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Material Faith| Movies, Bibles, and T-Shirts: When the Material Matters for Expressing and Experiencing Adventist Faith

First, a note from Alexander Carpenter:

This winter quarter at Pacific Union College I taught a directed group study for five students interested in the Christian tradition of the visual arts. I assigned two books to guide our discussions, Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America and Beth Williamson’s Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction.

One of the assignments that I built into the syllabus was a chance for the students to push their thinking and discussion beyond the classroom. The five students have each written a short blog post for the SPECTRUM community sharing some of what they’ve learned as well as their own reflections. I’ll be posting their short essay over the next couple of weeks for a series on Adventist Arts. These are young scholars, a future for Adventism, making an effort to break down the walls that separate the academic and congregational life. Please take the time to give them some thoughtful feedback. – AC

For the first in our series, here’s Nathaniel Gamble, a senior religious studies major.

Movies, Bibles, and T-Shirts, Oh My!: When the Material Matters for Expressing and Experiencing an Adventist Christian Faith.

Seventh-day Adventism has been known as a religion of the book. Until recently, Adventists had claimed some of the highest positions of admiration in the Christian world, together with Fundamentalists and Pentecostals, for being some of the most knowledgeable people of scripture. This reality, while having started in the nineteenth century, was accelerated by the new kind of Bible production of the early twentieth century. “As publishers eliminated supplemental material and engravings [which had been popular in the nineteenth century], Bibles contained only the essential Old and New Testaments….The controversies over biblical interpretation that flourished during the first third of the twentieth century were over the meaning of the sacred text, not the object” (McDannell 101). Up through the 1930s through ‘60s, this remained consistent in Adventism. The children were taught to memorize the Bible, and numerous children grew into teenagers, then adults, who knew enough scripture to defend their general Christian and specific Adventist beliefs against most opposing arguments. Then these adults had children and taught their children to memorize scripture.

This situation changed, however, with the rise of the Jesus Movement. Christians outside Adventism, who had earlier dropped out of the churches of their childhoods, then returned to Christianity, clamored for a faith that was not based on cold dogma but a living connection to Jesus. This naturally influenced the Christian mercantile world that had produced Bibles and church materials that supplemented doctrinal training. “Christian bookstores might have remained a minor aspect of American Protestant life if it had not been for the ‘Jesus movement’ of the early 1970s. Bookstores would have continued to carry Bibles, Sunday school materials, and popular Christian art, but Protestants would have had little reason to purchase anything more….A flurry of less-organized and more expressive evangelism in the late 1960s and 1970s imbued Christian merchandise with new meaning….[T]hese evangelicals claimed that Christianity was not merely a belief system but a ‘life style’” (McDannell 247). The focus was now on Jesus in this new form of Evangelicalism, rather than doctrine. This could not help but influence the young Adventist generations of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who discarded the memory verses of scripture as immaterial for faith for “a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Today, Adventism faces the challenge of finding ways to make its faith material, to bridge the gap between its intellectuality and experientiality. The vast array of Christian bookstores, which are filled with Christian books, movies, CDs, games, apparel, self-help paraphernalia, and the ever popular Bibles are no stranger to the contemporary American Christian; everyone knows them. Thanks to the Jesus People of the Vietnam era who integrated their faith into every part of their lives, North American Christianity has a blueprint for producing a material faith that bridges the gap between the mind and the heart of Christian belief. Perhaps the thought of “Christian merchandise” lacks the appeal of a vibrant faith in Jesus for the present generation of young Christians. However, it must be remembered that the idea of Christian merchandise spoke loud and clear to a real faith in Jesus almost forty years ago. Maybe today we can breathe new life into scripture memorization by investing in Kindles for our members. Maybe today we can incarnate our faith using the material of t-shirts (like they did) which advertise our denominational (Adventist) and Christian (Jesus) loyalties. I am not sure what kind of material faith Adventism needs for itself. But I am persuaded, and many of you crypto-Jesus People Adventists out there probably are as well, that we desperately need it to make Adventism a religion of the book and a religion of the Word.

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