By Mark Johnson — A painted line ran down the middle of the sidewalk in the center of the school campus. “This line separates the boys’ side from the girls’ side,” our student guide explained. “The boys walk on that side of the sidewalk, and that is their side of the campus. The girls stay on this other side.”
Our family was visiting one of our Church’s boarding academies in the 1960s, looking at potential schools for my sister and me. “That has got to be the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” I thought to myself.
Unfortunately, it was not to remain so.
I didn’t attend that school, but over the next few years I attended four different Adventist academies and an Adventist college. Each of them had their own unique set of rules, customs and regulations. Based on those, it seemed to me that the main purpose of most Adventist schools was not necessarily to ensure a high level of education, but to safeguard their students from being “conformed to the world”, mainly by keeping the boys away from the girls* and by keeping all of them away from drugs, tobacco and alcohol.
The weirdest example of this I found at a boarding school for missionaries’ kids high in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. They had a system of one-star, two-star and three-star social events. For a one-star event, you could invite the girl of your choice. As I recall, there were only two one-star events during the entire school year. For two-star events you could invite anyone except the girl of your choice (the faculty was occasionally fooled because it was difficult to know who was dating whom in such an atmosphere), and for a three-star event, you were either assigned a date, or you rotated, and spent time with each of the girls (except your girlfriend) during the event. It was really weird.
This archaic process made more sense when I learned that there had been several student pregnancies in the preceding years, but it still felt weird. It also highlights the notorious, but not unique, problem that Christians seem to have with sex. The unchurched love to gossip about the sexual exploits of prominent, fallen Christian clergymen and women, but research in neuroscience using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) may help to explain this apparent hypocrisy. It has identified an area in the brain that activates and rewards highly emotional experiences, whether they are induced by drugs, music, sex or religion. Thus, for someone whose religious life is highly emotional, the rewards they receive from their spiritual and sexual lives may be indistinguishable. This can be problematic in relationships.
As a child, it hadn’t taken long to learn that our Church was different. We worshipped on a different day than most others, we played Rook™ instead of poker, and we went to our own separate schools. Officially, we didn’t eat many of the foods others ate, we didn’t drink many of the things others drank, we didn’t dance, we didn’t smoke, and we frowned on the use of makeup and jewelry. To top it all off, we had our own somewhat iconoclastic female prophet.
By socially clustering together, we tended to camouflage our differences, at least from ourselves. We seemed to believe that isolation would provide insulation from temptations and from “outsiders.” This produced our own cultural hierarchy and status symbols. We had our own magazines and books. We had our own television shows, record labels and recording “stars.” We had our own food companies, making many food products that only weird people seemed to enjoy. We had our own youth groups. We had rather inward-looking church congregations and we “partied” with ourselves for Saturday night entertainment.
There were some among us, however, who stood out as being particularly odd. In the church of my youth, there was a family in which the mother and girls always wore long-sleeved blouses, with pants under their skirts and dresses. There was a couple who ate so much garlic that you needed to stand upwind, and, there were rail-thin “nuts and berries” folks who seemed to be constantly dyspeptic but smugly believed they would live forever. They had a special scowl of disapproval for the young people of the congregation.
There were also those folks who just looked and talked weird. They always included a, “happy Sabbath,” or a “thank the Lord,” even if you were talking about something as secular as football. They seemed happy, and were typically friendly, with a personality that some have called “Midwest nice”, but it appeared that their highest form of humor consisted of corny stories. They seemed to feel that using painful puns made them clever. Their personae often came across as being more pleasantly plastic than human. Unfortunately, many of our pastors fell into this category.
We actually took pride in being weird. We believed we had “the truth”, so what did we care what others thought of us? We memorized Bible verses that praised those who were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” We lustily sang about being pilgrims in a world that was not our home. We didn’t belong here with the worldlings, we were just passing through to our glorious reward. Unfortunately, it took me years to learn that being peculiar, in the biblical sense, meant having a special, or unique, relationship with God, not being weird. I also learned that this world apparently is our home, and will be so for eternity.
Perhaps at this point I should clarify a couple of things. By its very nature, this is a critical and judgmental article. Any critic opens themselves up to receiving criticism in return. This is one reason I have included a “we” in the title, not a “you.” I wholeheartedly include myself in the weird group being examined. The truth is that every group and tribe is weird in some way. That’s one reason they’re a separate group or tribe.
I have also discovered that it is very difficult to define “weird.” Psychologists have struggled with this as well. There seems to be some consensus, however, that you are weird if you are considerably socially awkward or inappropriate; if you are significantly non-conventional; if you don’t mix well with others; if you are really naïve; if you are inappropriately hyperactive or childish; or if you have truly odd beliefs compared to the norm. While the word may be difficult to define, I believe most of us “know it when we see it,” to use the phrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart coined when attempting to define pornography.
Whether or not you believe Ellen G. White was inspired, it is undeniable that she had an enormous influence on our Church and its culture. It is also true that some of her teachings regarding diet and fashion, among others, have caused us to be different from the rest of the world, and have increased our appearance of weirdness. But a summary of her thoughts on this topic reveals that she was actually quite open-minded.
She plainly states that by believing the Bible and obeying God’s commands we will be seen as being different (“singular”) from most other people. But she then tells us not to be weird about it. It is not our duty to be out of fashion. We should not be odd in our dress or diet just to be different. We shouldn’t be any weirder than we have to be to avoid sin and to honor God. In fact, it’s wrong to be different than others unless being different is required for us to do right. Being different just to be different is “positively detestable” and damages our influence with others. God doesn’t require us to have strange, odd doctrines and theories. “There is a medium position in these things. Oh, that we all might wisely find that position and keep it.”
When I imagine the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the future, I see a people who are different from most because they are true to the principles of the Bible and they shun sin. But they are not weird. At least they’re not any weirder than they have to be, or any weirder than most people are. Through wise counsel and example, they immunize their children against using harmful substances, unhealthy sexual relationships and other destructive practices, but they do so in ways that make good sense. They mix freely with others and are not socially awkward or inappropriate. When people think of Adventists they don’t focus on their odd behaviors, doctrines and theories, they don’t tremble at their view of the judgment, but they marvel at the love and compassion they show for others, based on a most loving picture of the character of God.
And they don’t use puns.
–Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at [email protected]
*At that time there was no consideration of LGBTQ relationships in our schools, although I am aware of several that occurred, and the boarding school model actually facilitated them.