Matthew Vollmer: Writer, Professor, & Ted Wilson's Nephew - Part 1

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May 6, 2023
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Santiago interviews Matthew Vollmer, an ex-Adventist writer and English professor at Virginia Tech who just so happens to be the nephew of Ted Wilson, the current President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Matthew's Links:

Book - All of Us Together in the End

Essay - This I Believed

Website / Bio

Books Mentioned:

The Doctor and the Damned - Albert Haas

Armageddon - Bart D. Ehrman

The Bible Tells Me So - Peter Enns

The Sins of Scripture - John Shelby Spong

Why Christianity Must Change or Die - John Shelby Spong

Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu

Other Topics Mentioned:

Albert Haas and Mauthausen

Music from Matthew's friend John Ringhofer


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Credits: Music: Hall of the Mountain King Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) • Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Episode Transcript

Haystacks & Hell Intro

[00:00:00] Santiago: Welcome to Haystacks and Hell, an ex-Adventist podcast where we tell stories about growing up Seventh-day Adventist, leaving faith behind, and building new, fulfilling lives.

Meet Matthew Vollmer: Writer, Professor, ex-Adventist, and Ted Wilson's Nephew

[00:00:16] Santiago: Hey everyone, welcome back to Haystacks and Hell. I'm your host Santiago, and today I'm very excited to speak with Matthew Vollmer. Matthew is a writer and professor of English at Virginia Tech, where he's also director of the school's MFA in Creative Writing Program. His sixth and newest book, All of Us Together in the End, explores loss and transformation after the passing of his mother in 2019, followed by strange lights in the woods near his father's rural home.

[00:00:48] Matthew grew up in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina with deep Seventh-day Adventist roots. His grandparents met at boarding school and so did his parents, his great-grandfather's medical diploma was signed by John Harvey Kellogg, and OD McKee, the Adventist man behind the Little Debbie snacks brand, proposed to his grandma, but she turned him down.

[00:01:11] Even today, Matthew's family ties lead straight to the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as Ted Wilson, the current GC President, is his uncle by marriage. As a kid, Matthew attended Sabbath school, loved Jesus, and got baptized on his 11th birthday in the cold waters of a mountain stream with friends and family singing Shall We Gather at the River?

[00:01:35] He later attended Georgia Cumberland Academy, an SDA boarding school, and somewhere along the way, he stopped believing in the teachings of the Adventist church. Today, Matthew lives in Blacksburg, Virginia with his wife and son, and as his latest book describes with vivid imagery, he's been on a journey to understand the mysterious lights that seemingly arrived just as his mother left this world.

[00:02:01] He's consulted with a retired geology professor, shamanic psychotherapist, Episcopalian clergy, and virtually anyone else who's been willing to listen. So with that background, let's jump into our conversation. Matthew, welcome, thank you for your work, and thank you for coming on the show.

[00:02:18] Matthew: Thank you Santiago. That was like, probably the best bio that I've ever heard. [Laughing] So, so great job with that. Um, very, very thorough and very accurate.

[00:02:30] Santiago: Glad to hear it. I, I did a lot of reading of your work, [laughing] the book, some of your essays. No, I, I really appreciate it because you paint, at least in my mind, such vivid pictures of what your experiences were like with your family, with the environment you grew up in. And it's really almost like kind of a time capsule where I can, I can picture some of these things that you're describing.

[00:02:56] You mentioned Shall We Gather at the River? That's one of the songs that we loved to sing in the youth Sabbath school that I taught. So that brought back some memories right there. And yeah, I really enjoyed your book. And the first question I want to start out with is, what made you decide to write this book, and had you been planning to write a family memoir for some time?

[00:03:16] Matthew: Yeah, actually, I had been writing it in some form or other, I mean, I had a, I have a journal that's completely filled with stuff about boarding school. And I called it Academy Days, because Academy Days was actually the, um, the phrase that was used when you went to visit in your, when you were an eighth grader.

[00:03:41] Like you would, you would go and you would visit, you know, the school that you intended to go to for a weekend and stay. You know, you'd, you'd bring your, um, sleeping bag and, you know, your, your suitcase and clothes and stuff. And, [laughing] the one thing I remember, like, literally, the only thing I remember about Academy Days was that I stayed in a kid's room.

[00:04:07] And this was at Georgia Cumberland Academy, and one of the first things he said to me was, 'Don't jack off in the sink,' because every room had a sink. And I was like, mortified. I, and I, I had never even, nobody had ever said that phrase to me in, in real life. And I was like, 'That's the last thing I'm gonna do to here, man!'

[00:04:28] Santiago: Oh man, what?

[00:04:31] Matthew: And it was just like, so, I mean, I, and that was just the, I mean, that was the tip of the iceberg of, of the kind of fucked up shit that happened there. But anyway, um, [laughing] yeah, like, so, so, you know, I've been, I have been trying to write about what it's been like to, to grow up Seventh-day Adventist, to be in a Seventh-day Adventist school.

[00:04:52] Like back in, when I was doing my MFA at the University of Iowa, I got this idea that I was gonna write a novel about a demon who, uh, was residing at a, at a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school [laughing]. Because he, he both longed to go back to heaven. But he also loved nothing more than to possess the bodies of Christian teenagers because they were so, you know, like, like whenever they transgressed they were like, they got off so much.

[00:05:33] Santiago: Mmm.

[00:05:33] Matthew: And, um, as an insensate being, he loved to be in the bodies of these, of these, uh, kids as they were performing whatever transgressions they were performing, whether it was, you know, eating beef jerky, drinking a Coke, or, you know, um, engaging in physical intimacy. I mean, every person I've ever told about that, that novel idea says, 'Oh, that's so great, such a wonderful idea.'

[00:06:01] I just couldn't pull it off. It was just, it was just like, I don't know what it was about it. Like just the, like trying, like, it just screwed with my head, like having a, having an entity who had been alive since before human time and then, you know, whatever. So, so, so I, I, I shelved that and I put my first book out, which is a collection of stories and has at least three stories where people are, characters are encountering Seventh-day Adventists for the first time, um, or non Seventh-day Adventists interacting with Adventists.

[00:06:40] And I thought that was a, a way for me to like, kind of create empathy and, and curiosity. Like if I'm writing from an Adventist perspective, then eh, that's a little bit burdensome. But if I'm, if I'm writing about someone who just like goes to Atlantic Union College on a whim, but they're, they don't know anything about Adventism, then they have all these things to negotiate and figure out.

[00:07:05] And so, you know, I've, I've written stories about Adventists, I've written essays about being an a Adventist, and then I was like, 'You know what? I wanna write a memoir about my time growing up, growing up and out of the church.

[00:07:19] Santiago: Mm-hmm.

[00:07:19] Matthew: And I, I wrote that memoir and I delivered it to my agent in 2019, like two days before my mom died. And of course, I didn't know she was gonna die. I, I knew she was about to die. I had no idea that, you know, within two days she was, you know, so, um... But after I had sent it to my agent, I'd also sent it to my colleague, Evan Lavender Smith, who's a, a professor here, or assistant professor here at Virginia Tech.

[00:07:50] And he said, 'You know what? I think you need, you know, I think you, this book really needs some revision.' And my agent was like, 'Do people really wanna read about personal grief?' Because it was also about my mom, you know, like, getting Alzheimer's.

[00:08:03] And I was like, 'Dude, have you, have you not read literature?'

[00:08:06] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:08:08] Matthew: But then the lights happened like three months later. And investigating the lights and having everything moved towards COVID and then my dad remarrying, like that, like that three act structure was exactly the structure I needed to kind of upload parts of the memoir into the storytelling of what, of what was happening in real time. So that's a very long-winded answer [laughing] to, to your question.

[00:08:36] Santiago: No, I appreciate the backstory there. I have to say, if and when you can get this novel of a demon possessing Adventist kids at boarding school, I'm sure virtually everybody listening right now would love to read that, I know I would. [Laughing] So do with that what you will.

[00:08:56] Matthew: I mean, I did all this research on demons and demonology. I bought a book called the, uh, Malleus Maleficarum. I may be, I may be butchering that name, but it was like a, a, a witch hunting guide, circa 15th century where, it was basically like, 'If you don't believe in the devil, you don't believe in God, and, and you're a heretic.'

[00:09:19] Or if you don't believe in witches, that means you don't believe in the devil, and that means you don't believe in God, and therefore you're a heretic, right? And they had some crazy stuff in there, like, 'Oh, witches are known to steal penises of men and put them in nests and trees, and someone who has lost their penis may come along and look in that nest and, and choose the largest one.'

[00:09:44] I mean, it was [laughing], it was like, I know, it is like so crazy what people were thinking that demons did. And, um, I mean, the imagination of, of folks back in the, you know, so-called dark ages or whatever you wanna call 'em. I also bought like the entire, the entire comic collection, The Son of Satan, which was put out by Marvel and was like a Ghost Rider spinoff, almost.

[00:10:12] Like Satan impregnates a woman, and "The Son of Satan" is the son of Satan, but he's like a hero slash anti-hero. Anyway, I'm just saying like, I did all this re — [laughing] I did like tons of research on demons and Satan, and it was really fun and entertaining and, you know, maybe, maybe it will end up happening at some point.

[00:10:36] Santiago: Yeah, no, I hope so. That sounds like a lot of, a lot of research, wow. As soon as I read your message, I immediately Googled you and came across your 2013 essay, This I Believed, which by the way, highly recommend to everyone listening, it'll be linked in the show notes. And you wrote about getting baptized at 11 and feeling haunted by the fact that you didn't feel any different after coming up from the water. So I'm wondering if you can walk us through what you were thinking in that moment, if you remember.

[00:11:13] Matthew: Well, you know, it was a big production. My grandfather was a physician in Asheville, North Carolina for many years. That's where my, my dad grew up. And my grandfather was also a major in World War II. He was a pacifist and he helped liberate a prison camp. It was called Mauthausen and was written about in a book called The Doctor and the Damned, which everyone in our family read and, and highlighted when Major Vollmer appeared on the pages.

[00:11:47] But anyway, they bought a hundred acres of land that was bordering national forest and it was very remote. Whenever I pictured the time of trouble, I always pictured us being in, you know, in that part of, part of the, the land and having to go even further into the mountains and hopefully find a cave where we could shelter.

[00:12:12] Santiago: Mm-hmm.

[00:12:12] Matthew: But there was a, like a perfect little spot in the stream for a baptism. Not only was there like a little perfect spot in the stream, there was a rock shelf kind of just above the stream. And then across from that, a giant boulder, wooded boulder that he cleared and then put chairs on so people in the audience, so church members could be. And he, like, he made a staircase with stone steps, kind of going from the gravel road down to the wooded boulder that he cleared.

[00:12:48] And he built a fire on the rock shelf above the baptismal pool so that when I got out, I could like dry off. And, and it was, it was this, just this huge production, right? And back then, like, you know, the pastor, you know, you had, I don't know if you were baptized, I assume you were baptized at some point?

[00:13:07] Santiago: I was.

[00:13:08] Matthew: I had weekly visits with our pastor for however many, um, I still have my baptismal study guide somewhere. Where like, there's a lesson each week on like the 28 fundamental beliefs and, and little anecdotes and, and then like questions like, you know, 'Do you give your heart to Jesus for all eternity? Do you forsake everything, you know, for,' you know, like stuff like that.

[00:13:29] But anyway, what I remember is that it was my birthday and I was turning 11, it was May 25. I'm a Gemini, which makes sense in this context because there's like this duplicity, right? On the one hand, someone really wanting to do what they know is right. Get baptized on your 11th birthday, follow Jesus into eternity.

[00:13:55] And then the other person saying like, 'Why did nothing spectacular actually happen after I was raised up,' right? And I don't know what I was expecting, but I just felt, I, I guess I was hoping to feel some sort of like, palpable transformation and that didn't happen.

[00:14:13] Um, and when it didn't happen, there was a little bit of disappointment. I'm sure that, you know, opening my birthday presents, I seem to remember getting like some GI Joes or something, um [laughing], might've, you know, assuaged that to some degree. But I think that could have been a seed for me in terms of like, 'Wait, maybe everything I've been told isn't,' not that anyone even told me that, like I would feel this transformation, but I just, I just expected that, because it was such a big, you know, supposedly big moment.

[00:14:48] And it's funny because like yesterday, my nephew, my sister's youngest son got baptized. I would love to have a conversation with him because he is a character. He's such an interesting person. To give you a, a glimpse into his brain, which is highly imaginative, he said that when he died, he wanted his ashes to be combined with bubble gum and put on the underside of a Steak 'n Shake table.

[00:15:18] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:15:20] Santiago: Wow, that did not go where I was expecting it to.

[00:15:24] Matthew: Exactly! I mean, that's, so, I, I mean, I wonder about these kids growing up now in the church, like, because you, you have to tell yourself, you have to tell yourself stories in order to remain in any sort of religious denomination. I just, I wonder what they're telling themselves, you know?

[00:15:45] I wonder what he felt afterwards and, and you know, if, if, if it, if it's all great, that's, that's fine. I don't, you know, I don't, I don't need to deconvert every single person from Adventism. But I also understand that there are many, many people who do need to do that, and it's very hard.

[00:16:05] Santiago: Yeah, no, I can imagine. We were talking before we started recording about, you know, Abby and Ami and their original podcast. Abby at one point, she left in her thirties, and she talks about having this conflict of wondering, would her parents in, you know, their late sixties I think by that point, would they have been happier or would they be happier if they could leave. You know, with the rest of their life, however much time they have left, would it be happier if they could leave?

[00:16:37] And she was very torn thinking about this, because on the one hand, they've dedicated so much time and emotional energy and money into the church, and all of their friends are in it. But on the other hand, she sees different ways in which maybe they genuinely could be happier. And she was kind of struggling, 'Do I, do I talk to them? Do I, do I tell them, hey, there's a, there's a, there's more to the world...'

[00:17:02] Matthew: [Singing] A whole new world!

[00:17:04] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:17:04] Santiago: Yeah exactly, exactly. So, and I, and I feel that because you've written about how, you know, witnessing the decline of somebody you love so much with dementia, with Alzheimer's. I've experienced that with both of my grandmothers. I was younger when it happened with the grandmother on my dad's side. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. My grandma on my mom's side has been diagnosed with dementia.

[00:17:32] And just over the last number of years, just like you described your mom, a strong person who's just this force of nature and who has done so much in their life and you know, the families kind of gels around them. Seeing that transformation with my grandmother has definitely been difficult.

[00:17:53] And I've heard my mother, my own mom, who is very strong in her faith, she's wondered, she's like, 'Why is this happening to my mother? Why is this happening to my mother, and what does this mean? What do I make of this?' And I think many of us growing up in Adventism, and I think within Christianity and faith in general, we sometimes think that there has to be a meaning behind some of these things when maybe there isn't. I think different people might take different perspectives on that, but my view now is we don't have to assign meaning to every single thing.

[00:18:29] Matthew: Oh absolutely. I keep coming back to the epigraph in my book, which is from Karen Armstrong's A Case For God, where she talks about the scientist Carl Popper, saying that the most profound thing a human being can say is that "I know nothing." And I think about how many of the world's problems exist because someone thinks they know something for sure.

[00:18:56] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:18:57] Matthew: You know? Like, you know, if we had a little bit more humility, if we, if we really did say, 'Well, I know nothing. I know nothing!' How much more peaceful a kind of people would we be, because then we'd be better listeners, we'd be better thinkers.

[00:19:12] Santiago: Absolutely, completely agree. Before we go kind of forward in time in, into your story, I want to ask you what it was like, as you've described it, growing up in the middle of nowhere.

[00:19:28] Matthew: Okay well, I did grow up in the middle of nowhere. I grew up in a, in a cove in a house on a little hill above two streams that came together at the bottom. And there wasn't a lot to do. I wasn't an outdoors person. I knew kids who, you know, could spend all day in the woods, that wasn't me.

[00:19:49] I loved to be in my bedroom, like where I could be for hours, building Legos, drawing, recording things on tape, then recording films once we got a, a camcorder, um, in, in our basement. We spent a lot of time in our basement, um, my sister and I. And apparently it was also, after we left, like, tested for radon and like the radon levels in the basement were 500 times what they should have been.

[00:20:20] Santiago: Oh no.

[00:20:21] Matthew: So I'm just waiting [laughing]. Either I'm like, either I became superhuman or, or like the hammer is gonna come down at some point. My dad being a, a dentist, in a very small community, I mean the, the size of Andrews, North Carolina is 1600 people, and it was 1600 people 40 years ago.

[00:20:42] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:20:43] Matthew: And I went to a church school 20 minutes away in Murphy, North Carolina. It was an a-frame, three level church school, grades one through four on one floor, grades five through eight on the next, library at the top. And you know, we had carpool. We met every morning in a parking lot, and somebody drove us there and somebody picked us up. So I didn't know any kids, or I knew very few kids in my town, unless they went to my church or my school.

[00:21:15] So it was like weirdly isolating. Like I even, I didn't ever feel at home in my hometown because if I had reason to go there, like we were a mile from town and I would sometimes ride my bike into town once I got old enough. But I always felt conspicuous. I always felt like I didn't know who people were. And I knew that it was such a close-knit community that people might be wondering who I, I was or who would be like, 'Oh, that's Doc's son.' 'Cause my dad was known as "doc," as being a dentist.

[00:21:47] So yeah, I, I felt, I felt like an outsider, which I was, you know, basically raised to be, right? Like, "this world is not your home." Like non-Adventist society is not your home. I kind of remember like being in church and, and like looking out the window and seeing someone mow their yard or like, and kind of long for like, like 'What would it be like to just have a Saturday where I was a, a regular person,' where I got to wake up and, you know, turn on Saturday morning cartoons, which I never got to see.

[00:22:19] Santiago: [Laughing] Same.

[00:22:20] Matthew: I remember two times that I got to see Saturday morning cartoons. We were delivering food to a poor family one Saturday morning, and they had the TV on, and we stopped by. We gave the food, you know, covering my eyes, but also like looking through them.

[00:22:39] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:22:40] Matthew: And then like picking up my friend John Ringhofer, who's a musician, uh, who makes like Christian psych pop as Half-handed Cloud. You should look him up at some point, 'cause he's also a former Adventist and very Christian. He got into the church because one of the friends of our family was dating his mom, and the friends of our family was, he was a church member. And so at some point we picked him up and he hadn't been indoctrinated enough to know that he shouldn't watch cartoons [laughing] on Saturday morning. So I went in to get him and he was like watching Transformers or something, and like putting on his shoes and I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, you're watching cartoons!'

[00:23:18] So yeah, I mean, I think of that house that I grew up in as a kind of incubator for creativity, because I didn't have anywhere else to go. And I loved watching TV, although I only got to watch a limited portion of it. But, you know, like I knew about the world outside and I couldn't wait to get there. My mom's family was in Greenville, South Carolina, which is a three hour drive away. And to me that was like, it might as well have been New York City.

[00:23:48] I mean, just because, you they [laughing], they had movie theaters and ice cream stores, and they had toy stores, and malls, and a downtown with, you know, quasi skyscrapers and stuff like that. But yeah, I mean, I, I, I was a, although I grew up in a loving family environment, you know, like as much as I couldn't wait for Sabbath to be over and to be able to turn the TV on again, I absolutely loved Friday night.

[00:24:23] The whole kind of like Friday night tradition of tuning out the secular world and welcoming the Sabbath. I talk about it in the book about how there was this whole, you know, just this, this really comforting ritual of, especially in the winter months. So my dad would like lay a fire and we would, you know, light candles and we would have these simple suppers, you know, could be haystacks, could be, could be what we called beans on bread, which were just like navy beans, cooked navy beans on toast.

[00:24:55] And lentil tostadas was another one, which was like a slice of bread with mayonnaise, and then lentils, cheese. It was like, it's kind of a haystack: lentils, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes. There's a really good recipe that I use now, whenever I make it using naan, and then avocado, like mashed up avocado on the naan, and then lentils, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, sriracha, and ranch.

[00:25:26] Santiago: That does sound pretty good.

[00:25:28] Matthew: That hits! [Laughing]

[00:25:30] Santiago: I'm gonna have to try that at some point.

[00:25:33] Matthew: Yeah, it's good, it's really good.

[00:25:35] Santiago: So as I'm hearing you share your story, it sounds like there was some tension between the beliefs you were raised to have and also seeing the outside world and wanting to go see what that was like. And I'm wondering, did you ever, like really question what you were taught at home, school or church, or was that something that came later on?

[00:25:58] Matthew: Well, I think what was interesting thinking about this, for me as a kid, like, I associated my dad's side with being rather conservative. They were vegetarian, completely vegetarian, they didn't drink coffee or soda. And it's funny because I see my mom as being more conservative than my dad, I see my dad being more liberal than my mom. But his side of the family was more conservative.

[00:26:22] My mom's family, we would go there Christmas, my grandma would make roast beef, they made a big deal about drinking coffee. It was always like, 'Oh, who wants coffee?' My grandfather, who was a real character, when he was three years old, he put his hand on a chopping block, where his older six year old sister was cutting wood on, and she said, 'If you don't move your hand, I'm gonna lower this ax.' And he didn't move his hand, and she lowered the ax and cut off his, three, his middle, ring finger, and pinky on his left hand.

[00:26:59] His mother Pansy, buried them in a matchbox underneath a sycamore tree [laughing]. And he went, he went on to become like this amazing person who, I think because of his handicap was interested in proving himself. Like in all of his stories, he was the smaller guy who beat up the bigger guy. He was hiding his hand in dental school so that no one would know that he only had, you know, that he didn't have all of his fingers.

[00:27:35] But anyway, he, he was also like really into movies and as a kid he was a hard worker and he would like save up every week so he could go to the movie theater and watch westerns. He'd buy his Hershey bar, go into the theater and watch whatever it was, right? He was a huge Zane Grey fan.

[00:27:59] He was a very popular, one of, probably the most popular writer in America in the 1920s and thirties. He was a writer of westerns. He was also a former dentist. Dentists show up everywhere in my family. So anyway, like there was this, like I mistrusted the conservative side and I trusted the liberal side because it, I was like, it makes sense that we should go to movies, right?

[00:28:28] It makes sense that we could drink coffee or eat meat if we wanted it. Like why would this be a bad thing, right? I kind of resented like the, the ways in which certain members of my family on my dad's side operated, i.e., my uncle Ted. It's funny because like Ted's father was also the GC president for many years, and my dad tells a story about [laughing]...

[00:28:59] Ted would show up at our house, right? And it would be like Friday night, and he would just be like, 'Okay everyone, gather around, it's time for worship.' And he would open up like a, a devotional book and read out of it. And we'd have prayer, we'd sing and whatever. And I would just be like, 'Dude, like, that's not what we do here. This is not how we roll. Like, why are you inflicting your, you know, like, why are you just assuming that this is how, how like obligatory worship happens?'

[00:29:26] Even in my young mind, like that was, that's how I was reading it. And in my, when I told my dad that once, he was like, 'Oh, well, when Neal Wilson, Ted's father came to visit one time, he did the same thing. And as a three-year-old, you said, 'What's worship?''

[00:29:42] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:29:45] Matthew: And my dad was like, super embarrassed [laughing]. I just find, that really tickles me to think about like, my three year old being like, 'What's worship?'

[00:29:58] Santiago: So you've got the GC president in your home and three year old you is 'What's worship?'

[00:30:02] Matthew: Yeah.

[00:30:04] Santiago: Amazing [laughing], oh man. Well, so speaking of kind of, you know, your, your own family practices around worship, you know, many ex-Adventists describe growing up really stressed out on Sabbath mornings, and that's something that I can personally relate to. But reading your book, reading some of your other work, you've described having parents who were seemingly perfect, almost maybe too perfect. So I'm wondering what were Sabbath mornings like for you and your family?

[00:30:36] Matthew: Well, Sabbath mornings always felt like an extension of Friday night in a way. Like at Friday night dinner, we always had like some sort of special dessert, like sweet roll. Like we, we had this thing called schnecken, which is, apparently that word means snail in German, but it's like a cinnamon bun. It's like a twisty cinnamon bun.

[00:30:58] And my mom and my dad's mom were really good at making this stuff. We would probably have like schnecken after our dinner on Friday night, but then we, the next morning we would have schnecken for breakfast as well. So we would always have like, like a special Sabbath breakfast and then we would go to church.

[00:31:17] You know, go to Sabbath school and church, and my mom was the pianist. So she was always, we always like sat on the, like the third row all the way on the left side so she could have easy access to the piano. My dad was a deacon, so he would often be called to do the offertory. And we, we make fun of him to this day because like, he could never get through it without his like, eyes tearing up and

[00:31:46] becoming watery so, so sentimental.

[00:31:49] But he was also like the first guy, like if the church phone rang, like in the fellowship hall, he would just be leaping up and running towards it to get it, or, or like if it was time for Mission Spotlight, right? Which is, I'm sure your listeners are, are familiar with Mission Spotlight, but, but he would be the first one to get up and turn the lights off, you know, to help out.

[00:32:10] So my parents are very involved in the church. My mom ran the fruit program, she volunteered to, to sell Florida citrus to townspeople to raise money for our church school. Um, and she did that for years. And so I, you know, she was known in town as like the "fruit lady."

[00:32:30] And then we'd go home after. We always stopped at the post office on the way home to get the mail. And my dad as a dentist, you know, the mail was always a huge thing because it was coming from the outside world and he had all these subscriptions to magazines for his, his waiting room.

[00:32:47] And so who knew what, what would be coming in the mail? And this is back when the mail was like, actually interesting. You know, you'd get catalogs, you know, you'd get, you'd get Sports Illustrated, you'd get People Magazine, Time Magazine, uh, National Geographic. It was like, like the mail used to be the internet.

[00:33:04] Santiago: Right, before it just became a bunch of like, coupons and, [laughing] and like, just, just ads.

[00:33:13] Matthew: Like, like stuff that you just take from your mailbox to the recycling bin.

[00:33:17] Santiago: Honestly, that is what I do like 90% of the time.

[00:33:21] Matthew: But anyway, so we'd, we'd stop by the post office, get the mail, then we'd go home. And my mom would have like a huge meal prepared. We would usually have people over, whether they were visiting or just people from church. Vegetarian meatballs, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, green beans, or broccoli.

[00:33:40] I don't know if this was a thing for you growing up, but we had like, and I, and we didn't call 'em this, but mocktails? Not cocktails, but mocktails. Like, like 7UP with, you know, some juice in it or something, you know, like on ice. And we had like these, we would keep these, my mom always kept these glasses in the, in the freezer, so they'd be real ice cold. And sometimes it'd even be like sparkling non-alcoholic apple juice or something, right?

[00:34:07] Santiago: Mm-hmm, Martinelli.

[00:34:09] Matthew: Yeah [laughing], everything was like, it was this huge spread and then afterwards there'd be some like extravagant dessert, whether it was like, hot fudge sundaes with homemade chocolate sauce or some sort of cake or pie. I don't know if that's been your experience too in Adventist circles. Like you go to potluck and you get all this, these great casseroles, but there's also like a huge dessert spread.

[00:34:34] Santiago: I'm sure it varies from church to church. I know that sometimes, it kind of depended on the week and, and who brought food. But yeah, I remember some really good food at the church I grew up in. I do remember at one point we did start to have a specific dessert section, and some people who were very into being vegan would make vegan desserts and bring those, and they would be called out specifically as being vegan.

[00:34:59] So yeah, I do remember a little bit about that. But the picture that you're painting for me is, is one that it, it sounds like Friday night, Sabbath afternoon, Sabbath morning, even with breakfast, it was definitely, almost kind of this special ritual that your family had. Where there's this huge spread and it's truly, truly sounds like it was a special moment for you growing up.

[00:35:23] Matthew: Absolutely, and the funny thing, and I would think about this sometimes as a kid, I think. We'd come home from church, you know, we, we do this like really intensive like church service where it's like you're, the whole time you're feeling like, 'Oh my God, I need to be going door to door to tell people that Jesus is coming!'

[00:35:39] And, and then you just go home like it, like it's a regular thing. I mean like, like you don't do anything about — like you, like you say a prayer, but nothing is about church. Nothing is about the Bible. Nothing is like, the conversations are just like, you're just sitting there listening mostly to men talk about life and share like funny stories.

[00:36:01] I think that is one thing about growing up Adventist is that you do have a lot of funny stories. Because no matter who you, are it's like so quirky and idiosyncratic and, and in conflict with like, regular life, right? Or, you know, people would talk, I mean, my mom was talking about like having to, having to sneak away from Southern Missionary College, which was what it's called back in the day. Whatev — uh, Southern Adventist University now in, in Collegedale.

[00:36:27] Sneaking away to go to see The Sound of Music and worrying, because there was people at the school. If you went to that school, you had to have a special sticker on your car that would allow you to park there without getting like fined. So people from the school would go to the movie theater parking lot and see, to check if people were actually from SMU were, were there in attendance. And then they would figure out...

[00:37:03] Santiago: Wow.

[00:37:04] Matthew: That is some, that is some deeply pathological shit right there, right?

[00:37:09] Santiago: Yeah, oh my goodness.

[00:37:10] Matthew: I mean, they would tell stories about Adventism, they'd tell stories about non-Adventism. They would tell, I mean like, so like the, the meal was just like this, it was the set piece of like, we're gonna hear some stories, we're gonna eat some good food, we're gonna have dessert. And then later on the adults are probably gonna take naps and uh, or maybe we'll go for a hike.

[00:37:29] And then it was just like that however many hours from mid-afternoon to when the sun actually went down, just waiting. Both waiting for Sabbath to end, but then like, feeling guilty because you were waiting for the Sabbath to end, because you're supposed to "guard the edges of the Sabbath," right? And trying to find things to do. Like if we can't swim, can we wade? If we can't play basketball, can we play like, like a version of HORSE that's like, you know, Moses or Jesus?

[00:38:01] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:38:04] Santiago: I can relate to that feeling of wanting the Sabbath to end, but also feeling guilty. And I've heard other people, other ex-Adventists talk about that as well. Definitely I think a common thread for many people. So within all of this, I'm wondering, did you experience moments that to you as a kid felt spiritual or supernatural?

[00:38:28] Matthew: Not at all, and I longed for that. I mean, that was, you know, there's a, there's a character in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I don't know if you're familiar with that story, you ever read it. The main character is a, is a grandmother who doesn't want to go to Florida and is trying to convince her children, her son, and their kids and his wife, not to go.

[00:38:52] But she ends up going with them and part of the reason she doesn't wanna go is because there's a, a criminal named the Misfit loose. And the Misfit has escaped with some other people from prison. And of course they end up running into him and he ends up executing the entire family, one at a time. And he executes the grandmother last.

[00:39:12] Part of his conversation when he's talking to her is like, 'I wish I had been there when Jesus was alive, so then I would know if he was real or not! How come I didn't get to live at that time? How come I didn't get to see that?' Having heard all of the stories of miracles throughout the Old and New Testament and just being like...

[00:39:32] 'Wow, how much easier would it be for me to just like, accept everything if I had seen someone turn water into wine? If I had seen Elijah, you know, go to heaven in a flaming chariot? Name a miracle, like name, name a supernatural event in the Bible. Like, why can't I see this, you know? And so yeah, I didn't, I didn't have any experience with that, but I, I, I did long for it, for sure.

[00:39:57] Santiago: I can relate to that. The one time I experienced something that I thought could be supernatural was a prayer I said for a friend who was going through some tough times. And I prayed what looking back now, is actually kind of a generic prayer, which is, 'God, please protect them, make them feel like they're okay. Send two angels to be with them.'

[00:40:23] And, 'cause they were feeling like they were potentially in danger in that moment. And the next morning I get a text message from my friend saying, 'Thank you for praying for me.' I don't remember exactly what the text said, but it was something along the lines of they either dreamed or felt like they saw, or felt the presence of two angels around them.

[00:40:42] And for me, when I read that text message, I had goosebumps on my arms. And I remember telling it to the kids in my youth class, and I remember telling it to people in Pathfinders. And for me, I hadn't had an experience like that up until that point when I was a young adult. And at that point, I was very spiritual, trying to lean in more into my spirituality.

[00:41:03] Because I'm going through young adulthood, I'm trying to figure out who I am as a young adult in the world. And trying to figure out my own identity as a person, separate from kind of everything that was taught to me.

[00:41:17] Matthew: Now that I think about it, I did have, I do remember I had like a, I had like a prayer journal. I mean that I had started like half-heartedly. There was probably like two entries in it, but like, I lost my wallet at school and then I prayed to find it and I found it. [Laughing] So it was like "Prayer: please let me find my wallet. Result: wallet found."

[00:41:43] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:41:45] Matthew: But then there was also, I think I mentioned this in the book, there was a, there was an instance when I was older where I hydroplaned on a wet road with my friend and went 360 degrees. It was a four-lane road with like a, a turning lane in the middle. And we were spinning into the other, you know, oncoming traffic.

[00:42:06] I saw a semi, I thought, 'There's no way it's not gonna hit us.' And somehow we spun right into the middle, the, the safest place possible, which is the middle turning lane going the direction that we'd been going in at the beginning. And I was like, 'That's, that was a miracle.' And in fact, that was the, that was probably the first thing I ever published, 'cause I sent it off to Insight Magazine and they, they, they published it.

[00:42:32] Part of the thing was, I was talking about the, the story about, and you may have heard this 'cause it, I mean, I heard it so many times when I was growing up. There was an old woman and she's sickly and there's a snow storm, and her fire's gone out and she's gonna freeze to death. And then suddenly someone appears at her door with an armload of logs and, and starts the fire and makes sure she's okay and then leaves.

[00:42:55] And she gets up to go look and there's no footprints in the snow, you know, so it must have been an angel. I was like, 'Well, if it's snowing, it's probably gonna cover up the footprints.' But anyway [laughing], I mean, I had, I, I had always kind of, you know, made fun of that in my head. And then I was like, oh, well now you had a real, you had a real, uh, experience of divine intervention, right? And even though I wasn't sure, I think writing that was like a way for me to hope that I did believe in it, if that makes sense?

[00:43:29] Like writing, that was actually like a prayer, like, 'Let this be true,' you know? Because I really did, I mean, if you grew up Adventist and if you're a fourth, fifth generation Adventist from both sides, like the thing that you want is to believe and to be able to assimilate. Because everyone else is, and when you can't and when you don't, real conflicts arise.

[00:43:53] Santiago: I can imagine, and I definitely want to ask you about that in a bit. Before we get there though, I, I, I want to ask you about the "time of trouble." Because you've written about believing in that and how even though you already lived in the mountains, you knew that you would have to flee your home as authorities would know where all the Sabbath keepers lived, and they would hunt you down. So I'm wondering how often was that idea brought up in your church, and did you have anxiety about this or the afterlife?

[00:44:27] Matthew: This was like my, probably one of my biggest worries growing up. First of all, I never thought of myself as a good Adventist. I never said like, 'Oh, I'm doing the right thing.' I never read my Bible in a year. Every year I was like, that was my New Year's resolution, 'Gonna read the Bible from beginning to end.'

[00:44:45] I never, you know, shared my beliefs with anyone who didn't ask for me to, I wasn't going door to door. I wasn't like, you know, um, I, I loved the pageantry of the NFL and collecting football cards and, you know, dreaming about, about that. And my mom would get on me and say like, 'You need to be spending more time with your Bible. You spend too much time with your football cards and your...'

[00:45:16] And I would feel guilty, and I'd be like, 'Yeah, I probably should, but this is so much more interesting!' [Laughing] You know, I, I loved Mad Magazine and Cracked Magazine and comic books, and not that I was ever allowed to actually buy them. And GI Joe, and like Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny, but then I was like, oh, well, 'Yeah, I should be this kind of person, right?

[00:45:40] But there was a, there was also a disconnect because like, as much as we, you know, spent time in church, we weren't like a super religious family. Like my, yeah, my mom got up every morning and read like the Spirit of Prophecy, um, or her Bible to start her day. And it's, funny anecdote about that is like my dad had tried to do, had had wanted to do that for many years.

[00:46:04] And like when he was in, he might have been in his fifties or something, and he was like, 'You know what, if I'm gonna do this, I need to get up at like 5:00 AM before I go to my, you know, my job.' So he asks, he asked, he, he, his prayer that night was, 'Please wake me up at 5:00 AM so that I can do this.' And he woke up at 5:00 AM!

[00:46:25] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:46:27] Matthew: [Laughing] Like, like that's the kind of stuff, right? Anyway, time of trouble, yes, it was very, it was very real. I imagined it all the time. I worried about it. I read, there were books... There was, I'm trying to remember the, the name of the book. There's like these novelizations of the time of trouble that Adventist publishers, publishing houses made. Like, those are the, the only fiction that I knew of growing up was like, The Song of Eve. I need to, I should probably look this up.

[00:47:00] So June Strong is the, the novelist, right? Oh, Project Sunlight, that's what it was. So Project Sunlight was this book about a woman who's like, who converts to Adventism during the end times, and then the time of trouble happens and then, you know, all that stuff moves forward.

[00:47:20] But she also wrote a song called Song of Eve, which is like between, it is about Eve, but like after she'd been expelled from the garden and before the flood happens. That's just to say that like, whatever representation we had, whether it was in a sermon or a novelization or whatever, like the time of trouble was very much like on my mind.

[00:47:48] You know, if I complained about something, my grandma would say like, 'You need to go read the chapter on the time of trouble!' And then that, you know, in The Great Controversy, that's like probably the only chapter I've ever read. Well, that's not true, but it's definitely the one I've read the most.

[00:48:02] Because it's so dramatic and it's speculative fiction, is what it is. But it was, it was harrowing and I was like, oh, I need to, you know, 'I should memorize more of my Bible because, you know, in the time of trouble that we're gonna be in hiding a cave. We won't have our Bibles and, and we'll need to sing hymns and recite memory verses to, to keep our spirits up.' And, you know, it was just like this huge, I didn't pray this directly to God, but I would just think like, 'Please God, make the time of trouble be like, after I'm dead.'

[00:48:32] You know, like, [laughing] like I, like, you know, back in the, back in the 1980s, we thought like, 'Oh, Jesus is gonna be here in five years,' but I was like, wait, I haven't, you know, 'I haven't even kissed a girl!' I haven't, [laughing] I wanna, I wanna like have a family. I wanna get married. I wanna like do all these things before I go to heaven, and like live a sexless life for eternity.

[00:48:57] Everyone: [Laughing]

[00:48:57] Santiago: You know, it's funny you mentioned that because I had that same exact thought. I was like, 'You know what, I want Jesus to come back soon, but not until after I've had sex with somebody, because we won't be able to get to do that in heaven.' So, I'm sure there's other people who have had that same thought.

[00:49:14] Matthew: Um, yeah, absolutely. I mean, it, it's funny because it's like, Well, if it was actually heaven, like wouldn't whatever you were doing be better than sex, right?

[00:49:23] Santiago: True.

[00:49:24] Matthew: But, but yeah, that's probably a universal thought among honest Adventists.

[00:49:32] Santiago: Yeah, no, I'm sure, I'm sure. And it's funny you mention the eighties because I am in the middle of listening to the audiobook from Bart Ehrman, I think it's his latest book called Armageddon.

[00:49:46] Matthew: That guy's great.

[00:49:47] Santiago: Yeah, and he, it would be a dream come true if I could happen to get him on the podcast because his book, How Jesus Became God, was instrumental in my own personal journey of deconstruction and deconversion. And he mentions in his book a man named Hal Lindsey, which I had not heard of before, but he talks about...

[00:50:11] Matthew: The Late Great Planet Earth?

[00:50:12] Santiago: Yeah, exactly! And he talks about how Hal Lindsey predicted that the Earth was going to end in 1980, 85? In any case, he predicted that the, that the world was gonna end in the 1980s. And apparently Ronald Reagan bought into this view. A bunch of other politicians, people in the UK bought into that view.

[00:50:37] And it's just fascinating how the book of Revelation has been used by people from all walks of life for all sorts of different purposes. But this idea that Revelation is foretelling the future of planet Earth is actually a somewhat recent interpretation of that book. So for anyone who hasn't read Bart Ehrman before, or who is interested in eschatology and in understanding what a non-dogmatic modern Bible scholar has to say about this book, definitely check it out.

[00:51:15] It's gonna be linked in the show notes, of course, along with Matthew's book and some of the other essays and work that we've been mentioning on the podcast. But yeah, fascinating stuff. Still working my way through it, but it, it's so interesting to see how entire movements like the Adventist movement came up from certain specific interpretations of this book, which by the way, early Christians debated on whether it should even be included in the biblical canon. It wasn't always a sure thing that this book was gonna be in the canon.

[00:51:47] Matthew: The funny thing to me is, if you think about Adven — the Adventist church and the way that they try to, to put together this linear timeline that is like, has all these unimpeachable events that happened and you know, this, 'This verse talks about this verse.' I mean, you, you, when you hear a sermon, you're always ping ponging back and forth through the Bible, right?

[00:52:08] You, you're never like looking at one book at a time and asking like, 'What context was this written or what,' you know? And so to start understanding the Bible as an anthology that had a lot of different writers, but also that, the Jewish people, how they interact even today with, with the Hebrew Bible is midrash, right? It's arguing about what these, like the, the, the text is a living thing. And to interact with it is to, to have these different perspectives.

[00:52:35] Like that's the whole point is to, is to like try to like, you know, have a conversation about what, what the possible meanings could be. And the idea that that would happen in an Adventist church is, is like, I don't know. It just doesn't, it seems highly unlikely. [Laughing] I mean, maybe the closest thing you get is Sabbath school and then someone's, like, someone in adult Sabbath school is like, is questioning one part of like the sanctuary doctrine, right?

[00:53:03] And then like people are talking about that later, like, 'Can you believe they don't believe in the sanctuary doc?' Or, or whatever, like, [laughing] like these idiosyncratic, you know, beliefs and interpretations that, that are like, absolutely you have to believe in, in order to be, to be a member.

[00:53:22] And it makes me think of, you know, there's other books too, that I think you, I don't know if you, if you're familiar with Peter Enns, E N N S. He has a book called The Bible Tells Me So, uh, Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Um, that's a really, that's a really good one.

[00:53:39] And also the work of, of John Shelby Spong, who was uh, an Anglican minister for many years. He has books called, like, the Sins of Scripture or Why Christianity Must Change or Die. And there's a lot of really interesting deconstruction going into that. I mean, especially as, I mean, he was, he was a practicing Episcopal priest who, who basically was like, we have to acknowledge that the Bible is a book of myths.

[00:54:10] And that myths have the power to, you know, be vehicles for, for meaning and for how, you know, how we can understand the human condition. But imagining that Noah had [laughing] all of the Earth's creatures in his ark, represented...

[00:54:29] Santiago: Yeah.

[00:54:30] Matthew: ...uh, in there is, that's, that's not the point of the story, you know?

[00:54:34] Santiago: Right, right, or even the creation myth, which the Adventist church, not everybody, but I would argue, at least in my own experience and observations, the vast majority of Bible believing Adventists hold to Young Earth creationism. And I was an ex-Adventist in my late twenties by the time I found out that there were early Christians who understood Genesis to not be a literal six day creation.

[00:55:09] And there were early Christian theologians who were well respected, they weren't considered heretics, who also held this view. And I'm learning so much now that I've left, I, I like, like we were talking about before we started recording, I've learned so much more about Adventism and Christianity since leaving.

[00:55:26] It is, it is fascinating. And just to find out that, yeah, the biblical literalism that has taken the United States and Evangelical Christianity as a whole by storm, is a relatively new invention. And it's not the way Christians always read scripture.

[00:55:47] Matthew: Yeah, I mean, it, it, it was, one thing that opened my eyes was just reading more widely, right? Like, I remember reading the Tao Te Ching as an undergraduate and just thinking like, wow, like this is, this is actually a text that is saying true things, right? Like, there, there are like other religions, other spiritualities, other philosophies. There is truth in there, right?

[00:56:14] And I can read a John Donne poem or a John Donne sermon from the 17th century and realize that it's, it's more, it's richer, it's more textured, it's more intellectual than anything that the Adventist church has ever produced, or especially Ellen White, right? Who I always, always disliked. I felt like I was being lectured by like a 19th century schoolmarm, you know? Um, and I then I felt guilty, you know?

[00:56:48] Like at, I was like, oh, like everyone was like, 'Oh, if you just read,' like, I got, I, I got given this book, leather bound with my name in gold on it, Steps to Christ, right? Um, 'If you just read Steps to Christ, like you'll really just understand.' And I would like open up and I was like, 'This is boring as shit, dude. I mean, this is just, this sucks! Like the voice sucks.'

[00:57:10] And then I would like just have to deny that I had that reaction and put it down and, um, you know, find something else to do because I couldn't deal with the knowledge that I wasn't, you know, living up to what I should, should be or do.

[00:57:28] Santiago: I think Ellen White has definitely become less of a focus for many churches in North America in the past couple of decades. I grew up in a church that was definitely fundamentalist and conservative, and Ellen White was quoted from the pulpit, I would say fairly regularly. But even, even then, and probably a lot of that has to do with the fact that I grew up on the West Coast, but I did not get nearly as much, or at least I felt like I didn't get nearly as much of the lecturing, uh, from Ellen White.

[00:58:06] And, you know, I do remember from some older Adventists who were involved in Pathfinders, I do remember getting talked to about swimming on the Sabbath at one point. That was, I think the first and last time because nobody ever else was talking about this. So these were old school Adventists, I guess.

[00:58:25] And I do remember getting scolded one time, we were at Oshkosh for the International Camporee, and we were playing football, just kind of throwing a football around. And somebody, some staff member from another club came over to scold us for throwing a football around on Sabbath. But, you know, I, I did not grow up marinated in that like some other people did. So it's so interesting to see how it shifted over time. And I think that's probably, you know, to the consternation of some folks.

[00:58:58] Matthew: You know, one of the things that I think about now is how I wouldn't have dreamed of turning on the TV as a kid. In fact, I, I once did turn on the TV. I remember my mom was like getting ready. My dad, my parents were getting ready, guess my sister was getting ready in her room. I was alone in the living room.

[00:59:18] And it was one of those old school TVs where you pull a knob out and then the TV gradually comes on. And I just pulled it out and before even this picture could like bloom into view, I quickly turned, I quickly shut it off. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I almost did something really bad,' you know? And, and now, and in fact, like once when I was at my grandparents' house, my uncle and I went downstairs, I was probably like 12, to watch a UNC Tar Heels basketball game, 'cause it was like March Madness or whatever, right?

[00:59:52] And my dad walks in, And it was like uh-oh! And he was like, 'You know what, you're gonna have to talk to the pastor.' Like on our ride home, he was like, 'We're, we're gonna set up an appointment for you to talk to the pastor.' Which he never did. But I remember being really, really scared and freaked out about that.

[01:00:07] And now, like, my dad's on his iPad all day, like watching videos and like, you know, like Fox News or whatever. I mean, like, and, and my sister's kids are on their phones watching stuff and it's like everybody, you know, everybody carries a baby TV in their pocket now and they can just access it whenever they want, it's not a big deal. So things, things really have changed.

[01:00:30] Santiago: Absolutely, we're, we're gonna talk about this more in a bit, but the internet, I think, has thrown every institution for a loop, and it has thrown society for a loop. I've talked about how I think we got the internet before we were ready for it. But then again, when are you, when are you ever truly ready for technological change? Like the AI revolution is happening right now.

[01:00:55] It is incredible to see, and whenever I'm feeling particularly cynical about the news of the day, I just have to remind myself, I'm like, 'Hey, this much interesting stuff has happened in the short span of my life, how much more interesting, possibly horrible, likely horrible, but also interesting stuff is gonna happen by the time I'm in my fifties, sixties, seventies? Like that thought is one of the things that keeps me going, um, when, when, uh, things are looking particularly bleak.

[01:01:26] But yeah, I mean we're, yeah, we're gonna come back to the internet because I think it's been a huge, I mean, the deconstruction movement would not be happening, in my opinion, without the internet. TikTok and Instagram, social media in general, this podcast, right? Just so many things are possible because of the internet.

[01:01:47] And um, it's fascinating to, it's fascinating to watch in real time. But I wanna bring us back a little bit because you've written about attending an Adventist boarding school and living in the dorms. And I was laughing out loud at the part where you mentioned shooting bleach filled squirt guns at each other [laughing]. So I want to ask you, what were some of your best and worst experiences at Georgia Cumberland Academy?

[01:02:14] Matthew: Oh man, I mean, the best, I think the best experience — I might as well preface it by saying like, I always knew I was gonna go, right? I can't remember a time when I didn't know that I was going to, to boarding academy of some, of some kind. Like my, my parents met at boarding, well, they didn't meet at, they, they met before boarding school, but they got together in boarding school and they'd been together since then.

[01:02:37] My grandmother on my mom's side had a accidental encounter with someone who put her in touch with President Harding's sister who had married an Adventist or something. And so I don't know if she was working for her or if she just, I can't remember how the story goes. But anyway, she was sent to the, the school where my grandfather went.

[01:03:02] She walked in during some sort of President's day thing that was happening in the chapel. And my grandpa saw for the first time and he was like, 'Oh, that's the one.' You know, so there's this, there was all this lore behind like people getting together, you know, finding your true love.

[01:03:18] And that was what I was most important, that was, I mean, that was, I was girl crazy as a 14 year old, and the main thing I wanted to do was have a girlfriend. And I knew it wasn't gonna happen in my school of 30 kids in grades one through eight. [Laughing] And so I was, I was ecstatic to go and it was really fun.

[01:03:42] I was really into basketball and so we, we had outdoor courts, we had a gymnasium, we had an intermural league, uh, two different intermural leagues. So like just being around other boys, you know, being with your friends just day in and day out, right? Like I talk about in the book, like we had no idea what was going on outside the school, and we didn't care.

[01:04:07] Yeah, we were, we were like, 'Oh, it sucks that we can't watch TV or listen to radios without, you know, getting 'em confiscated' or whatever, um, or dance or eat meat or wear jewelry or, you know, wear t-shirts of our favorite bands or whatever. There was all these rules, but we were still with our friends, you know, at the end of the day, you know, like we... I just remember having like deep, heartfelt conversations with my roommates, you know, as we're drifting off.

[01:04:38] And also like the amount of singing that we did, like, there were really beautiful songs that we sang. I was in choir one year, but we, you know, we got up every morning, went to chapel and we sang, you know, to start the day. And we had this thing called afterglow after Vespers, so we would have a vesper service where we'd have a song service where you have a speaker, whether it's invited speaker or someone from our school.

[01:05:04] And then we would sing again to end the service, and then you could go back to your dorm, or you could go to Afterglow. And Afterglow was walking down the academy driveway to the sign and singing stuff like Pass it On, you know, under the stars, you know, Meet Me In Heaven. And that was as close to a transformative, transcendent, spiritual experience that I've probably ever had in my life.

[01:05:38] To be standing out there with my friends in a, in a circle holding hands, staring up at the stars and singing about, you know, I hope that we'll all meet each other in heaven someday, right? Those were the good parts. Um, you know, meeting, you know, I have friends that I've met in academy.

[01:05:57] I, I would say probably 85% of the people that I met there are no longer Adventists. But we can all have, it would, it wouldn't matter if we hadn't talked in, you know, 40 more years, like as soon as we, we can pick up our conversations where we left off. And I think that was something that was really, you know, I've, I've talked about it as, as like a hostage situation, [laughing] like, like you, you formed these bonds with people because like, you're all hostages.

[01:06:27] Santiago: You're trauma bonding in, in the dorms.

[01:06:30] Matthew: Exactly, but it was, it was actually more than that, you know? Because we did, we did have real friendships that were deep and complicated and nuanced. And raising a son who was in public school and had a very secular, by design, raising. He had a very great childhood and a pretty good adolescence until COVID.

[01:06:56] But I just don't think that he had those experiences, you know? I mean, he had lots of friends, but, you know, being trapped in a dorm every night from lights out at 10:30 or whatever it was, to when you get up at six to go to the showers. You're like showering with your friends, you know, like there's no stalls. You're just like, [laughing] bunch of dudes. It's all hanging out, you know?

[01:07:23] And we got used to it and wasn't a problem. I mean, like, and you know, so there were a lot all these bonds formed, but then it was like, yeah, it was like truly fucked up because there were, um, there was lots of hazing. There were fights, there were, you know, wrestling matches gone awry.

[01:07:43] This kid, Jeremy Newlan, God bless him, he was like this cool skater dude who I looked up to. We got into a impromptu wrestling match and he'd like, not only did he win, but he like took it further by taking the, uh, band of my Fruit of the Looms and yanking it all the way over my head and shoulder. And, um, and there was like a group of guys watching, right?

[01:08:10] And so, like, I remember, like, I, I, I probably ended up in tears. Not because of the pain, but of like just the emotional distress of like, 'How could someone I look up to do this to me with impunity,' you know? And then there were just like, you know, like relationships and falling in love with, you know, I was always like in love with some girl. um, who at least until the, the very, my, my senior year was like, it wasn't ever mutual [laughing]. Or it was, if it was, it was like complicated in some weird way.

[01:08:44] Santiago: I can relate to that, but not within a boarding school context, but yes, I can, I can relate to that.

[01:08:51] Matthew: I have a story in my collection, This World is Not Your Home, called How to Write a Love Story. I dunno if you've read that one, but it's all about boarding school and it's about wooing this Korean American girl who had never had a boyfriend and who was like, very proud of that fact.

[01:09:09] Like, 'I don't need a boyfriend, I'm not interested in dating, you know, boys only want one thing,' blah, blah, blah. And who thought that I was an airhead and that I, you know, I just relentlessly pursued her. And we ended up losing our virginity on senior class trip on a beach in The Bahamas.

[01:09:31] Santiago: Oh wow.

[01:09:32] Matthew: Which, you know, people would say, like, if they didn't know Adventists they'd be, 'Wow, what an amazing place to like, lose your virginity, right?' But like, as soon as it happened, the first thing that came to my mind was like, 'Now I know how Adam and Eve felt in the Garden of Eden.'

[01:09:52] Everyone: [Laughing]

[01:09:56] Matthew: That was literally the first thought that came to my mind.

[01:10:01] Santiago: Wow.

[01:10:02] Matthew: And we, and it, and it was like, it was really fucked up 'cause we had no way of, of dealing with it, right? Like the, like we had begun to be physical when we could. And we knew that we would be, there would be, you know, unsupervised situations. And we actually promised each other like, 'We're not gonna do this, we're not gonna go that far.'

[01:10:22] And so of course we didn't prepare, we didn't have protection, you know, and like it turned into this whole dramatic situation. Which, you know, probably colored our off and on relationship for the next however many years we were together. It creates, it allows you to create toxic relationships, I think, because no one is telling you like, 'Oh, this, it's okay to feel this way. It's okay to, for this to happen. You know, it's natural for humans to express their sexuality.'

[01:10:53] Like, this is how, this is how people and the world of things replicate themselves, right? There was so much I had to, to unlearn about, you know, human relationships and sexuality. I guess the other quote unquote bad stuff or negative stuff that I still think about is just like, just the indoctrination. Like the, the, the constant, you know, you go to chapel in the morning, you go to Bible class at some point during the day, you go to chapel at night, you have Vespers on Friday night.

[01:11:29] You got church on Saturday, you got Eventide at Saturday night. I mean, it's just church, church, church, church. And it was never anyone ever asking about what you actually thought. It was like, this is what you need to, 'This is the way it is, and how come you aren't more on fire for Jesus than you are?'

[01:11:47] Santiago: Right, wow. I'm so glad you shared these last anecdotes because right now, and I'm gonna ask you a little bit more about this later, recently Ted Wilson announced what he called a Human Sexuality Task Force because apparently the Adventist church in North America and Europe and some other places is becoming too LGBTQ affirming. And people roasted this announcement on Twitter. Candidly, I was one of them too, because...

[01:12:23] Matthew: I mean, just think about the name, Human Sexuality Task Force? What is — what? Like what absurdist, you know, speculative fiction are we living in where someone actually thinks that that's a good name for something?

[01:12:39] Santiago: Yeah, I, I don't ex — yeah, that was my thoughts, exactly. The first thing I thought, I was like, 'Well, this sounds kind of dystopian.' And, uh, [laughing] so anyway, I bring that up, we're gonna come back to that later, but I bring that up to make the point that sex is such a point of contention and shame and secrecy, at least within my own experience within the Adventist church.

[01:13:05] So many people felt like they couldn't talk about it. I've spoken to ex-Adventists who did actually get some decent sex education. They learned about contraceptives, and protection, and condoms and things like that. But I've also heard from ex-Adventists who never, ever said a word or heard a word from their parents about sex.

[01:13:25] Somebody shared a story with me where they grew up having a mom who was a nurse, and they found out about sex through her medical textbooks, but she never once told them anything. And when she found out that as a 14-ish something year old kid, they found out about sex through their medical textbooks. She took all the textbooks out the very next day, and she was upset that they had learned about human anatomy and reproduction through her medical textbooks.

[01:13:53] And I'm like, how can you be a medical professional and you won't talk to your kid about sex? So I'm wondering for you, in the family you grew up in, in the community you grew up in, what was that like? Did you ever have the talk at, at boarding school? Did you ever have any sort of sex ed or anything like that?

[01:14:12] Matthew: Well, we should note that the co-founder of the Adventist church, i.e. Ellen White, her first book was called An Appeal to Mothers, and it was about how practicing secret vice, i.e. masturbation, would create all these problems. Early death, blindness, blah, blah, you know, like total and absolute fiction, right?

[01:14:46] Santiago: Yeah.

[01:14:46] Matthew: But also, nobody ever talks about that. Like, I didn't know that that book existed as a kid. And like a dyed in the wool Adventist will probably be like, 'Well, you know, it might sound a little extreme, but she's really onto something because you, if, you know, if you get into that, if, you know, if you practice that and blah, blah blah,' you know, like... And it's like, 'No! Actually, it's fine, just chill!'

[01:15:07] Santiago: Not only her, but also John Harvey Kellogg. I loved the fact that I found out about your grand, was it your great-grandfather's diploma being signed by him? Because, yeah. Um, if you have any interest, Episode Four, I do a whole deep dive into John Harvey Kellogg. And not only him, but before him, Sylvester Graham. Not only is it Corn Flakes that have this tie to this, but Graham crackers!

[01:15:32] Matthew: I know, I know [laughing]. So my parents were, yeah, I don't, I don't, I never felt like they were repressed in that way as much as they maybe... I mean, I remember what happened was like, I had gone to, I had had these two, two girls in my church and their names were Ralene and Jolene. They had a trampoline and they lived on the, they lived in this part of town called Happy Top, which was not happy.

[01:16:08] It was very poor, there were trailers, there were just rundown houses. But I loved hanging out with Ralene and Jolene, they were great. We watched Scooby-Doo together, we ran around. We were on their trampoline, and, um, Adventist kids to me are like this combination of like, really judgey, really critical, but also really transgressive.

[01:16:30] You could just like spin a wheel and get one of those, you know, and, and we just happened to be feeling transgressive apparently, 'cause we were on the trampoline and we were just like, ecstatic, you know, like, 'Yay!' And so we just started yelling the bad words that we knew. And so I was yelling, I was yelling "shit" because that was the only bad word that I knew.

[01:16:50] But Raylene was, was yelling "fuck." And her, her mom came out and she grabbed her off the trampoline and took her back into the, um, the house and spanked her. And I was like, waiting in the living room, uh, for my, you know, my parents.

[01:17:07] I was probably there because my parents were doing something else and they needed someone to watch me. And Ralene's mom comes in to the, to the living room and says, 'Do you know what that word means?' And I'm thinking in my head, 'Shit, like, I think it means poop,' but I didn't say that. She goes, 'Well, it means makin' love. Do you know what makin' love is?'

[01:17:26] [Laughing] And I was like, 'Yeah, of course I do! Like everyone knows what love is, and how to make it. You just like, you naturally love someone.' And I'm, and I remember my, my dad, um, giving me the talk on the way home. I guess she told him the whole story and, and my first thought was like, wait, that's what people in the Bible did?

[01:17:50] Everyone: [Laughing]

[01:17:50] Matthew: Like, like Zechariah, like when he was like, he was too old to have a, and he was like, and Elizabeth? Like, but they, God just let 'em have a baby. It was like, but they actually like pulled up their robes and, you know, put their parts together? It was just like mind blowing, right? And we also had this, um, we had this book that was like, it was called, Where Did I Come From?

[01:18:16] And it was drawings, it was cartoons. And so it showed, like, it was like this couple that was like slightly overweight, and middle-aged, but as a cartoon. And it was like, "This is a man and he has a penis, and this is a woman and she has breasts and she has a vagina. And when the guy gets a, you know, aroused, he puts his penis in her vagi — his penis gets big, and he goes on..." And like, all, and it was like, and it like was illustrating it and then it like had little cartoon sperm with like, top hats on, and...

[01:18:47] Everyone: [Laughing]

[01:18:47] Santiago: What!?

[01:18:48] Matthew: It was just like, I remember my dad sat me down and he like read the whole thing to me and it was just like, boom! You know? Um and I think that they were pretty open about like, stuff, like, it wasn't like a, you know, daily topic of conversation or anything, but I, I never felt like I couldn't ask them a question. Not that I would, um, but you know, like my memories aren't of my parents being like super repressive or anything like that, you know?

[01:19:17] Santiago: That's good to hear. My story of the talk is not nearly as dramatic. [Laughing] I've recorded that before so I won't rehash it here, but suffice to say that I got a VHS tape from like the seventies or eighties, uh, and that was interesting. All right, so I wanna fast forward and based on your bio, it looks like you didn't attend any Adventist colleges. And if so, I'm wondering why that was and if you had any disagreements with your family about where you went to college.

[01:19:50] Matthew: Actually I did, the first two years I attended Adventist colleges. I went to Andrews, uh, with the girlfriend from my senior year. And it was probably the most dismal, depressing time of my life. Because I was stuck in a dorm in the middle of nowhere, didn't have a car, didn't see the sun like every form of precipitation that Lake Michigan's lake effect could have upon Berrien Springs.

[01:20:23] I mean, I felt like we didn't see the sun for three months, and I was only there for a quarter. And the person, one of the reasons I had gone there is one of my good friends, Todd Wemmer, he's a, he's a journalism professor at Endicott College now in Massachusetts. He had gone there with my friend Scott, who had been my roommate and they were two years ahead of me in, in, in boarding school.

[01:20:44] And they talked about how awesome Andrews was and how, you know, how great the people were. I didn't find that to be the case, but Todd, in between going to Andrews and going to AUC, where, where he was when I was at Andrews, had gone to Newbold and had met someone who was going to AUC. So he went to AUC and then he called me up and he was like, you should transfer here, the English department is amazing.

[01:21:10] And at that time, like the English department was like, like if you were gonna be an English major as an Adventist, you went to AUC. So I transferred there and it was incredible. I mean, I read Faulkner and Plath and TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Kant and David Hume and you know, like philosophers and just, you know, like all, I mean, it was just like, you know, my brain was on fire.

[01:21:41] You know, I started smoking some weed and got drunk and like, you know, I had all these experiences where I was, you know, took mushrooms, right? And then like the kids that I had who were my best friends graduated, and I had like two more years there and I didn't wanna stay there. And my friend from elementary school, Tom Sitters was like, 'Hey, I want to go to UNC. You should come be my roommate and we'll go to UNC together.'

[01:22:09] And I was like, 'Well, all my friends are leaving, so...' You know, and I could actually study with real writers, right? Like, like writers who aren't just publishing in Spectrum or you know, the Adventist Review or whatever. So I transferred, talked my parents into doing it. And it was way, I think, you know, made tuition at AUC at that time, might have been 15 grand a year. Whereas at UNC it was like 2000 or 2,500.

[01:22:36] Santiago: Real quick, just to clarify, AUC stands for?

[01:22:39] Matthew: Atlantic Union College, it's in, it's in South Lancaster, it's now defunct. It closed down years ago. But it was also the place where I had my, um, where I taught for the first time after I got my masters. But anyway, the only person I remember having an issue with me going to UNC was Ted. We were at dinner somewhere, and when he found out that I was going to UNC, he just said, 'I can't imagine why you would do that. What could it possibly have that an Adventist school couldn't provide?'

[01:23:14] And the answer to that was [laughing] a hell of a lot, you know, because as an English major, I had a lot of, um, I had a lot of electives. And so I just, I ended up taking classes that I was interested — like, I took a class on Daoism, on Japanese literature, on mythology. And it was just like a, a banquet for the intellect, right? It was, I had all these amazing teachers and amazing classmates and amazing materials.

[01:23:47] And, and even my English classes, you know, I was like, 'Damn, these, these motherfuckers in the 17th century were high on God, man!' [Laughing] In ways that, you know, like Adventists certainly weren't.

[01:24:02] Santiago: Yeah, and it's so funny to hear that Ted would ask you, 'What can you find at a secular school that you can't find at an Adventist school?' Abby and Ami did an episode on fiction and Adventist attitudes toward fiction, and how Ellen White was very anti-fiction.

[01:24:22] So of course, if you're going to be interested in literature, if you're gonna be an English major, I gotta imagine at least in some Adventist schools, when you were going to college, there was a, like you said, a hell of a lot that you could find at a non-Adventist school.

[01:24:39] Matthew: Well, and it's funny because Ottilie Stafford was this like lauded professor at AUC and so many Adventist English majors who went through the English department at AUC will credit her for, I mean, transforming their lives, you know? Making them appreciate reading and literature.

[01:25:03] And, she was a li — she was very liberal, but she was still Adventist, you know? And she was best friends with my, my grandmother when they were going through AUC. And she loved my grandmother, she's like, 'Oh, your grandmother, I loved her so much.'

[01:25:20] And then when I would, when I would bring up Ottilie Stafford to my grandmother, she would go, 'Dear me, she was just so critical,' [laughing] right? Like, um, because, you know, Dr Stafford was this intellectually fierce woman who was very much a feminist. And, you know, really didn't like the fact that, you know, she had to work twice as hard to earn, you know, half as much, and, you know, on and on and on.

[01:25:54] My dad's brother, my dad's older brother Don, who was known as one of the members of The Wedgwood Trio, which was like the Adventist Grateful Dead, um [laughing] he was also an English major, and he is a, he's like one of my favorite people because he's so not judgmental.

[01:26:14] He's, he was an a Adventist pastor for years. He's retired now, but he, you could tell him anything and he would find a way to, to talk to you about, you know, the validity of whatever your response was. He wouldn't try to shame you. And I think that his nuance, which is greater than my own father's, I think, because like, you know, when This World Is Not Your Home came out, my dad's, one of my dad's reactions was, 'Do people really want to hear about you masturbating?'

[01:26:43] And it was just because I had a line in there in the boarding school essay where it was like, you know, I, you know, I was like, 'Oh my god, I jacked off again and now, you know, if I don't, if I'm not forgiven for it, my mom's gonna see it on the cosmic screen of,' uh...

[01:26:58] Santiago: Oh god.

[01:26:59] Matthew: Like in the afterlife of like, why your son isn't in heaven. Because he couldn't stop touching himself. And my dad was like, like his whole thing, it was like literally like two sentences in a whole book, right? 'Do people really wanna read about you mastur' — I was like, 'Of course not, but that's not the point, right?'

[01:27:18] [Laughing] But my uncle, while we were having the conversation, he called and said, 'I just want you to know that me and Melinda,' his wife, 'We're reading your book and we just think you've done a wonderful job. You know, we don't agree with everything you have to say about Adventism, but you really paint it in a, you know, with warmth and tenderness and, and nuance. And I just want you to know that, that, that we appreciate that.'

[01:27:43] And I was like, 'In your face, dad,' [laughing] 'cause your older brother who's a pastor just said that it was okay.' Now, now Ted would definitely not think it was okay. I love Ted, um, as a person, he is kind, he's funny. There's a lot to unpack and to, to get into and argue with and dislike about his theology, absolutely.

[01:28:10] He's, he's been very kind to me, and you know, so there's, there's that too, which is just, it, it, it's, it's weird to think. Because I, I, I often tell Elijah, my son, I said, 'You know, uncle Ted?' And I was like, 'He's the most famous person that nobody you know knows about.'

[01:28:28] Everyone: [Laughing]

[01:28:29] Santiago: Yeah, yep. It's so interesting how the Adventist church is bigger, apparently, in membership size than the Mormon church, but virtually nobody knows about Adventism unless if you have...

[01:28:46] Matthew: Unless you're in it.

[01:28:46] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I've joked with a previous podcast guest about how there needs to be an Adventist Book of Mormon. One of my earlier guests, Jeff, had actually talked about having that conversation with some of his Adventist friends who are still Adventist, but, um, you know, I guess more open-minded. And I guess one of them had brought that idea up to him, and I'm like, yeah, they're, they're definitely, I could absolutely see a musical being made.

[01:29:15] Matthew: Oh, gosh, yes. I mean, it would have to include like The Sound of Music because for whatever reason, I don't know if this has been your experience, but definitely in my experience. Like if there's one movie that every Adventist's seen and adores, it's The Sound of Music. And I think it's partly like, there was a, there was a English professor at Andrews who wrote, and it was probably published in Spectrum, this essay about how one of the reasons for that is probably because at the end of the movie, when the Nazis are, are chasing down the Von Trapp family, there are echoes of time of trouble, right?

[01:29:52] Anyway, yeah, I would love to see and be a part of creating an Adventist musical because it would, it would also include stuff like, you know, getting your, your auto reverse Walkman to play tapes backwards and hear Stairway to Heaven and, and Robert Plant singing [mimics singing backward] you know?

[01:30:15] Everyone: [Laughing]

[01:30:16] Matthew: Because music is such a huge part of, of Adventist life, you know?

[01:30:22] Santiago: 100%, I'm so glad you mentioned that because my mom, she was not born in the US, she's Latina, she immigrated as an adult, and she converted to Adventism as a teenager in her home country. I don't know when she was introduced to it, how she heard about it, but she absolutely loves The Sound of Music, and I remember watching that movie with her multiple times and how she just, she just loved it so much.

[01:30:51] One of the things I've talked about is how I'm still, as an adult now, as an ex-Adventist, trying to reconnect with my cultural heritage through my mom, that she, I think after leaving her home country and after becoming Adventist, didn't really identify with that much. And so I feel like there's this kind of gap in my, my story of who I am as a person that I'm trying to reconnect with. But she, she, she identified so much with Adventist culture and with The Sound of Music and...

[01:31:24] Matthew: Isn't it funny because nothing, is there any movie whiter [laughing] than The Sound of Music, right?

[01:31:30] Santiago: Exactly!

Part 2 Coming Soon!

[01:31:32] Santiago: And we're going to pause here. Stay tuned for part two of my conversation with Matthew. We talked about how he eventually left Adventism, finding his current worldview, his new book, and much more, including his uncle Ted Wilson, and the recently announced Human Sexuality Task Force. You won't want to miss it.

[01:31:56] So if you haven't already subscribed on YouTube or your favorite podcast app, follow the show today and please leave a like, comment, or a rating. Especially if you're on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, as that helps more people find the show.

[01:32:13] Don't forget to see the show notes for links to all the books and topics we've discussed. And please consider donating to support the show. Thanks again, and we'll see you on the next one.

Haystacks & Hell Outro

[01:32:24] Santiago: Thanks for listening. If you have a story to share about your Adventist or fundamentalist experience, we'd love to hear it. You can submit stories on our website at hell.bio (that's H E L L dot B I O) or leave us a voicemail at 301-750-8648 and we might feature it in a future episode. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you on the next one!

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