In the first church where I served as a pastoral intern, Carmen and I always chuckled when we heard in Sabbath School classes the assertion that before the time of the end Billy Graham would accept the Sabbath and join the Seventh-day Adventist church. I don’t know the origin of this story (I suspect Emilio Knechtle who was, I think, acquainted with Graham) but it was stated as a fact. It was mentioned frequently, and never questioned: people simply nodded as though it were something every Adventist knew.
We Seventh-day Adventists generate an active mythology. Generally these stories come into being in order to bring real world support to our beliefs. Billy Graham’s conversion is a fairly harmless example: if, indeed, a church that has less than 20 million members is to become the catalyst to polarize the entire 7-billion-and-growing world population, it’s tempting to believe we’ll be assisted by a respected Christian figure throwing his weight to our side.
Not all our myths are so benign. A story that haunted me for years was told by a General Conference official who spoke in my home church when I was a child. Someone who knew someone who knew someone the speaker knew had toured a newly-completed Roman Catholic edifice in a major city. While on the tour, he dropped away from the group to look for a rest room and accidentally opened a door behind which he was astonished to find a vast weapons cache and torture chamber. Someone caught him there—a priest who knew he was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, as I remember the story. “But why is all this in your church?” the pastor gasped. “This,” the priest said as he guided the man out of the forbidden area, “will eventually be used on you.” (My wife heard the same story half a continent away, except in that version the man was a Seventh-day Adventist furnace repairman who had to enter a sealed part of a convent.)
This anecdote (which has all the marks of myth, including an untraceable provenance) seemed to say that small as we are, we are threatening to the largest Christian body on earth, which makes us very consequential indeed, and therefore all our claims (and fears) must be true.
In order to bolster our faith, we’ve sometimes been not especially discerning about sources. The same church I mentioned above would gather after Sabbath lunch to listen to cassette tapes of John Todd, who was popular at the time for claiming that Satanic powers had taken over most Christian denominations, that he had been John F. Kennedy’s personal warlock, that the Illuminati (of which he’d been a member) was the driving force behind Satanic world domination, and similar nonsense. (I’ve heard that Todd was even invited to speak to Adventist church groups, though I’ve not been able to confirm it.) “Father” Alberto Rivera is another storyteller who was pressed into service for Adventist eschatology. Rivera has been thoroughly debunked as a fraud, but he’s still cited to prove the unfathomable wickedness and unimaginable power of the Roman Catholic church.
One of the Adventist myths of my lifetime was that Noah’s ark had been found. Ron Wyatt, an Adventist nurse anesthetist, raised up a popular ministry based on his supposed discovery of both Noah’s ark and the ark of the covenant. At one point he claimed to have scraped a bit of Jesus’ dried blood from the ark of the covenant, which he’d been the first to discover in a secret cave under Golgotha. When the DNA was genetically analyzed it showed only half the genetic material of normal human DNA! (Why the Israeli authorities, who monitor every coin and pottery shard dug up anywhere in the country, would have let an amateur dig under a major tourist site has never been satisfactorily explained.)
Besides the question of what motivates people to make up such stories, the larger issue is why so many of us are willing to believe them, and why we’ll neglect central Biblical concerns like godly behavior, peaceful relationships, truthfulness, and eternal salvation in order to follow what can only be classified as “cunningly devised fables.”
Fables, because of course something always interferes with their confirmation. The authorities prevent a return to the mountain in Turkey. The pictures of the ark of the covenant are blurred, probably by Divine power. Of course the Roman Catholics, hard-core liars that they are, deny knowing Alberto Rivera. And would you actually expect them to confirm that they have thumbscrews, machine guns and torture racks in their church basements? They’re way too smart for that.
It is this lack of evidence that some find particularly convincing. In an online article in Adventist Today I challenged Colin Standish’s claim that there were Jesuit infiltrators in the Seventh-day Adventist church, and asked him to name them. Dr. Standish replied, “If I speculated who they are, I would probably be in error. They would be too clever for me to identify them.” The impossibility of proof is, it seems, proof. Of Alberto Rivera I’ve heard, “The Catholic church was behind discrediting him. That’s how we know he was telling the truth.” Though it was known that John Todd had been back and forth between Christianity and occultism, and had around the same time been in prison for sex crimes, the cassette-listeners in my church insisted that Satan was orchestrating a conspiracy against John Todd because he was bringing hidden things to light.
Though these stories are meant to reinforce our beliefs, they’re drawn from the same vat of bilge as UFO abductions, haunted mansions, and therapeutic magnetic bracelets. The latest contribution to the Adventist mythology, that the antediluvian world was peopled with advanced genetic scientists who were able to do with DNA what can’t yet be done today, is not original either: Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods? collected archaeological data (most, as it turned out, spurious) to show that early peoples possessed advanced scientific knowledge; just edit out von Däniken’s conclusion that it came from space aliens.
These tales have little to do with the Bible. They are introduced to bolster certain interpretations of the Bible, and make some details more believable. But in fact they are extra-biblical, with far less to recommend them as worthy of belief than the Bible as it stands. They come with no real evidence, their origins are suspect if known at all, and they are not worth even a smidgen of real faith.
I suspect this is what Paul was writing about when he said, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). The problem is not with the so-called progressive Adventists, those who get accused of lacking faith because they don’t insist on perfect consistency between a word-literal interpretation of inspired sources and the real world; instead our ever-evolving mythology betrays a crisis of faith among a certain set of conservative Seventh-day Adventists who appear willing to mix into the narrative almost anything that will allow them to interpret the Bible and Ellen White on their own terms. While all of us believe that the Bible speaks truth, these latch on to incredible stories in an effort to make it more acceptable to them, revealing thereby their own inability to believe the Bible’s truths unless they’re framed in make-believe.