Many years ago, my wife and a friend decided they’d hold a cooking school. As they were gathering recipes and presenters, one laywoman gave them a bowl of gray glop that she insisted she should demonstrate. It conformed, she said, to Seventh-day Adventist nutritional standards, as she saw them: no fat, no sugar, minimal salt, no spices, no eggs or dairy. “This just disappears at my house,” she said. Carmen’s friend took a taste, and after choking it down, said, tactfully, “I’m pretty sure it will disappear at ours, too.” Which it did later that night, into her garbage disposal.
This wannabe presenter is an illustration of a problem that we Seventh-day Adventists have always had when we set out to do health education: we have a hard time with message control.
Our General Conference president has suggested that every church be a health education center. It’s a great idea. Common sense health is decidedly uncommon. All of us are jerked about by nutrition news stories—stories that I’ve had a hard time believing aren’t planted by the industry whose food gets endorsed by supposedly scientific research. We’ve been recommended megadoses of vitamins, açaí berries, melatonin, red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, herbs of various kinds, and a dozen other things that are supposed to make you live darn near forever.
Everyone is influenced by the health rumor mill. Then add that with us Seventh-day Adventists, health isn’t just about research (however suspect), but faith. And faith cracks the door open for shady notions that have nothing to recommend them but someone’s belief that they’re true. Ellen White contradicted the medical establishment of her day, and we’re tempted by the same impulse. So when we stand up to give health education under the Seventh-day Adventist banner, we’ve been known to talk all kinds of nonsense.
A few years ago a group wanted to do a Spirit of Prophecy-based health seminar at our church. Members said they were interested, so we extended the invitation. The hall was packed. The presentation started out with some Ellen White quotes, but it wasn’t long until it was in questionable diet territory: no oils or fats, substituting honey for sugar, no salt, uncooked food rather cooked food, and of course, everything strictly vegan. From there it moved to a long presentation on herbal “medicines”, which owed more to Jethro Kloss than to Ellen White. In short, it was a mashup of everything the presenters had come across and believed, with the implication that all of it was stamped with the imprimatur of Divine Revelation. The audience seemed to see no discontinuity: it made sense to them that Ellen White would endorse galenicals, though she mentions herbs sparingly, much less than she talks about a balanced lifestyle.
There was probably minimal harm done. Many of these ideas are impractical or unsupportable (honey has the same effect on the body as sugar, we require some oils and fats, humans won’t thrive on only raw foods, the average person finds adequate nutrition difficult with a vegan diet, and nearly all herbs are worthless except as placebos), it won’t matter much because people won’t stick to them. The more extreme the diet, the sooner it ends.
I’ve found most of Ellen White’s health teachings to be moderate and practical, ideas that stand the test of time, such as the elements of the NEW START acronym. (If there is craziness, it will come out at “N”. There’s less dispute about exercise, water, sunshine, temperance, air, rest, and trust in God. But nutrition brings the nuts out—and I don’t mean healthy cashews and pecans.)
But there are Adventist health “educators” who wander into much more dangerous territory.
A friend in North Dakota sent me a video of a presentation done for an Adventist group there. The presenter’s name is Mamon Wilson, and he purports to be a healer of cancer. He calls himself an “herbal surgeon” whose concoctions pull internal cancers out through the skin, where he can remove them using slabs of eggplant and other herbal poultices. He claims to once have removed a woman’s entire breast cleanly by targeting her with herbs. He’s partial to PowerPoint slides of fruit-sized facial cancers, which he implies he could have cured had the patients let him. When his patients die anyway, it’s because they don’t stick closely enough to his directions (such as giving up hair conditioners and permanent waves). He says that necrotizing fasciitis—flesh-eating bacteria—can be cured by dosing the skin with used motor oil, that pokeweed will cure HIV if inserted in the rectum, lemon juice should be dripped in the eyes for cataracts, and hempseed oil for almost everything.
This may sound like the script for an SNL sketch, but Mamon Wilson has been received enthusiastically by some Seventh-day Adventist congregations. Ideas that would seem like the silliest nonsense in any other context become somehow acceptable when we’re asked to take them on faith. (Especially if you add, “The medical establishment doesn’t want you to know this, but…”) The basic rule of health education, as in health care, should be “First, do no harm.” But it is probable that some have passed up life-saving intervention for treatable disease because they listened to Mamon Wilson.
I am not suggesting that Mr. Wilson represents Adventist health beliefs, or that such “treatments” are approved by any church leader or medical professional. I’m just pointing out that Seventh-day Adventist congregations are sponsoring Mamon Wilson and inviting the public. You’re welcome to use whatever quack treatment you like on yourself. Rub slices of melon on your melanomas and slather your body with carcinogenic motor oil, if that’s what turns your crank. But it’s different when you are telling others what to do, and implying that you represent not just our church, but God and Ellen White. I wonder if an organization can sponsor a presenter who makes claims this potentially damaging with legal impunity? If I were Risk Management, I’d want to find out.
So who decides what’s healthy? The General Conference? Loma Linda University? The pastor? Each cooking school teacher? My argument is that without message control, every man and woman will do, as Judges says, what is right in his or her own eyes. That’s a recipe for a pig’s breakfast.
For me, good health education would hew to a few practical principles:
•Teach a whole balanced lifestyle, rather than just nutritional tweaks. (NEW START is a good model, with caution about getting too much S.)
•Help people to improve their health, rather than teaching them an ideal that they can’t sustain. That is, rather than veganism and long-distance running, encourage people to give up Krispy Kremes, cut down meat and cheese in favor of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and do some walking.
•Try to integrate solid contemporary research and traditional good health practices, while…
•… cautioning about questionable food, herb, and supplement fads. We don’t know everything, and we’re willing to learn, but in the meantime, we’d do best to stick to conservative health principles.
•Stop relying on the word “natural.” Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Marijuana is natural. So is dirt. Insulin isn’t, but I have friends who couldn’t live without it.
•Don’t teach others health practices that we don’t follow ourselves. At cooking schools we see dishes that only get fixed for cooking schools. Would a visitor see no-fat, no spice, no sugar, no dairy, or no salt vegan dishes at our potlucks? And if they were there, would any of us eat them?
•We need a wider mission to keep us in balance. There are underserved populations right here in North America who need health education. Perhaps we could go into those communities rather than just teaching the suburban middle class how they can live longer? I’d like to see us address sustainable health for everyone on the planet. There’s solid evidence that raising meat is harmful to ecology and resources. Michelle Obama has encouraged everyone to eat fresh and healthy, not just those prosperous enough to shop at Whole Foods Market. So could we.
Health blended with religion has been a blessing to us, and a danger. A blessing, because it has kept us from harmful practices like tobacco use. A danger, because the notion that health understanding is received by faith rather than research or common sense has led to an inconsistent message. It has also proven divisive and gospel-diluting: it’s no coincidence that diet is a starting point for most of our Seventh-day Adventist extremists, and there’s no Biblical support for the idea that physical health equals spiritual health, or that asceticism in diet is the key to God’s kingdom. Quite the opposite.
Yet people do want to know how to have the best health they can, and if we can do it sensibly, it would be a marvelous thing for us to provide them.
 A quick Google will show that Mr. Wilson has been invited to lecture at a number of Seventh-day Adventist churches, though this particular video is of a presentation done for an Adventist group, not an official congregation.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.