– a popular variation on “it’s the economy, stupid,” game-changing motto dreamed up by James Carville, cultural icon and Democratic strategist for the 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?
I hadn't seen Wiley since grade school. He had gone on to become a pastor, then a PhD. Dr. Wiley had come to visit us in Dayton, Ohio, and I had invited him to the Air Force Museum. As we strolled among the historic battle planes, like the Sopwith Camel from WWI and the ME109 from WWII, our small talk had shifted from recalling school days to comparing the agility of WWII fighter planes, like the P40 vs. the Japanese Zero, and then unaccountably to a review of all our Adventist doctrines. Wiley debunked them systematically.
After an hour or so of this, we sank in unison, a pair of played out 60ish old men, onto a bench under the shade of the drab-colored huge wing situated high on a WWII Liberator bomber. “You’ve shot down our every last doctrine, why are you still even an Adventist?” I asked, completely bushed. Unhesitatingly, though sounding as weary as I, Wiley replied, “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?
By the definition I grew up with the better part of a century ago, the one held by everybody back then, the first definition I still think of, culture means opera and tuxedos and tiaras, harnesses of pearl, facades and affectations, feigned nobleness and good taste, acquired
by serious study and severe self criticism and group critiques. Culture was, well, cultured. Victorian Culture was capitalized and only for the elite. The uncultured masses overtly sneered it, covertly coveted it. All earnest Christians suspected it, even cultured ones, for example CS Lewis. Adventists abjured it. Wiley must have meant something else.
He did. My friend the pastor-doctor was of course thinking the 21st century definition. As patched together from several online sources including Wikipedia, the new culture has lost its capitalization. It is the totality of social behavior and norms characteristic of a whole given
society, whether animal or human (some are extending it to trees), whether advanced or primal, transmitted through subconscious social learning, encompassing everything from not-thought-out group thought patterns and definitions, preferences in art, music, dance, ritual, religion (or lack of it), and even such elemental things as wigs, tool usage, cooking, shelter, and clothing (or lack of it), body piercing and tattoos.
Culture is what just naturally characterizes a, well, culture. Old Culture was aristocratic and for the aristocracy and wannabes. The new culture is for every living creature, notably humans and their evolutionary siblings, apes. Culture is a central concept in anthropology. An anthropologist friend of mine puts thus: "culture is a matrix which is instrumental in shaping us individually and collectively; a set of symbols (symbolate), by which a given culture is identified. The symbolate may be analogous to a genome."
That’s an eon away from the 19th century definition I grew up with. If once culture was capitalized and manifested by raised noses and eyebrows, it’s now in your face, pie in your
eye. Now disdainful of nobleness and beauty, modern culture is openly inclined towards the most decadent. If once Culture was actively cultivated and rare, culture now is passive and inborn in everybody, a self-evident animal right like skin color and #meToo. Thus the Green Berets and Greenpeace have their culture, even Culture has its culture, likewise Adventists. And anthropologists. As Carville would say, "it’s culture, stupid."
By the 21st century definition Adventism should be known as the 19th century culture of
no's -- no dancing, no jazz, no fiction, no fun; no movies, meat, coffee, alcohol, snuff, smoking, no female adornment and no skin showing. No fun. And equally famous for the eccentricity of what we did do – peanut butter, gluten and meat substitutes, Saturday Sabbath instead of Sunday, nice watches instead of diamond earrings, chaperons until married.
Is that the Adventist culture that worldly Wiley holds when all else, even God, fades out of the picture? I wouldn’t have guessed it. Not from all the sarcastic jokes I’d heard him tell at class
reunions about youth chafing under dormitory curfews and being deprived of jazz, movies, and
Saturday night prowls -- very like the black humor and vintage masochistic delight in public school caning taken by a rebellious generation of British literati. Nor would I have guessed it from the way he repeats the academic discovery that the rest of our culture is 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 a culture thus defined, Adventism sounds Victorian past its time, as drained of goodies as a whacked piñata. Hardly the golden cord that binds. Hardly something to hold on to Adventism for. As the bride sighed the next morning, or did in olden times, is that all there is? Me, if that’s all there were to Adventism, I’d be outa here.
Such a haggard culture would seem to cry out for an extreme makeover. Which it has got. In the 20 years since Wiley’s Liberator declaration, I have descended into Octogenariancy and have witnessed our cultural face being lifted as high as our doctrines have been taken under. Ironically for a religion that once staked everything on the validity of Genesis 1, we have undergone an evolution, gross Evolution, capitalized.
Behold what Evolution hath wrought. If eons ago we winced at jazz, we now jerk and twitch to 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. I'm so old I remember dating girls who had sneaked out of the dorm and into my car sporting deliciously bare shoulders. They would coyly say it was a gamble leaving on a date thus adorned because the dean would stand by the door doing shoulder checks and warning that shoulder skin was a temptation to boys they might not be able to resist. The dean was right, as the girls knew, or soon found out. Now they know even more, and also how to tweet #meToo.
Sermons were once built upon homilies and punctuated by amens, now jokes and Hollywood movie snippets and applause and guffaws. Once we cherished the prophetic image from
Daniel 2 who possessed only a gold head; now the totally gold Oscar idol. Once we scrimped and sacrificed to have money to donate for mass distribution of evangelical literature; now our money is better spent on costumes and props, or for reaching out with Costco food but no
message. Evangelism is our crowning embarrassment. If once being a pastor or bible student,
doctor or nurse, were the highest callings, now being a doctorate higher critic, producer, stand-up comedian (getting laughs with jokes about modesty or Adventist-only ice-skating night), or filmmaker are. If once we sought to penetrate the mysteries of God, now we advertise being mystics. Once our ministers ministered and led prayer meetings, but now our senior pastors are thought leaders, and their thoughts come more from Fuller or George Fox 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, Yoga and Plato. If we once shied from theaters, we now hold film festivals, in church, and feature church drama instead of sermons, and have our own Oscars and galas.
We are chagrined, Wiley was, that we once simple-mindedly received prophecy, and closed-mindedly and literally bought Genesis 1, and mindlessly proscribed hermeneutics, settling for
uneducated "Bible study." If we once went only to the Scripture and God and prayer for guidance, we now bookmark Spectrum.org and hold protests and seminars. Opinion polls and consultants and coaches are our inspirations, not the Red Books. 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 and "disinvite" 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, or whatever is big in the liberal world this week. 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 formations and foundations" and repeating incantations, to achieve blankness of brain, nirvana.
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, the culture of academia or the fast
lane. If our message was once prophecy, now it’s politics. If once we promoted eternal life, now we brag about living ten years longer. Now we're more hellbent on getting into the 21st century than eternity. If once we yearned to save the world, now we are, like the world, obsessed with saving the planet. Formerly, salvation was our message; now we glory in the faults, even the crimes, the #meToos, same as every other church: all the rapes in our colleges and sex abuse suits against the faculty -- all that bare skin and cleavage. We’re as bad as anybody. Do I hear an amen?
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 the global church's latest tweet and EcumenicismToday.org. At bottom we remain as subservient and conformist, as legalistic, as ever; on balance worse.
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. That is until our scholarly research revealed that she’s an underrated historic and cultural figure, a pioneer protofeminist icon who stamped out orthodoxy. So now we celebrate her in documentaries and doctoral theses and art bronze but not in sermons.
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, and will forever, but our culture has revved up and, loaded with smart bombs, roared into the wild blue thin-aired yonder.
An altogether a newly species, today’s Adventist has evolved from the fittest hermeneutics and humanism. Just a measly eon ago it skulked in the tall grass and under the radar, but now is stomping the ground and snorting, cavorting and bellowing mating calls and trumpeting
that he or she, perhaps once a she or a he, is king of the pews. As to tolerance and the big tent, retarded Adventists, that's me, are not welcome.
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.” If the founders of Adventism exercised much thought to obtaining the best
descriptive term for the church's beliefs, concocting the right fit for the new belief-free species is a bigger challenge than disassembling theology. Now somehow you don’t hear “Seventh-day” very often. What you hear is one of the array of new adjectives for the emergent species, including “Progressive,” “liberal,” "liberated, “enlightened,” “scholarly,” “open minded,” “postmodernist,” “postAdventist,” “Adventoid,” (my term), or plain “Adventism.” Close but no banana.
The End Result
But just last week the taxing taxonomic question was answered, proclaimed, for all to
hear. It ought to be settled now, even for Spectrum.org. It was at one of those powerfully warm Sabbath Schools at one of our huge and ever huger medical institutions. Hugs all around.
Everyone was asked to introduce his or herself, to ready applause. A bouncy young fellow
-- somehow he looked familiar -- sprang up, treated us to a couple of hip twists, and introduced
himself: “I’m Wiley Jr.” Then Wiley Jr. unhesitatingly and proudly bellowed the text of a protest-style sign which he shook exactly three times. He, it, proclaimed, “I'm a cultural Adventist!” Everyone sprang up and snapped their fingers. Applause, thunderous applause!
So there he stands, perfected, fully fledged and plumed, agile as a Zero fighter or winged serpent, rich and in need of nothing, certainly not doctrine; ready for prime time, the freshly
evolved cultural Adventoid, sporting a a protest sign and 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
Dr. Kime was born in 1929, in Los Angeles, California.
Kime pursued dual careers in art (since childhood) and medicine (physician; specialties in internal medicine and pathology; clinical and academic). He studied the principles of art, chemistry of paint, and the works of master artists as assiduously as medicine. After retiring from pathology at Kettering Medical Center in 1994, Dr. Kime has concentrated on his art, producing portraits, seascapes and figural work mainly in oils, and urbanscapes predominantly in watercolor. Dr. Kime currently lives in Redlands, CA.