February 16, 2011

Sabbath, Movies, and the Plains of Moab


Illustration by Steve Creitz
Does the church speak to today’s younger generation? Do today’s people cherish yesterday’s values? Can factional divisions within churches and between generations be reconciled?
Controversies over falling standards (e.g., music and appropriate worship styles) have always been with us. But are we learning from these interchanges? There is good evidence to suggest that while we have been preoccupied with standards, we may have in fact been distancing ourselves from the ideals of Scripture. This article illustrates the dilemma of failing to get it right in explaining one church “standard” (theater attendance) to ensuing generations, and suggests how Scripture deals with the issue of passing on values with credibility and power to the next generation.
Do You See It?
One example of slipping “church standards” is the matter of theater attendance. There was a time when the church’s young adults were told to avoid the theater at all costs, because the devil was there. In the mid to latter part of the nineteenth century that may well have been the case, as “women of the night” regularly plied their “wares” up and down the rows of the darkened theater balconies.1 It was not the place for a Christian young man to be if he wanted to retain his purity.
Then in the early twentieth century, big-name evangelists began using theaters as venues for citywide evangelistic programs. Wide-eyed church members would enter the building with a measure of trepidation, to support the evangelist, and leave wondering how such a “nice” venue could be so inherently evil.
2011 1505 page18Next came church film evenings, followed by TV and videos, that brought popular films to the church hall and to the home. While church leaders were still declaring that theaters were bad, the church rank and file voted with their feet, sanitizing theater attendance with the explanation that “we will see this on TV in six months anyway.” And they reasoned that it was OK to take the church youth group to the theater to see a “classic” film as a special night out.
Were our pioneers really that concerned about good and bad buildings, or was there a deeper issue that parents and pastors of later generations missed? Surely, where the youth go is important, but what they fill their minds with is of far greater concern. It is generally recognized that cultures perpetuate their values and beliefs by the stories they tell their children. Films are certainly a powerful way to do that, but the fact that we have been more interested in which buildings we should or should not enter means we have allowed Hollywood’s values and attitudes to surreptitiously slip into succeeding generations of Adventists worldwide. The church is affected because we have all been affected. We may be unable to turn the clock back and try again, but are we able to learn from our past mistakes without repeating them in other areas of faith?

Help From the Ten Commandments
A clue to help us may be found in the two versions of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20 and Deut. 5). When we turn the spotlight on the fourth commandment we observe a significant difference between them. Although the command itself does not change, the rationale for observing it does quite radically.
The fourth commandment states: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8). “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (verse 11). As this command states, humanity was to rest on the Sabbath. The reason given to “remember” the Sabbath and keep it as a day separated from the others was simply because God rested. So the command concentrates on God’s activity and rest.
But when the command is repeated in Deuteronomy 5, we see a dramatic change. After stating the command, “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (verse 12), the rationale is given: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (verse 15). In the rewording of the law code on the plains of Moab, the essence of the fourth commandment remains the same, while the rationale for observing it is described in quite different terms.
The essence of the command is largely untouched. The imperative is to keep or guard, rather than to remember.2 The “animals” of Exodus 20 are specified as your ox, your donkey or any of your animals in Deuteronomy 5. Allowing the servants to rest is mentioned not once but twice in Deuteronomy 5, almost as if the second generation was less inclined to give their home-helpers time off. But it is the rationale clause that changes most of all. Instead of being attributed to a memorial of Creation, rest is justified on the grounds that once the people were slaves in Egypt, but now they are free. So this command concentrates on human activity and rest.
Yet the social aspect has wider implications in the whole redemption story. “While Exodus 20:11 focuses on creation and God’s rest as a paradigm for humanity’s rest, Deuteronomy 5:15 highlights YHWH’s mighty deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and thus emphasizes liberation, which is part and parcel of the larger concept of redemption.”3 Or, put another way, Exodus 20 speaks of God’s activity, while Deuteronomy 5 adds the “so what?” factor. It explains the implications in terms of human response.
Why the change between the two accounts? Is there more to this than just a change of venue (Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab) and a change of generation (from those who left Egypt to those entering the Promised Land). Look at the original context of both passages. The law was given at Sinai (recorded in Exodus 20) in the first few months of Israel’s escape from Egypt, whereas the account in Deuteronomy 5 occurred on the plains of Moab, in the final year of the 40-year exodus. Therefore the two different law codes were delivered to two sets of people a generation apart. This may provide the key to the difference in rationale.
Crossing Generations—Building Bridges
What were the different perspectives of the two exodus generations? The first generation came directly out of slavery. They had lived among, and been deeply impacted by, Egypt’s religious culture. The Israelites had been dwarfed as they walked among the imposing temples, and they had witnessed the joyous processions of the gods through the streets of the towns. They had firsthand experience with the trappings of the great sun god Ra, and the animals closely associated with him—especially the bull. So they needed to “remember” that the God delivering them created the sun and everything else in creation. Ra (and his golden calf effigy) was really quite insignificant in comparison.
The second generation had only very vague memories (if any) of Egypt. They had grown up as wanderers through some of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. They knew their parents had escaped from slavery, but the delay of years and the unending desert put them out of touch with settling down and a “normal” life. They needed to learn how to establish and live in a society that would last—one based on the very different values of God’s primacy and the sacredness of human life. So they were instructed to “keep,” or “guard,” this regular memorial of God’s action of freeing His people.
The two different explanations for the Sabbath command, tailored for two quite diverse generations, provide a helpful precedent for us in the way we pass faith and values to the next generation. That process does not merely entail handing over a carbon copy of parents’ answers to their children’s concerns. Instead, new rationales must be carefully thought through to engage the new generation. The implications of this are rather startling, and deserve far greater study.
How, for example, do we credibly explain to our young adults the need for sexual purity before marriage and for fidelity afterward? Or how do we coach our young to deal with the peer pressure of alcohol and drugs? My parents were of little help to me in my youth, as their outdated explanations did not fit my situation. Similarly, the meager explanations I tried to share with my own sons in their youth were totally inadequate for them. But I am convinced that what allowed me and my sons to survive was a combination of good mentors, and the time spent in God’s stories. We knew the way forward through the maze of contemporary living not by hearing the exact answers, but by absorbing the principles learned in associating with significant adult others.
So what could we have said to former generations to ensure that the highest ethical standards were maintained and cherished by them?4 More important, what difference could we make to the next generation if, instead of speaking in our ignorance, we just mentor them and show them by example what it means practically to follow Christ daily? And in conjunction with this, maybe there could be ways to introduce meaningful substitutes to replace media “storytellers,” so that God’s high standards would not be so foreign to today’s generation. This would obviously mean that we, as adults, need to have a relationship with Jesus that works.
The two generations involved in the exodus help us to recognize that values must be passed on but creatively contextualized for the next generation focusing upon what makes the most sense to them. If Moses saw the need to repackage God’s nonchanging values in a different way for the next generation, then maybe it is appropriate for us to do the same, rather than sticking to traditional explanations that may become more and more irrelevant with each passing generation.
1 According to historian Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros (New York: Norton, 1992), p. 67, “Leading establishments like the Bowery, Chatham, Olympic, and Park theatres permitted prostitutes in the uppermost tier of seats. ‘Public prostitution [in the theater] is not noticed by law,’ admitted one observer. First-time middle-class visitors incredulously conceded that they ‘had not even dreamed of the improprieties then publicly tolerated in the “third tier” and galleries.’” Compare www.musicals101.com/bwaythhist1.htm.
2 Eugene H. Merrill (Deuteronomy, NAC 4 [Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994], p. 150) suggests that the verb “to keep” is more active than the verb “to remember.”
3 Gerald A. Klingbeil, “The Sabbath Law in the Decalogue(s): Creation and Liberation as a Paradigm for Community,” Revue Biblique 117, no. 4 (2010): 499.
4 The early Adventist pioneers were mainly concerned with the corrupting influence of the theater rather than the theater per se. See, for example, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, pp. 651-653.
At the time of writing David Tasker was dean of the Theological Seminary at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Philippines. He has recently been appointed Field Secretary of the South Pacific Division, Wahroonga, Australia. This article was published February 17, 2011.