Most readers of this blog are probably familiar, at least from my postings here, with the sect of fundamentalist Christianity I left a couple of years ago, Conservative Laestadianism. One significant distinction of this group is its official rejection of contraception in all forms.
We’re not just talking about the rhythm method here—it’s all considered unacceptable meddling in God’s creation work, even abstinence except for a limited time in extreme cases. “The prevention of conception, or birth control, is contrary to God’s Word and good conscience,” says the LLC, asserting that arguments about “the psychological and physical burdens of raising children, economics, pursuit of an education or a career, concerns about overpopulation, etc.” are “rooted in unbelief and selfishness.” This October 2012 posting of mine on the extoots blog, and this one from May 2013, with a total of more than 150 reader comments between them, provide some pertinent discussion and critique.
In Finland, a new novel Heaven’s Song about the difficulties involved with the being fruitful and multiplying part of Laestadian life has been in high demand and receiving positive reviews. An anonymous Finnish correspondent provided me a translation of one review, a Creative-Commons licensed posting from October 27, 2013 on the Freepathways (Omat polut) blog.1 For readability, I’ve re-arranged some parts and rendered the translation a bit loosely (but, I think, still accurately) in places. A few of my thoughts are included as footnotes. I should also note that my limited command of Finnish prevents me from reading the book; hopefully it will be translated someday soon.
Award-winning Author Pauliina Rauhala: The need for honesty brings about courage
Pauliina Rauhala’s book Heaven’s Song has received the [Finnish] “Christian Book of the Year” award. “Heaven’s Song is an astonishingly real story about practices that still exist in Finland. It is a spiritual battle for survival and a process of separation from old beliefs and practices,” says musician Riki Sorsa. [She selected Rauhala’s work as the winner.] As the competition winner, Pauliina Rauhala was awarded 2000 Euros. The competition is open to all publishers and is organized by Christian Publishers Inc. (Kristilliset kustantajat ry).
“Ever since I was a little girl, I have mulled over questions of faith, about being a woman and sources of strength for women,” says the author of this debut novel, much in demand, during an interview for Sana magazine. Having grown up in a Laestadian home, she is very familiar with the life she depicts. “The Laestadian movement offered language and complete world order that I absorbed,” she relates.
The novel has generated a lot of interest and received excellent reviews both from professional critics and book bloggers. Critics have been talking about the book—positively and enthusiastically—on television, in radio programs about books, and in magazine book reviews. It’s being viewed as exceptionally well developed for a debut novel.
It’s been a commercial success, too. Heaven’s Song is the 3rd best selling Finnish novel for September 2013. It’s a book that many men are reading. There are more than 1,000 reservations for it at the public library in Oulu, where the highest concentration of Conservative Laestadians is found anywhere in the world, and a 4th printing has been ordered already.
The subject of the book—the relationship of a young Laestadian couple, their growth into a family, and their pains in the midst of the reproduction demands of a fundamentalist religion—has moved readers all across Finland. The main issues are not just a continuous fear of pregnancies, but the masterfully depicted disintegration of an intimate relationship of two people, lovers. It’s the result of total exhaustion brought on by too-frequent pregnancies. The couple becomes spiritually distant and spiral into depression. The happiness that was at hand, and the most unique, most intimate of all intimate relationships, disappears.
Many Hues, Lights and Shadows
The book managages to speak to very different audiences. With poetic style, it opens a door into the Laestadian world and doctrine. It is both illustrative and authentic, with a skillful, nuanced depiction that does not leave the reader with a one-dimensional, black-and-white picture. Despite a very negative attitude in the public towards the Laestadian movement [in Finland], Rauhala manages to demonstrate a very warm and positive side of it for the reader.
Still, the book is a strong and unvarnished statement about troublesome issues in the Laestadian movement. The story is a vivid description and becomes alive, flesh and blood, through fictional characters. Through that the author directs criticism straight into the core of Laestadian problems. Among them are a doctrine that excludes salvation from everyone outside of the movement, caretaking meetings, austere norms of life, traumas caused by the movement’s inner control of individuals, and its contraception ban. The narrative is very poignant and recognizable by those who have experienced it. You become moved in body and soul in what you’re reading.
“It was wonderful to be able to depict the love, comfort, and yearning in the movement. Light shines from many directions at the same time. This causes different shadows to become visible,” the author puts it poetically in Sana magazine.
The novel is not some pamphlet about a religious movement. The author herself has emphasized that in radio and TV interviews. “I have deliberately written a work of fiction, which portrays a way of life in a fictitious manner. It annoys me if it is truncated into some sort of statement instead of a fictitious work of art.” The book’s strength is its use of a universally applicable literature, managing to make what is privately experienced in a particular circle of life and history recognizable in the broader human experience.
It’s certainly understandable that the book especially touches those who are or have been involved in the Conservative Laestadian movement, who have absorbed its doctrines and norms. Many readers who have perhaps suffered and eventually distanced themselves from the church may find the book’s message healing. However, the work is a very elegant love story and has something to offer to anyone interested in love and relationships. Here’s an excerpt:
This world loves cartoonish sex, very manly and very womanly. The types that in the end reflect only themselves in each other’s shiny surfaces. I love moderate men and moderate women, those who understand nature in a person and a person in nature. I love people walking with each other on nature trails, men and women dressed in outdoor clothes.
I have only made love with one man in my life, and am not ashamed of that. I am not ashamed of love that has withstood fumbling while getting acquainted with one another. I am not ashamed of love that has withstood everyday familiarity . . . I am not ashamed of love that does not commit just temporarily, until better luck or more satisfaction comes by.”
A Love Story in the Style of the Song of Songs
As characterized by Sana magazine editor Janne Villa, “The book is a sympathetic depiction of a young couple, Vilja and Aleksi. It is a sensuous and moving love story with a writing style that can be compared to the Bible’s Song of Songs. It is nearly as poetic, sublime, and of romantic spirit.”
Vilja and Aleksi are a couple who focus on their family and are earnestly vested in it. After a few children are born very quickly, one after another, the couple is cast into a difficult battle for survival. It is here where love’s endurance and the strength of religious beliefs are tested.
Already when dating, the couple dreamt about having a big family, as many Laestadian-born couples do. They dreamt about giving a warm, caring and secure home to their children. But life does not go as planned. Vilja’s physical and psychological being cannot withstand the increasingly heavy workload, responsibilities and obligations that come from a family that grows too fast. Each child is an individual with individual needs, who requires individual time from his or her mother. How large could the family still become?
A Woman’s Right to control Her Own Body
Vilja thinks deeply about a woman’s right to decide matters over her own body. And she ponders contraception, which the ministers portray to be greatest of all sins.2 A believing woman cannot fall into that, even if her life were at stake.
I want to throw the supplemental songbook [Siionin Laulut] at the minister, who glorifies the right of the gamete (sex cell) for existence. And who comforts his brothers that they do not need to blame themselves in any circumstance, even if sickness or death takes place.
Here the author refers to a truthful, historical event: an annual meeting of the SRK where Laestadian healthcare professionals and SRK preachers gave a joint statement about contraception.
In the statement, the SRK Board of Directors, preachers, and Laestadian healthcare workers freed men from all the responsibility brought on by risky pregnancies. The statement assured men that they do not need to blame themselves if their wives ultimately die because of frequent deliveries: “Often one might question if they need to submit themselves under these difficulties, when health is poor and each delivery seems dangerous to the mother. They need to remember the fact that God has numbered our days. If it happens that a life ends during birth, one does not need to carry on blaming themselves over that” (Paivamies, Oct. 23, 1974).
According to Laestadian dogma, women have to agree to become mothers of large families, even if they are not strong enough to handle that. The life of a mother has to be sacrificed to this religious demand, which cannot be supported by the bible.
Vilja collapses because of the contradiction that is brought on from religious demands and realities of life. “I have prayed for an illness that would preserve my life but would take away my womb. Hysterectomy is the most beautiful word in the Finnish language,” the fatigued and depressed mother thinks to herself.
A Man in the Midst of Laestadian Family Pressures
Her husband Aleksi, whose depiction is one of the touching elements of this book, draws his own conclusions when his wife is in the hospital’s psychiatric ward after giving birth to twins. He makes up his mind and decides that his family is now complete.
Rauhala’s book is being considered a bold opening to discussion about the status of women and children in Laestadianism. It is very nice that this discussion now gets the perspective of a Laestadian man. In public discussions, Laestadian men have often been labeled as acting callously, with machismo and brute force. Heaven’s Song gives room for a man to be someone of emotion and experience, a loving and responsible person, a lover, a husband and a father.
The author shows that, despite the aforementioned SRK meeting and statement, a believing man can courageously accept individual responsibility and go against religious demands. He supports his wife in this way, that the family reaches equilibrium, a balance. The solution of the author is skillful and wise, symbolically elegant, and moving.
It should be mentioned that, after the Human Rights Commission’s lawyers gave a statement indicating that the Conservative Laestadian contraception ban violates human rights laws, the voices of the movement’s leaders have been more toned down. In their sermons, the preachers still proclaim an absolute ban on contraception, but the statements of the board-level leaders have (at least in the media) become centered in the health of the mother. They have also become focused on “personal decisions” instead of directives from the unerring Kingdom of God. As a practical matter, the situation has already been changing; contraception is being used among the believers, particularly in southern Finland.3
Familiarity with the “Baby Warehouse” Doctrine
Perhaps not widely known is how women were convinced and intimidated, in sermons and discussions, to believe that whoever prohibits the possibility of pregnancy has to give an account on Judgment Day about their unborn babies. They will arrive to demand their “right to be born.”
The movement teaches that the souls of everyone who will be born are with God in heaven beforehand. It is believed that God continues his creation by placing these souls into fertilized sex cells. Each mother is predestined to give birth to each specific child that God wants to have born. If a woman practices contraception, or in another way knowingly prevents pregnancy from happening, all the souls that were predestined to be born through her can’t become alive. So all children need to be accepted as God’s gifts. This is the official teaching of the SRK.
The phrase “we accept all the children” contains the thought that, if one practices birth control, all the children are not accepted—some have been “left without the right to be born.” 4 Particularly in the past, the preachers had an unforgettable way of teaching about the way these women had to give birth to their unborn children. The women were intimidated to believe that they would have to give birth to these children in hell, with labor pains increased a thousandfold.5
This superstitious-sounding rhetoric was made popular in the 1970s, when charismatic but uneducated lay-preachers attained power. Around the same time, the institution of preaching was cemented in place as it now exists. It is occupied by over 900 preachers, the majority of whom have no theological education. Among them are only about 100 theologically educated priests.
The manipulative depictions were painted at the services in the eyes of our mothers and grandmothers, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. These tales have stayed alive as beliefs that pass on from person to person, from one generation to the next. Even today, here’s what a certain Laestadian priest exclaimed to a woman who discussed with him a difficult situation and the possibility of practicing contraception: “You will have to face those unborn children during the last judgment”! While this type of thought is still prevalent today, the Bible certainly does not support this belief.
The Limited Role of Women in a Patriarchy
Pauliina Rauhala thinks women are respected in patriarchal Conservative Laestadianism, but only so long as they remain in the position that the movement accepts. “Women are respected in their designated roles. But should they want a different position, a large series of events takes place.”
“Personally, I wish that families would have the possibility to assess their own situation and their own limitations. I also wish that children who already exist would have the right to live in a loving and safe relationship with their parents. I have never understood how Christian faith could be so strongly associated with control of a woman’s body,” she stated in the Sana magazine interview.
As the mother of three boys, ages 2, 5, and 9, Pauliina Rauhala has not had to personally go through the experiences of her book’s main character. “Certainly I have heard many vivid sermons about contraception as a girl and as a woman, sermons that have remained strongly in my mind. On a thought-level, I have had to go through “sludge,” through the depths of hell and the heights of heaven’s joy,” she said. “It is good to respect one’s own spiritual questions and conscience even if the surrounding community would ban that. God’s mercy and love are far reaching, if a person is sincere with their questions. When one doesn’t need to ignore their anxiety, their faith life might even turn into something better.”
The Omat polut blog discusses being an “ethnic Laestadian” in Finland–a person who was born into the sect, as almost all members are, and still identifies with it socially but no longer believes in all of its doctrines. ↩
In fairness, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But contraception is certainly high up on the list. Perhaps “among the greatest” would be putting it better. ↩
The phrase henkilökohtaisa ratkaisua is used in the original blog posting. At least in the LLC, the Old Guard doesn’t seem to have much regard for such “personal decisions.” During a widely attended congregational meeting in Minnesota about a year ago, one senior LLC official even appeared to make a distinction between statements to the public about “societal” issues and what a believer’s conscience would really call for. Such talk “inside the walls of Zion,” if it’s really been going on, would reveal all the nice statements about listening to the advice of doctors and making one’s own decision about contraception (something Laestadians are increasingly doing even on this side of the Atlantic) as just PR to appease the outside world. ↩
The original posting uses the phrase jäänyt synnyttämättä. ↩
Sounds crazy, but it is indeed what was being taught. I have read a 1963 essay by Pauli Korteniemi in the church’s official Greetings of Peace newspaper that described how the disobedient woman’s unborn children would accuse her on the Last Day, and also listened to an old recording of somebody earnestly reading the essay in church. ↩