Like families, churches are flawed. Without gestures of love and reconciliation, without conversation toward renewal, they slump toward tedium and discord, or even break into pieces. Thus our own church, like any other, stands always on the razor edge of danger.
If Adventism leaves thoughtful members beaten down and fed up, as it did it in San Antonio, it can also, like the cool and color of fall, spark rejuvenation. This latter is what happened to me last weekend. The planning group for the Adventist-Forum-sponsored Ultraviolet Arts Festival, led by Kansas City physician Brenton Reading, brought 20- and 30-something Adventists, along with their music and art, together in Glendale, California. I was out of my demographic, feeding on beauty and insight from young men and women who could have been, in most cases, my younger children.
I’d never been ten feet from a hip-hop artist, but I was that close last weekend—twice. I’d never heard speeches as fine—on art and “altered consciousness,” on creativity and labor; on the making of art as therapy for the homeless—as I heard on Sunday. I enjoyed a roomful of arresting visual art and considered films by Adventist filmmakers who wanted, all of them, to throw me off balance. Starting Sabbath, before and after sundown, I heard compelling music—pop, classical and folk rock as well as hip-hop—ending with the Coyote Bandits, four young men and one woman who seemed at points to be channeling the Hebrew prophets.
I don’t mean to be naïve. For talent and insight, the participants stood out like the full moon rising; you felt glad and grateful to share their company. But if they were challenging me, I could also, perhaps, have challenged them, or at least made a stab at it: everyone in the room, after all, was limited, imperfect, standing in the need of prayer. Still, young people from outside my normal circle were casting light I might otherwise have missed. Normal vision is blinkered vision; now and then you need people to come along and remove the blinkers.
I was hyped to be with people who were saying things I hadn’t fully grasped. So several times during breaks I told friends (some agreed with me) that if one heresy is the most destructive of all, it is the idea that the church should live by one official script. The whole drift in San Antonio—the whole drift, at that point, of official Adventism—was toward uniformity. Obliviousness to such plain facts as that the Bible itself preserves various perspectives—think of Esther’s failure to mention God, or of the four angles on Jesus’s life that we call the Gospels—was astonishing. And also, of course, troubling: if you put the Bible on a pedestal but don’t pay attention to it, what good is that?
If the idea of one official script is corrupting, so is this: the tendency toward complacency about silos. If in the church administrators talk only to administrators, or millennials only to millenials, or big-congregation people only to other big-congregation people, this can only have a deadening effect. If we stick to our own circles—stay inside our silos—we are doomed to lose our edge, doomed to intellectual lifelessness, doomed, in a word, to stupidity.
We’re getting nearly 100,000 users per month (many more during July, when the General Conference held its session) to the Spectrum website. Many cluster around Adventist academic centers, or around the world church headquarters in Silver Spring. Here at Spectrum these users get independent news and opinion on church life. Commenters from the conservative and not-so-conservative sides chime in with responses to articles. We notice, however, that few commenters come from the ranks of our leading administrators and academics. Perhaps the case of the high-profile Adventist who used to engage in conversation here but was told to stop bears on all of this. In any case, when any sector of our community opts out of the conversation, it hurts us all.
I don’t know for sure, but I bet that the high-profile Adventist I mentioned would still like to offer his own corrections to what our writers have to say, or sometimes, perhaps, even his own Amens. But if, officially, there is just one script, and if, officially, silos are good, then he won’t get to say his piece in our company, and we won’t get to learn from him.
On matters like this we’re doomed if we don’t change. But just now, for myself, I’m rejuvenated. The Ultraviolet Arts Festival amounted to a gentle takedown of both the one-script mythology and the disastrous idea that silos are okay. I hope there’s another one soon.
Charles Scriven is Chair of the Adventist Forum Board, which publishes Spectrum Magazine.
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