the group’s history, some members emigrated to America and, with guidance from the leadership back home, established congregations at their new locations.10 As with Laestadianism, though, the American adherents still represent only a fraction of the total worldwide membership. And neither movement has attracted substantial interest outside its original ethnic group; most everybody is a descendant of immigrants from the old country. If what I saw in Hawaii was any indication, God’s chosen people in the U.S. are almost all Filipino.11

Today, Manalo figures prominently in the church’s history, and his grandson Eduardo is now its leader, the “Executive Minister.” But the church considers itself “of God and of Christ,” and says Manalo is only “God’s instrument in preaching the gospel of salvation in these last days.” He was, after all, “the first one to proclaim about the Church of Christ” in the Philippines where most of the church’s members are still found today.12

The story is not too different in structure from Laestadian lore about Lars Levi receiving the Gospel from one member of an obscure group of “Readers” and then unleashing it from his pulpit in Karesuando. And the spiritual successors of Laestadius also disclaim him as any kind of an object of worship, though the ones in the OALC sure devote a lot of their service to reverent mentions of his name and readings of his written sermons.

Complete unity! Except they aren’t Laestadians.

Naturally, one true church means just one true doctrine: “Unity in the Church is quite significant, because our unity includes God and Christ. It is wrong to destroy this unity.”13 Again there is a striking familiarity between these words from the Philippines and the ones coming from the LLC. They really want everybody on board with the party line, and there is only one party line.

Choose Wisely

The Iglesia ni Cristo makes the same exclusivity claim as each schismatic branch of Laestadianism does for itself. (Obviously, only one of them can be correct about it, at most.) If you are not a member of the Church, “you will not be saved on the Day of Judgment.”14 And what they mean by “the Church” is very specific: “The prevailing belief that all churches belong to God is false. Christ founded only one Church–the church of Christ.”15 Man receives “redemption and the forgiveness of sins” only through this Church. “In God’s scheme of salvation, Christ and the Church of Christ are inseparable”16

The Church of Christ

That quoted material is from Iglesia ni Cristo’s materials, but it could just as well have come from the SRK/​LLC, OALC, IALC, or FALC. If they could be persuaded to come out and actually say it publicly, that is.

I have been in contact with people who have left all of those branches of Laestadianism as well as the Church of Christ (Boston Movement), the “Churches of Christ,” “the Truth” aka the 2x2s or “church without a name,” and More Than Conquerors Faith Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Indeed, for most of the seven groups listed besides my own former SRK/​LLC Laestadianism, my conversations and correspondence have been with more than ex-member from each group. They all spoke and wrote to me about their experiences in a church where everybody in all the others is considered damned to hell, including the sincere believers I grew up with.17

The nerve of them, I thought about the churches these people had left. Then we smiled together about how firmly that same outrageous and indefensible idea had remained implanted in each of our brains, before that other ex-exclusivist ever had the slightest clue about my old church or I ever did about theirs. And our respective former churches still go on with their self-absorbed preaching, condemning each other and everybody else without knowing or caring to know.

The two graphic art images depict the number of Conservative Laestadians proportional to everyone else on the planet. Created with The Gimp, a free and powerful piece of graphics software. The Iglesia ni Cristo church pictured is the one I visited in Kauai, Hawaii. I took the photo of it from the passenger window as my wife and I drove by sightseeing later. These three images are Copyright © 2014 Edwin A. Suominen; you may freely copy and use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Indeed, I hope you will, particularly that first one showing all those dots representing the world population as 50,000 groups of the same size as the SRK/​LLC. “God’s children” are just one orange dot in the upper left corner. Click on the image above or here to download the full-resolution 1311px by 929px version (only 129 KB), or just forward the link.
Photos of textual material are from a copy of Pasugo (August 2014) that I saw and requested after the service, and then photographed in highly cropped, low-resolution form for “fair use” illustration of this essay. The issue was subtitled God’s Message, so what used to be two magazines may have now merged into one. The official website of Iglesia ni Cristo, if you’re curious or perhaps want to see if 5,000,000 or so Filipinos might be right about the perilous state of your eternal soul, is


  1. “God our Saviour ... will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4); “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). 

  2. If God really wants everybody to be saved, he must be quite unhappy about a world where so few actually are. He seems unable to do anything about the situation, yet he’s supposedly omnipotent, which means nothing can stand in his way (Mark 10:25-27). This show-stopper of a theological problem I discuss in one of my most popular postings, The New Testament Disproving Itself

  3. The results can be embarrassing for the church when one of its preachers does stray into discussing the awful specifics. In a sermon given at the LLC’s 2010 Winter Services, for example, one of them started talking about the “kind of reaction we sometimes hear today when we speak about God’s Kingdom.” Things got a little too candid when he went on, “‘You really think this is the only place where forgiveness is found? Do you really think that you are the only group that is traveling to heaven, the only group of believers? Do you really believe that?’ And of course, to the rational mind it does seem like an awfully simple way to believe, doesn’t it? When we look around us in this world and we see the people and the churches and the deeds that people do and all of these outward things, certainly we can understand that to the carnal mind our faith is so foolish. That’s what Paul found too, when he preached. He said we preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, and to the Jews it’s a stumbling block, and to the Greeks it’s foolishness.” Paul was talking about Christianity itself, not some group’s sectarian claims of exclusivity; I wonder what he would have thought about his church becoming so absurdly limited in scope as to be practically invisible. 

  4. The size of my hypothetical clinic is proportional to the 0.002% figure, given the Seattle metro area’s population of 3.6 million people. And the Seattle Laestadian Lutheran Church is down that road off Highway 522, in case you were wondering. However, instead of 70 people there are about 200-300 “who have been called by the grace of God to be partakers of the hope of eternal life” and “individually have been given grace to believe the forgiveness of our own sins in Jesus’ name and blood.” 

  5. This soft-pedaling to outsiders contradicts the idea that God’s holy law, “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” as Gal. 3:24 puts it, is being preached in all its harshness to unbelievers to prod us into repentance. See An Examination of the Pearl, §4.5.1

  6. Speaker’s and Elder’s Meeting presentation, 2007 LLC Summer Services,​topics/unityfaith1.pdf

  7. Adapted from An Examination of the Pearl, §4.2.1

  8. From “A Song of my Home I am Singing,” Songs and Hymns of Zion No. 576, v. 2. 

  9. Robert R. Reed, “The Iglesia ni Cristo, 1914-2000. From obscure Philippine faith to global belief system.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, The Philippines Historical and Social studies. Vol. 157, No. 3, pp. 561-608. 

  10. Reed at pp. 583-85. 

  11. “Iglesia is not better known, despite its numbers, because the majority of Iglesia’s members are Filipino. Virtually the only exceptions are a few non-Filipinos who have married into Iglesia families” (Catholic Answers,​tracts/iglesia-ni-cristo). 

  12. Manual for New Members, Part 4: “How you should obey the teachings you received,” under “About God’s Last Messenger,” From unofficial copy reproduced online at​info.htm

  13. Manual for New Members, Part 4, under “About unity.” 

  14. Manual for New Members, Part 4, under “About being registered.” The Iglesia ni Cristo goes so far as to have a “registry on earth” that corresponds to “the registry in heaven (the Book of Life),” which really just makes official what Conservative Laestadianism believes about membership status in its organization. The closest thing it has to an earthly “Book of Life” is the little paperback church phone book that comes out every year. I have to admit I was a bit sad to see an edition of it without my wife and me listed for the first time. 

  15. Manual for New Members, Part 4, under “About the true religion.” 

  16. Pasugo (the church’s monthly newsletter): January 1997; September 1988. 

  17. I have varying degrees of certainty about how much these different groups hold to the belief that they are the only place where salvation may be found. I’ve read quite a bit about the Churches of Christ, for example, and exclusivity has been a commonly made claim among them, even in writing at times. On the other hand, all that I know about the More than Conquerors group making that claim comes from a person who left it. But all of my correspondents from the groups listed seemed sure that the exclusivity idea was commonly understood among their brethren when they were among them. And of course there are other groups not discussed in this essay with the same view, or at least a general belief that nobody else is quite as saved as they are. 


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ecclesiastical Evolution

The spectacle of it! With a few powerful words yelled out a bit louder than the rest, the place erupted into a frenzy of redemption. And it happened every time. The pale upturned palms of ten thousand hands darted and swirled above pastel dress shirts and brightly colored dresses. Starbursts of reflected light sparkled off the women’s gold earrings dangling and shaking with their heads.
“Believe!” shouted the preacher again.
Winding Road [Flickr page]

Religions like to claim that the Truth ever was as they now are. They have the pure doctrine revealed by God, to them and their forebears, unchanging and eternal. If you want to find out what Christianity was from the moment that Jesus breathed the Holy Ghost on the disciples, for example, you need only visit the Conservative Laestadian church I used to attend.

Inconveniently, other churches make their own claims. The Churches of Christ claim to be, well, the Churches of Christ–just as they were established by the Apostles traveling around in the book of Acts, except perhaps for the Greek architecture. Joseph Smith did not invent a new religion involving crudely imitated King James English, an entirely mistranslated Egyptian funerary text, and adapted Masonic rituals and symbols, harrumph the Mormon powers that be. No, he restored “the Church of Jesus Christ to the earth, which God authorized to be established ... by a wiser, heaven-tutored Joseph Smith, once again allowing everyone to receive the joy and blessings that come from living it.”

What is really happening, of course, is that religions make their ancestors in their own images. The past is dimly and selectively visualized through a screen imposed by the present. Whatever is being practiced today–strict confession of sins or more relaxed general absolution, instrumental music or just singing a capella, magic underwear, whatever–is absolutely what happened all along with the true believers of yore.1

But it isn’t.

Lurching through Laestadianism

There are many cases of ecclesiastical evolution in my old church, none of which its elders are eager to acknowledge. Some examples that come to mind: Nobody stands in the pews rejoicing about grace anymore, false spirits are nowhere to be found, sinners have largely dispensed with confession and all its mental hang-ups, and a lot of entertainment video is being watched on private little screens. But those are peripheral things I personally observed during my decades of membership. A larger issue, and one that few believers know about (I certainly didn’t, until researching it), is that the church’s main theme of proclaiming sins forgiven has slowly evolved into existence over the entire span of Christian history.

The Laestadian Lutheran church centers its doctrine and practice around a ritual of absolution that the Bible declines to illustrate with a single solid example, even in Saul’s conversion or the case where it would seem most instructive–Peter’s denial of Christ.2 The whole thing revolves around the preaching of “the gospel” (the term being narrowly construed for doctrinal purposes), a proclamation that one’s sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood, which was never actually used in any of the Gospels!3

Church history is also a problem for this group’s idea of itself as a special group of believers who have passed along the keys of absolution in an unbroken chain from Jesus and the disciples. There’s just no historical evidence for that. Rather, it is clear that there was a slow evolution of Christian thought, over many painful centuries, about the nature of sin and to what extent it might be forgiven.

My research and discussion of this topic is the one part of An Examination of the Pearl that I dare to consider original. Writing my conclusions about it also marked the end of my belief in the doctrines of Conservative Laestadianism. This is important stuff if you’re a Laestadian of any type, so let me summarize what I wrote about it in §5.1.2 with the next few paragraphs.

Arriving at Absolution

The earliest Christian writers never thought to mention what became such an important aspect of Catholic (and, I might add, Conservative Laestadian) doctrine and practice, the absolution of sins by the proclamation of another human being. And the fact that they wrote about other means by which sins could be forgiven makes their silence about absolution all the more problematic.

At first, sins could only be forgiven once, and only once, through the spiritual washing of baptism. Then the idea of a second chance materialized, but that was all you’d get. This “two strikes and you’re out” arrangement evolved into a harsh system of cruel penalties that dished out misery and humiliation to anyone who dared confess to committing sin.

It wasn’t until the fifth century that the bishops started sharing the keys with ordinary priests and limits of grace finally disappeared. Even then, it seems that there was little attention paid to absolution into the early middle ages, at least when it came to the practice of everyday Christians.

All in all, there was a tortuously slow expansion of those Christians who were authorized to use the keys. At first the authority was neither claimed by nor given to anyone at all. Then the bishops appeared, keys in hand. Then the priests to whom they hesitantly delegated their authority got copies, and later monks did, too, within the walls of their closed communities. And finally, when Luther’s system appeared, laymen got their chance to employ the keys, in theory if not so apparently in actual practice.4

As if all that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that Laestadianism began without its 19th-century founders using the supposedly indispensable keys to let themselves into the Kingdom.5 Things had hummed along with visions and revelations for a good nine years before one of those guys, Juhani Raattamaa, finally stumbled on the idea of comforting a desperate woman by preaching that her sins were forgiven via his proclamation that it was so. He was struck by how well it seemed to work and, upon returning home, found support for what he’d done in Luther’s writings.6 And on that pebble of forgotten Lutheran practice was built an entire church.

No wonder church elders don’t like people to read or think too much about their own history.

A Return to Ecstacy?

Knowing how much my former religion has evolved while simultaneously claiming never to do so, I got to thinking about what that church might look like in the future. It certainly will be very different than it is now.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see all but a devoted core group surrender the idea that contraception is a sin. That core group, of course, will then be the source for new members, most all of whom are supplied via procreation. Laestadianism attracts hardly any converts in its long-standing population centers of Finland and North America. Babies are the key–lots and lots of babies.

But there are two places where Laestadianism is attracting converts, hundreds of them: Togo and Ghana. What would a West African Laestadian Lutheran Church look like in the year 2044, as the (further evolved) movement celebrates the Bicentennial of Laestadius’s awakening in the presence of Milla Clementsdotter aka “Lapp Mary”?

Perhaps things will go full circle, in a sense. The services of African Laestadians might wind up a lot like those of the spiritually awakened Sámi 200 years earlier, with fervent preaching and ecstatic outbursts.

My latest short story “Africa 2044” is a brief musing about how that might appear as seen through the eyes of Koffi, a lukewarm believer who is thinking too much while translating a sermon. It’s available via this link or under the “Fiction” sidebar to the right.


  1. In a  2014 sermon, an LLC preacher acknowledged that things really aren’t so unchanging and eternal after all, about one issue at least. I found his candor about that refreshing as well as the fact that he didn’t just skip over an inconvenient verse (Titus 2:3) during his line-by-line exposition of the text. The Spirit today guides believers to abstain from alcohol, he said, but fermentation was a method of preservation and “there was some wine consumed in biblical times by believers. And what we don’t know, necessarily, is the alchohol content and then also whatever customs of the times were acceptable to believers. ‘But not given to much,’ he does say, so certainly not drunkards” (15:30). 

  2. Regarding conversion by absolution, see An Examination of the Pearl, §4.2.5. Regarding absolution as the sole means of grace, see §4.6.2. Regarding the oft-cited example of the “Keys to the Kingdom” passages in Mark 7:6-7 and Matthew 15:7-9, see §7.1. Regarding Saul’s conversion, see §7.2

  3. As I wrote in §4.3.3, the “story of Nathan rebuking David of his sin and then pronouncing that he was forgiven of it (2 Sam. 12) strikes me as the only plausible example in the Bible of the Laestadian-style absolution being employed.” But “one must recognize that there was not even a remote mention of Jesus during the encounter. Imagine the noise that Christian apologists would have made of such a thing if it were there, seeing how they scour the Old Testament for the vaguest of statements that might be considered messianic prophecies! No, it was the time of the ‘Old Covenant,’ when the forgiveness of sins supposedly was facilitated through animal sacrifices.” 

  4. This paragraph and the three preceding ones are adapted and condensed from §5.1.2. If there is one part of An Examination of the Pearl that I really would like Laestadians to read, it’s that. 

  5. “This belated realization by Raattamaa, the timing of his ‘discovery of the keys’ and Laestadius’ initial misgivings to it, and the lack of first-hand accounts of the keys being used in conversion before the discovery makes it seem that the early awakenings did not involve the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins from a believer to a penitent one. But that is completely contrary to the Conservative Laestadian doctrine that such a personal proclamation is the only way for one to receive forgiveness of his sins, including the ‘greatest sin’ of unbelief.... It seems like a vexing problem indeed for a church to teach that its doctrine never changes and yet have its founders entering into ‘living faith’ without the benefit of the very proclamation of the forgiveness of sins that is one of its distinguishing characteristics and central doctrines” (§4.1.4). 

  6. The support is indeed there. Luther invented the idea of absolution from one ordinary believer to another (§5.4.3). It just took about 1500 years from the time Jesus conveyed the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter or the disciples, depending on which Gospel passage you read.