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Young Adventist’s First Novel Explores Isolation and Academy Life

“I’m probably not allowed to say, write, or think this—considering the damage it does to my chances of salvation—but I’ve always found the Sabbath to be unbearably boring,” states the main character in Chief of Sinners. A novel that explores growing up Seventh-day Adventist, its author, Nolan Ryan, is a 20-year-old history student at the University of Toronto. He tells the story through the experiences of Jannah Grey, a jaded 15-year-old girl. “There, I said it,” she warns. “If that was too blasphemous for you, you should stop reading right now and toss whatever book or device you’re reading into a fire.” 

Ryan wrote his bildungsroman while he was in isolation at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In it, he explores his complex upbringing in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His parents had converted to the denomination early in their lives, before Ryan was born. He was born into Adventism and ingrained into its culture. As a young writer, he contributed to church publications geared toward young audiences, such as Guide. He was in Pathfinders and attended the International Pathfinder Camporee, held at the time in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He was attending an Adventist academy when he wrote the book. And at times, he was disillusioned by it all. 

“All of the things that had affected me from my time in the church, all of the negative aspects of it, social anxiety, church hierarchy…it percolated for months,” Ryan recalled in an interview with Spectrum. He needed a creative outlet. A self-described lover of novels and fiction, Ryan hunted for a piece of Adventist literature with which he could identify. The more he looked, his disappointment grew. “Especially in the modern church, you don’t find any Adventist fiction at all,” he said.  

Ryan harnessed his muse and started penning a story. It was part creativity, part catharsis for him. “It was supposed to be a short story laying out some of my good and bad experiences growing up Adventist.” The short story grew longer, eventually turning from a side project into a book. The “small side project” bloomed into a 283-page young adult novel as he weaved an intricate universe of characters together. 

He titled it Chief of Sinners, a nod to the 1864 hymn lyrics by William McComb, a Lutheran poet. On one of the first pages, he placed a seemingly antithetical quote from page 272 of Ellen G. White’s book, Messages to Young People. “Even that class of books called religious novels—books in which the author attaches to his story a moral lesson—are a curse to the readers. The readers of fiction are indulging an evil that destroys spirituality, eclipsing the beauty of the sacred page. It creates an unhealthy excitement, fevers the imagination, unfits the mind for usefulness, weans the soul from prayer, and disqualifies it for any spiritual exercise.”  This choice, Ryan pointed out, was very intentional. “I tried to encourage people to read her work. But also, she’s not always correct.” It’s a tone that shapes the entire book, where various quotes from White that relate to the plot start each chapter.

Throughout the book, the main characters seem to personify stereotypes within Adventist culture, almost to the point of being caricatures. Set in 1993, Jannah is a student at Bryce Academy, a strict Adventist boarding academy in the fictional “Tin County, Michigan.” She anxiously wants to attend public school, but her parents won’t let her. Her friends, all of which she frequently lashes out at, fit neatly into other stereotypes. Naomi is an optimist, in addition to being a pyromaniac. Joy, one of her few companions at the academy, has demanding parents. Jannah’s roommate annoys her and is the bane of her existence, in addition to several boy pranksters. 

However, Jannah’s character is more nuanced once her background is revealed. Often tight on money, her parents can’t afford to purchase more than one pair of clothes for her. She has to work to pay down a significant portion of her tuition—albeit with a blasé attitude. Systemic racism, according to Ryan, is a quiet yet persistent current throughout the book. Jannah is African American and is usually the only black person in her rural Adventist settings. At Bryce, she’s one of only two African American students in a school with hundreds of students. All the church leaders portrayed in Chief of Sinners—”aristocrats,” as Ryan refers to them—are also white. 

Jannah’s cloudy disposition eventually leads to her demise. She’s constantly self-loathing, always giving herself less credit than she deserves. Not a day goes by without her complaining about the food, her roommate, her friends, or her parents. She collaborates with her classmates to smuggle contraband (usually snacks) into the school, and is handsomely compensated by her peers. Even after she abandons her underground life on the snack black market, her past stalks her until it breaks her. One of her co-conspirators betrays her after their operation is found out, and Bryce demands she withdraw from the institution.

It’s an allegory of sorts. Ryan parallels it to the church. “The church tries to create either an ivory tower or a bubble where the world doesn’t get in, but of course, things will get in,” Ryan explained. “Young people are often bringing in things from the world or outside of the church, and people are often very skeptical of that. You can be punished for that. Sometimes, it’s justified. Oftentimes it’s not.”

Jannah’s character development, in addition to the entire book, was therapeutic for Ryan to create. “It helped me think through all of the thoughts that I had before, the feelings that I had about the Adventist Church,” he said. He also sought to capture his teenage perspective, something he knew would leave him. “I knew that by the time I became an adult, the way that I thought as a teenager would be lost,” Ryan said. “The experiences between a young person in the church and an older person in the church are completely different. 

Ryan targeted the book toward youth and young adults who were born into the church, especially those who find themselves frustrated or limited by the Adventist Church’s beliefs or inner culture. “Young people who grew up in the church see things in a certain way that might seem completely normal to them. But to anyone looking in from the outside, it’s completely strange and outlandish how things are done,” he said. He wanted to portray someone who is wholly disenfranchised by Adventism and is “borderline outside the church.” “They have one foot outside, one foot inside, and in their mind, they’re debating whether or not to leave, even though it’s never explicitly said that [Jannah] wants to leave,” Ryan said. “In her mind, she could never leave. That would be death.”

The book faced an uphill battle once it was finished. Ryan first sent the completed manuscript to Pacific Press Publishing Association, but they rejected his proposal, citing their policy that they don’t publish fictional books. He attempted to distribute the book through Pacific Press without having them publish it, but that was also a no-go. He had little success trying to advertise it in Adventist magazines and online. “It wasn’t published, distributed, or advertised at all. I might try again with advertising, at least with a few more organizations, but for the most part, my experience has been completely negative trying to [publish in] the Adventist Church.” Ryan ended up self-publishing the book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform.

The book’s themes are slightly exaggerated, but the exaggerations are calculated, as though the reader is looking through a distorted magnifying glass at how Adventist institutions relate to complicated cross-cultural situations. “Certain kids that are deemed to be the bad kids, they’re usually stigmatized,” Ryan said, explaining his reasoning behind his portrayal of Jannah and how she was treated in academy. “They’re isolated from other kids, and that only helps to encourage them to act out, especially seeing the way that they’re treated over and over again.” 

Ryan also hopes that his book can demonstrate that young Adventists aren’t alone when they begin to question their surroundings. “I think this could help them to see that not only is there someone out there who has been through similar experiences, but also there are ways through God to overcome those experiences.” 

As for himself, once Ryan graduates from university, he hopes to enter a career as a teacher. He’s still writing for Adventist publications, and he’s already writing another book. His work is available on his website, https://www.chiefofsinners.ca/.  

Jannah’s ending, however, is more abrupt, leaving us to wonder what happens to her. After she is forced to withdraw from academy, she says she’ll attend a public school. She gets baptized right before she leaves, and the last thing she reveals to us is her uncertainty about the future. She notes she has a new relationship to build with God. “The drama never ends,” she muses. “People think that the typical story from within the church is: we have a crisis of faith, we go down into the depths of that crisis, and then miraculously, we recover, and everything’s right for the rest of our life until Jesus comes,” Ryan explained. “Of course, that has absolutely nothing to do with reality, where we usually have a problem, that problem remains with us for the rest of our life, and we’re dealing with it continually. Life goes on and we have problems compounded on problems until we die.” Even though one part of Jannah’s life is over, Ryan said, the story continues.

Samuel Girven is a Special Projects Correspondent for Spectrum. You can reach him via email at samuel@spectrummagazine.org.

Samuel Girven

About the author

Samuel Girven is the Special Projects Correspondent for Spectrum. You can email him at samuel@spectrummagazine.org More from Samuel Girven.
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