“I’ll listen only to stuff from the right people”
Michael Moore: “If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine or the people in that community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?”
Marilyn Manson: “I wouldn't say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that's what no one did.”1
So, in 2002, were you listening to either Michael Moore or Marilyn Manson? Would you have dismissed Manson’s admonition to listen simply because of who said it?
Here’s who I’ve been listening to over the past forty years, perhaps as scary to some as Marilyn Manson is in stage makeup to parents.
Following my work with Present Truth/Verdict I continued to read and study. In 1981 I found Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. I mentally bookmarked it because I believed that Malina had written something important. Years later I would figure out what that was.
Throughout the 1980s, I used scripture much as I had taught and learned in the 1970s. After I discovered Ed Friedman’s masterful Generation to Generation in 1986 my intellectual energies focused on Bowen theory. In seminary (1988-1990) I took time to think about how Bowen theory informed my views in theology and biblical studies (as well as the anxiety and reactivity of both students and scholars when challenged), a process that carried me through most of the 1990s. Bowen theory is predicated on the idea that human relationships systems share similar evolutionary processes with non-human mammals. Keynote presenters at Bowen theory symposia and other trainings invariably share research on relationship processes involving non-human populations, demonstrating common features of populations from different species. So, I read a lot of scientists and deepened my understanding of human families in the process.
Toward the end of the 1990s I re-engaged biblical studies, interestingly informed by reading in hard sciences. And once I dug deeper into the Context Group materials, everything came together.
I would meet Dr. Malina again (so to speak) after reading his book in its 3rd edition, Revised and Expanded, 2001. Malina was one of the founders of the Context Group, a world assemblage of academics and professionals who took seriously the development of what came to be known as social-scientific criticism. This framework originated in the early 1970s as a response to what had then been perceived by some as the inadequacy of historical criticism as it was then practiced to advance understanding the Bible.
Here is one of the Context Group’s founders on why social-scientific criticism is important:
“The Bible refers on every page to social events, social relations, social institutions, and patterns and codes of social behavior. Its writings are social products that are shaped by economic and social conditions, social institutions and processes, and group ideological interests. In their language, content, structure, strategies, and meaning these texts presuppose, encode, and communicate information about the social systems in which they were produced and to which they were a response. These texts, in addition, were designed as vehicles of social interaction. To analyze, understand, and explain these social and cultural aspects of the Bible and its matrix, a method informed by the social sciences is essential to the exegetical enterprise.”2
As a therapist since 1992 (longer, really), I’ve worked with clergy and lay religious from many traditions, conservative and liberal. Back of any presenting problem expressed in terms of religion and faith are features of how self is being managed (or challenged) in the client’s relationship systems, personal and/or professional. Said simply, regardless of the foreground, Bowen theory principles more than adequately explicate the background, the foundation features of human functioning.
So, when I’m coaching clergy who are trying to keep their heads on straight, I start with Bowen theory features and practices. As discussions transmogrify into how one understands scripture, I segue into principles and thinking deeply informed by Context Group scholars and others. And I also fold in materials from the hard sciences, when it seems important to do so. I work with the premise that as colonies of cells make up organisms, and colonies of organisms make up creatures, colonies of people make social systems. This, for me, is the genius of the created order.
Circling back to forty years ago
Sheldon Cooper: “I would have been here sooner but the bus kept stopping for other people to get on it.”
I’m drawing on The Big Bang Theory because it is a ubiquitous social meme in modern America. It lasted twelve years because the writers kept Sheldon’s persistent under-functioning laughable, as it was compensated for by a bevy of over-functioning friends (who sometimes under- and over-functioned with one another!). Everyone was variously other-focused, as (say) whenever someone had a problem it was always someone else’s fault. No one ever had to grow up, nor did they. Alas, the show had to end because immature people who are all in their 40s aren’t all that funny, and it’s a lot of work for writers to keep helping viewers to suspend their disbelief.
Under-functioning (that is, doing less than what life requires of you) is possible precisely because others within the under-functioner’s relationship system will persistently compensate by carrying not only their own load, but automatically make up for what the under-functioner is not doing. The system maintains a kind of equilibrium, even when underfunctioners externalize the costs of their own presence on to the shoulders of over-functioners, who reflexively internalize in themselves the real or imagined deficit of the other, and then make up the difference. The system carries forward, but structurally it is much more reactive to disturbance and challenge than if its members were more mature (that is, better differentiated). The dance is invariably invisible to those who are in it, and it becomes visible only when a member who’s carrying the pain of others is introduced to their own system’s story from ten thousand feet. That’s what good theory does.
In Adventism the Bible’s always been a bit challenging. Biblicism and proof-texting both keep it so while at the same time trying to smooth it out. And the challenges that Brinsmead brought to 1960s- and 1970s-Adventism needed a response. Okay, Walter Rea was off to the side showing how messy Ellen White’s writing history actually was. (Her liberal borrowing from others, and then not owning it, is classical under-functioning.) Anxiety was running high, and anxious leaders will predictably get reactive when they think choices are limited (reactivity narrows vision). Before the 27 Fundamental Beliefs existed, there was the shorthand of simply identifying someone with Brinsmead, and that person’s career was gone. Before Brinsmead, The Brethren did the same with Kellogg, Waggoner and Jones, Canright, you name the challenger, and guilt by association was the predictable ad hominem response. The 27 served an important purpose, arriving as they did in 1980. Seventh-day Adventist leadership could now use the 27 to dismiss someone without actually having to listen (not that a lot of listening happened in the before times). The power of any list rests in part with those who must buy into it. That’s how fundamentalism works.
There’s a YouTube video of 1980s Jon Ankerberg TV programs where Walter Martin and William Johnsson were guests. Five programs were stitched together to make a two-hour video. Throughout, Dr. Martin was tenacious in his focus and even in his temperament. While a biblicist approach to scripture was evident throughout (people use what they have, so I don’t fault anyone), Dr. Johnsson routinely defaulted to the 27 Fundamental Beliefs for answers, when proof-texts were inadequate. And when he cited Ellen White’s appeal to the cross, his representation was more about airy sentiment than actual insight. This is what passed for meaningful discourse back in the day. Dr. Johnsson behaved as if the 27 should be without question acknowledged as authoritative. And it illustrates perfectly what I believe the 27 Fundamental Beliefs were created to do in contested space. The Brethren don’t have to listen to you. You have to listen to them in the (now) 28.
When I think of scripture today, when I study and read, when I engage in dialogue with others on matters of ancient peoples, I keep in mind three things.
First, I accept the discipline of understanding my own world, colored and textured as it is with a culture of individualism, late capitalism, and neoliberalism. But I think of self with Bowen theory principles and practices. I look at how I was raised and educated, and how my parents and their parents were raised and educated. What kind of medical, social, political, or educational challenges occurred, and who responded, and how? This is way beyond what can be learned from DNA test kits. I take time to understand the prejudices and preferences of how past generations inform how I am in the world, and how I’ve grown over the decades (or not). Everyone stands somewhere, and where we stand (socially, politically, economically, religiously, culturally, family of origin, etc.) deeply informs how we read and what we see (or don’t see). Context Group scholars similarly begin with understanding their own worlds, their own world-and-life views before they engage the exegetical task. There is no immaculate perception when reading scripture.
Second, I take time to understand ancient peoples on their own terms. Virtually nothing of our modern, Western world-and-life view was present in the kinship groups of the New Testament. Today’s Western world is deeply individualistic, structured by late capitalism and neoliberalism. Ancient peoples, by contrast, were collectivist, agrarian, dominantly rural, defined by social location/kinship network. There were individuals, of course, but no individualism. Dozens of terms and ideas that moderns readily employ to describe ancient peoples and their thinking would be utterly foreign to ancients. And yet these are the terms of discourse throughout modern Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Terms and ideas found in Scripture are employed today in ways utterly foreign to how they functioned with ancient peoples. Every evangelist on cable TV gets this wrong. All of them.
Third, as I continue to become clearer as to my own prejudices and preferences, and as I discipline myself to understand the foreign worlds of ancient peoples, only then do I take it upon myself to build bridges between the past and the present. Knowledge of self includes religious, social, economic, and political proclivities, but for me it is deeply rooted in understanding my own history of anxiety and reactivity, the factors that Bowen theory addresses in disciplined ways that cultural sensitivity does not.
These are the standards I hold to as a therapist and teacher. And these are the features I look for in thought leaders in every faith community. When I engage Christian thought leaders who are experiencing personal and professional challenges, I begin with how Bowen theory understands self in systems, and then expand the conversation with insights from how theology and biblical studies has evolved over the past forty years of disciplined research into ancient peoples. I find symmetry between Bowen theory’s applications to family and social systems, and social-scientific insights as to how the predicates of modern Evangelicalism obscure rather than clarify the Bible. What I have learned over the past forty years has allowed me to meet people where they are, as a therapist, a teacher, a pastor, a comforter. I’ve also learned how to challenge those who are too comfortable in their own worlds, only when it’s appropriate.
An auto-immune disorder of sorts occurred forty years ago, in which SDA leadership misread challenges from within a wing of its thought leaders. People lost their leadership roles (but not their respective callings), because denominational bureaucrats did not, I think, see self well enough, so as to know whether something was genuinely pathogenic to the host or not. Even Bob Brinsmead was far more Adventist in the 1970s than not. Surprise.
I have to wonder if the SDA community ever really resolved its tension with Mr. Brinsmead. In at least three of the Wikipedia entrees where Bob is referenced (the one with his own name on it, the Edward Heppenstall piece, and one other), the authors get him wrong. And he’s still alive to ask. So, what explains his still being rubbished and/or trivialized? It’s been forty years.
This brings me full circle. My own life is brief, but I live inside a long story. Nothing worth doing can be fully done in one’s own lifetime. I stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before me, and in my remaining years I shall pass on resources that others shall later pass to those who are not as yet born. That means that I can be patient and allow things to play out.
Disciplined thinking and clear thought remain important to me. But the details and theories of faith were not of first concern when in 1967 Dr. Heartwell raced to save a life, or when in 1965 two kind women sat with my mother in her depression and sorrow. Those women led me to believe that my skills and talents would honor God and bless others if they were harnessed to Adventism and the Sanctuary Awakening message.
Time will tell if they were right.
Notes & References:
1. Bowling for Columbine, Dir. Michael Moore. Perf. Michael Moore, Charlton Heston, and Marilyn Manson. Alliance Atlantis, 2002. Film.
2. Elliott, John. (2008). “From Social Description to Social-Scientific Criticism. The History of a Society of Biblical Literature Section 1973–2005.” Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology. 38. 26-36. 10.1177/01461079080380010401.
Douglas Ort is a private-practice Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York State. He earned a Master of Divinity degree at Queen’s Theological College, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, a seminary of the United Church of Canada. In the 1970s he was Research Editor for Robert Brinsmead’s Present Truth/Verdict. His over thirty years of study and practice of Bowen family systems theory, combined with his life-long disciplined study of theology and biblical studies, provides him a unique perspective as a counselor and as a teacher with professional and lay audiences over the past thirty years and more.
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