Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: Beyond Ellen White

beyondellenwhiteFor those of us growing up Adventist in Australia, Avondale College was our mecca. I can remember, as a child, always hearing about how Avondale was the place to go to develop spiritually, physically — and find a life partner! In my younger days, I had the opportunity to briefly visit Avondale a couple of times and remember feeling awe at walking on such "sacred" ground. But, it hasn't come as a surprise that this was a very romanticised picture. Avondale is a human institution run by flawed humans and, despite the alleged supernatural circumstances around its establishment, the human has played a major part in its evolution. Contributing to our understanding of this evolution is Michael Chamberlain's deeply scholarly book, Beyond Ellen White: Seventh-day Adventism in Transition.

Although the title of the book doesn't mention Avondale College, Chamberlain's work, based on his PhD thesis, is a sociocultural analysis of the College from its inception to the present day. What his title does imply, is that Avondale College can be seen as a microcosm of the transitioning of Adventism beyond a White-defined culture as it struggles to clarify its identify in an ever-changing society.
Chamberlain traces the transitions of the College through its sociocultural standards that, he argues, have been its 'distinctive and identifying markers'. These include standards around entertainment (opera, theatre, dancing, etc); the reading of fiction novels; dress (vain vs plain dress, cosmetics, and jewellery); sport; music; audio, visual, and print media; alcohol consumption; and sexual behaviour and marriage. Arguing that the original standards, conceived in Methodism, shaped by an Old Testament fortress model for education, influenced by eschatalogical emphases, and challenged by wider societal influences, and managed by various College presidencies, have been shaped and reshaped to be what they are today — the product of revisionist thought which began around 1977.

Chamberlain chose the year 1977 because he believes that this was a
... point in time when traditionalist elements in Adventism, namely the all-powerful administrative arm, lined up with the General Conference in an attempt to prevent the Church from further sociocultural or theological erosion. (p. 283)
A significant event, around this time, was the formulation of the Twenty-seven Fundamentals by the Church. Despite the stance of the Church to have no other creed but the Bible, the Twenty-seven Fundamentals became, to all intents and purposes, a creed to which scholars, pastors, and others were to give unconditional allegiance. The 1980s, according to Chamberlain, became a time when it was 'apparent [that] younger academics were in growing tension with Church leaders and administrators.' The fallout of the 1980s is well known to most of us and this, as well as events prior to and following that time, have been the response of the Church to meet the challenge
... to Seventh-day Adventism, as it has been for all militant organisations, [of] understanding truth in its static and dynamic forms and being able to discern the difference. [Chamberlain's] book is, therefore, about describing the struggle of the dynamic, evident as culture, considered for a time as a landmark of the Church's ultimate identity. (pp.284-285)
This tension between the static and dynamic forms of truth has, according to Chamberlain, let to a revisioning of Avondale's original mission. As I read Chamberlain, he is not criticising or condoning this revisionism. It seems to me he wishes to place his thesis before the denomination and the College and make clear that Avondale is at a crossroads. This basically comes down to a choice to continue pursuing higher education status or remain and develop as a traditional institution sustaining a particular style of education and theology. Chamberlain clarifies the choices for Avondale:
If the history of the direction taken by American religious colleges has any valid bearing, Avondale's mother Church identity and executive powers may have an increasingly limited use-by date. At best, should it continue on its higher educational path, it may achieve, eventually, the identity of a non-denominational Adventist university and by no means a model of Seventh-day Adventist cultural idealism or control. On this basis, a post-Ellen G. White revisionist model and not a rebel implant might remain intact. Should it fail to gain continuing higher status, then as a theological and educational seminary-styled institution its traditional culture is more likely to be sustained.
Stark choice indeed. As I said at the beginning, the title of Chamberlain's book implies a broader application of his observations to Seventh-day Adventism as a whole. The transitions that Avondale has undergone (and continues to struggle with) are reflected in the larger denominational culture and history. Some would welcome this revisionism; other will not. But whatever side of that debate one may find oneself, Chamberlain's book provides superb insights for anyone thinking about Adventism today.

You can find out more about Beyond Ellen White at Michael Chamberlain's website
— Steve Parker