by Lawrence Downing
By Lawrence G. Downing, January 21, 2014
My friend and ministerial colleague Ryan Bell has set himself upon a journey that has an uncertain end. You may have read about his proposed venture in the Washington Post or perhaps heard him interviewed Sunday, January 12, 2014 on Public Radio. His declared intent: to life without God for a year.
Living for a year without God is not a quest most people associate with an Adventist pastor, but Ryan is no stranger to challenging traditional expectations and practices. Were it otherwise, he would not have attracted and held the diverse congregation that is Hollywood Adventist Church. Under his pastoral leadership, a unique congregation had formed that I believe was unlike any other Adventist church in the world. A profile of the congregation on any given Sabbath looked something like this: a wide ethnic and racial diversity—typical of most metro Adventist churches. It is the composition of this eclectic mix that takes Hollywood into a realm few other parishes inhabit. One would have seen a smattering of street people—some dirty and smelly who talk to the voices in their heads. Expect one or two of this group to stand up during the service and move about, perhaps even wander onto the platform—on more than one occasion, attempting to give “God’s message” to the congregation. Deacons move in to gently escort the budding prophet back to the pew. There were other parishioners to notice, too.
On a given Sabbath were 50 or so young people who worked or sought employment in the movie industry. There were actors, camera operators, set designers, screen writers, comedians, and sound technicians. This is only a partial list. Name me another Adventist church with a congregation like this! Ryan’s off-the-wall gifts (so defined by some) enabled him to provide some cohesiveness to this hodge-podge group, and, like the cat herder, now-and-again get them heading in a common direction. Was it a perfect and harmonious experience to be part of the Hollywood Adventist congregation? Probably not. So what else is new? This is not the important question! A better question is this: Did people hear the gospel? Did someone on a Sabbath morning address issues that confronted real people in real-life situations, and were they given biblical answers? From my personal observation, the few times I attended Hollywood, I answer yes. His voice to this congregation is now silent.
The catalyst for Ryan’s decision to set upon his precarious course (my evaluation, not his) appears to be related to the events that led up to his stepping down as senior pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church. I am not well enough acquainted with the background events that led up to Ryan leaving his pastorate to comment. I will let others untangle the conundrum of institutional polity. Ryan has stated on his blog and in the NPR interview that the two Christian educational institutions where he has been employed as a contract professor, requested that he resign his teaching position. The loss of his pastoral and teaching positions left him without gainful employment and put him on an uncertain financial course. He reported that his available funds would be depleted after two months without income. He expressed his desire to find work of any kind. He has a family to support.
Responses to Ryan’s decision to live for a year without God are varied. Ministerial colleagues I have talked with are puzzled why he would make, what in their view, is such a foolish and risky decision. It’s like playing with the devil, opined one pastor. Younger pastors who know Ryan are at a loss to explain his purpose in all this. Non-ministerial friends I have talked with about Ryan’s venture express concern for his soul and wonder if he’s trying to make a name for himself. Few I have met think his trek will have a happy ending, hoping some good may come, but unsure what that “good” might be.
When I learned of Ryan’s decision to live for a year without God, questions began to float through my mind: How does one live like an atheist? Is there an atheist’s creed or an atheist’s guidebook for successful non-belief? When I brought these questions to a couple family members, one pointed out that living without God does not, in itself, equate with atheism. If one defines living without God as the absence of certain rituals and practices, one may continue to believe there is a God. The person for a time is incommunicado with God.
When a ministerial colleague, who knows Ryan well, and I were with a group of friends a discussion ensued related to Ryan’s announcement to live without God. One of the persons observed that he understood Ryan would not read the bible, pray or participate in religious activities for a year. My clergy friend responded, “That sounds like many of my church members.”
As I reflected on Ryan’s announced decision to live without God for a year, an old story came to mind that tells of the man who advertized he had the formula to turn lead into gold. The prospective lead-to-gold transformers gave the man their money and he, in turn, gave them the magic formula. As he got to the last ingredient he looked the person solid in the eye and said, “Now listen. Here is the essential part. When you are preparing this formula you must not ever think of the red-eyed monkey. If you do, the formula will not work.”
The person who chooses to live without God for a year, or a day, a micro-second or a millennium—the time is irrelevant—where is the red-eyed monkey? How can the person who has brain cells that still function become so disciplined not to think about God? If one thinks about God, references God in any way, even in jest or curse, can one then lay claim to living without God? I don’t have an answer.
Let’s take Ryan at his word: He wishes to explore what it is like to live without God for one year. Then what? After 365 days will he have concluded life is better without the Divine? Listen for his shout to the world, “I proved I can live without God for a year.”
Suppose, for the sake of discussion, Ryan announces at the conclusion of his trial-run that he found he could not live without God. He discovered that, despite his removal from God, God, the hound of heaven that he is, could not live without Ryan. With this positive affirmation in tow, how will Ryan’s Adventist friends/believers respond should he wish to unite with them again? Will we open a place for him? Will he become the new-found celebrity on the camp meeting circuit, there to shout forth the folly of following a godless path? Like other mysteries, time may provide answers. Then again…