Outside the Alamo 1: Diversity University

In the morning, they arrive. From every direction, carrying a whelming arsenal like General Santa Anna, representing every race and nearly every nation on earth, dressed modestly and crossing crosswalks in orderly confusion, masses stream toward the Adventist hive.

The Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in San Antonio brims with contrasts. In one booth elegant bottles of free-run Vega Del Castillo grape juice from Valencia, Spain (“We have 900 years of history” the host informs me) enjoy communion with Coffig, a roasted fig beverage coffee alternative from California. The neighboring booth features oatmeal, lavender, and mint soaps. Adventist Peace Fellowship shares the floor with Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries. Production crews from Hope Channel, Voice of Prophecy, 3ABN, and Global Mission project their various voices. Targeted regional ventures such as Beehive International: God’s Mission to the Cities and Jeeva Jyothi (Living Light) Ministry to India greet visitors.

Publishers emerge: The Encyclopedia of Sermon Outlines, Pacific Press, Remnant Publications, Editorial Montemorelos, Spectrum, AdventSource, and Review and Herald Publishing Association, which occupies a space ten-feet-by-ten-feet—the perfect size for a burial plot. Victor Issa sits amid his evocative bronze sculptures. Promoting their educational benefits are Babcock University from Ilishan –Remo, Nigeria and Holbrook Indian School; while Southwestern’s full-sized, head-pivoting, roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton stands near Union’s computer-designed, hand-crafted, foot-high Lego characters.

*

Domefuls of talk have been dedicated the past five years to “revival and reformation.” The question almost no one asks: What does a revived, reformed person actually look like? As it turns out, we look . . . different.

About 93 percent of the Seventh-day Adventist Church lives outside North America. In 216 of the 237countries recognized by the United Nations we hold an established presence. We employ in publications and oral work 947 languages and dialects. Nine hundred forty-seven. That’s not even counting emoticon. ;0

On the other side of revival we are diverse, intense, intelligent people whose trust in God and in God’s community has waxed and waned. Living with sandblasted hopes and achieved dreams, we remain resilient and courageous, giving and forgiving, gracious and humble, hard-working and honest.

When our conclave meets every five years to choose our church leader, we don’t send black or white smoke up the chimney because, you know, Adventists don’t smoke.

*

Overheard: “God wants a holy people. We shouldn’t be doing that.”

*

Is holiness—code for revival-and-reformation—merely avoiding sin? Jesus wasn’t known by what He didn’t do. He healed. He touched people. He befriended known sinners. He lived with and taught disciples who were as dense as longhorn cheese blocks. He challenged the existing narrative. He often walked 25 miles a day.

God’s Holy Spirit is engagingly pro-active. We do not proclaim a gospel of avoidance. Author Marilynne Robinson observes, “There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround Himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress.”

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 12 about why His kingdom is more than being spotless. When an evil spirit is expelled, it drifts aimlessly looking for an oasis until it thinks, Hey, maybe I should try my old home. Upon returning, it finds the place perfectly clean, but empty. Great! the evil spirit muses. I’ll round up seven of my friends, all of them worse than I am, and we’ll totally trash this place. The end is exponentially worse.

What is Jesus saying? Bad stuff is not so much tweezed out as it is squeezed out by good. When we concentrate on what is true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and gracious and praiseworthy there’s no room for evil, now or later. But when we focus on merely eradicating sins, endeavoring to purify and purge the flock, we become sin-centered and susceptible. Ellen White declares, “The very act of looking for evil in others develops evil in those who look.”

God’s people do stand for what is wholly good and healthful, willing to battle human trafficking and wanton violence and unrepentant greed-and-chemical-laced corporations that poison and flood our planet with spirit and body cancers, killing our oceans, our loved ones, and our bees.

Our fight is the good fight of healing, informed, authentic, trusting life in Jesus. In his book Leap Over a Wall, Eugene Peterson writes, “Holy is our best word to describe that life—the human aliveness that comes from dealing with God-Alive. We’re most human when we deal with God. Any other way of life leaves us less human, less ourselves.”

*

The 2015 NBA Finals, which ended 18 days ago, provided a study in differing styles featuring Golden State guard Steph Curry and Cleveland forward LeBron James.

A marvel of balance and deftness, doe-eyed Curry is cross-over behind-the-back skippity-hop step-back rise-like-a-hummingbird quick-release three and swoop toward half court before the ball splashes through the net. By contrast, locomotive LeBron brings bent-arm power and speed, a massive g-force pushing down the lane for driving layups or drilling fade-aways. Court-savvy and disciplined, glowering and intense, he imposes his terrific will.

Ted Norman Clair Wilson, administratively speaking, is LeBron. In itself this is neither good nor bad. Many astute basketball observers consider LeBron the best player in the world. Apart from his phenomenal physical gifts, though, what makes LeBron exceptional is his willingness to listen and adapt. He has learned to appreciate, involve, and depend on his diverse teammates. He sees his job is not to purify but to unify.

So we see “King James” dishing assists to heavily tattooed journeyman Mike Miller, to undrafted Aussie guard Matthew Dellavedova, to veteran New York Knicks castoff J. R. Smith, to undrafted Russian center Timofey (Timofey?) Mozgov. Not one of these players possesses LeBron’s blend of power and speed. Yet he realizes that without their valuable contributions, imperfect though they are, there is no team.

Perfection is not the goal. The goals are teamwork and winning. And as nearly every championship team heartily professes—love.

*

Pablo Picasso was once asked by a man, “Why don’t you just paint things the way they are?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Picasso responded.

Irritated, the man yanked out his wallet and extracted a photograph. “This is my wife!” he yelled, handing over the picture. “That is what she looks like.”

Picasso studied the photo for some time. At last he said, “It must be difficult to be so very small and to have no arms or legs.”

*

Celebrating diversity does not imply reveling in inaccuracy. Excellence ought to be prized. For example, most Adventists cannot spell our own church name correctly. It’s Seventh-day Adventist (hyphen, small d), not Seventh Day Adventist or Seventh-Day Adventist. Nope. No matter how many of our churches spell it incorrectly, no matter that The Associated Press spells it wrong.

In fact, above the Upper Gate C entrance to the Georgia Dome in 2010, bookended with official Bible-cross-flame Adventist Church logos, you found emblazoned on a giant banner these actual words: “Welcome to the 59th General Conference Session of the Seventh-Day Adventist.”

Good grief.

Question: Is “Sabbath evening” Friday night or Saturday night? Whenever I ask this of my mostly Adventist students at Union College their answer is evenly divided. Adventists simply don’t know. If I further ask, “Is the Sabbath on Saturday or Friday?” they invariably respond, “Saturday.” Of course the correct answer is “Both.” That’s why it’s perfectly fine for Adventists to be more precise about which part of Sabbath they are referring to by saying, for instance, “Saturday,” though the word will not often be found in official church periodicals or news releases.

Saturday, Saturday, Saturday.

* In her superb TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” author Chimamanda Adichie tells of arriving in the United States to go to university and meeting her new roommate. “She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. “What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.” “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. . . . 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.“

“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.”

*

God is a diversity fanatic. Look around. Every iris, every snowflake, every galaxy is unique. Not content with a firefly and a potato bug, God conjured up three hundred thousand species of beetles and weevils.

Within the cavernous halls of the Alamodome, you find melanin-impoverished ‘Muricans who know one foreign phrase: “I’d like a burrito, gracias.” Beside them stride colorful residents of other countries who speak five languages and will take home Riverwalk shopping residue and a dozen photos of the airplane wing.

But those are single stories. Beneath each person pulses a distinct heartbeat. When we entreat, “Tell me your story” and listen beyond the words, when we allow sisters and brothers to share their heartaches and dreams, it’s like the caged birds inside break out and swirl upward with beating wings.

Somehow we must remove the sin from synergy. Godly revival cannot continue wallowing in the muck of misapprehension. Truth is progressive and multifaceted—as wonderful as a squirming newborn, as bright as a welder’s arc, as calm as an alpine lake, as wild as Einstein’s hair.

Will we learn the lessons of this university? Before the bean counters take over? Before the truth squads bearing creedal checklists descend? Before the Rules and Regulations Regiment pick up rifles full of tofu bullets? We’d better check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.

And leave room for a few bean counters, too.

*

The salient question of this General Conference session emerges: unity or uniformity? For life on planet Earth, the chasm between the two choices yawns infinitely wide.

Unity is based on internals. Uniformity is based on uniforms.

Uniformity is a melting pot. Unity is a fruit salad.

Unity builds a restaurant menu. Uniformity maintains, “I must like everything on the menu. Otherwise, that item is gone.”

Uniformity drives the precise speed limit—in the fast lane.

Unity is creative. Uniformity is coercive.

Uniformity wears black. Unity wears periwinkle and auburn and forest green and buttercup and fuchsia.

Unity promotes encouragement. Uniformity produces criticism.

Uniformity is one race, one gender, one age, one orientation, and one socioeconomic level. Unity is not.

Unity is a functioning body. Uniformity is all eyes.

Uniformity breeds deception and fear. Unity fosters courage and compassion.

Unity honors conscience. Uniformity erects creeds.

Uniformity works toward a goal, but the trip is riddled with suspicion and as bitter as bug spray. Unity progresses joyfully.

Unity is music. Uniformity is formulas.

Adolph Hitler demanded uniformity. Jesus of Nazareth propels unity.

*

We are too good for intolerance and gossip. Instead, we are borne and nurtured by civility and respect and old-fashioned kindness. “Do you not know,” Paul asked the believers in Rome, who apparently did not, “that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (2:4). God asks the same question of us today.

Those who disagree with us are not The Enemy. It’s all We here. We who believe different things, go to different schools, work at different jobs, eat different foods, wear different clothes, listen to different music, celebrate different holidays, watch different shows, speak different languages and dialects, vote for different candidates, and live in different neighborhoods. Our diversity-fan God shows us our church can be immensely different and still be We.

We are immersed in the sublime paradox of grace, resonant with random meaning, thick with life’s marrow. Succumbing to God’s kindness, We discover ourselves and enjoy the bright journey.

*

Next post: “NAD Leaves the Nest.”

Chris Blake is an associate professor of English and communication at Union College and the author of many books and hundreds of articles.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6916
4 Likes

Thank you, Chris Blake, for your erudite, poetic, and wonderfully sensitive Ode to “We”… our challenges and opportunities to… as we are “immersed” in God’s Grace… “discover ourselves and enjoy the bright journey.”

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My respect and affection for Chris Blake runs deep. Healing the church’s divides is one of his passions, and it is a virtuous one. However, I would point out, many church members and leaders argue convincingly that they have been turned into “theys” by members and leaders who do not want to hear their concerns about the anti-rationalism and bibliolatry pervading leadership and large numbers of the rank and file. In my lifetime, current church leadership has been the most vocal in demonizing pastors and scholars who ask questions or challenge received wisdom about things like how to study the bible or how to think through the challenges science may pose to traditional understandings. When world-wide conferences on the Bible and science for example, are held with only a certain perspective being entertained, how are those whose perspective differs supposed to feel? I well remember one of the early Theological Consultations on the Bible surprising, even stunning, church leaders when they began to understand the complexity and nuances pervading thoughtful biblical study. One leader said to me quietly: “How in the world are we going to relay this information to our people?”

No attempt has ever been made, except in the pages of Journals condemned by the church as "liberal"
and untrustworthy.

11 Likes

This is a superb essay, Chris. Your insights and gracious eloquence truly bless me this summer Sabbath.

I have longed wondered why we hang around the margins fearfully treating God as nothing more than a big “No Trespassing” sign instead of looking to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” the Center from which the life He pronounced good at creation grows as He nourishes it in all its diversity. Unity trusts God who first loved us to make us lovers. Uniformity trusts nothing but a template that has us checking boxes and filling in blanks anxiously waiting accumulation of enough points to be loveable which never happens because try as we might we just don’t have the strength or the wisdom to make the grade.

There are no more welcome and unifying words than "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11:28). Thanks, Chris, for pointing me His direction. I am grateful to have an encouraging brother like you.

8 Likes

Yes, yes and yes.
Thank you for this beautiful and poetic statement.
It makes reality even harsher though. Similar to coming out from a nicely air-conditioned house into the blazing heat.
Now the question arises. If the environment, the official one, is in blatant contradiction to this, to God, I daresay, what do we do?
Is remaining (and thus being affiliated with) an environment we are at best unwilling to accept the right choice?
I don’t know.
Should Dietrich Bonhoeffer have left Germany? Did his life or death change the regime? Did his life or death make any difference for the people within Germany?
Could he have made a bigger difference outside of that toxic and dangerous environment?
I don’t know, we can’t know.
I am torn and weary awaiting the verdict over my hopes for a better church, a more tolerant one, one that works in anticipation of a wonderful new creation where all will be good.
But the evidence I am seeing is bleak.
The Church seems to be heading towards even more polarisation, proselytism, radicalisation, let’s face it, that is the will of the vast majority, the Wilson voters, and the nominating committee refusing sternly to react on the desperate calls for a new era.

How long can one be affiliated with a movement that is heading in precisely the opposite direction than one’s own values and convictions?

13 Likes

Manni who are you? This was exactly what I have been thinking for some time now, only you expressed it so well. Thank you! Wish I could talk to you about it much longer!

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This statement stands alone and is in rebuke to the current thought within Adventism.

Thank-you for an excellent essay, Chris.

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I have not observed Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership, including Ted Wilson, demonize anyone for promoting the following heterodox beliefs:

  1. Subordinationism–the ancient anti-Trinitarian heresy that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father;
  2. Speculative and lawyer-type arguments about Being in the context of the Trinity and men-women relations–that Being is comprised solely of essence and not of essence and function;
  3. The inferiority of women–the view that (a) women have been assigned by their Creator a sphere that is lower than the sphere assigned to men and (b) women are not endowed by their Creator with the ability to differentiate right from wrong away from their husbands’ respective sides;
  4. Patriarchy–the belief that a culture depicted in Scripture in which women are property and in which they do not have a right to enter into a covenant with God, pray directly to God, choose their husbands, or exercise any other meaningful incident of personhood is essentially God’s culture that should serve as a model for Seventh-day Adventists;
  5. A new hermeneutic regarding sanctuary typology–an insistence that types are not necessarily fulfilled at the Cross, which allows for us to infer from the exclusively-male OT priesthood that the post-Cross church pastorate must also be exclusively male;
  6. The theology of “intermediate heads”–the Catholic Church teaching that because Christ has left the scene, He has delegated His authority to ordained men and that such ordained men and only ordained men function in His stead and with His authority;
  7. Skepticism about the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit–the attitude that all of the baptisms and other fruit produced by women in their ordinations, pastorates, and offices are illusory.

The reality is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church during the five years of Elder Wilson’s presidency has suffered an unprecedented and astonishing level of doctrinal fragmentation and division. And I am only focusing in this comment on male headship theory, which denudes and eviscerates probably 24 of the 28 fundamental beliefs. I think it is fair to say that at present as long as you believe in the Sabbath that is sufficient to qualify you as a member in good standing.

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Many thanks Marianne, good to hear that there are other people who think like myself and my wife.
I decided to respond to your question by finishing my profile.

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Thanks for such insight, Chris. As a musician, the statement, “unity is music,” struck a chord…pun intended! :smile:

Speaking of which, a single chord is comprised of three or more distinct and different tones…thus creating harmony. Add to this type of harmonic framework, polyrhythmic parts, or the counterpoint of independent melodic lines forming such harmony, as well as the colors of various instruments producing them, and there is then living and breathing art… filled with texture, tension, release, drama, and communicative power.

Without all of these diverse elements being coordinated by the artist into a unified whole, all we are left with is the monotonous drone of a single note…being played over and over and over. Johnny One Note, if you will. Full of sound and fury…but signifying nothing.

Seems that our institution has been content with an imposed one note approach to many aspects of the life of the body…and continues to be with this pretense of an election. In this case, the fury comes from an enforced strait jacket, with no acknowledgement of anything deviating from an imposed status quo…that is often far from biblical and humane.

I write this on a Saturday evening! :smile:

Thanks…

Frank

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And all God’s (wonderfully diverse) people say, “AMEN!”

8 Likes

An essay of wise insights by the master of metaphor and simile! Thank you Chris (I always want to spell your name Christ!) for describing the vastness of our diversity, and the observation that we can only succeed in unity by accepting and appreciating it. (And thanks for including that little word, “orientation.”)

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Unity trusts God … Uniformity trusts nothing …

Well said, and tucked within your brief commentary, appealingly said. Like Chris, and as deeply, you inspired me, Kent.

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Manni,

Bear up, friend.

Things are looking up.

Church growth is slowing.

If the church were growing at the same rate as the last 20 years of the 20th century, we would have 28 million members, not 18 million or so. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Statistics/Other/MembershipAndPopulationEstimates2002.pdf And the growth rate appears to have progressed in the wrong direction the last five years.

As liabilities for retired ministers continue to outgrow the membership, and as members in 30-church districts in pockets where church growth is concentrated realize the inequities of the present system, the leadership of the church is increasingly under pressure all around the world.

Whether flora or fauna or economies, growth is the Tree of Life.

The oncoming leaders of the church already know that the future is a Seventh-day Adventism fully kitted theologically for the age in which we live.

And they know the church is not so equipped.

And they are impatient.

Oh, and Elder Wilson is right. The future of the Seventh-day Adventist church is in the cities. And after the General Conference full-court press in New York City three years ago, the result was another average year in baptisms compared with the previous five years in the participating conferences.

The numbers don’t lie. Time is not on side of church leaders, because time is not on the side of the church as we know and love it.

Nothing improved in that regard with the re-election of Elder Wilson. And this may be good. The longer the Second Coming is delayed, the more universally undeniable it becomes that the relevance of historical Seventh-day Adventism is fully amortized in the world in which it lives everywhere around the world.

The good news is the Sabbath and the Second Coming offer an unrealized opportunity for re-kitting the theology of the church. And the promised world-wide impact of the First Angel’s message offers a compelling opportunity for re-understanding the Gospel of Jesus.

Re-tour John 12, and be inspired. Our message, yet to be realized, will be universally appealing. And it is right that our theology will be measured by this biblical principle of universal attention, and in keeping with the prophecy of the Three Angels, near universal appeal. Of course it is an angel who carries the message to its conclusion. It is just increasingly obvious that we are not preaching that message. Yet.

Inspiring times are before us, Manni!

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Jim, I don’t see any disagreement between you and Chris. He wrote in a poetic and literary fashion… taking full advantage of the literary devices available to convey both the ideal of a “kinder, gentler church” and the hard facts that we are very diverse and all too often are anything but “kind” to one another. You wrote in a more direct and factual way of the same disjunct between the way “current church leadership” relates to diversity in the church membership.

I think you both point to the only real solution… which is that church members will increasingly have to divest themselves of the notion that they have to have “permission” to really think through the issues for themselves and choose carefully the views they adopt as their own. Fortunately there IS wide access to information on every topic and there ARE scholars, pastors, and other professionals who are leading the way in this process.

(Depending on who is doing the “condemning” as “untrustworthy”… such condemnation may actually be an excellent recommendation.)

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Manfred,
Bonhoeffer’s life had an influence on me - if that would suffice … but then - I am post-war, of course.

One of the most haunting phrases by Bonhoeffer “dem Rad in die Speichen fallen” is coming to mind as I read your post. And the Barmen Declaration - formulated by Barth, Niemöller, Bonhoeffer et. al (actually its content is so much needed within the current Adventist context), and the Pfarrernotbund connected with it. Sometimes a little history can bring amazing insights.

@marianne_faust Manfred Lemke is the “director” of Newbold Academic Press… :wink: Just thought, I’d mention that again. Three months, three books - all relevant for the pain of this GC session: Journeys to Wisdom; Reaching Post-Christian Europeans; Ordination Reconsidered.

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Your name sounds German??

oh…I am impressed and delighted!!

This was not meant to be a disagreement, but a reminder in which Chris is undoubtedly well-versed, that while there is an ideal to which he calls us (“we” and “unity in diversity”), the question begs to be asked: “Who” or “which groups(s)” are resisting such unity?

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That’s right, Marianne
I am half German, half Swiss, but I emigrated to Iceland 26 years ago. Within Adventist context I am a noone, I have no Adventist heritage nor family.