The book The Reformation and the Remnant: The Reformers Speak to Today’s Church, penned by a lawyer-turned-theologian currently serving as a professor of church history at the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, seeks to address a cluster of contemporary Adventist issues both from the perspective of Protestant Reformation history and a focus on ideological positioning so far as various convictions in the contemporary church are concerned. References to “liberals,” “fundamentalists,” and “centrists” abound throughout the book with regard to different ideas and their alleged place on contemporary Adventism’s spectrum of thought.Read More
The New Gnosticism, or the Conspiracy Mongers
Conspiracy theories have always been around. I first encountered them as a teenager. Allow me to confess that I went through a phase where I was attracted to conspiracy theories. Around age 14, I read and was quite enthusiastic about a book titled None Dare Call it Conspiracy. In high school, I firmly believed there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy, and wrote a senior term paper arguing that there were two shooters at Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. (I have since learned more about evidence, and have repented of my naïve, teenage views.)
There is a conventional list of secret organizations that forms the architecture of all conspiracy theories; the “usual suspects” include the Knights Templars, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, the Bilderbergers, the Trilateral Commission, the Federal Reserve, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Skull & Bones Society (Yale), the Bohemian Grove, and the Belizean Grove (a female counterpart to the Bohemian Club). (A recent addition was an outfit known as “the Priory of Sion,” featured in the books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. But, alas, the Priory of Sion has been exhaustively debunked as a hoax; it never actually existed as depicted in those novels.)
Typically, international Jewry is the villain at the center of conspiracy theories. The famous antisemitic literary hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is an archetype of the genre, taught as truth in public schools in Nazi Germany and still a bestseller in the Muslim world today. Given its ongoing popularity, Protocols is probably the most noteworthy piece of conspiracy-mongering in human history. A few years ago, international communism was frequently featured as the villain of conspiracy theories, but even in communism's heyday it was usually depicted as merely a tool of, or a front for, international Jewry.
In Seventh-day Adventist circles, the basic conspiratorial architecture—the Illuminati, the Freemasons, etc.—remains the same but, in place of the Jews, the Papacy is cast in the role of villain, and the Jesuits are the secret agents who run the world behind the scenes. A book I recently perused claimed that the Jesuits were “the secret terrorists” who were behind every assassination of a U.S. President, and were even behind the sinking of the Titanic. This same author has another book arguing that the “black pope” (the “general” of the Society of Jesus) rules the world, that Jesuits control the U.S. Presidency, that the Jesuits have planned all the wars of the 20th Century, etc.
Another popular (in Adventist circles) conspiracy theorist argues that the religion of Islam is the creation of the Catholic Church, that Saddam Hussein died in 1999, four years before an American-led invasion of Iraq was launched to remove him from power, that the logos of all major sports teams worldwide include occult symbolism, that the European identity card, when turned upside down, depicts the goat of Mendes a Satanic symbol, and that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was actually an inside job in which the buildings were pre-wired with explosives (making this person a “9/11 Truther,” as proponents of this all-too-common conspiracy theory have come to be known).
What is the appeal of conspiracy theories? If well presented, as in the novel Holy Blood, Holy Grail, conspiracy theories are quite entertaining, yet I have found genuine history to be more entertaining. The real appeal of conspiracy theories is the desire for, and pride in, secret knowledge. Conspiracy theorists are a contemporary echo of a 2nd Century heresy known as Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that the material world was evil, and that esoteric knowledge was the way of salvation from this evil world. Knowledge of facts hidden to most others was, to the Gnostic (from the Greek gnostikos, meaning “learned”), the path to liberation.
Conspiracy theories seem harmless to many, but they are anything but harmless. There are a number of very real dangers awaiting those who embrace conspiracy theories, including the following:
Where's the Love?
If I have the gift of prophecy and can understand all secrets and every form of knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains but have no love, I am nothing. 1 Cor. 13:2
Conspiracy theories typically have not been innocent speculation. They have often been used to incite hatred against those who are said to be running things behind the scenes, typically the Jews. Actual violence, and even mass slaughter, has sometimes resulted from the promotion of conspiracy hoaxes such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When we Adventists present our interpretations of Bible prophecy, we need to do so in love. We want to communicate love for Roman Catholics, many of whom are sincere Christians who are following all the truth that they know. We do not not want to incite hatred or unreasonable fear of Catholics. When we present Bible prophecy, we point out, with sadness, that the known facts of history show that the Roman Church answers the biblical description of the “little horn” in Daniel. It is not a close case; there is no need to add shaky or disputable “facts,” or conspiracy theories, in a misguided attempt to bolster the case, which brings me to my next point.
Gilding the Lily
A conspiracy-mongering filmmaker has uploaded to YouTube.com a video entitled “The Jay-Z Deception,” claiming that rapper “Jay-Z” (Shawn Corey Carter, b. 1969) is a Freemason. Our filmmaker claims that Mr. Carter has titled his albums, “Blueprint” “Blueprint2” and “Blueprint3” to correspond with the degrees of Freemasonry he has achieved. The three horizontal lines on the album cover for “Blueprint3” are said to represent the Egyptian trinity of Ptah, Ra, and Amun (also known as Osiris, Isis and Horus). The initiation rite of the 9th degree of Freemasonry involves an apron depicting a decapitation in which a sword is held in the the right hand and a severed head in the left hand. Our filmmaker argues that the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq in 2004 was carried out exactly as depicted on the Freemason apron, and was a signal to all Freemasons and Illuminatists to begin to bring about the New World Order.
If these wild accusations are true, what should we do? What could we do in response? Well, it would be a good idea not to listen to Shawn Carter's “music” or watch his videos. But does anyone really need to believe that Mr. Carter is a Freemason in order to want to avoid his “creative output”? I think not. Here are the lyrics (just the first verse and the chorus) to Mr. Carter's “Is that Yo Bitch":
[Lyrics have been removed.]
And who could forget Mr. Carter's classic, “Nigga What, Nigga Who?” in which he glorifies gun violence and murdering anyone who snitches to the police:
[Lyrics have been removed.]
The rest of Mr. Carter's oeuvre is along these same lines, rapping about “niggaz,” drugs, gangs, murder, “bitches,” etc.
I cannot imagine that anyone would think Shawn Carter's output of obscenity, filth, and crude sex references would be acceptable if only he weren't a Freemason. Asserting that Mr. Carter is a Freemason is an instance of “gilding the lily,” which, idiomatically, means to make a superfluous addition to something that is already complete. The case for avoiding Mr. Carter's work is complete upon a quick survey of his lyrics, which are utterly unfit for any civilized human being, much less a Christian. Who cares whether he has ties to secret organizations? Why promote a disputable conspiracy theory about him when that which anyone can easily verify shows him to be far beyond the pale of Christian entertainment?
Studying what is not uplifting
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:8
Conspiracy theories are to be avoided for the same reason that the rap of Shawn Carter is to be avoided: it is unedifying even when it is not soiling, which it almost always is. To get deeply involved with studying evil is damaging to one's spiritual health. It is interesting that Ellen White acknowledged the existence of secret societies, and, in the strongest possible terms, warned Christians not to join them, but she never wanted to explore in detail what they were up to. To the contrary:
“I have been permitted to look in upon these secret societies, their feasts, their order, their works, and my prayer has been, ‘Hide them from my sight forever. Let me not understand more.’ One thing I do know, that those who remain in connection with them will be burned up with the bundles of tares, one with them in the last day. Manuscript Releases, vol. 20, p. 286
“Let me not understand more,” she said. Why? Because studying the deeds of darkness is not the best way to triumph in one's spiritual quest. To the contrary, we are to study Jesus Christ and His works of love and mercy. That is the spiritual food that will best nourish us on our pilgrim journey. It is enough to know that we are not to join secret societies, on pain of eternal death; there is no need to try to tease out their hidden, occult purposes, or speculate as to what crimes they may have caused to be committed in the past. To do so is to dwell on darkness.
Like the original Gnostics, who believed that all matter was evil, the new Gnostics believe that practically all states, institutions and organizations are Satanically (or Jesuitically) controlled, including—as some Adventist conspiracy mongers strongly hint—the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This has the effect of discouraging those who swallow the conspiracy theories. After all, what point is there in striving to vindicate truth, to keep God's church on the right track, when unseen forces control matters behind the scenes, and our efforts are doomed in advance?
The truth is that not all institutions are Satanically controlled. All human institutions are tainted by human sin, but that is far different from saying that everything is run by the adversary. There are limits on Satan's power. Satan in not self-existent (Ezek. 28:15), he cannot read our thoughts (Dan. 2; Mat. 4), he is not omnipresent, he is not omnipotent, and he is not the sovereign of the universe. Those who are in Christ can overcome Satan (1 John 2:13-14; Rev. 12:11) whose days are numbered (Rom. 16:20). Demonic powers cannot separate us from God’s love in Christ (Rom. 8:37-39), and Christ has assured us that the powers of hell will not gain control of His church (Mat. 16:18).
Although Satan is not in control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, through the Jesuits or otherwise, there is a struggle over its character and the direction it will take. Many “cultural Adventists” would like to see the church jettison some or all of its distinctive doctrines and become just another evangelical Christian denomination. Others would like to see doctrine de-emphasized altogether, and subordinated to social welfare-type charitable outreach. If our Church is to continue to pursue its historic commission of heralding the soon return of Jesus Christ to earth and calling the world to worship on the day God hallowed and set aside as a memorial to His creative act, then we will need every believing Adventist at his post of duty. Moreover, we must not be demoralized by phantom conspiracies, indulging a fatalistic pessimism that the battle is already lost, the outcome determined by secret conspiracies. To the contrary, we must stand at our battle stations energized, knowing that the issue is not decided and our part may be crucial.
There is indeed a struggle over the direction of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As with all polities of any significant size, the Adventist Church has a right, a left, and a center, and the center determines the direction of the church, depending upon which side they align with. As with all polities, the right and the left are competing with each other for the support of this broad, non-ideological center.
When conservative Adventists embrace conspiracy mongering, it hurts us in the political struggle in the church. Liberals use the wild and unsubstantiated conspiracies to discredit the conservative doctrinal beliefs with which the conspiracy theorist is also associated. It gives the other side a weapon they can use against us, and they are using it with gusto. Just last year, a liberal publication used the conspiracy theories of one conservative evangelist to try to discredit his creationism. The argument goes like this: (1) this man believes nutty things about Saddam Hussein, the terrorist attack on the twin towers, etc., (2) he is also a young earth creationist, therefore (3) young earth creationism is just as nutty as conspiracy mongering. This is a logical fallacy, a non sequiter, and also a form of guilt by association, but it nevertheless has argumentative or rhetorical value. The stakes are too high to hand liberal, “cultural” Adventists the means by which they can marginalize and dis-empower conservative Adventists who still believe and teach the doctrines of the Church.
Putting away childish things
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Cor. 13:11.
Do you remember when Cracker Jack and cereal boxes came with cheap plastic toys inside? (Do they still come with toys inside?) One of my all-time favorite cheap plastic toys was the “secret decoder ring.” Conspiracy theories function intellectually like the secret decoder ring, allowing the neo-Gnostic to cut through the fog of war, the many details and complex, multiple causations of history, the welter of conflicting expert opinion, and get right to the truth of the matter. They allow him to “decode” what remains unknown and mystifying to his neighbors. In sum, conspiracy theories have an appeal that is intellectually immature. But unlike the secret decoder ring, conspiracy theories are not harmless toys. They can do real damage, most of all to the person who delves too deeply into them.
It is time for conservative, believing Adventists to signal that conspiracy theories are not, or are at least no longer, an acceptable part of any evangelist's, lecturer's, or filmmaker's toolkit. It is time to put conspiracy theories away, along with the other relics of childhood and adolescence.
I confess, I made up this word, at least half of it--along with my good friend Mark’s help. Two things were on my mind that night as we drove back to Ohio from Philadelphia. One, the monotonous sound that windshield wipers make after 200 miles, and second, I couldn’t believe that I had actually met the Archangel Michael in Philadelphia! The fact that he was out-of-uniform made it even more of a shock to me. We had just attended our first Adventist Theological Society meeting (1995) and “Michael” showed up unannounced. At least that’s who he said he was. A somewhat unkempt fellow with blue jeans and a scraggly moustache, he freely told all who would listen who he was. He also kept interrupting the speaker during the meetings. He was not a Michael, some Michael, or any Michael--no he was THAT Michael. We were speechless.
Fast-forward to the Pacific Northwest. On a trip there recently I learned about a new prophecy. Michael Jackson was not dead. Not only is he alive, he is with his aging father-in-law, probably eating boiled whitefish with mint sauce in Singapore. Elvis Presley. They are both waiting for the appointed time when they will come back and inaugurate the 144,000 in a world-wide revival! This will happen in 2012-–according to the uhhh...prophecy (I’m not making this up).
Then, my wife and I were in Houston at the 2011 GYC with our oldest son (Dylan) and his wife Amanda). As they were walking to the hotel one day, a fellow with a three-button* beard approached them and handed Dylan a tract about beards. He was a big fan of male facial hair, so much so that he was campaigning against the wholesale slaughter of beards & mustaches. Armed with a solitary verse in the Bible (Leviticus 19:27), our furry friend was doing his best to bring bewhiskered righteousness to anyone who would listen.
“Is this a salvation issue?“ Dylan asked him. “I think it is,” he replied. “Have you had any converts to this…uhhh…Beard-ology?” “I’m trying to convert people,” he admitted. “And a few are interested! There was this one fellow in the Atlanta airport, and I shared the truth with him, and prayed for him. Then the airline lost his shaver...so I know it was the work of God!” He was rather zealous. And rather wooly.
Each of these three stories is true and their themes lie dangerously close to (if not altogether beyond) the ragged edge of reality. In a time when we need the empowering story of the Everlasting Gospel, many strange stories abound. More and more people are developing their own private scoop and that brings me to the title of this article. (If you have a better term, feel free to share it. I’m open to suggestions.)
“Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned?” (Proverbs 6:27) Scoopism is a collection of private ideas, knowledge, interpretations, thoughts, impressions, notions or prophecies. In each of us, including myself, I believe there exists a temptation to hallow our own perspective even if it violates the Scriptural warning in 2 Peter 1:20. Most of us resist that temptation on the basis of humility, fellowship with other believers, and a profound respect for the balance we find in Scripture. But there are three other reasons for Scoopsim that I will explore.
Pride. Each of us struggles with pride–it was that one sin that caused the fall of Lucifer in heaven. When a proud heart is combined with fear and eschatology, it gives way to an almost unlimited display of theological innovation. Some of them are pretty bizarre. And dangerous.
Delay. The Adventist faith took shape around the central proposition that the same Jesus who made us and saved us is coming back soon. Forewarned in Matthew 24:48 & 25:1-13, we have to admit that there has been a delay in the Second Coming. The Advent Movement is confronted now by a situation unknown to its past. We are reminded of the notable statement published in 1909: “Great changes are soon to take place in our world and the final movements will be rapid ones.” I submit to you, this prophecy is fulfilled. Not until this century have we been required to cope with change so rapid, leading to ends so alien to Christian values, yet marketed in such alluring format. Peter foresees a generation laden with disbelief in Christ’s coming and saying, “Much time has passed, so why continue to believe?” This, I think, gives rise to strange new ideas and theories. Scoopism.
If this church distances itself from the sense of immediacy of both the continuing presence of Christ and the coming end of the world; it will lose the core of its message and mission. Assurance of Salvation. The last reason for Scoopism, is something that occurred to me recently. Many people are looking for assurance of salvation, a principle that eludes them for various reasons. Unresolved guilt, fears, and just negative-thinking in general can paralyze people and steal their peace. When peace leaves, it creates a vacuum. It hurts. And many things can flow into that vacuum as we grope for self-generated assurance of salvation. Enter Scoopism. Here is the amazing part: When my pet theories and ideas become my special auto-developed truth, then the fewer people that believe in it–the more saved I am! The ultimate goal then of this sanctified narcissism would be to get the believers of my special “truth” down to ONE PERSON. It’s bad when peace leaves our hearts, because our ability to love often goes with it. “In the last days men will be lovers of self…”
Solution. What is the solution to Scoopism? It is threefold.
We must humble ourselves in the sight of God (James 4:10). God is watching. We kneel down in His presence and repent of the pride in our lives. He will then lift us up and put us where we ought to be (v. 4:10b). When we are humble, we are useful to God (Psalm 10:17).
The custodians of the talents in Matthew 25 are in charge while the Master is away. What happens? He returns unannounced and says, “Bring Me your talents, and what you have done with them.” You know the rest of the story. It seems clear that Jesus intended us to occupy while busily doing His work, but ever living in the prospect of his soon return. This pattern builds maturity, and it sets the pace for the final generations who are commissioned for the task of bearing the Three Angel’s messages to the world. We don’t have time for Scoopism.
Ultimately, peace is missing from our lives because we have lost contact with Jesus. We may have stepped over the line of God’s Law or allowed lies into our lives, causing turbulence within. However it happens, the end result is a “Check Heart” light flashing on the instrument panel of our life. God allows this in His mercy–-to wake us up. When we Biblically resolve the issue that has stolen our peace, God restores two precious ingredients into our lives--peace and joy. With peace, comes blessed assurance as the song says, and with joy a renewed love for others.
*A three-button beard is a beard that covers the top three buttons of a man’s shirt. In my Anabaptist heritage, it is not uncommon to see three and four-button beards, and on rare occasions a five-button masterpiece.