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Sideshows – Unofficial Grace in Atlanta

Adventists of a certain stripe are worried just now. Post-Ellen-White Adventism—the 1920’s to 1950s variety—has gotten the ball, and is moving down the field. None of us may know how aggressive Adventism’s new leadership will be, but if language and politicking are any clue, it will be aggressive indeed.

Meanwhile, if you get lucky or look around, you can still soar, still feel your heart rising up and your mind stretching out.

Exhibit A: The High at the High Museum

“…listen to one another, listen to one another…”

Last night when the Andrews University Singers breathed out these words, it was as though the prophetic imagination had found a voice, and suddenly you knew that the language of music was, quite possibly, outpacing the language of piety.

I have, in fact, heard the truth here, and in official sessions, too. Sabbath evening Dennis Meier, a pastor from Hamburg, Germany, invoked the Holy Spirit’s capacity to surprise us. On Tuesday evening Ezra Okioma, a pastor from Nairobi, Kenya, addressed violence as one who has both witnessed and challenged it at close hand. But unchallenging words—a siege of stock phrases and dying metaphors—can also be heard. So the sheer wonder of the high at the High Museum bears mentioning.

With the cooperation of his president, Eric Anderson, a twenty-something (I’m guessing) member of the music faculty at Southwestern Adventist University put together an evening of music involving performers from his own school and also from Andrews and Southern Adventist Universities. The venue was an intimate performance hall at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, a short ride from the Georgia Dome. The concert took place on Thursday night.

Jonathan Wall, the organizer, sang; Rudyard Dennis, his colleague at Southwestern, played the clarinet. Ana Scarone, who earned her first music degree at Universidad Adventista del Plata and is also at Southwestern, accompanied on the piano.

The performances were as lovely and luminous as angel song. And as the music swelled around us, the space’s white-walled simplicity and acoustical brilliance gave off a sense—a very welcome sense—of the transcendent. When Southern Adventist University pianist Peter Cooper played his Schumann and Chopin (and also helped with accompaniment), the spell continued. And it was the same when Andrews students and their conductor, Stephen Zork, surrounded us—the singers were arrayed in the balcony—with sung poetry, poetry steeped in the vision and the story of the Gospel.

It was a marvel of grace and it was a high moment for Adventist education.

Exhibit B: Anarchy and Apocalypse

In the Exhibit Hall you could find a book at a relatively obscure booth behind Union College’s rock climbing wall. On the welcoming table in SPECTRUM‘s booth lies a book entitled Anarchy and Apocalypse. Ronald E. Osborn, a thirty-something Adventist who is finishing his graduate work at the University of Southern California, recently let me in on the wonderful news that his “first book” was off the press.

I bought it here, and I have read it through. The subtitle is “Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy,” and one way of summing up Osborn’s achievement is to say that the book is a startling and unforgettable argument for what I will call Pioneer Adventism.

A man of relentless intellectual curiosity, Osborn offers essays on themes like “War, Fate, Freedom, Remnant,” “Obama’s Nieburhian Moment” (a critique of liberal political philosophy) and “The Trial of God: For Elie Wiesel.”

For Adventists, the most compelling essay is the one from which the book takes its title. Osborn’s “Anarchy and Apocalypse: The Radical Social Ethics of an American Religion,” describes and celebrates the philosophy of piety and power set forth in the writing of Ellen White. She turns out, on his account, to express a “more radical” critique of political power than either Henry David Thoreau or Martin Luther King. In some important respects, he declares, she bears a resemblance to Noam Chomsky, the iconoclastic visionary of today, and if you find that intriguing claim hard to grasp or believe, you need to read the book.

Ellen White’s vision expresses what the author refers to as the “dissenting impulse” of Adventism during its “first seventy years.” Although the impulse is largely lost—hence an essay called “The Death of a Peace Church”—it is clearly, for the author, the ideal and the true substance of Adventism.

So here, in both art and essay, are two examples of what you can find at the margins of the General Conference Session. And what goes on at the margins, it turns out, can inspire or even electrify. At least now and then the sideshows are channels for unofficial grace.


Charles Scriven is the chairman of the board of the Adventist Forum, publisher of SPECTRUM and the president of Kettering College of Medical Arts.

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