For we, like children frightened of the dark
Are sometimes frightened in the light–of things
No more to be feared than fears that in the dark
Distress a child, thinking they may come true.
The other week, I watched The Giver on DVD with my wife and a few of my kids. It’s a 2014 film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1993 book about a future collectivist society that does away with all but a bland, utilitarian remnant of human emotion and ambition. “The community” has even eliminated history from the minds of its people, with one significant exception.
A single chosen individual, the “Receiver of Memory,” is designated to take care of recalling past civilizations and events. This exalted and burdened person is set apart with an exclusive collection of books and memories, which he keeps to himself except to cryptically advise the Elders in their decision-making.
Eventually, the Receiver takes on an apprentice, to whom he passes all that knowledge and memory. The selection of a new Receiver “is very, very rare,” as the community’s Chief Elder tells her community at the Ceremony of Twelve,1 where young people are being assigned their occupations with much fanfare, and without any say in the matter. “Our community has only one Receiver. It is he who trains his successor.” 2
The story’s hero, Jonas, is named as that successor. “I thought you were The Receiver,” Jonas tells him during their first teaching session, “but you say that now I’m The Receiver. So I don’t know what to call you.” Call me The Giver, the old man says.3 And from him Jonas goes on to learn some amazing and troubling things. His life will never be the same again.
Around the end of 2010, one of my daughters had been assigned the book in school, and I wound up reading it myself. At the time, I was in the early stages of researching the doctrine and history of my old church. The things I was starting to learn would turn my own life upside-down and result in my first book, An Examination of the Pearl, about a year later.4
I was stunned by the parallels between Lowry’s sheltered, intellectually stunted community and the “Kingdom of God” in which I’d been struggling. After a lifetime as one of “God’s children,” I’d finally started to look at my odd little church in a clear-headed way. What I was seeing disturbed me a great deal, and so I put together a listing of church writings with footnotes stating some of my concerns. I had it printed and bound into a dozen softcover copies that I shared with a few friends in the church. Oops.
In September 2010, I was hauled before the church board of trustees and preachers for a stressful, coercive, and emotional meeting about my little copy-shop book. “Are you really believing?” I was asked. Beyond some concern about how I could dispute what “God’s Word” teaches regarding Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark, there wasn’t much substantive discussion of what the book actually had to say. It was mostly about me for having said it.
They told me the book was an expression of my doubts, which would have been best kept to myself or private conversations. It could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands, they said. It would leave the impression among outsiders that there are differences of opinion in “God’s Kingdom.” And it is certainly not something that believers should be reading. After over two hours of this, the meeting concluded with the understanding that I was to retrieve copies of the book.5
Just a few months after that experience, here I was reading about a closed community of myriad rules and “appropriate remorse” and public apologies, where uncomfortable history was extinguished from memory, where intractable rule-breakers were released to “Elsewhere.” And I was seeing a frightful near-future version of myself in Jonas, not some lofty hero but simply a wide-eyed seeker of truth–unable to tolerate censorship and propelled by an irresistible call to look at reality, at long last, come what may.
Comparing Lowry’s all-controlling community with Christian fundamentalism doesn’t seem to be a universal or even a common interpretation of her book,6 but she would be happy to let me keep it as my own. “A book, to me, is almost sacrosanct: such an individual and private thing. The reader brings his or her own history and beliefs and concerns, and reads in solitude, creating each scene from his own imagination as he does.” And I was certainly interested to see her recall a “man who had, as an adult, fled the cult in which he had been raised” telling her “that his psychiatrist had recommended The Giver to him.” 7
The first thing that jumped out at me was the rigid structure of rules that govern life both in Lowry’s dystopia and for the “believers” in the Laestadian Lutheran Church. Community members are careful to maintain “precision of language,” 8 while believers do not swear, tell dirty jokes, or speak light-heartedly about faith matters. Each family unit of the community receives two children–no more–while believing parents are to accept as many children as they are “given”–no less. Community girls are instructed to keep their hair ribbons “neatly tied at all times” 9 while believing girls are instructed not to wear earrings, make-up, or spaghetti straps.
Even a minor rule like the one against bragging (there is “never any comfortable way to mention or discuss one’s successes without breaking the rule against bragging, even if one didn’t mean to”) is best followed by steering clear of occasions where breaking it would be too easy.10 Thus believers have restrained themselves from playing violins in orchestras where they might get “puffed up” in their talents, even if they would just be one of many players helping to produce one of the few types of music to which they can listen in good conscience. Thus many an athletic Laestadian boy has walked home while his unbelieving sort-of friends go off to football practice. God’s glory must not be given to another, and the world cannot become too close.
And then there are those Stirrings, which begin for young Jonas with a dream about a girl his age. He describes it to his parents during a “sharing-of-feelings” rap session they are expected to do over dinner each day. (“Be free,” the board members would tell us during the many congregational meetings of my youth.) In the dream, he and the girl were in front of a tub in the House of the Old, where the elderly get cared for in their final days.11
“I wanted her to take off her clothes and get into the tub,” he explained quickly. “I wanted to bathe her. I had the sponge in my hand. But she wouldn’t. She kept laughing and saying no.”
His father asks Jonas about the strongest feeling he experienced during the dream.
“The wanting,” he said. “I knew that she wouldn’t. And I think I knew that she shouldn’t. But I wanted it so terribly. I could feel the wanting all through me.” 12
His parents look at each other and Jonas is then told about the Stirrings.
He had heard the word before. He remembered that there was a reference to the Stirrings in the Book of Rules, though he didn’t remember what it said. And now and then the Speaker mentioned it. ATTENTION. A REMINDER THAT STIRRINGS MUST BE REPORTED IN ORDER FOR TREATMENT TO TAKE PLACE.13
In the dystopia of The Giver, the treatment is medication, taken every day to deaden a person’s natural sex drive until it finally disappears in old age. In Laestadianism, the treatment is the forgiveness of sins–dispensed in a sermon every Sunday and, if parents are following recommended procedure, in the words of absolution being preached to their children at bedtime every night.
Believe all sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and precious blood, the young innocents are told, night after night by parents or siblings. That proclamation offers redemptive relief for all sins, and does the job in most cases, certainly from sinful thoughts of providing erotic bathing assistance to the cute girl or boy next door. If one’s Stirrings have moved beyond mere fantasy to masturbation or–heaven forbid–to a little kissing and heavy petting behind the garage where the yard light don’t shine, guilt pangs may persist despite the generic assurance of forgiveness. The preachers recommend confession in such cases.
Confession was a big deal in Laestadianism during my childhood. Most sins beyond mere impure thoughts, doubts, etc. were considered to remain on the conscience until one had spoken of them “by name.” It was not an absolute requirement to confess, but was widely expected, at least for those infractions falling into a non-biblical category of “name sins,” a category that was often referred to but never very specifically defined.14 A 1978 article from the church newsletter pretty well encapsulates how things were back then:
It is never an easy matter to repent of sins for the flesh fights against the Spirit. But sin has a name, and those named sins will not go away without our speaking of them to a dear brother or sister. We are assured that we can freely go to a dear one and open our heart. But those sins that have affected the congregation of God are to be repented of before the congregation; otherwise we will not receive freedom.15
That last part about repentance before the congregation offers a hint of the public confessions that people often made after the Sunday morning service when I was a kid. In my congregation and at least some others in North America, members would head up to the front of the church after the sermon and ask the entire congregation for forgiveness of various sins.
During the congregational “caretaking” meetings that were a regular Saturday night event, where some issue or person(s) of concern would be discussed with much emotion, such repentances would go on and on.16 I’ll always remember one of them in particular, from a young father who dutifully walked up to the microphone and asked forgiveness of the congregation for “reading filthy literature.” Poor guy. It was probably just a paperback novel with a vague sex scene or two.
With all those memories in my head, you can see why I saw some Laestadian parallels in Jonas’s recollection of his friend Asher showing up late to class:
“When the class took their seats at the conclusion of the patriotic hymn, Asher remained standing to make his public apology as was required.”
“I apologize for inconveniencing my learning community.” Asher ran through the standard apology phrase rapidly, still catching his breath. The Instructor and class waited patiently for his explanation. The students had all been grinning, because they had listened to Asher’s explanations so many times before.
“I left home at the correct time but when I was riding along near the hatchery, the crew was separating some salmon. I guess I just got distraught, watching them.
“I apologize to my classmates,” Asher concluded. He smoothed his rumpled tunic and sat down.
“We accept your apology, Asher.” The class recited the standard response in unison.17
“I’d like to ask forgiveness for, er, reading filthy literature,” the Laestadian Asher stammered, looking down at the floor. Believe all your sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood, replied the congregation with their standard response, in unison.
Back in those bad old days, there was another chilling parallel to The Giver. It was release from the community, the Laestadian form of which we called “binding.” Believers would be bound in their sins, and any requests they made to be forgiven would be denied unless it was decided that they were being specific and penitent enough about the issue at hand. Usually, there was some “false spirit” at the heart of the matter, which needed to be exorcised by being named in the confession.
This was a sad outcome of many “caretaking meetings” that were commonly held to discuss the spiritual state of individual congregation members. Such a meeting was considered the third step in Jesus’ instructions regarding the rebuke of a brother who has caused offense (Matt. 18:15-16). Offense was taken not so much for individual actions against another member but as a result of the wayward one’s observed sins (e.g., acquiring a television) or erroneous doctrinal views.
In a 1971 newpaper article, the Finnish counterpart to my North American Laestadian church had set forth the binding procedure in no uncertain terms: “If the ones spoken to do not humble themselves to repentance, consider them pagans and publicans and refuse them membership in the association. The disobedient are not to be greeted with the greeting of God’s children.” My old church took “precisely the same stand in America” three years later.18
“For a contributing citizen to be released from the community was a final decision, a terrible punishment, an overwhelming statement of failure.” 19 In The Giver, release was just to “Elsewhere.” Nobody but the Planning Committee knew exactly where the released person went.20 We readers, along with a wiser and sadder Jonas, come to realize that release actually involves death, not mere departure.
The horror and injustice of the community killing off its members–not just for disobedience, but for perceived unfitness at birth or just running out the clock on one’s old age–is what propels Jonas to take drastic action as the apprentice Receiver. Obviously, it would be a stretch to draw much of a parallel there, but it’s worth mentioning what a sad impact the Laestadian practice of binding did have on people.
I personally witnessed it several times as a youth. It is quite unforgettable to see people ask the congregation for forgiveness at a meeting held concerning their spiritual affairs and receive only cold silence as a response. Sometimes they would sit gamely at their table at the front of the church while the meeting continued to the bitter end, often late into the night. And sometimes they would reach their breaking point and storm out of the building, ending the meeting of their own accord. I saw it go either way. Both outcomes were heartbreaking to the subjects as well as the congregation members who sincerely believed that the soul of their brother or sister hung in the balance that night.
There could be a good deal of secret resentment even when one had jumped through the hoops set before him. Grumbling behind the back of the church elders was the only possible relief. To approach them with concerns about their activities carried the very real danger of seeming unrepentant and becoming subject to yet another meeting. Instead, for a couple of years to come, the public face remained one of compliance and thankfulness for the opportunity of correction. In many cases the corrected one was probably so beaten down by the experience as to feel a Stockholm-syndrome sense of gratitude.21
The last case of binding I’ve heard of happened ten years ago, and that’s quite a late anomaly. The Finnish counterpart to my old church issued an apology of sorts in 2011 for “errors [that] were able to expand almost everywhere in our Christianity,” though it puts the blame on individuals rather than the supposedly inerrant community, er, Mother congregation.22 But the trauma and collective memory of it still lurks behind the rebukes taking place in every private board meeting with a wayward believer. There is usually no alternative but to accept what you are told and repent of your supposed sin if you want to continue being considered “heaven acceptable.”
One “morning, for the first time, Jonas did not take his pill. Something within him, something that had grown there through the memories, told him to throw the pill away.” 23 He has gotten some of the forbidden knowledge into his head, and a bit of color has started seeping into his black-and-white world.
It hasn’t been an altogether pleasant transformation:
He found that he was often angry, now: irrationally angry at his groupmates, that they were satisfied with their lives which had none of the vibrance his own was taking on. And he was angry at himself, that he could not change that for them.
He tried. Without asking permission from The Giver, because he feared–or knew–that it would be denied, he tried to give his new awareness to his friends.24
The reactions are mixed. Asher gets uneasy when Jonas tells him to look at some flowers very carefully, wondering if something is wrong. In the film adaptation, Fiona (the girl of Jonas’s bathtub dream) takes more readily to this scary new Jonas and his crazy ideas. “There is something wrong. Everything’s wrong. I quit,” Jonas tells her in response to the same question Asher had asked.25 He persuades her to quit taking her own stirring-stopper medication, too, and some difficult consequences ensue.
Ultimately, the Receiver of Memory cannot remain in the community. He knows too much. He feels too much. The community insists on keeping itself ignorant of what he has learned. It will not raise up its eyes from the safe grey sameness of doctrinal familiarity to look–really look–at the world he now sees all around.
“Listen to me, Jonas,” the old Giver tells a sobbing Jonas. “They can’t help it. They know nothing.” 26 And then Jonas leaves the community of his birth and upbringing, to a new and scary but joyous place–outside for the first time, inside never again, and the better for it.
“Ceremony of Advancement” in the film adaptation, since it has the kids being 16 years old, not 12, at the time their assignments are given (DVD playback at 06:50). ↩
The Giver, p. 61. ↩
p. 87. ↩
Daniel D’Addario, “Lois Lowry: The dystopian fiction trend is ending,” Salon (July 10, 2014). salon.com/2014/07/10/lois_lowry_the_dystopian_fiction_trend_is_ending. Lowry: “People who are very conservative and feel they represent family values find that in this book. And ultraliberal people the same thing will hold true at the other end of spectrum. It happens also with theology, they’ll find it. I’ve had very conservative Baptist churches use the book as part of religious curriculum. Also ultraconservative religious groups want it banned. It’s something that speaks to whomever wants to hear it. I have no control over that. I did not plan any specific political or theological interpretation, but people seem to find it.” ↩
Lois Lowry, “Reflecting on 20 Years of The Giver,” Huffington Post (June 24, 2014). huffingtonpost.com/lois-lowry/the-giver-movie_b_5527063.html. ↩
Once, before the midday meal at school, Jonas had said, “I’m starving.” Oops, that was a no-no. “Immediately he had been taken aside for a brief private lesson in language precision. He was not starving, it was pointed out. He was hungry. No one in the community was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving. To say ‘starving’ was to speak a lie. An unintentioned lie, of course. But the reason for precision of language was to ensure that unintentional lies were never uttered. Did he understand that? they asked him. And he had” (pp. 70-71). ↩
p. 23 ↩
p. 27. ↩
Until being killed off, that is, in a nice little “release” ceremony that nobody seems to really recognize for what it is. ↩
p. 36. ↩
p. 37. ↩
The following excerpt from An Examination of the Pearl, at the end of Section 4.6.3, provides some context about the Laestadian concept of “name sins”: It “is probably based on the ‘mortal sins’ that in Catholic theology must be confessed by name: ‘All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret . . .’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1456). But Luther downplayed and criticized the distinction between mortal and venial sins, criticizing theologians who ‘strive zealously and perniciously to drag the consciences of men, by teaching that venial sins are to be distinguished from mortal sins, and that according to their own fashion’ (Discussion of Confession, 89-90). Not all sins of either type ‘are to be confessed, but it should be known that after a man has used all diligence in confessing, he has yet confessed only the smaller part of his sins.’ Furthermore, he wrote, ‘we are so far from being able to know or confess all the mortal sins that even our good works are damnable and mortal, if God were to judge with strictness, and not receive them with forgiving mercy. If, therefore, all mortal sins are to be confessed, it can be done in a brief word, by saying at once, “Behold all that I am, my life, all that I do and say, is such that it is mortal and damnable”’” (p. 89). ↩
Voice of Zion, October 1978. ↩
These two paragraphs are adapted, with the quotation, from An Examination of the Pearl, Section 4.6.3, “Confession.” The psychological health of the current generation of Laestadians owes much to a greatly reduced emphasis on confession, and public confessions are now pretty much unheard of. ↩
The Giver, pp. 3-4. ↩
The Giver, p. 2. ↩
p. 32. ↩
These two paragraphs are also adapted from An Examination of the Pearl, Section 4.6.4. ↩
The Giver, p. 129. ↩
p. 99. ↩
Film, DVD playback at 52:19. ↩
p. 153. ↩