Thursday, March 13, 2014

Elevating the Enemy

When the Holy Spirit which speaks through the mouth of the Christians makes the devil that lives in the hearts of the unbelievers restless he becomes fierce. Now he comes out of their mouth with hide and hair. He puts them to gnash their teeth because of hate. He becomes so wroth that he thirsts after the blood of Christians.
—Lars Levi Laestadius, Pentecost Morning sermon (1852)
The Enemy of Souls, a star character in fundamentalist drama.

Peter Herriot begins his excellent textbook, Religious Fundamentalism: Global, Local and Personal by describing fundamentalism as having four distinctive features. The first and most basic of these, he says, is that fundamentalist movements are reactive. “Fundamentalists believe that their religion is under mortal threat from the secularism of the modern world, and they are fighting back. They may resist in different ways, but they are all essentially oppositional; they have to have an enemy” (p. 2).1

The Enemy was certainly a prominent figure in the opening sermon2 given by the chairman of my old church during its annual Winter Services last month, getting mentioned about as many times as God and Jesus did.

We feel the pressures from the world, and we feel the attacks and even criticisms from this world. We also experience how the enemy works to sow his seeds in the midst of God’s children. [10:55-11:18]

And though we experience in these times that we are now living in the deceitfulness of the enemy–we have experienced that he has deceived those who have fallen away from faith and he certainly continues to deceive those that are in this world—but despite this, haven’t we felt this, dear brothers and sisters, how God has granted to us unity of spirit, unity of faith in his kingdom? [12:02-12:44]

We know that we cannot possibly try to answer all of the enemy’s criticisms or attacks that he might make against God’s Kingdom. But instead it is important for us to do the work of the gospel and to confess our faith. We want to hold this as most important for us, that we could remain in the unity of spirit and faith with God’s children. [13:25-14:00]

You can see another thematic element in these quotes, too. It’s one that’s taking on a great deal of importance in Laestadian sermons, as believers peek here and there on the Internet for information and are increasingly thinking for themselves about issues: unity. Never mind the “whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11): The Church is constructing Fortress Unity to guard believers from the perils that arise in their own individual brains.

Assault on Fortress Unity

Jesus prayed for unity with the Father, said the chairman, adding that his Laestadian listeners have a similar prayer:

Hasn’t it been your prayer, dear brothers and sisters, that, because you know your weak understanding and your weak faith and how the enemy attacks you, hasn’t it been your prayer to God that he could keep you a weak traveler in the unity of his kingdom, that he could keep you in the way of faith, guide you with that light that is found in his word and through the gospel give you strength to put away sin and continue to take footsteps of faith. [14:14-14:50]

Thus, he said, believers pray that God will preserve them in (guess what!) unity of spirit, faith, and understanding. And the work of the Kingdom continues, indeed is growing, “despite the efforts of the enemy” (15:05-15:25).

The Anti-Trinity

Now, who exactly is this enemy he keeps going on about? Over the years, the preachers have provided some imaginative descriptions of him. He knows the end is nigh (at least he did in the 70s and 80s), and whispers temptations and doubts in believers’ ears. According to one prominent Laestadian preacher’s statement (I am not making this up), the enemy even bears responsibility for putting television content on the Internet. This was done for the sole purpose of drawing Conservative Laestadians away from the faith, since they decided early on to reject TV itself.

This all sounds like they’re just talking about the guy with horns. But there’s more to the enemy than just the Hoofed One.

With some grounding in Luther’s teachings, Laestadian theology posits a demonic antithesis to the Holy Trinity, a “threefold enemy” comprised of, as the sermons frequently phrase it, “the world, the devil, and our own flesh.”3 Those perilous brains of ours are the third part of this anti-Trinity. Also last month, in Menagha, MN, another preacher from the Laestadian Lutheran Church (LLC) made that woefully clear in an impassioned address4 to his listeners, whom he assured are indeed

the elect of God. You have been given this gift of faith, this gift which we treasure today, this gift which we do not want to give up. We want to protect this treasure in our hearts so that the enemy, through the deceitfulness of even our mind. . .

. . .would not take it away,” he meant to finish, presumably. But, as often happens with these unscripted, extemporanous sermons, he jumped midstream to a different thought. It is a lament about the questioning nature of human minds, his own included:

How is it, dear brothers and sisters? Do you some of you with me sometimes wonder and sometimes question even this, “Why is it that I, among the millions in this world have been chosen to be a child of God?” If we begin to examine and question these things, we will pretty soon be lost in our own thoughts, and we can be led astray so that we can no longer believe. Is our carnal mind, this mind of flesh, close to us? Does it question God’s word? Does it sometimes ask you, dear young boys and girls, when you hear instruction from God’s Kingdom through the Holy Spirit, does your mind tell you, “Is that really how we believe? Is that really what God’s Word teaches us?” So is our carnal mind, it is emnity, it is an enemy before God. If we allow our mind to begin to work, we lose, quickly, living faith. [47:10-48:50]

What a sad commentary on the intellectual wasteland that fundamentalism needs as its sole habitat, where no lush greenery of rational thought can crowd it out. If we allow our mind to begin to work, we quickly lose living faith. These preachers get all touchy about “mocking” and “ridicule,” but their own words mock themselves.

The World

We must not forget the third part of the anti-Trinity, which is also battling it out with these beleaguered believers: the world. It’s quite a formidable foe, encompassing about 99.998% of humanity with all its culture—including some great TV shows and music. The world is the Other, everybody and everything residing outside each fundamentalist sect’s own high-walled little ghetto.

Fundamentalism, says Herriot, “is always hostile to an Other, whom it perceives as threatening.” Indeed, “it defines itself by that opposition; it depends upon the Other’s existence for its own raison d’étre” (p. 9). In addition to what fundamentalists themselves say about the nature of their enemy, we must “search for the origins of their reactionary fervour within our own understanding of its social and psychological context.” And that context, according to Herriot, “is the modernising world” (p. 9).

In this 21st century, with the Internet polluting Christian homes with sinful videos, music, and clear-headed discussions about religion, the world has become a distressingly visible and tangible front-line force on the fundamentalist battlefield. Satan is just over the hill, watching things from afar. The “our own flesh” part of the threefold enemy lurks hidden inside believers’ minds—rendered spiritually schizophrenic by their church—tormenting them with whispered critical thoughts that sound an awful lot like their own voices. But the world is just outside the church door, surrounding the camp of the saints.

From the Voice of Zion, June/​July 2013. Aw, shucks, guys. . .

Just as the lowest form of enemy combatant is the traitor from your own ranks, the worst kind of worldly person in fundamentalism’s view is the former believer. It’s understandable for several reasons: The apostate has proven himself disloyal to the tribe, ungrateful for the precious gift he’s rejected. And as my friend Robert M. Price writes in The Reason-Driven Life, “When and if born-again Christians discover someone who has actually been where they are and left, it is a terrible threat to their faith” (p. 335).5 And that’s just from their mere existence as happy unbelievers, without saying a word.

It’s much worse if you dare to actually speak out. I know many former Laestadians who guard what they say about the faith nearly as much as they did while in it, to preserve delicate relationships with believing family and those friends who stick with them. I haven’t been so quiet, of course, because the church’s attempt to suppress my research about its history and doctrines was one of the things that I could not abide. After defying the church and publishing a book with that research—one that critically examines not just Laestadianism, but also Christianity, the Bible, and the idea of God itself—I became Public Enemy #1 in the LLC.

Just over two years ago, on the second Sunday after publication of An Examination of the Pearl, a senior pastor in the LLC lamented6 the “many” in our time “who challenge the authority of God’s word, even those who have once dwelt in God’s Kingdom, who have once tasted of the sweetness of the gospel of God’s Kingdom, who have once themselves possessed the spirit of God in their hearts.” Alas, they have gone into darkness (20:00-20:54).

What the Enemy (at least in the view of many LLC members) really looks like. [Flickr page]

His remarks are so revealing about fundamentalism’s essential insecurity that I must quote them at length. (I would also prefer to avoid hearing the tiresome accusation of “quoting out of context.”) Note how the enemy is embodied in two forms here: the newly minted worldly person, and the “enemy of souls” who seems to be orchestrating it all in the background:

And it seems that often with people who have left God’s Kingdom, there are those that leave that cannot believe, the enemy of souls has deceived them, perhaps in their hearts they would want to return and want to again receive the gospel but the enemy of soul has put such obstacles before them that they are not able to return to the father’s house. But yet they remember the father’s house at times with fondness, they remember that there they had the light of Christ, there the spirit of God dwelt and the light shone in that father’s house in which they previously dwelt. [20:54-22:00]

Those people aren’t quite so bad. They have been deceived by the enemy, but at least they aren’t trying to cause trouble. However,

then there are also those who leave and very bitterly attack God’s Kingdom. They somehow are not satisfied with their own decision, to that degree that they find it necessary to attack, to speak bitterly, even lies, about the children of God. And we see how, when the spirit leaves, there is no longer light. It is as if, in a natural sense, the light bulb is disconnected from the source of the light—the lights go out. And so it is when someone rejects God’s Kingdom, when they leave the father’s house. It’s amazing, even astonishing sometimes to note, how dark, dark, darkness sets in, and even understanding that you would think that someone would yet retain—having grown up in God’s Kingdom, in the father’s house—how that understanding becomes so dim and the lights truly go out. [22:00-24:03]

The pastor attempts a little long-distance psychology, speculating that

sometimes when people leave God’s Kingdom, it seems as if they are still bothered by the fact that there are those that believe in such a way, and it almost becomes a personal agenda to convince others how wrongly they are believing. And it seems in some sense that they are not content to simply leave but need to also criticize and blacken the name of the children of God. [24:03-25:06]

This is all to be expected, the pastor consoles his listeners. Jesus “experienced the ridicule of his own people. And we who are the followers of Jesus have this same portion that we are ridiculed and despised for his name’s sake” (25:10-25:38). At least he also cited Jesus’ example of “loving our enemies, doing good to those that despise you, continuing to show love even for those who have left the father’s house and ridicule the father’s house. We want to show love and pray for them, that they would return again to the father’s house where there is food and drink” (26:00-26:50).

After all, he mused, those apostates might eventually come back. (I seriously doubt the pastor would entertain that possibility for me anymore.) Those on the outside have only

their own mind and their own strength. But when their own strength begins to crumble. . . and God has his ways also of speaking to man, for example through illness. Sometimes someone that is very sure of themselves when they are well, and doing well, and successful—they don’t need anything, they don’t need God. But then in moments of distress, when the foundations that man has lain begin to crumble—we think of the matter of health, we have very little control of what happens to us in our life with regard to health. [28:00-29:05]

Passive-aggressive theology: It’s what you do, I suppose, when confronted by hundreds of pages of criticisms to which you cannot provide any substantive response.

Keeping Score

To conclude this essay about the enemy, let’s return briefly to that opening sermon. The work is precious, the LLC chairman said. It’s all being done for believers and also those who would find a gracious God in this world. “And so, despite the enemy’s best efforts, God continues to bless and guide his work and the work continues to grow” (16:50-17:00).

He recalled Christianity’s favorite apostle (really, its founder), Paul, who

in his time also experienced the attacks of the enemy, many difficulties, yet he said in his letter to the Romans, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” [19:55-20:10]

This rhetorical question brings out a scoreboard, and that’s not something Laestadianism really should want to be doing. The results are not flattering.

Out of the seven billion people on earth, all the enemy hasn’t managed to snatch up are the children (who most everyone claims are innocent or saved somehow), the mentally incompetent, and the true believers among a hundred thousand or so Conservative Laestadians. The way things are going in the SRK (American Laestadianism’s Finnish counterpart), he’s making pretty good inroads there, too.

“The work” has been a spectacular failure by any objective measure. Only a few million out of those seven billion are even aware of this sect claiming to be “God’s Kingdom.” Of those, a tiny fraction show any interest in converting to it. And, from the experience of recent years anyway, most of those few converts wind up leaving sooner or later, as have a number of us who became Laestadians the usual way, in the maternity ward.7

And none of this says anything about the actual issues with Laestadianism, or fundamentalism, or Christianity in general. They are devastating to the faith, and too numerous to even mention. A link to my 95 Theses page should suffice for anyone who dares to begin that difficult journey down the road to honesty.

These are harsh realities for believers to consider. Their preachers have drawn up battle lines against a non-existent enemy, in a war that they have utterly, obviously, and embarassingly lost.

But there is good news, a consolation of sorts: Except for a few of us whose lives have been impacted by half a lifetime in the faith, and who are in a position to say what few others can or will, nobody but believers and anguished doubters is really interested in this fight. Live your lives, worship who or what you want, and go over to visit your old friends who have left the church for dinner sometime. You will find that they are still people, just like you, and that your preachers’ war trumpets are simply not being heard outside the sanctuary walls.

Click on images to enlarge, as usual. The Satan-and-church image is derived from a combination of my own photo of an old country church and a portrait of Satan, one of several done by a Flickr user named “Spud-Ography” and offered under a CC-NC-SA license. For the brains-against-fort image, I combined this fine photo by Ahmad Ali, available under the generic CC license, of Fortress Qaitbay in Alexandria, Egypt with copies of a brain picture from Geir Mogen, NTNU Faculty of Medicine, CC-NC licensed.


  1. Peter Herriot, Religious Fundamentalism: Global, Local and Personal, Taylor & Francis (2009). You can rent it on the Amazon Kindle for under $6. 


  3. See An Examination of the Pearl, §4.4.6 


  5. Robert M. Price, The Reason-Driven Life. Prometheus Books (2006). One of the finest books I’ve ever read; every page sings with inspiration. 


  7. These two paragraphs are adapted from An Examination of the Pearl, §4.4.6 and §4.5.1


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Invocation to Venus

[A]s a poet, a maker of metaphors, Lucretius could do something very strange, something that appears to violate his conviction that the gods are deaf to human petitions. On the Nature of Things opens with a prayer to Venus. … The hymn pours forth, full of wonder and gratitude, glowing with light. It is as if the ecstatic poet actually beheld the goddess of love, the sky clearing at her radiant presence, the awakening earth showering her with flowers. She is the embodiment of desire, and her return, on the fresh gusts of the west wind, fills all living things with pleasure and passionate sexual longing.
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. W.W. Norton & Company (2011).
This posting is the first of several I have planned about the remarkable On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.
First page of a 1483 manuscript copy  [Flickr page]

There is a priceless work of ancient literature that rests, now safely copied beyond risk of annihilation, within the world’s digital book databases, web servers, bookstores, and libraries. A few manuscripts from the middle ages survive, along with copies made painstakingly by hand, then printed widely once Gutenberg’s invention came into use.

On the Nature of Things is a poem of 7,400 lines written two thousand years ago by a freethinking Roman named Lucretius. It “yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure, and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease.”1 It’s a wonder that it survived the dark ages, escaping the fiery fate of so many other manuscripts that did not conform to the iron-fisted piety of the almighty medieval Church.

And conform it certainly did not. Throughout his remarkable poem, Lucretius denies any divine influence or even interest in the affairs of humans. The universe was not made by the gods, and does not need their help to run its random course. We are all fortunate arrangements of atoms formed into living beings who exist only briefly, and just this once. We have no souls that outlast our bodies, so our pursuit is the happiness and pleasure that these brief lives of ours can offer. When the end comes, it is final, and we must accept it graciously.

Lucretius was very much a materialist. A person “can call the earth ‘Mother of the Gods,’” he allowed, “on this condition— / that he refuses to pollute his mind / With the foul poison of religion.”2 He did not deny the existence of the old gods, just their influence on our world or any interest in it. “By their very nature,” they sat aloof, enjoying “perfect peace” and “immortal life,”

Far separate, far removed from our affairs.
For free from every sorrow, every danger,
Strong in their own powers, needing naught from us,
They are not won by gifts nor touched by anger.3

Whether out of poetic license, some lingering respect for the old traditions, or as a way of easing the pious into his starkly materialist worldview, Lucretius begins his monumental celebration of humanism by addressing one of those gods whose superstitious worship he disdains.4 The “Invocation to Venus” is a beautiful and erotic paean to the goddess of love, a celebration of how the “universe, in its ceaseless process of generation and destruction and regeneration, is inherently sexual.”5

Now, for a few minutes, try to forget that you are an occupant of a frantic, attention-limited society twenty centuries after Lucretius scratched out his lines with quill pen on papyrus or parchment. You are browsing a blog with bills to pay and laundry to fold, and that sort of fast reading does not lend itself to the appreciation of thoughts formed in a more deliberate age.

But please do try. Savor the lines below, which have been so artfully translated—from manuscript copies several times removed from the long-lost originals—by an Englishman, John Dryden, three centuries ago. The words are stunning in their glorious sensuality and power, and are a bit daring for stiff-necked readers even today.

And enjoy the pictures interspersed, too. They are samples of my own long-running visual paean to nature, expressing the same ancient appreciation with modern tools.


Delight of humankind, and gods above,

Parent of Rome, propitious Queen of Love!

Whose vital power, Air, Earth, and Sea supplies,

And breeds what e’er is born

beneath the rolling Skies;

For every kind, by thy prolific might,

Springs, and beholds the regions of the light.

Lake Mist Aglow  [Flickr page]

Thee, Goddess, thee the clouds and tempests fear,

And at thy pleasing presence disappear;

For thee the Land in fragrant Flowers is drest;

For thee the Ocean smiles,

and smooths her wavy breast,

And Heav’n itself with more serene

and purer light is blest.

Molokai Shoreline from the Sea  [Flickr page]

For, when the rising Spring adorns the Mead,

And a new Scene of Nature stands displayed,

When teeming Buds, and cheerful greens appear,

And Western gales unlock the lazy year;

The joyous Birds thy welcome first express,

Whose native Songs thy genial fire confess;

Then savage beasts bound o’er their slighted food,

Struck with thy darts, and tempt the raging flood.

Raindrops on Oregon Grape  [Flickr page]

All nature is thy Gift; Earth, Air, and Sea;

Of all that breathes, the various progeny,

Stung with delight, is goaded on by thee.

Purple and Gold  [Flickr page]

O‘er barren Mountains, o’er the flowery Plain,

The leafy forest, and the liquid main,

Extends thy uncontrolled and boundless reign;

Through all the living Regions dost thou move,

And scatterest, where thou goest,

the kindly seeds of Love.

Molokai from the Kamehameha Highway  [Flickr page]

To thee Mankind their soft repose must owe,

For thou alone that blessing canst bestow;

Because the brutal business of the War

Is managed by thy dreadful Servant’s care;6

Who oft retires from fighting fields, to prove

The pleasing pains of thy eternal Love;

And panting on thy breast supinely lies,

While with thy heavenly form

he feeds his famished eyes;

Sucks in with open lips thy balmy breath,

By turns restored to life,

and plunged in pleasing death.

Molokai Pali  [Flickr page]

There while thy curling limbs about him move,

Involved and fettered in the links of Love,

When wishing all, he nothing can deny,

Thy Charms in that auspicious moment try;

With winning eloquence our peace implore,

And quiet to the weary World restore.

Flaming Firs  [Flickr page]
Invocation to Venus quoted from lines 1-27, 43-58 of John Dryden’s 1685 translation, with modern spelling and removal of some archaic contractions (e.g., “fettered” instead of “fetter’d”), as with the version consulted in N. John McArthur, ed. John Dryden, The Complete Poetical Works, N. John McArthur and Lexicos Publishing (2012).
The photography is my own modern contribution to this ancient appreciation of the natural world. Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out my most “interesting” photos on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013-14 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. W. W. Norton & Company (2011), Ch. 8. 

  2. Book II, 658-660. Ronald Melville, trans. On the Nature of the Universe, Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press (1997). 

  3. Book I, lines 646-51. Melville trans. 

  4. For a more nuanced view, see George Depue Hadzsits, “The Lucretian Invocation of Venus.” Classical Philology, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1907), pp. 187-192. Available for free online courtesy of the University of Chicago Press. According to Hadzsits, the “Lucretian invocation of Venus, as a typical Epicurean prayer, must be interpreted in the light of Epicurean theory and practice—a prayer, then, with a deep, complex, religious significance to the sincere Epicurean himself, a prayer that included an emotional attachment to older traditions, to established customs and beliefs, and also an enlightened intellectual, Epicurean interpretation of such religious material.” He finds it “utterly unthinkable that in the Venus invocation Lucretius has been untrue to himself,” with a mere “conventional literary ornament” as a hypocritical pious preamble to his “literary monument to fearless honesty.” 

  5. Greenblatt, p. 45. 

  6. The servant was Mars. Melville provides this footnote to the line in his translation: “Venus restraining the warlike impulse of her husband Mars was a frequent subject of ancient as of modern painting (see especially Botticelli’s Venus and Mars). Their union was sometimes allegorized as bringing about harmony: they also look back to the two cosmic principles of ‘Love’ and ‘Strife’ of the fifth-century BC Greek poet Empedocles, who was one of Lucretius’ major models.”