On the first day of April 2012, about two months after leaving the Laestadian Lutheran Church via the act of publishing a book critical of it, I posted on social media this parody image of a fake Voice of Zion article thoughtfully reviewing the book:
Such a review was, of course, quite the opposite of what actually happened, which was the point of the parody piece. It quoted the conclusion of an actual article that had been published, for real and with refreshing candor, by the church’s sister organization in Finland: “There must be the ability to encounter facts with openness and honesty, even when the facts are not pleasing to us.” Switching from fact to April fool, my “article” went on to say:
This may raise doubts and concerns in the minds of God’s children: Can God’s Kingdom be the subject of legitimate criticism? Is it possible that certain teachings, even those that are being made in sermons and writings today, are simply not correct? These questions, once unthinkable in Zion, are being brought again and again to our attention by recent events.
Now we must confront the issues raised in a 530-page book by a former believer [me] who once wrote articles for this very paper [true]. Traditionally, our tendency would be to dismiss the book’s questions and criticisms by saying that the author just wanted to live a life of sin, or that he is distorting or even lying about what God’s Kingdom has taught. Another common response we have made to these challenges is that faith is childlike and not subject to any human reasoning.
Then the article plowed onward through a field of Bible quotes, just as you’d see in the real Voice of Zion. I selected them verbatim from the same King James Bible pages that Laestadian preachers consult for their articles. But my assortment of quotes told a very different story:
Scripture certainly encourages us to believe as a child (Matthew 18:3). But we should also remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men” (1 Corinthians 14:20). Sometimes we need to “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11) and really understand what it is we claim to believe.
A second column of the “article” that appeared in the fake clipping provided some straight talk about this new book of mine that was giving the preachers such headaches. An unnamed preacher (also fake) being “interviewed” for the article in classic Voice of Zion fashion acknowledged that it was “undeniably true that the Gospel was not preached for several years after Laestadius and Raattamaa received the grace of repentance.” This implausibly candid preacher continued, “The book also correctly notes that Raattamaa favored Takkinen and criticized the followers of Heideman. These are matters of historical record that we must acknowledge somehow.”
Quite true, even if the person saying it was a fiction. Acknowledging the historical record is exactly what the church must do to be intellectually honest, but good luck ever seeing that happen. The real-life response was instead to retreat into a sheltered cocoon of denial and an outright repudiation of human reason in evaluating what the church teaches to be true. The same goes for “another difficult historical question raised in Suominen’s book,”
why our familiar preaching of the forgiveness of sins from believer to believer doesn’t seem to be found in any writings before Luther. The book states that there were “two centuries of writings” after Christ “that not only fail to explicitly mention absolution, but provide many teachings incompatible with it” (Section 5.1.2). It may seem like a far-fetched claim, but he provides several pages of discussion with plenty of references to back it up.
That I did. In response to this significant issue, too, crickets sounded forth in the fields of central Minnesota.
On first days of April since then, I published two more parody articles. In 2014, Social Media and the Believer did a dead ringer of an impression (if I do say so myself) of a Voice of Zion article soberly warning about the dangers of Facebook and mixing with unbelievers via this new medium of the Internet. It started pushing plausibility around halfway through:
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.
Then came a quote from Deuteronomy 13:6-9 about killing family members who tempt you into serving other gods (“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”). According to the church, after all, God’s Word, is unchanging and eternal, and not subject to the whims of man’s desires. Somehow these nastier bits of the Old Testament get forgotten in favor of favorite passages warning that you’d better not be using birth control or hunting on a Sunday.
April 1, 2015 was the occasion of my favorite of the parodies I’ve done, A Mother of Many Children. It was a heartfelt announcement of a surprising (alas, fictional) change in Conservative Laestadianism’s long-standing doctrine of exclusivity, drawing not just on scripture for support but also on the teachings of Luther himself:
There are, we must say along with one of our Lutheran confessional books, “truly believing and righteous people scattered throughout the whole world.” Our spiritual predecessor Martin Luther said in his time that there were “Christians in all the world,” that “no one can see who is a saint or a believer.”
These quotes and others in the article from Luther are all genuine, as with the Bible quotations. They leave no doubt about what Luther would have thought of the Laestadian Lutheran Church and its sister organizations claiming to be “God’s Kingdom,” the only place where actual Christians might be found. The “article” went on about the
danger of putting too much emphasis on God’s Kingdom as an organization, as an assembly of people, and making God Himself secondary to it. “I will not give my glory unto another” (Isaiah 48:11).
We can also look to the words of Luther in this: He wrote that anyone who “maintains that an external assembly or an outward unity makes a Church, sets forth arbitrarily what is merely his own opinion.” We must humbly agree with our brother in faith that there is not “one letter in the Holy Scriptures to show that such a purely external Church has been established by God.”
Many readers were saddened to know that it was just a parody and not a real article from the LLC. A few realized that only after reading through it and rejoicing that their church had finally come around to the loving, inclusive doctrine they personally believed.
I felt a little bad about causing disappointment for people, but hoped that it would do some overall good in the long term. After all, what possible answer could the preachers give to someone asking why this had to be an April fools joke and not a real article from the Voice of Zion? They would have to shrink their God down, along with the Bible and Luther’s teachings, to fit into their little doctrines.
There will be no April fool about the old church this year, or perhaps any in the future. I considered some ideas this past week and then decided it’s not worth the bother. I’m bored with it, and it’s bored with me.
This is just one weird little Protestant sect churning upriver against a flood of contrary facts, bearing its delusions of grandeur, its complicated set of mostly unwritten silly rules, and its steady fuel supply of new members popping into maternity wards and winding their way from day circle to Sunday School to confirmation class. There are many others like it with their own combinations of such features. The tiresome machinery of it all grinds inexorably on.
Rather than writing another parody piece, I dug through the nether reaches of my Facebook timeline to find one I’d posted in October 2012 as a Facebook status update. (I hadn’t yet started my blog then.) You can still see it and the 70 comments that ensued, here.
This dashed a few hopes, too, and got some heated discussion going. Those were the days before believers had been fully warned about not discussing faith matters online. A new wall was hastily constructed around Laestadian brains, and things have quieted down considerably ever since.
So, to conclude, here is a fake “opening statement” from my old church in one of the congregational meetings there were being held (really) in the wake of my book’s publication to address concerns and doubts.
We must begin by humbly acknowledging our own weakness and lack of understanding, not just as individuals, but as a battling congregation here in this sinful world. As the Apostle said, “We see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). If such an important figure as Paul could acknowledge that he only “knew in part,” then we must do the same. We have been quick to cite Proverbs as saying, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” but there’s a second part of the verse that we all ought to take to heart, where we are told that “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). Is any of us exempt from the need for wisdom and instruction?
The writer of Proverbs said much about wisdom. “The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way: but the folly of fools is deceit” (14:8). There is simply no place for deceit in God’s Kingdom. After all, the Church is called “the Pillar and Ground of Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). We must understand our way. A speaker brother recently quoted another verse from Proverbs, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12). Yet we must also keep in mind what follows just a few verses later: “The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going. A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil: but the fool rageth, and is confident” (14:15-16). Some of God’s children have recently decided they simply cannot go on just “believing every word.” We must respect this and learn from their courage.
If we are wrong, we must allow ourselves to be corrected. This applies to all of us. During the last heresy, it was said that the Bibles came off the shelves. We at the LLC have been reading God’s Word more diligently in recent days, too, and must admit that there have been important lessons there for us. For example, the believers of an earlier period in the Old Testament sacrificed thousands upon thousands of animals for sins, yet a later prophet, Micah, asked what he should bring with him when he comes before the LORD, when he bows himself “before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Mic. 6:1-7). No, that was of no use. Instead, Micah concluded, “O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (6:8).
Let us do the same. Live in a just manner, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. How much sacrifice we have demanded of ourselves, and each other, when this is all that is required!
We sit before you chastened, knowing how much we have been shown to be wrong about in recent years. Our brothers in Finland have publicly apologized for “spiritual excesses” of the 1970s. We have seen crimes against children by believing men with positions of trust in God’s Kingdom made worse by cover-ups, denial, excuses, and poor behavior toward a courageous woman who attempted to see justice done and further abuse prevented. Here in America, we have advocated for women getting pregnant even at the cost of their lives when in Finland our sister organization is now calling for women to listen carefully to their doctor’s advice. We have concerned ourselves far too much with works– hundreds of confusing rules about dying hair when curling it is OK, about using birth control when a hysterectomy is OK, about watching animated cartoons when documentaries are OK. The words of Jesus are instructive to us, too: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:23-24).
Let us pass the microphone over to you now, the body of Christ. Let us discuss matters in true Christian freedom, not coercion, not intimidation. It is time for us all to learn from each other.
“Just kidding,” I finally added. “But for the sake of my loved ones still in the church, I wish I weren’t.” I still do. But life goes on. Those friends and loved ones know they have another option than trudging off to sit in those pews. Some of them have finally found the courage to exercise that option. And it may not be so bad anymore for those who haven’t. From what little I hear about the church nowadays, light and love have started shining through cracks in the wall of judgment and fear.
Inside those walls, and outside where billions of people like me are raising children and making friends and riding bikes and buying groceries, life goes on.