Saturday, November 14, 2020

From Fear to Love

Fear is a powerful but short-term motivator that responds to urgent stimuli. Love (in distinction to infatuation) is a long-term motivator that is developed by choices to acquire habits.

Seventh-day Adventists see in Scripture a cosmic conflict over the character of God: Satan claims that God ultimately wants compliance based on fear, but God really wants sacrifices motivated by love. Our view of God's character is bound up in our response to his call to love and serve him: Christians demonstrate our loyalty to God by imitating his self-giving love, thereby proclaiming our view of who God is.

When the shutdowns happened in spring, I wrote that it started a clock in people's minds that runs on fear. Eventually the fear would run out, and so would most people's desire to make sacrifices that keep our most vulnerable safe.

That prediction came to pass. The death toll is rising. We find ourselves caught in the “second wave.”

The coronavirus doesn't kill enough of us to make us afraid of it anymore. But it can put enough of us in hospital to threaten everyone's access to medical care. And if that happens, even more people are going to die from COVID-19. The premier of my province has said that if we don't stop doing two things that we are in the habit of doing—hanging out in each other's homes and going to work sick—we are headed for another shutdown in two weeks. The public health experts say by then it may be too late.

We now see how unreliable our natural fear-based response is during a protracted pandemic. Now that we have grown accustomed to the threat, we will find out whether we are a people driven by love or fear, that is, whether we can develop new habits that will allow us to carry on with work, school, church, and play and at the same time prevent us from doing the things that contribute most to the economic and physical destructiveness of the plague.

Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—
     the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
     no plague come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
     to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
     lest you strike your foot against a stone
(Psalm 91:10–11, ESV, emphasis mine).

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
     “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

      “‘On their hands they will bear you up,
          lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’”
(Matthew 4:5–7, ESV).

Friday, September 18, 2020

Drummed out of Church? Evaluating Music for Adventist Worship

  • Drums are acceptable in worship as long as they don’t play certain rhythms.
  • Drums may not be seen in worship but may be played as part of a pre-recorded accompaniment track.
  • Drums arranged as a drum kit may not be played in church, but traditional African drums like bongos and djembes may be played in church
  • Drums arranged as a drum kit may not be played in church, but a wooden box rigged to sound like a drum kit (a cajón) may be played at church.
  • Drums are not to be played at all in church, but at youth events, they may be played however the youth like it.
  • Drums at church should either be contained behind a sound barrier or electronically mixed so that they don’t disturb sensitive ears.
That’s a sample of various stated and unstated customs restricting the use of drums in worship I have encountered in various Adventist churches. Given the diversity of approaches, it seems that there is no agreement on what principle or set of principles guide the use of drums in Adventist churches. In this essay, I will propose that (1) we have been looking for such principles in the wrong place and that (2) our practice is better than our theory.

Philosophical Framework: Time and Reason

To explain what I mean by that I will need to introduce two different ways of reasoning about things relative to time.

The following philosophical and theological overview is based on my careful reading of Fernando Canale’s PhD dissertation: “Toward a Criticism of Theological Reason: Time and Timelessness as Primordial Presuppositions.” It is also informed by Canale’s later work on the sanctuary, most succinctly captured in his article, “Philosophical Foundations and the Biblical Sanctuary.” For an accessible summary of Canale’s dissertation see Sven Fockner’s “An Introduction to Canale’s Criticism of Theological Reason,” part of a collection of scholarly essays in honor of Canale’s work.

The first mode of reasoning in time comes from an assumption baked into the grand tradition Western philosophy since Parmenides that what is really real is what doesn’t change. Consequently, to make reliable inferences we need to find ways to think about what is in time and changes by relating it to what is outside of time and cannot change. Much of science, for example, operates on this assumption by explaining changes we observe in the world as the operation of unchanging laws of nature. I will call this the analytical mode of reasoning because analysis often means defining unchanging structures of reality in terms of their constituent parts. (Caveat lector: My definitions of analytical and phenomenological are limited to the purposes of this essay. They are not intended to describe those philosophical traditions or the other ways those terms are used in scholarly discourse.)

But what if what’s really real really does undergo change?

As a Christian, I understand God as the creator and sustainer of all that is: God is the being in whom everything else that exists holds together (Acts 17:28). While God has revealed properties of his being that are consistent through all time—for example, his character (Malachi 3:6)—he has also shown us in his sanctuary that his experience, and thus ultimate reality, is subject to change. Though the bisection of the space where God dwells—a division that demarcates a two-phase heavenly ministry of the Son before the Father—the architecture of Heaven shows us that ultimate reality involves change and time.

The biblical sanctuary further demonstrates that what’s real about where God dwells is not completely disconnected from human reality, so that we do not need to escape from our changing world into a changeless, divine reality to connect with God. Rather, we connect with God by joining our stories to God’s story, especially as told in the sanctuary and its services. This has profound and far-reaching implications for how we are to reason about the human relationship to God, but in this article, I will focus on those that relate to the evaluation of music for worship.

Joining our story to God’s story requires a mode of reasoning that makes inferences by relating past, present, and future. Such inferences seem arbitrary to those who intuitively reason analytically because no one narrates their experiences in exactly the same way. But if what’s really real is changeable, we need to have a way of reasoning about our experience, which is, after all, organized by time.

I will call this the phenomenological mode of reasoning because phenomena are aspects of reality as we experience them (as opposed to reality as we analyze it). How we experience reality is determined by (1) our habits, customs, and overall background that has been shaped by our past; (2) by our states of consciousness, bodily states, and all else that directs our attention to the present moment; and (3) by our goals, commitments, and other exercises of the will that open up new possibilities for the future. These are always changing and particular, yet not so unique that we do not share commonalities of experience connected by shared physiology, culture, and/or conviction. (In this description of the constitution of persons, I am drawing on Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, which critiques modernity as an attempt to escape the historical nature of reasoning about human experience.)

Thus, phenomenological reasoning doesn’t have to describe what is true for everyone in order to arrive at truth. Rather, it aims at conclusions that are true as far as they go or to explain why different kinds of people experience things differently. For example, biblical typology reasons from past to present and future in order to show, among other things, what changed in the experience of God’s people so that where people connected to God’s story in the past had to offer animal sacrifices, in the present they do not.

The Failure of Analytical Evaluations of Worship Music

Because music and worship are embodied in human cultural practices that change over time and have different effects on different kinds of people, I propose that phenomenological reason is the correct mode of reason for evaluating the role of drums in Adventist worship. We cannot resolve a phenomenological problem by asking an analytical question.

The failure of this analytical approach is laid bare not only by the plurality of practice in Adventism, but also by the General Conference’s disregard for what it has plainly stated in its Church Manual: “Any melody partaking of the nature of jazz, rock, or related hybrid forms … will be shunned” (p. 150). This statement is adapted from page 10 of the outdated 1972 “Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Music” guidelines voted by the General Conference Executive Committee, which also counseled against the extensive use of jazz chords (specifically, “the seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords,” p. 10). Yet when I heard the Breath of Life Quartet sing at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, they “saturated” their music with beautiful jazz chords that made it past a rigorous vetting process.

Examples could be multiplied to illustrate my point: Attempts to define the right and wrong forms of music using the analytical tools of music theory have proven unworkable in the Adventist experience. They also tend to elevate forms of music associated with white culture and denigrate forms of music associated with black culture. Yet there is a cottage industry in Adventism claiming to have discovered the timeless properties of music that are suited or unsuited to worship.

Drums are often a focus of these attempts at analysis. Such teachers may claim that because percussion instruments are not in the lists of instruments played in the sanctuary, they are not suited to Adventist worship. Or they may claim that certain rhythms always produce certain effects on human consciousness. Whatever their reasons, what these self-appointed guardians of Adventist worship have in common is a mode of reasoning that, while intuitive for many, cannot adequately account for change through time and thus also experience.

Evaluating Worship Music as Phenomena

The structure of music can be explained analytically, but its suitability for worship can only be evaluated by its effect on human consciousness (which is not to say that the technical proficiency of worship music cannot be evaluated analytically). This is similar to the biblical criteria of fruits (Matthew 7:20) or to the test of God's blessing proposed by wise Gamaliel (Acts 5:38–39). It is the reasoning “from cause to effect” that Ellen G. White counseled in a variety of situations, but is perhaps best illustrated by this counsel regarding diet in a sermon she preached in 1908:
There is no door in our stomach by which we can look in and see what is going on, so we must use our mind, and reason from cause to effect. If you feel all wrought up and everything seems to go wrong, perhaps it is because you are suffering the consequences of eating a great variety of food (Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 23, Ms. 41).

Like food, the effects of different kinds of music can vary from setting to setting and individual to individual across time and place for reasons that are hidden from us (“there is no door”). But we can aim at evaluations of worship music that are generally true for particular Adventist communities. We make those evaluations by observing the results of steps taken to improve the quality of our worship music relative to our common background and the goals of Adventist worship (“perhaps it is because …”). By repeating this process, we can tell a story about the community’s relationship with God in music and worship, a story that we can evaluate by synchronizing it with God’s story.

It turns out that this is what many Adventist communities have already done with the question of drums in worship, even if they haven’t been aware of why it works or how best to accomplish it. What appears to analytical intuitions as confusion about timeless principles turns out to have prompted the first steps toward phenomenological clarity. In 2004 the General Conference replaced its proscriptions of genres and chords with guidelines that take a phenomenological approach: laying out the goals of Adventist worship and leaving it up to individual Adventist communities how to best meet them.

For guidance on how to do that, I recommend the 2010 book, In Tune with God by Lilianne Doukhan, professor of music, emarita, at Andrews University. She is a musicologist trained to observe music as a phenomenon. Her book helpfully walks readers through the ways music affects our experience and how our experiences affect the way we individually and collectively interpret music. Based on these understandings, she gives practical guidelines for how music in worship, including the use of drums, can be evaluated.

A version of this essay was published in the September, 2020 issue of the Alberta Adventist News.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Beliefs and Reality

This coronavirus is a destroyer of American ideological worlds.
  • Single-payer promoter? Europe is doing as bad, if not worse than, China.
  • Civil libertarian? Here's a existential threat that is (1) not a war but (2) can't be confronted without restraining individual freedom.
  • Globalist? Saying Trump was dumb for closing the borders sure seems dumb now.
  • Trumpist? The cost of his power of positive thinking shtick will surely be counted in the lives of his political base.
  • Technocrat? The best and brightest at the CDC and FDA utterly failed due to over-regulation and bureaucratic backside blanketing.
  • Capitalist? It turns out there some things people won't trade for GDP/stock market growth.
  • Conspiracy theorist? Nobody cares about your speculations if you can't help them get through this alive. And colloidal silver isn't going to cut it.
I could go on, but I think I've made my point. We are finding out that our beliefs aren't tethered to reality as tightly as we thought.
One day a college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." That's all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven't been able to define reality any more lucidly (Phillip K. Dick, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart in Two Days, 1978, 1985).
When you encounter a reality that doesn't conform to your beliefs and doesn't go away, that's usually a sign that something bad is about to happen to you and yours. And the longer it takes you to adjust your beliefs about it, the worse that bad thing is probably going to be. The rub is that when you are reforming your beliefs about reality, you need an anchor for your identities so that you don't lose your integrity as a person.

A weak integrating anchor—one that does not give you the consistency necessary to sustain your self conception as you change your deeply-held beliefs—is why so many people cling to false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. What I am describing is not a political crisis among competing ideologies or an epistemic crisis, like the one Philip K. Dick grappled with his whole life, but a spiritual crisis.
"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." ... "Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free."
-Jesus of Nazareth, John 8:32, 36

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Quick and Dirty Guide to Independent Adventist Journalism

It can be wild online-world in independent, Adventist journalism. If a fellow Adventist forwards you an article, you may not be sure whether you can trust the source.


While this guide will not tell you who to trust, it will tell you where those behind the most commonly forwarded articles are coming from.

In my decade-plus experience of following and writing in this space, I can assure you not everything you read in independent, Adventist journalism that you want to be true is, in fact, true. And not everything you read in it that you suspect is fake-news is, in fact, false.

Not all of the outlets in this guide follow best journalistic practices. Some do not attempt to. Not all of them will help you build a balanced faith. Some do not attempt to.

The purpose of this guide is to make you conversant about the sources, so that you can research, seek advice, and make informed judgments about their claims. You will have to decide which (if any) of these outlets you will patronize and which (if any) conversations on them are worth following.

Remember, "Knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Caveat lector
: Much of this is based on my personal impressions, informed by feed-back from select individuals. Acknowledgement is not endorsement. This is not a fact-checking service.

Criteria for Inclusion in the Guide
  1. Operated by Seventh-day Adventists (no offshoots)
  2. Offer news and opinion about Seventh-day Adventist issues
  3. Publish text-based journalism in English
  4. Offer open, online content (no paywall)
  5. Ranked on Alexa at the time of this writing

The Guide to the Guide
(Warning: Failure to read this section may result in misunderstandings.)
  • Reporting voice: modes and styles of expression that distinguish its news pieces
  • Editorial voice: modes and styles of expression that distinguish its opinion pieces
  • News topics covered: subjects that are likely to be reported
  • Opinion topics covered: theological/political opinions that set it apart
  • Publishes views contrary to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: yes or no
  • Hill to die on: an issue-stance that epitomizes its moral core
  • Publishes contrary opinions: yes or no
  • Publishes corrections: yes or no
  • Alexa traffic/engagement rank: website ranking as of time of this writing (For comparison, ranks at #382,661; #1 being the most visited and engaged website on the internet.)
  • Other media: print, video, podcast, livestream, etc.

The following independent Adventist journalism outlets appear in order of their Alexa ranking:

Spectrum (
  • Reporting voice: neutral, investigative
  • Editorial voice: scholarly essay, personal essay, jeremiad
  • News topics covered: church politics, progressive Adventist conferences and academic symposia, church medical and development work, Adventists in the media, Adventists who hold views or make accomplishments outside of the mainstream of the church, in-depth investigation
  • Opinion topics covered: the Sabbath School lesson, inequality and injustice, peace issues, critical takes on traditional Adventist theology and practice, contemporary spiritual practice
  • Publishes views contrary to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: yes
  • Hill to die on: same-sex marriage
  • Publishes contrary opinions: yes
  • Publishes corrections: yes
  • Alexa traffic/engagement rank: #258,636
  • Other media: print journal, podcast

Adventist Today (
  • Reporting voice: neutral, exposé
  • Editorial voice: scholarly essay, personal essay, satirical
  • News topics covered: church politics, church corruption, Adventists in the media, progressive Adventist conferences
  • Opinion topics covered: critical takes on traditional Adventist theology and practice, Adventist angles on the news-cycle, lifestyle advice with a progressive slant
  • Publishes views contrary to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: yes
  • Hill to die on: theistic evolution
  • Publishes contrary opinions: yes
  • Publishes corrections: no
  • Alexa traffic/engagement rank: #614,137
  • Other media: print magazine, books

Advent Messenger (
  • Reporting voice: muckraking, sensationalistic
  • Editorial voice: sectarian diatribe
  • News topics covered: heresy and apostasy
  • Opinion topics covered: conspiracies about ecumenism, abortion, pluralism, etc.
  • Publishes views contrary to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: no
  • Hill to die on: denominational leadership compromised by Roman Catholic influence
  • Publishes contrary opinions: no
  • Publishes corrections: no
  • Alexa traffic/engagement rank: #977,274
  • Other media: sermon audio

ADvindicate (
  • Reporting voice: promotional
  • Editorial voice: personal essay, haranguing
  • News topics covered: mostly promoting books and conferences
  • Opinion topics covered: salvation and end-time events, lifestyle standards, social justice, religious liberty
  • Publishes views contrary to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: no
  • Hill to die on: last-generation theology
  • Publishes contrary opinions: no
  • Publishes corrections: yes
  • Alexa traffic/engagement rank: #1,209,410
  • Other media: podcast

Fulcrum7 (
  • Reporting voice: muckraking
  • Editorial voice: personal essay, snarky
  • News topics covered: church politics, heresy and apostasy
  • Opinion topics covered: critical takes on progressive Adventist theology and practice, right-wing and alt-right politics and cultural critique
  • Publishes views contrary to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: no
  • Hill to die on: male-only ordination
  • Publishes contrary opinions: no
  • Publishes corrections: no
  • Alexa traffic/engagement rank: #1,467,277
  • Other media: none

The Compass Magazine (
  • Reporting voice: neutral, unfiltered
  • Editorial voice: scholarly essay, personal essay, disquisitive
  • News topics covered: conservative Adventist academic symposia, world church politics
  • Opinion topics covered: graduate research, devotionals, defenses of traditional Adventist theology, Ellen White pieces
  • Publishes views contrary to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs: no
  • Hill to die on: the 28 Fundamental Beliefs
  • Publishes contrary opinions: yes
  • Publishes corrections: no
  • Alexa traffic/engagement rank: #4,702,004
  • Other media: videos

This guide may be updated from time to time.

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