"If Our Faith Doesn't Change Things, It Doesn't Really Matter"

Nathan Brown, prolific reader and writer and Book Editor at the Signs Publishing Company in Australia, talks about his latest book, a collection of essays focused on justice issues in a biblical and Adventist context.

Your latest book Engage: Faith that Matters, a collection of essays, was published in January. What is the book about? Did you write the essays over a number of years?

About six years ago, I was invited to write monthly for Adventist World online, specifically on justice issues in a biblical and Adventist context. Over that time—until the column came to an end about a year ago—I collected a series of short essays around these themes, so it seemed natural that a selection of them would fit together in a collected volume.

Given this context, the collection of essays also reflects some of my experiences and studies over this time period, as well as some responses to issues in our church and our world during this time.

Why did you write this book?

From a writer’s perspective, it is an interesting exercise to put this kind of work together and see the common themes and how these different pieces might fit together. Generally, these columns were read by only a few hundred people, so there are many people who have not had the opportunity to connect with them. And, working as a book editor for Signs Publishing, my job is to make books, so while working through our usual publishing process, it was a relatively easy book to make and to share.

How is Engage different than your previous 14 books (eight authored, six edited)?

Given its antecedents, this book has a strong focus, perhaps more tightly so than some of my earlier collections. I would hope that each book is more mature in its faith, thinking and life experience than those previous. And the essays in this book have been strongly influenced by a masters degree in theology and justice, which I have been working on slowly over the past few years and am currently finalizing, so I hope this also adds an extra depth to it.

What feedback have you received on the book so far?

The responses have been positive. I have been able to partner with a number of events and groups to share and talk about the book since it was launched in Australia in February.

I think there is at least an element in our church who are increasingly recognizing the need to be more engaged in our communities and our world, responding to its needs and issues, so this is one of the books that offers some biblical reflections on why, what and where to begin.

How would you say your faith has changed over your spiritual life (so far)? Or your beliefs?

Having grown up as an Adventist pastor’s kid, I have had a pretty strong grounding in the content of Adventist faith, particularly doctrinally and theologically. But the work of a maturing faith has been that of the experience of faith, both spiritually and practically.

I see a sustainable faith as something that must have a credible response to the brokenness, injustice and pain of our world and, more than theoretical answers, this needs to be practical. If our faith doesn’t change things, it doesn’t really matter.

How do you see our church changing? We are still growing—are we able to maintain our distinctiveness and our Adventist identity?

For a church that prides itself on distinctiveness, it is remarkable how much we follow and parallel trends in our wider world. In some of our dominant voices, we are definitely going through a “Make Adventism Great Again” mood, with a mix of nostalgia and fear that works well in some quarters and for some fundraising purposes.

In other parts of the church, I see many either intentionally or incrementally shrugging their shoulders about the church, Adventism and Adventist identity.

Sadly, both these trends miss the opportunities that “Adventist faith at its best” offers us and our world. This is not about Adventist identity and distinctiveness for their own sake, but that drawing on the best of our faith, theology, tradition and even infrastructure, we have remarkable resources for doing good in our world. And when we engage with that we won’t need to be so focused on, uptight about or jaded with our Adventist-ness.

Do you see the Adventist church in Australia as being different than the Adventist church in Europe or America?

From my observations, Adventism in Australia is a little different. I would suggest three reasons for this: distance, finances and Ellen White. Although this has become less true in recent years, thanks to online interactions, we are a long way away with a distinct culture. Largely due to the success of Sanitarium—the church-owned health food and wellbeing company—the church in this part of the world has been well resourced, which allows for both some innovation and some complacency. And we had Ellen White at her best and most mature, which set up so much of the infrastructure, culture and theology of the Adventist church in Australia across the 20th century.

From the opportunities I have had to travel, Australian Adventism seems to have more in common with much of Adventism in Europe than it does with the church in North America, but because of language, our primary Adventist cultural influences come from the US. I think it would be mutually beneficial if the church in Australia and Europe could work to establish better ties, better sharing of ideas and resources, and this would better serve us in responding creatively and faithfully to the post-secular societies in which we seek to minister, serve and share.

What has been your best-selling book so far?

I don’t tend to rank among bestselling Adventist authors—for various reasons, some of which are obvious. The response to Engage in its first six months in Australia has been among the strongest. But my bestselling book to date has been the collection of essays I co-edited with Joanna Darby in 2014, Do Justice, which has been used and shared by ADRA offices around the world as well as its regular sales through Adventist bookstores.

What are you working on next?

I have just completed a book manuscript for Pacific Press, for the Sabbath school companion book for third quarter next year, which is a more comprehensive overview of the biblical call to do justice.

I am working on completing the thesis for my masters program in the next month or two.

I am working on a book on healthy friendships and relationships with a friend of mine. And I am beginning to think about the possibilities of writing another novel—among other projects and ideas.

How is Signs Publishing Company doing? What books are you publishing?

Signs Publishing has had some good successes with our books over the past couple of years. The high point has been our “Best in the World” cookbook Food As Medicine and the practical introduction to emotional wellbeing Live More Happy, which has attracted mainstream TV and other media attention across Australia.

We have also had a great opportunity to work with the South Pacific church’s focus on discipleship with Following Jesus and Following the Spirit, two books by Peter Roennfeldt.

And we have just completed a second print run of Stories from Sunnyside, a new history of Ellen White’s life and ministry in Australia in the 1890s. So we are seeing good responses to a variety of titles.

What do you do when you aren't writing or editing?

I try to read much. I help my wife look after our small acreage, horses, dogs and garden. We like to hike the hills around our valley. I try to engage with and contribute to a number of justice issues and causes in various ways. I preach and speak when I’m invited and am part of my local church’s social committee. I play “old man’s” basketball in a local Over-30s league. I’ve done OK on two national TV quiz shows in the past couple of years. And then there are quite a number of nephews and nieces . . .

What books have you read recently that you would recommend to Spectrum readers?

Wow, now we are onto my favourite topic—but not an easy questions because there are so many.

I have been reading quite a bit on race and theology over the past year or so—and recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone, The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings and A Perilous Path, which is a conversation between Sherrylin Ifill, Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson and Anthony C Thompson on race in the current political climate.

A few random (and generally lighter) things I have read this year—and that I recommend—include Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr, Immeasurable by Skye Jethani (his little book What’s Wrong With Religion is also worth a quick read), Inspired by Rachel Held Evans and Milliones Cajones by Rob Bell is an interesting attempt to engage with The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel in the form of a novel.

In Adventist thinking, I am trying to keep up with Sigve Tonstad’s work but it seems he can write them faster than I can read them. And I think that the most interesting and significant work from Adventist publishers is the “Adventist Pioneers” series. Books such as Ben McArthur’s A G Daniells, Brian Strayer’s John Byington and (currently reading) S N Haskell by Gerald Wheeler offer useful insights into why we are the way we are, what we might have been and what we yet could be.

Photo of Nathan Brown at the Sydney Adventist Forum. Courtesy of Nathan Brown.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8911

Down under is a good description, From Brinsmead, Des Ford, The Standish Brothers, to the Shaking of Adventism. Sounds a lot like the opening scene of MacBeth. Des Ford is now in his twilight years is attempting to retell the store of Glacier. I amin much the same phase. I pray that I will hold fast to the Grace the Lord has provided. I also pray that the Church will find charity above condemnation. We are to be lambs not ferrets. We are called to WORSHIP THE Lord of theSabbath nottheSabbath.

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This might be a bit of a tangent, but whenever I read about SDAs who prioritize community service and social justice issues I think (1 good for them, and (2 it seems in tension with traditional SDA eschatology and the core ideas behind the apocalyptic thought that birthed Adventism. I get why apocalypticists would prioritize evangelism–that’s the end game. But if Adventists still really believe the world is ending “soon” and that in the meantime the world will be getting progressively worse… doesn’t that kind of undercut the core idealism of social justice? Isn’t it part of SDA eschatology to believe that social justice, and really all humanist efforts, are futile?

I guess I see a shift in some SDAs in my generation. Humanism is in and apocalypticism is out. It’s a positive trend in my opinion, but I can understand why some in more conservative quarters look at it and worry about loosing some of Adventism’s unique doctrines. I’m also not sure if many of those who believe in social justice and the possibility of human progress really understand that they might be rejecting significant parts of their church’s worldview. Thoughts?

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Some call it “humanism”, others call it “divine will”. Social Justice concepts (Christians prefer to speak of these ideas as “the teachings of Jesus” - lets give credit where credit is due) find their foundation in scripture. Reconciliation and restoration, rather than punishment and destruction, is the nature of God’s justice. These ideas describe the very mind of God. This is the heart of true evangelism - the followers of Jesus describing the kingdom and character of God in their words as well as their actions. The apocalypse, or revealing of God’s true character to the world by speaking and doing justice, is very much a duty of the church in the final days of the present world order. It is true that there are Adventists that misunderstand and misuse terms like justice, evangelism, and apocalyse. They misdirect their efforts because of their misunderstanding. But we should never accept this as “normal” behavior.

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"I’m also not sure if many of those who believe in social justice and the possibility of human progress really understand that they might be rejecting significant parts of their church’s worldview. Thoughts?"

Yes…but let’s rearrange your sentence to ask another question:

"Do those who find parts of their church’s world view significant, really understand that they may be rejecting social justice and the possibility of human progress?"

I do think that this is as important a question as the first and sometimes the truth does lie somewhere in the middle.

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The phrase “biblical social justice” is preferable. That phrase takes the wind out of “humanist” sails. And when I read Matthew 25 and the parable about sheep and goats, biblical social justice is, from Jesus’ perspective, the ultimate dividing line in the sand.

Is that really a plus? I subscribed to a Secular Humanist magazine for several years for insight into their motivation. Imagine, people who are devoted to the welfare of our world and its inhabitants with no expectation of a reward.

As I recall, after the Disappointment, Ellen White criticized the departing hordes for joining the movements only to escape the wrath of God. What did she expect? Wasn’t that pretty much what we preaching?

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Harry makes a good point about the motivations of people to pursue social justice. I think most Christians would aspire to help others because of ethical, rather than pragmatic reasons, and I’m sure many do. But for some, across all sects, their own pragmatic interest in the fate of their soul is certainly a motivating factor. Secular humanists do not have that motivating factor as even a possibility.

I’ll grant you that a certain kind of social justice is implicit in Jesus’ teachings, but much less so in the Hebrew Bible, unless you look only at internal policies and laws toward other Israelites. I think Jesus is best understood through an apocalyptic lens. I actually think Adventists’ historic attachment to apocalypticism puts them more squarely in line with the teachings of the historical Jesus than many denominations. But, in my understanding, Jesus’ calls for “social justice” were primarily aimed at preparing Jews to live in the kingdom of God. He thought that the world was about to end and be reformed with Israel on top. I don’t see any evidence of humanist beliefs in his teachings. In other words, I don’t think Jesus believed the world could be improved simply by humans looking out for each other. He thought that was God’s job, and we were but participants.

I think Adventists, historically, have tended to think in similar ways. Yes, we have a duty to care for other humans, and our fulfillment of that duty will have at least some bearing on our salvation. But there is no real hope that humans will improve on a macro scale, or that we can make measurable moral progress as a species. The anticipated moral decline of humanity, ending in the literal apocalypse, is pretty strongly baked in to both Jesus’ and Adventist’s theology.

That’s where I see the tension. There may be an obligation, but there is no real hope for relief or change on a wide scale, at least traditionally. It’s really the difference in where we put our hope; in actions we can take ourselves, or in faith in a divine authority. If we put our hope in a divine authority, I find it hard to see how we can ever fully take responsibility for our role in making the world a better place. The buck doesn’t stop with us, and God’s going to sweep it all away anyhow. I think it’s easy to see how Christians with this view might have less motivation to advocate for social justice and human well-being. Again, not saying many Christians don’t do excellent work in this area. Historically I think the Christian church has done more for humans than probably any other single institution. But, especially for apocalyptic Christians, I see a philosophical tension that I don’t think is always recognized.

As I noted, it seems to me like more and more Adventists are moving toward a secular humanist value system, and are less concerned with the apocalyptic traditions at the root of Adventism. That’s fine with me. The more people we have who believe we can have a better world, and then act on it, the more hope we have of actually achieving it.

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This well-designed, attractive, and award-winning book is in the class with the most prestigious cookbooks in the world. I ordered a copy, and it is absolutely a fantastic book. Congratulations on the award, the national winner of the “Best Health & Nutrition Book” in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards which attracts submissions from 60 nations around the world.

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