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Two Books, Two Visions and Two Adventist Paradigms

Two arresting books, both by Adventists and both published in 2009, put into bold relief questions associated with so-called “post-modernism.” One book evokes (without exemplifying) the famous post-modern shrug, “Whatever.” The other argues, with great passion, for a very specific Adventist value, the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath. I offer below my summing up of each, and follow with questions I judge to be crucial for Adventists today.

Selmanovic, Samir. It’s Really All about God: Reflections of a Muslim, Atheist, Jewish Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009

Coming as it does from a convert to Adventism, and Ph.D. graduate of Andrews University, this book is simply astonishing.

It is part-memoir, part-theological reflection. As for the author’s life story, we learn that Selmanovic grew up in officially atheist Yugoslavia, where his home, though not seriously religious, was Muslim. Then, while doing obligatory army service, he became friends with someone whose influence helped him become a “follower of Jesus.” This was, to his parents, a cruel surprise, and he was expelled from his own home. He found refuge with Christian (presumably Adventist) families, and eventually found his way to U.S. Here he became an Adventist minister, and here he earned, from Andrews University, a doctorate in religious education. Eventually, he left a secure job in the Adventist pastorate (Crosswalk Church, in Southern California) to establish an interfaith “communities of communities” in New York City.

The theological reflection is no less arresting. The single conviction that drives the book’s argument is that God is present in “every person, every human community, and all creation.” From this it follows, on Selmanovich’s interpretation, that no one has exclusive possession of God’s revelation. No community can claim to have “ultimate” truth, or religious “supremacy.” Thanks to changing human culture, religions are no longer “isolated” from one another. And the distinctive religions (he mainly focuses on the various monotheisms) must now see themselves as “interdependent” and wholly fallible perspectives on the way and will of God.

Although he exhibits affection for (as well as criticism of) his own Christian heritage, he sees no profound difference between Torah, Jesus Christ and Muhammad, or at least says nothing about such differences in the book. Atheists themselves, indeed, belong to the network of interdependence the author envisions. They actually “bless” religion: they are “God’s whistle-blowers.”

It’s All about God is thus a thoroughgoing, almost unmitigated, appreciation of the other, the stranger, and is an equally thoroughgoing call away from “strife” over things religious. “Without knowing and being known by strangers, we cannot grow in knowing either God or ourselves,” he writes.

Tonstad, Sigve K. The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009

In this book Tonstad, a physician and biblical scholar (Ph.D., St. Andrews) at Loma Linda University, argues that the seventh-day Sabbath is a gift from God to all humanity. Early on (but not in the first century) the Christian community rejected the gift, and thus inflicted upon itself a devastating loss. The loss impoverished the Christian experience of God’s care. It also fed atrocious evil — not only, as it turned out, Christian oppression of Jews but also sustained inattention to the earth and the human body and, in addition, disastrous embrace of the Roman Empire and of its imperial ethos.

Tonstad advances his argument through exegetical and historical analysis. Despite conventional disparagements of the Sabbath, in Scripture it was never a burden, never an “arbitrary” test of loyalty. It was sign of divine presence, reliability and love. It was a celebration of the world God made. It was a respite from labor and from obsession with productivity. It was a reminder of the purposes—the “vision of inclusion”—that God and humans share.

God, Tonstad declares, gave the Sabbath as a gift at the beginning — before Israel — and God intends it for everyone. (He makes this point by repeated invocation, not only of Genesis but also of Isaiah 56:6,7.) As for New Testament passages that Christian writers have pressed into service against the Sabbath (e.g. Galatians 4:8-11 and Colossians 2:16, 17), he lays down careful and substantially persuasive arguments that these writers misread what the Bible is saying.

Christian antagonism to the Sabbath came early, and from the start this antagonism reflected anti-Jewish prejudice, or even hatred. The author several times reprises his argument about the damage all this causes to both the body and the earth. And in the course of his elaboration, he shows how Sunday was from the start an instrument of imperial control. Constantine’s legislation applied not just to Christians but also to worshippers of Hercules, Apollo and Mithras. What is more, it made no mention at all of Christ or of the resurrection. In the end, he says, the victory of Sunday over Sabbath hardened the church into hierarchy and the divine image into that of the “ultimate despot.”

Thus Sunday cannot, Tonstad argues, “shoulder the functions of the Sabbath.” The seventh-day Sabbath is where the human story begins, and it is where, under God, the story will end.

From start to finish, his book is a defense of a very particular expression of religious faith. It assumes — no, it makes the case — that failure to see the truth of his argument is an error. Indeed, it is a grievous error.

The contrast here — between the two books — verges on the spectacular. How, if you go with Selmanovich, can you even make the case (as the New Testament does) that Jesus Christ is the human face of God? If, on the other hand, you go with Tonstad’s interest in the church’s distinctive identity, how do you remain respectful of, and open to, the “stranger” who is outside of your own community?

Another way to put all this is to ask: How can openness to the other be helpful, and not just another way to say “Whatever”? And how, too, can a distinctive religious identity evoke passion in a constructive as opposed to damaging way? What, in other words, does “witness” on behalf of a particular story really mean? How it is different from “indifference”? How is it different from “arrogance”?

I myself have grave doubts about extreme versions of postmodernism, and equally grave doubts about the kind of conviction that veers off (though Tonstad’s does not) into religious fundamentalism. These books provide opportunity for riveting conversation on these important matters.

How Shall We Engage the Other?

A Proposal

Charles Scriven is the President of the Kettering College of Medical Arts in Ohio. He is also the President of the Adventist Forum. In addition to his work as an administrator, he is an accomplished theologian and author. The title of his most recent book is The Promise of Peace: Dare to Experience the Advent Hope (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2009). It explores more fully than do either of these volumes Adventism’s Anabaptist history and identity.

It is possible to purchase all three books in a way that benefits the Adventist Forum without increasing their prices by using the Amazon box at this site’s home page.

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