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Ironman 2: How I Became a Progressive Adventist and What We Should Do About It

Imagine my surprise when as the credits were rolling on the latest Ironman sequel, I checked my iPhone and read a comment on our own Spectrum blog that transformed the entire film into an allegory of my experience in the Adventist community.
Mindless entertainment was just what I needed after a long weekend on call and Ironman 2 was playing at the cinema I passed on my way home from work. The movie didn’t disappoint. It was shamelessly entertaining in a juvenile way, revealing its comic book origins.
Unlike the first Ironman film, this sequel did not explore deep concepts such as pacifism and redemptive violence to the same extent. Or, so I thought until my “Aha!” experience reading that blog comment.
Robert Downey Jr. is just as engaging in his role as Tony Stark, an openly narcissistic multi-generational multi-billionaire military industrial complex tycoon who experienced in person the terror that his military equipment induces leading to a change of heart, quite literally.
In response, he developed an “enhanced prosthesis” which rendered him nearly invincible, transformed his family business, and brought peace to the world–through redemptive violence. This sequel picks up the story a few years later when Stark has become an international celebrity and deterrent peacekeeper, ushering in an age of unprecedented world peace. However, given the film’s genre you must know peace is short lived.
In comparison, I am a painfully introverted multi-generational Seventh-day Adventist from Collegedale, Tennessee, and, although currently the only line in my financial statement above six figures is student loans, I relate to Tony Stark.
Several years ago while planting a new church which wilted before it ever took root, I was faced with the reality of what we were about to ask people to join. This led to a change of heart, recognizing that I no longer believed in what I then saw as the frozen structure, hierarchical organization, and unbending beliefs of my church.
On my way out Adventism’s revolving door, I ran into Emergent Christianity and the Spectrum community. In the process, I developed a “progressive theology” which post-modernized my perspective on Adventism. Then, I set out to transform the church of my youth and expand the Kingdom of God through conversation.
Now, a few years later, I am on the board of Adventist Forum seeking to provide a peace filled space for community through conversation. However, given the increasing polarization in Adventism you must know conversation is becoming difficult and peace is tenuous.
Downey Jr.’s arrogant portrayal of Stark in this film is larger than life and it overwhelms the performances of Gwyneth Paltrow as his assistant Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle as his friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Sensing his time may be short and knowing that nothing can touch him, Stark becomes increasingly reckless, placing those he loves in precarious situations and moral dilemmas. Rhodes is torn between friendship with Stark and his commitment to the government and military officials who are demanding that Stark turn over the Ironman suits.
While the analogy breaks down quickly, I was reminded of my own close friends and family who have been conversation partners along my faith journey.
The only direct repercussions from speaking my mind openly on theological issues have been a few heated exchanges. The only potential personal risk is severing my already strained-though-firm attachments to Adventism. However, for my friends who are denominationally employed, our progression together has placed them in a dilemma where they are unable to express their thoughts freely without risking their reputations and careers.
In addition, close friends and family who are more intimately bound to traditional Adventism have found my openness to a poetic reading of Genesis or interest in offering full church membership to homosexuals destructive, appalling, heretical…even demonic.
The only character able to stand up to Downey Jr.’s overwhelming screen presence both literally and figuratively is Mickey Rourke as Whiplash.
The muscle-bound, heavily-tattooed villain is a compelling vision of a disenfranchised, vengeance-seeking maverick with “friends in low places.” Because their fathers worked together, Whiplash has the insider knowledge to replicate and destroy what Stark has built. The film revolves around his attempt to do just that.
Adventism has many opponents, but the most intensely motivated are those who were once a part of our community but found themselves oppressed, abused and shunned in many ways–spiritually, emotionally and physically. The passion with which they oppose Adventism has always amazed me. I assume the underlying fuel for their opposition is indignation over the way they were treated, as well as a drive to prevent anyone else from being harmed in the same way. They are the fallout of an organization which emphasizes traditional believing over Christ-like behaving and disregards communal belonging.
We can learn to do better by listening to their critique. We must fight them, but only by rooting out the underlying cause for their disenfranchisement.
The plot thickens as the conflict between Stark and “Rhodey” intensifies. Their polarization distracts them from focusing on the true common enemy and nearly results in their destruction.
Lt. Col. Rhodes helps to militarize the suit that was supposed to have been a peace keeping shield, and the inevitable elevation in the conflict ensues. Yet, out of the dust of their struggle, they find through interdependence a way to vanquish the ultimate villain.
Our infighting is a deadly distraction. There are millions living in oppression to sin, disease, poverty and addiction. We have Biblical knowledge to offer, God-given resources to help, and a Spirit-filled community to love. But if we continue to follow the trend of increasing polarization exemplified by the heated debates over women’s ordination, homosexuality, and evolution, our community will be diminished, our resources depleted, and our knowledge stifled.
Just as Stark was partially to blame for the internal conflict in the Ironman sequel, Adventist progressives, including me, have lacked commitment to our community, making rash and arrogant statements which stir up angst in our traditional friends. Like Lt. Col. Rhodes, who took what was supposed to have been a shield and transformed it into a sword, traditional Adventists have alienated progressives by arming themselves for battle with proof texts, firing off vindictive missives, and seeking to annihilate those with whom they disagree.
When will we learn that our community is stronger when we hear Jesus’ call to unity, recognize our need for interdependence, affirm our different perspectives on the same good book, and stand together in the already present though not fully realized Kingdom of God?
I hope that time comes soon. I hope we are not too late.
Brenton Reading writes from Cincinnati, Ohio where he is finishing a fellowship in pediatric radiology. He is moving with his wife and their two boys to Kansas City, Missouri in June.

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