Who Are the Real "Cultural Adventists"?

Contrary to a widely held belief, real "cultural Adventists" don't frequent the Spectrum website. Nor do they read the print version of Spectrum. Nor do they read the Adventist Review. Or Our Firm Foundation. Not much, at least. In fact, the group that typically gets labeled as cultural Adventists aren't the real thing. It's a little like when Christopher Columbus called the indigenous people he encountered in North America "Indians." He thought that's what they were. And the name stuck—even though he was almost immediately proved wrong. The same is true for the term cultural Adventists.

I'd suggest that there are three broad groupings currently within the Seventh-day Adventist membership in North America. There are conservatives/traditionalists/fundamentalists. There are liberals/progressives/revisionists. And there are cultural Adventists. In fact, cultural Adventists constitute the majority of the North American membership, I'd suggest. And my guess is that the same would be true for much of the rest of the developed world.

Typically, those who get labeled as conservative or traditionalist or fundamentalist know where they stand theologically. They know the official history of the Adventist Church. They understand the 28 Fundamental Beliefs and how we arrived at them. They can give a reason for the faith they have. Many of them could give an on-the-spot Bible study for each of the 28 Fundamentals. They're probably conversant with the handful of hot-button issues that have been the undoing of nearly every would-be reformer within Adventist ranks since the denomination's inception. 

The conservatives/traditionalists/fundamentalists lament the degree to which we as a people have strayed from our roots. They want to see us return to what they consider a purity of faith they feel we once had but no longer possess. They long for that old-time religion that was good enough for Grandma, Grandpa, Ellen White and the Apostle Paul. They're not happy with where we currently are as a denomination.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who get labeled as liberal or progressive or revisionist—and mislabeled as cultural Adventists. They likewise know where they stand theologically. Many in this group are well-educated, often at Adventist institutions. This group also knows the history of the Adventist Church. In fact, they may know substantially more than just the official version. They may have snooped in some of the historical closets and looked under some of the historical carpets. They may have examined some of the church's dirty laundry to get a clearer picture of how we became what we are. 

They're acutely aware of some of the discrepancies between the more reverential official history and the more rough-and-tumble version—history that never would be projected onto the screen at an Adventist evangelistic series. They're proud of much of our Adventist heritage. But they feel we need to do some more growing. There are new things that need to be embraced, and old things that need to be jettisoned, and mistakes that need to be acknowledged, they contend. They too are not happy with where we currently are as a denomination.

The fact is, both the conservatives/traditionalists/fundamentalists and the liberals/progressives/revisionists are committed, knowledgeable and well-read, though they may have invested much of their time looking at different source material. Both groups know what they believe. They likewise know what they don't believe. They know what they want to see changed. They're informed. Both groups hold their beliefs strongly. Both groups care enough about the church to discuss and argue and do battle to try to help it become all that's it's capable of being. But they definitely have a different vision of what it has been and what it should be/become. 

The liberal/progressive/revisionist group interact/fellowship with some ex-Adventists who retain wistful feelings of what might have been. Or who still cherish just a sliver of hope that there might yet be hope. Among the ex-Adventists is also a group who've given up hope altogether--people who pessimistically suggest that they're hanging around only because they like to watch train wrecks. The liberal/progressive/revisionist group feel that it's therapeutic for the disenchanted to have a forum in which to voice their concerns, complaints and disagreements—to tell their story, so to speak. They also feel it's beneficial, in the long run, for those with more positive, mainstream feelings toward the church to hear what the disaffected have to say. In many (though not all) cases, the disaffected were at one time some of the most supportive, innovative and idealistic members within our ranks. 

Now enter the third group: the cultural Adventists. The real cultural Adventists, I mean. Not the group who've been inappropriately given the label. The real cultural Adventists aren't given to rocking the boat. Not much. Seemingly, they're conformists. For example, they don't question the Investigative Judgment doctrine. They don't seek to recast the role of Ellen White. They don't openly clamor for altered standards. They don't agitate over creation and the age of the earth. They don't anguish over whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the Remnant Church of Bible prophecy, or whether the Bible even teaches that there will be a remnant church. They don't shudder--not too often anyway--over what sometimes goes on in the name of Adventist evangelism.

Cultural Adventists find comfort and fulfillment in their Adventism. At least they encounter relatively little that they consider intolerable. So they're not generally motivated to leave or to speak out. They clap when they agree with what the General Conference president says--and ignore him when he tells them clapping isn't the appropriate method for showing appreciation. (Not appropriate in Sabbath worship services, at least.) They quietly march to the beat of their own middle-of-the-road, status-quo-satisfied drum.

For the most part, cultural Adventists find comfort in Adventism because they either grew up in an Adventist environment or discovered it at some point in life--usually at a time when their personal world was in disarray due to death, divorce, illness, unemployment, a major move (immigration is the classic) or a vast array of other socially and emotionally unsettling situations. It wasn't the doctrines that attracted them primarily. It was the friendship, support and safety they encountered. 

Much as we'd like to think that our system of propositional truth is so compelling that onlookers simply can't resist it, that's normally not the case. It's more often the human touch that counts. Even during evangelistic meetings, with their strong informational emphasis, the kindness of the greeter may have more to do with someone joining our church than all the preaching and biblical exposition. 

Few truly cultural Adventists could give you a Bible study about the 2,300 days of Daniel 8:14. They don't get up in the morning wondering if their name might come up in the Investigative Judgment that day, and if their personal probation might have closed without their even knowing it. Many of them, without the slightest qualms, commit the "sin" of drinking tea and coffee. They use condiments on their food. They're fairly indiscriminate about what kinds of meat they consume--though they like the idea of a vegetarian alternative and look forward to vegetarian potluck meals, which they thoroughly enjoy. 

The entertainment that cultural Adventists choose often wouldn't pass muster when judged against the stringent standards of the Church Manual. But they've never read the Church Manual. In fact, they'd be shocked and appalled if they did. And they've never read all that much from the writings of Ellen White. There too, they'd be shocked at some of her less-than-gentle denunciations of her contemporaries. They know almost nothing about her literary borrowings. And, quite frankly, they're not that interested anyway. "The church" says she's a prophet and a sign that we're the Remnant. That's good enough for them.

This large group of cultural Adventists knows little if anything of the skeletons in our denominational closet. They just know that, for them, Adventism, as they've known and experienced it, has worked. For the most part. At least the pluses outweigh the minuses. The rewards exceed the sacrifices. And, really, for them, the minuses and the sacrifices have been few. They pretty much live the way they want. They simply do it quietly and without fanfare. They're not trying to change anything. In fact, on those rare occasions when they momentarily become aware of controversy in the church, they watch with a certain degree of amazement and wonder as the two other major groups fight over the soul of the Adventism and the direction things should go. For the cultural Adventists, it's comforting just to belong to a church that has "The Truth" and is "God's Remnant Church"—even if they can't explain how it all fits together. Having such confidence more than compensates for the few inconveniences the church imposes.

The true cultural Adventists, though significant in number, simply recede into the shadows. They're the great silent majority. They don't have a pony in this race. They're not placing bets. They're not even part of the shouting. They just fill the pew with varying degrees of regularity. They participate as long as they're not forced out of their comfort zone. They contribute financially to the extent of their enthusiasm for what they see taking place. They rejoice when it sounds like things are going well for the denomination. They don't ask many questions. And they don't make many demands. They're basically satisfied with the status quo. They'll follow the church's leaders. If the church is tilting slightly left, no problem. If there's a correction to the right, no problem.

No, folks, the liberals/progressives/revisionists aren't the real cultural Adventists. Counter-cultural Adventists, maybe. But definitely not cultural Adventists. The liberals/progressives/revisionists are far too dissatisfied with far too much of the Adventist culture to be called cultural Adventists. They're anything but. 

Of course, the stark reality is that nothing will change because I've highlighted the faulty use of a label. Things won't change any more than they changed when it was pointed out that Christopher Columbus's Indians weren't Indians. Which, I guess, brings me to an important point: Labels are usually inaccurate and inadequate. And always hard to shed.





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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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