Who Speaks for the Hoi Polloi?
by Loren Seibold | 14 September 2018 |
I’m a bit of a curmudgeon about anniversaries, birthdays, bicentennials—that whole set of activities that goes into marking the amount of existence that someone or something has experienced, and that quietly implies how much of its existence has been used up. Rather than saying, as they’re supposed to, “Look how far you’ve come!” they seem to me to say, “What, you’re still here?”
And why 25, or 50 or 100? What’s so special about increments based on the number of fingers and toes you have? Why is 100 more important than, say, 99? At least 99 alliterates nicely.
No, I’d just as soon take things as they come. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Yet occasionally I find an exception. When I can walk into a room and see the whole history of how Seventh-day Adventism has evolved in my lifetime in one glance and a bit of peripheral vision, that’s an event. Just walking in the door of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Adventist Forum, September 15-17, I saw a dozen college and seminary teachers who I can call by name. And then dozens of others I didn’t know personally but whose names and faces are familiar.
Those who know this particular corner of the church know Spectrum magazine and its website. Some think that Adventist Today and Spectrum are competitors, and I suppose we are in some sense—though I wrote for the Spectrum website monthly, and the magazine occasionally, for over ten years, and we share writers, and we’re all friends. But Adventist Today is a newcomer—we just celebrated our 25th anniversary—while the Association of Adventist Forums (Spectrum’s parent organization) has been around for 50 years, and always at the junction of the greatest theological changes in the history of modern Seventh-day Adventism. Don’t forget that. If you are one who has hoped that this denomination can be something other than the fundamentalist dinosaur that certain denominational leaders seem to want it to be, you can thanks AAF/Spectrum for being among those who have watched out for your interests.
Interestingly, the Association of Adventist Forums came about by a denominational decision—one I suspect some leaders have regretted. According to the first mention of it in the Review and Herald back in 1968, the brethren decided that they would recognize the Adventist university student organizations that were growing spontaneously during the turbulent 60s, give them a name and official imprimatur, and so would in some sense bring them under denominational control. That original article mentions that graduate students could now be organized to do evangelistic programs and stop-smoking seminars.
In the case of AAF, it didn’t work out quite as expected. AAF and its journal, Spectrum, were determined to be independent. Its early editors (especially under the leadership of Dr. Roy Branson) took advantage of young highly-educated and open-minded scholars, and with their help began to look hard at what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist—which often meant digging into things that the brethren didn’t want to see.
I was a college student when I discovered Spectrum. I especially remember two articles that made an impression on me. One was by physician and AAF founding member Molleurus Couperus, who suggested that Ellen White was a victim of temporal lobe epilepsy brought on by a childhood injury, exacerbated by exposure to mercury in her father’s hat shop. It’s not a theory that can be proven, and it enraged a lot of people, but I’m grateful for it only because it was the first time I heard that there might be more to Ellen White than the quasi-divine being she’d always been presented as in my upbringing.
The other was the detailed coverage of the Merikay Silver lawsuit against Pacific Press for discriminatory payment of female employees, in which then-NAD president Neil Wilson—one of the original consultants for Adventist Forum—gave a testimony implying that the church could discriminate against women with impunity because he himself held a role of popish authority, as its “first minister”. It’s one of the most embarrassing moments in Adventist history, but it opened my eyes to how organized religion works, a skepticism that has served me well, and for which I have Spectrum magazine to thank.
This event at La Sierra University, September 15-17, was a quinquagenary, so it isn’t unexpected that we would spend a lot of time in the past. Listening to the keynote presentation by historian Jonathan Butler, I began to get a sense of how many changes in how we understand our church have appeared in the pages of Spectrum magazine. I mentioned a couple, above. Butler emphasized how the role of Ellen White in church history has been adjudicated in those pages: both the Israel Damon trial and the 1919 Bible Conference exposed us to an Ellen White outside the church-approved mythology. The “demystifying of Ellen White”, said Butler, was “an exciting and rewarding process could have been thought of a spiritual experience in its own right.” Spectrum, said Butler, made sure these documents would “appear, and never disappear.”
I was thankful that Dr. Butler also gave homage to Dr. Ron Numbers. He described Prophetess of Health as “the most significant book ever written regarding Adventism” and “a transformer of the history in Adventism.” I can’t help but agree, and only wish Dr. Numbers had been there to hear it.
Any summary I could provide for the programs wouldn’t do them justice. So be content, please, with a few highlights and quotes, and links to videos of the programs—all well worth watching.
Jonathan Butler: I’ve already told you a bit about Dr. Butler’s keynote presentation, but here’s a quote I liked on the topic of writing biography. “You can be a supernaturalist in your personal life, but as a historian, you’re a naturalist. But I think you need to be quite empathic toward your subject. These people were supernaturalists. To ignore that or underplay it or try to account for it in some other way is to misunderstand them. … I would rather, in writing, be confused for being a supernaturalist, just because of that level of empathy in the subjects you’re writing about.”
Terrie Aamodt: Dr. Aamodt used Ellen White’s infamous amalgamation statements as a way to unpack the historical Ellen White. Over against that early, not-at-all clear passage about amalgamation, she set Ellen White’s opposition to slavery and her championing of work for the people of color in the south. “The amalgamation quotes, whatever may have been her intent, were not normative” concerning her attitude toward black people. Was Ellen White a racist? asked Dr. Aamodt. Yes, in a way. She wanted to abolish slavery, yet like a lot of people in her era, she wasn’t yet entirely comfortable with the notion that black people were her equals.
Sabbath School: Kendra Haloviak Valentine led a discussion about women in ministry, with a group of women in ministry. See AT’s article here.
Divine Church Service: If there’s any single part of the program I wish you’d watch, it’s an interview in the LSU church service with Fritz Guy and Lawrence Geraty, both of whom were part of the process of creating the 27 Fundamental Beliefs in 1980. For a chuckle, listen for why there were 27 of them. As for what they were intended to accomplish, please note the role of the preamble, and how that preamble has been forgotten in their use.
This section was called “Adventist Forum Stories,” and much of it was a celebration of the life of Roy Branson, founder of AAF/Spectrum. I didn’t know Roy Branson, though I have many friends who studied with him. They painted a picture of a dedicated and unique academic churchman. I add here a quote from AAF president Charles Scriven:
“Roy Branson loved the church.… If you were a pastor, you would want to have as many of Roy as possible in your congregation. He was deeply engaged in the life of his local congregation, he was deeply interested in everything that happened on Sabbath in church, as well as deeply interested in what went on… He ran a Sabbath School class in Loma Linda, the results of which still live on the Branson Legacy class. He was intent on making sure the Sabbath experience involved people’s getting together, focusing on study, and learning how to be Christians together. He was not the guy who went to Sabbath School and then went home. While I was a pastor, he was always sitting off to my left, always listening, always passionate about what was happening in church. During the years that Roy edited the magazine, he not only gave of himself to the magazine, but at the same time he cared deeply about his congregation, he was a friend to all kinds of members, and I think that’s just flat out wonderful.”
The Sunday morning program was about science, origins and our relationship to the natural world. The about-two-too-many presentations by James Hayward, Fritz Guy, Brian Bull, Gerald Bryant, April Summitt and Zane Yi took on everything from Adventists in science, to Genesis, to Job. Being a native westerner, I liked Dr. Summitt’s presentation on water in the western United States, though if I were to single out the two most important, I’d recommend you watch the dialogue between Brian Bull and Fritz Guy on Genesis, and Gerald Bryant’s moving commentary on Job.
Because I’ve often been of the questioning party in this denomination, I’ve thought of AAF/Spectrum as Adventism for the rest of us, for the outsiders, for those who can’t see it like traditional believers do. But in this group I began to realize that’s not necessarily true. AAF/Spectrum is independent Adventism, to be sure, but it is independent Adventism that appeals to a certain set of independent Adventists: academic, mostly white, mostly professional, mostly older. (Someone at the weekend’s event described this as a reunion of the wrinklies which, sadly, now includes me.) Most of its voices are academics, and its listeners those who understand the academics, or want to. AAF/Spectrum has appeared at the junction of every major change in the church in the past 50 years. But that doesn’t mean it’s for the hoi polloi. In this it shares some limitations with our leaders in Silver Spring in that it is still mostly about North America, has a rather exclusive view of who should decide what the church should be, and a sort of unreflective dismissal of those who decide, in our view, wrongly on that question. It would be inaccurate to characterize AAF/Spectrum as merely critical, as some do, or accuse it of trying to tear down the Seventh-day Adventist church. But given its constituency, it can’t help but risk the charge (fair or not) of elitism.
Which leads to this statement from Charles Scriven, which I was gratified to hear:
“For several years, our theme has been community through conversation. When we agreed to that, we thought we could help build community within the church through honest conversation. And we’ve learned since that that’s a tougher thing to do than we thought. Oftentimes, what happens in Spectrum is ignored by those who don’t share our point of view, or who find us threatening, or even wonder whether we have a serious commitment to the life of the church. … I think you ought to know, and I wish that the entire community knew, that the key forces in the Adventist Forum, have been people who love their church, people who are committed to their church. And the whole idea that we sometimes get, that denominational leaders are suspicious of our motives, or wonder if we really have the denomination’s best interests at heart, I wish we could all bear witness to the fact that the leaders who have made Spectrum what it is have all been people who care deeply about the church. Spectrum is not an anti-church publication, it is not indifferent to the life of the church, it is a magazine committed to it. Now, we do it from an intellectual distance. We know very well that any well-thought of, and well-meaning organization that has any kind of a future is going to be self-critical. That it will advance only insofar as it is able to by the Spirit’s leading toward deeper and fuller understanding. And we know that’s how we can best serve the church. We have had editors who are interested not just to publishing fun stuff or seeing their names as a byline, but editors who in their heart of hearts wanted to somehow achieve the dream of a church that gains in understanding, that advances in its mission, that becomes to the best of its ability ever more faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ in whose name everything that happens here goes on. We are committed to the future of the Christian faith, and the ongoing creation of an ever-better Seventh-day Adventist church.”
I not sure whether I am an insider or an outsider in this group. I’m not an academic, and as a rather ordinary pastor of rather ordinary churches, deeply connected to the hoi polloi. I know Spectrum is speaking to the big questions about church history and hermeneutics and justice and how the church is run, and I’m deeply grateful. I’m still not sure, though, who is speaking to or for the ordinary people in the thousands of little, forgotten churches across our denomination. I don’t think it’s the Review/World, which seems to me more about institutional survival than anything else. And I’m pretty sure it’s not Spectrum either. This line of inquiry, by the way, is just as applicable to Adventist Today, the magazine/website I now write for, as it is to Spectrum, which I used to write for. The majority of white oldsters and the minority of millennials and people of other complexions and cultures at both of our gatherings this year ought to make us think about whether we’re any more relevant to the future of this church than Silver Spring is. And if not, what we need to do to become so.
Loren Seibold is a pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.