I interviewed Roy Branson for the Association of Adventist Forums' printed Annual Report, handed out at last weekend's Forum Conference in Orlando, Florida. But the Annual Report did not have enough space to capture all of Roy Branson's thoughts on the history of Spectrum, so the complete interview is published here.
For those who heard Roy talk on Sabbath about his experience as part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Selma march, or have heard other pieces of Roy's colorful history over the years, you'll know that this extended interview is still only a tiny snapshot of a small piece of his very broad life.
Question: What prodded you to start Spectrum magazine in 1969 and how did you feel when the first issue rolled off the press?
Answer: In 1959, my last year at Atlantic Union College, I wrote a paper in Advanced Composition class that proposed the creation of a journal – that proposal became Spectrum 10 years later.
The key points for creating Spectrum were:
A. Adventist academics and professionals were spending more time talking to fellow specialists in their respective disciplines than to other Adventist academics and professionals within Adventism. Greater conversation among Adventists trained in different disciplines seemed useful for the Adventist community, not only to create greater interdisciplinary respect and fellowship, but also to learn from one another.
B. A community benefits from members expressing diverse viewpoints that can be criticized and/or applauded by other members. Over time greater, longer-lasting unity emerges from getting differences into the open where they can be adopted or opposed than if they are bottled up, away from informed scrutiny.
C. For more than 200 years of representative democracy, a free press had proven to be essential for a healthy community to simultaneously encourage new ideas and quickly respond to them. In its earliest days Adventism's founders produced just such a press, full of vigorous debates over fundamental topics, but after Ellen White's death, Adventist publications quickly became promulgators of orthodoxy. It seemed long overdue for the church to benefit from a free press.
D. The immediate occasion for working to implement the idea was the fact that 1) the church was going to replace its long-standing magazine, The Youth's Instructor, and it seemed a propitious time to suggest the church encourage a publication edited by young adults themselves; and 2) there were literally hundreds of articulate Adventist academics from whom the church as a whole was hearing little.
As for how I felt when the first issue appeared, (edited by Molleurus Couperus, the chair of the dermatology department at Loma Linda University and Spectrum's first editor,) I was very proud of its dignified, artistic appearance that paralleled the "look" of "little magazines," publishing scholarship, thoughtful informal essays, poetry, and art. It conveyed seriousness and quality.
Over the years the sheer physicality of producing a small paperback book (roughly the size of each issue of Spectrum) was exciting. Each issue of Spectrum demonstrated that a group of people had worked together to produce something new of significance and relevance to the entire Adventist community.
Question: What was the most controversial thing you ever published during your time as Spectrum editor? Is there anything you regret publishing?
Answer: I confess that I have been unable to think of an article that I wish I hadn't approved for publication. Of course, that is different from insisting that all the articles were equally important.
While the editor always took full responsibility for what appeared in the journal, many people were consulted before a potentially controversial article was printed. For most of my years as editor there was a policy that if the editor thought an article would be controversial, he should formally consult with the Board of Editors. Only once was there a close vote, and I broke the tie by deciding not to publish the article.
I really don't know what the readership considered to be the most controversial article that appeared in Spectrum. I know which were the most controversial issues from the standpoint of General Conference Presidents.
For Neal Wilson, it was an issue of Spectrum informing Adventists of the True and Free Adventists, a group of Adventists not officially recognized by the Soviet Government, alligned with religious and non-religious dissidents going back to the time of Stalin and continuing up to the thaw under Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, world-renowned dissidents, such as Sharansky, acknowledged the importance of this group for risking their lives to print the work of dissidents of all persuasions. Spectrum further pointed out that the church refused to identify this group as Seventh-day Adventists.
Neal Wilson's successor was displeased that Spectrum reported the General Conference's own report to the General Conference Committee, informing that most important committee of the General Conference that the recently elected President of the General Conference and the Vice President of the General Conference for North America had agreed, without receiving an authorizing vote from the GC Committee, to receive funds from unidentified Adventists for the purpose, primarily, of purchasing houses in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
Question: How did Spectrum evolve during the years you served as editor? Did your thinking change over time? Did your method of putting Spectrum together change?
Answer: Spectrum evolved in two important ways. First, what started out looking and feeling like a scholarly or "little magazine," moved to one that read and felt more like magazines that wanted to be excellent, while reaching out to a somewhat wider audience, such as the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker did.
Chuck Scriven, with whom I served for several years as co-editor, had a lot to do with trying to reach a wider audience. That doesn't mean that Spectrum ever ceased being written by Adventist academics; it did try to encourage Adventist writers, not just Adventist academics. Bonnie Dwyer has significantly moved Spectrum further in that direction.
Second, what started as a vehicle for Adventist academics to talk to one another became a journal that published journalistic reports. The reputation of the journal did not rest just on the value of ideas, but the accuracy of facts. That was a carefully considered decision, made with the full knowledge that a major error in reporting (particularly early in the increase of journalistic reports), would be devastating to the credibility of the journal's efforts in general. In fact, what happened was that initially Tom Dybdahl, and then Bonnie Dwyer, who served for years as News Editor, set such high standards for accuracy and fairness that confidence in Spectrum was enhanced by its increased journalistic content.
The journal printed the first report of Annual Council deliberations and debates (not just voted actions) since the earliest days of the Adventist Review (which was full of debates waged on the floor of Annual Councils); Spectrum was looked to for coverage of the Davenport financial debacle; and members sought out Spectrum's accounts of how the General Conference deliberated at Glacier View over the ideas of Desmond Ford. During this time, some regarded Spectrum as the journal of record.
Indeed, in succeeding years, the Adventist Review and Ministry moved toward printing fuller accounts of deliberations of official church committees, not just listing final, voted actions.
Incidentally, from the start of journalistic reports appearing in Spectrum, the journal decided to report on events that the editors felt had lasting, widespread importance for the Adventist community. The journal disappointed many who wished Spectrum would become an ombudsman for individual members who (perhaps rightly) felt that they had been wronged. That might have been a worthy role, but beyond the resources of Spectrum to fulfil as an ongoing mission.
As for whether my own thinking changed over time, I think not in any particular way related to the mission of Spectrum. For example, I have remained completely convinced from the beginning until now that the journal must remain focused on printing pieces by thoughtful Adventists about a dizzyingly diverse range of topics, but pieces written for other Adventists, not other non-SDA experts in their field. That is what their professional journals are for. If Adventists want to speak to the world at large, they should submit their pieces to the best journals to do so. Of course, in the day of the Internet, people can self-publish for everyone to notice. But if Spectrum tries to do everything for Adventists to reach a mass audience about any and all topics, it will end up doing nothing really well.
I did increasingly feel that in its beginning, Spectrum provided a place for highly trained Adventist historians, scientists, and theologians a place to speak more openly about how their disciplines illuminated Adventism. Some of that work was analytical and had the effect of telling the church ways in which it needed to change its thinking. I think that work was and is essential. Perhaps the most dramatic effect was Spectrum's contribution to changing how the church relates to Ellen White.
However, quite early on, I was convinced that it is at least as important – and much more demanding – for Adventist academics and professionals to propose new, creative ways for the church to think and act.
Leadership does not simply "tell the truth"; leadership also shares visions. It is always easier to view the present and the past with alarm than to shape the future with a new song. More important, even, than accurate chroniclers of disasters, are Pied Pipers of the future. Note Lincoln, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who never stopped with a critique or complaint, however accurate. They all had a dream.
Question: What or who influenced your thinking the most during those years?
Answer: If you are asking about people within Adventism, it always continued to be Adventist teachers, professionals and students – the group Spectrum had originally identified as its primary writers and readers.
If you are asking about intellectual figures outside Adventism, I would say theologians who combined deep and wide scholarship with an ability to capture the imagination, like Samuel Terian and Walter Brueggemman.
Question: How did your relationships with people (writers, professors, pastors, church administrators) and with the Adventist church change over the years?
Answer: My relationship with the church as a whole was shaped more than I realized on a day-to-day basis by my editing Spectrum. Early, and for longer than I thought, people identified Spectrum with critique and complaint – particularly if they had not actually read the journal.
I know that I was not invited to serve in some denominational posts because of editing Spectrum. But gradually, people also noticed that I remained involved with my local, Sligo congregation as a Sabbath School teacher, deacon, and elder.
Also, over the years, people caught on to the fact that Spectrum tried to conduct itself as though it was a leader within the church – in the manner that we hoped church leaders would act. As a result, authors came to be judged by what they said, not where they said it. Spectrum established that media not run by church officials could be responsible, helpful, and – some came to believe – essential. That is, a free press came to be acknowledged as valid, providing editors of official church publications more space to venture into new areas.
The result was that the editor of Spectrum came to be respected, even if sometimes feared, and rarely welcomed to address workers' meetings. Several vice presidents of the General Conference called and talked, off-the-record, more than once about ongoing, personal frustrations. Throughout, college presidents, vice presidents and deans provided crucial support to their faculty who wrote for Spectrum. Faculty included their contributions to Spectrum on their resumes.
Spectrum eventually came to be included in the index to Seventh-day Adventist Periodical literature and other denominational reference tools. My friendships with teachers and students deepened and widened.
In short, I always worked to maintain ties with the institutional church, including leaders of the denomination. Leaders, particularly in an avowedly religious institution, and certainly including Spectrum, cannot be reduced to making up hit or hate lists. People and institutions are blessedly varied and complex. Neal Wilson, the only President of the General Conference to denounce Spectrum publicly to an Annual Council Session, was mentored by my father, and mentored me. He was a warm friend before his statement, and after his statement he asked me to report to denominational committees he chaired. He remains a friend to this day.
Question: What qualities do you feel you brought to Spectrum that helped it to last – unlike most publications?
Answer: Others, I think, would be better placed to answer a rather personal question. I did try to identify a need, thought up a vehicle to respond, and knew enough key people who were active Adventists and effective leaders to be able to enjoy working together in a constructive way.
Then as editor I tried to stay focused on the mission of the journal – broad in many ways, but disciplined in not pursuing tones and tasks that veered away from serving a key part of the church: the academics and professionals who had superb training and an enduring affection for the church. Making Spectrum a place where that group could appear without being cut off provided a persistent discipline and focus. And remaining committed to acting as leaders act when they are nurturing communities and institutions they love and respect provided a discipline that ultimately came to be seen as constructive.
And I never seemed to run out of ideas for articles or clusters – we never sat back and waited for material to be sent, but talked to writers about topics they might address or research. Nothing was more satisfying than seeing potential authors' eyes light up when I asked them to write an essay they had not, until that moment, realized they had been dying to write.
Question: Why did you decide to step down as Spectrum editor in 1998?
Answer: It was not because I was bored. Every day I looked forward to going to the Spectrum office. I loved working with Chip Cassano and all the others who passed through the office. I never stopped thinking that Spectrum was a university without walls.
I guess that I knew others were able and willing to serve as editors – and that they would throw their hearts and souls into it. I had never expected to spend so many years implementing one of my ideas.
But I was presented with another exciting opportunity. The move was good for Spectrum and it was good for me.