In Defense of Cultural Adventism: Confessions of a Traditional Adventist Expatriate on Being “In the World but Not of the World”
by Walter James, October 20, 2016: It seems that lately more and more attention is being directed at what it really means to be a “Cultural Adventist,” in contrast, I presume, TO what it means to be a “real,” or “traditional,” Adventist. This seems to me an odd distinction, because I’ve been both—for all practical purposes, I am both; and the dichotomy seems dubious at best and, in the end, arguably false.
In a Church context that assumes Cultural Adventists are second-rate knock-offs of authentic, serious, church-attending Bible-believers, and being a Cultural Adventist is the equivalent of being a “back-slider,” I’m tempted to argue that the Cultural Adventist life is actually more spiritually authentic than that of the Traditional Adventist.
So what are Cultural Adventists? Many church members view them simply as those who still consume veggie-hot dogs from a can; celebrate some (but—and this is the important point—but not all) denominational practices with respect to the Sabbath (but in a less consistent and rigorous way); have inconsistent church attendance; have more social ties to non-church members than Adventists in good standing; and, perhaps most significantly, Cultural Adventists are those people who have honest doubts about some not insignificant proof-text-based beliefs that Traditional Adventists firmly believe constitute the fabric of a mature belief system—the one they learned in church school and Sabbath School.
A Childhood to Be Prized
A brief note about my bona fides: In what National Geographic designates as one of only five “Blue Zones” in the world, I was born into and reared within a traditional Adventist family. My paternal grandfather (and grandmother) was an early twentieth-century pioneer missionary and later an elected General Conference executive. My father was a denominational pioneer in his chosen profession. My progenitors toiled in the church hierarchy totally and positively immersed in and professionally and personally committed to the message and expansion of the Adventist Church. Before the age of 20, I lived and socially thrived, in and out of the US—indeed, in places that included four of the denomination’s significant epicenters: Berrien Springs, Michigan; Kettering, Ohio; Loma Linda, California; and Washington, DC. I was the product of denominational schools through academy, and as an undergraduate I attended three church-sponsored colleges, graduating from what was then Columbia Union College.
Without any reservation, I readily affirm that much of what I was taught has been immensely valuable in my life. In home and school and church I was taught very pivotal, life-long concepts; among them, that I am the product of a Higher Being and thereby obligated to live as if that understanding was a meaningful reality—in my personal life and in my dealings with others; that I was endowed with one mind and one body for which Providence required prudent stewardship; that there is meaning in life. In the end, the message was clear: There was meant to be a central purpose to one’s life, mainly to discover and then to cultivate a reason-for-being and, thus, a way of living that seeks to make the world a better place for my having been there.
Also, I was encouraged to appreciate—and I believed with conviction, then and now—identifiable ideals by which one might lead a good and worthy life. For these powerful concepts, I am deeply indebted to my family, my church schoolteachers, and my college professors. Without those dedicated people and the profound ideas they shared, my life’s journey thus far would be greatly diminished and less meaningful than it has indeed been.
The immense gratitude I feel for my family and many Church-related associations for the person I am today is difficult to express; it is hard to imagine how one could ask for a better set of circumstances: parents, grandparents, friends, church communities, teachers and professors. Unequivocally, I consider myself immensely fortunate.
Not All Was Placed in Perfect Focus
On the other hand—and with the luxury of hindsight—I now consider instruction that was, in many respects, fortunate for a young person during his formative years, was not necessarily the end-all or definitive world view for a fully mature and purposeful life in full adulthood.
I can explain: Our family’s social life was wrapped entirely around the Adventist churches my parents and I attended. The worldview those congregations cultivated was not complicated: There were two kinds of people in the world, Adventists and non-Adventists; this worldview was reinforced and rewarded in Adventist academies and colleges as well. The implicit message was that it was vastly more desirable to associate with the former and fundamentally wiser to ignore or have little to do with the latter. In many ways my family and church, in effect, largely shared an insular approach to the great social realities of life, social life akin to that of The Brethren or orthodox Jews.
Never once—save for unbelieving visiting blood relatives—did any “non-Adventists” grace our living room; not once did any non-Adventists (i.e., “unbelievers”) share a meal in our dining room or at our kitchen table. Non-Adventists were not a part of our attention, daily concern, or particular affection.
Instead, we focused exclusively on the life of the church we attended. We considered its politics and other superficial matters at after-church gatherings on Sabbath, almost never touching on topics of a more spiritual or philosophical nature; after all, discussion on matters of substance wasn’t called for—the belief systems and their application to how one should lead a life were carefully delineated and well understood. We prayed fervently for unbelieving relatives; but ignored the Philistines in our neighborhood and beyond, in the wider orbits our personal and professional lives.
We glibly surmised that if the truth were known, non-Adventists probably wouldn’t like to get to know us anyway; after all, we were very different from them (and proudly so). We moved down the road of life pretty sure they would think us odd as potential friends for being a “peculiar people”: We ate differently than most of them did; we didn’t drink, dance or play cards (save for Rook); we didn’t go to movies (or, for that matter, read paperback books). We were pretty confident we had absolutely nothing in common with them on at least one entire day of the week—Sabbath (frowned on when referred to as “Saturday”). In short, our hearts were set on heaven and theirs, we were pretty certain, were focused on the here and now.
So we and the other church members we knew lived a socially isolated, provincial, blissfully ignorant existence—we didn’t bother with gentiles and they didn’t know us. After all, we were called to be apart from them; our heavenly assignment was straightforward: we were to be “in the world, but not of the world.” And, the simple reality was that it was easier and less risky to avoid entanglements with the “unwashed” than to run the threat of becoming contaminated by sin—usually defined as consuming different kinds of food, engaging in non-prescribed activities on any day of the week (but especially on Sabbath), and the general perils of mingling with unbelievers.
Adult Experience Teaches a Different Set of Lessons
It wasn’t until I graduated from college and attended graduate school that I came to “see” the world differently—and, subsequently, to understand and relate to it in a way that posed a departure from Traditional Adventism. I was mildly surprised to encounter among my classmates and professors people who were just as kind and honest and thoughtful and sincere as my Traditional Adventist family and friends. Indeed, I met individuals who violated all my stereotypical Adventist expectations. I met individuals who demonstrated a keen sense of compassion and social affirmation for both believers and non-believers. I came into contact with more than a few people who had a strong, positive effect on those around them by the lives they led. I found honest, sincere people everywhere who happened to attend Mass, or temple, or different Christian denominations than mine—some no church at all.
I also observed these individuals exhibiting lives that were in—but not entirely of—the world in ways that rang more true and consistent with the lifestyle of the Man from Galilee as portrayed in the four gospels than that of my Adventist friends and fellow church members. Rather than living isolated and removed from “the world,” they were a vital and influential part of it.
This was when I began to re-think what it meant to be a Traditional Adventist. I concluded that many “worldly” individuals were drawn to a way of life that was positive, up-beat, and consistently meaningful. At the same time I found my church-related associations were still focused on church affairs, institutional politics, and what amounted to an exclusively Adventist life-style and worldview.
Over the years, and with the experience that exposure to non-Adventist friends, workplace associates, and institutions provided, I’ve come to understand that what was once a powerful and meaningful (and perhaps at the time useful) worldview for me in grade school, academy, and college student, now serves inadequately as a guide for full, mature adulthood. I have come to see that although I grew up, my “church” didn’t mature appreciably in depth or sophistication as I might wish it had and needed it to.
Proof-texts that once served as neat, tidy guides for my grade-school beliefs were still expected to work for the adult I became and carry the weight of understanding that a mature individual seeks and needs to more fully explain the vicissitudes of life, the world, and the nature of the Eternal. While there are more than a few examples, three will serve to illustrate the point. First, simplistic proof texts regarding the origin of the universe, Earth and life failed to meaningfully compete with empirical, evidence-based observations which official church proclamations largely ignore. Second, the proof-texts offered by the official Adventist statement of beliefs are wholly inadequate to support a contemporary appreciation of sin and virtue with respect to gender, the sexes, and their appropriate relationships each with the other. A final point: the role of women in church ministry is premised on a proof-text approach that selectively asserts one period and culture as the predicate for all subsequent ones.
Why “Cultural Adventist” Made More Sense
In my personal journey, a single life led to marriage, a couple became a small family, and graduate school led to professional opportunities and accomplishment. Through it all, we—first my wife and then my children—lived in two different worlds—one on weekdays and another on weekends. Then (and now) church attendance was—even in an institutional setting—largely unrewarding, almost empty; and Sabbath observance was frequently devoid of meaning and amounted to waiting for the sun to set on Saturday so that life could start up again. Beyond what may or may not have transpired on Saturday for our church friends, the default lifestyle was to go through the motions of being good parochial, inward-looking Adventists in a world that largely ignored us, just like we ignored them.
More and more I longed for a wider, richer, more meaningful life, one that might unfold in more positive ways and in a larger cultural setting. I wanted to participate more abundantly and thoughtfully wherever I might find myself—in short, live a life that gave witness to the over-arching themes learned as far back as grade school about living an abundant life. For a variety of reasons, it became increasingly apparent—and easier than ever before—to conclude that I was likely no longer what many would term a Traditional Adventist.
At some indeterminate point, I decided to live on social, emotional, and intellectual terms that made sense to me, albeit honoring an appreciation for the values from a young life well-nurtured, but nonetheless not necessarily expected by Traditional Adventism around me. In effect, I determined that what I said, did or gave testimony to, was going to be grounded in sound reasoning, despite the fact that it might mean what I said or did was not necessarily a core Seventh-day Adventist value, practice, or teaching. I recognized that I had come to several conclusions about Traditional Adventist dogma and lifestyle and “witnessing” that contradicted the expectations of most of my church member friends. In effect, I came to see the world differently and more confidently than did my Traditional Adventist friends in some interesting ways. I’ll enumerate a few.
(1) God’s children are everywhere, not just in the Church. Many church members continue to perpetuate the myth that there are two classes of people in the world, Adventists and non-Adventists, and they are comfortable socializing and doing business with the former and not the latter. However, from early adulthood, I realized that viewing the world in terms of Adventists versus non-Adventists (believers versus nonbelievers, the saved versus the unsaved, the good versus not-so-good people) was really a misguided and foolish way to think about social reality.
Since adopting that view, I regularly have encountered delightful, wonderful souls outside of Adventist church membership as frequently as inside. In turn, I’m judged and accepted by them largely on the basis of my character, demeanor, and way of life. I visit them in their homes and they visit mine. We regularly dine together, vacation together. Occasionally we consider (in various and personal ways) important issues in life that pertain to wholeness, peace of mind, values, and spirituality. I don’t recall a time when such conversations occurred nearly as frequently with my Adventist acquaintances, likely because so much of lifestyle and spiritual dogma are all-but-settled matters, like the sound of an old, scratchy LP record.
(2) It’s a small, small world, the Adventist faith is. There persists a small, provincial world-view in the Church—with ample online sites (e.g., barelyadventist.com) that humorously make this point. On the other hand, prohibitions in the Adventist sub-culture that once were taboo are now permissible: how much of one’s body can be submerged on a Sabbath-day’s visit to the beach, meat consumption, movies, eating out after church; much of what was once considered risqué is now okay. In effect, what it means to be a practicing member of the Adventist culture is in constant flux, which by itself should call into question what it is really meant by “Cultural Adventist.” In other words, those who are thought of as a Cultural Adventists today might well be considered main-stream Traditional Adventists tomorrow—albeit in the next generation.
(3) Going to church can be a rarely rewarded activity. Over the years, my experience has been that it’s the exception and not the rule that the average pastor’s sermon will “scratch” where this parishioner, at least, “itches,” making it hard to work up much enthusiasm to make regular church attendance an important part of the week.
On the matter of judging the pastor’s performance, I speak with some experience and authority; indeed, I am routinely rated by my professional colleagues and student audiences for relevancy, content, worthwhileness, and interest level generated. As my pastor might, I never allow myself to forget that for better or worse we live and operate in a short-attention-span, YouTube Age; to overlook what that means to an audience is the difference between communication success and communication failure. When the Cultural Adventist only infrequently attends Sabbath services, it’s most likely not so much an absence of religiosity as it is a failure to find meaning and inspiration when he or she does.
(4) In today’s world, being an Adventist is not a big deal. If it ever was possible, it’s no longer likely in much of today’s world that one can effectively “witness” from a strictly sectarian or denominational point of view. Nobody I know at work or around town or identify with professionally cares whether I’m a Catholic, a Jew, a Mormon, Muslim or a transcendentalist; my religious alignment simply doesn’t carry any weight. Instead, all those people I contract with, buy from, work beside, or socialize with weigh the value of my friendship and my point of view about anything strictly on the kind of person I show myself to be, not the organization with which I might identify. To think differently is to be out of touch with how people evaluate each other in today’s world—and the relevance of formal religious identity.
There are entire Adventist church congregations which self-identify almost entirely as “Adventists,” living a strict, inclusionary life within that context—and an exclusionary mistrust of those beyond. It is not unusual for groups like that to be proud of such an arrangement, while the rest of the world couldn’t care less.
In today’s world, being an Adventist has little positive meaning for few (if any) other-faith believers or even non-believers. Few people in my orbit are going to be persuaded that if they simply belong to a particular denomination or church, life will work better for them. Furthermore, I know that asking anyone to come to church on Saturday morning or to an evangelistic meeting would fall on a nonreceptive audience and be disquieting in my so doing.
(It should be quickly added, this does not necessarily reflect badly on Adventism; it is simply the reality of a jaded world. Furthermore, my fellow Traditional Adventist friends have every right to hold potlucks that are distinctively Adventist in conversation, dietary limitations, beverages, and attire. However, no one should kid himself; such uniquely Adventist gathers are the equivalent of the Lions or the Rotarians getting together for a cook-out; in any case it certainly isn’t, from any reasonable point of view, the same as being “in the world, but not of the world.”)
(5) Effective “witnessing” is a full-contact sport. If Adventists ever felt they’d fulfilled the commission to warn the world (or teach all nations), holding evangelistic services for gentiles, running commercials on television, or distributing copies of The Great Controversy will hardly do the job. Instead, what’s called for is the fostering of friendships, the cultivation of social ties, the nurturing of relationships that encourage dialogue, all to have the chance to share from time to time many of the positive values that the Church affirms. Such opportunities arise in all sorts of social gatherings including cocktail parties, garden receptions, weddings, baby christenings, house-warming parties, graduation ceremonies, school proms, little league baseball games, soccer practice, gym lessons, yoga classes, bar mitzvahs, etc. Sometimes it as simple as sharing food with others in your own house, football game parties, vacation home, campsite, or back yard grill-out; other times it means being invited by others to join them in the same kinds of places and spaces. (In full-disclosure, it should be noted that many of these activities might otherwise occur at times Traditional Adventists frowns on participation in—or when many church members are taking naps; inevitably, there’s almost always a break-away of some kind or another from living the stereotypical life of traditional Adventists.)
What in my judgment is called for, however, is always the same. St. Francis put it perfectly: Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words.” If you take it seriously, if you seek to make a difference in people’s lives, you have to be a meaningful part of people’s lives. In my view, Cultural Adventists are better prepared socially, emotionally, and intellectually, to undertake this calling than most Traditional Adventists I know. Mother Teresa said it first and best: “I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor?”
(6) My Traditional Adventist friends sweat a lot of small stuff I now care very little about. If by some miracle I was able to get some of my non-believing friends to come to church and—overlooking difficulties associated with a poorly executed or proof-text sermon—then to stay for a potluck lunch, it would most certainly be an awkward scene fraught with difficulties. More likely some of my non-Adventist friends would be dressed differently than many church members would assume to be proper. Furthermore, such guests might wish to smoke; they would look for (or bring for themselves, if given the chance) a different kind of beverage than would be served; they’d probably find Fri-Chik an odd thing to eat; they’d likely find the menu to be unfamiliar. Because of any one of these factors, I’d bet many of my Adventist friends would find it challenging to approach and have an extended exchange with such guests, much less have an in-depth, heartfelt conversation. As for me, I’d find such social mingling highly uncomfortable—uncomfortable for my traditional Adventist friends, uncomfortable for the invited gentiles; the only good that could come from such encounters would be mostly as fertile ground for situation comedy.
Living as a Cultural Adventist simply means regularly being in exactly those kinds of circumstances with nonbelievers—but certainly not in the limiting context of a church-related function. As a Cultural Adventist, I’m far more prepared to handle the failed expectations of my more conservative Traditional Adventist friends. This doesn’t mean I’m a better person; it just means that as a Cultural Adventist, I can do what my church counterparts aren’t prepared to do. Putting it simply: Adventists, both Traditional and Cultural, can be both “in the world but not of the world,” but not at the same time and the same place with the same people in the same way.
If I were asked, I’d say that for the most part my Traditional Adventist friends focus on—and are impressed the most by—what one doesn’t do (don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat meat, don’t mow the lawn on Saturday, don’t send one’s children to public school). On the other hand, my non-Adventist friends notice and are impressed at what a person does: by someone who daily lives a meaningful personal, social, work-related, or professional life that is consistently, unapologetically up-beat and positive in tone and manner. Cultural Adventists—albeit sometimes imperfectly—strive to live in both worlds; most Traditional Adventists I know live entirely in one.
(7) There’s much to be said for living a fuller life. George Orwell makes the point perfectly writing in The Road to Wigan Pier, “It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yours that you begin to realize what your own beliefs really are.” For me shifts in experience from child and young adulthood to greater maturity have likely dramatized what, by contrast, is required to foster and apply what was taught and learned all those years ago in Adventist grade school (and academy and college). When reflecting on my personal experiences it became apparent to me over time that the vitality of a meaningful calling in life—to, in effect, make the world a better place for my having been here—was, in large part, most likely to be found beyond the walls of an Adventist culture, strictly defined.
For a meaningful, consequential life, few would disagree that it is essential to foster an atmosphere of personal growth, build new relationships, make things better, and enable others toward positive pursuits. This is exactly the life endeavor of more than a few Cultural Adventists I know, despite the firm conviction by some who think of them as little more than expedient and ordinary back-sliders.
Over the journey of my adult life, I’ve come to see the fundamental weaknesses of Traditional Adventism: that the pivotal lessons in anyone’s life don’t really revolve around proof-text answers, that God’s children are everywhere (not just in the Adventist Church), that people irrespective of their religious affiliation—if any affiliation at all—seek relationships first, not simple, one-size-fits-all answers to questions they aren’t asking. I’ve also realized that being “in the world but not of the world” is a calling but not for the faint-hearted.
Only time will tell, but in the end I believe that living a life that seeks to carry out the great admonitions of the Good Book gets accomplished better as a Cultural Adventist—as imperfectly as it will almost certainly be done—and will be deemed a commendable, worthy path to have followed. Of that belief I am entirely confident, and turning back is no longer a meaningful option. Living as a Cultural Adventist is more emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually authentic than living as a Traditional one. Of that I am entirely certain.
Walter James is a pseudonym. The decision to use a pen-name was made for two reasons. First, beyond a keen personal respect and esteem for my progenitors and their church-related legacy, I have a concern that still Traditional Adventist relatives and friends who read my story might find it a disappointing reflection on my family’s good name in Adventist and professional circles. Second, my wife and I live in a noted Adventist community (although we toil, nonetheless, “in the world”); since we all live in a connected, easily Googled age, I’m of the opinion that my story, while at one level indeed very personal, speaks to the experience of many other Cultural Adventists I know. Simply put, I am certain that my testimony and views are about more than just one person, me; instead, my saga is about a growing number of others I know as well.