Most Adventists, myself included, greeted with joy the news that Angus T Jones, the actor from the hit sitcom Two and a Half Men, had recently become an Adventist. It was moving listening to the testimony he shared with Voice of Prophecy. The upshot of this initial winsome witness was a focus on meeting Jesus with the potential to attract people to the Gospel.
Then everything got disastrously derailed. Angus T Jones released a media clip in which he agonised over the immorality in the show Two and a Half Men. The problem was not his comments about the moral content of the sitcom—after all, the show does indeed glorify sin and immorality. The real problem was that he did so in conjunction with conspiratorial Adventism. Almost instantly everything changed from a story about a young actor discovering Jesus, to a story about a young man sucked in by crazy claims about the Freemasons (apparently Jay-Z is one), the Illuminati, bizarre rants likening President Obama to Hitler, and more. In the eyes of many people, Adventists went from a group with a message about Jesus capable of grabbing the heart of a young Hollywood star, to a weird, paranoid cult indulging in the most ludicrous claims and manipulating a young man. The Church wisely and sensitively distanced itself from the conspiracy connection but the damage was done. A credible witness was greatly diminished.
A wake-up call!
The high profile incident provides an ideal time for Adventists to think long and hard about our mission and methodology. Maybe God allowed this to happen to wake us up to the dangers of conspiracy theories and the disastrous effect it has on our witness. Satan would love nothing better than to shift the focus from Christ to baseless conspiracies. Unfortunately, he appears to have many sincere but unwitting accomplices.
Adventists are to help people embrace the glorious victory of Jesus in the great controversy, not join in paranoid conjectures about an imaginary grand conspiracy. There is a vast world of difference between being a great controversy Adventist and a grand conspiracy Adventist. The way each narrates history, handles Scripture, shapes discipleship, impacts church community, and forms the mind and heart are often very different. One is our inspired calling from God, the other is a twisted product of man. In the introduction to her book The Great Controversy, Ellen White explains her methodology and aim. She says: “The great events which have marked the progress of reform in past ages are matters of history, well known and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world; they are facts which none can gainsay.” What a contrast to conspiratorial Adventism! This should be our approach. Tragically, conspiracy Adventism turns all of this on its head. Crazy, dubious claims are made the essence of the message.
A message: open, public and verifiable
Ellen White's approach is what healthy Adventism has always used. The foundational bedrock prophecy for Adventism is Daniel 2. Here God nestled prophecy within well attested facts of history. Does anyone doubt the exploits of Alexander the Great? Who isn’t fascinated by the amazing archaeological discoveries about ancient Babylon, Greece, Persia and Rome? This is our message. Not fervid conjectures about handshakes and pentagrams. Not spinning a yarn about symbols on the American dollar bill and fantasising that somehow a secret global conspiracy has been established. There is no mistaking the world of difference between the two approaches. One is exciting and the other is embarrassing.
The reality is that history is out of anyone’s control, except God's. The rise and fall of empires is something that God oversees (see Daniel 2:20-22). No empire can resist this and no human organisation is secretly controlling it. Not even Satan can control history, let alone a rabble of Freemasons or Illuminati!
Have we forgotten Murphy’s Law?
There is of course the more obvious fact, one known to all people by constant, unyielding and often painful experience: human beings are simply too flawed, fallible, stupid, disorganised, selfish, competitive and gossip prone to secretly control the world. And yet conspiracy theorists credit conspirators with god-like powers. Somehow conspirators can see the future, manage countries and superpowers, keep irreconcilable political enemies submissively on side, and effortlessly orchestrate wars, elections and financial crashes. Are these gods or humans? I would suggest that Murphy’s Law helps us see this for what it really is—an embarrassing flight of fancy that keeps crashing up against the stone cold wall of reality.
Conspiracy Adventism approaches history in a way reminiscent of Dan Brown and his book The Da Vinci Code. Did you ever wonder how Dan Brown was able to "prove" that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and became the Progenitor of the Merovingian kings of France? Symbology! This is the very same methodology that conspiracy theorists heavily rely upon. Forget facts, documents and the critical analysis of sources. Symbology can prove anything. And it’s much easier than having to deal with real history.
From Christ to conspiracy
I have never yet seen an Adventist conspiracy theory presentation that didn’t dramatically move the focus away from Jesus Christ and onto the wildest speculation. Jesus becomes a minor supporting act. Front and centre are always the phantom conspirators and of course the heroic conspiracy theorist himself. Conspiracy theory parasitically lives off its improper attachment to Christianity. And, inevitably, the parasite always ends up killing its host.
From conspiracy to controversies
Paul has strong words for those who turn the church away from the truth to speculative fables: “As I urged you . . . charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3,4; see also 1 Timothy 4:7 and 2 Timothy 4:4). In Titus, after encouraging a devotion to the Gospel and good works, Paul warns: “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9). As a pastor you soon learn what produces healthy discipleship and what leads to fanaticism, perpetual immaturity and a harsh, argumentative spirit. Devotion to conspiracy theory is a prime example. Obedience to Paul’s words would immediately eliminate it from Adventism.
Conspiracy theories raise questions of ethics and morality. My observation is that conspiracy theories place advocates in a position where truth telling is compromised. Unable to offer clear evidence, the temptation to overcompensate, exaggerate and resort to embellishments is almost irresistible. When does it all descend into simple dishonesty? The ease with which any event or person is implicated into the conspiracy reinforces the impression that things are being made up. A classic yet appalling example of this is the frequent accusation that a particular Adventist scholar, pastor or administrator is really an undercover Jesuit. I guess this is not merely dishonest—it is slander. This is the fruit of a paranoid mindset that disdains public verifiable evidence. The ethical quality of our community can only degenerate. There is a price to pay for giving comfort to conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy real and imagined
Of course secret societies exist and are wrong. A Christian should never join one. They advance their own interests and often undermine justice. They bind people together in associations which are counter to Christ. Do small conspiracies happen? Of course! Thousands are happening right now. Governments, businesses, armies, politicians, societies (secret or otherwise), church members and probably your own kids are conspiring to various degrees. The world is a ceaseless realm of competing interest groups. Somewhere in the world some faction of a political party is conspiring to oust their leader in a coup. Australians witness this every election cycle. However, this does not in any way validate grand conspiracy theories, which are a completely different order of claim. Just because humans can now run 100 metres in under 10 seconds doesn’t make credible the claim that they will soon be running 100 metres in less than a second. Orders of magnitude mean everything when reasoning from the known to the unknown. Conspiracies do not justify grand conspiracy.
What will you be?
Most church members I know who are sympathetic to conspiracy theories nevertheless limit the time and focus they give to them. Thankfully, the centrality of the Gospel in their lives squeezes out any significant impact the theories might have. However, this is not always the case and sometimes conspiracy theory bears its unhelpful fruit. My prayer is that we will become great controversy Adventists not grand conspiracy Adventists. There's a world of difference between the two. What will you encourage?
Anthony MacPherson is pastor of Plenty Valley and Croydon churches, Victoria.