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by David Hamstra

By Jim Hamstra, May 13, 2014

I am a contemporary of Ted Wilson.  I am a fourth-generation Adventist on my father’s side, son of a pastor and father of a pastor.  I was born in an Adventist ghetto.  I went to Adventist schools from first grade through college.  I have taught Sabbath School classes for most of my adult life.  I prefer pipe organs and choirs to guitars and drums. Not that I dislike guitars and drums; I took guitar lessons in my youth, and I was principal percussionist in a very good symphonic band with two records of our work.  Still I prefer pipe organs to synthesizers and timpani to traps.  I prefer to listen to Mozart or Bach or Vivaldi while I work at my computer.  And given a choice between reading a book or watching a movie I will generally choose the book.  Rarely will you will find me sitting through two or more hours of a movie; usually I am bored or even dozing long before that.  But I can happily read all day.

So why did I spend an entire Sabbath afternoon in an office/warehouse building watching and then discussing what was presumably the final public preview of all episodes of the video series called The Record Keeper?  And why would I solicit funds to buy this building in an industrial park behind a cinemaplex in Hillsboro?  (That would be the Hillsboro where Intel, the largest private employer in Oregon, has sprawling campuses, where giant cranes are slowly assembling the multi-billion $$ semiconductor fab that will produce their next generation of chips.)  Why was I sitting in my church, a church with neither pipe organ nor choir, but with guitars and drums, with its open worship center and classrooms arranged around a central fellowship hall that you could drive a semi through?

Why did our family choose Sunset Christian Fellowship over Sunnyside?  We joined this church plant when we moved to Oregon because of its vision – not of our preferred style of worship but of being a place that would attract people of all ages and cultures who would not go to (or return to) a traditional church.  This church is our suburban mission.  It is a haven of refuge for those who do not trust churches or have been burnt by churches or are burnt-out on churches.  And yes, we are a part of the Oregon Conference.  And yes, the Oregon Conference fosters a variety of church plants in the greater Portland metro area, with varying goals and approaches, in addition to many conventional churches.
Our church invited Jason Satterlund to air all eleven episodes of his “finished” video series in a single viewing.  We invited people from all over the Northwest to watch, to offer comments and ask questions.  The story of The Record Keeper project is covered in Adventist Today and other available sources, so I will try to avoid repeating what has already been written.  Rather, I will review the content of the video series and my reactions and those of others who viewed it.

The Record Keeper depicts various biblical “Great Controversy” events from the perspective of fallen and unfallen angels.  To the best of my knowledge, no angels participated in development of the script and production of the videos.  So Jason and his creative crew had to use their imaginations to try to capture our imaginations. 
Most of the episodes depict the angels’ actions and reactions surrounding specific events on earth.  The events themselves are not depicted, although I feel they are accurately characterized.  Some of the episodes are primarily focused on the angels themselves.  These are necessarily more speculative since the Bible says very little about angels apart from events on earth.  It should be no surprise that these episodes are perhaps more problematic than the others.  I found them to be entirely consistent with the teachings of the Bible and of Ellen White but others will doubtless differ.

Much of the filming was done at three different locations, loosely though not entirely corresponding to “heaven,” “earth” and “underworld.”  These are my own descriptive labels and not the lexicon of the script which largely avoids conventional religious “angel talk.”  In this context, “heaven” refers to the abode of the unfallen angels in the presence of God, and “underworld” to the abode of the fallen angels in the presence of Satan.  It is somewhat ironic but perhaps appropriate that “heaven” and “underworld” were both filmed in Oregon, “heaven” being a century-old historic building with a vaulted ceiling, and “underworld” originally built but never used as a prison.

The angels wear clothes reminiscent of the last half of the 1800s.  Male actors wear period male costumes and female actresses wear period female costumes.  The technology depicted in the sets is from the first half of the 1900s:  electro-mechanical museum pieces from the era before transistors, computers and personal electronics.  The “retro” elements of this movie feel a bit quaint to this senior geek, but they work very effectively in the context of the story and the locations where it was filmed. 

Most Adventists of my vintage or older will not appreciate the synthesized sound track.  One person my age, upon hearing the sound track, chose not to watch the videos.  It is not heavy metal rock but neither is it the “music of heaven.”  In fact, it does not attempt to be sacred music.  Its distinctive beat and timbre are more closely associated with NFL and NBA broadcasts than with church.  But the sound track fits with the setting of the video, and it works very well.

The cast of “angels” comprises both genders and a broad range of ethnicities from several different continents – much like our own congregation.  Although English is the primary language, the angels use at least a couple dozen common languages from different continents in their dialog.  In other words, angels are not necessarily Caucasians, and English is not necessarily the language of heaven.

Although reasonable attempts are made to de-emphasize the gender of the characters in the story, nevertheless (and perhaps inevitably, given human cultural biases) the more “macho” roles are played by men, whereas the “softer” roles are played by women.  However, if these stereotypes were reversed, the casting of roles would not have been as credible.  Still, those who insist on reading gender into every part of the Bible would probably object to any women being cast in superior roles to men in this story.  Presumably everyone could have worn genderless “angel robes” but that ploy would not have worked in this setting.

The lead character Raina (played by a woman) is given the mission of creating and preserving an accurate record of events ensuing from the Rebellion.  Raina begins her task in a cerebral, determined yet somewhat detached manner (Star Trek fans might visualize an angelic Spock).  Raina has “subpoena power” to compel truthful testimony from reluctant and even unwilling angelic witnesses.  Eventually Raina becomes caught up in the emotions surrounding the murder of the Prince (like other earthly events, the crucifixion itself is not depicted; only the actions and reactions of fallen and unfallen angels).  At this point she becomes an active participant and seeks to be relieved of her mission as Record Keeper.

Humans are not directly depicted in the series, although their actions are discussed.  An ancient (or modern?) culture that is fascinated with death and violence is reminded that the blood of the dead cries out from the ground – one of the most effective parts of the sound track for me.  The fallen angels derisively refer to humans as “aboriginals” because they have inferior abilities.  Likewise, the Divine is not directly depicted, with the possible exception of one scene where a superior being (played by a woman), not identified as angelic or divine that I can recall, talks to Raina.  Some have said this was a depiction of the Holy Spirit but that was not evident to me in the scene.  And Satan is not directly portrayed, possibly excepting one scene where an unidentified commander of the fallen angels appears.
The major subplot explores the relationship between Caden and Larus (played by men).  These long-time friends choose opposite sides in the Rebellion.  Each tries to “turn” the other to his chosen side.  The classic issue of Liberty versus Responsibility is strongly portrayed.  How the consequences of their respective choices play out is a central part of the drama.

So what was my reaction to this video series that clearly was not aimed at persons of my background and preferences?  Despite its rather annoying (to my classically trained ear) sound track, I liked it!  Not once was I bored or tempted to doze off or quietly slip away.  Rather I found that it raised ideas and questions that are not often discussed in Adventist circles (nor probably in other Christian circles).  And it actually squared very well with my centrist-Adventist theological perspectives.

For those who are familiar with Ellen White’s writings, the plot line runs closer to Story of Redemption than to Great Controversy.  I consider Story of Redemption to be the better read for those not steeped in the lore of the Protestant Reformation, so to me this is entirely appropriate.

The Record Keeper begins with a focus on the responses of fallen and unfallen angels to events on earth, but it quickly broadens to the central issues of the nature and consequences of good and evil.  As with humans, so the angels cannot retain any further pretense of neutrality or cordiality when confronted with the murder of the Prince. 
The last two episodes play out the consequences of these choices and actions among the fallen and unfallen angels.  I felt they were the weakest episodes – a definite cut below the quality of the previous nine.  In the Q & A session one reason became apparent.  Much of the filming of these episodes occurred at a different location.  Not all of the scripted scenes could be filmed at this location because they were running low on money and therefore time.  One wonders how these episodes would have developed given just one more day of filming.

Those who understand the last judgment primarily in terms of God’s rewarding the saved and punishing the lost may not be happy with the final episodes of this series.  But I found their content to be in harmony with the many sayings of Jesus regarding judgment in the gospel of John, including his final remarks to Nicodemus in chapter 3.  For me, the judgment teachings of Jesus are fundamental, and I suggest you not try to understand what Paul says in Romans (a favorite of theologians and preachers) until you have first understood what Jesus says in John.

The other speculative episode occurs in the middle of the series.  Filmed in “underworld,” it depicts fallen angels torturing one of their fellow fallen angels into submission.  Although no such story occurs in the Bible, it is reasonable to conclude that if Satan will physically and mentally abuse humans who have fallen under his control, he would do the same to angels who have fallen under his control.  In this episode the illusion that the Rebellion is about preserving liberty is totally shattered.  The demons are themselves possessed and obsessed by demonic forces.  This is a necessary part of the story.  And in my opinion it is an essential principle to understand, especially for a post-modern information-overloaded agnostic society, a society that seems to have forgotten or prefers to ignore the destructive consequences of “alternative choices.”

The extent to which Satan’s torment of his followers is spiritual versus physical is speculative.  The scene depicts both mental and physical abuse.  The physical violence is not gratuitous by the standards of the entertainment industry.  The scene is definitely less graphic than some web blurbs would suggest.  Not being a fan of physical violence, I would have preferred a somewhat less graphic scene.  I recognize the artistic tradeoff between not being offensive and not being convincing, so I am willing to cut Jason some slack.  Ellen White herself describes the countenances of Satan and his angels as being visibly marred by years of rebellion.  Arguably this episode is faithful to Ellen White even as it reaches beyond the Bible.

I have no theological issues with the content of The Record Keeper, given its target audience and the differences between video portrayal and prose portrayal of a story.  On balance I would say that the consequences of evil are more convincingly portrayed than the consequences of good.  This is perhaps the strongest criticism that can be leveled against the series.  Whether I would reach the same conclusion given the fully-scripted final episodes I may never know.
 
If one pauses the Bible narrative with Christ in the grave one might well reach the very same conclusion.  Despite many victories of good over evil in the Old Testament, the death of Christ leaves us at a point of infinite loss that is not recouped until the sequel of the New Testament.  As Paul wrote, if there is no resurrection of the dead we believers are to be pitied above all.  Like the Bible narrative, this series cries out for the intended sequel where good ultimately triumphs and evil is eradicated.

Would I release The Record Keeper?  To answer this question I need to consider the target audience rather than myself.

I have lived my adult life beyond the boundaries of the Christian church in the world of high technology.  Beyond North America I have spent quality time in the technologically advanced regions of Europe and Asia.  My colleagues have included the best and brightest of generations from the Baby Boom through their children.  We hail from different religious backgrounds (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, agnostic, skeptic, atheist), sexual orientation and life style.  We have worked together and shared our lives with each other.  Only a minority of those from conventional religious backgrounds could be considered devout practitioners.  For most, religion is a part of their culture but not of their everyday lives.  In the technological meritocracy you are judged by your accomplishments; others may be interested in your personal life but your career defines you.

According to the gospel of John, the Comforter works to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.  The post-modern society of success where I work desperately needs this.  It does no good to present a Savior to people who do not know that they are lost.  These are not people who care to listen to what the Christian church has to say.  Christianity may be an interesting cultural artifact but it is irrelevant to their everyday lives.

Almost all Adventist outreach activities focus on one of two things:  learning the truth and/or bettering your lives.  Neither of these has much impact in the world where I work.  Of everything I have seen produced by the Adventist church, The Record Keeper would be the first thing I would like my secular friends and colleagues to see.  It is sufficiently neutral, yet meaningful to people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds.  It raises a level of discomfort and deeper spiritual questions for thinking people from any background (including Adventist) that in my opinion is sorely needed.  It effectively confronts the secular mind with issues of sin and righteousness and judgment and introduces the Prince as a Savior.  “His death was the pardon” may not be an ideal theological formalism but it speaks clearly to the intended audience.

I would complete the filming of the final episodes and re-edit them.  Meanwhile I would incrementally release the earlier episodes.  And I would press forward with planning for the sequel.

Raised in Michigan, Jim Hamstra attended Adventist schools from 1957 to 1971.  He is the founder of StanaTek, an electronics technology consultancy.  He has spent more than 40 years leading technology initiatives in the computer and communications industry.  He has 28 issued US patents.  For most of his adult life Jim has held various church offices and has spent far too much time serving on church and conference boards and committees.  Currently he leads a Sabbath School class and the Finance Team at Sunset Christian Fellowship.  Jim lives in Oregon with his wife Renae, who teaches Kindergarten at an Adventist school.  They have three married sons and four grandchildren.