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“Beyond Ellen White”

Just what lies beyond Ellen White for Australian Adventism and Avondale College Michael Chamberlain is not entirely sure. He is quite certain, however, that Desmond Ford and the Reformation Gospel Ford has long advocated are the crucial catalysts for taking the church and its college beyond a sociocultural identity that lasted more than 70 years (283) and then fell apart decisively in the years surrounding the annus horribilus of 1980. Chamberlain reminds us briefly, speaking in a dispassionate third person, that besides Ford’s sacking at Glacier View another event that made 1980 horrible for Australian Adventism was the tragic loss of “an Adventist pastor’s” baby daughter Azaria Chamberlain attended by sensational media speculation which reinforced many negative images in the public mind (117).

Chamberlain’s ordeal by media and courts is an intrinsic part of the intellectual struggle that became his Ph.D. dissertation (Newcastle University, 2002) and this book, Beyond Ellen White: Seventh-day Adventism in Transition: A Sociocultural History and Analysis of the Australian Church and its Higher Education System. The physical, social, and intellectual isolation of the Adventist community is a major negative theme in Chamberlain’s analysis, criticized for its reinforcement of “the ‘them and us’ paradigm” and neglect of the Gospel principle of considering the conditions and feelings of one’s neighbor (42). It is not difficult to imagine how these aspects of Adventism’s sectarian ethos contributed to the Australian public’s misunderstandings and hostility that made life such horror for Chamberlain in the 1980s.

Chamberlain’s personal ordeals, however, are not at all what are at issue in this book. Rather, he is tracing a development of the Australian Adventist community, especially as it is centered in Avondale Collage, from sect toward denomination. Or from low-trust, “hegemonial” (sic), group conformity to high-trust, personal values, and personal responsibility. Or from eschatologically centered to soteriologically cen-tered or Christocentric. The latter categories, the theological ones, are really the master categories in his analysis and the ones he understands the best. For Chamberlain, the Reformation Gospel of salvation by faith alone through the once-for-all atonement provided by Christ on the cross is the key correlate and cause of the sociocultural ethos he hopes lies ahead for Adventism once it truly does get beyond Ellen White.

Like his theological master, Desmond Ford, Chamberlain does not really reject the inspiration or authority of Ellen White. He is quite willing, in effect, to bandy Ellen White quotes with the perfectionist “reac-tionaries” who criticize Avondale for its compromises with the world, using her words to show that she never did endorse any one model of education as a divine “blueprint” (43-45). It is the kind of argument that would be made only by one who still grants some degree of authority to the prophet. The Ellen White Chamberlain wants to get beyond, is the one who fastens upon the Adventist community an anxious con-cern to perfect character in time for the Eschaton and to do so by assiduous attention to a complicated and burdensome set of mostly 19th-century behavioral restrictions — what he calls her “sociocultural standards” (84).

Chamberlain divides his 300 pages of text into twenty-six chapters. The first eleven concern mostly a chronological overview of Avondale’s history. The main theme of this brief history is the struggle be-tween “revisionist” forces that promoted more Christ-centered theology and friendlier terms with the sur-rounding culture and “reactionary” authoritarian administrators of the church who sought to protect the church’s boundaries against the world and to nurture a community of character perfection and eschato-logical expectation. After a transition chapter about “revisionism,” Chamberlain takes the main theme through several variations in ten topical chapters devoted to things like dress, manual labor versus sports, music, film and other such media, alcohol, sex, evangelism, and college mission statements. Three sum-mary chapters review and expand upon the transformation in “paradigm” that Chamberlain sees on the horizon, and a final chapter offers his summary conclusions and cautions.

Michael Chamberlain has isolated key tensions and issues in the life of the Adventist subculture and its institutions of higher learning, and he struggles bravely with the challenges they present. One may not be convinced of the tight correlation he assumes between classical Protestant soteriology and all the so-ciocultural trends he endorses. I confess I am not. Nevertheless, he knows where the battles are, and he has bravely engaged them.

Greg Schneider is a professor of religion and social science at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California.

You can learn more about this book at Chamberlain’s website.

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