Last Sabbath morning a visitor said: “My daughter was recently married, and the groom’s mother was there with her boyfriend. During the weekend, the boyfriend asked me: ‘What have I done to you, that your people hate my church so much?”
I was a participant in the Sabbath School class, not the teacher, and I leaned in to catch the rest of the story.
At the wedding gathering the boyfriend—he would likely become the bride’s step-father—had taken a pretty hard verbal beating. He was Roman Catholic, and he had gotten an earful.
The visitor who was telling the story paused. “Until ten years ago,” he began, “I was a conservative Adventist pastor, and I preached all the hard topics, just the way my church taught to do. But now I’ve come to realize”—he paused again—“how much damage we have done.”
The visitor was tearing up as he finished.
Only days before I had learned (somewhat belatedly) that employees at Adventist world church headquarters had contributed some $38,000 to pay for free distribution of Ellen White’s book “The Great Controversy” to thousands of nearby homes. This act, so it seemed, was further endorsement of the conventional “end-time” scenario that puts Roman Catholicism at the center of Adventist disdain for theological error. What is more, it could, I thought, embolden the wing of the church that, within memory, has put anti-Catholic billboards on high-traffic roads as a way of spreading God’s final message to the world.
What makes “The Great Controversy” deeply insightful—yes, insightful—is this:
- It puts the spotlight on hope, ending with its famous image of a “single pulse of gladness” beating throughout the “vast creation.”
- It repudiates the tendency of Christians, and of Christian hierarchies, to fall into lock-step with the state.
- It opposes concentration of religious authority into the hands of one, or perhaps a few, individuals.
But from a twenty-first century vantage point, the “The Great Controversy” appears to be parochial in its reading of apocalyptic prophecies. At least as conventionally interpreted, the book freezes the future into a single, America-centered scenario, and this seems unacceptable for at least two reasons. First, human freedom (as with the people of Nineveh in Jonah’s day) may confound expectation, even prophetic expectation. Second, apocalyptic poetry has a wider range of relevance than single-scenario interpretations allow.
Biblical apocalyptic was relevant, to take obvious examples, in both ancient Babylon and ancient Rome.
Beastly powers existed, in other words, long before the Christian religion began expressing itself through arrogant and sometimes merciless hierarchies. The empires of Babylon and Rome were such beastly powers. And what is more, beastly powers rear their heads in other times and other places. Biblical apocalyptic could have shed light, certainly, on Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. It could have (and should have!) shed light on what happened under the leadership of Stalin and Hitler. It was profoundly germane to abuses that have fairly recently brought terror to Ireland, Cambodia, Serbia and Rwanda. It is also germane today, when similar abuses are inflicting pain and death not only certain sectors of Islam but also in places like China and Venezuela.
No one says—mark this well—that because the prophet Amos aimed his critique at the people of Israel, Martin Luther King was out of place appealing to that prophet, millennia later, in his campaign against injustice in America. Neither should anyone suppose that apocalyptic visionaries, like the authors of Daniel and Revelation, may not have a message for more than one time and place.
In singling out Roman Catholicism, “The Great Controversy” leads most Adventists today, even most Adventist leaders, into unimaginative and, in the end, deeply damaging tunnel vision. Churches (including our own) can go awry, and leaders of such churches deserve criticism when this happens. But secular powers go awry, too, and the same goes for powers loyal to other religious traditions than the Christian tradition.
Failure to understand this, and to see apocalyptic writing as insightful in more than one context, underscores the seeming cluelessness of one explanation put forth as backing for distribution of “The Great Controversy” to thousands of General Conference neighbors: “This project has the potential to tell our neighbors what [current] events are all about.”
But current events include beast-like behavior in Iran and Zimbabwe and other places where freedom and basic human decency come under assault from human powers. On a smaller scale, current events include the beast-like behavior of Terry Jones, the Christian pastor, in Florida, who is planning to memorialize September 11 with a bonfire of copies of the Koran.
None of this was imagined in “The Great Controversy.”
Ellen White’s best insights will continue to shed light, continue to guide us (if we allow it) toward a path of Christian faithfulness. But her restrictive reading of apocalyptic prophecy entails that “The Great Controversy” is no longer suitable as a simple hand-out, any more than anti-Catholic billboards are a suitable way for us to communicate with our neighbors.
The book repays a thoughtful reading, as I indicated above. But it has to be studied, especially now, in a more nuanced fashion than before. To read this book the old way, to single-out one offender—without fresh assessment of the biblical text, without new attention to the ever-changing context—has become morally offensive. Given the knowledge we have now, and judging from the story I heard in Sabbath School, careless uses of this book have become…a kind of hate speech.
We need to read our tradition, including Ellen White, more critically as well as more appreciatively, so we can bear witness against abuses of power wherever they crop up. Then, among other things, we would be able to interpret apocalyptic texts in such a way as to call our own thinking into question, and not just that of other people.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2620