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)
But the ugliest sketch is a lengthy passage about a presumably mythical but archetypal liberal meeting in Alabama. In this sink of faithless depravity, several members’ children are treated with such neglectful indifference that they end up on drugs, homeless and/or in prostitution, while their parents go through a completely hypocritical and repulsive charade of unprogrammed “worship” and business. (409ff)
This acid portrait extends further, to the meeting’s parent body, “Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting.” This assembly is described as so spiritually barren that they not only get no messages from God, they are too smug to even notice. (442ff) The novel’s protagonist visits this yearly meeting, just long enough to denounce it and get tossed out.
There are other darts fired here and there, mainly in the direction of liberal Friends, but these examples will suffice to indicate what this “Christ” thinks of that sort.
[The actual local liberals have recently returned the favor: in December 2005 Farmington Friends Meeting, an unprogrammed unit of New England Yearly Meeting, which Licia had been attending, issued a minute of “disownment” disassociating themselves from her prophecy.] (12-25-2005)
Nevertheless, even the Alabama degenerates, if they can find their way to Farmington, they – even they– will be cured of both their physical and spiritual ailments, including such “illnesses” as homosexuality, as soon as they cross the town line and join the other immortals. Licia’s “Christ” may be a snarky universalist, but he is a universalist for sure.
Conservative Christians are spoofed here too, but for the most part more gently. There is a fundamentalist hellfire church in the real Farmington which calls itself the Friends of Jesus Christ, and has made use of some early Quaker writings. (Find out more about them at: www.calledtoholiness.com ) Licia has had numerous encounters with this group, and they are portrayed here (called The “Friends of God”) as sincere, doctrinaire, and misguided. But they too are ultimately coaxed into the new order, some almost in spite of themselves.
At the novel’s close, Christ-God decides that the Farmington demonstration project has served its purpose, and prepares to save the rest of humanity. But he (there’s no question of gender neutrality here) mulls awhile over how to do it.
It seems that many of his evangelical followers were unhappy with Farmington, because it didn’t fit their End-times scripts, which demanded, at the very least, a “rapture,” where all the “true Christians” are snatched away to heaven, while the multitude of sinners are left behind. With some exasperation, God explains to an inquiring angel that no such idea had occurred to him, nor was the word even in the Bible, but the biblical texts were so jumbled that some people extracted the idea from them anyhow, and many wouldn’t let go of it.
So in the end God indulgently throws a rapture as if it were a party, but includes everyone who happens to be around. And then Christ heads off to Farmington for ice cream.
This episode, and a few others, display signs of wit that are almost winsome. And they also make clear that despite its meanderings, the universalist theological underpinnings of this “prophecy” are clear and consistent.
So, what are we to make of this production? The book is coherent and the style reasonably fluent. Licia-Christ turns out to be right: a novel is a more interesting way of laying out her convictions than a volume weighed down with theological jargon and scriptural arcana – like, say, this one.
And for my part, if God is in fact involved in such eschatological dramaturgy, I have long preferred the universalist version portrayed here to the mainstream’s judgement-and-damnation alternative, not to mention the “rapture” variations. Besides, if all persons are meant to be saved, God could just as well start the process at one specific place, at one specific time, rather than let it fall out of the sky with thunder and lightning. Finally, Farmington, Maine, on June 6, 2006 would be as good a time and place as any, though the town does seem rather small to hold all those who would want to flock to it.
But is this prophecy convincing?
I ask if it is “convincing,” rather than if it is “true,” because the calendar will provide the surest test of its validity, and I don’t know the future. But if I am not convinced by this tale, and I am not, then there is the question of how to account for it.
One Friend on a Quaker email list was straightforward, calling the entire Farmington project simply a “personal delusion.”(09-04-2005) Many others have challenged it on similar grounds.
But that’s only their opinion. Another option is that Licia is a fraud. I don’t believe that. So is there any way out of the binary forced choice between prophetic truth and psychotic delusion? Can a third way be found to evaluate its plausibility short of waiting for June? I think so. I suggest a reasonable estimate can be made by applying a two-way test, that of internal evidence, and then putting the text into phenomenological context.
Let’s take these in reverse order. Automatic writing and the channeling of presumably disembodied spirits, including divinities, are hardly new. On my bookshelf, for instance, there are copies of The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, and The Magian Gospel of Brother Yeshua. Other readers may know of A Course in Miracles. All claim to have been dictated by or directly on behalf of Jesus Christ. Many other cases of what are called “trance messages” have been observed and studied; they are typically produced by a person who feels, as does Licia, that her pen or voice is similarly taken over by some other personality or spirit.
Researchers who have studied these phenomena soon identified what they call the “ideomotor effect.” This is a well-established psychophysical pattern in which mental ideas or impulses, of which a subject is consciously unaware, can impel other parts of the body to move. Numerous experiments have established the reality of this reflex; I will not attempt to rehearse them here; but a good introduction is online at: http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ideomotor.html.
This “ideomotor effect” does not by itself debunk or disprove claims of supernatural intervention. But it shows that what we “normally” can do by no means exhausts what we could do within the overall human realm of thought, subconscious thought, and action. That is to say, other parts of our mind than our everyday conscious personality can produce various effects, including writing, painting, speaking, and other activities, in styles beyond our usual range. This happens without supernatural intervention, but also without the subject meaning to deceive. Such mediums (or, if you will, prophets) are often entirely sincere.
Presumably a heavenly personage could employ this reflex to communicate with humans. But the ideomotor effect also has shown that many, indeed most such supposed transcendent experiences can be accounted for by earthly psychological processes. It opens the way to a careful content analysis of such productions, to assess the plausibility of special paranormal or religious claims.
(A famous and fascinating example of such a study is the case of HélPne Smith, a Swiss woman who claimed to be communicating with creatures on Mars, Uranus and the moon in her trances. She produced written specimens of the various planetary “languages” – a specimen of her “Martian” script is at: http://www.idueart4youmuseum.com/martian02.html ;
plus paintings of various Uranian, Lunarian and other interplanetary scenes. (One of her “martian landscape” sketches can be seen online at: http://www.survivalafterdeath.org/books/fodor/chapter4.htm
Martian landscape ) In a later phase of her mediumistic career, Smith too felt she was communicating with Christ.
While personally “sincere” (that is, she was not a charlatan or consciously intending to deceive), several careful scholars showed how much of Smith’s visionary experience related to or was sparked by various non-supernatural incidents or associations. (And more recently, the missions to mars and the moon have conclusively shown that her interplanetary “landscapes” do not come from those celestial bodies.) A good introduction to Smith’s case is found online at: http://www.survivalafterdeath.org/mediums/smith.htm )
I can describe another case from personal research: in 1851 a Rochester, New York Friend, Isaac Post, was swept up in the new Spiritualist movement, and began receiving “messages” via automatic writing. He published a book in 1852, Voices From the Spirit World, which included “messages” from George Fox, and numerous other well-known Friends, as well as George Washington and other famous political personages of earlier times.
I read Post’s book. I think he was entirely sincere, and have uploaded two of the messages on the net at:
After reading only a few of the messages, however, an underlying pattern clearly emerged. It was one of repeated reassurances that Isaac Post was indeed correct in his controversial progressive religious views, while his opponents, both living and recently deceased, were mistaken. Some of these former critics showed up to say so directly, and offer posthumous apologies.
That is to say, I detected in Post’s mediumistic messages a very heavy overlay of wish fulfillment, and little that pointed to actual communications from disembodied spirits. To be sure, there is no way to “prove” this conclusion, especially at this late date; but it makes sense of the material, and similar conclusions have been drawn contemporaneously in other cases, such as that of HélPne Smith.
What does a similar content analysis of Farmington! Farmington! suggest?
For one thing, several of its plot motifs relate closely to experiences and attitudes that Licia has displayed over many years. The antipathy to liberal Friends is one. Can “Christ” really be that interested in settling these scores and caricaturing these groups so cruelly? For instance, as “God,” he would surely know that there really is a Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting. I have attended its sessions more than once, and can testify that it is by no means as spiritually corrupt and devoid of divine presence as it is portrayed to be in these pages. Here, to be plain, the Farmington “Christ” does not know what he’s talking about. There is much more of this: “Christ” even pauses to take a swipe at a recent edition of Barclay’s Apology, which Licia’s husband has derided for its modernizing tendencies.
Likewise, the intense concern with healing from illness is reflected in her own fragile condition: for instance, she wrote last fall that her “physical health is very weak,” (11-29-2005), and again, that if her prophecy does not come true, her personal health would be “in ruins.”(11-05-2005) She has made numerous similar statements about various ailments and infirmities in other email exchanges over the years.
Her frailty is also evoked by Christ’s assurance that not only will illness soon be banished from her chosen home town, but with it will go all the mosquitoes, other bugs (319f) and especially fleas (170). However, trees (and cold New England winters) will remain. Why such selectivity? When asked, Christ simply says of the insects, “Never liked them myself.” (320)
This hunch about a personally-generated mediumistic agenda is reinforced not only by what is in the novel, but also by what is not. Over the years of dialogue and debate online, Licia has displayed little interest in social issues (other than sex), or Quaker peace witness. In the new Farmington, a string of cases of sexual abuse are repaired, and many homosexuals “cured.” But her “Christ,” unlike the man from Nazareth, appears totally uninterested in, and hardly informed about, matters of justice or peacemaking.
For instance, at a public meeting led by the narrator, a question to her about the morality of the US occupation of Iraq, which is underway as the novel opens, seems so irrelevant that it “struck [her] as almost funny” and is shrugged off (286). A few chapters later it is noted in passing that “war was rapidly becoming obsolete,” (337) simply because more and more people are coming to Farmington and being instantly freed from any warlike tendencies. And when two Farmingtonians end up captive in Iraq, God magically whisks them out of harm’s way and back to their hometown. (387)
But there are more than echoes of personal issues here. Licia’s “Christ” also has some downright ridiculous ideas. One of them is that the earth is only 2000 years old: “God created this world a little over 2000 years ago,” she wrote on Sept. 15, 2005 “– or so he tells me . . . . He left evidence that makes it look as if the world were older than that–like a good storyteller.” Licia has repeated this contention more than once (01-02-2006, 01-03-2006) Similarly, this “Christ” speaks against prayer (133), and has told Licia not to pray. (09-16-2005)
These items fly in the face of Licia’s insistence that her “Christ” is not teaching any “new doctrines”(109f) At this point I find myself in rare agreement with fundamentalist anti-evolutionists, because while proceeding from radically different premises, we would both call these notions poppycock. After all, a 2000 year-old earth and advice against prayer are both certainly unbiblical, from almost any angle of interpretation.
In sum, while her “Christ’s” theology is reassuring, it comes down to not much more than a rewrite of Hannah Whitall Smith (though to be fair, Smith didn’t hold to a 2000-year old earth.) Otherwise, while this “Christ” occasionally displays a sense of humor, he bears only the faintest resemblance to the Christ of the gospels, of most versions of Christianity, from fundamentalist to liberal, or even of the various branches of Friends.
This gap yawns particularly wide in the area of prophecy. The work of Licia’s “Christ” is barren of the cries for justice which make the oracles of the biblical prophets echo compellingly down the centuries. I could detect no sense here of any discernment of the “signs of the times,” beyond a fear of illness, death, and bugs. “Christ” needs to do better than that to hold my attention.
Prophecy is not an unknown feature of Quaker witness. George Fox did it, a New Hampshire Quaker farmer Joseph Hoag foretold the Civil War in an 1802 vision, and there are others, among them some who claimed the title, and some who did not. Licia has complained that today’s Quakers, of all varieties, don’t like prophets, and that explains why she has encountered such opposition. (12-15-2005) I’m not so sure, however. For my money, her message is simply not that convincing. Moreover, there are, among recent Quaker voices, some stunning alternatives. We have highlighted a few of these recent voices in previous issues of this journal; I would point particularly to the work of Milton Mayer, described in Issue #8 (http://quakertheology.org/issue-8-milton-mayer-1.htm).
While making my way through Farmington! Farmington! I was also re-reading Mayer’s book, They Thought They Were Free, about how “ordinary, good people” in Germany were assimilated into the Nazi machine. I do not hesitate to say that there is more authentic Quaker “prophecy” for our day in ten of his pages than in all 470-plus of Licia-Christ’s.
Thus the ideomotor effect hypothesis, suggesting that some consciously unrecognized aspects of Licia’s personality are manifesting as “Christ,” drawing on a stew of material from her personal history in a manner heavily tilted in the direction of wish-fulfilment, makes the most sense of all this for me, as it similarly did of HélPne Smith’s equally “well-documented” conversations with Martians, Uranians, and Lunarians, or Isaac Post’s “conversations” with George Fox and Edward Hicks.
So do I join those who think Licia is “crazy”? No, even though “Christ” tells her narrator that “Lunacy is an occupational hazard for prophets.”(369) But I am advised by a therapist friend that the DSM IV (the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) lists such religious experiences in its Category V, which means “a condition not attributable to a mental disorder.” (See also: http://www.spiritualcompetency.com/se/dxtx/intro-hispropose.html)
So peculiar, yes; singular, indeed. But these are not terms which any Friend who ever read John Woolman should take amiss.
Nevertheless, I’m not booking a flight for Maine in early June. Instead, I plan to be at a Quaker conference on torture in North Carolina. If there’s any true Quaker “prophecy” for our time, it seems to me much more likely to emerge from that event than the yearnings of this author-transcriptionist.
On the other hand, if the mosquitoes and fleas really do disappear there, I reserve the right to change my plans.
ABOUT EMAIL NOTES:
Page references to the book are clearly marked. Quotes from emails are more difficult to document, however. I have saved copies of all the messages cited above, by date. However, some of them were posted on various Quaker email lists, and it is not always easy to determine after the fact which list was involved.
*Farmington! Farmington! A Novel (Sort of) by Licia Kuenning. Farmington Maine: Published by the author. 476 pp., paper. $10.