Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse

I hope that many people - and Quakers in particular - will read Licia Kuenning's new novel Farmington! Farmingon!, will enjoy the story,will appreciate its occasional wit and humor, and will ponder the moral, philosophical and theological issues it raises in its pages (as well as those it presents directly by its very existence). For that reason I will begin this review by describing the book's many virtues as well as I can. Only after providing that context will I proceed to discuss my some facts about it that - if presented first - might well put some readers off.

One more disclosure before I begin the review itself: I have been personally acquainted with Licia Kuenning and with her husband Larry Kuenning for over 30 years. I also know some of the characters who appear in the book, either in fictional disguises or under their own names. This has increased my interest in the book, has in some cases increased my enjoyment, and in others has caused me discomfort. The reader may want to consider this in evaluating my review.

Farmington! Farmington! is a fictional story set in a real town (Farmington, Maine)in the very near future (June, 2006). It has realistic and sharply drawn characters. It is so rich in local color that the town of Farmington and its people become very vivid to us - as, indeed, do many characters who are not from Farmington but are part of the world of North American Quakerism in its many varieties. The book takes satirical aim (sometimes in an off-handed way) at politial and theological correctness, at liberal humanists and fire-and-brimstone preachers, at child rearing in suburban America, at war, medicine, the law, and many other features of modern life.

For all that, it is not a "realistic" novel in the usual sense of that term. The most important event in the story, coming very near the beginning of the book, is the fulfillment in real time and in a specific location (Farmington, naturally) of an age-old dream: the end of death, sin and evil, and the beginning of justice, peace and eternal life. It is, in short, a novel about the inaugaration of the New Jerusalem or the Kingdom of God on earth.

I hasten to add that it is not like the infamous "Left Behind" series by evangelical millenarian Tim LaHaye nor is it like any other book I am aware of in that genre. In Farmington! Farmington! there are no apocalyptic bloody battles between the armies of the Lord and the legions of the damned. Neither the wicked nor the unbelievers are dumped into a lake of fire. What happens to the wicked, instead, is that they simply stop doing wicked things once they find their way to Farmington, Maine. As for unbelievers, their only punishment is the embarassment of realizing they'd been wrong all along, that God does exist after all, and that He is loving and kind. This is, in fact, such a sweet and airy version of the New Jerusalem that in itself it might seem to furnish little material for the conflicts and dramatic tensions that any story has to have if it is to hold the interest of its readers. The writer has solved this problem, however, and has provided us with a very good story. Its interest derives from the subtle way that this New Jerusalem makes its appearance, and from the fact that it coexists and interacts for many years with earth-as-we-know-it. Most people outside of Farmington seem very slow to understand what is happening there. Much of what occurs in the story happens because Farmington has borders and people have to travel to get to it.

There is a kind of prologue to the main story that I think could just as well have been omitted. It reports a conversation in heaven between God and Christ and is very different in tone and point of view than most of the book. The main part of the story, however, begins in Farmington, Maine on June 6, 2006. (More about that date later in this review). For some people, even people right in Farmington, the changes that occur that day are at first rather subtle. A man named David Ford is drunk and stumbling home at daybreak on June 6, but suddenly becomes sober. Another named Joel Batzell wakes up early and feels unexpectedly energetic. He looks out the window and observes
"...all the physical objects that he remembered as being visible from that window were still there, and there were no new ones visible. But there hadn't used to be a glory reflecting from them, right down to the rusty chair in his yard."

Two prisoners wake up in a cell in the county detention center and smile at each other instead of eyeing each other warily.

It is soon obvious, however, that something far more profound than an extra nice day has happened. Death itself ceases to hold any power within the limits of Farmington. People who went to bed on June 5 with apparently terminal illnesses wake up on June 6 with no illness at all. Broken and missing limbs are restored to health. It isn't long before people who have died in Farmington even before June 6 reappear in its streets: not as zombies or ghosts but as more or less the same people they were before they died (only better, of course!). It is not only death that disappears. So does every evil tendency in the heart of man. An incestuous father repents his sin against his daughter. She - as a resident of Farmington - is able to forgive him and they successfully establish a healthy and loving non-sexual relationship. Former addicts are freed from their addictions. Former murderers are reconciled to their resurrected victims. And - lest you think this novel is completely apolitical - a truckful of National Guardsmen who pass through Farmington on the way to deployment in Iraq find that they are unwilling to kill their enemies once they are on the battle field. Later, George W Bush comes to Farmington to see what's going on, and ends up calling all the troops home. (Like I said: not a "realistic" novel in the usual sense of the term.) A nice touch in this part of the book is the narrator's off-handed comment that even though lots of people are mad about the troop withdrawal, they can't impeach Bush because he has broken no laws while in office "except the laws of God."

Regarded purely as a theological fantasy-novel, the book illustrates several themes that are controversial but well worth considering. The most obvious of these is universal salvation: the concept that there will be a place for everyone in the Kingdom of God. (Althogh the New Jerusalem begins in Farmington, it becomes universal in scope by the end of the book). This is a familiar enough notion to theological liberals, but it is surprising to find it in a novel by a well-known conservative Friend who tends toward a rather literal reading of the Bible.

Another theme is the (temporary) tension between God's Kingdom and the world-as-we-know-it. Between the time that Farmington changes and the time that everything changes, there is a complicated relationship between the two. Farmington has its own laws and own reality, but it influences the world around it by simply being itself and presenting a visible alternative to the way things are usually done. It is not too much of a stretch to see this a parable of what the church (or the Sociey of Friends) today would be if it were faithful to its mission.

Closely related to universal salvation is the theme of universal but voluntary repentance. People in Farmington who have been sinners in the past all mend their ways, but they do so not under compulsion but purely because - after hearing Christ's voice - they decide they want to.

Related to this is the theme that spiritual authority comes directly to the individual from God rather than through intermediaries. In Farmington, the churches, synagogues, and Friends' meetings don't seem to have any special purchase on the truth. The two prophetic protagonists might seem at first like substitute authorities, but it soon turns out that everyone in Farmington has direct access to God. As already mentioned, they all start hearing the voice of Christ on a daily basis, and he gives them not only moral instruction but step-by-step directions on what to do. This sounds, on the surface, like nothing more or less than elementary Quaker doctrine - that Christ has come to teach His people Himself. I have to say, however, that the way in which this relationship is envisioned in the novel sometimes strikes a false note. I like to think that Christ not only guides His followers when necessary but gives them scope for their own natural intelligence and decision-making - that he is happy to have us suprise him from time to time. It's not clear to me that there is room for this kind of truly individual initiative in the Kingdom of God as envisioned in this novel.

All of this is presented to us by a third person narrator who is not named. The narrator's point of view is close to that of the "omniscient narrator" who appears in a great deal of western fiction. At times, however, the "omniscience" slips and the narrator says that "I don't know" one thing or another.

The story's protagonists mentioned above are two women who prophesy the events in Farmington before they occur. One of them is named Kathy Lee and the other is named Eleanor Fisch. In a "Transcriptionist's Introduction" to the novel, Licia Kuenning says
"I am not Kathy Lee, though she resembles me in some respects. I am also not Eleanor Fisch, nor is my husband Errol Fisch, though readers who know us may observe some correspondences there, too."
This is an understatement. Among the "correspondences" that are most glaring is the fact that Licia Kuenning herself has been widely publicizing through various internet forums a prophecy that is virtually identical to the one Kathy Lee makes concerning Farmington.

This leads me to some more troubling questions raised by the book. One is the question of what Christians in general and Friends in particular mean by "prophecy" and how we regard people who claim to be prophets. If this novel were only a novel it might be psychologically possible to imagine that we Friends - upon hearing a prophecy like Kathy Lee's - would welcome it. The fact that Licia Kuenning is preaching the very same "prophecy" in real life and that no one I know of accepts it as true undermines that illusion. A prophecy, of course, is not necessarily a prediction about the future. It has usually been understood as any kind of message that God moves an individual to proclaim to others. The message of George Fox is often spoken of as a "prophetic" message. In one sense any message given in Meeting for worship is "prophetic". The idea that such messages can give information about future events is difficult to accept, but it is not possible to rule it out a priori. Certainly some prophecies in the Bible seemed to have that character, and early Friends sometimes made such predictions (though they were sometimes off the mark).

Licia Kuenning has acknowledged that a message revealed to her should not be automatically accepted by others who have not heard it directly, but she has seemed to suggest at the same time that Quaker publications are out of line if they refuse to print it, and to suggest that too much skepticism about the prophecy calls the skeptics' own Christian commitment into question. I can only say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I have seen no evidence whatever that God intends to end death in Farmington, Maine, in 2006. The fact that a sincere Christian and good person believes she has received a revelation to that effect does not seem like very strong evidence to me. The question of whehter to print such a prophecy in a Quaker publication seems to me like a question for those publications; they are perfectly within their rights to decide either way.

Licia Kuenning has stated (and no doubt believes) that she is not the author of this book, but only its "transcriptionist" because it was "dictated" to her by Christ. Although I believe that Christ does speak to people, I simply don't believe that He dictates novels, and certainly not this particular novel. For one thing, although it is a good novel it is not that good. Licia has stated that she as an individual would not be "capable" of writing such a novel. She has, however, always been a good writer, and this book seems to me well within the limits of her considerable but very human talent.

For another, I notice that the narrator of the story shares a number of beliefs with Licia - beliefs that I do not personally share and that I would be very surprised to find that Jesus shares (though of course I could be wrong). One of these is that homosexuality is a disorder that will be "cured" in Farmington. I accept this as Licia's sincere belief - and I do not equate it with hatred of homosexuals as I know that some people do - but I do not believe it is true. I am afraid that it is a notion that can do great harm, especially in the hands of spiritual leaders who attempt to effect such a "cure" on this side of the Kigndom of Heaven through therapies of their own devising. The idea of homosexuality as a "disorder" certainly does not square with what I see in the homosexual people who I know.

Finally, the narrator of the book mentions various individuals who I think I recognize, and the narrator's view of their characters and qualities sounds a lot more to me like Licia Kuenning's view than what I would imagine would be Jesus' view.

The treatment of some very real "sinners" in the book seems to suffer from another defect - that it does not treat the sin seriously enough. I have mentioned already that an incestuous father and his daughter are reconciled in Farmington. No doubt, in the Kingedom of Heaven on Earth that could happen. Even Hitler, some believe, may be transformed into a righteous person at the coming of the Lord. But this part of the book seems shallow to me. No sense is conveyed of how deep and horrifying such a sin really is, of how the whole personality is involved in it and in need of change, nor of how it devastates its victims. The thoughts of the victim Elaine Blair, who is 14 years old and pregnant by her own father, are described like this
The last thing she wanted was for her father to go to jail. She loved him. Maybe it was true, as the prevailing wisdom said, that he was abusing her, but she loved him anyway.
And this was even before either she or her father made it to Farmington. Her father's thoughts - after realizing that she had gone to Farmington against his wishes - are described as follows:
It wasn't what he would have advised, but he also knew how stubborn Elaine could be and how determined she wsa to have his child (well, his grandchild), so he did not interfere.
This bland depiction of what would be in reality a nightmarishly horrific situation undermines for me the "miracle" of this father's repentance and reconciliation with his daughter. An author who imagines that such a father truly "loves" his daughter even before conversion is no longer credible enough to me to convincingly describe how such a conversion would change him.

Another aspect of the book that I find troubling is its rather inconsistent attitude toward the Bible. In some places, the author seems to be criticizing liberal or humanist Quakers because of their ignorance or rejection of scriptural teachings, in others she seems to dismiss without serious argument theological positions that many people believe are grounded in scripture. Although she hints that the non-existence of Hell can be squared with apparently contradictory scriptures, she does not flesh this out. This is fair enough in itself. A true discernment of the spiritual truth in scripture is not always obvious on the surface. But then why dismiss so cavalierly people who reject other apparently scriptural teachings?

And why, for that matter, turn some scriptural symbolism so provocatively on its head? The most glaring example of this is the role in the book of '666', described in the book of Revelation as the number of name of "the beast". Not only does the end of death come in this book on June 6, 2006 (6/6/06), but '666' itself is set up by Kathy Lee as a phone number to call for information about Farmington. This almost seems like a deliberate thumbing-of-the-nose at Biblical literalists. But what is the point being made? It is not explicitly discussed at all.

I want to be clear, however, that I in no way think this book is dangerous or evil. On the contrary, I see in it a God-inspired faith that God's love and care is meant for all humanity and that by its power the power of death and sin will be broken. If the author has erred in believing this will happen in an outward and visible way within the stream of time, then she is only repeating an error made many times before - sometimes by truly great spirits, including most of the first generation of Christians. It is a far less serious error than the widespread defeatist belief that God is the author of death and is powerless against evil.

Judging by the reaction in some internet forums, I gather that many Friends find Licia's prophecy to be deeply unsettling and even frightening. I think this reaction comes in part because we are threatened by visions that seem "crazy". The possibly manic energy of Licia's promotion of her prophecy is understandably off-putting, as is her impatience with those of us who don't "get it". I'm not sure that Licia is any "crazier" than George Fox or William Blake, but they are conveniently dead and she is very much alive. In the book, she has the character Kathy Lee muse about the relationship of prophecy to madness.
I think that before we received the new Jerusalem in Farmington people who spoke up for God in the face of nearly universal rejection were probably a little crazy -- though whether as a cause or as an effect it might be hard to say. Normal people either didn't become prophets, or didn't remain normal, for God never gives out a bland message. Most people just can't digest the idea that a radical change is in the works. Their minds filter out the supernatural. They love ghost stories, horror movies, and other supernatural fiction, even though the events in many of those narratives are indeed very horrible. It shows that they do yearn for something beyond the ordinary - but actually believing that such a thing can happen seems to be beyond most people, at least until it does happen... Perhaps my mind lacked some of the usual filters that most people keep securely in place in their brains.

The biggest test of Licia Kuenning's prophecy will be what happens on June 7, 2006. I honestly don't think that outward death wlll have ceased to occur in Farmington or anywhere else. If I am right, the author of Farmington! Farmington! will have to consider that either her voice has misled her or she has misunderstood Him. I would call this a crisis of faith, and therefore I think it could well be an occasion for spiritual growth. My own faith is that Christ Himself does not mislead, that His words to us are for our good, that it is hard for all of us to hear him rightly, because of our own competing yearnings and fears, and that he is gentle with us when we misunderstand.

For more information about this book, see Licia's website.

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