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Adventists and the Lure of the Sensational

As does anyone with an email account, I quite often receive forwarded messages urgently warning of a computer virus that could destroy my entire hard drive. Or perhaps instead, the frantic alert (with an all-caps subject line followed by a dozen or more exclamation points) is about a certain combination of phone keys (# + number + number), that can bring disaster if pushed.
My default response, if it’s a warning I haven’t already received, is to check it on—or more recently, also on Usually, those two leading “urban legend” sites will confirm that the warning is a hoax.
On occasion, I’ve emailed the sender who forwarded the message to me, suggesting that they might wish to consult those sites in the future before forwarding similar messages, should they receive any. But I still have contacts in my own email list who thank me for the suggestion, only later to send yet another such forwarded message, this time boldly claiming, “This has been checked by Snopes and found to be genuine.”
Of course, when once again I consult Snopes, I discover that this one too is a hoax—usually one that began circulating many years earlier.
A few days ago, I received a forwarded warning too new to have yet shown up on the Snopes/TruthorFiction radar. This one assured me that the U.S. is intent on enforcing the H1N1 flu vaccination, and that anyone refusing it will be rounded up and hauled off to a concentration camp. Hmmm. If true, this would be a magnitude of order or two beyond my hard drive being trashed.
It took some research, but I wanted to learn what I could to share with the friend who forwarded it on to me. As with most such rumors, this one is built on some underlying facts. But on that foundation, all too often is built a towering edifice of pure fiction or speculation.
On October 8 of this year, the Massachusetts legislature signed off on a bill to state more carefully the powers of public health officials to isolate or quarantine people to contain a major outbreak of a serious contagious disease—a rampant pandemic.
But that Massachusetts action (most states have laws, more than 100 years old, allowing for people who pose a public health danger to be isolated or quarantined), in no way translates to a law mandating vaccines for swine flu.
In fact, says Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Health, “There will absolutely, positively not be any mandatory vaccines for the H1N1 virus in Massachusetts.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many states reviewed and updated quarantine laws to ensure that, among other things, people’s civil rights are not violated. But some—particularly those with a certain political worldview—have clearly misinterpreted those efforts and assigned insidious intent to them.
As I’ve observed the phenomenon of those who habitually seek out, unquestioningly believe, then spread various rumors and unproven and usually baseless conspiracy theories (whether concentration camps for vaccine refuseniks, deadly computer viruses, a U.S.-orchestrated 9/11 attack, a staged 1969 moon landing, or various theories centered on the deaths of JFK or Princess Diana), I’ve been puzzled, amazed, and at times, appalled.
Until sometime in the previous century, many conspiracies were nurtured largely by two societal subcultures: the militantly anti-government political right, and Christian fundamentalists concerned about an end-time emergence of the Antichrist. More recently, these two subcultures have experienced a significant measure of blending.
Typical foci of such conspiracies include the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, Freemasonry, the Rapture theory (for such it is), and various fears of total government control, whether fascist, communist, socialist, totalitarian, or dictatorial.
With the increasing merger of the political and religious, many such conspiracies have become part of the general culture. And perhaps because Seventh-day Adventists have an apocalyptic and millenarian expectation (though a unique view of the latter), this church has a more than passing interest in any theory or rumor, as seen through that eschatological lens.
It’s distressing, of course, to realize that the Adventist Church has not yet fully left behind a susceptibility to time-setting, despite the Great Disappointment. Quite regularly, preachers or speakers—usually self-appointed—develop a large following at the peripheries of the Church by emphasizing an end-time message that is typically not only fear-based but that actually or approximately sets a time for the Advent.
More distressing, however, is the observation that so many church members indiscriminately accept without examination the validity of the latest sensational information to flash its way around the Adventist Grapevine. Whether the latest prophetic dream or vision of an angel announcing the time of the Second Coming; an embellished or selective retelling of something the pope has just said; or some event said finally to be the trigger for the time of trouble, close of probation, seven last plagues, or a national Sunday law, the news flashes quickly church to church, member to member.
In this digital age of email, social networking sites, and texting, the good old Adventist Grapevine moves with astonishing speed.
What is it, I have so often wondered, that makes us no less—and perhaps even more—susceptible than others to the sensational? Why do we seem to thrive on the adrenaline rush of the latest iteration of Adventism’s end-time version of the color-coded national security chart? Yes, the end is nearer by one day at this moment than it was 24 hours ago. And yes, we are Adventists, who believe in the relative imminence of the Second Coming. But that does not mean we should live in a state of perpetual red alert or extended and unrelieved near-panic?
There is something that could be called “alert fatigue.” There is such a thing as a little boy crying wolf too often to be taken seriously anymore.
Perhaps, like some Christians of a more charismatic inclination whom Adventists sometimes charge with a hyper-emotional, sensation-seeking religion, this church is also not immune to the lure of a religion that makes the blood race and the heart pound.
Yet not only does this risk emotion leaving reason and careful examination behind, it also charts a far different path from that forged by the One who lived with perfect, steady calm at His center and found power not in the induced frenzy of the latest electrifying gossip but in nights spent in prayer and quiet meditation.

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