Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Life Celebration: Frank Zindler

Voices that are stilled still sing
  Of never-fading beauty,
  Of never-dying love.
—Frank Zindler, “Victrola Rolls”
Frank Zindler (1939—)

We often celebrate the lives of people whom we love and respect after they die. Friends, family, and colleagues gather around the mortal remains of the departed to share kind words and fond memories about him or her. It’s an old ritual, and a worthy one. But, unfortunately, it always comes just a few days too late to make much of an impression on the person being honored.

Frank Zindler is one of the individuals I’ve had the privilege of meeting—if only by correspondence and telephone—who will be widely eulogized when his long and remarkable life finally ends. That day is hopefully still a couple of decades away, but the approach of his 75th year seems occasion enough to offer a tribute to this amazing man.

I asked Frank what he thought about the idea of offering him a “pre-bituary” on this blog, fearing it might seem a bit ghoulish. He was, it turned out, quite grateful and enthusiastic:

This is wonderful. I am deeply touched. I can’t help but think of Franz Schubert, who, by the time he was my age had been dead for 44 years and who, in his thirty-one-year life, was virtually unknown except to a small coterie of close friends and admirers. I don’t deserve to be so lucky. I almost feel guilty.

Frank is a vocal and firm atheist who discarded any hope (or fear!) of an afterlife fifty years ago. He isn’t concerned about where he will be when his heart finally squeezes off its last beat, when the billions of neurons in his prodigious brain flicker into darkness. As with all of us, wherever we now stand on our separate unmarked roads heading for that same destination, there simply will be no Frank at that point.

So let’s talk a little bit about Frank Zindler while he’s here to appreciate what’s being said.

Origins

Frank R. Zindler was born on May 23, 1939 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Thirteen years later, he graduated the eighth grade at a two-room country school. He received a scholarship to Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for high school and seminary, but was unable to accept it due to the recent death of his father. The following year, after giving a qualifying lecture “The Carbon-Nitrogen Cycle and Energy Production in the Sun,” he was admitted to the Berrien County Astronomical Society. He was fourteen years old.

The tragedy of his father’s death had turned young Frank into “the most religious person in [his] family.” But it was a temporary transition. Once in high school, he read through the Bible on his own in an effort to parallel the curriculum he imagined would have been offered to him at the seminary. This was no casual effort; in addition to Latin, Frank studied Greek and Hebrew to better understand the biblical languages.

Many of us who have undertaken similar Bible reading projects, even without Frank’s level of diligence and linguistic skill, might guess how this turned out. It was, he says, a “disaster” sowing seeds of doubt, which

would grow into the tree of skepticism that would ultimately blossom into Atheism. By the time I reached the book of Exodus (the second book of the Christian Bible) I was troubled. After reading through the books of Numbers, Joshua, and Ezra I was horrified by the morally outrageous behavior of Jehovah (Yahweh), who commanded the Israelites to commit genocide over and over again. I went to my Lutheran minister in distress over the relevant passages in the Bible, and he rather disingenuously tried to explain things away.

By his sophomore year in high school, Frank had quit going to church except for special occasions. That, he says, “was very distressing because I had been assistant organist and I loved to play the pipe organ.” Churches are about the only places you can find the things, after all.1 

But he had been “morally repulsed” by the Old Testament, and was beginning to have second thoughts about the New. How could the death of an innocent person justify the “sins” of someone else? The whole thing came back to the idea of sacrifice. Why, Frank asked, would a good God even require sacrifice?

Adding to these concerns was one that had come early on in his high school education: the devil of Darwin. When his biology classes introduced him to evolution, the troubled and still-pious Frank asked his mother what to do. She suggested reading what the man actually had to say:

Surely, I would be able for myself to see what was wrong with Darwin and explain it to my teacher when he started to teach about evolution. So, I had an aunt who lived in town who sponsored me to get a library card at the public library. I checked out Darwin and began to read. To my astonishment, Darwin made his case so thoroughly that I became an evolutionist.2

Looking back, Frank thinks he was an atheist “in all but self-recognition” when he graduated high school. (At age sixteen!) But when he arrived at Kalamazoo College, he was horrified to find “that everyone was an atheist, including the dean of chapel.” Frank found himself practically the last defender of the faith on campus, though his own had become an anemic one.3

Chapel at Kalamazoo College
Photo: Jeff Daly, CC-NC-SA licensed.

The last vestiges of theism fell away from Frank’s worldview around Halloween of his 18th year. He was attending an “all-night bull session” with five or so friends, and one of them asked a form of the age-old question about an omnipotent God: “Can he build a wall so sturdy he can’t tear it down?” His friend had posed the question more in jest than seriously, and it would have run off Frank “like water off a duck’s back” a year earlier. But Frank’s recent efforts to develop a propositional calculus, had given him the habit of looking at every word in detail.

When his friend hit him with the omnipotence paradox, Frank immediately saw the incoherence of the whole idea. They spent another hour or two coming up with corollaries. If God is infinite, he is everywhere. Then he cannot not be in a particular place, and so God is in the devil, indeed was present in Frank’s friend as he questioned God.

I told Frank my favorite form of the paradox, which I recall seeing somewhere on reddit.com: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot he can’t eat it?” That got a good laugh, long and sparkling with light notes. This was a powerful voice on the other end of the phone, almost overwhelming in all the wisdom it conveyed with every word uttered during our conversations. But it’s one that rings out with humanity and the joy of living, too, ready to laugh and grow heavy with emotion about loved ones and memories.

Atheism

Just as religious faith is a cherished aspect of many people’s lives, the decisive rejection of religion is an important part of Frank’s identity. The atheism he adopted all those years ago is not the shoulder-shrugging “I just don’t buy it, next topic” kind of unbelief quietly practiced by many millions of people. It is a loud, emphatic harrumph, a clearing of the throat that is heard, if not around the world, then at least around skeptical circles—via his lectures, work in atheist and secular organizations, involvement with various books published by American Atheist Press, and more than 400 commercial radio and television interviews and debates.

His four volumes (thus far) of articles collected in Through Atheist Eyes are full of wit and wisdom. The breadth of Frank’s knowledge is simply astounding, and these articles show it. They are, of course, from an atheist magazine, and thus share the theme of criticizing religion in its myriad forms. Frank’s express wish in his Preface to the collection is that it “will help at least a bit to break the mental chains that purveyors of the supernatural have thrown around the minds of men and women for as long as we have record.” The many hundreds of pages that follow pose tough questions for seemingly everyone and everything religious, from Jesus to Joseph Smith. Reading through them, it’s all too easy to forget how much more there is to Frank—his love of music, languages, literature, logic, history, science, and people, to hit on some of the highlights.

Frank and Ann Zindler (from left) with Madalyn Murray O’Hair (seated), her grand-daughter and adopted daughter (Robin Murray-O’Hair, the daughter of Bill Murray), and her son Jon Garth Murray, at that time president of American Atheists.

He did his first public lecture on the origins of life in 1959, and was vocal as an atheist from that point on. But things really took off in 1977, when he saw an advertisement in the Schenectady Gazette from a woman who had become famous—infamous as far as the religious were concerned—as an outspoken atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She’d founded American Atheists fourteen years earlier (then under the name Society of Separationists) and in 1963 had won a Supreme Court ruling against state-mandated prayer and Bible readings in public schools.4

Frank drove a hundred miles to New York City so he could see O’Hair speak. When he returned home, he started the Schenectady chapter of American Atheists. Frank and his wife Ann learned how to do cable access TV programming, and became friends and allies with O’Hair. Most famously, Frank joined her 1977 suit to get “In God We Trust” removed from U.S. money. He “made the rounds of radio and television talk-shows in the New York State Capital District,” which “infuriated the right-wing politicians who controlled the purse strings of the college” at which he was teaching.

These included the Fulton County Board of Supervisors, which introduced a “Resolution Protesting Remarks of Frank R. Zindler to Delete the Words ‘In God We Trust’ from American Currency.” By Frank’s account, they were difficult people to have as enemies.

The Board realized that even though I was Chairman of the Division of Science, Nursing, and Technology at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (SUNY), technically I was still a professor, not an administrator. I had tenure. I could not be fired except for professional incompetence or criminal acts, and the only “crime” of which I was guilty in the view of the supervisors was my defense of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States. Unlike the SUNY four-year colleges and university centers, the community colleges drew finding from three sources: the State of New York, tuition, and—you guessed it—the sponsoring county or counties. Funding from the state and tuition were automatic. The County Board of Supervisors controlled the purse strings of the school. The Board refused to approve a budget for the college “until that atheist is eliminated.”5

An even darker side of religious America rewarded him with “dozens of death threats over the years.” Perhaps the most worrisome was from

a man who could disguise his voice in multiple ways and then, after engaging me in conversation, would revert to what I suppose was his real voice and snarl, “The same thing that happened to Madalyn and Robin is going to happen to you and your wife.”6

What happened to Madalyn and Robin, and Madalyn’s son Jon, was a kidnapping and brutal murder in 1995. About a year after that horrible event, having accepted Robin’s former position of editor at American Atheist Press, Frank wrote an impassioned eulogy at Atheists.org:

We struggle to comprehend how lives so filled with promise and achievement should be snuffed out like candles in a sudden draft, how persons who have done so much to liberate the minds and elevate the aspirations of their fellows should come so startlingly and senselessly to naught. The incomprehensible injustice of these deaths shall haunt the innermost reaches and recesses of our minds like a ghost no exorcist can expel.7

The Diary of Ann (and) Frank

Frank married Ann Elizabeth Hunt in 1964. The Zindlers had a daughter Catherine, who gave them three grandchildren: Michael, Steven, and Laura.8 On their first anniversary, Ann received this from Frank:

Twelve million breaths of air have passed

Our lips since passed the breath

That said you’d be my wedded wife

And scared me half to death.

Fifty-eight billion miles and more—

One trip around the sun—

A dizzy race it is we’ve run,

But hasn’t it been fun?

And after giving birth to Catherine, she got a poem that began as follows:

Our love is now the pulse of life:

Syncarnate in one common flesh

And beating single, full with life,

Our separate hearts are One.

Ann Zindler (1935-2013)

His love for Ann was touchingly evident during our conversations. She finally and painfully succumbed to cancer in January 2013, after five years in and out of hospitals, and the loss is still raw for him. Yet he takes comfort in his memories of her—accompanying her bird watching and seeing her do glass work until a few weeks before her death—and the impact she had. Her life, he wrote in a tribute published two days after it ended, “has been transformed from a material being into a torrent of cascading memories, but the world of reason is the better for her having lived.”

They worked together on a cause they shared: Theirs was “a philosophical, activist, and loving partnership that never faltered until it was dissolved by death.” Ann was a lifelong non-believer, “someone who simply cannot believe in things without evidence.” At age five, she had balked at putting her nickel in the collection plate because she didn’t see why Jesus needed it. Being “sent off to get religion” at a Christian college did nothing to change her viewpoint. “There being around forty rules (‘commandments’) governing life in the dormitory, she and another ne’er-do-well systematically set out to break them all,” and she was asked not to return for a second year.9

The devotion of these two old lovers can be seen in what has become one of my favorite poems, written by Frank the year before Ann’s death. The inevitable end of her health struggles had become all too clear to both of them, and this is what “wrote itself” with Frank’s pen in the spring of 2012:

Let me go first into that night

Where all paths disappear

Into the silence of the stars

And naught remains to fear.

Go not before me to that void

Nor cast me back to grieve.

Stay with me ‘til the hour when I’m

Coerced at last to leave.

Beautiful as it is, Ann objected to the poem. She didn’t want to be the one left behind, any more than her husband did.

There is a type of immortality, Frank says. It is one of ideas, left for others in print and memories. Some people “enjoy” more of that than others after their deaths, in that they have changed the lives of other people. In a sense, our actions, and the results of our actions, survive us.

This book of yours, he counseled his decades-younger interviewer, will still be there when you are not. Your ideas will continue to influence other people after your physical body is gone. The way you have altered the lives of other people, whether it be your children, your friends, and your enemies if you have any. There are “unending consequences” to lives well lived.

I told Frank how much I think of his poem to Ann, how I have read it aloud to others on a couple of occasions. Here was one of the times when that light voice on the telephone cracked and halted. His tribute to a beloved wife lives on through that poem and my appreciation of it, he said, explaining how the same thing happened for a 13-year old girl through her father’s epitaph 2300 years ago. See my previous posting on this blog for that remarkable story.

Full Speed Ahead

Frank’s high school chemistry teacher had been a member of the American Chemical Society, and the journal Chemical Abstracts to which he subscribed had been young Frank’s source of information with which to design experiments isolating rubidium from beets. After having his administrative position eliminated, his funding starved, and his favorite courses cut, he began a new career at age 43: a linquist, “putting information into that same journal.”10 He mused that “some new student somewhere would be learning to do something equally exciting!” It was, Frank says, “like living in a dream that was being created by reactivation of memories.”

For most of his life, he “had been made to feel guilty for spending money on foreign language books and for ‘wasting time’ trying to learn Sanskrit, Egyptian, Mayan, or whatever.” But “it was my ability to decipher odd languages that was my main bargaining chip” for this new occupation.11 And thirty years later, he is still applying that ability, astoundingly so. He employs 12-16 languages in a typical week, 18-20 over the course of a typical month.

“This is just reading,” Frank hastened to tell me, lest I get the impression that he might be a language prodigy or something. “Major languages” he reads fairly well, he says, but with the obscure ones, it comes down to “deciphering” with a dictionary. He used to “do” Arabic and Japanese, but says those languages now have plenty of native speakers where he works.

But he could re-learn them quickly if he had to, he adds. Indeed, re-learning Arabic is on his bucket list. All told, Frank has been fluent in German, Spanish, Czeck, French, Italian, Arabic, and Japanese. He also spoke modern Greek fairly well at one time.

This lifetime of linguistic learning is still ongoing. Frank gave a lecture (“a smashing success!”) just this month for his Lithuanian historical linguistics seminar at Ohio State University:

My seminar professor, who is one of a half-dozen greatest authorities in the world on the evolution of the Greek language and also my professor in Intermediate Sanskrit, said he had learned a lot from me in the course of the course and led the class in applause! I was dumbfounded but held back my tears until I was safely outside. The course is the highest-numbered linguistics course offered at OSU as far as I can tell, just five doctoral candidates and me—plus the head of the Slavic department who joined us occasionally. I’ve never had even an introductory linguistics course in my life, being entirely an autodidact.

Did you catch the part about Intermediate Sanskrit? Frank is now taking his second semester of that course. I asked him what grade he got for the first semester. He laughed, hesitated, and then said it was an “A.”

———
Click on (most) images to enlarge. With the exception of the Kalamazoo chapel image by Jeff Daly, post-processed and reproduced under a Creative Commons license, all are post-processed versions of what was provided to me by Frank and are used with his permission. Also used with his permission are his poetry, along with material from “Eliminate that Atheist!” and his Curriculum Vitae.
See two other postings on this blog, “Endings” and “On Felines and Frenchmen,” for more of Frank’s fascinating stories. Another celebration I’ve done of a remarkable life is for my mother, Mary Suominen.

Notes


  1. TABEE3I website, “Interview with Frank Zindler” (February 2010). tabee3i.com/page/interviews/en/Frank-Zindler/ 

  2. Id

  3. Id.; personal communication. 

  4. Wikipedia, American Atheists 

  5. Frank Zindler, “Eliminate that Atheist!”, in Through Atheist Eyes, vol. 5 (forthcoming). 

  6. Frank Zindler, “Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair,
    the Founder of American Atheists.” Reprinted at the Friendly Atheist blog, patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/04/28/remembering-madalyn-murray-ohair-the-founder-of-american-atheists 

  7. Reprinted at nowscape.com/atheism/zindler_memoriam.htm

  8. Freethought Nation website, “Frank Zindler’s wife of 48 years, Ann, has died.” freethoughtnation.com/frank-zindlers-wife-of-48-years-ann-has-died/ 

  9. Frank Zindler, “Remembering Ann.” American Atheists website, news.atheists.org/2013/01/06/remembering-ann/ 

  10. In his “Eliminate that Atheist!” chapter, Frank tells a harrowing story of ill treatment at the community college following his public participation in the 1977 “In God We Trust” litigation. My summary in this sentence is based only on his account, and I haven’t investigated whether there is another side to the story. 

  11. Frank Zindler, “Eliminate that Atheist!” 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Endings

Who is there, my friend, [who] can climb to the sky?
  Only the gods [dwell] forever in sunlight.
As for man, his days are numbered,
  whatever he may do, it is but wind.
—The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1500 BC)
Standing together, in the Valley of the Shadow  [Flickr page]

My family is experiencing a moment of sadness, as my wife and I mourn the loss of a nephew seventeen years old. Two kind and decent parents have had their beloved child taken from them and now must deal with unimaginable pain. I have no easy words of comfort to offer. Just my love, respect, heartfelt sympathies, and some thoughts that I shared with another father who faced his own horrible void of sudden death one awful night a few years ago.

This is the worst night of your life, I told him. You have suffered a terrible loss. It will never be worse than this. You have some very tough times ahead, but the day will come when you will smile and laugh about things again. It may not seem possible, but it will happen. Now, let’s work on getting through the next five minutes. Then the five minutes after that.

Somehow, we did. And yes, I did see him smile again.

Miss Mary Mrak, 1905-1919  [Flickr page]

As parents, the entire project of our existence lies in these offspring whom we raise from helpless, squalling infants. If our fervent hopes come true, we finally release them into the world as young adults, to fend for themselves and continue the cycle another step. It is a long and arduous road, and a happy outcome—the further perpetuation of our precious genes—is far from guaranteed. Indeed, for most of human existence, it seems, the odds were stacked against it.

One of the fascinating stories that the brilliant polymath Frank Zindler has told me from his long and remarkable life (the subject of my next post on this blog) was about another father’s loss of his child. That particular death remains recorded only as an etching on ancient stone.

In the beginning of 1983, as Frank was waiting for his beloved wife Ann (whom death now has also claimed) to join him in their move to Ohio, he spent his evening in the local university library. One of the very first evenings he was there, in the classics reading room, he took down a volume from the Corpus Inscriptionarum Graecarum, a body of ancient written monuments.

He remembers the long reading tables, like those found at the New York public library, he says. He sat at the end of one and opened the volume at random, and his eyes fell upon a Greek inscription from the 3rd century BC. It was an epitaph for a 13 year old girl, written by her anguished father.

While Frank was reading, he suddenly saw a tear drop onto the page, and realized it was his own. He had been weeping. He remembers a student sitting nearby at the table, looking amazed at such an outpouring of emotion from someone reading a book. But this wasn’t just any book.

It was a cry echoing from antiquity, being heard again in the silence of a musty library reading room. At the instant he read the words, Frank says, the anguish felt by this father, now long dead himself,

had come to life once again in my brain, as I read that epitaph. That recording in stone had transmitted this emotion, this feeling, this sensation, to someone who would not live for two thousand years. That feeling once again existed.

Frank calls the experience “a life changer.” He realized that if he writes things well, they will be remembered. They will indeed. And so also—in your minds right now, even without the words at hand—has the expression of sadness, of humanity, from a man about his young girl who died tragically young some 2300 years ago.

Her bones have long since joined the dust of her father and all those who stood grieving for her, and the generations of those who would follow. But like an ember that drifts, dimly glowing, far away from a distant fire whose heat is no longer felt, a small remnant of the love that had been felt for her still lives on. May it do so for Steven, and his parents in their turn, and for each of us as well.

Life and light  [Flickr page]
Click on individual images to enlarge. 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.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Social Media and the Believer

Concern was expressed about the use of social media websites. It is dangerous to our faith to seek answers about religion and faith from this type of media. These sites answer to our flesh and mind, but not our faith.
—Laestadian Lutheran Church annual meeting minutes, 2011
This as-yet-unpublished newsletter article discusses issues my old fundamentalist church is encountering with social media. Be sure to read my comments that follow the article at the bottom of this posting.

During these last days, the enemy is constantly developing new ways to ensnare God’s Children. He is a cunning adversary who knows how to enlist all the latest technology for his cause, and believers must guard against his tricks. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

It is perhaps easier to be wary against an enemy who announces himself as a roaring lion. Overt temptations like loud music or obscene television shows are easy to recognize as sin and perils to the life of faith. But now, as he did at the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, the enemy is also enticing believers in a sly manner.

Modern Dangers

One of the tempter’s new tricks is social media. There, under the guise of “friendliness” and “acceptance,” he can lure a Child of God into many snares. The Apostle warned against unequal yoking with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14), but in today’s computer-connected society, that happens all the time. Unbelieving Facebook “friends” are easily accumulated and interacted with on a daily basis, to the point where the appeal of wholesome believing companionship is diminished. Even at gatherings of the youth, contact with unbelievers through smartphones can be a constant distraction.

Believers see all the world’s foreign customs and sinful lifestyles online, and even indicate acceptance of them with “likes” and careless “tolerant” comments. We can be drawn into discussions about matters of faith where man’s carnal reasoning can easily lead us astray. We can be tempted to join those who criticize the leaders that God has established for our earthly government. All of this brings sorrow to the heart of the Heavenly Father. “Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14).

God’s Kingdom does not have a set of rules or “dos and don’ts,” about behavior online or anywhere else. But the Internet is certainly a place of watching. We should heed the voice of the Mother when she warns about the dangers online and with social media in particular.

Friendship with the World

We may ask ourselves how important our unbelieving “friends” have become to us. Would the number of unbelievers in our Facebook “friends list” or those we “follow” on Twitter be a cause for concern? “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2 Corinthians 6:17).

In our time, the Internet has amplified the criticisms of those who would rise up against God’s Kingdom. Are we helping to provide a forum for their bitterness by reading their posts or tweets? “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” (Psalm 1:1). Even counting such vocal critics among our “friends” can raise questions and trouble tender consciences.

Certainly we maintain work and family relationships with some of those who have not been granted the gift of living faith. It is not practical to only have contact with believers, online or elsewhere. We are in the world, though not of it (John 15:19). However, we must be cautious in this matter. The Bible warns, “know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4). The easy interaction between believer and unbeliever that social media now permits should not change what has been long established by God’s Word.

Letting Our Light Shine Online

One of the dangers with “friendship of the world” is the temptation to accept incorrect and sinful beliefs and lifestyles. Today’s society encourages an anything-goes attitude of “tolerance,” but God’s Word has always taught differently. The Old Covenant believers were instructed to let their light shine very clearly about the dead faiths of this world:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. [Deuteronomy 13:6-9]

God’s Word is unchanging and eternal, and not subject to the whims of man’s desires. We see this with Jesus’ instructions about the priority of living faith versus even family members and our own lives: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

Faith is the most important matter, and we cannot afford to diminish this precious gift by indicating that other beliefs or sinful practices are somehow acceptable in the eyes of the Heavenly Father. “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2).

What message does it send when we “like” a posting or quotation by a spiritual leader who walks in darkness outside God’s Kingdom, or join in approval with any part of the world’s empty philosophies? “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Not Even the Appearance of Evil

The Apostle admonished the believers of Thessalonica to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” In a time when we can be seen as accepting evil with no more than the careless click of a “like” icon, we must soberly heed Paul’s warning.

Are we “liking” a photo that shows inappropriate physical contact for a courting couple? Are we joining in the world’s approval of those in sinful relationships outside the bounds of Christian marriage? Should we offer congratulations on the engagement of one who recently rejected the gift of living faith to marry an unbeliever? It is also good to remember that remarriage cannot be condoned when either member of a couple has divorced from another (Mark 10:11).

The enemy seeks to trick us into becoming lenient and overly accepting of lifestyles and worldly pursuits that are foreign to the life of a believer. It can seem innocent and appealing to offer kind comments or “likes” on posted photographs of young people in dance uniforms or engaged in school sporting events. But such messages of approval are confusing to the world and other believers when we could not in good conscience engage in those activities ourselves.

In addition, when a child of God “likes” a photo of a young man with long hair or a young woman wearing earrings, make-up, or skimpy clothing, it can be seen as an implied endorsement. The matter is of particular concern when it comes to photos of those who once traveled with the believers but have been lured into the enticements of sin, including worldly fashion. The messages from God’s children should not give false comfort to those who have left the Father’s house, but with unity should remind them of the need to come unto repentance.

Escorts on the Journey

As with any aspect of our life of faith, we so easily stumble in our behavior online. The Heavenly Father has not forgotten us in these last days, but has provided escorts on the journey to point out these modern dangers and offer the forgiveness of sins when we fall. They do not want to just say, like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, but wish to help us on the way to Heaven. Sometimes that loving work requires our brothers and sisters in faith to notice our errors in cases where we do not.

This should not be seen as intrusive or “creepy,” but God’s loving care done through His Kingdom. During the Old Covenant, He instructed Moses, “Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:1). Moses was obedient to this mission, selecting a man from each of the twelve tribes. “And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:17). In our time, it is sometimes necessary for God’s servants to perform similar missions in the “land of Canaan,” which the enemy has brought so close to believers through social media.

Our carnal pride is so easily bruised, but we should not be offended when a believing family member, friend, or elder gently rebukes us for some careless comment or “like” made on a social media site. “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Hebrews 12:5). The grace fountains are flowing even today in Zion. Through childlike obedience and unity with God’s Children, we shall one day reach that homeland shore in Heaven.

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Important disclaimer and commentary:

As you’ve probably gathered from the posting date of the above “article,” none of this was actually written for any church newsletter. (The epigraph really is from the 2011 annual meeting minutes, though, reporting a comment by a delegate.) It is “as-yet unpublished,” and always will be, because it’s a parody I wrote in honor of the holiday.

I don’t believe any of this stuff anymore. Neither, I suspect, do a substantial portion of those who still show up in the pews of my old church week after week due to the immense social cost of leaving. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still know how to speak and write fluent Laestadian.

The first four decades of my life were spent in this fundamentalist sect with its obsession about hundreds of “sins,” most of which have no biblical basis, and its exalted self-designation as “God’s Kingdom,” i.e., the one and only true church. My brain is full of deep-seated neuronal connections programmed with the language of Laestadianism, like those of ex-Pentecostals who can still speak in tongues.

One way that formerly religious people like myself apply this otherwise useless programming is to help others stuck in the same situation we were once in. That can take on many different forms. Sometimes it’s a one-to-one effort, serving as an understanding voice on the other end of the phone, chat connection, or email correspondence. On a broader scale, there are talented ex-Christians airing their voices with entertaining and informative podcasts like The Thinking Atheist and A Matter of Doubt. Some of us write books and blogs with critical analysis of our former beliefs, much to the annoyance of those trying to propagate those doctrines without inconvenient questions being raised.

And sometimes our self-expression involves a bit of humor to lighten things for those struggling in repressive belief systems, as with this “article” of mine. Now, I will readily acknowledge that a few parts of it are a bit over the top–that’s what makes something parody and not mere imitation. For one thing, Laestadians use the Old Testament very selectively, and few would cite any of its countless outrages like the business about killing infidel spouses in Deuteronomy 13. (Read the whole chapter; it gets worse.) But they claim that it is all part of God’s unchanging, inerrant Word, and are happy to cite favorite snippets of it when warning that you’d better not be using birth control or hunting on a Sunday.

Another stretch was defending the activities of overzealous “like police” on Facebook (sadly, there are individuals behaving that way) by relating it to the spies who gathered intel for a God with amusingly limited awareness in Numbers 13. Laestadian preaching has gotten less fanciful about its allegories, although there was plenty of imaginative material along those lines decades ago. And Laestadian preachers are definitely still trying to fend off rational inquiry by comparing it to the sales pitch of a certain fruit-peddling reptile in a (mythical) garden ages ago.

Parody pushes the boundaries, just a little in this case, to make a serious statement. And my point is directed to those who would be most offended by this April 1 posting, few of whom will ever see it. Ironically, they are the people most likely to actually say or write something just like this. Think about that!

To them I would ask, do you really believe this stuff when it shows up, for real, in the Voice of Zion? If you find my version of it upsetting or outrageous, why so? Feel free to provide me with specific corrections or distinctions; I’ll be happy to append them here. But I won’t be holding my breath waiting.

To the rest of my former brethren who are just being decent, friendly people and interacting with the rest of us in humanity, keep on being the wonderful people that you are. You’re better than the dreary sermons, groupthink “discussions,” and conformist practices that the authoritarians in your religion try so much to impose on you.