On 28 October, 2022 NBC news published an article on its website titled Controversy or Confusion? A religious book showing up at homes across Vermont where it reported that thousands of copies of the book, The Great Controversy were mailed to Vermont homes. In response residents of the state took to social media to voice their frustration and share their reactions. Their thoughts on the books ranged from using it to start a barbeque fire to saying it made great toilet paper, but the most common action was that of throwing it away for possible recycling. Clearly, the book sowed more confusion than conviction, which has also been the case in other places such as New York, Philadelphia, Denver, and Nashville.
Nevertheless, those behind it remain relentless because Ellen White[i] said,
“The Lord impressed me to write this book in order that without delay it might be circulated in every part of the world, because the warnings it contains are necessary for preparing a people to stand in the day of the Lord.”
The distribution of this book in Vermont is part of a General Conference-driven initiative to distribute millions of the book globally, an initiative first announced in 2011. However, the recent distribution was an effort by Remnant Publications to reach cities and even whole states across North America. Despite the mixed reactions and criticism that came when the Great Controversy Project 2.0 was announced by Ted Wilson in 2021, the distribution continues. Prior to this, condensed formats of the book were distributed under different titles such as The Great Hope. However, how the book was received in Vermont and other places in North America is an issue that requires reflection before the project moves to other parts of the world.
A World that has Ended
In one of the comments on social media, a Vermont resident struggled to find the relevance of a 600-page book published in the 1880s that talks about how the Vatican is working insidiously in America. Looked at closely, for them the world in which the Great Controversy was written no longer exists, and understandably almost two centuries later the story sounds like conspiracy theory. That the book is framed within the context of 19th century America is clear when the author uses phrases such as, “soon-coming conflict” (GC 592), “movements now in progress” (GC 573), and “In the events now taking place is seen a rapid advance toward the fulfilment of the prediction…” (GC 579). Understandably, the target audience is right to question the relevance of the book because they fail to see what it describes in the present. What they see is a book detached from the present, talking about a world that either ended or no longer exists. No wonder they find it daunting to devote time to read a book that dwells largely on European history with strong anti-Catholic tone about religio-socio-political conditions in America in the 19th century, on persecution of a minority group over the seventh day Sabbath in a world that is increasingly secular, on critique of other religious groups in a world where religious exclusivism in not tolerated, and on predicting how the world would end. It is such questions that should be a call for us to listen more and place ourselves in the shoes of those receiving the book.
Before Going Global
If the rejection of the book is happening in an audience in North America who should closely resonate with it, then nothing better should be expected in other parts of the world where people are more concerned about their own history and present issues than trying to understand European history and conditions in 19th century America. It simply perpetuates the increasingly contentious idea that prophecy is only fulfilled in Europe or America to the detriment of other parts of the world. While there is increasing sensitivity to direct or indirect allusions to American hegemony, the book’s silence about conditions and peoples in other parts of the world presents a challenge in how it will be received in places outside America. What confronts Adventism is the congested religious spaces in the global south where the push for decolonization is strong, the sensitivity around religious exclusivism, and the desire for a religion that speaks to present conditions or doctrines that demonstrate utility in the present. So, a big book such as the Great Controversy undoubtedly becomes a hard sell in such contexts.
What Happened to Stewardship?
Questions have been raised on the cost to the environment of printing all these books, but that does not seem to be a concern. To target distribution from hundreds of millions to billions of books without concern about preserving the environment is insensitive. Of all the people, Adventists, with our focus on stewardship and the Sabbath message should be champions in environmental sustainability and minimizing the cost of our actions to the environment. How can we undertake clean up campaigns while cutting down millions of trees for the sake of our self-assigned target? Such actions suggest to the world that we are so heavenly minded that we don’t care if this home to more than 8 billion people implodes. That many of these books are being found in trash cans should be a cause for concern on the return for the investment. Should our concern be about reaching our target regardless of the cost to get to the target? When confronted with this question in 2016, Dwight Hall, the chief executive officer of Remnant Publications Inc. replied that “Donors are aware the books may get tossed like junk mail... Yet they still shell out money for the books in the hopes that some people will flip through it.”
Dialogue with the Prophet
Clearly, Adventism finds itself in a dilemma. On one hand is an instruction by a prophet that this book, her book, needs to be distributed to all the world. On the other hand, there is a world not interested in that same book. Instead of asking why, we are continuing this pattern because the prophet said so and her counsel is non-negotiable. The problem here is not Ellen White, but how we dialogue with her in a world whose conditions are different from her on and contends with so much complexity. The very same prophet[ii] implored us,
“God wants us all to have common sense, and he wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”
For many in the church who are over the age of 25, the world into which we were born no longer exists which presents the danger of being out of touch, operating under outdated assumptions, developing products that no one consumes, speaking a language that no one understands, and answering questions that no one is asking. Specifically, it's high time we move away from continuing to reduce mission to slogans, logos, mass mailing and distributing of books such as The Great Controversy. It’s time to move away from disingenuous (once off) charity work aimed at luring people to information sessions we call "evangelistic crusades". These practices may have worked in the past, but landscape has now changed. People want to belong before they can be corrected, they now value community over correctness, dialogue rather than one-sided discourse. Dumping books or tracts at their doorstep makes religion more repulsive. At a time when religious exclusivism is repulsive, people are more sensitive to how they are treated. They see how they are treated as projects for church programmes, paraded like fish at a market and enticed with music and food from superficially friendly hands. When Jesus said be wise like serpents in Matt 10:16, He meant the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment. God's Spirit works on men and women, not on methods.
Beyond The Great Controversy
In a world contending with abject poverty, inequality and various social ills, nothing is more insulting that handing over a 600 page book to a person who is hungry. Catholicism and what it will do in the United States are issues nowhere near the minds of many. There are more pressing issues that we need not ignore. But, if we insist that the book should go out, I suggest that the cost of printing could be substantially lower if we explored other printing options in Asia as well as more investment in electronic formats. I would have suggested that we consider investing more resources in equipping lay workers in hard-to-reach areas, urban evangelism, equipping pastors with additional tools and skills to be effective, supporting schools and health centers across the world rather than stirring a controversy or confusion using a book.
Since this initiative started as far back as 2011, there should be a time for an independent evaluation of this effort to assess its relevancy, effectiveness, and value for money. We can’t have another Great Controversy Project without learning from this one, which has gone on for over 10 years old now. Accountability should be required from its champions which will help us as a church to learn a lot. If we don’t, let’s brace ourselves for more “Vermonts” across the world. More importantly, the church needs to move away of being driven by presidential initiatives as if it’s a political party. The current status quo makes it difficult to genuinely question or critique such initiatives from the top. If indeed authority and power reside in the membership of the church, then as members we have the right to be consulted and even suggest what we think should be priorities. Whoever is the president should be bound a commonly agreed vision or strategy and not the other way round. There have been a lot of initiatives championed by the current GC leader which have not been evaluated independently. It is high time all initiatives cascading from the top are subject to more scrutiny by members before and after their lifespan. Without this, we may as well brace ourselves for more “Vermonts” and slogans to keep going.
[i] ELLEN G. WHITE, MANUSCRIPT 24, 1891
[ii] 3 Selected Messages p 317
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
Image by Alex Prz on Unsplash
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