By Becky De Oliveira
I’ve done graphic design, including hundreds—perhaps thousands—of assignments for Seventh-day Adventist institutions and organizations, for more than two decades. My experience leads me to conclude that the authenticity problem in the Adventist church can be summed up in one word: earrings.
Try to guess how many times I’ve removed earrings from a photo using Photoshop. Let me put it this way: If I just had a dime for every time I’d be—in the words of country singer Maren Morris—“sitting on a big [mild expletive] pile of dimes.”
Not only have I removed earrings (and necklaces and bracelets and nose rings and lip rings and eyebrow rings and finger rings) from stock photos of models who are not personally known to anyone in the church, but I have had to erase them from pictures of people who actually go to church every week wearing these items. Everyone can see that they are wearing them. So who are we trying to fool? And how must the photographed person feel when they see their edited photo? They certainly would be aware that their earrings and other “adornments” have been removed. What does this communicate exactly? It doesn’t seem to say, “Come as you are.”
When I was editor of a publication called LIFE.info, designed to be a Christian lifestyle magazine with topics that most anyone might relate to, I once had to write a letter of apology to the entire Adventist Church in Scotland. If memory serves me correctly, it was because I’d accidentally neglected to edit out the advice of our non-Adventist nutrition writer who had suggested that white meat, such as chicken, was a healthy option, and that alcohol should be consumed “in moderation.” I’m well aware of the official Adventist stance on meat and alcohol—but these pieces of advice were in line with what most nutritionists would recommend. And this kind of “editing” seems to neglect the fact that many Adventists are meat eaters. Some of them drink and wear earrings. Adventists view pornography. They get divorced. They shout at one another in the car on the way to church. They take drugs and abuse children and beat their wives. Some of them sing along to rock/rap/country/hip-hop songs with objectionable lyrics. Not all of them do all of these things, but some of them do some of these things, at least some of the time. But we can’t have people thinking we’re falling short of the standards, even
if these standards (not wearing earrings) are not standards anyone else would even recognize as indicative of holiness. My brother and I, as adults, have often commented that the central oddest feature of our upbringing in Adventist churches and schools was the utter lack of perspective. Is drinking coffee really just as sinful as embezzling from your employer? We were taught—mostly implicitly—that all sins are equal. No wonder Adventists have trouble with authenticity. What a burden to carry.
I can’t quite figure it out. The church leaders—usually communications professionals—who have asked me to remove jewelry from photos are always sheepish and apologetic about it. They don’t care about the jewelry. But nor do they feel like fielding endless rabid phone calls from the faithful. (Dear reader, that may well be you.) I’ve also sat in hundreds of Sabbath School classes where we’ve discussed these sorts of issues and everyone agrees that we should lay them to rest, that people should be accepted without reservation no matter what they happen to be wearing. At least half the women in any given group are them- selves wearing earrings and rings and necklaces and bracelets. Many have tattoos or nose rings—or both. Admittedly, the churches I have generally attended are not on the more conservative end of the spectrum—and I certainly sympathize with people who make the personal choice not to wear jewelry. I know many Adventists still make that choice, but it seems that most people favor extending grace toward others and allowing them to be as they are—at least in matters that can be designated as “style over substance.” We all talk about living love and modeling Christ’s character in accepting people and allowing them to grow. So who exactly are all the people—these teaming swarms—who freak out when they see a photograph of a woman wearing earrings and promptly get on the horn to complain? I’m not sure anyone will admit to being such a person. I’ll wager that at the average church, if you asked for a show of hands, not a single hand would appear. Who is doing all this intimidating of soft targets, mostly church employees and young women?
I am a researcher and a topic I’d love to study is the phenomenon of individuals issuing anonymous death threats—often for surprisingly trivial reasons. When British comedian Sue Perkins was named as a possible replacement for Jeremy Clarkson as Top Gear host, she received dozens of death threats, including one in which the individual indicated he’d like her to burn to death.
This is just an example of the kind of thing that passes for discourse these days. But here’s the most important thing: No one readily admits to issuing death threats. No one brags about it on Facebook. Statistically speaking, given the number of death threats that occur each year (when Obama was president, there were apparently 30 threats per day against him alone), you or I must know people who issue death threats. Unless, of course, they are all done by a 400-pound guy sitting on his bed in New Jersey.
It would follow that we must also know the people making enraged calls about earrings. They are among us, perhaps talking about how much they value authenticity.
Do We Really Want Authenticity?
Malcolm Gladwell talks about how consumers say they want one thing while really wanting another. He uses coffee as an example, saying, “If I asked all of you what you want in a coffee . . . every one of you would say I want a dark, rich, hearty roast. What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? . . . somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee . . . . But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that I want a milky, weak coffee.”
I wonder sometimes if we are the same—we say we want “authenticity” but what we really want is conformity. I had a client once for several years who always insisted she wanted a really “edgy” design but she always chose something traditional, usually based around a navy blue color scheme.
There are many reasons we struggle with authenticity— like all people do. There is the continual sway of social media and the need to impress other people, for instance. But I don’t think we can discount the possibility that we don’t really want it or encourage it. Perhaps one reason authenticity is so hard to come by in our churches is that there is a size-able if somewhat hidden population that is uncomfortable allowing people to exist simply as they are without kicking back. I don’t know that death threats are commonplace in our churches, but other kinds of intimidation are, even if these are subtle and pitched as “concern.”
We have a great deal to gain from being ourselves and accepting others as themselves (baring, of course, violent, abusive, or criminal behavior). I have to believe that God created us each for a reason and that existing fully as the people He made us to be, rather than weak copies of a supposed ideal, is part of what we are here to do. The strength of our individual characters is what allows us to do great things in the name of God, not merely abstain from sins or behaviors that might be frowned upon by our communities.
If we are to have faith communities that truly exist in authenticity, we have to really mean it when we say we want our “coffee” dark, rich, and hearty. (Note: When I say “dark coffee,” I mean “authenticity.” It’s a metaphor.) Perhaps it is an acquired taste, one that we must begin learning to appreciate now. The Bible indicates that this is what God wants from us—honesty: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John1:8, ESV). Being authentic means accepting our own imperfections along with those of others; it means cultivating a culture where authenticity is actually encouraged.
–Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Email her at: [email protected]