Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Mother of Many Children

Jerusalem, God’s Zion, came down from heav’n above.
She’s our beloved mother, whom we, her children, love.
It’s here that God is dwelling, in spirit here is found;
of truth it is the pillar, and is it’s very ground.
Songs and Hymns of Zion No. 188, v. 1.
In this as-yet-unpublished newsletter article, my old fundamentalist church announces a surprising change in its long-standing doctrine of exclusivity. Be sure to read my comments that follow the article at the bottom of this posting. [Suomeksi]

MOTHERS in God’s Kingdom often have many children, and they receive them all as precious blessings. Each child brings an individual personality and gifts to the family, and much joy to their mother and father, who do not wish to place artificial limitations on these blessings.

We often refer to God’s Kingdom itself as a spiritual mother. “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). “The mother feeds and cares for her children. So also does the Kingdom of God, the spiritual Mother, which Rebekah-mother in the Old Testament portrays” (By Faith, p. 31). God’s children are welcomed, nurtured, and loved by this mother, who accepts them with joy, just as the natural mother accepts all of the little ones she is given.

This abundance of love and welcoming grace has been a recent topic of discussion between members of the LLC, SFC, and SRK boards, as well as servants of the word in our respective sister organizations. With humble hearts and thanksgiving for God’s blessings and guidance, we have learned anew “what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height,” and “to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:18). It has been revealed to us how much of an accepting and loving mother God’s Kingdom really is, perhaps more so than many of us in our weak understanding had realized.

Believers Around the World

There are, we must say along with one of our Lutheran confessional books, “truly believing and righteous people scattered throughout the whole world.”1 Our spiritual predecessor Martin Luther said in his time that there were “Christians in all the world,” that “no one can see who is a saint or a believer.”2 And so we understand that the Rebekah-mother gladly welcomes all who would be her children, whether they are in our particular assembly of believers or not.

God’s Kingdom is precious to us, “our beloved mother, whom we, her children, love” (SHZ 188). Here we find comfort and the forgiveness of our sins. But there is a danger of putting too much emphasis on God’s Kingdom as an organization, as an assembly of people, and making God Himself secondary to it. “I will not give my glory unto another” (Isaiah 48:11).

We can also look to the words of Luther in this: He wrote that anyone who “maintains that an external assembly or an outward unity makes a Church, sets forth arbitrarily what is merely his own opinion.” We must humbly agree with our brother in faith that there is not “one letter in the Holy Scriptures to show that such a purely external Church has been established by God.”3

During our concluding meeting at the SRK offices in Oulu, we received much loving instruction from God’s Word and a spirit of unity. With tears of joy, one brother read simple instructions from the Bible about how we can know where the Spirit of God is: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2). Every spirit, he repeated, and went on to read how we can know who God’s children are: “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).

Another brother recalled that the Apostle Paul considered the Gentiles as equals in God’s eyes. He noted that this was a significant new revelation for the Old Covenant believers of that time, too. But there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek, Paul wrote, “for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:12-13).

A question arose about the preaching of the Gospel in the verses that follow: How can other people “call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Luther wrote that whoever hears the Gospel and believes on it, and is baptized, is called and saved. And, he added, “the Gospel is nothing else than the preaching of Christ.”4

We cannot allow our traditions about the Gospel and forgiveness to take away from God’s Word. “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:19). This portion says that whoever calls upon His name shall be saved and then simply points out that people cannot call on someone they haven’t yet heard of.

There were many around Paul who had no knowledge about Jesus. We certainly cannot say the same today of the many millions of people who faithfully read the same Bibles we have and praise God’s name in their own churches.

God’s Ways Are Beyond Human Comprehension

The mind of man rebels against such inclusiveness. Who are these strangers we are to consider as possible fellow-travelers on the way that leads to heaven? How do they get their sins forgiven? But these questions arise from our sin-corrupt flesh.

It is important to remember that God’s grace is not limited by the limitations of our carnal reasoning. “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end” (Eph. 3:20).

Random, marginally relevant nature scene [Flickr page]

Apostle Paul reminds us, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all” (1 Cor. 12:4). We have seen many sorrowful incidents in our own history since the time of Laestadius where “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Mat. 23:23) have been forgotten over minor issues and personality differences, leading to needless strife and divisions. There “should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another” (1 Cor. 12:25).

Our brother Juhani Raattamaa, whose portrait hangs alongside Luther and Laestadius in some of our church buildings, honored the Apostle’s message during a spiritual storm that took place in our Zion about a hundred years ago. He continued to show love for a prominent servant of the word who had been rejected over obscure matters few of us can even recall anymore and who was forced to journey in faith with a group called the Esikoinen, or “Firstborn.” After the death of this “beloved brother and fellow laborer,” Raattamaa remembered him “with sorrow and joy, even though his body is resting in the bosom of his Fatherland, but his glorified soul is rejoicing in the Paradise of God.”5

The question about how these other believers get their sins forgiven is easy to answer in the case of our Esikoinen brethren; they preach it in the name and blood of Jesus just as we do. There are thousands of them in the United States and Finland receiving this message with joy every Sunday. That forgiveness, Raattamaa said, has been given “to the flock in living faith which is scattered around the whole world of all peoples and tongues. The sermon of repentance and forgiveness of sins is established with them.”6

Have we been like John when he forbade a stranger from casting out devils in Jesus’ name, just because the man did not walk with the disciples? The Lord of Life did not commend John for doing that. Rather, he said, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50).

God’s Kingdom is not some entity located in Minnesota or Oulu, just as it was “not bound to Rome” in Luther’s day. Rather, it is “as wide as the world, the assembly of those of one faith, a spiritual and not a bodily thing, for that which one believes is not bodily or visible.”7

Boundless Grace

Paul said that God wants all men to be saved and that they would come to the knowledge of the truth. Therefore it is not the will of God that anyone be lost. He has not prepared hell for men, but for the devil and his angels.8 The Lord, Peter writes, is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

With our weak understanding, can we say that God has not been able to achieve His will except when it comes to our small Zion? “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8).

Jesus told His disciples, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Certainly they were a small group when He spoke those words, for the same reason that Paul wrote about those who had not heard. God’s promises of the Old Covenant had only just been fulfilled in the few decades since Jesus’ birth. In our time, two thousand years later, the world is filled with people who are happy to take on the name of a Christian. We should not hasten to pass judgment on their faith. “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was sent for the sins of the whole world, not just for ours. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16). It is grace of grace to be in God’s Kingdom. “Our faith is the greatest of gifts we could own / Through Christ we are given the hope of a crown” (SHZ 403). But now, in His time, God is revealing unto us that we should not be too quick to say that others are not among His own as well. “God is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth” (Psalm 145:18-20).

———

Important disclaimer and commentary:

It is April 1, and that date for this “article” is no coincidence; none of this was actually written by any church official or for any church newsletter. (The epigraph is indeed a verse from a song in the church songbook, by Anna Tulkki.) It is “as-yet unpublished,” and always will be, because it’s a parody I wrote in honor of the holiday. There have been recent discussions between representatives of the LLC, SFC, and SRK, but I seriously doubt that univeralism or even acceptance of “worldly” Christians was on the agenda.

I can still write like a believer, but I’m not a Laestadian or even a Christian anymore. (Nor am I really convinced at this point that there’s a God behind our astounding yet scientifically explainable mess of a universe, though that’s another topic entirely.) But I know plenty of people who used to be Laestadians, and a few who are still sitting in the pews while enduring their own painful private silences of doubt and cognitive dissonance. Many of those who have left are still Christians of one type or another who get to hear their faith dismissed as worthless and irrelevant by their former brothers and sisters.

This was written for all of them. May our beloved old church evolve toward the kind of compassionate and realistic position this essay describes (alas, still only as parody) within our lifetimes or at least those of our children.

And I wrote it for those readers who are still Laestadians, too. You know who you are: Better clear your browser history before anyone else finds out! I hope you’ve found something to ponder here. Every one of these quotes and cites is real, and relevant. Think about how much you are marginalizing your Savior and the omnipotent creator of the universe (in your beliefs, at least) by making him unable or unwilling to save all but 0.002% of the world’s population. Some further reading along those lines: “God’s Kingdom,” “Sailing in a Sea of Humanity,” and “The Christmas Program.”

Because the Bible is so full of contradictions, either one of two opposite viewpoints often can be selected and amplified via the Laestadian-style quote-bombing I tried to illustrate above. There is certainly another more orthodox essay that could be written about God’s wrath and how he plans to exercise his infinite power to torture almost all of his created humanity for not being Laestadians. But it would be a less honest and compelling one, I think, and certainly more depressing to read.

———
Click on images for full-size versions, as usual. Here is the link to download the full-size 1920x1553 version of the top one, which I created using The GIMP free image processing software and years of looking at way too many real Voice of Zion issues that had arrived in the mail.
Many thanks to an anonymous correspondent for supplying a translation into Finnish, which was completed in a matter of hours, and for correcting one of my Bible references in the process. There are some amazing people out there!

Notes


  1. Philipp Melanchthon, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Paul T. McCain, ed. (2005), p. 146. Melanchthon, Luther’s co-worker in the Reformation, wrote the Apology to defend The Augsburg Confession that they had published a year earlier. Luther was involved with the writing of the Apology and approved of it. In a 1533 letter, he urged Leipzig Christians to adhere to both works (McCain at p. 70). 

  2. Martin Luther, The Papacy at Rome. In Works of Martin Luther (“Philadelphia Edition”), pp. 361, 391. 

  3. The Papacy at Rome, pp. 350, 355. 

  4. Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained, “The Second Epistle General of St. Peter,” Ch. 1. 

  5. Juhani Raattamaa, 1892 letter following the death of John Takkinen. From The Streams of Life, Carl Kulla, ed. (1985), p. 393. 

  6. Juhani Raattamaa, sermon given 1894. From The Streams of Life at p. 181. 

  7. The Papacy at Rome, p. 361. 

  8. These three sentences are actually a quote from Journey of Fiery Trials (1961) by Lauri Taskila, a Laestadian preacher, which have ample support in the Bible, e.g., 1 Timothy 2:1-6; 2 Peter 3:1. But in the real world outside of an April 1 parody, Taskila went on with an unsurprising Laestadian qualifier: “Of course, it is the will of many men to die blessed, but the world is dear and its vanishing course is pleasing where slavishness and scorn of men keep them from repentance” (pp. 58-59). Apparently the threat of infinite, eternal torture is not incentive enough for all those uppity folks. 

 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Round Trip Trauma

Now that she had seen the world, now that she had been in it–she could not go back. She tried to imagine it, for a minute, being like Brita or Nels, accepting life where you had babies and had babies, where she would have to marry some carpenter from Minnesota. Never, she thought, and she thought of Will, his apartment with exposed brick walls–small, yes, but his, and the place quiet and clean. The two futures were so dissimilar she was sure they did not exist on the same continent.
—Hanna Pylväinen, We Sinners
Round trip [Flickr page]

A friend of mine from my old Laestadian Lutheran church told me the other day that he once went back so he could drink and get stoned with the guys there. It seems that their parents had forbidden them from hanging out with him once he attained unbeliever status, and he didn’t care for the hard-core attitude of the party crowd at his school. The school kids he did like didn’t party as much as the Laestadian guys.

So he “repented” and was allowed back into the company of his lifelong friends, free to live it up with them on Saturday nights and sit through sermons alongside them on Sunday mornings. Their well-meaning parents only witnessed the second part of that social interaction, of course. That was a while ago; his partying days are over and he has left the church for good now.

There are a lot of people who go back for a while on their way out, for a variety of reasons that are seldom so amusing as I found his to be. Fundamentalist religion exerts a powerful social and psychological pull that forces them into a return trip or two before–if they can achieve escape velocity–their final trajectory to the universe beyond. They might spend years or even lifetimes stuck in unsettled orbits around Planet Faith, well within sight of everyone down there but at a tolerable distance from whatever absurd rules and doctrines made them take off in the first place.

———

Another person provided me with a fascinating little story about how this worked in his own life for over 20 years. He “encountered something that seriously strained” his faith and “started running up against all kinds of” conflicts between science, the Bible, and faith. “I didn’t know how to deal with this stuff and eventually I even began to doubt God,” he said. There was a lot of guilt,

even though I was living a life that would seem very moral and praiseworthy by most peoples’ standards. Unable to reconcile my conflicts, I simply unplugged and became religiously inactive. I did my best to simply switch off religion from my life and I found a lot of joy and richness in my new way of being but, having never really dealt with my faith issues, I still carried a lot of my old worldview under the hood. Also, coming from a very conservative and faith-oriented family, I had to keep up appearances for my parents’ sake.

He became close with a woman in the church he “had loved from afar for years,” and

eventually it became obvious that we were headed for marriage. But she was committed to marrying someone who was strong in the faith. And to me, a faithful life together with her sounded like a wonderful future. I committed to her and to myself that I would recommit myself. And boy did I try. From the beginning I had no intention of just going along to get her to marry me. I was going to be that man of faith that I thought I should be.

But his issues with the faith remained, as did his feelings of being inadequate and unacceptable. He diligently studied the church’s publications that attempted to address those issues, but they just weren’t cutting it anymore. Indeed, he said, they were

introducing me to more problems than I had been aware of originally. More and more it seemed like the apologetic answers were falling flat. After more than 20 years I finally realized the problem. This method of answering questions, which appeared to be scientific, was actually the exact opposite of science. If you start with your conclusion and cherry pick your evidence you can “prove” anything you want. It was anti-science.

A few times around [Flickr page]

Finally one day, he came across a passage of scripture that he just couldn’t reconcile. “My brain hurt from trying,” he said. “Finally I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t have to believe all of it!’ Then, a few seconds later, ‘Maybe I don’t have to believe any of it!’” And then his “entire world changed. It was like the parallax shift when you close one eye and open the other, but the view from the other eye was of a completely new world.”

His wife remains in the church but is supportive of her husband, he said, and a “huge weight has been lifted. My greatest joy now is to be able to say ‘I don’t know’ and to ponder the possibilities. The need for certainty was so much more of a burden than I realized at the time.”

It’s a powerful story, isn’t it? Does it make any difference when you learn that my correspondent wasn’t a Laestadian or even a Protestant Christian? He’d never heard of Laestadianism before running into me.1 That last deal-breaker passage of scripture he encountered was in the Book of Mormon, and the sign out in front of the building he still visits with his wife reads, “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

There are certainly differences between the church buildings and some of their troublesome scriptural passages. But they build upon the same shifting sands of the Bible–with all its contradictions, ancient outrages, and indisputable errors. And the stories–the hundreds of stories from people disillusioned with all their varied religions–sound much the same.

Bend in the path [Flickr page]

The author of I’m (No Longer) a Mormon: A Confessional writes eloquently about her own orbit around the LDS Church. “I felt like Eve in the Garden of Eden: My eyes had been opened. I had been lied to. Worse, I had spent decades living my life for those lies, trying to fashion myself into a being that conformed to the standard of those lies.”2

Yet she stays, as do many others, and asks her readers to understand “our absolute desperation to believe what we’ve been taught, even if it makes absolutely no sense at all. Please pity us. This is no way to live, and coming out of it is pure and absolute agony.”3

She does a frank assessment of the costs and benefits. “If I walk away from this church, everything I have ever known evaporates instantly.” She would forsake her faith along with her “understanding of the way the universe operates.” She would be largely ostracized or at least “publicly lambasted” by her entire social network, and lose the support of most of her and her husband’s family.

And if she leaves? What does she get from that? “The rug pulled out from under me. Live a lie, or live with the consequences. And I’m not abandoning all and following after Truth. I’m not leaving everything for something better. I’m just leaving.”4

———

One ex-Laestadian correspondent “wanted to cave many times” but “knew I’d be back to square one.” That pull has lessened over the years, though it certainly can be a strong one. My own process of leaving is a testament to that, requiring a year of full-time effort to research and write a hefty doorstop of a book about the church: “Examining this pearl of Conservative Laestadianism was in some sense to cherish and value it. But I also had a very personal need to confront it, to stare down its threats and dismantle–to my own satisfaction at least–its most outrageous claims.”5 There is, another correspondent notes, “such a huge codependency on everything church.”

Others leave and never look back. My favorite story in that regard was one I heard secondhand about a guy who announced to his family, “Not believing. Don’t want to talk about it.” And for him, that was that. An ex-Laestadian friend of mine has much the same mindset: “No interest in returning to the dark abyss.” Another says, “Knowing how hard it was to leave the first time was part of what kept me from caving in to pressure to come back. I didn’t want to go through it again, and once I was out, I knew I wasn’t going back to stay.”

Some ex-LLCers frame the matter in terms of personal integrity:

  • “The pressure is real, although I don’t know how I would look at myself in the mirror if I went back.”

  • “I have never considered going back. Even if I did in the future for who knows what reason, I would never be a ‘real’ believer again because I don’t agree with the church, so I would just be pretending.”

“Feeling very vulnerable, awkward and emotional,” another person “cracked and repented. Two hours later I started feeling the same old anxiety creeping in.” There was the old “doubt and disbelief,” which had started going away the further this person got from the LLC. “So I knew it wasn’t a real thing, I just had put myself in a very vulnerable spot. And when I went to church, people I didn’t know very well were more happy about it than I ever was. I knew nothing had changed inside, I had to decide–did I want to be truthful to myself or did I want to conform to the group?”

It’s not an easy path, still difficult in fact, “but I think it is the right way for me to go.”

Intersection [Flickr page]

The difficulty of the path is beautifully described–again with reference to Mormonism–in Libbie Hawker’s lyrical book Baptism for the Dead. The first-person protagonist reflects on an emotionally difficult departure from her childhood faith. She’d been having a passionate affair with “X,” a traveling photographer and painter right out of The Bridges of Madison County. He’s a shadowy outsider who fit his key into the lock of her latent doubts, revealing the broader perspective of a world outside the small-town Mormonism that had so frustrated her.

They flee Rexburg, Idaho for a photography road trip, taking in the natural beauty of the American West by day and each other in motel room beds by night. But the church follows her.

A beautiful book well worth reading.

She appreciates a certain irony about that, one that contributes to the return-trip phenomenon: Only after leaving Rexburg had she “come to doubt my doubt.” Everyone she’d “ever known was in that town. I could not picture a life that didn’t revolve around my community, assuming I could still call it my community at all. Yet what else did I have? An artist I had met only days before, the interior of his car, and the shifting crowds at scenic overlooks and highway rest stops.”

As she and X drive through the Grand Tetons and she reflects on her poor gay husband back home who’d tried to fit into the Mormon mold just like she had, unsuccessfully, she muses about “this ember inside of me, an animal red, an awful crimson. No matter how I try to smother it, it continues to glow.”

She feels crippled, silently wondering to herself and to X “how even a God I don’t believe in still has the power to rub the scales from my wings, how even when I am with you I can still feel that miserable brand inside me, smoking, and how sometimes I wish I did believe, just for the simplicity of it, for the ease of knowing that to want you and to have you is wrong, absolutely, unmistakably, simply–even though it feels as right as breathing.”6

But she experienced all this with no belief in and thus no “fear of a vengeful God.” So why, she asks,

even after I left, did that wretched guilt consume me? It smoldered inside me; it obscured the world with its sickening smoke. And how could I feel so splendidly alive, so awakened to the world, with the bird in the pine trees scolding inside my head, with the pines moving in the breeze of my pulse, with the sunrise coloring my skin and my skin coloring the sunrise, and yet feel so ashamed of you, X, of my love for you, which was the very thing that had finally made me live?7

———

Our other Mormon author, Regina Samuelson, concludes her book still in the closet, still uncertain about what to do, moving “forward one step at a time, hurt but hopeful, and desperately seeking Truth, no matter how difficult that truth may be for me to cope with or accept.”

“Please help me,” she asks from behind the veil of her pen name:

Please help us. While you cannot exactly understand our position unless you, too, have experienced it, I pray fervently that this book has helped in some small way for you to relate to those of us who are searching for answers, for understanding, and for love.

We are alone.8

It does seem that way at times. But she is not alone, and neither are you. Viewed as a whole, there are thousands of people leaving Mormonism and Laestadianism and many other high-control religious groups. There are online forums and websites for apostates from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Exclusive Brethren, Iglesia ni Cristo, the “Truth”, and even Islam–often at significant personal risk in that last case.

You can leave, for good, if that’s what you want to do. If you’re not ready–now or ever, for your own set of entirely understandable reasons–that’s perfectly fine. Lots of people manage to have happy, fulfilled lives inside of restrictive religions. For some of them, I’d wish nothing better. And it’s not like there’s any sort of hell awaiting you after you die because you decided not to become an unbeliever.

The reality, even from the vast majority of the Bible’s indications on the subject, is that there’s no hell at all. There is just this single brief lifetime, and the grains of its remaining days are dropping through that little passage in your hourglass one by one. So, if you are ready to leave, then do it already! Enjoy those remaining days free of that “dark abyss,” making your own choices about your life and with a set of your own beliefs–whatever they are–that you can openly and honestly call your own.

———
See also my essay “Getting Out.” Click on (most) individual images to enlarge, or check out their photo pages in my Flickr photostream. All except for the cover of Libbie Hawker’s fine book are Copyright © 2014-15 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Notes


  1. He told me, “I had to look up Laestadianism. I didn’t even know there was a fundamentalist pressure cooker form of Lutheranism. I come from Norwegian stock, so maybe I’m already LLC at the core. Double-jeopardy.” Well, there are some Norwegian Laestadians, but alas, they are the wrong kind of Laestadian in the eyes of my old church, along with the OALC, ALC, FALC, and IALC. 

  2. Regina Samuelson (a pseudonym), I’m (No Longer) a Mormon: A Confessional. Self-published (2012), p. 18. 

  3. Samuelson at p. 85. It seems she might be making more of an official exit soon, though: nolongeramormon.blogspot.com/​2014/01/im-officially-ex-mormon-by-regina.html 

  4. Samuelson at p. 176-77. 

  5. An Examination of the Pearl, Epilogue. It took me quite a while, but I can honestly say that I am over being a Laestadian or even an ex-Laestadian. These in-depth Laestadian-related essays, inspired though they are by stories I hear about people’s difficult experiences, are becoming something of a chore to write at this point. There are unlikely to be many more of them, though you can probably expect a little something on April 1 for years to come. 

  6. Libbie Hawker, Baptism for the Dead, Running Rabbit Press (2013), pp. 162-63. If you read just one book I recommend on this blog, make it that one. See libbiehawker.com/​baptism-for-the-dead

  7. Hawker at p. 179. 

  8. Samuelson at p. 183. 

 

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!

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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.

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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 Amazon.com. It’s not cheap, but worthwhile if you’re interested in a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of the Eden story and its authorship.

Notes


  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