|n 1993 T. Coraghessan Boyle, distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California and critically acclaimed satirist, directed the crosshairs of his fifth novel, The Road to Wellville, squarely at Battle Creek, Michigan. Generally he focused the sites of his satire on the stirring genesis of the health reform movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, aiming specifically at John Harvey Kellogg.
Released as an R-rated film the following year, The Road to Wellville was not critically acclaimed in the motion picture industry, nor was it a commercial success.
The story takes place in 1907 at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Each of the three subplots depicts one of the concerns of the place and times: radical new experimental therapies, the struggle for domination of the sanitarium and health reform generally, and the personal relationships that result from these larger issues.
Neither the book nor the film makes any significant connection between the early years of health reform and the newly formed Seventh-day Adventist Church and its leadership. But the relationship between the two has often been misunderstood or misrepresented.
In fact, popular culture hasn’t often been very kind to Adventists. Depending on where one looks, the Internet and the print medium can be downright hostile. This should come as no surprise. Jesus Himself said in His Beatitudes that His disciples should be happy when they are hated, excluded, and defamed by others, but nowhere does He say they should do anything intentional to prompt such reaction. Even so, often when news arrives of some latest allusion to Seventh-day Adventists in popular culture, it’s tempting to cringe. To duck and cover is an almost reflexive human response.
This is the case even for nonfiction in print and documentary in film. These are two media that purport to deal only in facts. But it can be as possible to distort truth through these forms as it can be for fiction. In either medium the reader, or viewer, must always take into account the worldview from which its producer selects sources, interprets experts and authorities, includes some and omits other information, and so on.
Yet despite the frequent misunderstandings that arise about Adventism, there is also the occasional positive recognition from voices in the increasingly secular culture.
Spotlight on Adventists
Such appears to be the case with a film entitled The Adventists that will be premiering on PBS stations the first week of April to coincide with National Public Health Week, April 5-11. Also available as a DVD, it was produced by Journey Films, a company that makes documentaries on topics of religion, faith, and spirituality. This one-hour program seeks to represent fairly the unique health message that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has advocated since the very earliest years of its organization. At the very time when American society has been embroiled—too often acrimoniously—in an ideological dispute over health care, this film introduces and investigates a spiritual centrality of health that is being completely overlooked by both sides of the issue in the heat of recent political debate.
But politics do not appear to be the motivation for the production of the film The Adventists. What prompted this interest was an invitation to Journey Films founder Martin Doblmeier to show and discuss his film Bonhoeffer on the campus of Loma Linda University in 2004. For more than 20 years, Doblmeier has produced films on such subjects as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Schweitzer, Jean Vanier, and Thomas Jefferson. His topical films have focused on issues such as creativity and forgiveness.
During Doblmeier’s visit to the Loma Linda campus, he was given a tour of the impressive medical institution that it has become and made the casual remark that the story of the Adventist health message would make a good subject for a film. In a later interview for the Voice of Prophecy (VOP) video program “Behind the Scenes,” Doblmeier described his reasons for producing the film. In addition to his description of his first visit to the Loma Linda campus, he added that he had also been previously impressed by the care his mother had received in her later years at Florida Hospital.
The timing seemed to be especially appropriate. “So many people in America right now are thinking in terms of health care,” he told VOP hosts Fred Kinsey and Connie Jeffery. “Our intention with the film was to take a theology that the Adventists have—clearly defined—and put that right into the center of how we should be thinking about health care today.” He also voiced respect for “how deeply thought out the theology of health care was at the center of Adventism.”
“There is a reticence in the media particularly to talk about religion—a fear of that,” Doblmeier says. “But yet at the same time, I thought that longer life and better health were a common denominator that gave us a window to be able to talk about faith in that particular light, and that’s why I thought there would be wide acceptance for this film.”
Fair and Balanced
The result is a media production that is all the more notable in that it has come from a company that has received considerable praise among film critics. Drawing on interviews of Adventist historians, theologians, and medical and church leaders, as well as compelling scenes and stories from various health institutions around North America, it traces the history of what Adventist members have long called “the entering wedge” in the mission of the church.
From there, to explain the roots of the church, The Adventists recounts the even earlier time of the Great Disappointment, when the Millerites, a young Ellen White among them, waited for Christ’s second coming, only to wake the morning of October 23, 1844, to bitter confusion—and then to the need for even more careful study of Scripture.
And then further forward to the meteoric crusade of John Harvey Kellogg—brilliant, charismatic, eccentric, arrogant. His visionary leadership in the establishment of the Battle Creek Sanitarium shook the medical world. Such influential luminaries of the time as U.S. President William Howard Taft, inventor Thomas Edison, trailblazer Amelia Earhart, and businessman J. C. Penney made their way to Battle Creek.
It could be said, however, that the career of John Harvey Kellogg, whose medical education was sponsored by Ellen White, was the second “great disappointment” in Adventist history, though not of as much consequence as the first. Consideration of this can be left to the historians and theologians, but certainly his influence contributed to the full establishment of health as a revolutionary emphasis in American culture and as an integral part of the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
In addition to the historical challenges the church has faced, the film also focuses on a paradox that Adventists take for granted: the convergence of—rather than the conflict between—faith and science. The narration notes with some interest that on the campus of Loma Linda University Medical Center, for example, a vibrant community of faith meets each Sabbath morning only a short walk from the Proton Treatment and Research Center, with all its emphasis on cutting-edge science and world-class technology.
Interviewed for the film, Loma Linda University president Richard Hart addresses this seeming contradiction: “What makes Loma Linda [and presumably Adventism in general] so unique is an attempt to ride the line between both faith and science in which we actually see faith as complementing, directing, and strengthening science.” This “line,” of course, is the subject of considerable discussion in the church today, but Dr. Hart’s description truly does express this connection ideally.
Another brief “chapter,” as Doblmeier characterizes it, in the film is a recounting of the “Baby Fae” issue in the mid-1980s, which sparked worldwide legal and ethical debate. It contrasts the public and the scientific reaction to the work of Dr. Leonard Bailey at that time to that of his work today.
The film also focuses on an awakening in medical science to the importance of current scientific studies pertaining to Adventist longevity. It addresses the irony that a church that focuses on the imminent return of Jesus should be concerned at all about the corporeal here and now.
It cites Dan Buettner’s research project for National Geographic, “The Secrets of Living Longer,” published in November 2005, which he developed into a full book entitled The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Referring to the Adventist Health Study as a “gold standard,” Buettner points out that “the Adventists who most strictly follow the suggestions of the church are living about a decade longer than their American counterparts.”
Interviewed for the film, Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, at 95 years of age an active member of the open-heart surgical team at Loma Linda, says, “People oftentimes ask me about stress and its influence on coronary artery disease. It’s a nice concept that stress has caused you to have coronary artery disease,” he says with a smile, “but it most likely came off your plate.”
The Ripple Effect
From the substantial treatment of the Adventist health message as it’s lived out in Loma Linda, the film explores other medical initiatives in North America as well. It looks at Florida Hospital, the largest admitter of patients in the United States, including a new 400-bed Cardiovascular Institute and Celebration Health, opened in the 1990s as a model for a twenty-first-century hospital in the Disney-designed community of Celebration. Emphasizing the healthful benefits of community and relationships, Celebration Health models a new kind of hospital.
Deborah Kotz, regular writer of health articles for U.S. News and World Report, illuminates what is being attempted there. “Doctors more and more are starting to realize that there’s a lot they don’t know about the human body, [that] there’s a lot they don’t know about healing, and I think that is where spirituality comes into play. They know that if a patient feels connected to other people, that helps in their healing.”
She comments further on the connection between spirituality and health: “There is that sense there that [with regards to one’s health] there’s a higher responsibility. It’s not just to self; it’s to a higher being.”
The Adventists also visits the Kettering Health System and St. Helena Hospital in each location, elaborating further on the unique Adventist interpretation of the nature of spirituality and health.
Throughout the film are frequent visual allusions that draw from procedural forensics shows so popular with today’s TV viewers. The focus on hospital and medical methods and research with all its high-tech gadgetry brings to The Adventists an appeal in its own right. Animations, computer models, cube-view simulations, robotic and remote procedures—all feel very familiar to fans of the CSI franchise and its countless emulators.
In fact, a common theme threads its way through the accounts of the various medical institutions that the filmmakers have selected as representative of Adventist health care in North America: heart health. Cardiovascular centers, heart transplants, fitness and nutrition for the heart—all are variations on this theme. When you think about it, of course, there is probably no more central and crucial emphasis for physical health. When it comes to human longevity, what else would you primarily focus on, after all, than the pump that keeps all the other systems running?
But this emphasis also provides an apt metaphor for the Adventist Church, whose God-given work it is to live out a kind of universal health-care program of grace centered on the well-being of the spiritual heart. It is both an inspiring privilege and a grave responsibility to be a part of this great mission to the world.
Through this 60-minute story of the singular worldview that Adventists bring to the consideration of health care, the millions of viewers of PBS will be afforded the opportunity to give Adventism a close look. What do people think of Ad-
ventists? This is a question of some importance for any thoughtful Adventist viewer, though it should not ever become self-absorbing.
One of the more intriguing—or troubling—questions that this film may present for Adventists is what it means to be an Adventist. Are we truly whom we are pictured to be in this film?
For the church, the film The Adventists is a most generous gift. Certainly we may wish to savor it. And we should hope that it will serve to forward our true mission to lead people to wellness, if not to Wellville. We must further ask ourselves what we each can and should do, personally, to forward that mission.
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Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department. This article was published March 25, 2010.