Thursday, September 02, 2004
This image is designed to lure you into reading this obscenely long post. If you're more interested in pretty pictures then I suggest you click the .Mac Photo link to the right for more of the volcano hike alluded to herein.
ABOUT THE SDA CREW
Melody told you of the lecture we endured last Friday night about the Sabbath. I then decided to skip church on “Sun” day as I was invited along on an expedition to hike a nearby volcano called Mohawu (it seems that invitations to go hiking always happen on Sundays) with the whole crew of Seventh Day Adventists from the Crusade team and some of their accompanying national church members. The irony was not lost on me, be sure.
It was a nice hike in the beautiful highlands where the breezes are cool and the air thinner (a little) and the mountainsides cultivated with neat rows of cabbage and carrots. I was torn because I wanted to take them to task for the hasty glossing over of history and cultural complexity they had done a few nights before (as they all deliver the same sermons which are written by someone older back in the states) but I also really liked many of them and it was such a relief to be able to talk in normal vocabulary and feel understood. I didn’t want to argue about something that is so central to their identity because I feared it was impossible to do so without hurt feelings.
On the hike down I became involved in a conversation with an American Adventist pastor who had grown up in Manado but was serving in the States. I was telling him how little I had known about Adventists before I came and how impressed I am with the indigenization of their mission work (nationals of all countries seem to be assimilated into what appears to be a truly global church structure, sort of an international Baptist Convention, for those of us familiar with that metaphor). In fact, as he pointed out, Adventist churches are waning in America and waxing all over the developing world (true of the Church in general, some argue). At some point in the conversation he smiled and said “You’d make a good Adventist too.” To which I smiled and said “Well, you’d have to make a better argument for the Sabbath than I heard the other night.” And then it was on. To his credit, for the most part, he remained civil and detached and we talked about the issue. But he kept throwing in phrases like “it’s about the truth of scripture” implying that any other view denies such truth. At one point he said “I don’t really feel I need to defend the Sabbath as the day of worship as Sunday worship is a change to God’s ordained order. It’s you who should defend the change.” “Well, that’s a clever rhetorical move but we both know that you have nearly 2000 years of church tradition of Sunday worship that you only as recently as 1850 decided was incorrect and you can’t just pretend that almost every other church, in history, and still a majority worship on Sunday.” So there we were. He didn’t like my use of the word “tradition” as such lends dangerous power to evil popes but we both know we read the scripture through lenses called tradition and culture. By this time we had caught up with his wife and a few others who heard that the Sabbath was being questioned and jumped in to his aid with cross sounding voices, tired of arguing for what is so obvious to them and so central to their identity.
And that is what it comes down to, I think, identity. Joel (Anonymous’ husband) asked about the idolatry of emphasizing one aspect of your religious system to an extreme (i.e. the Judaizers of the first century) and I think that is what some Adventists do (though most not to the same extreme). They have adopted aspects of a religious system that is a tremendously powerful source of identity and being connected to that gives them a sense of weight, gravity and adherence to the eternal order of things. It gives them identity over against the rest of a church that (at one time in the sordid denominational history of America) they saw as corrupt, confused or both. “The reformers didn’t go far enough in reclaiming the truth of scripture from the Roman Catholics,” my walking companion said. A very 1850’s sentiment reflecting the characteristic distrust of the Catholic church at that time (which I think is very much alive with some of the SDA today).
The problem is that adopting these traditions they have embraced a law that the early Christians had to struggle to individuate from. At first Judaism and Christianity were sharing synagogues and prayers but there came a time when Christians were no longer welcome and they had to develop and identity, as God’s people, apart from those who had been God’s people for so long before. It was messy and hard and people got hurt and people got mad. You can read about it in Acts 15 (and in Hays and Pate’s book Apocalypse). Gentile Christians especially those who did not worship with Jews before they became Christians (as “God-fearers”) did not keep the law, or know how to, yet they had the Spirit. You can read about it from Paul. But it seems that in search for identity in the midst of and boiling soup of American denominationalism, Seventh Day Adventists looked back to the schoolmaster of the law with a longing eye for a tradition they could hold on to, root to and trust. In doing so, they seemed to have taken on what they were freed from (and they want you too also).
(Stop reading here if you want to continue considering me a thoughtful, balanced, fair-minded individual of uncommon maturity).
Oh, and they believe that Ellen White was a prophet with visions and writings inspired by God but she wouldn’t want you to call her a prophet or elevate her writings above the “greater light” of the established (protestant) canon of scripture. But you technically don’t have to believe any of that to be a part of the church, it says so in the church constitution. But the longer you stay an Adventist, the more likely you are to come around…
Further to their credit, they invited me to pray with them, which was quite enjoyable and many of the (younger) students there seem very committed to their relationship with God and to helping others understand what that means. Also, I had several conversations in which I was sincerely asked for my difference of opinion about the historical development of Sunday worship and listened to, intently. But, to my discredit (or theirs, I’m not sure yet), on the ride home I was tired and not feeling well and generally annoyed by the Ned Flanders-esque aura of campyness that filled our long bus-ride back to Manado, as I overheard more Bible-school songs than I ever care to and statements like: “How could anyone believe in an eternal hell and a loving God? Really.” And all the things that annoy me most about American Christianity came flooding back to me.
Posted by M. Lumpkin at 9:10 PM