Here’s a story: A man was born with inherent godliness. Briefly, he had a conflict with his faith and decided to rebel against the ideals he’s known his entire life. When he was at his worst, he turned to the Seventh-day Adventist God and boom — he’s saved. He’s now devoted the rest of his life to retelling this story, trying to lead others to Christ, and frequently quoting Philippians 4:13. Is this at all familiar?
This was the blueprint for most stories I read at my Seventh-day Adventist academy. I was born on Guam to a Pacific Islander mother and a Caucasian father. I went to the same school from Kindergarten to my senior year and was taught primarily by missionary teachers who didn’t know how long they’d stick around, as well as some local teachers who seemingly couldn’t leave. It was a mixed bag of sorts but their main focus, whether it be in math, social studies, science, etc. was to bring their students to Jesus. Assigned readings, that were often repeated, included: The Richest Caveman by Doug Batchelor, Escape from the Black Hole by Ivor Myers, and Gifted Hands by Ben Carson.
Growing up, I was always a bit of a brat. I thought I was smart — never smarter than those around me, but smart enough that I thought I didn’t require instruction to function. I was an avid reader, always trying to escape in someone else’s words rather than actively participate in the world around me, with my preference outside of the Adventist realm. To best understand the person I was is to take a look at the popular young-adult tropes from my youth. Was I a product of my time? Maybe. Was I an abominable cliché? Absolutely. I was so full of unfounded angst. I looked up to the moody heroes and heroines with vocabulary beyond their years in the contemporary literature at that time, as made popular by John Green. I was so unforgivably pretentious that it physically pained me to write this.
Although some may disagree, the problem was not my taste. My school was vehemently against any non-spiritual literature. They had a particular distaste for the Harry Potter and Twilight series and even hosted a bonfire to burn the books. They thought they could see the embers of their students’ faith waning and sought to fight back as hard as they could. One of my teachers even cited an incident where a young child climbed on top of a building and died trying to fly on a broomstick (the validity of which I have still been unable to confirm) as reason for why we, students, shouldn’t read secular literature — for we might end up the same way.
Even at a young age, I found this incredibly insulting. In my eyes, my teachers thought that I was too stupid to understand the concept of fiction and would unwittingly pay the price of death for my lack of understanding. Instead of trying to gauge my level of intelligence, I felt like they thought I was some savage that was incapable of thinking for myself. In order for me to live a halfway decent life, it seemed they thought I needed to be flooded with narratives so densely injected with Christian themes of morality that the spines of their books cracked under the weight.
Unfortunately, these books had just the opposite effect. Instead of making me a man of God, I became jaded and felt as though the authors of the books were talking down to me specifically. In all fairness to these writers, they just didn’t do it for me but have for many others. I’d simply become too familiar with them and I wanted to distance myself. I didn’t care about school. I almost didn’t care about reading and was exhausted by the idea of treating writing that exhilarated me as contraband. I wanted to be a bad kid to spite people I’d never met and shovel off the morals I was buried under but never connected to.
Hope came in the form of an English teacher that arrived in my junior year of high school. It was thanks to her that for the first time, I was able to actually study the art of language and literature. A lot of her work was remedial, given that she had to introduce books and authors I would have otherwise known in a different schooling system. We raced through literature as quickly as possible with the hopes that we might enter into college at the level they’d expect from us. I felt a sense of validation from knowing that in some part I was right. To get a college education in the Adventist system I was expected to learn material I was never given — material that I sought out. The spiritual literature enforcement died down and I was able to stop fighting against the invisible hands I’d imagined around my neck. The impact of studying English was felt so strongly within me that I chose to pursue it at the college level.
Reading revitalized me. Writing became my entire life. Through the pursuit of things that had variety and quality I gained a happiness I thought would perpetually evade me. Engaging with the world and the words it produces made me a better person and I would be lying to say I didn’t wish this could have come sooner. I do see the value in Adventist literature, but feel that it shouldn’t have been the only thing accessible to me. The freedom to hold a book not overtly centered on Christ without concealment is not lost on me to this day.
John Ethan Hoffman is an undergraduate at La Sierra University currently pursuing a BA in English: Creative Writing. He was born and raised on Guam and attended Guam Adventist Academy from Kindergarten through 12th grade. He currently lives in Riverside, California and serves as a Features Editor for the Criterion, a student-run newspaper at La Sierra.
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