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The Great Controversy at the Center of Controversy

A few days ago, Spectrum reported on a public forum held at the Redlands California Seventh-day Adventist Church in which Ted N. C. Wilson made some general remarks and then fielded questions. I was in attendance at this event.

One of the items noted in the Spectrum report, was mention of the plan to distribute 50 million copies of The Great Controversy worldwide in 2012 and 2013. It occurs to me that there are several features of this endeavor that merit closer scrutiny and that will be the focus of this article. However, before proceeding, it would seem appropriate to provide some context.

Adventists have been bequeathed a highly developed cosmic conflict motif, it overlaying the entire doctrinal structure. Ellen White, who gave voice to this perspective in the Conflict of the Ages Series, achieved its most artful representation in the Desire of Ages, its theme masterfully woven into the fabric of this volume. This theme can be found throughout much of her published work, with arguably its best-distilled summation found in a Sign of the Times article published in 1890.

Without question, the cosmic conflict theme achieved its most prominent treatment in the last of the Conflict of the Ages series, The Great Controversy (GC), charting the progression of conflict between good and evil through the millennia of time that culminates in the end of earth’s history. Although Ellen White considered this latter publication to be the most important of her published books, it has also long been one of the most controversial for its portrayal of the “beast” of Revelation institutionally, a status that tracks to egregious historic events, but from which there is no apparent extrication.

Because this all seems rather arbitrary, a number of scholars and thought-leaders have attempted to preserve the integrity of the cosmic conflict theme by defining the “beast” qualitatively rather than institutionally. The obvious logic and power of this approach comes by affording a more flexible interpretation so as to give this book the capacity for continuing currency in 2011 and beyond. In fact, we can only assume that if Ellen White were writing this volume in 2011, many of its broad features would remain, but that the details would speak to a contemporary audience. For example, we can suspect that Al Qaida and other violent religious extremist organizations would be incorporated into the discussion, because these forces fit qualitatively with very “beastly” characteristics.

I recognize that the fundamentalists within the church would never submit to any GC revisionism, yet it is possible that such traditionalism, alongside more open interpretations can find common ground on several points of concern for this planned distribution program. These concerns would consist of the following:

Public Relations—while small-scale projects can generally remain below radar, it is inconceivable that a large-scale plan, such as the one detailed at this referenced forum, would be able to evade outside scrutiny, including intense examination from the media and varied political and ecclesiastical interests. It has the potential of being a public relations nightmare with no place for Church leaders to hide since this scheme tracks to the very top of the denominational food chain. As Ron Osborn queries on the thread doing the initial reporting, “Why would the GC be the best introduction to Ellen White or to Adventism if not to deliberately provoke controversy and anger in an attempt to force people to act out their parts in the script we have assigned to them?” The fact that in the history of the denomination no officially sanctioned effort of this nature has ever been undertaken should be reason to give pause. Perhaps the Church’s forefathers and foremothers had sensibilities about such matters that can be instructive in 2011. In short, there should be no surprise if a project of this sort results in a harsh international backlash.   

Cost—must rank as an extremely important red flag regardless of one’s identity on the theological spectrum. If the production cost of each book is in the $5-10 range, the anticipated total cost for 50 million print-run can be expected to be somewhere between $250-500 million. This is a great deal of money by any estimation. Given the denominations history of squandering resources without proper accountability, this must loom as a major concern. The question therefore naturally arises as to what the funding source is for this project—what or who is paying for this large outlay of expense?

Cost/Benefit—is a form of management analysis that evaluates costs in relationship to anticipated benefits. The extent to which Church administrators have done their homework on this would arise as a point of concern for anyone interested in good resource management. No data was presented at this referenced forum and therefore remains as an open question. Has this project been piloted, and if so what sorts of data has been acquired that would demonstrate clearly that this project will reap benefits that exceed costs? This is a basic consideration for any administrative interest in sound resource management

Methodology—is always a question in play for strategic planners. Methodology looks beyond the simple question of whether the benefit justifies the cost, to consider whether a proposed program represents the most effective method of all possible methods. What are the other ways in which $250-500 million could be spent? Obviously many Adventists view the GC with respect, and consider it a book high in contemporary relevance, yet members should be asking what it is about the book that will translate into evident relevance to an outside audience—given its somewhat dated syntax. After all, while many Adventists read GC as inspired narrative, most of the reading public who dare wade through the book will not be reading from this perspective and will likely view the book on bigotry and defamatory terms. In short, is this the best way to win friends and influence people?

Until satisfactory answers to all of these questions are achieved, the Adventist membership of all theological persuasions would be best served by keeping their pocketbooks shut while seeking transparency and a full accounting from Church officials before this project gets rolled out.

Any objective analysis should lead to the conclusion that this is a bleak moment in denominational history by common standards of prudent institutional management. Quite possibly this is runaway train that has already left the station—with the potential of devastating long-term consequences for the well being of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. To the extent that these concerns are meritorious, and that the train runs off the rail, it remains to be seen whether there will be a plan B to undo the damage.

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