In the movie The Bourne Identity, Italian fishermen rescue an unconscious man floating in the Mediterranean. The man awakes with no memory of who he is. His only lead is the number of a safe deposit box in Switzerland. Assuming the name on a passport found in the deposit box, Jason Bourne, he embarks on a quest to find his real identity. In the whirlwind of action that follows, Bourne discovers he is fluent in multiple languages, lethally proficient in unarmed combat and wanted by very dangerous men.
The waking amnesiac, a much favoured plot device in cinema, is something of a cliché. But it's still so appealing. Why? Each of us has a desperate desire for identity. Who am I? Tell me I’m someone! Tell me I belong! Tell me I have a history, a home, an identity! Identity is essential. Without one we barely “exist”. Having an identity is good and necessary. But not every identity is good or necessary. When Jason Bourne finally discovers his real identity, it's not a comforting one (he is the result of an experimental CIA program to develop a new breed of assassin). That revelation begins a whole new struggle (and, surprise, several more movies to follow!)
Bourne’s psychogenic amnesia may be fictional but it illustrates how our identity is so crucial. Identity brings challenges and opportunities; it both enables and confines us. In our 21st century era Adventist identity faces promise and confrontation. And, like Bourne, one reason is amnesia. I don’t mean the psychogenic amnesia of Jason Bourne but a troubling loss of theological, doctrinal and historical memory. As a result I get the feeling that many Seventh-day Adventists, especially the young or those new in the faith, feel a little like Jason Bourne. They are unsure of their identity. And when they begin to find out they are not sure what to make of it. Why is this?
External challenges: secular and spiritual
Outside of us there are powerful external forces that challenge our identity. Moderate secular forces relegate faith to an individualistic, private matter of the heart. Whereas hostile secularism, most intensely embodied in New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, proclaims faith an incurably dangerous form of irrationality that must be opposed and exposed. Such pressure doesn’t completely eliminate faith. Instead our incurable religiosity morphs into the popular generic spirituality most easily identified by its beloved creed, “I’m spiritual not religious.” This essentially me-based spirituality complements rather than challenges the status quo. It's about personal success, happiness and prosperity, and comes in plenty of non-Christian and Christian forms. This style of spirituality wilts before the slightest accusation of intolerance. It will not confront a dominant moral or ideological consensus even if the consensus is hostile to God or Scripture.
If your faith conflicts with contemporary values and brings you trouble or disadvantage, simply reshape it to something more acceptable.
Feeling the pressure?
This pressure is real and ever-present. It's bad enough that Adventists uphold key Christian moral positions in the area of sexuality or claims that Jesus is the only way to salvation. But, of course, Adventists go further than that. For example, we claim to have been especially raised up by God to herald the second coming of Jesus. We claim the Sabbath is still part of God's binding moral law and will even become a test for the inhabitants of the earth. We claim Christendom got it terribly wrong when it imagined an austere deity bent on subjecting sinners to eternity in a blistering hell. The push back such claims provoke from secular society and contemporary Christianity unnerves many Adventists. They ask, “Do I want an identity that produces such a reaction?”
Internal challenges: distorted versions
It's at this point that spiritual and theological amnesia proves devastating and even lethal. A shallow faith cannot survive testing. External challenges expose internal weaknesses and these turn out to be the real problem. There are two main dangers: firstly, an Adventism without the Advent Himself (Jesus), and secondly, a minimalistic Jesus divorced from His imminent Advent. Adventism without the Advent comes when we allow minor or foreign elements to replace Jesus. Some non-essential, disputable or merely cultural elements (eg KJV only, conspiracy theories, local traditions, legalistic attitudes) found in Adventism are confused with the real essential core. Alternatively, a minimalistic Jesus without His Advent happens when what is most imminent about faith is not the Gospel or Christ’s return but about how He can give me the "best life now". It is when my present emotional experience with Him is more important than His past, present and future work. Or it’s when Jesus becomes the surface front of the social, political, ideological cause most important to me. In both cases what is core (Jesus) and what is distinctive (Adventism) is lost and distorted. Faced with this challenge the poorly prepared amnesiac undergoes an identity crisis that often proves fatal.
Learning from JB
In response to this I suggest we look to JB. Not Jason Bourne. I mean John the Baptist. John is a profound model for Seventh-day Adventists wanting a strong identity that is both balanced and biblically faithful. John managed two very difficult things—he maintained a sense of his unique calling without making his message about himself.
1. A humble confidence
John the Baptist knew his identity was wrapped up in preparing the world for the Messiah (John 1:22,23). Many spoke of a coming Messiah but John was specifically called by God to prepare the world for Jesus. Only a false humility would lead John to back down and say his message was just the same as everyone else’s. It wasn’t. Clear identity was essential to faithfully performing his mission. Seventh-day Adventists believe we are modern John the Baptists called to prepare the world for Jesus' return. If not, then what have we been doing for the past 150 years?
2. The right focus
Interestingly, it was because John’s identity was clear that he never imagined it was about himself. It was about the Messiah. John’s prime role was as a witness to Jesus not as a witness to himself. John “came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light” (John 1:7,8). John’s beautiful words about Jesus were, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Real Adventism is not about Adventism but about Jesus. We are not the light but witnesses to the Light’s soon reappearing.
What we should be about
Our message and method should be about worshipping, obeying, embodying and sharing the full truth about Jesus. This means developing a deep theological, doctrinal, spiritual experience with all that Jesus is (not simply a generic Christianity). Jesus the eternal Son of God; Creator and Law-giver; Lord of the Sabbath; crucified Saviour; our Resurrection; Judge; High Priest; Slayer of beasts, Satan, death, self and sin; returning King and everlasting Friend. If questioned about our identity we shouldn’t be defensive or even focused on it, but lead people to the fullness of Jesus. In following Him they will find themselves walking with us and will join with us freely.
To do this we need to overcome our amnesia. We need to restore our identity by recovering a healthy spiritual, doctrinal and theological memory without the distortions or diversions. This doesn’t mean adopting an extreme version of Adventism or retrieving the Adventism of the 1950s or reproducing every detail of our pioneers' lives and beliefs. Our real identity predates all of us and is found in the fullness of divine revelation. It's a "memory" of the great controversy—the epic story of Christ and His victory over Satan. This story is not about us. We, a mere blip on its vast horizon, are simply the last carriers and stewards of it. It predates us, transcends us and moves far beyond us. The plot line is cosmic and the Hero divine. We are villains and victims. Thus the only honest way to tell the story is admit our complicity in its sin and dependence on Jesus’ incredible divine grace.
Not "me" or "we" but "Him"
This world is trapped in a present-oriented "me" focus. We’re told our wants, needs and personal esteem are what really matters. It's about pleasure and prosperity, comfort, career and consumption. If we come to a "me-centred" world with an "us-centred" message, we are just offering a slightly better spiritual, more communal, version of the same outlook. What is needed by all is to have our worlds invaded by Jesus. Only when people are turned inside out by Him are they ready to share real Advent hope. So let us recover the fullness of Advent truth. But remember that we are signposts; He is the destination. Like John the Baptist, let us have an identity that is about proclaiming His identity. Real Adventism is defined by the Advent of Jesus in all its eschatological, saving, prophetic, timely, sanctifying, spirit-filled, biblical beauty. Therein lies the answer to all identity problems—to have our own swallowed up in the greater identity of Jesus Christ.
Anthony MacPherson is pastor of Plenty Valley and Croydon churches, Vic.