We Sinners is the title of a new book by Hanna Pylvainen [there should be two dots over the “a” in her last name–she is Finnish–but I can’t do that in Blogger, apparently!]. Anyway, it is about a family of Finnish Laestadian Lutherans–a conservative branch of Lutheranism that started in the middle of the 19th century–who live in the United States. Laestadians are deeply pietistic, with a strong moral code, and typically have large families. The novel tells the story of a family of eleven: husband and wife, and nine children. As the title might suggest, it isn’t an upbeat tale: everyone is unhappy in his or her own way–those who leave the church, as well as those who stay.
It was a good book, though, and I keep thinking about the title, and asking myself the question, “What are the pratical ramifications of telling people they are sinners?” We talk about this in Confessions class–and other places–often: as Lutherans, we teach that people need to realize their inability to be “good” on their own and their need for Christ–that is, their need to recognize their sinfulness–in order to really appreciate and understand the great gift we have in God’s forgiveness and grace. Law and gospel go together for Lutherans, always.
That is all well and good, but I guess this book just reminded me of the dangers that threaten when we forget to wrap that message of sinfulness fully and completely in the love of God–the serious problems that occur when we only preach law, and forget to preach gospel. The characters in the novel were left with a naked sense of not being “right” somehow, not belonging, not being “good enough” at their very core; hence the unhappiness, which manifested as rebellion, depression, escape, anger, etc. The author herself grew up in this faith, and it pains me to think that this was her experience. Laestadian Lutheranism may well be extreme, but I can imagine she might see too-close parallels with what we teach in the ELCA. We may be sinners, but that is not–is never–all that we are: we are “graced” sinners, we are “beloved” sinners, we are “forgiven” sinners, particularly in that we are baptized sinners, which, for Luther, made all the difference. And for that reason, I’ll err on the side of grace every time.