Matthew Vollmer: Writer, Professor, & Ted Wilson's Nephew - Part 2

Bonus Episode
May 14, 2023
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Part 2 of Santiago's interview with 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

Essay - The Man With Two Heads

Website / Bio

Books Mentioned:
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are - Alan Watts

The Denial of Death - Ernest Becker

Other Topics Mentioned:
TikTok - Rachel Klinger Cain  

The Road Not Taken - Robert Frost  

The Architecture of Doom

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Credits: Music: Hall of the Mountain King Kevin MacLeod ( • 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.

Part 2 of Speaking with 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 we're playing the second half of my conversation with Matthew Vollmer. If you haven't already heard part one, go back and listen to Episode 16 first. You won't want to miss that. And if you've already heard it, great, we'll pick up from where we left off.

[00:00:38] 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 things like that.

[00:01:12] Matthew: Is there any movie whiter [laughing] than The Sound of Music, right?

[00:01:17] Santiago: Exactly.

[00:01:18] Matthew: The other Haystacks podcast talked about a lot, or well, it seemed like they brought it up, was that they were almost arguing for, they weren't, I mean, one of 'em was arguing that Adventism was like an ethnicity.

[00:01:32] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:01:33] Matthew: Right, I mean, there's so much culture within, if you're an Adventist, like no matter where you are in the world, you can go to an Adventist church and you can have a conversation and you can have these understandings and connections just like we're having here today, um, about this weird, insular, idiosyncratic thing that we all tapped into and were affected by.

[00:02:03] Santiago: Yeah, across geographies, across generations. It's, it's fascinating. So, we've talked about childhood, boarding school, college. I'm wondering where, during all of this, as you're growing up, was there a specific moment when you realized you didn't believe in the Adventist teachings and no longer considered yourself an Adventist? 'Cause it sounds like there were certain things that you questioned or you didn't necessarily agree with, like some of the things that Ellen White said. But was there a defining moment or was it really more of a gradual thing for you?

[00:02:42] Matthew: It was definitely a gradual thing. It was very strange to realize that once you had autonomy, right, like once you could decide whether or not you would go to church or not. Like my whole childhood, like we went to church every single week, unless it was camp meeting week and either we went to camp meeting or we just skipped church and we had church at home.

[00:03:03] And then at, at boarding school, you know, someone's standing at the back of the room with a check sheet, you know, marking your name off, that you're in attendance, and then you go to college and you're living off campus and no one's, you know, they can't monitor that.

[00:03:17] And so I was like, well, maybe I just won't go this week. And I didn't, it was, it was fine. It wasn't that I didn't believe it was just like, I don't want to go to church. I have been to church so much! And what happens if I don't? And it was like, and I, so I started thinking about it like, well, like what is it about church?

[00:03:39] Why, why is church the necessary thing in all of this? Can I still believe in God? Can I still keep the Sabbath if I'm not in church? Seems like I could. But also it was like, uh, if I wanted to watch TV, I'd watch TV. If I wanted to listen to, you know, The Cure or whatever, I would, I would listen to it and I would be like, that's, 'That seems fine.'

[00:04:03] I would always, like, I would always, it was always these, these negotiations in my head, right? I wrote a thing for McSweeney's Internet Tendency, years and years ago. It's probably 20, close to 20 years ago. It was called an Interview With a Man with Two Heads, and it was a, a regular guy who had the pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist church growing out of his neck.

[00:04:30] Both: [Laughing]

[00:04:30] Matthew: And so it was, but, and it was like, I was basically, I think trying to dramatize what the experience was like of live — it was like I was living as a normal person or I wanted to be normal, but I had this other head on my, on my shoulder telling me what I should do and what I shouldn't do, right?

[00:04:49] I'm sure it's still up there on, on the McSweeney site at, at some point. So that was the first part, right? And the Sabbath was so deeply ingrained in me, like, 'Remember the Sabbath Day. It's the only one that says "remember," and everyone's forgotten,' right?

[00:05:06] Really, I had nothing but good experiences of the Sabbath. And in fact, I, I remember Ottilie Stafford having given or having recommended that I read a book about the Sabbath by this Jewish theologian named Abraham Heschel. And I remember giving it to my dad because I, I don't know if he ever read it or whatever, but, but it was like, it was like this really wonderful like conception of the Sabbath as like a sanctuary in time, right?

[00:05:39] And so that was the, I think that was the last of the things to go, because even if I didn't go to church, I wouldn't work on Sabbath. I made that a definite point. Like whenever I got a job, I was like, 'I do not work on Sabbath. I do not work on Friday nights. I do not work on Sabbath. I can work on Saturday night.'

[00:05:54] And somehow that all, that always worked out for me. Until, you know, eventually that also kind of gave way. So yeah, to put it succinctly, it was, it was a gradual movement away with, you know, time, experience, reading, understanding other people's perspectives, realizing that a lot of my dad's friends are former Adventists as well.

[00:06:27] And once I got to the age when I understood that and could have conversations with them about their experiences, that was really transformative and inspiring. To have like a guy who I knew as one of our first pastors who was now like totally not Adventist, in California. And I still talk to him, uh, pretty, pretty frequently.

[00:06:51] And just to be in conversation with other people who aren't — haven't been totally indoctrinated in following robotically, you know, the Adventist code, which I realize like there are lots of people who, who can do that, who do have a more nuanced view.

[00:07:09] I mean, you can do that with any religion. Because every religion is, is like, there's something irrational about any religion, any codified, you know, system of, of beliefs. That actually reminds me of something that I wanted to mention before, but I know this guy who was a, he was like my freshman English teacher at AUC. He's an atheist. He's an avowed atheist. He goes to church every Sabbath.

[00:07:33] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:07:33] Matthew: He loves Adventism, he loves the culture, he finds it, even if he doesn't believe in any of it, he finds it somehow comforting. You know, it's what he knows. It's, it's the, potlucks, it's the Sabbath school, it's the songs, it's whatever.

[00:07:50] Santiago: That's fascinating, hmm. Yeah, the last time I went to my old church was for a memorial service, and it was nice to see the people there. I've talked about how I've essentially ghosted my old church because my parents have asked me to not be very open about my beliefs. Especially my mom, my mom told me, 'Please don't embarrass the family.'

[00:08:21] Matthew: You started a podcast!

[00:08:23] Both: [Laughing]

[00:08:25] Santiago: And two years later I started a podcast. Um, but, you know, it's under a pseudonym. As, as far as I know, they have not heard it yet. As far as I know, people from my home church have not heard it yet. But I made it very clear to them. I said, look, 'This is my story.' 'I will tell people if and when I am ready.' I told them, I—

[00:08:42] Matthew: ♫ This is my story, this is my song!

[00:08:46] Both: [Laughing]

[00:08:47] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, honestly, it is. It truly is. And so I was like, you know what? I, I have a right to talk about my experiences. I'm doing what I can to the extent that I can to honor my mother and my father by not revealing my true name, revealing their true—

[00:09:03] Matthew: Now you're making me feel bad.

[00:09:04] Both: [Laughing]

[00:09:09] Santiago: Sorry, not, not my intent.

[00:09:11] Matthew: I'm kidding, I don't feel bad.

[00:09:14] Santiago: It's truly only because it's still, it's still relatively fresh, right? And so I have no doubt that at some point I'm going to be more open with current Adventists about what I believe. There's only one person at my old church who's, I consider a true friend who I feel I can trust with this.

[00:09:34] So we've had conversations, they know kind of that I've left, that I'm fully out, that I'm not religious at all. But, you know, for, for many people who are still in it, there's this, you know, the, they ask, 'Oh, hey, how have you been?' 'Hey, we need help with music.' 'Hey, we need young people in our church.' 'Hey, we don't have a youth leader,' apparently.

[00:09:55] And, and so when I'm asked this, because I'm trying to, I'm trying to fulfill what my parents have asked of me, I don't feel like I can be honest with them yet at this point. And so it's not a great place to be in, but it's okay. I'm making, I'm making do, but, uh, you know...

[00:10:18] I forget where I was going with this, but I guess I'll transition this into a question, which is, you know, do you remember a point where you publicly started identifying as a former Adventist even if you didn't use that label? And if so, like, what was that like? Especially with your proximity to church leadership and just having this huge history within your family?

[00:10:44] Matthew: Yeah, I mean, part of it was, you know, I married a woman who was not an Adventist. There is literally no one in my family who knows my wife, who doesn't love her and appreciate her. No one's tried to convert her. People have reached out to me, to say that 'We're still praying for you' and we're, you know, we're, 'We're not gonna let you go.' You know, that kind of stuff.

[00:11:18] And in fact, the title of the book, all of Us Together in the End, comes from something that my mom said to me after the publication of my first book, which is a collection of stories in which maybe three of them were Adventist. I mentioned this earlier. People who are encountering Adventism, and that's like part of, part of the story. And my cousin who is actually Ted's oldest daughter, reached out to me via email.

[00:11:46] 'I read your book, I wish I could talk to you about how, how I recognized so much of it. And would be fun to go down memory lane. And, but the, the truth is that the publication of this book has, has made your parents distraught and they're, they're terrified for your soul.'

[00:12:03] And I was like, 'What?' Uh, first of all, it's none of your business to say that to me. Uh, I was really defensive and I wrote her a very defensive email. But then I called my mom and I was like, 'Mom, get a load of this.' 'Can you believe that she said this?'

[00:12:23] 'Cause I was a hundred percent sure, 'cause I've always had a great relationship with my parents and they've only ever encouraged me to write. Although, you know, they haven't encouraged me to have non Adventist beliefs.

[00:12:37] But at any rate, she, when I said that, she was quiet, and my mom was not a quiet person. She was never at a loss for words. One of the ways that she annoyed me to no end was that she just couldn't shut up. You know, she was always laughing. I was annoyed by it, you know, um,

[00:13:01] 'Why do you have to laugh at everything,' you know? And she would say like, 'Do you wanna mean mama?' And I, I've like literally heard, seen her cry two or three times in my life. And I said, well, you know, 'Can you believe this?' that my cousin had this response, and she had no res — was silent. And then I could hear her quietly weeping. And I was like, well, 'What's wrong?' She said, 'I just want us all to be together in the end.'

[00:13:29] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:13:29] Matthew: And I was like, 'Oh, damn, wow.' Like she really, and I tried to, and I tried to counter that by saying, 'Well, you know what? There are gonna be lots of non-Adventists in heaven, right?' And she was like, 'Yeah.' I was like, well, 'And Carrie, my sister, my younger sister, like, she might not go to heaven. Just because she's a Adventist doesn't mean she's guaranteed.'

[00:13:51] And my mom was like, 'I know, I know, but blah, blah, blah.' You know, like, you know, it was like, it was, it was like she could... It's this weird thing where like, know, you, you have to be Adventist to be one of the redeemed, but you don't necessarily have to, you, you know, if you don't know certain things, if you haven't been, if you haven't, you know, if you're a Hindu and you've been a good Hindu your whole life and you haven't ever heard of Jesus, then you, you know, maybe you'll get into heaven. And then you'll learn of Jesus, you'll be like 'Oh, great!'

[00:14:20] But if you have, and that, and that's, that kind of goes back to what we were talking about before, about like, you know, sitting in church and watching someone mow their lawn outside. Or knowing that there was all these people who didn't know the Adventist truth, and being like, 'Why couldn't I have been one of them?' 'Why couldn't I not know the truth?' Right? And just live a normal life until I needed to know the truth, which is at the time of trouble!

[00:14:46] Both: [Laughing]

[00:14:49] Matthew: Like, I just, I just wanna have that normal life. Wanna, I just wanna like watch, you know, uh, Saturday morning cartoons and, and listen to the top 40 and, uh, go to the movies without worrying that my guardian angel's gonna, you know, stand outside and cry.

[00:15:08] Santiago: Yeah.

[00:15:09] Both: [Laughing]

[00:15:10] Santiago: Oh man, yeah. You know, I've, I've had that thought too, right? 'What if?' And I, and I have to imagine there's a lot of former Adventists who have also wondered that or who may be starting to wonder that as they leave. And for me, you know, we are, we are in some ways the summation of our experiences, right? And so I don't necessarily regret any one particular experience that I've had.

[00:15:37] I've been fortunate and I've talked about before, how I am not particularly bitter because of something that happened to me while I was in the church. I was never abused. I never had a falling out with somebody at my old church. I felt valued. I think like you, I had a largely positive experience. And so when people try and reconcile, 'Well, how could you leave the truth, right?'

[00:16:02] The first thing that I hear a lot of pastors and a lot of evangelists say is, 'Oh, they wanted to sin, or they were hurt, or this or that.' And it's never truly accepting that maybe we could not believe it anymore for one reason or another. My parents definitely struggled with this news because my brother had told them years earlier as a teenager, that he didn't believe anymore.

[00:16:32] He initially strongly identified as an atheist. Now he considered himself to be a little bit more of maybe an agnostic deist. And when he shared that with us, I still believed. I was deep in it, I'm pretty sure I was a youth leader then at that point as well, Pathfinder staff. And so I experienced alongside my parents, the grief, the true anguish and grief of imagining my little brother being... Yeah, yeah, being lost.

[00:17:03] And, and even today it is, it does bring some strong emotions to think about that. And so it took me, it took me a while. It really did take me a while to be able to tell my parents. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, uh, a draft of an email that I was initially gonna email them while I was away on a trip overseas.

[00:17:28] And then, uh, it kind of didn't work out. My dad read it, but my mom didn't, 'cause her inbox is always flooded with a bunch of spam and promotional emails. So it worked out that my dad had this burden to bear on his own 'cause he didn't want to be the one to tell her. He wanted me to be there to, to tell them in person.

[00:17:49] And so when I come back from the trip, it's maybe a month or two after I've come back that I finally get the courage to read them this letter out loud. And that is absolutely, I think one of the reasons why our parents and our family struggle with this is because just, I think as any Christian, right, you want your family to be together.

[00:18:12] You want to know that there is a better life, that there is hope, and that your family, that your loved ones are gonna be there. And I remember telling my parents, the best I could do, because I, at least in my case, and, and the way I presented it, I was like, 'I'm fully out.'

[00:18:28] 'I don't believe in the Abrahamic god, and even if the Abrahamic god happened to exist the way that I read about him in the Bible, I don't think he would be a particularly moral being that I personally would worship, that I straight up told them that in the letter I wanted to get it all out. I wanted to be as honest with them as I could.

[00:18:45] And so the best I could do to give them comfort in that moment was tell them, you know, Adventists don't believe that hell is forever. So at the very least, I won't be burning and being tortured consciously for eternity. And by the way, Revelation says that God's gonna wipe your tears away, so it's gonna be okay. And that was the best I, that was the best I could do...

[00:19:07] Matthew: You did a good job. I mean, that's, that's, that's, I mean, I was, I was actually talking to someone recently about like, about that. I've been writing a novel set at a Adventist boarding school. The person I was telling about this novel, I was, I was like, one of the characters is, I, I want him to come to the place where he, he believes Adventism, but he's, he can't do it.

[00:19:35] And so he's just like, 'Fuck it.' 'Yes, I believe that Adventists have the truth, but I can't do it and I'm going to hell.' Uh, because I do know, I, I did know a person like that, like he was a, he was a bus driver who drove from LA to like Las Vegas and was like a gambler and a smoker and a drinker. And, and he was, he was like,

[00:20:02] 'Yeah, I believe Adventists have the truth, but I, you know, I'm not doing it and whatever. I'm just going to, I'll have to live with it and I'll have to, you know, burn up in hell and, and it'll be over.' I mean like, like that is a weird out, it's a weird like tap out for someone to take. Like, like, okay, 'Yeah, Adventism they have all these things you gotta do, it I just, ah, it's just exhausting for me. Like, I'd rather burn up in hell really quick or I like, I, I, at least not as long as Hitler.' And then...

[00:20:36] Santiago: Yeah, yeah.

[00:20:38] Matthew: And then it'd just be over. Like, like that's a weird, that's a very weird thing to just like accept as truth, right?

[00:20:50] Santiago: Yeah, no, I, yeah. Yeah, and I gotta imagine there are more current or marginal Adventists who maybe think that way. And I have to imagine, I, I have not done enough research on the idea of eternal hellfire to say this with any sort of confidence or authority. But I personally have to imagine that that is one of the reasons why this idea of eternal health fire exists.

[00:21:16] Because even some Bible scholars like Bart Ehrman, as far as I can tell, do agree with Adventist teaching of annihilationism. That the Bible, if you are reading it the way the authors intended, within the context that we have, whatever little context is available, that annihilationism is a more accurate view. And I was really interested to hear that from a non-Christian Bible scholar. And you know, it gives me a little bit more comfort, I guess, if it happens to be true.

[00:21:52] Matthew: But the other thing is, is that, the thing that I, that always stuck, stuck out with me was God would have to perform a miracle to keep you burning forever. Because people would not burn, human beings if set on fire, would not burn forever. So God would have to maintain that, uh, for it to happen. And what kind of God would that be?

[00:22:16] Santiago: Right, right, exactly. And I remember hearing that very point made in sermons and in evangelistic series, and I, even though I'm not an Adventist, I 100% agree with that. I still, I still personally feel that if I ever, I don't believe I ever will, but I guess never say never, right? But if I ever happened to return to Christianity, I don't think I could be anything other than a universalist.

[00:22:44] I, I don't think I could, because it's difficult for me to grasp the concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent and loving being that would create humans with all of the capacities that we have. And animals too, right? Animals haven't asked for any of this, right? If we believe that they don't have souls and, and they're just a product of sin, right?

[00:23:07] And they're just acting according to nature. They didn't ask for any of this. Neither did we. But I, I, I can't, I can't imagine and, and accept that a higher power could be all-powerful, all-benevolent, all-loving, and any form of hell to exist. Because if the wages of sin is death, then let it just be death. Why does it have to be torture?

[00:23:32] I've, I follow some folks on TikTok and other places. It's, it's, it's so fascinating to see this conversation that has sprung up online in TikTok of all places, but there's a, there's a woman I follow on TikTok. Her name is Rachel Klinger Cain. Hope I'm pronouncing it correct. But she talks about how, if you're a parent, when you punish your child, the idea is that you are correcting them to teach them something.

[00:23:59] Eternal punishment with no hope of redemption doesn't teach you anything or produce any sort of benefit other than the act of punishment. And so it's, it's a, again, yeah, if I ever happened to return to any sort of Christian faith, I don't think I could be anything other than a universalist.

[00:24:20] Matthew: I was just at a universalist church yesterday for a memorial service, and, and it was the best memorial service I've ever been to. Such a great job. But also I would say like, the Episcopal Church is a place where I have found all kinds of perspectives, even though like the liturgy is kind of set in stone, which I, which I kind like, like, right?

[00:24:50] Like if, if an Adventist starts praying, you know, you don't know when they're gonna end, uh, at an Anglican service, you know, you know exactly where it's gonna end 'cause it's in the bulletin, you know, or it's in the prayer book. But I remember talking to, uh, a retired Episcopal priest who was a member of the church that we go to.

[00:25:06] He's, he's since passed on. He was just this kind of like beatific guy, like just the kind of old guy who was just like, just joyful about being as old as he got. And he, I remember a, just a side conversation. He said like, 'The holiest place I've ever been was a Buddhist temple where people have been, you know, saying prayers for a thousand years.'

[00:25:33] That's the, I mean, that, that's the kind of perspective that you can get at a liberal, progressive, but also like deeply traditional Christian denomination. I actually got this wrong in my book. I said the three, like, you can think of, you can think of the, the, the foundation of the Episcopal Church as, as a stool with three legs.

[00:25:58] And it has like, scripture, tradition, and reason. I said scripture, tradition, and ritual, which someone dinged me in a review of. I was like, am I allowed to make a mistake? And you not say it in the review? But anyway, but, but I, I do love that. Like, reason, tradition, and scripture, right? That's a very sensible way to approach a religion if you're gonna have one, right?

[00:26:26] You have the foundational script, but you also have reason. And then you have ritual like, so, so, or tradition. So like you have to honor all of those things equally. And if anyone is, if anyone is longer or more emphasized than the other, your stool's gonna fall over.

[00:26:43] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:26:44] Matthew: I mean, the other thing about the Episcopal church is, and I talk about this, is, at this particular church, there's a woman who, she's a [unclear] scholar, and I actually took a course with her in 2015 on the

[00:26:55] New Testament where I got Cs on her quizzes. Uh, and she was like, 'It's because you're thinking like an Adventist.' [Laughing] I went to her office hours, as a tenured professor, taking a New Testament course, and she was telling me that I, I could only get better in her class by not thinking as an Adventist.

[00:27:21] But she, she oversees this thing every year where it's like a, a corporate reading of a gospel, meaning that like you sign up to go and you're assigned a section of whatever gospel it is they're reading that year, and you hear it the way that it was meant to be hear — heard orally, from beginning to end. The first time I experienced it, I was like, 'Holy shit, why don't Adventists do this?'

[00:27:46] Like, why wouldn't you read an entire go — like why wouldn't you read an entire book of the Bible, and not say anything about it? Right, you read Mark, you read Ma — like whatever gospel it is, and you come away thinking like, dang, Jesus was a storyteller whose audience didn't know what to make of him, right? And got killed because he said some shit people didn't like. And that is totally not what you get in the Adventist church, right? If you get, if you get a sermon about the crucifixion, it's that Jesus rested on the Sabbath.

[00:28:28] Both: [Laughing]

[00:28:29] Santiago: Yeah, yep, I've definitely heard some of those.

[00:28:33] Matthew: That is so messed up.

[00:28:37] Santiago: So, so speaking of that, it sounds like you're currently attending an Episcopal church. Is that correct?

[00:28:43] Matthew: Probably not as much as, as my priest would like, but yes [laughing].

[00:28:49] Santiago: Okay, so if, if you don't mind me asking, how would you describe your current worldview?

[00:28:56] Matthew: My worldview is that I am open to anything. Um, and speaking of TikTok, like one of the most memorable TikToks I've heard was from an African American guy who, his whole thing is deconstructing Christianity, and he said something about religions being like languages. And, you know, you would never say that Spanish is wrong. You would never say that like, Sanskrit is wrong. Whatever it is, like, like it's, it's just a different way of understanding the world. Or representing human perceptions and experiences.

[00:29:35] And we all know that certain languages are better at others than doing X, Y, and Z, right? All languages have limitations. If we start to think about religions in that way, what better way to appreciate the, perspectives that they might, they might give us. Yeah, we can talk shit about Adventism, but at the end of the day, we know that welcoming Sabbath on Friday night fucking rules, know that potlucks are awesome.

[00:30:06] We know that haystacks rule. We know that, you know, like that not burning up in hell forever is a great idea that we can all get behind, right? Like there's, you know, and, and it's that way for so many religions. You know, I spent COVID taking walks and listening to Alan Watts. And I don't know if you're an Alan Watts fan or, or have listened to, to much of him or not, but I would definitely recommend to listeners of this podcast to listen to any Alan Watts reading, also to read the book, The Taboo of Knowing Who You Really Are.

[00:30:46] He's someone who champions, Eastern religions, uh, Hinduism and Buddhism, uh, and Daoism. And I think that I like going to church, not because I believe everything that, that I say, even when I say the Nicene Creed. But because I am with a community who I know honors whatever it is that I think about their community, if I want to come and be there with them.

[00:31:15] My wife and I taught Sunday school years ago. It was about a decade ago, and we had to take high school seniors on a pilgrimage, which we did to New York City. And we stayed in, um, these apartments that were basically dedicated for Anglican nuns when they were visiting the city. And we stayed there.

[00:31:37] We like, we visited various churches. We volunteered at homeless shelters. And when we came back, they rewarded me. The kids rewarded me with a T-shirt that was like top 10 things that Episcopalians believe. And one of 'em was, no matter what you believe, you can guarantee that there's another Episcopalian that believes the same thing.

[00:32:02] You know, as a, as a person who was as you might say, deconstructing Christianity, or deconstructing Adventism and found a new home in Episcopalianism. Partly because we, we wanted to raise our son with religion, but with non judgy religion and without it being like at the center of who he was.

[00:32:24] We chose to go to the Episcopal church 'cause that's where my wife's father had, had grown up. And that's what she found to be compelling. And I mean, she, she has similar belief. I mean, she, she might even say she doesn't believe in anything, but there is a comfort in going there in the, in the pageantry, in the meditation.

[00:32:45] I mean, it's, it is just, it's a place you can go and sit and participate in song and participate in, um, in liturgy, hear a sermon, go to a coffee hour afterwards, talk. There's nothing that, that people won't talk to you about. Um, they're not gonna judge you. Uh, so it is like, it's church, but it's church on a different level and it's church on a, in a way that, that makes sense to me and, and honors to a degree, like the traditions that I grew up with.

[00:33:18] And I think that that's important, right? Like, I do wanna honor, I don't want to just trash Adventism because it did give me so many good things. And I do respect it and I do honor so many parts of it. But it's also, you know, a part of Christianity. And I don't, I can, I can deconstruct Christianity from now until the day I die, and talk about why it's toxic and why it's weird and messed up and whatever.

[00:33:50] But I can also talk about what's beautiful about it. And so, I guess that's, that's where I am now is, is like, you know, the Episcopal church seems like a hybrid form for me. Like it's a, it's a way for me to, to have my cake and eat it too.

[00:34:04] Santiago: [Laughing] Yeah, no, that, that makes sense. And it's, it's so interesting to hear you describe how you view the Episcopal Church, and I think, you know, you used the word pageantry. I am pretty active on the ex-Adventist subreddit, and every now and then will hear from people who joined the Catholic church or joined some other faith.

[00:34:28] Like I mentioned to you, I had a chat with a Gen Z ex-Adventist who is currently finding home in an Orthodox Christian church. And I think there definitely is something about community and ritual and pageantry that is appealing, more or less, to different people. And I think, yeah, I mean that's, that's kind of how I look at it, is I personally do not have an issue with people having faith and having religion.

[00:34:58] I grew up in it, right? Like that's, that, that's a part of my story. The one thing that I do take issue with is, like you said, there are toxic aspects of Christianity, especially when it's weaponized against people, and especially marginalized people. And so I think as long as we're able to agree on some of those things...

[00:35:20] I've heard a quote from someone named Chrissy Stroop. Kind of paraphrasing something they said that I've really taken to heart is that shared values are more important than shared beliefs. And the more I talk to people, the more I realize, 'Hey, we don't all believe the same things.'

[00:35:37] Even, even with the label atheist, it's simply the lack of belief. There's literally no other unifying worldview. There may be some commonalities in terms of worldview and whatnot, but th, that's really the only thing. So the way I look at it is shared values are really important in order for us to get along as humans. And the shared beliefs, they can help, they can really inform our upbringing and how we understand each other and understand the world. But at least the way I look at it, and it sounds like the experience you found within the Episcopal Church is that the shared values, reason, being...

[00:36:17] Matthew: I've never, I've actually never heard that before. And that is like kinda lighting my brain up right now because, I feel like all of my connections with people that I care about, are about values, right? And that, and I think that's why I was, I think that's what made it hard to leave the Adventist church, was because I recognized that my parents had such amazing values that I respected and cared about.

[00:36:49] And so many other family members that are the same way. And the people that I do continue to be connected with in the church, I can have the conversations that we have, are positive and, and that aren't about everyday life or whatever, are always gonna be about those shared values. So thank you for that. That's, that's, that's a great way of putting it.

[00:37:12] Santiago: Yeah, ever since I heard it, I've been repeating it. And [laughing] yeah, because you know, there are, there are progressive Christians that I follow online and we have many of the shared values, and I respect them for speaking up. I think many of them are in the minority, at least in the United States, but they're willing to speak up, and they take, they, they, they get it from all sides.

[00:37:38] Atheists will make fun of them. Calvinists will pile on them. Fundamentalists will say, 'You're going to hell, you're not a real Christian.' [Laughing] So, and I appreciate them for speaking up and for showing that Christianity is, even in the United States, is not the monolith that fundamentalist Evangelicals would have you believe.

[00:38:02] Matthew: Yeah.

[00:38:03] Santiago: I want to transition us real quick to focusing a little bit more on your book and the experience that you went through with the passing of your mom. You've written about how she was diagnosed with dementia in her mid sixties, later Alzheimer's, and finally Parkinson's. And, you know, that many in your family expected her to outlast them.

[00:38:26] And I can relate on a very tiny, small level, like I mentioned, my grandmother has dementia. We've been watching her slow decline for a while. And I'm wondering, you know, what was this experience like for you and your family, and do you feel like it ever presented a challenge to anybody's faith?

[00:38:44] Matthew: Oh, that's interesting. I don't feel like it, like the, the, one of the things is that we saw, we saw this happen with my aunt Dot, who was my gra — my dad's mother's older sister. Aunt Dot never had any children of her own. But she was a dynamo in terms of what she did. She was a singer. Her name was Dorothy Ackerman.

[00:39:17] She taught music for years at Southern Adventist University when it was Southern Missionary College. And like, going to see Aunt Dot was like one of the funnest things we could do. She was a diabetic, she was overweight, she had sugar cereals for us. She had frozen dessert treats. Uh, she was hilarious.

[00:39:43] She laughed all the time. Uh, she was so fun. And she ended up moving to Andrews, um, after she retired. She had a double wide on Happy Top, uh, uh, where Ralene, Jolene lived. But then she, she also had Alzheimer's and she devolved into a person that was unrecognizable to us. My grandmother, I think because she had seen that, and this is in the book too, like, you know, my grandmother would say, 'If I ever go crazy, just put a pillow over my head.'

[00:40:18] And I was so close to my, my grandmother was like this ornery, cantankerous, but funny, like New Englander. And she could be grouchy, she could be kind of mean, but she could also just be like, I don't know. She's very funny. She had a great sense of humor and she loved to be teased and, um, and to tease other people. But, you know, if she'd lost her keys or her pocketbook or whatever, I would, I would be like, 'Oh, it's pillow time!'

[00:40:49] Both: [Laughing]

[00:40:50] Matthew: And she would go, 'Oh, Matthew!' But then it really was pillow time, right? And, um, and of course I didn't, I didn't kill my grandma, uh, but I, I did wonder if it would be something that she would've preferred me to do.

[00:41:06] So anyway, like we had had experience as a family with two of our beloved, you know, women, um, going through this already. When we found out that my mom had it in her mid sixties, it was really devastating, because it just, it didn't just, it would just seem so unlikely. I mean, and, and the other two had gotten it well into their seventies or maybe eighties, even.

[00:41:31] But at any rate, in times of trouble, people's faiths and what they believe in, inform the ways that they operate. I don't know what my dad struggled with faith-wise as my mom was going through this. All I know is that there literally wa — couldn't have been anyone better to take care of her than, than my father.

[00:41:59] He was absolutely selfless. He sacrificed a lot. That is partly his disposition, partly his values, and I think partly his faith. I think you could, you know, you could attribute a lot of that stuff to like, you know, we used to have this thing in boarding school is like it was called, I Saw Jesus.

[00:42:20] And it was like every week during church, it was like, okay, it's time for, I Saw Jesus. And you would raise your hand and say like, 'Oh, I saw Jesus in Marty because he gave me the last pudding cup.' Or I saw, I saw Jesus in, in, you know, in my math teacher because he like came to the dorm and stayed after hours to help me with my algebra. There are all these tenets of your faith that are like weird and idiosyncratic and don't make any sense.

[00:42:46] But then there are those that do, which is like, if you're selfless and you put someone else before you, if you love your neighbor, you know, as, as you would yourself, I mean, like, there are all these things about it that, that, that can contribute to truly long-lasting eternal positivity.

[00:43:07] Santiago: Definitely. It's funny you mentioned your grandmother because I don't know, I laughed when I read that part, and I appreciate her sense of humor, reading it through the stories you've written. I've spoken before on this podcast about medical aid in dying or euthanasia, and how I personally would want to go that route if I ever ended up like my grandma, because she is just, it's so sad to see. She is a shell of her former self, as I'm sure you can relate. So that's kind of what I've, that's the conclusion I've come to and I've been very open about that with my family. I've told my parents, this is what I want. I've told my brother, this is what I want, just FYI.

[00:43:52] Matthew: You, you need to move to Scandinavia.

[00:43:54] Santiago: Yeah [laughing] oh, well there, well there are some, there are some states in the U.S. that are coming around on this, so, we'll see how it is by the time I potentially need that. But, uh, I, I'm wondering, throughout this experience, have you thought about that at all, that experience with your grandmother? And, and she would joke with you, but maybe also you write that maybe you, sometimes you thought she was actually serious. So like, have you thought about that at all and whatever views you may or may not have had, have those shifted over time?

[00:44:26] Matthew: You mean like end of life issues, or if I were...

[00:44:29] Santiago: Mm-hmm.

[00:44:29] Matthew: get the same thing? I mean, yeah, I mean, I would, I would, um... What's hard about it is, is remembering my mom and no matter how bad things got, there was still a part of her who could laugh. And I don't know if it was that way with either my grandmother or my great-aunt, but my mom might not even know who I was, but I could make a face at her over FaceTime and make her bust out laughing, you know?

[00:45:10] And so there's something, there's something there that makes me wonder. I mean, on the one hand, like we could have, if she had, if she had asked for it and said like, I want to go in 2016 rather than 2019 and spare you guys all the, the trauma of having to watch me decline. I mean, I could, I could definitely see benefits to that. Like, being able to, to, to make that choice about your life, that you know would benefit other people, but also yourself.

[00:45:46] There's such a stigma around deciding to end your life, right? Like it's a God-given thing and you know, God brought you into this world and he'll take you out, you know? But how much healthier would we be if when we got the diagnosis we could say, I'm gonna ride this out until I don't want to anymore. Or I'm gonna, I'm gonna hand you the cyanide pill and you feel free to go ahead and give it to me, whenever.

[00:46:14] Maybe it doesn't have to be cyanide, but, you know, like, I, I mean, what a beautiful thing. I mean, this is actually the first, thank you for asking me this, because it's the first time I've really had to put it into words. But if I had to, like if I said to my wife, like, you can decide when you think it's time for me to go and I'll be ready. Right?

[00:46:38] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:46:39] Matthew: Wow, what an amazing, what an amazing way to go. And if we, if we weren't so hung up on death, which we obviously are... If you haven't read ernest Becker's Denial of Death, I would definitely check that out. It talks about how human civilization is basically predicated on the fear of death and the denial of death and that it will ever happen to any of us. But anyway, I, I really, you, you've given me, you've given me some good stuff to think about. I appreciate it.

[00:47:13] Santiago: Glad to hear it. Yeah, it's, it's definitely something I've had to think about for a while, watching my grandmother and, uh, I know it works differently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And I bring this up because I do hope that whatever background people have and whatever their own personal preferences or ethics says they should or should not do, I hope that we have more conversations about this. Because I actually have worked in senior living before, and again, seeing what my grandmother's gone through, there's gotta be a better way. Maybe it's not the way for everybody, but there's gotta be a better way.

[00:47:51] Matthew: Well, I mean, it's, it's, I was thinking about this the other day, like the difference between cultures like in Japan for instance, where older people are revered as elders. And in this culture where older people are seen as something to hide, to put away to, to not have deal with.

[00:48:14] We are such a youth-driven culture and, it would be great to see like a, a transformation in the way that we think about aging and end of life issues and being able to take more control over that. And have, even just to have conversations.

[00:48:31] I mean, of course I've thought like, what would it be like to go the route my mom went? But then I just stopped thinking about it 'cause I don't want to, you know? I mean, and that's what Denial of Death is all about. You know, it's like, it's like you, it's not that I don't think that it's gonna happen.

[00:48:47] I don't want to think about it, so I don't, but if I do think about it and I have to confront the fact that 'Hmm, what would it be like if I had some ways to decide or plan about the way that my life ended, of just being like, it's just up to whatever!' That seems as reasonable a conversation you could have about anything.

[00:49:09] Santiago: I would agree, yeah. I want to ask you now about the lights.

[00:49:14] Matthew: Hmm.

[00:49:14] Santiago: I love the cover of your book, by the way. I'm wondering if you can describe for me what you felt when your father first mentioned seeing these mysterious lights in the woods.

[00:49:25] Matthew: How I felt, uh, I, I mean I was probably just curious more than anything and wondering like, what in the heck could it be? We do have things like foxfire and like certain fungi and bioluminescent things that glow, and fireflies, right? But this was happening in the winter.

[00:49:49] Which, you know, strikes me now as important because like, you know, when I first told the story to people and they'd forget that it's winter, 'Oh was, it wasn't fireflies?' I was like definitely wasn't fireflies 'cause it was like December when it started and going into February.

[00:50:06] So, you know, I was just curious more than anything. I didn't ever, and still don't have an answer in terms of what, what they were. To me, the most important thing again is going back to being able to say, 'I don't know.' Right? Like, I witnessed this phenomenon, it's inexplicable. I don't have an answer for it, but I'm okay with that. Because it's almost like a symbol of what is missing from the modern human experience, which is that everyone feels like they've gotta know everything all the time. They gotta know the right answers.

[00:50:53] And the lights were a reminder that there is something out there bigger than us, more powerful than us, more mysterious than us. And that in standing before that, you are humbled. You are reminded that you are human, that you have limitations, that you can't know everything, and that's okay, right?

[00:51:24] Uh, and that's the thing that, that I love most of all, because I, I was, I grew up with the burden of, of thinking that I had to know all the answers. I had to know everything for sure. And then when the person who created me died, I don't know what the connection is, but some weird shit happened and it seemed at its heart not to be, from my perspective, it wasn't scary. It was benevolent. It was benevolent in that it was reminding me that there was more out there than I could ever know and that I could surrender knowing and I could not know, and that would be fine.

[00:52:08] Santiago: Hmm. Wow. I'm so glad you mentioned that because I think that is absolutely true and important to keep in mind that we, we don't, we don't even know what we don't know. Right? [Laughing] And so, yeah, just that, that ability to be open I think is so important. And something that sometimes folks struggle with as they're coming out of deconstruction...

[00:52:34] My brother struggled with this a little bit. I did too. You go from one dogma potentially to another. Especially if you grew up Adventist, right? I think there is this desire, 'Okay, I thought I had the truth. I had "the truth." We were the remnant church. Now, who am I? What is the truth?'

[00:52:53] And I think that is something I have to continually remind myself of, is it's okay to not know everything and to accept that information and knowledge changes over time. And that's very much why the label agnostic is very much part of my identity as well. Because I, who am I to say that I know everything...

[00:53:17] Matthew: Or anything [laughing].

[00:53:19] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, [laughing] exactly. So yeah, that's, that's why that's definitely part, uh, an important part of, of how I identify. Speaking of that, you mentioned that your dad suggested at some point, I imagine early on, that the lights could be demonic in nature, which for anyone who grew up Adventist is probably not surprising, right?

[00:53:39] We were not raised to believe in ghosts or that our family members could communicate with us after they've passed. So I'm wondering, you know, what was, what was it like navigating that with him? And then you've also, you know, spoken about how you yourself took a very open approach to investigating what is seemingly a supernatural phenomenon.

[00:54:01] You've talked about how you've long approached openness. We talked about this just a few moments ago. So what was that, what was that like speaking with your father and then doing this search of your own?

[00:54:13] Matthew: He actually didn't tell me that. I learned it when I was there. I wanted to see whether the lights would, would be there if he wasn't there. And so I took a friend when he was gonna be gone, and we ran into one of his employees in the supermarket. And she was talking about how agitated that my, the lights had made my dad.

[00:54:37] And I was like, 'Oh, interesting 'cause he hasn't really talked about that.' And I was like, oh, well I guess it makes sense within his theological, you know, worldview. When I confronted him about it, I think it was more or less like, oh, well, it's possible for the devil to create situations and phenomena that will distract you from what matters most.

[00:55:02] That's how he was interpreting it. The interesting thing was that I'd gone down there once before and stood on the porch, and were watching, and I, I was thinking that maybe I saw some, and he was like, he was pointing out where they were happening, and I couldn't really see. And I felt like, oh, they're, I feel like they're, maybe I'm seeing something in the corners of my eye.

[00:55:23] And he was like, yeah, that's usually where they are. And then I started wondering like, is he just making all this stuff up? And am I making it up? You know? It wasn't until I actually undeniably saw them for sure, that I had to contend with, with what I'd seen.

[00:55:40] As I mentioned before, I had done all this research on demons and Satan, and so I knew how much of a human construct that the figure of Satan had been. And, and actually like, how, like how John Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, like really influenced the way that Ellen White thought of, of Satan, right?

[00:56:05] If you've only been to Adventist churches and listened to Adventist sermons and read Ellen White, in which Satan appears a million times more than the Bible, you would also be afraid of him, right? But if you actually counted the number of times Satan appears in the Bible, it's mostly in Job, right? And then devils only appear, it, it's like, it's like trying to insist that, um, oh, how would I put this? Um, that like, horses were the main characters of World War II. Like did horses figure in World War II? Sure, they were still around, right? But like, they weren't main character. But if you're coming from an Adventist perspective, it's just you get Satan rammed down your throat all the time.

[00:56:58] And, if there's something you don't understand, then it's gotta be Satan, right? And so for the — it was interesting to be present with my father for the first time in my life, standing on the porch before he told me anything that he thought of, and to be in this uncertain place, right? Like, oh, we don't know what these lights are. I'm not even sure if I'm seeing them. It was just like the first time in my life that, that he didn't have an answer for something.

[00:57:25] Santiago: That's so interesting. And yeah, I, I gotta imagine... I've, I've tried to kind of picture myself looking through the window and seeing this, because since leaving Adventism, I've taken arguably a much more naturalist worldview. But again, I gotta, I gotta admit, there are things that people say that they have experienced, like you and your dad and the people that you brought over to go take a look at that.

[00:57:53] That we don't have answers for. And I'm okay with that. But, uh, it's so interesting to hear that experience and yeah, I've, I've tried kind of imagining, you know, what would it be like to be there and looking through the window and seeing that. I have yet to have an experience with something like that. I don't know if I ever will, but it's very interesting just to think about that and to try and picture myself there.

[00:58:16] Again, I really, really enjoyed your book. For anyone listening, again, the link is gonna be in the show notes. Definitely go check it out. Go check out some of the other essays that I'm gonna link there as well. I love your writing and can't recommend it highly enough, so definitely looking forward to more people coming across that.

[00:58:36] Matthew: Thank you so much. I've, I really have enjoyed our conversation and I feel like we're friends now.

[00:58:43] Both: [Laughing]

[00:58:45] Santiago: Absolutely, if, if you're, if I'm ever in your neck of the woods or if you're ever in mine, I would love to meet up.

[00:58:51] Matthew: Absolutely, yeah. No, it's, and that's what I, that's, that's what I mean by, you know, like, the Adventist connection. Like whatever you have to say about like, deconstructing the faith. Like if you find a, fellow ex-Adventist, you guys are gonna like bond like glue. I think we've done that today.

[00:59:12] Santiago: Yeah. I know I sounded like I was wrapping it up and I, believe me, I'm trying to, I know we've gone for very long and I appreciate you sticking with me. Is it okay if I ask you some more questions?

[00:59:24] Matthew: Yeah, sure.

[00:59:25] Santiago: Okay. So naturally, just because of who he is, one of the things that stood out to me in your message was that your uncle is Ted Wilson, the current President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. But you've talked about him, knowing him personally, calling him your uncle Ted. You've talked about how he's been kind to you, to your wife. Can you describe for listeners what he's like in person and if your family's view of him has changed at all during his time as GC President?

[01:00:03] Matthew: I think that, I mean, Ted has always been Ted. He's a funny guy. He's, he's kind of a nerd. Like, we make fun of him for doing certain things. I remember we were on a trip, like we went as, I went as a 14 year old to Africa where they were serving. Uh, or he was serving as like some you know, conference position, uh, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

[01:00:29] And wow, what an eye-opening trip that was for a 14 year old white boy. And then after that we went, we toured Switzerland and Ted just, he operates at his own pace. He doesn't mind taking the long way. He's filming everything. And it would always be like he'd have his camcorder out and he's like, 'Well, here we are at Hitler's eagle's nest.'

[01:00:53] And, and, you know, I would, I would make fun of him and he would make fun of me. And he does this thing every year where [laughing] basically it's like, it's like a weird Christmas tradition where he, he dresses up in like some weird clothes that, that he's gathered on his trips around the world.

[01:01:18] And he gives out presents that have been given to him by people that are odd or strange. I mean, in a way, it's kind of fucked up, [laughing] but in another way it's, it's like, it's fun, um, because it, they are weird gifts and like, what else is he gonna do with them? I mean he's just like, I mean he's,

[01:01:40] I don't know anyone who's traveled the world more than he has. He's been to almost every country on earth. Um, I will say that, you know, he takes church so seriously and he believes in the tenets of the Adventist faith. He is rock solid in his faith, right? Which you and I would understand is something that we should aspire to. I would aspire to being water. As the Tao Te Ching says, there's nothing as soft and yielding as water, but what better a substance to carve away stone?

[01:02:19] Santiago: Hmm.

[01:02:20] Matthew: At any rate, I think that everyone in his family would agree that he should stop being GC President [laughing] because it's exhausting! And his long-suffering wife, um, I don't want to speak for her, but there is no part of my being that would imagine that she wouldn't be instantly relieved if he would just be like, 'I'm not doing this anymore.'

[01:02:50] Because as, as much as they get out of traveling and meeting people and seeing people, they wanna retire. They want to go back to the land where, and they, and actually my grandma's house is waiting for them, because they inherited it. And that's where they want to, that's where they wanna retire. But, you know, Ted's convictions have, have been like, 'If the GC wants me to be President, then God wants me to be President.'

[01:03:19] You know, that's the only like little, little nugget that I could give you. I mean, nobody's gonna say like, you know, 'Daddy, don't do this.' Um, or they might, I don't know. But they're gonna, they're gonna hope that he can retire soon, for everybody's benefit.

[01:03:37] Santiago: Interesting. Do you think, because he's on his third term right now, if I'm not mistaken, he's been in that position since 2010. Before that, some years ago, his father Neal Wilson was in that position. So there's definitely a legacy there. Do you, do you think that there's potentially some part of him that is afraid of the direction the Adventist church will go if he is not in that position?

[01:04:04] Matthew: Now that, I can't speak about. I used to be addicted to going on Spectrum every day and reading about what people thought about my uncle and about the church. And I, I have surrendered that impulse. Yeah, so I don't, I mean, he, he is not a person who is afraid.

[01:04:23] I don't think that he's as prideful as you might imagine, think he really does believe that it's a calling and that when someone else can step up, he will surrender the position to someone else and believe that, you know, it's in God's hands.

[01:04:47] Because what else would you do? I mean, you can't, there's, there's nothing about the Adventist church that's, that would lead someone to believe that they are the person that should be the leader for all time, you know? I think that it's all about, you know, without knowing very much about his day-to-day activities, I think it would be, um, it's more about whether he feels like the church is calling him or that God is calling him to continue as, as he has been.

[01:05:18] Santiago: Okay. That's sort of the impression that I've gotten. You know, sometimes people who are deconstructing or who, who are just observing pastors out in the wild, if you will. Sometimes people wonder, do they actually believe?

[01:05:35] There's this entire project for clergy who no longer believe in their faith, called The Clergy Project. And it's all about closeted clergy who have not figured out what they're gonna do with their life if somebody finds out, or if they decide to tell somebody that they no longer believe. It's a very interesting project.

[01:05:55] But yeah, uh, just from the, from the little bit that I know from a very far distance, I, I would agree that is the impression that I get, that it is a genuine belief. And I'm wondering how that plays into decisions about policy. Obviously this is your uncle by marriage. I know that you can't pretend to know what's in his mind.

[01:06:19] But I, I have to ask, 'cause we, we talked about this earlier, this Human Sexuality Task Force. This is coming in response to a slow, a, a very slow but growing acceptance of LGBTQ people within the Adventist church. And apparently leadership at the top, including your uncle, feels that the church's anti-LGBTQ stance is not clear enough.

[01:06:42] Some context for this, if you're not following Adventist news, which I wouldn't blame you if you're not. There is a German pastor who is Adventist, who recently came out as bisexual and his local church affirmed him and they want him to remain their pastor. His local conference decided, I, I believe they took a vote to retain his credentials. And if I'm not mistaken, this is historic. I believe this is the first time this has happened within the Adventist church.

[01:07:09] Washington Adventist University in DC held a summit where they unapologetically had LGBTQ affirming theology being presented and arguments being presented. And so there's this growing pressure, at least within North America, I think within Europe and some other places.

[01:07:30] And on top of all of this, in the background of all of this, there is a nonprofit called SDA Kinship, which supports current and former LGBTQ Adventists. And they have, from what I've heard, from what I've been told, they've tried unsuccessfully for years to have a dialogue with your uncle. And according to them, he just refuses to speak to them at all.

[01:07:52] So I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about why Ted is very focused on the issue of LGBTQ people of faith within Adventism, and I imagine in general, to the point where he's unwilling to have a conversation with queer Adventists who want to be Adventist, and who wanna participate in the Adventist church, but who feel like they can't.

[01:08:18] Matthew: Gosh, it's a, it's a big question. I remember someone trying to have a conversation or telling me that they had tried to have a conversation with, with Ted about the God of the Old Testament and whether or not God saying that we should wipe out an entire race of people was genocide, or genocidal. And wasn't that the definition, the textbook definition of genocidal, to eradicate an entire race of humans?

[01:08:54] And Ted would not have the conversation. It was, um, it was almost infantile. It was like, 'That's what you say.' 'That's what you say.' 'That's what you say.' Like, just not, I mean, it was like childish, right? And I think that, you know, the issue of homosexuality is so, so stigmatized and it's very easy to take a facile view and back it up with, you know, the abomination texts and scripture or whatever. Despite the fact that that's been shown to be a mistranslation, that homosexuality in the Bible, you know, as a term in the Bible was something that came about in the mid 20th century, I think, or something like that, right?

[01:09:49] Santiago: Yeah, there's a whole documentary about it, 1946.

[01:09:52] Matthew: Yeah, I mean, you could, I mean, it's, it's, it's well known to those of us who, who care to actually think about, you know, the Bible as a, as something that's been constructed by humans and not dictated by God. And the fact that language itself is metaphorical and slippery. And it's, it's amazing to me that, that we can all agree that reading the Road Not Taken by Robert Frost could have all these different kinds of meanings, but that, you know, a line in Revelation can only have one.

[01:10:31] I mean, it, it, it's the most absurd part of belief for me is, is the inherent meaning of signs and, and symbols and sounds, right? I have to think that it's like any kind of long held Adventist belief. You know, imagine if you interrogated the Sabbath and, and, or, or any other of the fundamental beliefs, like it's, it's, it's already been pinned down.

[01:10:59] It's already based on scripture. If you question scripture, you're questioning God. It's so easy to fall into, you know, "love the sinner, hate the sin" type of, type of perspective. Having been outside the church for so long and having known so many, you know, LGBTQ+ people and having been friends with them and, you know, and coming to understandings... Even you bringing it up, is like, is, it just feels so weird that people would have an issue with it at all. Like, who cares?

[01:11:36] Santiago: Hmm.

[01:11:37] Matthew: You love another person. You love another human. Oh, you're two women who've been living together for 60 years? Or two men? Or whatever, like, like, I, I just can't, it's hard to wrap my mind around. This is where like, you know, the, the three-pronged thing of, of the Episcopalian thing comes in like, right?

[01:11:56] Tradition, scripture, reason. Scripture is, is being, and it's not even like, it's just an interpretation, right? It's not even scripture. It's interpretation of scripture is given more leeway and power than experience or reason. Like why can't two people love each other, and that be okay? Who cares what their gender is?

[01:12:23] If you've spent your entire life in the SDA church, and especially in the upper echelons of the SDA church, you've never had to deal with that before. You've never had to have an actual conversation, heartfelt conversation with a member of that community.

[01:12:39] You've never had to hear without judging them or without pre-judging them or the freight of what you interpret as scripture and scriptural rules, to color your... You know, like, it's like, I don't think that Ted can have conversations with people without the superstructure of Adventist theology.

[01:13:10] Santiago: Yeah, I can definitely empathize with folks who struggle with this because I, I did too growing up. I've talked before about how I went to a public school for high school, but I was very much an Adventist. If anything, I leaned over the years, I leaned more into my Adventist faith because I recognized I was out, quote unquote, in the world.

[01:13:30] And I remember being marinated in talk radio. You know, and back when I was in high school, that was kind of a, I think still a bit of a national debate. And so I empathize with people who struggle to wrap their minds around it, who struggle to accept it.

[01:13:44] It's interesting that you mentioned that folks in the upper echelons of the Adventist institution haven't really had to deal with it because multiple people, including a lifelong Adventist who apparently personally knew Ted's father, Neal Wilson, multiple people have asserted that Neal's brother Donald was gay.

[01:14:06] Matthew: Oh, wow.

[01:14:07] Santiago: In other words, they're saying that Ted had a gay uncle despite him reportedly denying having any queer family members. So I'm wondering, were you ever aware of any...

[01:14:17] Matthew: I, this is the first time I've ever heard of it. I swear to God. That's a, that's amazing.

[01:14:23] Santiago: Okay, interesting. Yeah, there's, and he has, you know, he's since passed away.

[01:14:28] Matthew: His name was Donald?

[01:14:29] Santiago: Donald Wilson. He was actually the President of Pittsburgh State, if I'm not mistaken. Yeah, 1983, Don Wilson became the President of Pittsburgh State University, if I'm not mistaken. And the connection here, there, there's a whole article. I'm gonna send this...

[01:14:50] Matthew: Oh, please do.

[01:14:51] Santiago: There's a lifelong Adventist, the man I referred to earlier, his name's Ronald Lawson, Ron Lawson. He was the person who says he's, he called Neal, and he advocated on behalf of a former President of Andrews University who was arrested in Maryland after a GC event for apparently propositioning an undercover cop.

[01:15:16] This man was then fired, or he had to resign from Andrews University. And apparently Ron called Neal and said, can you please help this man? He's been a lifelong Adventist, he's committed his life to the church. He's being kicked to the curb, he's lost his job. What can you do for him? And apparently Neal spoke to his brother Donald, who's at Pittsburgh State. And this man, this man was Joseph Grady Smoot. Apparently he was then given a job at Pittsburgh State, under Donald as like a Vice President of Development, I think.

[01:15:57] And so there's this really interesting hidden story somewhere in there. And the only reason I'm willing to talk about this is because Donald has since passed away, but he was married, he had children, arguably presenting as a heterosexual couple. But there's this story somewhere in there, that Ted had a gay uncle, but refuses to acknowledge that fact.

[01:16:21] Matthew: Wow. Well, I mean, nothing surprises me, number one. Uh, but also, wow. And also, um, that's very, that's very interesting. I can't imagine that Ted would be able to come to a nuanced understanding of the LGBTQ+ situation. It's just not, it, I, I just don't think it's,

[01:16:55] I don't think it's something that's possible, um, for whatever, for whatever reasons. And I, and I don't, in a way, I don't blame him for that because I don't think that he was ever given the opportunity or the tools to deal with it. I mean, I guess I would blame him, because it's like, it's not hard [laughing] to, to figure out. But at the same time, it's, it's, um, he's like a, dyed in the wool SDA, like hardcore.

[01:17:29] It would be incredible if SDAs could somehow transition themselves into a more liberal denomination that was like Sabbath forward facing. Like there is no, there is no one I've ever talked to on Earth who would reject the idea that taking 24 hours off every week from whatever you're doing, and setting all your shit aside to rest, is a bad idea.

[01:18:07] Like that is, that is a fire idea. And if they led with that and they led with love and they led with, you know, welcoming people and other ideas. Wow. What a, what an amazing movement that could be. And give up the, you know, we're all gonna have to run to the mountains and...

[01:18:35] Both: [Laughing]

[01:18:36] Santiago: Yeah, let's, let's not traumatize 10 year olds with nightmares about the end times, please. Um, [laughing] yeah. All right, I'm gonna ask you one last question about your uncle, if that's okay. There's something at the, toward the end of your book that you wrote that stood out to me where this is, if I'm not mistaken, the day after the memorial service for your mom, you're at your dad's home.

[01:19:04] You're having a meal with your family and Ted is there and he's having a disagreement with one of your aunts about whether governments should try to dictate how their citizens think or act. And you just mentioned, and maybe this was intentional, but you just mentioned that he had had a disagreement with her, not what his take was. And I'm dying to know if you can, if you can share, what his take was on that.

[01:19:27] Matthew: We had been, for some reason, I guess, I had pulled up The Architecture of Doom on YouTube, on, on the family TV. The Architecture of Doom is a documentary about the Nazis and their relationship to art, and how they, how they viewed the cubist and, and abstract movements of, of the twenties and thirties as, as basically deformations.

[01:20:03] One of my aunts was there and she was like, oh, you know, I mean, I'm not like a Nazi, but I kind of understand what, what they're talking about because it looks like shit, like talking about cubism, right? But Ted was very, was very, um, much of the — it's it, this is the weird thing about Adventism, they're very much about religious liberty, and advocating for religious liberty, even though it's the one thing that will happen to Adventists that will presage the second coming, right? Like they're against people who are inhibiting from, from expressing their own religious beliefs.

[01:20:49] But that's the very thing that will mean that Jesus is coming back, right? So like, bring it on! Oh, you want to, like, you want to like, make me not worship on Saturday? Let's go, 'cause I'm ready to go to heaven. I mean, I, I never understood that. Um, I, I actually forgotten the question now...

[01:21:08] Santiago: No, all, all, all good. I was just really asking, you know, so it sounds like he is in line with the traditional view of separation of church and state, as I would imagine most staunch Adventists are.

[01:21:20] Matthew: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Which again is, is like, it's like you're advocating for the thing that will actually be the thing that heralds the end of the world and the redeemed being caught up in the clouds of glory.

[01:21:42] Santiago: Yeah, it's, it's an interesting thing. I remember one of my former youth who has increasingly become interested in politics and identifies unfortunately, with Christian Nationalist sentiments. He said, yeah, I would, I mean, I think he kind of, he, he gets the point that you, he would get the point that you just made, which is, yeah, bring it on.

[01:22:07] He said, I'll, I'll vote for this. 'I will vote in favor for something that would bring the Sunday law about, because I'm good, I'm ready.' My own view, when I heard that, I was like, what about the people who aren't?

[01:22:21] Matthew: Right. Whenever I've asked my dad about this, he's always said, well, you know, we're living right now in a gray area, right? Like we're living in an area where things are, are not really black and white. Um, but we will enter an era at some point when things are black and white and there will be a wrong side and a right side.

[01:22:43] Santiago: Yeah. The, the one thing I will say, and, and this isn't anything for, for you to comment on, uh, unless if you'd like to, but I will say if anybody from the GC happens to listen to this, if any folks who work with Ted or are close with Ted happen to listen to this on the issue of freedom from authoritarianism and coercion, I would say why has the GC not yet put out a statement about the legislation in Uganda?

[01:23:13] Because the Seventh-day Adventist uganda Union President has backed in some measure, has backed draconian anti-LGBTQ legislation that criminalizes simply identifying as gay and even imposes the death penalty in some cases. And as far as I know, the general Conference has been completely silent about this, while at the same time announcing a human sexuality task force. I, I hope if, anything comes out of that, there is an unequivocal rejection of government coercion, whether it's criminalization at any level, and especially the death penalty, for being LGBTQ.

[01:23:58] Matthew: I support you, your ideas a hundred percent. Honestly, that's the first I've heard of this. It's, that is sickening to hear. And I part ways with anyone whose religion could ever support not only the oppression of someone's right to express whatever sexuality they have, or ideas, right?

[01:24:27] Like oppression at any, on any level, but also, violence against the person, about what they believe, right? Like SDAs have long been advocates of religious liberty. And if, if being gay isn't part of being religiously liberated, then, then you're not, you're not, you're not for religious liberty.

[01:24:55] Santiago: I would agree. You've written that if there's anything that you miss about Adventism, it's the Sabbath and, and you've talked about this already a bit. I'm wondering if you can share if there's any Sabbath traditions that you've developed as an ex-Adventist.

[01:25:14] Matthew: Letting myself rest when I need to, not beating myself up if, uh, I need to take time off. I do sometimes fantasize about having a Sabbath tradition. But knowing that it's okay to take time off and, and, and to, and to have, and to honor your need for rest.

[01:25:37] Santiago: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. Well, Matthew, at least as of right now, we've, we've been speaking for well over three hours. I appreciate you sticking with me this long and answering every question I've asked. Thank you so much again for your work, for reaching out and being willing to have this conversation.

[01:25:59] I'm gonna link to your book, to your website, to some of your other work in the show notes. If there's anything else you'd like to leave listeners with or any place in particular you would like them to follow you, I'd love to give you the opportunity to share that.

[01:26:12] Matthew: No, I mean, I'm eminently Googleable [laughing]. Uh, you can go to my website, you can go to my Twitter, you can go to my Instagram. Matthew Vollmer plus whatever will, will lead you there. And I thank you, Santiago, for having me and for indulging me and, uh, for such a long, nice afternoon conversation, which, I've learned a lot and I really appreciate your curiosity, your wisdom, and your perspective. And, gosh, I, it'd be great to, to be able to meet in person someday.

[01:26:47] Santiago: Absolutely, I would love that. Thank you so much.

Haystacks & Hell Outro

[01:26:52] 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 (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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