by Monte Sahlin

By the Adventist Today News Team, April 20, 2014
 
A cinema project that used an innovative artistic genre and an innovative strategy for public distribution to portray a fundamental Adventist theological concept (the great controversy theme), attracted a half million dollars in donor support and won a Hollywood film award on the strength of its promotional trailer was suddenly canceled last week. Adventist Today has received a large number of questions from church members and denominational employees, and sought additional answers.
 
Three younger men dreamed of sharing the Adventist message through contemporary forms: Pastor Garrett Caldwell, an associate director in the General Conference communication department; Rajeev Sigamoney, assistant professor of film and television production at Pacific Union College; and Jason Satterlund, a church member and owner of a film production company in Portland, Oregon. All three have significant track records in terms of both media skill and roles in the church. Caldwell was an assistant to the president in the Potomac Conference, Sigamoney was a pastor before entering graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, and Satterlund is an experienced Sabbath School teacher in his local church.
 
Caldwell found a private donor in North America who gave a half million dollars for the project. The denomination appropriated $270,000 as matching funds. Work began on a series of 11 scripts with the idea that the short dramas would be circulated on the Web so as to avoid the impossible cost of getting access through conventional means such as prime time television or public theaters.
 
The scripts were vetted by several committees at the denomination's General Conference (GC), the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) and the Ellen G. White Estate. The original publication entitled The Great Controversy was written by White and published near the end of the 19th century, so it seemed natural to use a new genre called "Steampunk" that includes both Victorian and futuristic elements. It is currently a "hot" new media format, and last year the promotional film for The Record Keeper won one of the first Geekie Awards given in Hollywood. Pastor Ted Wilson, the GC president, gave his endorsement to the project and a pilot segment was shown to a number of the GC officers and staff.
 
When the full eleven segments were completed, their public potential was tested by using them in a lead role during an evangelism campaign at the Emmanuel Brinklow Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland, not far from the GC offices in Silver Spring. It has a membership of 1,142 made up largely of upper middle class professionals and government employees, including diplomats representing other countries in the U.S. It is affiliated with the Allegheny East Conference.
 
Each night one of the films was shown at the beginning of the evening, and then the pastor preached an evangelistic sermon on the same theme ending with a call for decision. A total of 35 people were baptized into the church during this campaign. "That is certainly proof of concept to me," an experienced evangelist told Adventist Today.
 
Throughout its development The Record Keeper has not been a secret project. The pilot has been available on the Web for nearly a year, and the Adventist News Network has repeatedly carried stories about it.
 
Late last year a negative campaign against it got underway. A video entitled The Record Keeper is Broken began to circulate on YouTube. The people who created it are not identified and the organization identified as its source (www.earlysda.com) includes no contact information. It appears to use only the 1858 edition of the White book, not the final version that she was satisfied with and approved for ongoing publication.
 
The anonymous critics complain in the video that the film uses the word "displacement" instead of "war" in referring to the conflict among the angels in heaven. The video also expresses dislike for scenes in which the angels discuss possible compromise and reunification after the fall because White wrote that Satan wept and pled to be taken back but the sin was already so great that it could not be blotted out. The critics also expressed dislike for an actress because of her appearances in other films that do not meet Adventist standards.
 
It is unclear whether this anonymous critique got to denominational leaders or not, but in December Wilson asked for a review of the project. It is evidently at about this time that another evaluation by staff members at the BRI was begun, presumably at the request of one or more GC officers. Adventist Today has not been told of nor seen the minutes, but the usual procedure for such a request is for it be voted by an administrative committee in the GC office complex. It would be very unusual for it to come from an individual officer or staff member.
 
BRI Document
 
Adventist Today has been given a document which includes a list of "theological problems … noted [by] … those assigned in the Biblical Research Institute who watched the film." It lists five items under "view of God and His perfect creation," eight items under "view of Christ and the atonement," and two items under "view of the Holy Spirit." It is clearly labeled as a BRI document, but unsigned. It is dated April 9, 2014, and each item on the list consists of one sentence or a short paragraph. The entire content of the document is reproduced below.
 
"View of God and His Perfect Creation: (1) The power of evil and the violence that goes with it is predominant throughout the series, while the crucially important message that 'God is love' hardly appears. (2) The beauty and love permeating God’s perfect universe is never really represented. The original creation of the earth is never described, nor is its eventual re-creation, and there is almost as much conflict in heaven as on earth. (3) Satan’s influence permeates heaven long after the evil angels are cast out so that heaven seems to be characterized in terms of the evil and violence on sinful earth. (4) Angels are depicted manipulating events on earth in order for the prophecy to come true of Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem, denying God’s foreknowledge. (5) Satan seems to be in charge of 'hell,' where good angels can visit and evil angels can be tortured, but, in Scripture, the words translated 'hell' refer either to the grave or to the final destruction of the wicked.
 
"View of Christ and the Atonement: (1) Having characters in the film say of Jesus 'He’s not human' and 'He cannot die' denies the foundational doctrine of Jesus as fully human. He is both God and Man. (2) The central role of God’s law in the controversy and the nature of sin (as distinct from evil) are never explained. As a result, there is the danger that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross could be construed in pagan terms. (3) A character incorrectly asserts that Christ’s death 'was the pardon.' His death made provision for the pardon and salvation of human beings through faith. This so-called 'universal justification,' that everyone was pardoned at the cross misconstrues the atonement and undermines Christ’s ministry as our High Priest. (4) Also wrong is the statement that 'the plan required the death of God.' To the contrary, 'Deity did not die' (5BC 1113.4). Christ’s death upholds both God’s justice and mercy, but this central truth is hardly visible. (5) Satan and his angels are told that God 'sent you to earth to witness the death of His Son,' but the whole universe witnessed Christ’s death so this is not the reason for their banishment. Strongly, but wrongly, implied here and elsewhere is that Jesus died to save evil angels too. However, their destiny was sealed already by their war against God and being cast out of heaven. The reason they were not immediately destroyed was not this but so that Satan’s way of sin and evil could be seen in contrast to God’s way of love and righteousness. (6) The ending of the series is completely unbiblical: Lars, an evil angel, is given a second chance but ultimately commits eternal suicide (as if that were possible and even more desirable), suggesting the possibility of escaping the final judgment and obviating the need of confronting one’s choices in the great controversy.
 
"View of the Holy Spirit:  (1) The Holy Spirit is the one member of the Godhead who has no visible form. Not only is it blasphemous to depict the Holy Spirit as an angel, but to depict the Holy Spirit as a woman suggests the pagan notion that the Father has a consort and that the Son is the product of that union. (2) The feminization of God is unbiblical and lends support to the modernist agenda that seeks to remove male depictions of God."

Adventist Today has been told that this is not an official BRI report, which would require a much more rigorous process. It is simply a list of concerns noted by two BRI staff members who viewed the films. It does not include detailed Bible references and development of a consensus among a representative group of Adventist Bible scholars as do the formal reports from BRI that have been published over the years. It is possible that some respected and conservative Adventist Bible scholars would not agree with everything on this list.
 
The Director's View
 
When Adventist Today talked with Satterlund at his business in Portland, he had not seen the document above. He said he was busy with other clients and projects and had not had time to think much about the cancelation of The Record Keeper. He was "disappointed" and "heartbroken," but, "I'm not going to leak it." And, "I don't want to sound negative." He praised the denomination's leadership for being willing to attempt the project.
 
"We worked very hard to make sure we were biblically accurate," he said. "These scripts went through committees. They were approved by the White Estate. A representative of the GC was on the set every day. … If people think I am a rogue director, it's just not true. I feel very close to this material and want it told well."
 
Asked about theological problems, Satterlund told Adventist Today, "I don't know what they're talking about. We broadened some things. We took dramatic license with the story, but not contradicting the Bible. … I don't feel we violated a command of God. It was a story-telling tool to show how affected the angels are when they first see death; they have nightmares. … People think death is normal, but death is not normal and we wanted to show that in a powerful way."
 
Clearly, Satterlund's motivation is rooted in the mission of the church. "Our goal was to reach outside the church," he said, "to speak to an audience that would never in a million years read The Great Controversy. I wanted to create something that my atheist father would want to … watch. … I could see the power of this story working on the set. … Conversations were being started … Lives were being changed. … Our target audience was not children in the church; it was … the outside world. We specifically chose things that would draw their attention like using Steampunk."
 
Bottom Line: Is Creative Work Really Possible?
 
The ANN announcement of the cancelation of The Record Keeper last week included an assurance that the GC leadership still wanted to encourage creative approaches to outreach and ministry. "But these may be hollow words if they can't find a little more flexibility when it comes to artistic expression in innovative formats and new media," a retired church administrator told Adventist Today. "If every new initiative is to be required to meet the terms of all these ultraconservative critics that run unidentified web sites, nothing really new will happen."
 
"It appears to me that there is a mix of issues about theology and artistic expression," said an experienced producer whom Adventist Today asked to review the document from BRI which is reproduced above. "If all new expressions have to be tied down to traditional language, then the Adventist Church will eventually find it less and less possible to communicate with the mass of society. Our mission will be cut off because we cannot seem to learn how to translate into the current languages of popular culture."
 
A conservative Bible scholar told Adventist Today, "I know it is difficult for people to see why we have to be careful about the use of new expressions, but remember that is how wrong ideas find their way in." He had not seen the BRI document but expressed the view that caution is important when it comes to "the Word of God and the Spirit of Prophecy."
 
An Adventist who teaches media said when asked for her view of the situation, "I would urge them to keep working on it. Movies are revised again and again. If you believe in something, you don't give up. I think it is a mistake after all of the money and effort that has been put in this to just shelve it. Get the theologians and the producers in a room and go through it frame by frame and re-work it until they can agree. That is the normal artistic tension in any worthwhile film."
 
A number of pastors, lay leaders and Adventists who are media and artistic professionals expressed the wish that large numbers of people would write or call the GC and urge them not to give up. "Call the GC switchboard and leave a message for the president," wrote one reader in an email to Adventist Today. "Tell him, 'Pastor it is not time to give up on The Record Keeper. Revise it or let some other group distribute it. We need it! We are dying out here.'"