Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 04/16/24

What does the Second Coming actually mean? The Hopeful (in theaters this Wednesday and Thursday as a Fathom Event) explores the question of what it really means to wait for Jesus in its telling of the true story of the star of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The sweeping drama, set in 19th century New England, follows the saga of William Miller (Bill Lake) who, after narrowly escaping death during a fierce battle in the War of 1812, questions why God spared him. His exploration of the question leads to a prediction of the nearing date of nothing less than the end of this world and the Second Coming of Christ. Needless to say, when that date comes and goes without event some rethinking is called for. That’s when a a young woman named Ellen Harmon (Tommie-Amber Pirie) who, transformed by one of Miller’s sermons, is moved to preach a vision beyond the prophecy that involves a more holistic and practical message for Christians about how to live life to its fullest.

I spoke about the film and its message with Australian director Kyle Portbury who, himself, is a Seventh-Day Adventist.

JWK: What drew you to the origin story of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church?

Kyle Portbury: I’ve been a Seventh-Day Adventist my whole life. My parents were Adventists. My grandparents were actually Salvation Army and they became Adventists. So, I guess what would that make me? Third generation? I guess that would be third-generation Adventist, wouldn’t it? Yeah! I think it’s interesting. When you grow up in the faith of your parents at some stage in your late teens/early twenties you have to kind of work out how you feel about that, right? Is it just something that I actually buy into or is it just something that I’ve cultured into, if that makes sense. So, I think I’ve always been fascinated by that.

When I really seriously moved into filmmaking and storytelling, the thing that really interested me was characters. I love going to see films that have characters that you recognize even though the world that they live in and the circumstances they find themselves in are unfamiliar to you. The goals, hopes and dreams, the desires that they have, the way that they relate to each other, the anticipation that they have, the disappointments they experience, the love they find – all those things are very relatable to you. So, you find a way of, I guess, relating to how you might find yourself thinking and feeling and what you might do if you were put in a similar situation…

…Looking at a couple of the people from this era where Adventism finds its roots in the early to mid-1800s, on face value it would seem that like, well, how could they possibly have anything relatable to me today in 2024? But, you know, fascinatingly enough, the more you read their correspondence between each other, the more you dig into the doubts and the fears that they were struggling with in their own personal lives and the way they related to each other (you realize they) are very similar to how we find ourselves today, even the circumstances that they might have found themselves in.

Miller existed in a period called the Great Awakening in the US which has largely been forgotten in Christian circles. It kind of was one of those things that happened and then a whole bunch of new inspiration, of looking at the character of God out there in Protestant tradition, kind of changed a lot of different denominations at the time. A couple of denominations – like Adventism – came out of this era. It was really spearheaded and driven by people who were Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian and Anglican. It’s not so much that they threw out their traditions. It’s just that they looked at those traditions from a slightly different angle and had a different way, I guess, of relating to what they were finding in the character of Christ and what they had been hearing at that point in time.

It’s interesting to me (how) Miller starts off. If you look at him closely he really has this big event happen to him in the War of 1812. A shell lands in the middle of a group of soldiers of which he’s one. It explodes and then kills everyone around him. He’s left unharmed without even a scratch. He does that classic thing that we would all do in that situation – where he goes “Why me?” He’s a gentleman farmer. He’s a Deist at this point in his life. He acknowledges, I think, that if there is a God He probably just set the world in motion and left and here we are dealing with ourselves without Him.

So, he goes into his library. He looks at Voltaire. He looks at Isaac Newton. He goes through a whole bunch of different philosophers, past and contemporary, and doesn’t find anything that satisfies his question of “Why me?” Almost in exasperation, his wife sees him wrestle with this and goes “Why don’t you at least have a look at The Bible so you can discount it?” Which he does. Then, actually in his words, he finds a “friend” in Jesus. It’s quite a fascinating discovery for him. He was not expecting this. He sees in the character of Christ that he encounters a very different character than what he had been hearing from the pulpit and what he was not interested in. He had been hearing very much (about) the judgement and the wrath of God. Now he discovers the…Healer that he had never seen before.

Then, because of this, he gets very deep into study. He thinks he finds within the prophecy of Daniel that Christ will return in a date range, confirms this, has a look at some things of Sir Isaac Newton and does that classic thing of expectation that Christians have been doing for almost a millennia. The first Christians did this when they had an expectation and understanding of who Christ was and what He was gonna do, right? He was gonna come and He was gonna clean out the Romans. He was gonna set up a kingdom on Earth. That doesn’t happen and they were bitterly disappointed. So, you know, this tradition of anticipating something that doesn’t quite pan out is not unique to this time period. It’s happened many, many times – in the Middle Ages even. So, it’s interesting because he doesn’t want to do anything about this for about 13 years – which I find really relatable. Like you feel convicted about something but you go “Well, you know, I’ll just leave this alone. I’ll keep this conviction to myself” for whatever reason.

For him, I think that it was mainly that he didn’t want to confuse people – but, over the course of those years, it (becomes) this real drive and burden. (Finally, he goes) “I have to get it out there and really give people a different picture of Christ’s character than they’re currently getting.” Then, almost as a side note to that, he would talk about – as this discussion would progress – this beautiful character…this Healer that he discovered.

He also discovered that He’s coming back again soon. Over  a period of  the next several years, it kind of gets away on him a little bit – which is also really relatable. Other people come in. Other people…are really drawn to this very big departure in the way that Christ and God are being represented. Particularly, Ellen, a young girl who comes along to one of his meetings. She’s quite sick in this era. She hears this character of Christ as (a) Healer. She’s immediately drawn to it. In fact, she goes home and she says to her family “I never heard Christ described as a Healer before! I’ve heard of His wrath and His judgement almost every week in church but, this character of Healer, I’ve never heard before and it’s absolutely beautiful!”

So, more and more people gravitate toward this. Then, also, more and more people gravitate to “Well, he’s coming back!” So, this builds further and almost becomes bigger than Miller’s message which he always tried to refocus people onto  – that the important thing is the character of Christ. Of course, once stuff takes off, and that almost kind of populist movement gets in, he’s kind of left in this awkward position where he doesn’t want to put a date on it but then you kind of have to because you put a range of time – you know, a time period in there. So, I really like looking at that aspect where you see him wrestling with the uncomfortability of that simple message getting away on him a little bit which, again, I think is very relatable. We can be very passionate and driven about something and sometimes just the way that we are articulate it doesn’t come out the way we want it and the focus potentially ends up on something that it shouldn’t – but then it’s too late and here we are and it’s October 22nd, 1844. Now, even I believe Christ is coming back, right? If you’re Miller. The fervor has built and the energy has built to this point and then, classically, nothing. He doesn’t return because he we are in 2024 having an interview – which doesn’t mean He’s never returning but it does mean that they experienced that classic thing of  “No man know the day or the hour,” right?

Then what do you do – once you suddenly discover the error? For Miller, he basically became a recluse for the last four years of his life. He was basically never heard of or seen again. I think he probably felt quite a deep level of shame that he misled people. His intentions were good. He didn’t want to mislead people. He wanted to highlight this unique character of Christ that he discovered in his own study.

Then (there’s) Ellen who’s this incredible character. You look at her historically and realize she’s an uneducated girl and then becomes a woman in an era where men ruled the discourse in religious circles. So, here comes this woman and somehow has agency and somehow has comments and thoughts and is able to be a part of that conversation. That’s fascinating. She pays a really high price for it – her role at the time and the role that she even plays today. She’s a divisive character even within Seventh-Day Adventist communities. You either love her or you hate her. It’s a really fascinating thing. To me, that’s a really interesting person. I want to know more about that person.

The Smithsonian Institution named her as one of 100 most influential Americans of all time. She’s one of the very few women on that list. It’s incredible to think that a person with the equivalent of a third-grade education would not only go on to be recognized in that sphere but she’s also, still to this day, the most translated female nonfiction author of all time – which is ridiculous, right?! How amazing is that?! 100 years-plus years later she still tops that. Her legacy is a hospital network around the globe of 500-plus hospitals in 65 countries, the largest Protestant healthcare system on the planet. That’s pretty incredible. I look at someone like that and I go “Okay, so why? What was it about her? What drove her? Why did she persevere with it? Why did she stick with it?” I think that’s going to be really fascinating for audiences to go on that journey and discover that for themselves. What is it that she had that gave her that ability to stick with it when so many other people would be like “Ah! Forget this! Christ didn’t return. Why would we keep banging on about this?!”

JWK: How did telling this story affect your own faith?

KP: That’s a really great question, actually. It’s fascinating. As a lifelong Adventist, I have not really ever talked much about my faith – not really on purpose, it’s just not something that I’ve really done. I’m not that kind of person. If you didn’t ask me, you’d know that I was Christian but you wouldn’t know that I was a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian. I think what it’s done is in delving into these people and realizing they’re just like me – they actually have the same fears, failings, struggles and doubts that I do – it actually gives me the confidence to talk about my faith in a way that I haven’t had before.

So, the last probably two years of the journey making the movie (with) the people who have worked on the film with me – I had to articulate what I’m going for, how I want to tell this story – I had to discuss that with the team. You know, movies are a team sport. I think in doing that you become more and more comfortable (talking about your faith). Actually, I’m seeing how people are responding to this story. This story isn’t weird, kooky and bizarre. It’s actually really engaging. These people are really interesting characters. I’m not only drawn to them. The people on the team…were as well.

What I think will fascinate people about this film is that they will go in with an expectation of what a faith film is and I think that they’re gonna be very surprised by The Hopeful in that regard. It’s just a great cinema experience. That I think is really important. We go to the movies because we want to reflect on who we would actually be in this story – or, in our own lives, where we anticipate things and that anticipation sometimes doesn’t pan out the way we hope and then we’ve got to persevere through the noise of disappointment and discouragement. You can learn a lot from looking at how other people have done it.  It gives you a great opportunity to discuss it with the people that you went to the movies with.

I think that’s the big point of difference between cinema and television. Television isn’t quite the communal experience that it used to be. We don’t congregate around the television set anymore. There’s no show that we all watch and then discuss the next day around the water cooler. It doesn’t exist. So, really if you want to have a discussion in your community these days about real issues that affect our real lives, cinema is about the last place available to do that collectively – where we’ll all go and we’ll sit there together and we’ll turn our phones off and we’ll push all the distractions going on outside that cinema out of our minds and we’ll sit and we’ll enjoy a story together for 90 to 1oo minutes. That’s really unique. That’s really special, actually. It’s an event! It’s something that we go to. It doesn’t just arrive on our phone or our laptop. It’s pretty special think, I think, to be able to have that discussion.

JWK: It’s almost like going to church, in a way.

KP: Yeah – and, dare I, this is quite a sad indictment, as well. How often do we sit in church and get distracted, right? Quite often, you look around – or you find yourself (looking at) your phone or picking up the magazine (from) the foyer. I think (it’s great) just being able to have that moment to just stop and have a reflection on what is my relationship to my faith?

You don’t need to be Adventist to be provoked and enjoy the conversation that’s going to come out of The Hopeful. One of my my friends who is Presbyterian came up to me after watching one of the early previews (and said) “I’ve always felt that the challenge for Christianity was out there…I think this is the first time, Kyle, I’ve actually seen people of the same faith having the arguments that I have with my wife, for instance.” Then he said “You’ve really challenged me to think that actually a lot of the time the struggles within our own church building is with the people who already think like we do.” It really affected him actually – which was not what I set out to do – but, again, that’s the beautiful thing about telling stories. An audience will go in and their relationship to the characters and their response is unique. Everyone’s going to gravitate to certain parts of that story and reflect on things differently and then we’re all going to come together in the lobby and we’re going to discuss that. Some people are gonna love this moment, be shocked by that moment and not really like that person. That’s the joy of cinema and the discussion that it prompts.

JWK: It’s kind of interesting what you were saying earlier. Some people look at religion and they get the fire and brimstone stuff. Some people do see Jesus the Healer and take that positive message. Then there’s also what can be the distraction of all the speculation about the end of the world, Armageddon and all that stuff that can really scare the heck out of people – and maybe detracts from the healing message.

KP: Right. I think it’s where is the emphasis being placed on? I think all Christians would look towards the return of Christ. The Savior is a big theme in Christianity – and also outside of Christianity it’s something that we’re all starting to look for because there’s a lot of really heavy stuff going on in the world at the moment. I think what people in society are starting to see again (is comparable to) the Great Awakening at the beginning of the 1800s. In 2024 we’re almost saying the same thing. There’s a lot of rhetoric in a lot of churches – Christians, Adventists and everything in between. There’s a lot judgement and prejudice (in the media) that people are getting. So, almost the expectation that people outside of church have is that they’re going to get fear, judgement and prejudice.

JWK: There’s certainly a lot of that on the internet.

KP: That’s a real deep challenge to Christians, right? What character of Christ are we presenting when we go out into the world and we interact with the communities around us? Are we giving the character of Christ that’s hopeful and healing? Or are we showing them that is not a character that they want to associate with? I think that should challenge us and that should provoke us.

I hear a lot of times really passionate God-fearing people say “Yes, but people have got to know the consequences of their actions.” Yeah, they do but is that going to get you into a relationship? Let me put it this way. If we started to become friends and the first thing I said to you is “Let me tell you all the things that I’m not gonna tolerate if this friendship goes forward” how quickly would that friendship develop into anything other than “Well, this was a great chat! Look forward to never seeing you again.” And we would walk away from that.

I think that’s a really big wake-up call to us in 2024. What is the message that we’re sending to people when we interact with them and our first relationship gambit – for want of a better word – is “Let me tell you all the things that you need to fix before we can hang out?” That’s the challenge. It constantly challenges me. How am I presenting the character of Christ in the way that I treat the people around me? That’s what I would hope people would take away from the film actually. I would hope that they would walk out of The Hopeful and go “Okay, in the little sphere of influence that I have, how could I be that person that brings hope and healing into the community directly around me – the people that I interact with?” When people look at the way that I treat them, that’s kind of the prompt for (how they view Christians). (Is the expectation) that Christians are gonna be fearful, judgemental and prejudiced? (Or are we surprising them) by giving me hope and healing?

JWK: I would say when you look at the world – even aside from religion – it’s almost like tolerance isn’t even treated like a virtue anymore. It’s like who can you cancel first?

KP: This is it, yes. It goes both ways, right? I think there’s a misconception that faith is unique just to Christians, Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists. No faith is just as much faith as anything. You gotta have an extraordinary amount of faith to have no faith. That does go both ways – that prejudice and fear of the other is a really big thing.

What I think comes across to me in the lives of the characters of The Hopeful is that they really got a sense of becoming the other. Here’s a group of people who were telling everyone around them that Christ was gonna come back on a certain day. They sold everything that they had because they believed in that cause so much. Now, the day after they’re walking down the street and being ridiculed by all the people that they’ve been telling “This is gonna be it! This is gonna be the end! We won’t be here tomorrow and neither will you!”…They had a real, very raw, very in-your-face experience of “How are we presenting out faith in the world? Do we even have any faith anymore?”

In the case of Joseph Bates and his wife Prudence, who you see in the film, they went from being wealthy and very well-to-do to being destitute, living in a boarding house and not having any money even to buy flour to make bread to eat. That’s a big comedown. You’ve gone from being this person that carries himself through society as an important person and now people are laughing at you in the street and ridiculing you as you’re walking with your head bowed and, basically, wanting to be swallowed up by the Earth.

JWK: Who knows when the Second Coming may happen in the way we traditionally think of it – but, in another sense, couldn’t the Second Coming be interpreted as Jesus coming into your heart?

KP: That’s obviously a great way to look at it, as well. What is that relationship with the Divine and how does it change the way that you then see the world from that moment onward? When I look at what this core group of people who ended up persevering through that disappointment and reconnected again with that simple character that they had gravitated toward originally, I feel, to a certain degree, that they had never given up that sense of the importance of Adventism. It’s kind of inherent in the name, right? Seventh-Day Adventists – one of the core pillars of that is Advent. You know, Christ is coming still.

Obviously, coming out of that moment of disappointment, they learned a very big lesson about putting dates on stuff. They learned very quickly that’s a bad idea. Let’s not do that. Looking forward, if you look at what they are known for now – and, again, I go back to the hospital network (and humanitarianism). That’s what drives them. That Second Coming actually is in the way that you present the character of Christ to people that potentially have written Him off the first time they interacted with Him (through harsh presentations).

I quite like the way that you expressed that. Theologians would probably disagree with you on that point but there’s something quite nice about the spirit of that, I think. You’re bringing a surprising change to the way that someone looking at or engaging with the character of God and Christ that they’re gonna discover if they pick a Bible up. I think that’s quite challenging, right? A lot of people don’t touch that book because they’re turned off automatically by who they feel they’re gonna find in there because they got a picture (of Him) from who they’ve interacted with or any number of ways they’ve had God pushed at them.

JWK: One thing the movie does is present Seventh-Day Adventists as flesh-and-blood people. You don’t get that too much in the media. For most of us, all we know about Seventh-Day Adventists comes from our brief encounters with those handing out pamphlets and, perhaps, we know a little bit about Dr. Ben Carson who is the most famous current-day Seventh-Day Adventist I can think of.

KP: Yeah. It’s really fascinating to me about that. It’s almost by design, I guess, in some respects because they looked at what was more important in their message. That’s not promoting ourselves (but) promoting what we feel is important – which is that hope, that health and that healing. It’s why if you’re in Florida you’ve heard of Adventists because the largest hospital network in Florida, Advent Health, is everywhere…but that connection’s not clear for people. There’s almost a misconception because we’ve actively not talked about who we are. Most people, I think, would be very surprised about the very, very few points of difference between every other denominations and Adventism. I mean the fact that we worship on Sabbath Saturday versus Sunday is a point of difference but, you know, it’s not that big of a point of difference. Again, theologians would argue with me on that but, in the grand scan of it, we worship on a day (and) other denominations worship on a day, right? So, it’s not that far out.

JWK: What is the reason for that?

KP: Well, they looked at the commandment of sabbath and looked at how that’s biblically presented and they went “Yeah, Saturday is that seventh day of the week.” They looked at that from a biblical standpoint and they went “Sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday.”

JWK: I guess with other denominations, making the sabbath Sunday was just a way of differentiating Christianity from Judaism.

KP: Yeah. If you go back to the origins of why that shift from Saturday to Sunday, it goes I think originally back to (Roman Emperor Constantine)…In fact, that’s where that famous saying “When in Rome do like the Romans” (came from)…There were some really practical reasons why that (change was made)…(but) Adventists in this area really went very biblical – very, very strong on that – because, you know, “We’re gonna look at this biblically and we’re really gonna wrestle with it and we’re gonna question why we’re doing what we’re doing in relation to what we’re reading in The Bible. Probably, because of this miscalculation and this misunderstanding that sprang out of the Millerite Movement, they just wanted to wrestle with everything and poke and prod and make sure that what they were (doing) biblically held up. That was one of those points where they were like “Why when it says this are we doing this?” So, for them, it became really important.

It’s interesting. If we go back to when you first asked me about my early faith as a child, when you kind of grow up in that tradition, again very relatably, how are the kiddies relating to that? Well, now all of a sudden there are things I can’t do, right? So, it becomes like a period of time that differentiates you from other people. I remember not being able to play sports at school. That was a big deal growing up.

What’s interesting, as an adult now, is the respite that that period of time affords me in 2024. It’s just so fantastic! My appreciation for that is something that arrives to me rather than I impose onto it. Sundown Friday comes along and I’m almost like “Ah, all those responsibilities I’ve had for the last week, I actually can let them sit for a bit now.” I can turn my phone off – which I struggle with.

Some of my Jewish friends we’re talking to me. They’re really good about Digital Sabbath. They’ll switch all technology off, basically, and disengage from that – and really actually rest! You get reflection time back! You realize how valuable that 24-hour rest cycle in your 7-day week really is. It’s a real gift when you look at it from that angle and you go “Oh, this isn’t about a bunch of things I can’t do.”

Actually, my adult understanding of sabbath is very, very different. It’s an opportunity to actually decompress all of that stuff that’s weighing on you during the week. Spend time with your family. Maybe you’ve been too busy with work. Prioritize. I remember as a kid going on sabbath walks with my parents. That’s become a real tradition in my family – because it’s lovely! It’s an opportunity to connect. I think that’s a really appealing and valuable thing in this day and age where we’ve got so many distractions and responsibilities. There’s always stuff bombarding us. It’s very hard to sit and just process – which is very valuable in the cycle and rhythm of life.

I think any time that we don’t understand someone else – and this comes back to that thing I was saying – when you’re suddenly in the position where you’re the person who’s misunderstood, you gain a perspective on then looking at people who are misunderstood in a different context. I think that helps you to reflect on “Well, if I don’t feel great about people misunderstanding who I am and why I believe what I believe, well, I imagine that this other person that I’ve just met who I may not understand why they do what they do.”I kind of have a bit of insight now on how they might feel.

You know, it’s not an insignificant movement. There are 22-million Adventists globally. People would be surprised – and maybe shocked – to know that Senate Chaplain Barry Black – who is now currently the longest serving Senate Chaplain in US history – is a lifelong Seventh-Day Adventist. A two-star admiral, he’s essentially the nation’s chaplain. There are actually a lot of Adventists out that that you would know but you wouldn’t necessarily know are Adventists because, again, usually a lot of Adventists don’t say “I’m an Adventist!” – not because they’re embarrassed about that. It’s just culturally not something that we do. It’s not an active promotion of “Oh, look! Let me differentiate myself as a Seventh-Day Adventist!” So, yeah, you’d be surprised. I think if you know someone who is Adventist…you’ll get a really good insight into why they do what they do…I think there’s a real opportunity (with this movie) to change some of the perception around what’s actually…one-and-half-million members in the US. That’s quite a lot of people in the grand scan of things.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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