Revised July 21, 2015
IT'S THE CULTURE, STUPID
– a popular variation on “it’s the economy, stupid,” game-changing motto dreamed up by James Carville, cultural icon and Democratic strategist for the iconic Clinton campaign of 1992. If it sounds peremptory and patronizing, it’s supposed to: it's the culture. If the following sounds like satire, it is. That's our new culture, isn't it?
As we strolled the Air Force Museum in Dayton our small talk had somehow shifted from comparing the agility of WWII fighter planes, like the P40 vs. the Japanese Zero, to an unexpectedly heated systematic review and debunking of all our Adventist doctrines. After an hour or so of this, we sank in unison, a pair of played out 60-year old men, onto a bench under the shade of the drab-colored huge high wing of a WWII Liberator bomber. “You’ve shot down our every last doctrine, why are you still even an Adventist?” I asked, completely fagged out. Unhesitatingly, though sounding more weary than I, Gordon, my bench-mate, had a ready reply. “Because of the culture.” Born, cradled, and educated an Adventist from sandbox through a doctorate, I didn’t even know we had one. Doctrines aplenty, but culture?
Culture, by the definition I grew up with the better part of a century ago, the one held by Adventists and everybody else back then, the first definition I still think of, meant opera and tuxedos and tiaras, harnesses of pearl necklace, facades and affectations, affected nobleness and taste. All of which was suspect by all earnest Christians, even cultured ones, for example CS Lewis. and downright abjured by Adventists. Gordon must have meant something else.
He did. I hadn’t thought of it, there under the Liberator wing, but by another definition, now prevailing everywhere, Adventist included, Adventists have always indeed had a culture, now a burgeoning, one. “Culture is the totality of traits and behavior patterns -- not just the artificially noble or refined ones -- characteristic of a particular period, class, community, or population.” Or as an anthropologist friend, good friend, of mine puts it: "culture is a matrix which is instrumental in shaping us individually and collectively; a set of symbols (symbolate) defines culture. The symbolate may be analogous to a genome." As Carville would say, "culture, stupid." I think he's saying that culture has been given an extreme makeover so as to be as accommodating as the big tent and the big-banged universe and every nebulae that in it is. In expanding like the big bang, culture is now Independent and disdainful of nobleness and beauty and is openly inclined towards the most decadent. Of the old definition, not much is left, only the affectation and the yearning to be loved and awarded. If once culture was actively cultivated and rare, culture now is passive and inborn in everybody. Thus the Green Berets and Greenpeace have their culture, likewise Adventists. And anthropologists.
By that definition Adventism could be seen as a culture of nots and nos -- not dancing, no jazz, no fiction, no fun; no movies, meat, coffee, alcohol, snuff, smoking, female adornment. No fun. And of eccentricity of what we did do – peanut butter, gluten and meat substitutes, Saturday Sabbath instead of Sunday, diamond watches instead of diamond earrings, chaperons until married.
That’s what sustains Gordon when all else, even God, fails?
I wouldn’t have guessed it from all the sarcastic jokes I’d heard Gordon tell at class reunions, about youth chafing under dormitory curfews and deprived of jazz, movies, and Saturday night prowls -- very like black humor and the vintage masochistic delight in public school caning taken by a former generation of British literati, or night-club shticks or small talk chatter about constipation and getting up all night to micturate.
If dorm life was weird, the rest of our culture was, Gordon informed me, embarrassing, as embarrassing as our theology. Our trademark foreign missions were actually fronts for imperialism, colonialism, and patriarchal condescension, and embarrassingly elitist impositions of our own Eurocentric culture. Our trademark gluten steaks and Postum, the essence of whole grain, once promoted as the essence of our health message, are sickening the global gluten-sensitive community.
As culture, Adventism sounds to me as drained of goodies as a whacked piñata. Hardly the golden cord that binds. As the bride sighed the next morning, or did in olden times, is that all there is? Me, if that’s all there is to Adventism, I’d be outa here. Gordon, you look a little gaunt.
Such a peaked culture would seem to cry out for an extreme makeover. Which it has got, in spades. In the 20 years since Gordon’s Liberator declaration, Gordon and I have descended into Octogenariancy, and I have witnessed our cultural face being lifted as high as our doctrines taken under.
If we once winced at jazz, we now jerk and twitch to first-service (“1st Serv”) gospel rock. We once marched children to the front of the congregation to recite Bible memory verses; now, their lines in skits. Our young girls came to church dressed; now they pose in the foyer for selfies in Lady Gaga body sheaths and briefs. Sermons were once built upon homilies and punctuated by amens, now jokes and movie snippets and applause and guffaws. Once we cherished the prophetic image from Daniel 2 possessing only a gold head; now the totally gold Oscar. Money spent for mass distribution of evangelical literature is better spent on costumes and props, or the poor, and anyway evangelism is our crowning embarrassment. If once being a pastor or bible student were the highest callings, now being a scholar, producer, stand-up comedian, and filmmaker are. Once our ministers ministered and served, but now our senior pastors are doctorates and thought leaders, and their thoughts come more from the Fuller Seminary than the SDA Theological Seminary, and from the Tazzla Institute of Cultural Diversity, and Willow Creek Megachurch Association and Leadership Seminars, with whiffs or Buddha and Plato. If we once shied from theaters, we now hold film festivals, in church, and feature church drama instead of sermons, and give our own Oscars.
We are chagrined, Gordon is anyway, that we once simple-mindedly received prophecy, and closed-mindedly and literally bought Genesis 1, and mindlessly proscribed hermeneutics, settling for simple-minded "Bible study." If we once went only to the scripture and God and prayer for guidance, we now bookmark moveOn.org and hold protests and seminars and opinion polls and engage consultants and coaches, and give awards. If once we tearfully repented of sin, now we cheerfully deny there is such a thing. If once we denounced homosexuality as sin in need of healing, we now damn those who denounce it, notably St. Paul, as hate criminals, or at least culturally challenged. If once we were “born again,” now we are born “that way.” If once our priority and obsession was Christ’s soon coming, now it is women’s ordination, and social justice. If once doctrine-besot and dreary, we are now even more doctrinaire and airy. If once our solid foundation was the scriptures and communing with God, now it is, for many of us, "spiritual foundations" and repeating incantations, to achieve blankness of brain, nirvana, incapable of communicating with anybody except maybe Satan.
If once we were message-centered and faith-based, we are now culture-centric and rock-solid in disbelief. If we had a peculiar message for the world, redemption, now we are panting for the message the world has for us, salvation through culture. If our message was once prophecy, now it’s politics. If once we promoted eternal life, now we brag about living ten years longer than other cultures. Now we're more hellbent on getting into the 21st century, gay marriages and global warming and that sort of self-validating new eternal verity, than eternity. If once we yearned to save the world, now we are, like the world, obsessed with saving the planet. Formerly, the gospel was our cause, now it’s the Daily Kos (dailykos.Org).
If once we unquestioningly obeyed the ten commandments, and were accused of legalism, now we give witless obeisance to arbitrary political correctitude. If once like Pharisees we got entangled in the Ten Thousand Commandments, now we spin in dizzy circles around our ethics. If once our catechistic check list included things we knew God didn't want us to do, those very things are now de rigueur. Likewise our check list of foundational "peculiar" Biblical doctrines have been extirpated and replaced by the newest ex cathedra list copy-pasted from talkingpointsmemo.com/. At bottom we remain as subservient and conformist, as legalistic, as ever; on balance worse, I think.
Red-faced at the idea that Mrs. E.G. White was inspired and a prophetess, we dismissed her as a Victorian relic, and our academics pretended she didn’t exist, but now our scholarly research reveals that she’s an underrated historic and cultural figure, a protofeminist icon who stamped out orthodoxy, and celebrates her in documentaries and doctoral theses and art bronze.
If once we were seen as a cult, now we see ourselves as a culture.
The P40s and the Liberator have stayed fixed in concrete in the museum for the last 20 years since they silently loomed over Greg and me, and will forever, but our culture has revved up and, loaded with smart bombs, roared into the wild blue thin-aired yonder.
An altogether new species, today’s Adventist, spotted, striped or piebald, born again of hermeneutics and humanism, once skulked in the tall grass, but now is stomping the ground and snorting, cavorting and bellowing mating calls and trumpeting that he and she are king of the pews.
This evolution has been, looking back at it, smooth (Darwin should be so lucky), except for one thing – what to call the new creature. Time was when the only adjective Adventists needed was “Seventh-day,” but with the emergent species a new taxonomic designation is required. “Progressive,” “liberal,” “enlightened,” “scholarly,” “open minded,” “liberated,” “postmodernist” or just simply “postAdventist,” “Adventoid,” (my term), have been tried on for size but seemed, well, too constrictive. Concocting the right adjective has taken longer than disassembling our theology.
But just last week it all came together. While visiting one of those chaperoned discussion Sabbath Schools, we saw a middle-aged gentleman stand up and introduce himself, unhesitatingly and powerfully, as a “cultural Adventist.”
So there he stands, perfected, evolved, fully fledged and plumed, agile as a Zero fighter, rich and in need of nothing, certainly not doctrine; well rounded and well fed, ready for prime time, not so much born again as gender-changed, sporting a J. Peterman message t-shirt bearing the message, “It’s the culture, stupid!”
And here I stand in my bespoken t-shirt: “wheat and tares growing together -- the new multicultural diversity”.
Wearily, Christ is replying, “man shall not live by culture alone”. – Variation on Matthew 4:4. If doctrine alone leaves one cachectic, how much less nutritious is culture alone? In the beginning was the Word, when did culture come in and take over?
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