A Review of Reactions to The Record Keeper and Its Demise
by Jim Hamstra
by Jim Hamstra, June 10, 2014
Heidi (showing her sons a new picture from Grandma): “Where is Grandpa?”
Titus (pointing to Yours Truly in the picture): “Grandpa is right there!”
Antonin: “Grandpa is at the beach by Haystack Rock.”
How can different people, even in the same family, see different things in the same picture and give different answers to the same question? How can different answers be correct? Many questions, even important ones, have more than one good answer. Your own response will depend on who you are, where you are, what you are looking for, and/or how you perceive the picture or question.
Previously I have reviewed the content of The Record Keeper (https://atoday.org/article/2493/reviews/movies/a-review-of-the-movie-the-record-keeper). Here I review the variety of reactions it has provoked, reactions far more divergent than Titus and Antonin. If you have not read the previous review, please read it first. If nothing else, The Record Keeper asks some very good questions. You should consider the questions for yourself before you try to understand the answers.
The early publicity for The Record Keeper was generally favorable. I first became aware of this project from an article in the NPUC1 Gleaner (https://gleanernow.com/feature/record-keeper-new-window-great-controversy). Online publicity plants included Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/nadadventist/videos-the-record-keeper/) and YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqATTCrzOv4). The preview received the 2013 Geekie Award for Best One Shot (Trailer) (https://www.thegeekieawards.com/the-record-keeper-2/). If the intended audience is contemporary geeks, then surely this must be on target.
The responses from the liberal and conservative wings of the greater world of Adventism were perhaps predictable (do they ever agree on anything?). Spectrum offered sympathetic coverage (https://spectrummagazine.org/article/alita-byrd/2013/09/26/jason-satterlund-and-garrett-caldwell-behind-scenes-record-keeper), whereas their conservative counterparts launched a hail of criticism. What seems ironic to me is that if anything, The Record Keeper’s approach would appear to lean toward the conservative side of the Adventist theological spectrum. Jason Satterlund and his fellow writers have taken pains to study how Ellen White describes the Great Controversy in general and angels in particular, and how to interpret these things in a very literal way. The cynic might say that Satterlund has been well-coached by his Adventist handlers, that this is a carefully scripted act. But from my own observations, correspondence and conversations, I believe that he has a personal passion for this project, for getting it right, for conveying this message to a new audience.
The criticisms from the conservative camp seem to come in two main flavors. First is a video from the opposition to theatrics and amusements from Ellen White (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEqIuxPSuZg, https://advindicate.com/articles/2014/2/7/fact-or-fiction-the-record-keeper-misguided). This video begins with prayer. The answer to this particular prayer seems to come immediately, as if someone already knows the answer. The video proceeds with a lengthy string of Ellen White quotes of guidelines that presumably are violated by The Record Keeper series. The counsel quoted here may be apposite. But how does it apply today? Presumably, these commentators would object to a junior high Sabbath School class in which every member (students and teachers) has and uses a personal electronic device. These devices can be used to study your Bible or other worthwhile subjects but they also provide a thorough range of idle amusements, from innocuous games through sports to porn.
I suppose that parents and teachers could simply confiscate all the offending electronic idols. I do not suggest this glibly. We home schooled our boys and did not have a television in our home until our oldest got his driver’s license. But we did have computers, which they learned to use before they started school. And we had Internet access long before it became a household word. When you are a high-tech consultant developing network technology for Apple, you cannot hide your computers from your children and pretend they (the computers or the children?) are evil. And, of course, their friends and cousins had televisions and video players. Unless you choose to live your entire life off the grid, your children will be exposed to “the world.”
So what happens when we want to reach out to those whom we cannot hope to control? Over one billion people now have smart phones. We cannot confiscate all of their personal electronics just so these people will consent to listen to what we want them to hear, using our preferred media and modes of communication. Perhaps we should pray that God in His mercy will take-down all the wireless data networks. Or even the entirety of the Internet, since two billion more people have access to online computers at home, work or school.
You can blame the devil if you wish, but the YouTube trailer for The Record Keeper has recorded far more viewers than has Cancel The Record Keeper.
Cancel The Record Keeper also objects to the selection of the cast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNkd60s4tak). Some of these professional actors have previously performed in roles that mainstream Adventists would not wish to advocate or emulate. For example, Lindsay Frame (Raina) has previously acted in movies with strong sexual themes, including casual sex and lesbianism (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1812717/). Similar accusations are also leveled against others of the cast, confirmed by consulting the IMDb web site.
How did the cast of The Record Keeper react to these praying Christian men wielding their righteous muck-rakes? Three of the cast dismissed them by saying that that is why they have nothing to do with churches. One actor who came from a more conservative Christian background had maintained that he was nevertheless impressed that a church would produce this series. When the project was terminated he admitted with dismay that the others had been right: stay away from churches.
ADVindicate offers further commentary along these lines (https://advindicate.com/articles/2013/9/24/general-conference-spends-nearly-one-million-on-great-controversy-themed-dramatic-series). The comments from Doug Bachelor, and especially from Scott Mayer, are interesting and deserve serious consideration. This is not a simple question. I do not know how to cast a video series in a way that is compelling and yet authentic, but this is not my chosen profession. I do consider authenticity a core value for every Christian endeavor. And I wonder if this could be one reason for my impression from watching the series, that the consequences of evil were portrayed more convincingly than the consequences of good.
On the other hand, as Mayer notes, this medium is very much about creating illusions. “Acting is emptying yourself and being something you're not, and then tricking people into believing you're something you're not, so I feel like that format is using a lie to show people the truth.” A good actor cast in an unfamiliar role will spend serious time studying not only the script but also background material about the subject matter. You have to get your head into the role if you are going to play it convincingly. Some roles prove to be transformational for their actors. Most do not.
It is good news for me that Jesus was a friend of sinners. The religious elites criticized Him for associating with drinkers and women of ill repute. His purpose in these associations was redemptive. In the Gospel narrative, the Twelve and later the Seventy who were sent out to labor for the Master were very much a work-in-progress. It is not clear to me that “everyone on that team [was] sold out to Christ.” At least one of them was a thief who eventually chose to betray the Master. Might the Master’s response to the present muck-raking and mud-slinging have included the saying, “Let him who is without sin stone the cast first”?
ADVindicate also offers another critique of The Record Keeper from someone who watched only the trailer (https://advindicate.com/articles/2014/2/7/fact-or-fiction-the-record-keeper-misguided). His objections include the use of “imaginative retelling” and also the depiction of the abode of the fallen angels. I would claim that use of the imagination is not sin. Without imagination we cannot conceive of God because God is outside of our physical realm of observation and influence. Revelation is an “imaginative retelling” of much of the Great Controversy story (or alternatively, is it the Great Controversy that is the imaginative retelling?). Much of the Old Testament poetic and prophetic writings appeals to the imagination. Ezekiel and Daniel are full of imaginative retelling. One passage in Ezekiel is so (porno)graphic that I have yet to see a literal reading in a mainstream translation: you have to study the footnotes.
In my correspondence with Jason, he pointed out to me that Ellen White describes an unearthly place where Satan and his angels are now confined (or “displaced,” in the parlance of The Record Keeper). She does not call this place “hell,” nor does The Record Keeper use the term “hell.” The term “hell” has been injected by the critics. Revelation says that Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. Part of the great deception is that God eternally consigns the lost to share Satan’s existence in Hell. In other words, there is no end to evil and suffering. Adventists teach that for lost humans and fallen angels the lake of fire is not the beginning of their chosen existence without God; it is the end.
In marked contrast to the dim view from the conservative establishment stands the enthusiastic video endorsement produced by Daniel Wahlen and other students at Southern Adventist University (https://vimeo.com/84200253). Similar videos have been posted by other groups of young Adventists. Those who challenge these video endorsements have noted that they do not include people who disliked The Record Keeper. Likewise, I have noticed that the critical web sites do not include people who liked The Record Keeper. Could it be that only people who agree with me are unbiased while people who disagree with me are biased?
Confronted with a series of conflicting desires and concerns (including strong pressure from at least one well-heeled conservative donor), the General Conference first delayed (https://www.facebook.com/TheRecordKeeper/posts/569064119850286) and then terminated (https://news.adventist.org/all-news/news/go/2014-04-11/decision-to-suspend-the-record-keeper-comes-with-strong-endorsement-for-creative-outreach/) The Record Keeper project. The statement affirms a “continued desire to produce creative material.” The force of the action sounds a clear warning that future creative endeavors must be very much more circumspect to avoid being crushed by ecclesiastical authority or conservative power elites. Or you might choose to take your creativity elsewhere. A more apt headline might be “Decision to Suspend The Record Keeper Comes with Qualified Endorsement for Creative Outreach.”
The Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland, served as the pilot location for The Record Keeper as part of an evangelism series that baptized 30 people (https://emmanuelbrinklow.org/recordkeeper-response/). The letter they published in response to the decision to terminate the project can be found at https://emmanuelbrinklow.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/response.pdf.
A Sabbath Blog has posted a fairly comprehensive series of articles about The Record Keeper and its demise (https://www.asabbathblog.com/2014/04/why-suspension-of-record-keeper-is.html). You can find links to several relevant articles here, including an excellent interview with Jason Satterlund (https://www.asabbathblog.com/2014/04/exclusive-record-keeper-director-talks.html). It seems fair to characterize their coverage as supportive. Rather than repeating what they have said, I would encourage you to read for yourself.
Jason Satterlund puts a brave face on the situation in his own response (https://www.bigpuddlefilms.com/blog/2014/04/17/the-5-things-i-learned-from-the-death-of-my-baby/). I can tell you from experiencing major project cancellations that you do not put your heart and soul into something and then walk away without grieving. Where Jason is in his grieving process I do not know. I do know that he can use our prayers, though he is not publicly asking. He has recently begun work on the script for a related project that will be privately funded (https://www.jasonsatterlund.com/news).
The church leaders who terminated the project also need our prayers. It is not easy to explain why you flushed three-quarters of a million dollars down the drain. All of the thinking that went into this decision cannot be known. Probably, some of the considerations are discussed in this two-part review and its references. The rest is subject to rumors and speculation. In the calculus of risks and rewards, the risks weighed more heavily. I have used the word “terminated” here, whereas the official announcement says “suspended.” There may have been or may still be discussions about possibly salvaging some of the work. In my experience, when you suspend a project and allow the talent pool to disperse, it soon becomes infeasible to resume.
The General Conference has released a list of “Theological Problems with ‘The Record Keeper’” (https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/2013/TRK_BRI_i.pdf). This list notes 13 “theological problems” found by “those assigned in the Biblical Research Institute who watched the film.” Elsewhere it has been reported that this summary was drafted by Dr. Clinton Wahlen. I have not confirmed this but it is nevertheless interesting to contemplate the rather different responses of Clinton Wahlen and his son Daniel to the same picture and question (what to do with The Record Keeper?). One wonders whether Clinton Wahlen would have passed the critic’s pen to someone else if Daniel Wahlen had directed The Record Keeper.
The preamble seems carefully constructed to suggest the theological force of the Biblical Research Institute without actually claiming that it is the work of that group. Who or how many of “those assigned” actually “watched” is nowhere stated, nor who did the assigning. Some of their points I would agree with. Some upon scrutiny would seem to differ with what other current or former Institute members have written. Even within that august assemblage there is not unanimity on the finer points of Christology, Soteriology or Male Headship.
The Adventist Review recently published an article on the problems with using metaphors to describe God (https://www.adventistreview.org/141514-16). No human metaphor can completely describe God. This includes the parables of Jesus, as well as The Record Keeper. However, without metaphors it is very difficult to convey very much about God in non-technical language because God is so far beyond ordinary human experience. This Review article also correctly explains the problems of trying to mix metaphors. What is true for conversation or writing is also true for movies. You have to work with one metaphor at a time, keeping in mind the limitations of whichever metaphor you choose.
I here respond to those points where I think The Record Keeper or Ellen White or the Bible or, ultimately, God is misrepresented in the formal GC critique, within the context of the metaphors chosen for The Record Keeper. The rest I will leave to the professional theologians.
Regarding Satan’s influence (3)*, there are statements in some of Ellen White’s writings that suggest that Satan was not permanently banished from the “gates of heaven” until after the crucifixion. Regardless of Satan’s whereabouts, one premise of the Great Controversy motif in general, and especially of traditional Adventist interpretations of the cleansing of the sanctuary, is that the residual effects of evil in heaven are not eradicated until Satan and his adherents are eradicated.
Regarding fallen or unfallen angels manipulating events on earth (4), I refer you to Ellen White’s introduction to the time of trouble in Great Controversy. She writes there about the role of powerful angels in events on earth. She concludes by saying that what holy angels can do when God commands, evil angels can also do when God permits. Elsewhere she also states that angels have appeared in the councils of men to influence their decisions and actions.
Regarding Satan in “hell” (5)*, my correspondence with Jason Satterlund confirms that the word “hell” nowhere appears in the script. As I have previously remarked there is evidence in both the Bible and Ellen White that Satan and his angels are generally confined in some specific place. I do not recall any episode in The Record Keeper where unfallen angels visit that place.
Regarding “the pardon” (3)*, I refer you to Ellen White’s remarks about the Prodigal Son, a parable she says above all others most clearly shows God’s love for the lost. When did that father forgive his son? When the son fell upon his shoulders and confessed? When he saw the son coming a long ways off? When the son decided to arise and go to his father? Or when the son first decided to leave home? Would a wise and loving father have given the son his inheritance, knowing what would happen, unless he had already forgiven him?
This does not obviate the son’s choosing whether to accept or reject the forgiveness. The son could have chosen not to return home. The son did not know how much he was forgiven until his father said to bring the family robe. But the father knew before the son ever walked out the door. What if the son chose not to return? In the words of the late Dr. Arnold Wallenkampf, “Hell will be full of forgiven sinners.”
Regarding “witness the death of His Son” (5)* in The Record Keeper, fallen angels are not “displaced” to earth but to a specific place of confinement apart from earth. Nowhere does the script suggest that only fallen angels witnessed the death of Christ. The script does suggest that fallen angels were compelled to witness the death of Christ. Ellen White says that neither fallen nor unfallen angels fully comprehended the true nature of the Rebellion until they witnessed the death of Christ.
Regarding the demise of Lars [sic] (6)*, the answer depends on whether you view the final judgment as punitive revenge or as a natural consequence of sin. There is no existence apart from God. For any creature, to ultimately withdraw from God is to cease to exist; i.e., the ultimate suicide. Jesus says in John 3 that we judge ourselves by whether we come to the light or turn away from the light. The final judgment is where the lost (angels and humans) accept the ultimate, inevitable, unmitigated destructive consequence of their choice. Of their own volition, but under the compulsion of inescapable evidence, they acknowledge their fate. The lake of fire described in Revelation is the aggregate effect of billions of individual experiences. For each individual to acknowledge that he or she no longer exists is to take the final plunge into the lake of fire (or fireball in The Record Keeper).
I submit that The Record Keeper got this right as the experience of an individual fallen angel. Nowhere does it say when the final scene occurs. The commenter has read his (no women at the Institute) own biases into the script. The final judgment is not about revenge. It is about God’s finally and irrevocably and reluctantly (He has no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked) consigning the lost to the consequences of their own choices. Heretofore these consequences have been mitigated by His mercy. Rightly understood, the final act of termination is God’s final act of mercy for these unfortunate beings. The actions of God demonstrate His character of mercy from the inception of sin clear through to its eradication.
Regarding “feminization of God” (2)*, God is often described anthropomorphically in the Old Testament. I recall no Scripture reference to a Divine penis or beard or womb. There are references to a Divine bosom, a promise that God will comfort us as a mother comforts her child and care for us as a father cares for his child. Arguably God is both our father and our mother. The Holy Spirit may have hovered over Mary to impregnate her, but she was physically a virgin when she gave birth. Of course, all of these are anthropomorphic descriptions, and this is a specious and vacuous argument. God has no gender. But I did not raise the issue; I am only responding. It is clear in Genesis that male and female together represent the image of the Godhead in humans. To assign this image exclusively or primarily to either gender is to be unfaithful to the text.
When I first held my own son in my arms and we gazed into each other’s eyes, I silently said to him, “I will always love you. I forgive you now for anything you will ever do to hurt me, regardless of whether you acknowledge or even realize that you hurt me.” My sons are grown, and I have largely consigned them to the consequences of their own actions (though I sometimes intervene in their behalf).
One of the most important contributions that Adventists can make to Christian thought is to show that the love and mercy of God extend as much to fallen angels as to unfallen, to lost humans as to saved. This is one of the least understood aspects of His character, though clearly taught and demonstrated by Jesus (if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father). The deeply-ingrained notion that God is ultimately out for revenge is demonic. The most loving and merciful thing God can do for those who have rejected Him is to let them go, but only after they have fully understood and accepted their own choice. The final jury to render a unanimous verdict will be the jury of the lost. Even they will come to see the mercy of God, though they have refused to partake of it.
I am dismayed that the Theological Problems with The Record Keeper document does not reflect the caliber of work that I have come to expect from the Biblical Research Institute. I am grieved that some of the criticism seems to reflect a lower view of the love of God than the love I have for my own children.
1North Pacific Union Conference
*Number in parentheses refers to the numbered list of issues discussed in the Biblical Research Institute report on the Record Keeper, which Adventist Today has previously published and can be seen at https://atoday.org/article/2449/news/april/the-record-keeper-why-the-film-project-was-canceled. It can also be seen on the General Conference website at the URL referred to earlier in this column.