Posts Tagged ‘review’


Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. Edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt , Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. Buy here

I just did something I would never have imagined myself doing: I just finished reading a book about a woman I spent a good part of my life disliking intensely: Ellen White. Before I go on, let me give you the link information. The book is Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, and it’s edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. Actually, Dr. Aamodt is the reason I read the book in the first place. I had the privilege of sitting in her American literature classes while I was in college, and working for her in the Writing Center at Walla Walla College (now University). In those years I came to respect her scholarship a great deal. Her name on the cover, and my respect for her academic integrity, prompted me to do something I would never have done otherwise: I bought a book about Ellen White.

For those of you familiar with Seventh-day Adventism Mrs. White needs no further introduction. For others a brief explanation is in order. In the early to mid-1800’s America experienced a surge of religious fervor. During that period a number of spiritual movements gave rise to new, uniquely American religions: Christian Scientism, Adventism, and Mormonism all arose out of that spiritual awakening. Ellen White, arguably the most powerful force in the formation of Seventh-day Adventism, came from a Methodist background by way of Millerism, a splinter Methodist movement that held that Bible prophecy predicted Jesus’ return around 1844. As the time grew nearer the Millerites got a great deal more specific than that. Eventually they pinned the date down to October 22, 1844. Obviously, something went grievously wrong, and instead of departing in glory the Millerites were left with what came to be known as the Great Disappointment–surely an understatement, if ever there was one. (By the way, several of these links will take you to Wikipedia; I’m trying to stay away from apologists or critics here. American Prophet covers the subject in far more detail, and it’s fully sourced and endnoted, if you’d like to explore further. Or if you’d like to read a pretty sacrilegious account with no citations at all you can go here.)

In the wake of the Great Disappointment the Millerites began searching for some explanation. Eventually disappointed Millerite Hiram Edson got a vision in which a heavenly being told him, “The Sanctuary is in heaven.” Ellen White confirmed this. The nice thing about this interpretation was that it meant all that time doing calculations and preaching about the importance of October 22, 1844 hadn’t been wasted. Indeed, for a time the Advent believers preached that only those who had accepted their message by October 22 would be saved–that on that day Jesus walked from one room in the heavenly temple into another room, and closed the door behind him. The work remaining, they believed, was to keep each other strong in the faith, not win new converts. As time passed and there was no Jesus the “closed door” doctrine was abandoned (more about this later).

It was during this period–just before 1844 and then shortly after–that Ellen White rose to prominence based on her visions, which spanned topics as diverse as ancient history, scriptural interpretation, doctrine, land purchases, diet, education, health, how the world would end, and masturbation. The woman wrote. A lot. She wrote books (more about that also later). More to the point, she wrote “testimonies,” letters directed to churches, organizations, and private church members, recounting what she said God had shown her in vision (more about this later, too). The testimonies often dealt with matters that the recipients would have preferred remain private–something that in fact many people cited as proof of their holy origins (I would think first of gossip, but that’s just me). Enough of her “testimonies” were “right on the money” to convince the fledgling Adventist church that her visions were “of God,” (and more of this later, too.) The letters were gathered, edited, and published as a collection of books which were widely read in Adventist homes, and even more frequently quoted by the devout in my own childhood–often inaccurately and/or out of context–to support personal opinions. Not to put too fine a point on it here, I came to regard Ellen White as a bully, and her writings as a club. I was not alone.

Growing up in the Adventist church, I had heard about Ellen White’s more educated detractors, generally as examples of “the devil working hard in these last days.” I never heard any official church response that went beyond “of course she was a prophet, so of course her visions came to her from God, just like she said.” When I left the Adventist church I left the controversy behind me; I was just so darned grateful to not have Ellen White weighing in on my every action that did my best to forget. And then, because the Internet is a remarkable and sometimes wonderful place, I stumbled across the writings of some Ellen White’s detractors. What I read didn’t sound so much like “the devil working hard” as it did like legitimate concerns about scholarship, ethics, and personal and professional integrity. But then again, these were her “detractors,” right? I read. I said, “Hm.” But hey, I wasn’t an Adventist anymore; the controversy no longer had any real immediacy for me. I had already decided that the Ellen White I knew best wasn’t someone I cared to continue knowing. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy this book out of any warm and fuzzy feelings for Ellen White or her books; I bought it because Dr Aamodt contributed considerable time and effort to it, and if anybody could put Ellen White into some sort of realistic perspective it would be she.

I found out about the book because I happened to read an interview in Spectrum’s blog, and then the comments, which reminded me of the three bears: Some found the book too hard; some found it too soft; others found it just right. So when I started reading I didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t take long for me to figure out one of the sources of controversy: the book is the combined work of a number of scholars and, while all document and source their work extensively, each has a unique perspective. Some of the writers seem to support White as a prophet; others focus on other aspects of her life: her literary work, her speeches, her health reform, her educational activism, and her promotion of the temperance movement, and simultaneous rejection of women’s suffrage. Yet others deal with the controversies around her use of undocumented sources in producing materials she came in visions from God.

I found myself fascinated by the complexity of a woman I had seen from one point of view–my own. As several of the scholars acknowledge, studying Mrs. White is  studying paradox. Any book that attempts to deal with Mrs. White as a person, a prophet and visionary and woman rooted in and shaped by her times is going to be something of a Rorschach test.

Which is sad, because the scholarship that has gone into this book is impressive, and the very thing that a number of Spectrum’s responders found most annoying–that the authors didn’t take a hard enough line on the question of Mrs. White’s divine inspiration–is the thing I found most worthy of respect–ultimately, I finished the book precisely where I wanted to be–far more informed about a subject about which I should have known much, and really knew very little, and able to form my own opinions.

And what opinions did I form? None, really–but I’m asking better questions. Here are some of them:

1. Where did Mrs. White’s ideas come from? Nearly from the beginning critics have noted that Mrs. White’s “visions” seemed derivative. Certainly her health reform message owes much to other reformers of her day. The problem reaches epic proportions in her later books, particularly the “Conflict of the Ages” series, which scholars–including scholars from the White Estate–have demonstrated is largely plagiarized from other writers.

Attempts to defend the books have tended to fall back on the “people didn’t look at plagiarism then like they look at plagiarism now” argument, but that argument fails when one realizes that the charges were brought while Ellen White was still fully capable of explaining her source use–but she chose not to respond. Later editions of one of the books most heavily criticized was revised to include some source documentation, and Mrs. White included a note indicating she had used other sources as well, but since God, and not the writer she was citing, was the authority, she had seen no reason to credit the previous scholar’s work, ideas, or words.

I find this enormously troubling. Because Adventism was so heavily shaped by Ellen White’s writings, the question of where she derived those ideas is central to her authenticity. Her ideas and the books that many Adventists regard as next thing to canonical were clearly heavily shaped by other writers–even the portions that she claimed to have seen in vision. This poses an important question about how inspired her works may or may not be. If she had ever claimed that God inspired her to copy others’ work, there might be a basis for claiming an alternative, though suspect, form of inspiration. But she didn’t. She claimed the messages and images came to her in visions, and that she had deliberately not read others’ work precisely so she could not be said to have been influenced by anyone other than God himself. The scholarship shows that unless her visions featured God reading her others’ books slowly enough for her to get everything down that simply isn’t the case. If I were still an Adventist, the question I would be asking is, “So what do we do with this?”

2. How heavily were Mrs. White’s visions and testimonies influenced by self-interest? A number of her “testimonies” had to do with people not giving enough to support “God’s work”–the spreading of the Advent message. Other testimonies decried the money donated going to people she felt were unworthy. It all sounds very high-minded until one realizes that in writing those testimonies she was basically using her position as God’s messenger to wring funds out of people who might very well be less well-off than she was. The same thing applies to other visions, which seem to dovetail rather nicely with the White’s business aspirations. Were those testimonies from God, or were they prompted by something more personal?

While it would be going too far to say that she never sacrificed for her cause, it is also true that she lived much of her life in comfortably affluent circumstances: She had an estate in Australia, another in California, and a summer home in Colorado. She earned enough from the sale of her books–which God conveniently instructed her to tell people to buy by the gross to spread the word–to not only keep herself comfortably but to be able to donate generously to causes. She could afford servants–and advocated that women do as she did: hire servants to care for their homes and children so they could go on the road for God. She could afford to take “water cures.” Sacrifices there might have been, but there were also financial rewards–many of them enhanced by the very best celebrity endorser of them all–God Himself, through the voice of his humble servant Ellen White.

Likewise her denigration of others’ claims of prophetic gifts. American Prophet paints a picture of Adventism’s early roots in the “shouting Methodist” tradition–a tradition that included a number of people prophesying, speaking in tongues, falling into trance states, and so forth. Ellen Harmon was by no means the only person claiming visions–and being regarded as divinely inspired. More that one writer notes that her husband, James White, played a key role in her rise to prominence–and that during a time period when he refused to publish her visions and testimonies in the fledgling Adventist periodical he edited her public career languished, and her visions virtually ceased. When he was replaced as editor by someone who began publishing her words again the visions came back. James learned his lesson, and again promoted her as God’s special messenger. In the beginning a number of people experienced visions and contributed to the formation of Adventism. Before many years passed, though, all the prophetic voices other than Ellen White’s had either ceased–or been condemned as “false prophets” by God, via Ellen White.

When she defamed others who claimed to have Word direct from the Mercy Seat, was she doing God’s will, or shoring up her position as Adventism’s sole prophet? I don’t know, but I am troubled by her willingness to declare others whose vision of godliness didn’t dovetail with hers false prophets, even as she herself was demanding that her visions and utterances about everything under the sun be accepted as God’s words. We are left with the Rorschach test–either she was exactly what she said she was or she was a consummate career woman who parlayed a tenuous position into enormous success.

3. About those “signs” that proved her visions were really visions: People claimed that she was weak and sickly, and certainly she spoke often about how sickly she was, and how difficult the charge she had been given, but after reading American Prophet I wonder. She was healthy enough to travel the world. She was healthy enough to preach regularly. How sick was she, really?  Certainly she self-reported a laundry list of illnesses, but her constant activity tells another story. Maybe she really was sick, and God constantly intervened, shoring her up so she could preach, travel, and write–or maybe she was stronger than she thought.

4. How different was she really from the “false prophets,” mesmerists, and hypnotists she so decried? Maybe those who found similarities between her visionary trance state and mesmeric and hypnotic trance states were onto something. Certainly holding an 18-pound book at arm’s length for an extended period of time is amazing–but people are capable of amazing feats, given the right motivation and circumstances. Perhaps the trance state allowed a woman who saw herself as weak and sickly the opportunity to be something more. Certainly, she was part of an era where people were primed and ready to see signs and wonders. Again, we find the Rorschach test. Those who believe will see God’s hand; others will see a story  it is impossible to prove, perpetuated by those with a vested interest in its veracity.

5. What about the prophetic visions that didn’t pan out? And with the visions God didn’t give her?  (One would think that somewhere He would have thought to whisper, “Take the cornflakes patent.”) She explained them away by saying the God’s people had failed–that they had not worked hard enough, been devout enough, sacrificed enough for the furtherance of his work (and incidentally the support of the Whites). But again, we’re faced with a central issue–if this is God speaking through his servant Ellen White, and if he “knows the end from the beginning,” as Ellen White maintains time after time, why would he give her information he knew to be false?

6. What do we do with the evolution in her visions? Certainly we would expect her views to change and evolve as a person, but she was claiming to be God’s spokeswoman. Things she was “shown” early in her life (I’m thinking particularly of the “closed door” doctrine, which held that no one who had not accepted the Advent message by 1844 could be saved) she disavowed later, when motivating the faithful to continue supporting “the work” dictated that there be some point to continuing that work. Obviously, if salvation was impossible for everyone who had not seen the light by 1844, there was no point in continuing proselytizing. Nor would there be any point to further church growth. Adventism might have continued as a health and education reform movement, but as a religion it would be defunct.

So what do the Rorschach inkblots say about me? I find myself going back to two issues that for me, discredit her. The first is that she lied about how she wrote her books. This is about more than just unauthorized borrowing. This is about her own descriptions of her process. She claimed that she had gotten her information in vision, straight from God, and that she had subsequently “found” the same information in others’ books, and appropriated it for her own. This might have explained a few isolated instances of plagiarism, but when estimates of appropriated material run from 30 to more than 70 percent of some of her books it simply no longer is credible. The reality is that Ellen White hired researchers and editors to both mine her previous writings and the writings of others, and then repurposed  or simply regurgitated the work for her current book. While I believe inspiration can take many forms, and one can indeed be inspired by something one reads, the central fact remains that when Mrs. White denied that she had been inspired by reading others’ work (or having others seek it out and then present it to her) and instead claimed that everything came to her directly in a vision from God she lied about her manner of inspiration. For me, that fact casts doubt on her other writing, particularly her testimonies, where so very often what God ‘showed’ her proved spiritually, professionally and financially advantageous to her personally.

And that, of course, begs the larger question: If Ellen White was less prophet than savvy enterpreneur, what happens to the religion that was so profoundly shaped by her words? Does it simply ignore its prophet’s feet of clay, or does it examine itself, excavate its own “present truth,” and find a way of being a positive influence a troubling world by moving beyond one of its central, if increasingly questioned, foundations?

And the final question: What if it wasn’t a case of either/or, but both? What if Ellen White did receive information in visions (leaving aside the question of where they may have come from) at some points–but then, when visions failed her, what if she resorted to other, less savory, methods? Would such a person be worthy of the veneration she still, in many cases, receives? Is it possible to determine what material was inspired by God, and what was inspired by perceived financial need, by the drive for power, by the need to protect one’s income, by the need to continue to be relevant? I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Placing Ellen White in her historical context reveals a fascinating woman who truly achieved remarkable things. But I am not sure the picture I saw revealed a convincing prophet.

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Here's the starter game pack--game, pedestal, and three action figures. The starter pack is a bit of an investment (usually between $50 and $60), but once you've got it your young player is good to go. And additional figures, if you choose to buy them, come in a range of prices and purchase options.

Yesterday I bought a Skylanders game (available for all major gaming systems). So what’s the big deal? It’s the second time I’ve done this–and our game still works. I bought the game for my son’s after-school program, which includes children who pretty much span the spectrum in age and game-play ability. And Spyro Sklanders is a game uniquely suited to accommodate players like that.

Here's a screen capture from the game--lovely colors, engaging art, nothing too scary here.

First, a quick overview. Spyro the Dragon has been around for a long time in gaming terms–I think we bought our first Spyro game back when The Boy was about five. Spyro is a charming little dragon who lollops through a series of adventures and challenges all set in enchanting, magical landscapes. It’s the sort of game that’s fun to watch, as well as fun to play. Skylanders continues this tradition. The game is designed for “free play,” which means that it can be played in a number of ways. Players can work their way through Spyro’s adventure, meeting a series of challenges and progressing along a story line. But that’s just the beginning. Players can choose to hunt for treasure, or simply explore (this is code for run around and look at stuff). But what’s nice is that, with a little cooperation, the multiple players can do those things while they’re playing together. In the same game. In real terms, what this means is that Patrick (The Boy, fifteen, and games master) can play with Olivia (three, and not yet a games master)–and they can both have a good time.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. What really sets Skylanders apart from other games is the way characters are selected. The game itself comes with three small action figures and a pedestal, which links to the gaming system. Players select the character they will play as by standing the action figure on the pedestal. Electronics in the figure’s base link with the game, and presto, the character comes alive onscreen. But this is just the beginning.

... and another setting...

The character can be changed at any time during game play except for when cut scenes are actually playing. In fact, to win the game characters must be changed, because the various levels each are designed to suit a particular type of character’s strengths. For example, last time I started out with a “crystal” character, switched to a “water” character, then a “plants” character, and so on. It sounds complicated, but the characters have been designed to make identifying their type simple. Water characters, for instance, all come in shades of blue, and feature splashes of water. Crystal characters all include a prism. Fire characters all include flames. Sorting the various types is simple, even for Olivia, who cannot read.

Because players are constantly switching characters, the old bugbear of multi-player games–who gets to play as whom–is non-existent. Everybody can have a turn playing as every character–and in the same game. This makes Skylanders a great choice for families and settings that include players who range in ages and abilities.

But what I really like about this game is its unspoken message. That message? That successful game play results from cooperation among a number of characters. Because the various action figures each have a unique set of skills, and because the game levels each require different skills for completion, no one character gets to be the hero all the time. Even the youngest players learn that everyone contributes to a group’s success.

Because I always overthink these things, I see an important metaphor there not only for children, but for adults. A game that fosters the idea that everybody’s talents are necessary for success is a good thing, the way I see it.

One last note: Because characters are chosen by setting a specially-designed figure on a pedestal in the real world, the game comes with three “starter” figures. However, there are many, many others available in a wide range of prices. This makes it nice for parents and grandparents, who can augment the set without breaking the budget. Fgures are designed to work with all major play systems (the game is not–you’ll need to buy the game for your own system).

One final note: Because the action figures are an integral part of the game it’s important to not lose them. We use a medium-size box, which holds our action figure collection, the pedestal, and the game. Skylanders is available in store everywhere, and online.

Here’s a trailer.

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As The Boy frequently points out to me, I am no musician. I do, however, know what I like. And I really, really like Weird Al Yankovic’s “Alpocalypse” album (I bought it through my iTunes store). Weird Al and I go back a long way–clear back to those winter afternoons when I listened to “Dr. Demento’ on a scratchy little transistor radio.

Weird Al got a lot of play time on Dr. Demento. I grew used to thinking of him as a the polka king, and a pretty darned good parodist. Which he was. But that was then. I moved to LA and couldn’t find a station that played Dr. Demento and Weird Al and I became Estranged. We probably still would be, if I hadn’t given birth to a son whose sense of humor is Warped, to put it mildly. Because I am a good and loving mother I introduced him to Weird Al at a tender age. We wore out a couple CD’s, and that was that. Or so I thought.

Then last year he discovered YouTube, and in his browsing he happened upon Weird Al again. And suddenly it was, “Mom, you gotta hear this,” and, “Mom, come listen…” and, “Mom, can we get…?”

And so it happened that I downloaded Weird Al Yankovic’s “Alpocalypse” album. And because I am now Middle Aged, and sadly out of touch with music these days, I found myself listening to Weird Al not as parody, but as music. And you know what? Weird Al’s come a long way, baby. Of course there are still the evergreen accordion polka numbers, but there is also much, much more.  I’ve included a couple clips here.

So now we’re in a “Weird Al-rea,” so to speak. Take, for instance, “Skipper Dan.” (I’ve included a link for it below.) A hefty percentage of the songs on the “Alpocalypse” album are not parodies of songs, but of styles. In other words, Weird Al has picked a few characteristic riffs, chord changes, and sounds and woven them into otherwise original songs.  The result is some pretty amazing, definitely ear-pleasing music that seems to move out of the realm of parody and into the realm of “influenced by.”

Music aside, though, Weird Al’s lyrics bear consideration. Take, again “Skipper Dan.” In an interview, Weird Al explains what inspired the song–a trip to Disneyland, a spin on the “Jungle Cruise” ride, and an aside by the “skipper” referencing his failed acting career. Yes, Weird Al’s songs are in many cases just plain fun (try getting social relevance out of “Yoda”–go ahead; I’ll wait), in some cases he uses humor to showcase social issues. Skipper Dan’s a guy who went to college, got an advanced degree (in Fine Art, no less), graduated–and now can’t find a job except for skippering tourists through the Disney jungle, performing the same “schtick” (Al’s word) 34 times a day. Sound like anybody you know?  The difference is that Weird Al leaves us smiling ruefully, rather than reaching for the razor blades. If “Skipper Dan” started out as a parody, it moves so far beyond it as to demand judgment as music–and as social commentary–in its own right. This is a musician who has only gotten better as the years have passed.

I recommend you immediately browse to your favorite music purveyor and download the album. But buy it first. Meanwhile, here’s “Skipper Dan.” Enjoy.

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I’m going to blow my image as a reasonable, sane, comparatively mature woman here and admit, right out in front of [insert deity of your choice] and everybody that I love pirate movies, and of all of the pirate movies I love the one I love the most is Muppet Treasure Island. I love Mrs. Bluberidge’s tardy efforts at political correctness. I love Tim Rice doing Long John Silver. I love the music. I love the way the movie plays with words and pirate conventions. Most of all, I love Billy Bones’ drunken ramblings that invariably end, “Now isn’t that a story worth the hearing?”

A story worth the hearing: the words are magic to me, maybe because I love telling stories. But here’s the thing: the jury’s still out on whether the stories I tell are “stories worth the hearing.” I hope they are, of course, but the world is full of people like me–people who looked inside themselves, spotted a story lurking somewhere (possibly behind a kidney), and at the cost of considerable pain, effort, and often money, had the story removed, pickled, and put up for sale.

The idea, of course, is that others will see the story and fork over cash to make it their very own. This doesn’t often happen; the market for things removed from one’s innards and preserved–be it ever so carefully–is not great, unless you’re an oyster. Something is inevitably lost in the journey from inside to outside and up for public view.

But there are those few, though, those pure souls who, like the oyster, can take the story lurking inside, bring it out into the light of day, and reveal not a shriveled, stinking, and somehow embarrassed-looking pancreas, but a pearl, glowing and lustrous and infinitely desirable.

You’d think it would be easy to tell the difference between pancreas and pearl, but I’ve never found it so. Because they are my own, I of course consider every one of my books pearls–some perhaps are slightly irregular freshwater pearls, but others, well, others are so wonderful they defy appraisal. But that’s me. I considered each story worth the telling, and I worked years, in most cases, to tell it as well as I could.

But are they stories worth the hearing? I don’t know. My sales to date would answer, “No.” Redeeming Stanley sells–slowly–on Kindle. It’s won an award, and it’s been done by a local book club, so there’s some consensus that it’s a story worth the hearing, but Good On Paper has yet to sell anywhere except at signings. Surely that should tell me something. And it does. I cushion the blow by reminding myself that I haven’t been marketing it properly, that I don’t have an agent, that when I get all the press kits sent out, it will of course go gang busters.

There’s just enough truth to that to make it comforting. It’s true I haven’t been marketing. But why not? Could it be that, all my protestations to the contrary, I myself have doubts not about whether the story was worth telling, but about whether it’s worth hearing? I don’t like to think so, but I suspect I’m too close to it to know if I’m looking at something better left inside, or a pearl.

I need some perspective. Maybe you can help. If you’re up for it, send me an email and I’ll send you an e-book version of Good On Paper. Before you make up your mind, you might want to check out the tab at the top of this page and read the book information and excerpt. Read as much or as little of it as you like, then send me a note with your opinion. Is this a story worth the hearing? Why, or why not?

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