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.
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).
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 address 4 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.
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.
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 lamented 6 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).
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.
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.