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The Eleventh –ism Begins with the Letter T

Before I describe the eleventh –ism, I need to tell a story.

The year was 1978, perhaps early 1979. I was a senior medical student at Loma Linda University doing a surgery rotation at the main hospital. My exposure to urology was limited, but that day stands out in my memory—the urology day. I can’t remember whether I had been assigned to be where I was or whether I just got permission along with some others to enter the operating room. As I recall, this was the first surgery of its kind at LLUMC. I remember that it was quite a sensation but also that there would be no publicity outside the operating room. This was not the stuff of Baby Fae.

According to my memory, the surgeons on the case included Loma Linda University brand names, past and future. I remember the surgeons, but my picture of them is less clear than my picture of the patient. Concern regarding the identity of the surgeons is therefore a moot point. The patient was a woman undergoing sex-change surgery. The main challenge, clearly, and one that exercised the surgeons visibly and verbally, was how to construct a penis from the limited material available. A piece of muscle had been prepared for that part and was being fashioned into what in the days and years ahead was meant to become a male person with a penis.

Almost forty years have passed, but the image is still vivid. I have thought about it from time to time, but I have never talked or written about it. I do now because this genotypic woman, about to become a phenotypic male, would today be placed within the category of a new –ism that begins with the letter T. She would be the subject of the recent document voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists titled “Statement on Transgenderism.”

In a Spectrum report, Alisa Williams explains that the statement was crafted by the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), has been years in preparation, and was preceded by less complete statements in 2008 and 2014. The statement approaches the subject broadly, but the take-home message is this: “However, the desire to change or live as a person of another gender may result in biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices. Gender dysphoria may, for instance, result in cross-dressing, sex reassignment surgery, and the desire to have a marital relationship with a person of the same biological sex.”

This statement made my mind race back to my training days at LLU and to the urologists in the Seventh-day Adventist community who may have thought it an act of mercy to relieve a person of “gender dysphoria” even at the risk of enabling them to make “biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices.”

No one said anything in public then, in 1978. No one from the Adventist urological community has said anything now, in response to the General Conference statement. If Seventh-day Adventist surgeons and institutions are still in the business of treating “gender dysphoria” surgically, now may be the time to explain how they see the matter.

Ten Other –isms

I call this the eleventh –ism, and I will explain why. In my professional life, I have done double duty in the field of medicine (internal medicine) and biblical studies (New Testament). In the latter discipline, I have completed a PhD in New Testament studies. My dissertation topic was the Book of Revelation, the title of my dissertation, Saving God’s Reputation. I have read widely on the subject, and I am in the process of completing a verse-by-verse commentary on this wonderful book. I have also read many Seventh-day Adventist works, the most ambitious of which is The Revelation of Jesus Christ by Ranko Stefanovic. This book gathers up much of what Adventist scholars have come to teach at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University during the past forty years. I found the ten –isms in this book, in a section explaining the meaning of the seven trumpets.

Thus the fifth trumpet refers to the spiritual condition in the secular world and the consequences of such conditions from the eighteenth century to our time. As Hans LaRondelle explains, “traditional God-centered theology was replaced by a man-centered philosophy, in which man is accountable only to himself.” The oppressive rule of the church was replaced by the atheistic philosophy expressed in various forms, such as deism, relativism, nihilism, nationalism, and communism.[1]

That is five –isms right there. They are all deplorable. Can we find five more? We will if we read on.

The darkening of the sources of light of the fourth trumpet describes the subsequent Age of Enlightenment in Europe from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. This period was characterized by the rise of rationalism, skepticism, humanism, and liberalism, with its final product of secularism and its negative effects on Christianity. The fifth trumpet plague is evidently the result of the spiritual decline and apostasy portrayed in the third and fourth trumpets.[2]

We now have five more –isms, all of them concentrated in the same part of the commentary. The last five of these –isms are also deplorable. In all, the fourth and fifth trumpets in Revelation are said to describe ten –isms that darken the world between the sixteenth century and our time:

1. Deism

2. Relativism

3. Nihilism

4. Nationalism

5. Communism

6. Rationalism

7. Skepticism

8. Humanism

9. Liberalism

10. Secularism

Ten is a sizeable number, a genuine deluge of -isms. I shall soon add an eleventh to the list—but not before noting that a longer list is possible on the basis of this exposition of Revelation:

The smoke from the demonic abyss may be observed [Rev 9:1-11], for instance, in the various movements within Christianity that are promoting religion based largely on emotions, which has taken the place of the religion of mind and conduct. [3]

 

Yet this demonic smoke can equally be observed in the widespread New Age movement and the growing activities of Islam.[4]

If we add these two items to the list—emotionalism and "Mohammedanism"—the list grows to twelve. It is legitimate to ask whether these ten or twelve –isms capture the most important issues or events between the sixteenth century and our time, as the book suggests. It is also fair—and necessary—to ask whether the author of Revelation had these centuries and this representation of history in mind when he wrote about the seven trumpets. Lastly, it is fair to ask whether –isms that are more deserving have been left out. Capitalism, colonialism, and racism are significant issues and movements during the past three centuries. Why were they left out? Fascism and Nazism are darker –isms than liberalism and humanism. Why did they not make the list? And why do they still not appear on any list among expositions claiming to interpret Revelation faithfully in the Seventh-day Adventist community? Is a more stringent quality check due for the way we designate matters of importance and for the way we read biblical texts?

The Eleventh -ism

I see the foregoing as proof that the choice of –isms thought to be important has been factually and intellectually questionable selections of what is historically important. As a more serious deficit, our list of ten or twelve –isms are not self-evident by the tools of biblical exegesis. It is not hard to image that scholars who do not subscribe to our paradigm will raise objections. At the very least, they are likely to demand an accounting for the -isms that are left out. This sets the stage for the eleventh –ism. And I quote:

STATEMENT ON TRANSGENDERISM

 

VOTED (April 4, 2017), To approve the Statement on Transgenderism, which reads as follows:

 

The increasing awareness of the needs and challenges that transgender men and women experience and the rise of transgender issues to social prominence worldwide raise important questions not only for those affected by the transgender phenomenon but also for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While the struggles and challenges of those identifying as transgender people have some elements in common with the struggles of all human beings, we recognize the uniqueness of their situation and the limitation of our knowledge in specific instances. Yet, we believe that Scripture provides principles for guidance and counsel to transgender people and the Church, transcending human conventions and culture.

The first ten –isms owe their selection to a widely read interpretation of Revelation. The eleventh –ism joins them from a separate corner, voted into prominence at the highest level of scholarship and administration in the church. The list now looks like this:

1. Deism

2. Relativism

3. Nihilism

4. Nationalism

5. Communism

6. Rationalism

7. Skepticism

8. Humanism

9. Liberalism

10. Secularism

11. Transgenderism

For the last item on the list, the Committee states, “As long as transgender people are committed to ordering their lives according to the biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage, they can be members of the Seventh-day Adventist church.”

Another –ism that Begins with the Letter T

Perhaps the –isms on the list above have little more in common than the suffix. Many of them are genuine –isms, ideologies or movements that have impacted modern life profoundly. I question their inclusion in a historicist interpretation of Revelation, however, and my concern is rooted in historical perception as much as exegetical precision. If John aspired to identify and warn against significant –isms spanning the last three centuries, perhaps we must do better.

For the last item on the list, is it even an –ism? I am quite sure that the woman who lay exposed in the operating room at the Loma Linda University Medical Center forty years ago did not subscribe to an –ism or see herself as part of one. Her vantage point was human experience and the desire to find relief even at the high cost of subjecting herself to an excruciating surgery. An experience? Yes. An –ism? I doubt it. It has not occurred to me to think of it in such terms until the Statement on Transgenderism appeared. I wonder whether the spiritual sensibilities that define and express such priorities are on the right track. I can see the priest and the Levite doing it as they hurry past the man beaten and moribund between Jerusalem and Jericho back then. I can see priests and Levites passing by operating rooms within which there is a body broken and exposed in order to deposit a theological commentary. I cannot see the Good Samaritan joining them in the effort—or the prophet.

Let me try to add things up and to put them into perspective. At the center of my account is a woman undergoing surgery during my training days. At some distance from her is a young medical student learning about human experience and ways to minister compassionately to hurting human beings. At the periphery, the theological commentary comes into the picture. I am a participant in that enterprise, too.

I will now close by getting more specific and by proposing an –ism that is more deserving of attention in the Remnant Church than Transgenderism. Indeed, I believe it is more urgent as much as Nazism and racism tower above ‘liberalism’ and ‘humanism’ on the Top Ten list of deplorable –isms between the sixteenth century and our time. I earnestly and seriously wonder why it was decided to make a solemn statement on Transgenderism in 2017 but have nothing to say about Trumpism.

Transgenderism—it may not qualify as an –ism, and the numbers are few. We shall be hard pressed to find a transgender person in most of our churches. For the most part, they threaten no one, and the few who exist are likely to stay away. I do not think they will trust us to do right by them—not by a long shot. Trumpism, on the other hand, is a genuine –ism. It has huge numbers on its side; it is going global; it is found in the front row in the church and sometimes in the pulpit. I will not be surprised if many of those who voted the Statement on Transgenderism are closet adherents of Trumpism.

Trumpism won eighty-two percent of the evangelical vote in the latest election in the United States. It took a huge chunk of the Seventh-day Adventist vote, too, though we do not have precise numbers. At a panel discussion in Loma Linda at which I took part, the audience divided roughly two thirds in favor of Trumpism. The ingredients in Transgenderism are not easily named, but one of them is pain. The ingredients in Trumpism are of a different order: narcissism, birtherism, nativism, sexism, egotism, consumerism, exhibitionism, alternative truth-ism, cynicism, and vulture capitalism. That is ten more –isms tightly packed into Trumpism. This –ism threatens the integrity of the Seventh-day Adventist church and the stability of the world more than "Transgenderism."

My list of deplorable –isms does not claim to represent an interpretation of Revelation, but if it were, it would be no worse than the one reviewed above. I commend it as a list of significant issues that might touch the heart of some Good Samaritan traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho, or between Washington and Wall Street, and some prophet getting ready to speak.

1. Capitalism

2. Colonialism

3. Racism

4. Sexism

5. Nazism

6. Fascism

7. Nativism

8. Consumerism

9. Triumphalism

10. Militarism

11. Trumpism

Eleven –isms in all, and the last one begins with the letter T.

 

Sigve Tonstad is Professor of Theology at Loma Linda University's School of Religion.

 

 


[1]Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009), 312.

[2]Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ, 312.

[3]Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ, 313.

[4]Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ, 313.

 

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