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The Adventists: A New Documentary

With twenty minutes to go until show time, a large, chatty crowd already filled the Loma Linda University Church to see a documentary, The Adventists, by Martin Doblmeier, the filmmaker who also screened his feature films on Deitrich Bonhoeffer and forgiveness at the church within the last three years.

Thanks to a media blitz by local news organizations covering the event, a much larger crowd assembled for this film than came to hear Jan Paulsen speak on environmental stewardship at the same venue a few weeks ago.

As people continued pouring in, I mused over such a large crowd of Adventists gathering to see a movie about Adventists. It’s normal I suppose. We all look for our own faces in photos. That isn’t navel gazing, is it?

After the documentary’s West Coast premiere in Loma Linda, it will air on PBS, as did Doblmeier’s other films.

Coming at a unique moment in history when the United States Congress is on the verge of enacting major health care legislation, the film places the history and tradition of Seventh-day Adventists into the current health care conversation.

The film opens with the 1860’s and the Civil War, a time when medicine was “still in the dark ages.” Through cinematic reenactments, the film depicts medical techniques employed in the 1800s like bleeding patients to remove diseases from the body. In 1863, Ellen White claimed a new vision for health that introduced a body-mind-spirit approach to healing. One-hundred fifty years later, the irony is that Adventists who believe in the near end of the world are now among the healthiest and longest lived people on the globe.

The Adventists dwells on the irony in Adventism’s birth in the Great Disappointment (an event grounded in religious millenarian expectations) juxtaposed with its current emphasis on world class health care. The film traces Adventism’s emphasis on health back to Ellen White’s some two thousand visions, which Adventists believe came directly from God, the film states. One vision in particular, Ellen’s “comprehensive health vision,” marked a shift toward health reform. Ellen White’s favorite foods at the time were meat and white bread, the film states mischievously.

In 1866, the Adventist-owned and run Western Health Reform Center in Battle Creek became a success because so few were dying. John Harvey Kellogg became its director, changing its name to Battle Creek Sanitarium. Among its famous patients, presidents William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding, Amelia Earhardt, Mr. and Mrs. J. C Penny, Henry Ford, and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Kellogg split with church leadership, but put Adventist health care on the map.

Watch clips from the documentary here.

Moving to modern Adventist health care, the film takes us to protests over Leonard Bailey’s Baby Fae baboon heart transplant in 1984. Loma Linda University didn’t know if it wanted that kind of publicity. Like it or not, Adventist health care was the face of the church to the public.

Today, Adventists are making headlines again about longer life expectancy. National Geographic published a widely publicized article that featured long-lived Adventists, which became the basis of Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones book.

Ninety-five year old Ellsworth Wareham remains an active part of a cardiothoracic surgery team at Loma Linda University. “It’s a nice idea that stress causes heart disease, but it most likely comes off your plate,” Wareham tells the camera.

The film explores the paradox of an Adventist campus—Loma Linda University—that at one end teaches the church’s conservative Christian theology, including belief in the imminent end of the world and the second coming of Christ, while at the other end of campus combines cutting edge holistic healing and scientific medical technology.

This is Adventism’s story: conservative Christian denomination that combats cancer with state of the art technology that it developed—the proton accelerator. Pioneers who believed Jesus would come during their lifetimes and pioneering procedures like Florida Hospital’s robotic prostate cancer surgery, which makes surgery safer and less expensive. Today’s remote surgery technologies herald the possibility of performing inter-state—even inter-continental—procedures in the future. Disney turned to Adventists for the creation and design of new health facility in Florida – Celebration Health. More like a spa than a hospital, the facility focuses on healthy living in addition to medical procedures. The notion of community plays a key role in treatments at Celebration Health.

The film provides a broad spectrum of voices on Adventism including George Knight (Andrews University), Roy Branson and Richard Rice (Loma Linda University), Charles Scriven, Rebekah Wang and Frank Perez (Kettering), Cindy Tutusch (Ellen White Estate), Charles White (Great-great Grandson of Ellen White), Leonard Bailey (Loma Linda University Medical Center), Des Cummings, Lars Houmann and Linda Lynch (Florida Hospital) and Deborah Kotz (US News & World Report).

Alan Ginsburg was a patient at Adventist Health Care System’s Florida Hospital, and was concerned, being a Jew, that he not be proselytized at an Adventist facility. Pleasantly, he found his own tradition honored. Ginsburg told the camera that a lot of people have heart attacks when they grow old, and he wants to be in Florida Hospital when he has his.

The Adventists artfully combines a sweeping historical overview of Adventism with the voices of Adventists on mission, doctrine, polity and longevity. Charles Scriven debunks dualistic Platonism, noting that Adventists take the body to be essentially good. Richard Rice adds that human beings are essentially physical—no part of us lives independently of physical bodies. A 91 year old patient is asked during a physical exam whether he is taking any blood pressure medication “No!” he responds wryly, “you have to get older for that.” Another woman in her nineties confesses, “I don’t eat anything that had a mother.”

Doblmeier Answers Questions

When the film ended, Doblmeier took questions from the audience after briefly noting that publicity for the film is largely made possible through individual donors. The film is slated for broadcast on PBS over the next two years, beginning with Southern California affiliate KCET on April 7th. Doblmeier estimates that tens of millions will see the documentary.

During the Q & A, Doblmeier talked about his own experience with Adventists, the possibility of translating the film into other languages, his assessment of one Adventist weakness, and his reasons for making the film.

When asked about the film’s impact on him personally, Doblmeier said, “ I’m not a SDA, but part of my heart will always be Adventist,” which met with applause. Doblmeier lauded the sincerity with which Adventists take Sabbath. Sunday for most Christians is a day to go to church and then do chores, he said, and complimented the sincerity of Adventists who rest mind, body and spirit on Sabbath.

Next he responded to the observation that the documentary was highly complementary toward Adventists. Were there any negative aspects? Doblmeier stated that he is very appreciative of the Adventist community, but also added that Adventists are very self critical/analytical, always asking,

“What does it mean to be us?” He suggested getting back to doing the work (he did not elaborate), and focusing less on self analysis.

When the moderator noted that Doblmeier seems to have a good grasp of Adventist lingo, the filmmaker quipped that when he previously interacted with the Jewish community, he used to talk about the Borstch circuit. “Now I’m on the haystack circuit,” he said to laughter and applause.

Doblmeier said that he has received numerous requests to translate the film into other languages. Spanish will likely come first, he said. There have also been offers to translate to Hindi and Russian. The film took about seven years to complete. It came about in part because Doblmeier’s mother was a patient at Florida Hospital, and reported being cared for with love. Doblmeier brought that experience with him into the making of the film. He later came to LLU and was introduced to unique balance between worship and technology and science.

After demurring on a rambling question about Adventist hospitals that perform abortions, Doblmeier responded to a question about showing the film to Congress where the Health Care Debate is reaching its peak. Noting that Barry Black, the chaplain of the Senate, is an Adventist, Doblmeier said he hopes to arrange a screening on Capitol Hill as well as at the upcoming General Conference session in Atlanta.

One woman affirmed Adventism’s secti-ness saying that the church has struggled from Ellen White until now with not being part of the world. The film, she said, spoke to her heart about why we are standing apart and why we need to. Doblmeier responded flatly that Christ didn’t do that. He made it a part of his daily process to be involved with people where they were – a most important thing to remember, he said to applause.

*This version corrects a quote erroneously attributed to poet Allen Ginsberg rather than Floridian Alan Ginsburg.

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