Quaker Theology #12 Fall-Winter 2005-2006

Reviews -- Continued

Farmington! Farmington! A Novel (Sort of) by Licia Kuenning. Farmington Maine: Published by the author. 476 pp., paper. $10.

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

According to the author, we can learn a lot about Christ in this book, from Christ himself, since he dictated it through her. We’ll consider this claim below.

Also according to the author, Quakers today generally don’t want to hear about Christ, or even from Christ, and definitely have no time for one of his prophets, namely herself.
She seems to have some evidence for this second point, in the form of having been shunned by various Quaker publications. She has had trouble getting ads for her message accepted in the larger American and Canadian Quaker journals; and one which did run an ad – Quaker Life in September, 2005– published an editor’s apology for doing so in the next issue (QL, 10/2005, p.34). Moreover, the present review is the first to be published in a Quaker journal – and for the record, the author/transcriber has not seen the review prior to publication. We are also publishing an ad.

Licia Kuenning is a familiar name to Friends who surf the Quaker corners of the net. She has long been active on numerous Quaker email lists, and with her husband Larry has started several of her own. She and Larry are also known to aficionados of early Quaker writings through their Quaker Heritage Press, which has published editions of several early Quaker “classics” – among them Barclay’s Apology, works by Nayler and Penington; and The Old Discipline, a very instructive compilation of the provisions of nineteenth-century yearly meeting handbooks. These editions are noteworthy for their painstaking concern for textual accuracy, something which, it turns out, the “originals” often were not.

Outside their publishing venture, the Kuennings’ relationship with other Quaker bodies has long been problematic. I recall Licia from the 1970s in Massachusetts, where she attended liberal New England meetings, and did some volunteer work at the AFSC office in Cambridge.

But she found these unsatisfactory, and she joined Larry in forming a group, Publishers of Truth, which was intended to recover what they saw as the lost authenticity of original Quakerism. The Kuennings adopted plain dress, and in 1978, Larry published a book, Exiles In Babylon, making the case that the Society of Friends, which had once embodied the restored true Christian church, had fallen into utter apostasy.

Later the Kuennings found their way into the Conservative Quaker fold, and reportedly made many trips from the Philadelphia area to Barnesville, Ohio, the seat of Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. But that connection too proved unsatisfactory, and after quarreling with some Ohio Friends, they withdrew to a tiny, unaffiliated worship group in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and turned their attention to the publishing venture.

It was in 1996, still the early days of Quaker internet discussion lists, that Licia first announced that she had had a revelation about when and where God was going to recreate the world, in Farmington, Maine. At that point she felt the prediction was to be fulfilled very shortly, and spent several months in Farmington, until eventually she concluded she had misjudged the date. Licia has written that the prophecy was re-revealed about a year ago, and she “soon realized” the specific date was to be June 6, 2006. (Email, 09-04-2005; NOTE–See the End Note about Email References.) She was then commissioned to tell the world about it.

The prophecy is summarized in her terse, “FAQ style” ads: On June 6, 2006, by direct decree of God/Christ, Farmingon, Maine (a real town, Zip Code 04938) will become the biblical “New Jerusalem”: death will cease there, everyone within its borders (or who enters them) will be cured of all illnesses within three days, and no one will misbehave in any way, or even want to. There will be other remarkable changes, some of which will be mentioned presently.

As a personal witness to her conviction, Licia has again relocated to Farmington, and is eagerly awaiting June 6, with a descending countdown of days to go at the bottom of each of her numerous email messages. She has also been busy broadcasting announcements of this impending change; via a torrent of emails, ads, a billboard, and hundreds of snailmail letters to meetings across the US.

The novel, Farmington! Farmington! is a centerpiece of this promotional campaign. Licia says that Christ dictated the novel to her, on the quite reasonable premise that a great many readers prefer narrative fiction to weighty theological tomes. Thus it would more effectively “spread the word.”

My concerns as a reviewer of this “novel” center on three queries: How did her prophetic vocation come about? What can we learn from the text and its channel about “Christ”? And are there alternative hypotheses to account for its appearance?

To address the first query, I reviewed much online traffic, and Licia submitted to an email interview. She disclaims any talent for writing fiction, and was straightforward about how the dictation of the novel took place. Or rather, in one email, “Christ” explained it himself through her thus: “she [Licia] goes limp, and I move her fingers.” Moreover while her “Christ” is God, he has also edited and revised his own divinely-dictated texts.(09-14-2005)
Licia added in another message that:

I first experienced this type of writing while on the telephone in a rented room in Farmington, in January 1988–when Christ wanted to advise me on how to handle the phone conversation so used my hand to write me some notes on a nearby pad. It has been happening more frequently since last January [of 2005].” (Email 12-19-2005)

So much for its origins. In whatever medium, she reports:

He [Christ] speaks to me every day, many times during the course of the day . . . . The reason I listen to Christ is because he loves me more than I can love myself, he knows much more than I do, and he is stronger than I am. (12-04-2005)

Evidently “Christ” sometimes speaks through her audibly: “Of course,” she responded to one scoffer, “my voice doesn't sound like Jesus' voice–whoever would have expected it to? For one thing, he usually speaks with a deeper pitch than I do, since he is a man. But more than that, our verbal styles are different–we laugh harder at different jokes, he has some pet expressions that I seldom use, and vice versa.” (Email 12-04-2005)

From a comparative perspective, this phenomenon is familiar to students of paranormal phenomena, particularly as what is called “channeling” and “automatic writing.” We’ll return to these features presently. Before doing so, let’s take up some of the religious or theological issues raised by the book’s “Christ,” which are many.

This is despite the fact that Licia’s “Christ” professes nothing but disdain for theology or theologians. “Oh, I never bother trying to talk to theologians,” he declares. “They never listen.” (367)

“So maybe God thinks doing things Farmington-style is more fun than doing them according to abstract principles,” says one character to another. His friend is surprised at this, but then concludes that, “he couldn’t come up with any just reason why God shouldn’t enjoy life as much as he did.” (315)

As these comments might suggest, the Farmington “Christ” is not exactly an orthodox, take-up-your-cross Christian. For instance, the novel’s scenario for Farmington short-circuits many key themes of New Testament theology. The name “New Jerusalem” itself is borrowed from the Book of Revelation (22:2ff), in which its emergence follows a long and bloody saga of persecution, destruction, war, and judgment. Like them or not, many variations on these themes recur elsewhere in the scriptures.

All those unpleasant preliminaries are skipped here. To become immortal and eternally healthy, all that anyone, no matter how iniquitous, has to do is simply show up in Farmington on or after June 6. No confession, repentance, punishment, or making of amends is needed. And by the end of the book, it appears that just about everyone alive (and many who were dead but are resurrected) will have come there.

Although hardly mainstream, this plan does reflect a venerable theological tradition, namely: classic universalism. (This position was examined in some depth in QT #9:
[ www.quaker.org/quest/issue-9-gulley-01.htm ]).

Yet theological questions are stubborn. They don’t go away just because someone, even a divine figure, sneers at them. And so it’s no surprise that Licia’s characters engage in theologizing, despite themselves. (Early Friends followed a similar trajectory, of despising theology, but being forced into doing it anyway.) One character in the novel sums up the underlying thesis this way: “The only thing I still don’t understand is why God keeps talking about eternal punishment in the Bible. No good person would punish anyone endlessly: that’s obvious to me at least.” (284) Several similarly universalist assertions are scattered through its pages (251, 282, 341f).

This tradition has had other notable Quaker advocates; and it is not to be confused with the vague, everything-is-everything notions that have often been called “universalist” among contemporary liberal and New Age-type Friends. In fact, its most famous Quaker champion was an evangelical: Hannah Whitall Smith, a proper Philadelphian who became enthusiastically part of the Wesleyan Holiness revival. Her classic of popular evangelical-pentecostal spirituality, The Christian’s Secret of A Happy Life, has stayed in print for more than a hundred years.

It was in the closing chapters of Smith’s 1903 spiritual memoir, The Unselfishness of God, that she made an unabashed, heartfelt plea for the conviction that her loving God would ultimately save everyone. (This was startling stuff to emerge from the “higher Life” evangelical movement; so much so that the publishers found the chapters containing this manifesto too hot to handle, and deleted them from many editions of the book after her death in 1911.)
Licia said she had read Smith’s books, but denied they had had much influence on her. (12-19-2005) Nevertheless, the novel takes specific note of The Unselfishness of God, and depicts Hannah Whitall Smith as being resurrected in Farmington, and teaching courses on religion there. (341f)

One might think that such a “universalist” attitude by Licia’s “Christ” would make him rather “liberal” in outlook. But one would be mistaken. Liberal Friends take a repeated beating in the novel’s pages.

There are a few apt zingers, as when a group of “Primitive” (i.e., Conservative) Friends from Ohio migrates to Farmington, where there is already a small liberal meeting. The liberals “took note of the sudden influx of Quakers and asked, ‘Why don’t they just come to our meeting?’ in a tone that suggested their meeting would satisfy any sensible person,” tagging the newcomers as “holier-than-thou.”

But “If anyone had pointed out that ‘liberaler-than-thou’ was not a great improvement, the liberals would not have understood: they thought they were the most tolerant people in the world, and could not tolerate anyone who was less tolerant.” (359f)

Fair enough; this jibe could strike close to home in many liberal meetings.

But there is much more here. Indeed, the narrative takes major detours to heave brickbats at thinly disguised persons and groups that have evidently crossed “Christ” by crossing his amanuensis. Among these are the Ohio Conservatives, or at least one of its prominent families. (357ff)

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