“Away with the Atheists?”

Last week like many of you, I read about the results of a new survey that claimed less than half of Americans are now linked to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Guess what; it didn’t take long for the pundits to pile in with warnings, prognostications, and blame. “It’s all the fault of the religious right and their love of Trump.” “No, it’s those on the religious left who have succumbed to ‘woke’ culture.” The blame goes on and on.

Once we get past the blame game, others then tell us that this portends disaster for American Christianity, even America itself. Their implication is that this is bad for both. But what if it is not? Perhaps, we’re so ready to wring our hands in despair that we miss what this means. And what this means, at least in part, is that we now find ourselves in a religious context more like the first century AD than at any other time in history.

The first century and our century

Think about that for just a moment. The Christian faith was born into a world where multiple religions and multiple spiritualities flourished. Judaism in the first century experienced a massive transformation from Temple-based to synagogue worship. (The destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 forced this dramatic change, a change that has framed Judaism for the past 2,000 years.) A quasi-philosophical religion that we call Gnosticism flourished throughout the Roman empire in the three-hundred years after Christ walked the earth. Emperor worship became the Roman state religion and practicing this religion was a defining mark of patriotism. Religions like these and others were everywhere and people often practiced more than one.

What made Christianity different was its insistence on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian confession was three words: “Jesus is Lord.” Hence, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not. Now, Rome did not mind you practicing another religion as long as you acknowledged Caesar as supreme. Caesar had room for other gods, as long as Caesar remained supreme. But Christians could not confess the lordship of Caesar. And (get this), they were labeled “atheists” because they did not recognize Caesar’s lordship; and that meant they were off-and-on subject to harm and persecution.

The persecution was not constant. Instead it broke out at different times and in different places. The New Testament Book of Revelation and the post-Apostolic letter of Clement to the church in Rome were written at approximately the same time (AD90-95). Yet they describe very different contexts. The Roman church that Clement addressed seemed able to live their lives peacefully (though with memory of the brutal Neronian persecutions of AD64-68); while the churches that John wrote to in Asia minor (modern-day Turkey) were challenged by him to live faithfully in the face of oppression. John spends most of his narrative describing Rome as a “beast” that will unleash massive evil on the world before the return of Christ.

The best illustration of what many Christians experienced came from the second-century pen of a writer who described the martyrdom of bishop Polycarp. Polycarp was probably mentored by the Apostle John himself; and when he was arrested and brought to the Roman governor, he was 86 years old. The governor asked Polycarp to recant his Christian faith, and the writer described the scene like this, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say “Away with the atheists!” So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd…who were in the stadium and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” But when the magistrate said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 10.2-3).

Our chief enemy: Distraction

I’m deeply moved every time I read that account. What Polycarp’s martyrdom helps me grasp is the challenge Christians like you and me face every day: to live our lives with no other ultimate allegiance than Jesus Christ. It sounds simple on the surface, but it is not; especially in a world that offers so many competing loyalties and bombards us with hundreds of daily messages clamoring for our attention. Distraction is the order of the day.

And distraction is the enemy’s tool to draw us away from Christ. When we care more about religious things, about political things, about personal desires, they, and not our Lord, become our focus in life. Since the 1950s, American Christianity in its more liberal and conservative forms has become far more partisan in political terms. One of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, described how dangerous this is; “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then, let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “Cause” (The Screwtape Letters, 39).

No earthly nation-state can be called “Christian”

How that describes American Christianity, especially American evangelical Christianity in our day and time. The root of this lies in the misguided idea that somehow the United States is a nation especially ordained by God for some special purpose. This idea has both Christian and secular versions, though in the past century it has been interpreted in different ways by liberal and conservative Christians.

The United States is not nor has it ever been a “Christian” nation. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other nations the U.S. has origins rooted in different versions of Christianity as well as in non-religious ways of thinking. Lewis is right. When people and churches make it their mission to elect the “right” politicians or get a particular political party in power, Jesus Christ is moved from the center to the periphery. The nation-state becomes more important and we become beholden to whatever political party we claim membership. Jacques Ellul had a name for this–the “political illusion” and far too many American evangelical Christians have embraced it.

Does that mean American Christians should simply withdraw from society? No, it does not. Our Lord teaches us to live our daily lives in whatever society he places us. He wants us to care for others, especially those who are poor and who have been harmed. He desires justice tinged with mercy. Jesus wants to use us to draw others to him and he wants to use us to make the United States (and the entire world) a better place for humans to live and work.

I’ve always viewed myself as a somewhat independent thinker. I think abortion needs to be curbed because it involves the taking of innocent human life. I think we brutalized African Americans and Native Americans for nearly 300 years and too many white Americans pretend that people of color should simply be able to get over it in one or two generations. I think that money, sex, and power are the American drugs of choice for many (and that is not to take away from the seriousness of opioid and other physical addictions). I think climate change is very real and that to pretend that it isn’t is to ignore massive scientific and anecdotal evidence. I think that Donald Trump won a free and fair election in 2016, and I think Joseph Biden won a free and fair election in 2020. I think our two major political parties are now a great threat to our Republic and our way of life.

I can hear some of you reading this. He’s a “communist.” He’s a fascist.” He’s a “Republican.” “Horrors, he’s a Democrat.” That demonstrates my point. We have traded Christ for our favorite political and social ideology, and our ideology no matter what it is determines how we perceive things, not actual evidence. So, I’m not asking that we agree. I’m asking how we as followers of Christ can resist the drive of political ideology and display the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about over and over in the four gospels, values that apply to both individuals and communities. What if Christians like you and me become political independents for the sake of the Gospel. Even more, what if we treat folks who disagree with us for whatever reason not as somehow evil people who should be “cancelled” but individuals created originally in God’s image who need to hear the gospel? (Yes, “cancel culture” exists on both political extremes and sadly, even in American evangelical Christianity.)

This is part of the ongoing struggle that you and I have in following Jesus. Yes, I struggle with it. I have for a long time (and my opinionated nature makes it an ongoing struggle). But let’s not despair. Amidst all of the distractions we face, we can find ways to center our lives on Jesus himself and and create outposts for the gospel and for the Kingdom of God. Above all, let’s learn to give each other grace, especially when we disagree. And don’t worry about this latest Gallup poll. After all, it makes our Kingdom mission even more clear.

Covid-19 Vaccine: A Gift from God

Last June, I signed up to be part of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine trial. I signed up not only because of my interest in the project, but because I wanted to do at least a small thing that might help others and help stop this dangerous disease. By that time, Covid-19 had ravaged much of the United States especially the New York City area, the death toll was approaching 100,000 people, and most of us had been in lockdown for three months. The scenes from ICUs were heartbreaking, especially the grief that so many people were experiencing in being unable to be with their loved ones when they died. When I received news that my medical group, Tryon Medical Partners, would host the Moderna trials, I knew I wanted to participate despite the risk.

I was one of about 700 people in Charlotte (part of over 30,000 nationwide) who participated in that trial. Half of the participants were given the trial vaccine and the other half were given a placebo; and we had to get two shots spaced a month apart.

I asked a lot of questions on my first visit. I wound up being there most of the afternoon as they had to give me a physical, do the necessary blood work, and give me a Covid-19 test. It is hard to describe the discomfort of that, but my eyes watered for about ten minutes afterward. If you have been tested, you know what I’m talking about.

I had a lengthy conversation with the doctors and nurses about the vaccine, how it was developed, and about what the doctors and immunologists were discovering about the disease and how it spread. The doctor who treated me had been on the front lines in New York City treating patients and watching many succumb to the disease despite her best efforts to treat them. I learned a lot from her and the others managing the trial; about Covid-19 and about what we knew and what we still did not know. I also talked twice with my primary care physician who is also very knowledgeable about diseases and treatments.

Good news, bad news

I learned some good news and some bad news. The good news was that we had learned more about the virus faster than with any other disease like this in history. The bad news was that there was much we still did not know and that it would take months, even years to learn more. Covid-19 affects everyone differently, no matter their age. While those my age (60 and older) were more likely to suffer hospitalization and death, even younger people were not immune from those outcomes. By June, we learned that the disease was primarily airborne and it passed between individuals through close contact, especially in large groups. Social distancing and masks became the order of the day, especially when scientific research demonstrated that if two people are wearing masks the transmission rate is greatly reduced.

That was the first of five trips to Tryon Medical Partners. They managed the Covid-19 trials for Moderna in Charlotte, and I got my first two “shots” in September four weeks apart. Then I had to keep an online diary and log describing my daily activities and any medical reactions that I had; while keeping my normal activities as best as possible given the pandemic and restrictions in place in Charlotte. There were also weekly phone calls from the study. I was careful and Renee and I both stayed Covid free until after the vaccines were approved for use in December.

In January, the staff at Moderna called me back in, indicated that I had received the placebo, and said that I would get my first vaccine shot that day. A month later, I got my second shot. I had no problems with the first shot, and had a few side effects about 24 hours after the second shot (achiness and fatigue). Those passed quickly. Renee then got her first and second shots, and both of us have had no problems. We’re very grateful for the vaccines as we are now getting out more and are able to go to church in person. Our church is very careful about safety and the Lord has blessed us with no Covid cases caused by gathering for worship. We are both grateful for our elders and pastoral staff who understand the seriousness of the disease especially for our older congregants.

God’s mercies

In December, Leighton Ford invited me to participate in a videoconference for a group of Charlotte pastors and business leaders with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ (and Dr. Fauci’s boss at the NIH). Dr. Collins began by sharing his testimony of coming to Christ when he was a medical resident at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1970s, and then discussed with us of the process by which the Covid vaccines were made. He answered the questions the business leaders and pastors had, and I left that meeting thinking about how good God is to place one of his followers at the head of these efforts. I left that conversation knowing that the vaccine was both safe and effective, and that in many ways it is a wonderful gift from God designed to alleviate suffering and even death from a horrible disease.

What does that mean for followers of Jesus? Let me suggest several things. First, we can encourage others that the vaccines are both safe and effective. Should everybody get one? If you have some kind of pre-existing condition, you should talk with your doctor and get professional advice. But I think for most of us, the answer is “yes.” Covid-19 is a dangerous airborne disease that can spread easily between people, especially with the new B.117 strain from the United Kingdom spreading throughout North America. And more dangerous variants are ravaging Latin American countries like Brazil, where the death toll has crossed 300,000. Getting a Covid-19 shot is a safe, effective way to protect yourself and others you associate with.

Second, is the Covid-19 vaccine perfect? No, it is not. Nothing is perfect and that is to be expected because we live in a world damaged by sin and the fall of humanity. Will some who are vaccinated get Covid-19? Yes. But the vaccine will reduce the seriousness of the disease and has been demonstrated to keep people out of the hospital, so far. As more people are vaccinated and we get to herd immunity, then the pandemic will end and we can enjoy things like eating indoors at restaurants and going to movies, concerts, and sporting events (and I can’t wait).

Third, we can respond effectively to the propaganda that has swirled around the internet and television for the past year. You know the lies. Covid-19 will simply disappear if we ignore it. Masks are a government plot to control the population and take away your freedom. And my favorite: the vaccine has a nanochip secretly loaded into it that will allow the government to track your every movement. (Someone has spent way too much time reading bad science fiction.) We Christians are people of the truth and people of kindness and mercy, and the vaccines offer a wonderful opportunity for us to encourage others.

So I share my experience with you in hope that you will both consider getting the vaccine when you are able to do so. May Christ have mercy–on you and me and on our congregations and our entire country as we navigate this hard and difficult season.

Daydreams on a Monday Afternoon

Working from home.

My computer, my books, my kitchen window.

Sunny day.

Roses in the garden.

Squirrels climb the mighty oaks.

Birds feast at the feeder.

Silence.

Stillness.

Months of distance…even isolation.

The future unseen.

Hope deferred, but not gone.

Living now in Carolina.

Longing for new Jerusalem.

May Christ have mercy.

Bob Mayer, October 5, 2020.

American Prophet?

Below is a review I wrote that was published in a recent issue of Church History, the quarterly journal of the American Society of Church History. Many fascinating individuals shaped American Christianity in the 19th century and this book looks at one such figure who emerged out of Restorationism and who was somewhat out of the mainstream.

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. Edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Landand Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ix + 365 pp. $34.95 paper.

This book grows out of a 2009 conference of historians and scholars affiliated with the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians held in Ellen Harmon White’s birthplace, Portland, ME. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Adventists in general and Ellen White in particular were seen as inhabiting the margins of protestant Christianity despite their dramatic growth in the United States, Australia, and much of the developing world.

The 44 scholars who gathered to mark the 165th anniversary of the Adventist “great disappointment” included contributors to this volume. Ellen Harmon White wrote over 70,000 pages during her long career, and since her death a voluminous apologetic literature about her has been produced within Seventh-day Adventism. But little historical and theological scholarship has emerged until recently, and this work represents the fruit of the emerging field of Ellen Harmon White studies as a distinctive subset of Seventh-day Adventist and Adventist studies.

The eighteen chapters are framed by historians Grant Wacker and Jonathan Butler. Wacker reminds readers that the nineteenth century in which the major portion of Ellen White’s ministry took place was a time when “Victorian America witnessed a degree of change . . . that progressed from the effervescence of the Second Great Awakening to the stable ordering of the Industrial Revolution,” a transition from “a pre-modern to a modern way of life” (ix).

In that context, Butler emphasizes that Ellen White cannot be understood apart from her roots as a “shouting” Methodist, “whose upbringing had predisposed her to charismatic phenomena” that would shape the essence of her ministry (7). She would become a “prophet” whose charismatic utterances and voluminous writings shaped Adventism “into a domestic religion with her concern for child nurture and education, diet and health, marriage and family” (12).

Early Adventist lecturers were known for their rationalistic explanations of William Miller’s teaching that Christ would return to earth in 1843-1844. Ann Taves describes how Ellen White’s shouting Methodist upbringing framed her response to Millerite prophetic failure and its disastrous impact on Adventist followers.

Theologically, according to Graeme Sharrock, White and her husband James “proposed that [William] Miller was right as to the date, but wrong regarding the event” (54) October 22, 1844 marked not the return of Christ to earth, but “the start of Judgment Day—a complex event centered not on earth but in heaven.” This is a theme that I explore in the first chapter of my book, Adventism Confronts Modernity: An Account of the Advent Christian Controversy Over the Bible’s Inspiration (Wipf and Stock, 2017), and a theme that framed Seventh-day Adventist teaching regarding the “investigative judgment.”

White’s published testimonies read by Adventist individuals and congregations were at the heart of her prophetic identity and “wielded an extraordinary spiritual power among antebellum Adventists” (69). In Ronald Graybill’s words, Ellen White’s “Spirit of Prophecy” allowed Sabbatarian Adventists to “see themselves as the remnant of God’s true church” (79). While Ellen White never held formal denominational office, there is little doubt about her formative role in Seventh-day Adventism both in North America and in Australia, where she lived for nine years from 1891-1900. Her prophetic utterances and writings were supplemented by an extensive speaking schedule. Hence, “most of the medical, education, publishing, and other institutions of the Seventh-day Adventist church,” according to Floyd Greenleaf and Jerry Moon, “are traceable directly or indirectly to counsels of Ellen White” (139).

The chapters at the heart of this volume address Ellen White’s theology. While she was not an academic theologian, three matters were especially important to her. First, according to Fritz Guy, she parted company with most nineteenth-century evangelicals with her claim that biblical inspiration was not verbal but dynamic. “It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired,” in White’s words quoted by Guy, “but the men who were inspired” (149). In her interpretation of Scripture, she was traditional, even fundamentalist, in some ways (for example, her literal reading of the King James Bible) and progressive in others.

Second, in Bart Haloviak’s words, Ellen White identified “the Sabbath as the final testing truth that would pit the obedient children of God against those who instead followed the “beast,” interpreted as a prophetic representation of the papacy” (167). This “third angel message” helped form the unique identity of Seventh-day Adventism. Third, Ellen White reinterpreted the Millerite message of the return of Christ into “a non-falsifiable event,” according to Jonathan Butler. Instead of returning to earth, Christ “had stayed in the sanctuary of heaven and as ‘our High Priest’ moved from the ‘holy’ to the ‘most holy’ place” (182).

Several chapters explore Ellen White’s attitudes toward society, culture, gender, war, slavery, and race. Perhaps most important is her understanding of the relationship between science and faith, a subject explored by Ronald L. Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin. Ellen White saw “true” science as harmonious with faith, but viewed the evolutionary work of Charles Darwin and others as “science falsely so-called” (196), and declared that “the Bible is not to be tested by men’s ideas of science” (197). While her “influence on the [young earth] creationist movement was almost entirely posthumous and largely accidental” (217), it is not surprising that later Seventh-day Adventists like George McCready Price pioneered “flood geology,” an idea that became foundational for 1960s young earth creationist writers like Henry Morris.

Numbers and Schoepflin illustrate this vital aspect of Ellen White’s legacy both in Seventh-day Adventism and in the larger world of American Christianity. It is one reason why this is a valuable collection of essays that historians interested in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will want to read and engage. Ellen Harmon White needs to be seen as a restorationist figure in her own right alongside Francis Asbury, William Miller, Barton Stone,  and others who established uniquely American versions of Christianity.

The writers help us see that much of Ellen Harmon White’s work involved reinterpretation of the Adventist message in the aftermath of the October 1844 disappointment. She offered an interpretation that reshaped Adventist eschatology and merged it with Sabbatarianism, a move that gave Seventh-day Adventists a distinct advantage over other Adventist groups who understood Adventism solely in theological terms. This point allows this reviewer to note one substantive error where the writer indicates that the Advent Christian Church was founded in 1845 (38-39). Actually, the Herald (Evangelical) Adventists organized then, while the Crisis Adventists (called that because of the name of their publication, The World’s Crisis) would later form the Advent Christian Church in 1860.

This collection of essays offers fresh thinking about Ellen Harmon White and points toward the need for a scholarly biography of her life and work. It helps us understand Ellen Harmon White in the context of her time and appreciate her significance in American religious history.