Following a rosy San Diego sunset, the 2014 Adventist Forum Conference, celebrating “The Great Adventist Stories,” commenced this evening in the Fairbanks room of the Sheraton.
Harmony-laden treatments of well-loved songs like “We Shall Behold Him” welcomed conference attendees to the first program of the weekend. United, a musical group made up of La Sierra University students and alumni and directed by Sergio Anthony Leiva, were an inspiring opening act.
Brent Stanyer, conference co-chair with Brenton Reading, then welcomed the approximately 70 people in the room, who have traveled to the conference from places as near as Loma Linda, Redlands and Riverside, and from as far as British Columbia, Kansas City and Alabama.
San Diego Forum chair Gordon Rick added his welcome, with a short history of the Forum annual conferences (which haven’t actually been annual since 2003).
And then we jumped into the stories.
This weekend is all about stories. Lots of different stories.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
This quote, from a popular TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is printed on the back of the conference program.
Twenty-three different presenters are lined up to tell stories this weekend. The format is inspired by TED talks, with a time limit of 17 minutes for each presentation.
Tonight, Friday, the focus is on The Great Controversy. (Tomorrow we talk about The Great Disappointment and Sunday the Advent Hope.)
Roy Branson, former editor of Spectrum and now associate dean of the Loma Linda University School of religion, was the first to stand up and tell his “growing up Adventist” story.
“I grew up in Cairo during the Second World War, where the big question was: Did we fill up the bathtub with water before running down to the air raid shelter?”
Branson then talked about experiencing thunderstorms for the first time after his family returned to live in the US, and being scared that what he was hearing was the Second Coming.
“Growing up Adventist, this saga of the great controversy terrifies you,” Branson said. “We must be aware that our story can have that kind of effect.”
But also we learn that what we do matters, and it matters a great deal. It matters in a cosmic sense. We are major players. . . on a large stage, in a big saga.”
Referring to Deuteronomy 26:5-9 (first sentence: “A wandering Aramean was my father.”) and to the Apostles’ Creed, Branson pointed out that it all starts with story. It is the story that creates further meaning.
Karen Clausen-Brown, assistant professor of English at Walla Walla University, then stepped up to give a presentation on the connections between John Milton and Ellen G. White in the Great Controversy story — a topic which she has studied in depth.
Milton’s stories in Paradise Lost seem to anticipate our Adventist stories, Clausen-Brown told us. She described how influential Milton’s work was in America, and intriguing parallels in the descriptions of Christ and Satan in the story of the great controversy.
Apparently J.N. Andrews, after hearing White’s descriptions of her great controversy visions, also recognized similarities, and asked her whether she had read John Milton. When White told him that she had not, he brought her Paradise Lost. She said that she put the book onto a high shelf and did not open it until after she finished writing her visions, so that no one could say she had received her inspiration from others.
Clausen-Brown also described differences: Milton believed in Satan’s republicanism and God’s monarchy (even though he was against the monarchy and for republicanism).
Clausen-Brown concluded by saying that White’s Great Controversy is a unique contribution to a long-standing conversation about religion and politics in the US and England.
David Barrett and Dale McCreery
David Barrett and Dale McCreery, friends from British Columbia who produce the Storying Life podcast, were an endearing double act, demonstrating the value of different points of view. They each held their own microphone for their presentation.
They disagreed, they interrupted each other, they told folksy anecdotes about mushroom picking together, they emphasized that it’s not important that we all agree on ways of doing things.
Rajeev Sigamoney, a filmmaker and assistant professor at Pacific Union College and co-writer of controversial web series The Record Keeper, was up next. We all wanted to know the inside story of why the series, sponsored by the General Conference, has been cancelled.
Sigamoney told us that he needed convincing when Garrett Caldwell, communication director at the GC, approached him about working on the project. The argument that won him over was that this series could be used to replace Revelation seminars.
He said that he decided to pour himself into the project — the most difficult he has ever been involved with — but felt he would not be surprised if it fell apart.
The project was transformed for him when they decided to change the language — when “God” became “the current administration” and the “Devil” became “The General.” The narrative of the Old Testament through the New Testament became a familiar story of civil war. It made the story new and different — and also relevant.
The GC’s communication department raised nearly a million dollars to shoot the series, Ted Wilson showed the first two episodes to a large crowd, a GC committee vetted the scripts and signed off on them.
But now the project has been “put to sleep” by the GC.
Sigamoney listed several issues that he believes stirred up controversy:
1) Ownership of the series. Sigamoney said he argued that GC shouldn’t own it; big organizations are not the place for innovations. This is not their area of expertise. They are of necessity risk averse. Really, would a GC committee have approved of, say, the Book of Mark if it were put to them?
Jesus and the disciples operated outside their church. Martin Luther operated outside his church. Ellen G. White operated outside her church.
So the question is: How can we innovate in a global organization like our church, or create structures for innovation to take place?
2) People started to care. “When we hit 25,000 fans on Facebook, I thought: We are going to get taken out,” Sigamoney said. If nobody cared about it, it would have flown under the radar.
Are we truly ready to be relevant? To exist outside committee meetings?
3) Finally, people started to wonder: If someone outside our church watches this series, and decides to come into our church, how are they going to fit in? But Sigamoney said he believes this is the wrong question.
“I believe that God is calling us to a place where we can hear new things — things we have never heard before,” Sigamoney said. He quoted an Ellen White statement about how there would always be new light. "We need to ask ourselves whether we are flexible enough to change."
“We have this notion that God spoke to every generation up to Ellen White, but that God is not speaking to us now.” We don’t think he is speaking to us about women’s role in the church, and the LGBT community.
“I believe in not walking away from this rich tradition, but that we should. . . be willing to adapt into something relevant. I believe that God used us through this project.”
In response to a question about whether there is any future for The Record Keeper, Sigamoney said that his understanding is that the current GC leadership will not release it. The North American Division tried to take it off their hands, but it became too political. The series uses an African American woman to represent the Holy Spirit, and that was an issue for some people, and even tied into the issue of women’s ordination in the minds of some, he said.
However, it keeps being leaked online; when it is taken down, someone else puts it up.
“In the end, we got to create a product that we are hugely proud of,” Sigamoney said. “And the church paid for this.”
Rajeev Sigamoney and Paul Mugane
After all of the stories and presentations, there were questions from the audience.
Paul Mugane, who teaches at San Diego Academy and moderated tonight's program, ended the evening.
“The thing about the story is that it says more than the speaker intends to say," he said. "It goes beyond the wisdom of the speaker. Story is one of the mediums the Bible uses to bring us the mystery of God.”
Stay tuned for coverage all weekend of the 2014 Adventist Forum Conference.
Top image: David Barrett and Dale McCreery. Photos by Ray Dabrowski.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6299