Thursday, October 31, 2013

Another 95 Theses

Proportion your beliefs to the evidence you have for them, and expect no less of others. As with love, if you doubt something, set it free. If it finds a footing in the spaces of your mind, it is yours to believe with true conviction and joy.

Imagine that you were born into an exclusivist sect of fundamentalist Christianity, as was a certain “brother in faith” whom you have known for years, possibly a lifetime. He raised his numerous children there along with yours, wrote articles about Luther for the church’s monthly newspaper, taught Bible Class and Sunday school, frequently offered comments during church discussions, occasionally stood in the back of the church at a microphone, leading the congregation in its singing of the beloved old songs.

All was well until a few years ago, when you heard some whisperings about doubts he had expressed. But a meeting was held and the gospel of forgiveness was preached. Carry on; offer the greeting of “God’s Peace,” if a bit hesitantly.

Then, suddenly, this brother does the unthinkable: self-publishing a book that candidly and irreverently examines the teachings, history, and problems of “God’s Kingdom,” in hundreds of carefully referenced pages. He turns out not to be a mere doubting Thomas, but a Judas.


If you’ve had doubts of your own, you may be tempted to sneak a peek or two at the book’s online version, as thousands of people have now done. You may come back to the website from time to time, checking out this or that issue that has nagged at you, confirming with morbid fascination that, yes, it is a real problem and not just a doubt arising from your personal failings as a weak believer. If your doubts go far enough, or if you have completely left the faith but remain interested, you might go so far as to obtain a full copy, in ebook or print.

A troubled church [Flickr page]

But what you almost certainly will not do–cannot do–is accept the book as an honest assessment of your faith, not if you want to retain it unscathed. The claims you have grown up hearing as a “child of God” (what a self-designation!) are sadly incompatible with the facts outlined in the book, on point after point.

So, if you wish to remain “believing” while lacking any substantive response to these points (and I have heard none), you basically have three options. You can avoid reading any more of the book, ignoring its existence as much as possible. You can resort to the old catch-all excuse that “faith” cannot be understood by reason. (In other words, anything goes!) And if none of that helps, you could just dismiss me and my research.

People who feel threatened by the justification they lack for their professed beliefs have a strong need to point at an enemy. Since writing An Examination of the Pearl, along with a few blog postings critical of Conservative Laestadianism here and on, I’ve been called plenty of things by the faithful: blind, crazy, false prophet, tool of the devil, and a pretender at being another Luther.

Regarding that last one, let me assure my former brethren in the Laestadian Lutheran Church, which takes its name from two upstart leaders of rebellions against the established church of their day, that one Luther was quite enough. I have no interest in trying to be another. Certainly, I admire the man, though not so much the grim and creepy Laestadius. But there are some pretty unsettling things about Der Reformator, too. He labored under a slavish devotion to biblical literalism. In his later years, he oozed anti-semitism and authoritarianism.

I’m just some guy who knows how to research and write, and is no longer subject to being intimidated out of saying what I think. That’s it. Unlike Luther and Laestadius, I’ve never been at risk of my life or career, claimed divine revelation, had visions of the devil, or started a rival religious movement.

All that I’ve offered is the honest product of devoting a year of my life to full-time research of my inherited religion. After thousands of hours of effort, after the gut-wrenching anguish of seeing a once-cherished faith crumble to dust before my eyes, would you expect anything less than my candid assessment of things?

No more theses wanted here. We’re good now.

Today is Reformation Day, the holiday on which Protestantism celebrates its founder doing something most Protestants would never tolerate in their own churches anymore. As the story goes (possibly apocryphal), the young monk nailed a list of issues he had with the church to its door. It was an invitation to debate. Now, of course, debate has become a dirty word in church. That hypocrisy actually started with Luther himself: Once his heterodoxy become a new orthodoxy, he expressed vicious contempt for those who dared to disagree with it. Reformations don’t waste much time getting settled in and saying, “That’s enough. We’re good. No more changes.”

But look past that parochialism for a moment, and ask if you are any less deserving of the truth about the most important matter of your life than the poor residents of Wittenberg who stood in line paying for indulgences five hundred years ago. I certainly don’t think so. Call me whatever you want, but my book was written with the same motivation that Luther expressed in his 95 Theses, “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.”

On this point, at least, I am willing to let the church’s defenders claim that I want to be compared with Luther. Perhaps they should consider where they stand.

So, to those selling the modern-day indulgences of forgiveness for manufactured guilt, and to those handing over their valuable currency of intellectual honesty and a lifetime of foreclosed options, I present my own 95 Theses. You are free to write your own. Grab a readable Bible translation and some history books, and go to it!

As a bonus, here is the entirety of my “religious” teaching, which is hardly original: Proportion your beliefs to the evidence you have for them, and expect no less of others. As with love, if you doubt something, set it free. If it finds a footing in the spaces of your mind, it is yours to believe with true conviction and joy.

The church door image was adapted from a CC-licensed photo by Michael Elleray. Check out my interactive 95 Theses here There is also a plain-vanilla version for mobile devices and tablets.
Fairness calls for me to mention a positive development countering the tendency of church members to demonize critics: The remarkable presentation given at the LLC’s 2014 Summer Services, “Approaching Another Person.” I was happy to give credit where credit is due in my essay “Open Dialogue over the Faith Boundary,” posted August 2014.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Vintage Valley

The little town of Valley, Washington was established in 1882 and doesn’t seem to have changed much since then. According to Wikipedia, the town was named by Daniel C. Corbin based on its location “at the entrance to the Colville Valley. The Spokane Falls and Northern Railroad was connected to Valley in 1889,” and “Corbin set up a small building for a depot.” The railroad crossing is the main intersection in the town today.

Established 1882  [Flickr page]

Downtown consists of a post office, general store, bar, part-time restaurant, mini-storage, railroad crossing, and a gas station. The store was originally built in 1889, burned down, and was rebuilt in 1908, still standing and in use. Some civic-minded property owner has established a private park around a retired railroad car, with a little ramada and picnic tables where Mennonite women occasionally sell delicious cinnamon buns and bread.

There is a Catholic church, plus some sort of non-denominational one that has been under construction for quite a while. Residents of the graveyard at the edge of town enjoy a stunning view of the surrounding hills. Perhaps forty squarish old houses cluster around Highway 231 and the couple of cross streets, tucked in behind leafy mature trees. The elementary school serves Kindergarten through eighth grade, a bright and clean new building full of dedicated teachers and staff.

Valley Fuel: “We’ve got gas.”  [Flickr page]

The town has a dignified if impoverished vintage to it. I suspect much of the modest funds being spent there arrive at the post office via U.S. government checks, despite the stolid political conservatism of this part of Washington State. The only industry seems to be a silica processing plant that grinds away by its railroad depot night and day, plus the loggers and farmers living in the surrounding lightly populated acreage of Stevens County.

Everyday Needs  [Flickr page]

The gas station, Valley Fuel L.L.C., brings petroleum to those farmers and sells it from 23 year-old pumps to people driving through town. You drive over the air hose and hear the ding-ding of the bell alerting one of the owners of the place to your arrival. The previous owner would sit behind his long counter stocked with candy bars and gas treatment while you pumped and then dutifully walked in to report the amount, but now it’s full service only.

Old pump through an old door.  [Flickr page]

Either John or Rita Morris—owners for the past five years—will emerge from behind the counter, greet you, and fill your tank. The all-too-modern concern about drive-offs (and perhaps just a desire to connect with customers) has resulted in a return to old times, to a memory I have from early childhood.

I’d be sitting next to my dad on a long bench seat, probably unbelted, as the attendant leaned into the window, greasy rag in hand, and dad said, “Fill ’er up, regular.” When John is on duty, you’re more likely to see a driver standing outside his truck chatting with John as the pump clicks away.

There are no card readers on these delightful old machines, no obtrusive video screens blaring advertising at you, no automated inquiries about car washes and zip codes. Just a long metal lever that starts things off with a resounding thunk and mechanical dials that spin up, fast on the right, slower as you go left, as the gas rushes into your tank. Squeezing off the last drop as the digits approach an even twenty dollar bill is still an art form here.

The Facilities  [Flickr page]

The profit margin from selling a gas at the pump isn’t that great. A pretty small fraction of the total you pay goes to the station owner, as a CNN story from 2008 explains: “The reality is that profit margins at the gas pump stay at around 23 cents a gallon, regardless of the price per gallon.” John cited a somewhat lower figure and said the percentage is pretty much what it was years ago when prices were much lower.

Rita said much of their revenue comes from fuel deliveries and tire sales, and pointed out that there is stiff competition from the Indian reservation a few miles up Highway 231. Exemption from taxes means lower pump prices. Maybe so, but I’ll take the Morris’s charming old equipment and their personal touch over the gaudy video-in-your-face pumps on the reservation any day.

Molly the Mouser  [Flickr page]

Valley Fuel (slogan on their business card: “We’ve got gas”) occupies a building that is not much newer than the town itself, built in the 1930s. John said they try to preserve the old look of the place, and it really surrounds you when you walk in. It’s not dirty, just timeworn and a bit haphazard. For example, when they needed a new fan, they picked out one that looked old-fashioned and would fit in better. You won’t slice off any fingers with it like the old ones, though.

Molly the Mouser  [Flickr page]

The place is presided over by Molly the Mouser. She’s an agreeable cat, and seems very confident about her position. After I paid an inordinate amount of attention to her (I love cats), she started play-fighting with my hand. The Morris’s asked me to cool it, as they want Molly to stay docile so she can be around the kids that come in. Makes sense to me, especially when kids are likely to spot the cooler full of frozen treats that is one of Molly’s perches. I wonder if her paws get cold.

These kinds of places are what America used to be all about, at least on the retail level. (Of course, Standard Oil was not exactly a little Mom & Pop operation content with modest aspirations.) Before soulless mega-corporations metastasized our towns into monotonous patterns of mass-produced plastic signage and halogen lighting, there were real owners, entrepeneurs, and unique ideas behind the storefronts.

John and Rita don’t answer to some francise licensing authority. They don’t go through the robotic motions of posting factory-produced signs to promote the brand of some distant corporation that couldn’t care less about them or their little town. And they don’t try to sell you car washes or sign you up for a “loyalty” card. They sell gas, and tires, and candy bars, and you’ll probably get a nice little conversation about the weather in the process.

Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out the entire set (and others about Valley, WA) on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Thanks to John and Rita for their permission to photograph their wonderful old establishment, and for preserving a part of local history.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Book review: Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness: Escape from the Watchtower Society. Diane Wilson. Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY 2002). Cites are to locations in the Kindle edition.

Last week, two friendly women knocked on my door wanting to share the good news about the Gospel with me, as understood by the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They may have been a bit surprised by what they encountered. I declined the little pamphlet they offered, politely explaining that I already knew everything I needed to know about their organization.

My door did not close on them, though, and they invited further dialogue by asking me to elaborate on what I knew. No doubt they were mentally flipping pages through the training materials for Witnesses’ door-to-door proselytizing strategies, turning to a section labeled something like “Dealing with Apostates,” or “Drawing in the Self-Righteous Know-it-All.”

I mentioned their failed apocalyptic prophecies, and said I’ve read quite a bit about their organization along with others like the LDS Church. But then I sought to make the encounter a bit more productive, not for me, but for these two women. This doorstep was definitely stony ground for what they were sowing, but I figured it might be helpful to plant a few seeds of doubt in their minds, about the cultish group whose demands they are compelled to spend hours every week serving.

So I said something like this: “The real issue that I find troubling about your group is how it shuns those who come to disbelieve in its teachings. Disfellowshipping causes a great deal of pain.” Gesturing to each of the women in turn, I continued, “If you decide that there really is a problem with this organization and voice your doubts, then you are forced to have nothing to do with her. Would you like to be treated that way?”

One former Jehovah’s Witness who confronted this cruel form of church discipline, along with a great deal of cognitive dissonance, fear, and emotional trauma is Diane Wilson, author of the spellbinding and carefully researched book, Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness: Escape from the Watchtower Society. When she was told to disfellowship her teenage daughter, to “treat her as if she were literally dead,” her reaction as a mother was understandable: “I started crying and my body started shaking uncontrollably” (loc. 1300-13, 1442-49). She got little compassion from the JW elder she sought out for help, though: “He did not comfort me, however; instead, he made my grief unbearable by blaming me for our daughter’s departure from the organization, and for having left us as well. I felt stunned, crushed, and devastated as the elder whipped me with his words” (loc. 1370).

The Truth, right near my home.

This was all piled on top of her long struggle with cognitive dissonance about the Watchtower Society’s teachings. Her doubts about the organization, she said,

were causing my entire belief system to break down, and I felt terrified. It seemed like this religion was the glue that held me together as a person and that gave stability to my life; having doubts made me feel like I was falling completely apart and going crazy. I felt like I was being swallowed up by a big black hole, that frightening world of darkness and confusion that the Society foretold would consume any who leave the organization. I feared I was falling prey to Satan. I was so frightened that my mind became obsessed with thoughts of: Perhaps the Watchtower Society is God’s Channel! Perhaps I have no legitimate complaints against the Society. Perhaps I am being rebellious against Jehovah’s arrangement. I had no confidence in myself or in my doubts about the organization; I was scared, and I desperately wanted to feel safe again. [loc. 1117]

Eventually, she said, “I experienced difficulty breathing while just sitting and listening to the meetings, feeling as if I were being literally suffocated. I frequently had to leave and walk around outside the Kingdom Hall in order to get relief” (loc. 1376). I can relate to this, from when a preacher in my former Laestadian Lutheran congregation would start going on about what sinful wretches we all are, his voice rising with pious angst about his sins as well as everyone else’s. Like Wilson, I had seen that my own version of “the Society is adamant in resisting almost all input from others, no matter how well researched or valuable it is” (loc. 3557).

Once questions are voiced, the questioner is all too often told that he or she is to accept whatever the Society teaches and is not to “reason” about it, but must blindly and dogmatically fully accept whatever is taught. The individual’s reason, they stress, is “human reasoning,” but the Watchtower’s reasoning is “God’s reasoning.” If one does not blindly accept all that is taught—however foolish—often their spirituality is impugned, even for sincere and honest questions. One then learns that questions are not to be voiced. [loc. 3564]

All the self-loathing, the quavering gratitude that this angry invisible God would exempt a fortunate few from the eternal torture chamber to which he would be consigning everyone else–for not believing in doctrines he declined to inform them of–just became too much to sit and take.1 Listening to people in the pews around me get caught up in the emotion of the preachers thundering away, about things I knew they doubted, felt like being the only sober guy at a party.

And so I’d find some excuse to take one of the kids out of the sanctuary. Standing in the fellowship hall looking out the window while my kid played with folding chairs, looking at the innocent trees out in the sunshine, I’d wonder what the hell I was doing there.

Wilson’s book provides many other parallels to my own observations about the Laestadian Lutheran Church. I describe some of them in An Examination of the Pearl. Here are locations in the online HTML version where my book cites Wilson’s and discusses some of the similarities. Like many Laestadians, Witnesses

[1] have a resigned “where else would we go” attitude,
[2] are discouraged from outside socializing,
[3] must be obedient even without understanding,
[4] refer to the organization as the “Mother,”
[5] can be terrified at the idea of breaking away from it, and
[6] are discouraged from independently researching their beliefs.

They also avoid Halloween (loc. 235), offering toasts (loc. 252), reading literature from other churches (loc. 378), and extracurricular school sports (loc. 3616). Their rationale for using taped music rather than a live orchestra during JW conventions could have been pulled straight from a Laestadian publication, at least one from a few decades ago: “to protect the members of the orchestra from ‘getting puffed-up with pride’ because of their musical talents” (loc. 704). And they share the view of most Laestadian groups (yes, there are several) that their “organization alone, in all the Earth, is directed by God’s holy spirit or active force,” and to “it alone God’s Sacred Word, the Bible, is not a sealed book” (loc. 587).

Just people, friendly and chatty. If you haven’t been disfellowshipped, that is.

Though relationships can wind up being strained if not entirely broken off, Laestadians don’t shun their former brethren as severely or rigorously as do the Witnesses.2 When I pointed out the cruelty of this treatment, the women at my door protested that it’s for their own good. That’s pretty much what one JW correspondent told me (while asking me to include this link): “Disfellowshipping, while very difficult for the person, may lead to a change in behavior, repentance, and a better understanding of a person’s relationship with Jehovah, and a return to living by Bible standards.”

Then my visitors prepared to list off some Bible verses for me. I saved them the trouble, knowing those passages all too well myself: Do not “keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one, no not to eat” (1 Cor. 5:11). “[W]ithdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thess. 3:7).3 And to their argument about letting their light shine before men, upholding the glory of God (Jehovah), etc., I asked what kind of light and glory there is in cutting people off from their families and people they’ve known all their lives. (See this and this.)

“We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”

For Wilson, the prospect of this happening to her made leaving the Watchtower Society

additionally difficult because my entire social system was tied up with the organization. Since it requires Jehovah’s Witnesses to limit their friends to only other Witnesses, disassociating from it would leave me completely isolated socially. This prospect was very frightening to me, and it contributed greatly to my delay in leaving the organization. I knew that disassociating myself would result in being shunned by all of Jehovah’s Witnesses forever. [loc. 3035]

But leave she did, eventually, and her book’s conclusion is one of hope and healing. “As stinging wounds from thornpricks heal, and those from penetrating lacerations produce scars that remain, so heals the emotional pain caused by my involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses—though the scars may long be with me” (loc. 3396). She reports developing “deeper, more meaningful and satisfying friendships,” and retaining a firm belief in Jesus, occasionally visiting churches and enjoying “the spiritually uplifting, contemporary music offered there” (loc. 3401).

I wish her much peace and happiness. She’s earned it. If you have engaged in a similar struggle to find independence from an authoritarian religious group, you’ve earned it, too, and you’d benefit from reading her book.


Update, August 23, 2014: I’m still on their list of places to visit. Here is what I posted on Reddit about this morning’s encounter with a young JW woman at my front door:

It was a soft, tentative knock, just a couple of quiet taps on the front door. When I opened it, the blonde young woman holding her zipper-jacketed Bible and pamphlet smiled at me and asked if I would be interested in some literature. Her hand cradled the pamphlet in the space between us, across the threshold of my doorway, across a vast gulf of differences. I could see with a glance what it was: The Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses was offering me an invitation to cross that threshold, printed in pastel colors, a soft-focus background image, and a smooth sans-serif font.

I looked back up at her smile and listened to her wonder aloud whether I might want some literature from this organization she did not yet name. One of my daughters is about the same age this girl looked to be. She is happily continuing her life in the fundamentalist Lutheran church that my wife and I grew up in but left a few years ago. She will probably bear a lot of children and limit her life’s choices based on things we taught her, things we no longer believe. They are both innocent believers, these two girls.

“Were you raised in the Jehovah’s witnesses?” I asked, not responding to the pamphlet.

She slowly brought it back to her chest next to the zippered Bible. “Yes, I was.” The smile brightened.

“Do you think that the possibility of being shunned by your parents might cloud your objectivity about this?”

The smile continued, but with a little movement now around her eyebrows. “Well, of course, I’ve thought a great deal about my beliefs. It’s very important.”

“But have you really considered the thought of your parents shunning you for doubting what you believe? Don’t you think that might make it hard to be objective about this?”

“Are you referring to disfellowshipping?” I nodded. “OK, see, that only happens for serious sins...

“Well, apostasy is a serious sin. If you were to decide, I don’t know,” I waved at an unseen collection of vaguely remembered doctrinal issues, “that the whole 1973 or was it 1978 thing was a real problem and the Faithful and Discreet Slave wasn’t really so faithful or discreet after all, that would be apostasy. And your parents would have to treat you like you were dead.”

She nodded faintly, looking down for a second, the serious eyebrows taking over now from the smile. I love my daughter tremendously, and fortunately, she is still able to love me just as much, religion or no religion. This girl and her parents would not have the same luxury. She looked back up, and the Watchtower machinery ground back into gear. “Disfellowshipping is done out of love, and...

“Yes, well, I’m not wanting to debate the reasons for it.” I was leaning against the wall just inside the doorway, my hands hooked in my pockets. The door hung wide open, off to the side. It was cool and bright outside, with a little breeze rustling the leaves. There was no hurry, no conflict, just a chance to let this young woman consider something as she stood in a quiet moment of morning sunshine outside my door. “I just wanted you to consider how much of a motivator that is for you. If you ever decide you don’t believe this stuff, then your parents would have to treat you like you were dead.”

The smile had now fully transitioned into a frown. “It sounds like you have experienced this first-hand. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had...

“No, no, I’ve never been a J-dub. I’ve just studied it a lot, along with the Mormons and a bunch of others. And I wanted to give you something to think about.”

“Well, thank you,” she said, and then the smile returned with her missionary voice that spoke a few more words to gracefully wrap things up. The pamphlet was back in its stack, and she wished me a good day and I wished her one, too.

Photo credits: Kingdom Hall exterior, own work (CC-NC); Kingdom Hall at night, Mark Faviell (CC-NC); people inside Kingdom Hall, adapted from J-McG (was CC-NC as of posting); signs and chairs, adapted from Michael Sprague (CC-SA).
Note that my legal usage of these materials, under the CC license terms extended as of this posting, does not imply any endorsement or agreement with this essay by the photographers. In compliance with the “share alike” license of Mr. Sprague’s image, reproductions of my adapted version of it are licensed (unlike the rest of my blog or pictures) under the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


  1. To their credit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consign anybody to eternal torment, believing that the fate of those outside the organization is just annihilation. In that, at least, we agree. 

  2. I’m happy to report that my old church has recently spoken out against shunning. See my August 2014 blog post, “Open Dialogue over the Faith Boundary.” 

  3. The Bible is no moral guide in this or many other matters, it turns out, and this is just the New Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, believing the wrong thing would earn you a violent death at the hands of the Chosen People. As I point out in EOP, if a family member or your wife or a dear friend secretly asks you to go worship other gods, it’s not enough to say no and rebuke him or her for the apostasy. Deuteronomy 13:9-10 says you have to kill him or her: “thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.”