Last week, I went with my wife and some of our kids to see the Disney on Ice figure-skating adaption of the musical movie Frozen. It was great fun to see Anna and Elsa zipping around the rink with Olaf, Kristoff, and Sven, who materialized as a rather large reindeer comprised of two skaters inside a furry brown costume. When Elsa went out on the ice under blue light for her big solo act, two little girls sitting behind us sang along at the top of their lungs: “Let it go, let it GO!”
A husband-and-wife pair of composers wrote Let it Go as “Elsa’s Badass Song,” specifically intended to be sung by Idina Menzel, “one of the most glorious voices of Broadway.” They succeeded brilliantly. The song is the highlight of the film and has sold over 10 million copies on its own.1
I first heard it while sitting in a theater with my family nearly two years ago. This was still a fairly novel experience after a lifetime of being told–and then allowing it to be told to my children–that seeing movies is a sin. Laestadianism and its oddities were still very much on my mind as I watched Anna make her cute wisecracks and accompany a socially-inept ice merchant and his furry best friend on a quest that included, among other delightful implausibilities, a visit with some witty and wise rock-rodents who dispensed relationship advice.
“So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” they sang about Kristoff while working on setting him up with Anna. Aren’t we all, I thought, musing about all the mental remodeling my wife and I were doing on ourselves and our older children, after the nonsense we’d all heard for years and years sitting alongside each other in a very different setting.
When Elsa finally broke out of her self-imposed shell, flung out her arms, tossed back her head, and proclaimed that she wasn’t going to hold back anymore, I felt like applauding.
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!
Yes! You go, girl! I silently cheered, feeling a bit embarrassed about how emotional I was getting watching this movie. But there was a good reason for it. For a year, I’d had to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know” what I’d learned from some diligent and sincere research about my childhood faith. Sharing that information with a few friends in the church got me hauled into a meeting with my local congregation’s preachers and board of trustees.
After a two-hour inquisition, having been told I was to retrieve the dozen or so copies of the book I’d given away, “I went home and told my wife, ‘You are about to witness the intellectual disintegration of your husband.’ Then the years of doubt, fear, and frustration–culminating in being muzzled into silence by a church far more interested in rebuke than reality–boiled over. I collapsed into my wife’s arms in tears, and went to bed for a fitful night.” 2
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door!
After some months, I just couldn’t hold it back anymore, either. My half-hearted promises to stay away from dangerous studies didn’t stick, of course, and I “learned and questioned more about church history, the Bible, and aspects of science that conflicted with important points of doctrine.” I also “lost the energy to continue swimming against the current of the church’s clannish, insular social scene,” which treated my family and me like we all had some dangerous and contagious disease once my doubts became known.
I was ready to “shake off the muzzle” and put into print what had “been swirling around my head and flagged in the pages of my library of books.” The result, An Examination of the Pearl, wound up being more than twice the size of the print-shop copy that had gotten the elders so bent out of shape.
Given the outraged reaction I encountered to a very limited, private distribution of the book, which consisted mostly of church statements and relatively restrained footnotes about those statements, I have no illusions that this published edition will be well received. As Ken Daniels noted about his own book, “whether I take a gentle or harsh approach, I am sure to elicit criticism. The very act of confronting deeply cherished religious convictions is unforgivable to some, regardless of my tactics.” 3
I’m not the only one who has been moved by Let it Go as an anthem of liberation from fundamentalism. Blogger “Libby Anne” wrote about that in March 2014, after being shocked at how much her conservative evangelical mother obsessed over the movie. “How could they see Frozen and not realize that it was about self acceptance and freedom from others’ expectations–and moral standards?” she wondered.
When she first watched Let it Go on YouTube,
before seeing the movie in theaters, I completely choked up at the line “no right no wrong, no rules for me.” Tears started streaming down my cheeks. It was beautiful. I grew up in a conservative evangelicalism that I eventually found highly restrictive. As I began to extricate myself, my family and friends put me through a special kind of hell. But even through all of the pain and the tears, I entered into freedom when I left behind their rules, their expectations, their control. This song spoke to so many emotions. I’ve watched it again and again many times since that first time, and each time I’ve achieved some form of catharsis.
It’s now her personal theme song, she says.4 Another blogger, Maranda Russell, says she fell in love with the song as soon as she heard it:
At times in my life I felt like I had to hide my true self to get approval and love from friends, family and the church. I had to pretend to be a “good girl” who never questions anything and believes blindly what I am told. I still feel like many wish I would just shut up and believe what they tell me is true, but I just can’t do that anymore.5
I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway!
Maranda admits that “maybe I still care a little (after all I am still human), but I won’t let it rule me.” I did, too, about what I knew my “brothers and sisters in faith” were going to say, but I went ahead anyway. A storm would rage, friendships would be lost–most of those that I’d forged since childhood, it turned out, in a church that discouraged social contact with the outside world.
And the stakes were infinitely higher than what one friend called “social suicide”: Publishing the book against the wishes of the Laestadian Lutheran Church would inevitably be viewed as an act of apostasy, no matter how balanced I tried to be in presenting my findings. Eternal damnation loomed in my future.
To those who tell me my writing was courageous, I reply that it took less courage then what many of them have done–simply walking away. I needed to have my brethren push me out instead, simply for making the facts known, asking difficult questions about them, and refusing to accept the tired old insistence that the most important matter of one’s life “cannot be understood by reason.”
My introduction to the book quoted Clement of Alexandria from 18 centuries earlier: “If our faith is such that it is destroyed by force of argument, then let it be destroyed; for it will have been proved that we do not possess the truth.” Recalling the “faith” of a board member who said he won’t read anything critical about what he supposedly believes,” I asked if that was
really faith in anything other than the people around him who are repeating the old slogans? They, too, are ignoring the facts about their “faith,” making the whole thing a self-sustaining doctrinal bubble that quivers unsteadily in the air, vulnerable to being poked by the slightest intrusion of fact.6
Now, nearly four years later, these words from Let it Go are exactly my experience:
It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all!
There is simply no fear anymore. And it’s not for any lack of knowledge about what this weird little sect thinks my eternal fate will be. Hell, I still listen to sermons sometimes to get to sleep, because the preachers’ somber, familiar, repetitive intonations send me drifting off faster than anything else. Sometimes I get several nights’ worth of use out of a single sermon, because I start the iPod at different points in the recording and am out within ten minutes.
One correspondent told me, “My old Laestadian world view is gone. If I talk to certain people or listen to sermons I can feel the world view there and experience it sometimes. I don’t think it’s ever coming back, though, and I am the better for it.”
Yes, my friend, you are. And, as Elsa sings out, fully embracing her unique identity and abilities, “one thought crystallizes like an icy blast”: You’re “never going back. The past is in the past!”
§1.2, quoting from Clement’s Stromata, 6.10.80. William Wilson’s translation, freely available online, goes as follows: “But if the faith (for I cannot call it knowledge) which they possess be such as to be dissolved by plausible speech, let it be by all means dissolved, and let them confess that they will not retain the truth. For truth is immoveable; but false opinion dissolves.” ↩