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The Blueprint Controversies…Please!

The new, old piety has a blind spot.

Official publications show unmistakably that 1920’s-to-early-60’s piety is shoring up its dominance in Adventist culture. Fueled by stock phraseology—words like “earnest,” phrases like “revival and reformation,” sentences like “How many of you believe that we are living in the very final days of earth’s history…?”—this piety is in certain respects helpful. Revival is good. Reformation is good. A sense of urgency about the times, a wariness concerning the merely popular—both central in Elder Ted Wilson’s preaching—are good.

But 20’s-early-60’s piety never took to the moral vision of Jesus and the prophets, and inheritors of that piety are largely unaware of the radical embodiment of that moral vision in the witness of the church’s pioneers. Even church leaders, it seems, have forgotten the story of the Adventist pioneers.

Anarchy and Apocalypse is one of several available sources for re-learning the story. But no matter how much you already know, if you go on the ride Ron Osborn offers here, it may whiten your knuckles: this is a radical vision set in the context of other radical visions, and it differs sharply from what is now conventional in Adventism.

The book may take you aback, but it will surely convince you that one debate deserving up-front status in our church’s conversation is a debate about our heritage. When influential Adventists, whether of the laity or ordained ministry, take it for granted that their way (though oblivious to major features of our story) is the right way, the least we can urge is a new look at our heritage. And a related question we must also insist upon is whether the best blueprint for the future is the Adventism of the 20’s-to-early-60’s, or the Adventism of the pioneers?

No one can plausibly say they are the same thing. The more we know about the pioneers, the more contemporary Adventism—I mean the currently dominant interpretation of who we are—seems out of sync with its former self. Many of the words and phrases now in vogue come from Ellen White, but they represent only an aspect of her vision. What is more, they leave aside much of the actual substance of scripture.

Osborn’s book is one more reason why we know this to be true. The author, a tirelessly inquisitive doctoral student at the University of Southern California, has collected here a disparate range of essays, mostly quite short and always provocative. They touch on Adventist history, Bonhoeffer’s pacifism and Barack Obama’s (failed, as Osborn thinks) Nobel Prize acceptance speech. They interpret the politics of both Testaments of Scripture, analyze various readings of Homer’s Iliad, explore Elie Wiesel’s reflections on God and human suffering. But their central theme, nevertheless, is clear and arresting: God, politics, and violence.

Although Anarchy and Apocalypse is meant for a wide readership, Osborn’s illustrative use of the Adventist story makes the book particularly compelling for us. Our forebears exemplify, Osborn claims, both deeply admirable and (somewhat later) deeply distressing expressions of the Christian faith

Anyone who has thought Adventism politically bland could be excused for it: not too long ago, the Review and Herald editorialized against (!) participation in the Civil Rights Movement. But in this book you will find the argument that, so far from being bland, pioneer Adventists were more radical in politics than Henry David Thoreau, or than the later and now more familiar Martin Luther King.

The pioneers were “political dissenters.” Their presumed “apoliticism” was in fact a challenge to the powers that be, a challenge comparable, Osborn argues, to the “anarchic” point of view for which Noam Chomsky is famous today. The pioneers lined up with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and urged defiance of the American Fugitive Slave Law. They refused to bear arms and thundered against imperialism during the Spanish-American War. What is more, in upholding Ellen White they upheld a passion, not just for individual freedom, but also for “distributive justice grounded in a theology of the Sabbath Jubilee.” Ellen White declared—her words are sledge-hammer blunt, or seem so today—that God’s laws “‘were designed to promote social equality.’”

Over Mrs. White’s lifetime, the vision of the pioneers was by no means singular and uniform. As Jonathan Butler pointed out in 1974 (while he was a graduate student) early Adventism’s relation to the American republic passed through several phases. But what the phases had in common was their “Anabaptist,” or “Radical Reformation,” coloring: Osborn’s claim that early Adventists saw themselves “in fundamental tension with society and the state” is fully warranted.

But all this changed. In a chapter on “The Death of a Peace Church,” the author notes that from the time Ellen White died in 1915, “the Anabaptist ethos of the early church rapidly eroded.” By the time of the Vietnam War, “a stunning reversal of Adventism’s historical identity” had occurred. Adventism had moved from prophetic witness to the kind of patriotism that feels like collusion. We expect state persecution—someday—but seem quite at home, meanwhile, with run-of-the-mill nationalism.

The prophetic voice is now hardly a whisper. It’s not, of course, that all of Adventist tradition is dead. Today’s call for revival and reformation echoes earlier calls, not least that of former General Conference president Robert Pierson some forty years ago. What is dead, or at least moribund, is Adventism’s pre-1915 tradition. When it comes to authentically prophetic witness, the earlier vision seems, for most Adventists, to be like chalk dust, long since stricken from the blackboard of memory.

But not quite. Roy Branson and his students; the historian Doug Morgan (on whom the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse relies); and now Ron Osborn, a youthful prophetic voice, stand ready to confront Adventism’s seemingly irresistible slide into a perfunctory if somehow reassuring form of piety. For Adventist readers, Osborn’s book is, indeed, a summons to cast off forgetfulness, and to consider whether a “faith” that is at home with the present political order can even be thought of as Adventist at all.

The last and longest chapter of the book begins with an epigraph from Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.” That diagnosis grew out of Heschel’s shame and dismay at the Shoah in Nazi Germany, the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the numerous other blood-soaked testaments to twentieth-century evil. Ever so widely, he was saying, the image of God has been sullied into the mark of a murderer. (Knowledgeable Adventist readers cannot miss how this language connects with that of Ellen White, who of course saw the work of redemption as a restoring of the divine image Satan had succeeded in “debasing.”)

The chapter goes on to address the plausibility of divine justice in the face of human suffering. Mainly through reflection on the writings of Elie Wiesel, Osborn develops the argument that efforts on this point to defend God by rational means ultimately fail. He suggests, indeed, that such efforts are actually “demonic.”

How so? The objections concerning God’s justice are never fully met, and that is bad enough. What is worse, arguments (however flawed) that seem to resolve the questions invite us to be too much at ease with the way things are. As Osborn writes, “If we are able to explain the Shoah, we are able to accept it.”

All this may be why there are no “answers” in Scripture, just cries (within faith) of frustration and anger. What you can accept, after all, you can live with. To the biblical mind true humanity means rejection—utter and unmistakable rejection—of acceptance, of resignation, of passivity. For the image of Maker to be restored in us, any withdrawal into escape or irresponsibility must simply vaporize. To reflect God’s image, Osborn suggests, human beings must defend human life, and protest when the “sanctity” of life is “violated.”

If our likeness to the divine is “well nigh obliterated”—a phrase I import from Ellen White—it is hard to make the case for God: where is the divine image to be found? How is the case to be made? That is why, in a violent world where the mark of Cain obscures the divine image, the “eclipse” of God (as Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called it) is not surprising.

Part of what may be going on is that God (as Martin Buber allows and Osborn notes) is just silent today; in the Hebrew Bible, as Buber writes, “‘the living God is not only a self-revealing but also a self-concealing God.’”

That’s a difficult thought, but eclipses are, in any case, are temporary. And if the divine light can re-emerge, perhaps it will be through the re-emergence of the divine image. Osborn hints at this, and it is worth considering. If the “work of salvation”—another phrase I import from Ellen White—somehow restores God’s image in us, our embrace of that salvation could help repulse the darkness. God must somehow be tangible, and what better way to make God tangible than by way of divine love made visible in us?

Passivity, it seems, is the ultimate betrayal of God. When our witness is no longer “deeply subversive” of the (unloving) dominant powers, it no longer deserves the name of Christian witness. But as soon as you link Ellen White’s words about the restoring of God’s “image” with the struggle of our pioneers to be a true “peace church,” you suddenly realize that the Adventist story provides leverage for a witness that truly matters: it could motivate us into radical (and thus highly visible, potentially persuasive) love.

But you do have to remember the story.

Elder Wilson, in his December sermon to the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) complained about those who think Ellen White’s work “may have some devotional value,” but otherwise impugn it for having a “‘limited 19th-century perspective.’”

As every New Testament author knew—and all of us should know—faithfulness to a living tradition cannot consist in mechanical reproduction of it. The pioneers grew in understanding, so mere going back is betrayal. Still, Elder Wilson has a point: if you reduce Ellen White (or the pioneers in general) to merely “devotional” status, you consign them to the margins, and betray the heritage.

The irony is that with, their failure to acknowledge the full story of early Adventism, champions of 1920’s-to-early-60’s piety are themselves marginalizing the 19th-century Adventist vision. But of course we all bear at least some responsibility for the lost connection with our forebears. If we really wanted revival and reformation, we’d all be trying to fix the problem.

Ron Osborn has, with this book, made a fine, and wonderfully provocative, contribution to that end.

Anarchy and Apocalypse is published by Wipf and Stock/Cascade Books and may be ordered here.

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