“No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence”
—Simon and Garfunkel
Art Garfunkel explains “The Sound of Silence,” the blockbuster song he recorded with Paul Simon, like this: It’s “about the inability of people to communicate with each other…, especially emotionally, so that what you see around you is people unable to love each other.”
Doctrinal jousting is Adventism’s signature passion, or one of them. When joined with fear and arrogance, however, it bears ironic fruit: those with the upper hand try to keep the lid on conversation. And then, as the song says further, “Silence like a cancer grows.”
As chair of the Adventist Forum Board, I am pleased with our various ministries: our magazine, an indispensable resource for thoughtful readers, not least scholars and artists; our website, with its 75-95,000 “unique readers” every month; our meetings and conferences, with, at least arguably, conversations as forthright and arresting as anywhere in Adventism. We just finished our annual conference for 2016, and it was wonderful (full report forthcoming).
I am pleased with all these things, but I am far from satisfied.
One trouble is that we cannot (at least so far) defeat the cancer of silence. One person we invited to present at the just-completed conference, a denominational employee, couldn’t accept because he was forbidden (!) to do so. The Adventist Forum welcomes speech from all sides, but we clearly have a reforming—a self-critical or “progressive”—point of view, and some Adventist leaders discourage participation in our kind of conversation. Educators—see my “Are Our Teachers Fit to Teach?” in the current Spectrum magazine—are even hearing that all revisionary consideration of Adventist doctrine is inappropriate in church college classrooms. Employees notice such things, and many have convinced themselves that they should not associate with us publically, not write for our publications, or even contribute comments on our website articles. Despite analytics that show high website activity around Silver Spring, we never (but for the rarest exceptions) hear from any current General Conference employees or from all but a few others around the world who have high profiles in Adventist life. Either people are afraid to comment, or they just don’t want to, and silence like a cancer grows.
William Johnsson is the much-admired former seminary teacher and editor of the Adventist Review who in his early 80s is still writing books and articles and still addressing Adventist audiences around the world. Just a couple or so weeks ago, on the Spectrum website, he poured out an essay called “The One Project: Why I’m Mad.” It crackled with exasperation and was at the same time a cry of a heart aching with sorrow and desire for change. Johnsson has as many influential Adventist friends as anyone alive, and his essay got more than 20,000 page views. It generated nearly 70 comments, including one from his former pastor. But so far as I can tell, only one person known far and wide in Adventist circles chimed in, and that was Reinder Bruinsma, the now-retired missionary, scholar, and administrator from the Netherlands. I recognized no comment from any of Johnsson’s colleagues at the seminary or at church headquarters in Silver Spring.
But if that disappointed me, it was not, unfortunately, surprising.
Several months ago I proposed to some people more conservative than I am that we write and publish several brief responses to this proposition: The Bible is inspired, so if there is polygamy in the Bible, I can be a polygamist; if there is slavery in the Bible, I can own slaves; if there is war in the Bible, I can wage war. The proposition was meant to evoke reflection on how to read the Bible, and although it sounds like something you could address in a debate, I emphasized that I was envisioning a symposium. We wouldn’t argue with each other. We’d just state our responses to the proposition, and readers could chew on what we said. With upcoming General Conference discussion of biblical hermeneutics in mind, I thought we could aim for publication in either Spectrum or Ministry. I wrote to a figure well-known for his work with the church’s Biblical Research Institute. I wrote to the current director of that organization. I wrote, at the latter’s suggestion, to the seminary professor who is now president of the Adventist Theological Society. Two of these persons demurred; another, though I sent repeated e-mails, ignored me. A seminary friend I also contacted thought my proposition was too informal-sounding. The upshot, of course, was that I could practically feel the sound of silence, and I let my idea go, not forever, perhaps, but at least for a while.
Someone may say that this is not about refusal to discuss, it’s about distaste for the point of view I represent; or say that people like me are a tiny band, without much relevance, so I should grow up and stop whining. Well, Spectrum’s ministry has, in fact, made a substantial impact over the years and has attracted a substantial circle of followers. But be that as it may, the point is that thinking any community within Adventism needs to be or deserves to be ignored only proves the point Garfunkel made: the sound of silence shows our inability “to love each other.”
1 Peter 3:15 advises readiness to answer those who ask an “accounting” for what we believe. In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes a community disturbed by intellectual divisions but never suggests that ideas don’t matter or that they should be the basis for ignoring or excluding anyone. Instead, he writes that “love” is the most important virtue of the Christian life. So if we don’t want to talk to each other or if we put up with a culture of fear that disables honest conversation, we are failing at what matters most of all.
For our recent conference, planners tried hard to include influential, conservative presenters as well as ones who could push us to revise our understanding. And as you can see, I have myself made efforts to engage conservative points of view. Spectrum publications extend the ideal of community through conversation to people who need breathing space, and people do find it in our company. But many who are influential in the church do not, or dare not, participate. Is this due to the over-corporatization of Adventism? Is it because some totalitarian impulse has taken hold? Is it just indifference or discouragement? I am no more sure than you, but I wonder. (And I also know, of course, that my whole thesis could be rebutted in moments if a phalanx of currently employed, influential Adventists actually responded, here and now, to what I am saying.)
Since at least as far back as 1980, I have again and again declared, in print and in person, that we Adventists are called to be the Remnant. And even if the sound of silence is the death knell of love, that call remains, I believe, in place. But it is simply idle—perhaps it is wicked—to make casual references to ourselves as “God's remnant church” unless we love one another. We cannot fail at what matters most and go on thinking so well of ourselves.
In our imperfect way, we who embrace the ministry of the Adventist Forum will continue to make space for neglected voices and to engage, as best we can, those who represent majority points of view. I suppose we should be trying even harder to accomplish these things, and I suppose, too, that we should be calling to account, in some cases perhaps even by name, persons who amplify the sound of silence by ignoring or stifling Adventist conversation. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, it is also, perhaps, the cost of fighting for a faithful church.
If we wish to have a church that matters, we should bear that cost together, without forgetting, of course, that love—Christ’s love—is the final measure of all we think and do together.
Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.