by Becky De Oliveira—
I’ve done graphic design, including hundreds—perhaps thousands—of assignments for Seventh-day Adventist institutions and organizations, for more than two decades. My experience leads me to conclude that if there is an authenticity problem in the Adventist church—and the amount of discussion around this topic leads me to conclude that there is— it can be summed up in just one word: earrings.
Try to guess how many times I’ve removed earrings from a photo using Photoshop. Let me put it this way: If I had a dime for every time, I’d be—in the words of country singer Maren Morris—“sitting on a big [mild expletive] pile of dimes.”
Not only have I removed earrings (and necklaces and bracelets and nose rings and lip rings and eyebrow rings and finger rings) from stock photos of models who are not personally known to anyone in the church, but I have had to erase them from pictures of people who actually go to church every week wearing these items. Everyone can see that they are wearing them. So who are we trying to fool? And how must the photographed person feel when they see their edited photo? They certainly would be aware that their earrings and other “adornments” have been removed.
What does this communicate exactly? It doesn’t seem to say, “Come as you are.”
Malcolm Gladwell talks about how consumers say they want one thing while really wanting another. He uses coffee as an example, saying, “If I asked all of you what you want in a coffee…every one of you would say I want a dark, rich, hearty roast. What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? …somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee.… But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that I want a milky, weak coffee.”
I wonder sometimes if we are the same—we say we want “authenticity,” but what we really want is conformity. I had a client for several years who always insisted that she wanted a really “edgy” design, but she always chose something traditional, usually based around a navy blue color scheme.
There are many reasons we struggle with authenticity—like all people do. There is the continual sway of social media and the need to impress other people, for instance. But I don’t think we can discount the possibility that we don’t really want it or encourage it. Perhaps one reason authenticity is so hard to come by in our churches is that there is a sizeable if somewhat hidden population that is uncomfortable allowing people to exist simply as they are.
We have a great deal to gain from being ourselves and accepting others as themselves (barring, of course, violent, abusive, or criminal behavior). I have to believe that God created us each for a reason and that existing fully as the people He made us to be, rather than weak copies of a supposed ideal, is part of what we are here to do. The strength of our individual characters is what allows us to do great things in the name of God, not merely to abstain from sins or behaviors that might be frowned upon by our communities.
If we are to have faith communities that truly exist in authenticity, we have to really mean it when we say we want our “coffee” dark, rich, and hearty. Perhaps it is an acquired taste, one that we must begin learning to appreciate now. The Bible indicates that this is what God wants from us—honesty: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, ESV). Being authentic means accepting our own imperfections along with those of others; it means cultivating a culture where authenticity is actually encouraged.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, graphic designer, and doctoral student working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado. This piece was adapted from a longer article that appeared in Mountain Views, the quarterly journal of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, based in Denver.