Book Review: Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras

Book Review: Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras

Author:  Morris Venden

Translator: Felix Cortes

Date: 1995

Publisher: Asociación Publicadora Interamericana

ISBN: 1-57554-008-8 … missing from Amazon! Unthinkable! Here’s the English edition.

Length: 122 pages

Quote: “Los cristianos maduros pueden hacer lo que gusten, porque lo que a ellos les agrada hacer le agrada también a Dios.”

Morris Venden originally wrote Love God and Do as You Please in English. I didn’t buy the English version. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t want to encourage him, because the book was part of the movement that I think killed his church in the United States.

It was harmful to Venden, too; later it came out that, while expounding these ideas and writing this book, he was feeling liberated to love God while having an adulterous affair. And so, although Venden was a hugely popular speaker and writer and people online are looking for this book, neither Amazon nor the Adventist online bookstore site is selling copies. I sold the copy I physically owned before uploading this review, and can’t promise anyone a copy now. But, like many books that have been banished from stores, the text is available online–free of charge, if you don’t mind an annoying ad-cluttered format:

Venden was a Seventh-Day Adventist. I’m not a member of that church. My mother is. From time to time we go to one of the large stores that sell products made by church-sponsored industries, primarily books and canned goods. On these trips it’s routine that my mother buys everything I can load into the back of whatever she’s driving, and I buy one paperback book, usually the Spanish edition of a book that’s also available in English. And only after I’d bought this book, fifteen years after its publication, did I remember, “Oh yes, that was back when the Adventist church was trying to repackage itself as just another brand of Feel-Good Universalism.”

I was there, a student in the Adventist school system, to observe some of the silliest things that led to the publication of this book.

As teenagers, my brother and I had wanted to be baptized. Our relatives belonged to various denominations; our parents didn’t want us to favor one church over another. In order to be baptized before we were eighteen we had to stumble across a church, during a winter visit to Florida, that baptized tourists who might never attend the church again. The church that baptized us was Seventh-Day Adventist. My mother has continued to attend that church.

As HSPs we had natural tendencies to be modest, frugal, untempted by the minor sins of the flesh against which the churches of our childhood had rules. Adventists had preserved relatively strict rules. We swore off, not just gambling, but all card playing; not just TV watching, but frivolous reading as well. We hadn’t been in the habit of doing any of the things we renounced, and I’ve never missed them. However, being baptized as a tourist meant that I had some inner reservations. I wanted to be a full-fledged Christian, but I never intended any commitment to a denomination. I think Dad thought denominationalism was a bigger sin than gambling.

Since I’d been baptized in an Adventist church, Adventists got me into one of their church colleges. There I learned that different individual churches in that denomination had different rules. Kids went around asking new acquaintances, “Are you an Adventist?” All Adventists had sworn off drunkenness, adultery, presumably murder and treason. Some Adventists had also sworn off drinking coffee, eating meat, reading any fiction including the parables of C.S. Lewis, listening to “Satanic rock” bands like Kiss and Black Sabbath, listening to any rock music, listening to any non-church music, using any makeup at all, using makeup in a way that flattered their faces, wearing tight jeans, wearing any jeans, wearing trousers without a skirt over them, wearing bangles, wearing any jewelry but a watch or wedding ring, wearing any jewelry including a watch or wedding ring, wearing beards, wearing long beards, shaving their beards, trimming their beards, playing sports…the list went on and on.

Understandably, when these people got together, a certain amount of confusion and acrimony arose. As a group Adventists are the world champions of verbal abuse, and when they got into a serious debate about some major moral issue like wearing trench coats, I think some of them managed to pack ten of the dozen or so classic vaps in English into one sentence.

What I never understood was why so few of them saw any of the rules to which they adhered as positive and desirable. Why had they taken a public vow to adhere to a rule if it didn’t seem good to them?

In the early 1980s the pseudo-hippie fad, plus protests against product testing on animals, had cost the makeup industry a lot of money. I didn’t want to wear makeup, because damp East Coast air made my skin feel sticky at best, and the last thing I wanted to do was smear grease paint on my face. I had expected that, since I found it easy, pleasant, and profitable to adhere to the rule, I’d hear a lot of “That’s how our young ladies ought to look.” Instead I kept hearing, “Is that some kind of religious thing that you’re not allowed to wear makeup?”

When the Adventist church was organized, its mission work grew explosively because so many church ladies sold their jewelry and gave the proceeds to the schools, hospitals, and other missionary efforts of the church. I am not saying that this noble gesture didn’t deserve to become traditional. I am not saying that even asking little girls, as a gesture of remembrance, to take off even the junk jewelry today’s little girls tend to get as a reward for being quiet in the Dollar Store, was ever a bad idea. I am not saying that Adventist ministers shouldn’t continue to celebrate the church tradition of ringless weddings. I will say that, just possibly, people who never had any valuable jewelry to sell on behalf of a good cause would be better occupied in reflecting on what they were doing for good causes, instead of bothering about whether visitors who might have had on ten dollars’ worth of junk jewelry had been told that “we don’t wear jewelry in this church.”

I didn’t wear jewelry, during my churchgoing years, because I didn’t own any. Still, when the Bible writers (a) describe the jewelry people wore, exchanged as gifts, were required to wear when performing ceremonial duties in the temple, and were given as rewards for good deeds, and (b) describe spiritual things by comparing them with precious stones, and (c) tell people to cultivate inner beauty instead of “pearls and precious stones,”  it seems clear that a rigid ban on any kind of jewelry is an Adventist “accretion” with no biblical basis.

Admitting that the fashion for jewelry as a major investment had passed, and that the only reason to discourage children of the 1980s from wearing half a dozen plastic-bead rings on each finger was that they looked childish, would have been timely. But what I saw and heard was more like, “You don’t want to wear jewelry? Why are you so inhibited? Why do you always have to be so uptight and rule­bound and holier than thou? People like you are turning everybody against the church? If you’d ever had a personal relationship with Jesus, you’d be a ‘people-person’…” The so-called liberal faction were definitely the ones I saw acting “holier than thou.”

To be fair, in 1983 we didn’t actually know that saying “If you had a better relationship with Jesus, you’d be a ‘people person’” is as idiotic as saying “If you had a better relationship with Jesus, you’d have brown eyes.”

Ellen White wrote about the health benefits she, and patients in the early Adventist hospitals, found from a dairy-free diet. Milk is probably safer to consume now than it was then. However, because Ellen White used a dairy-free diet, the dairy-free diet was then set up as a sort of proof of holiness, and then attacked as such. The Adventist school cafeterias did not serve meat; they did serve dairy products. Bearing in mind that most people lose lactose tolerance around age 20, we can now explain why Caucasian students tended to have higher grades and be perceived as more popular—a lot of students who had become, or were becoming, lactose-intolerant were living with continual indigestion. I’ve seen high-achieving non-Caucasian students resolutely say no to all those dairy products, and their so-called friends began to quarrel: “You’re such a pharisee! Everybody likes ice cream! Go on and eat it! Why do you always have to be different?”

I definitely did not see any evidence that this liberalization was being done by “mature Christians.” What I saw happening, in the Adventist church, was that quiet, modest, frugal, gentle, sincere people who respected others’ rights were being verbally attacked, to a degree that felt like persecution to teenagers. Most of the Adventist friends I had are now ex-Adventists.

I never suggested that the Adventists adopt a rule like “Everybody should be asleep by nine o’clock and awake by three o’clock in the morning, because that’s the rule that worked for Priscilla King’s Great-Aunt Griselda.” An occasional reminder that certain Christians had chosen to “keep the Discipline of the Morning Watch” (yes, that’s a traditional Adventist name for getting up at 3 a.m.), and felt healthier for it, and some of them were blessed with unusually long and productive lives, is enough. But I had no respect for a church that was telling me, “You want to get up at six? What’s wrong with you? What awful thing could have happened to make you so peculiar? Don’t you know people prefer to sleep till nine…or noon, if possible.”

Why do readers need to know all this? So that they’ll understand why I say that, in this book, Morris Venden was preaching to a little choir of his own. I do not know who’s in his choir. His book is addressed to Seventh-Day Adventists but it doesn’t seem to be addressed to anybody I met in that church. This book expressed ideas that were current ten years before it was published, and supported them with stories that must, if true, have happened to a different generation.

Venden tells the story of a young couple who had been studying the Bible with him. At home they dressed simply, but when he finally got them to meet him at church, to his dismay the woman’s idea of her “Sunday best” was an outfit Carmen Miranda might have worn. He didn’t scold them or send them home, and after church both of the couple told him they wanted to stop smoking.

Should members of the church have scolded this young woman for not knowing what to wear? Of course not. But should the church have disrespected the ladies who might have been told, “We don’t paint our faces, wear jewelry, or even wear dresses with ‘trimmings’ on them,” for years? I think that, if I’d been the one who thought dressing appropriately for church meant dressing like Carmen Miranda, I would rather have found a church where people prayed in the sanctuary and never mentioned my fashion blunder. At such a church, if I’d persisted in dressing like Carmen Miranda, eventually someone might quietly have said, “‘Plain dress’ is traditional in this church.”

The people Venden is most concerned about correcting are the “traditional legalists” in the Adventist church. Did I ever meet any of them? I don’t remember. A legalist, as Venden explains, is a Christian who thinks that we are saved by Christ and observance of some rule or other. Christ alone is not enough. The legalist thus makes the rule an idol, and ceases to be a Christian.

There is no biblical basis for the heresy of legalism. There is, however, a biblical basis for churches to tell people to keep any vows or pledges they have made, as a point of personal honor. In the Old Testament period denominationalism did not exist, but individuals were always making personal vows—sometimes “bargaining with God” under stress, sometimes giving thanks for their blessings. Nobody had to make any of these vows. People said, “I will sacrifice a lamb,” or whatever else, for reasons of their own. Sometimes, then as now, keeping a vow proved to be unexpectedly inconvenient, and the people were warned: “Lord, who shall stand upon Thy holy mountain?…He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.”

People can release others from vows that prove to be “to the hurt” of both parties. If a church group has demanded that members subscribe to rules that members now agree are useless, the group can agree to release people from those vows. But in Venden’s Adventist church there was no agreement that the rules were useless. The General Conference had decided at some point, “We must loosen our rules and give up our distinction.” While the ministers were saying that people should not quarrel about the rules, the leaders of the church were in fact instigating the quarrels.

Hence the peculiar phenomenon, which Venden acknowledges in this book, of “liberal legalists.” Only among Adventists is a phrase like “liberal legalists” more than an oxymoron. In the 1880s there might have been, but in the 1980s there were not, stereotypical pharisaic-type legalists, lurking at the church steps, looking for ways to denounce people. “Here comes a man with the wrong kind of beard! Bar the doors!” Instead, there were the “liberal legalists,” hounding the sincere out of their own denomination. “Why didn’t you watch that television show? You’re a legalist! You don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus!”

So the denomination has fissioned into quarrelling factions, none of which is representing the teachings of Christ or even those of Ellen White. The people who actually want to practice all the teachings of Christ in every way possible, who would gladly sell their jewelry to launch a mission if they had any salable jewelry or if the church had any viable missions, who want to get up early to pray, who put a spiritual meaning into every song they sing, have been pushed out. The number of potential churchgoers who just want to be comforted, not challenged to think or understand or do anything, is limited, and the original Universalists had taken in most of them before the Adventists decided to pursue them. In other countries the Adventist denomination is growing, but in the English-speaking countries it is in a decline.

Venden’s book was not addressed to the people to whom it has some hope of being useful—people who have been observing the deterioration of the Adventist church, and want to help their church avoid a similar decline. Venden writes as if addressing some of those mythical Adventists who really were said to be more concerned with the length of a girl’s skirt or a young man’s beard than with whether either of them was doing something beautiful for God.

How useful can Love God and Do As You Please, or Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras, be to an ordinary Christian reader? While serious Christians have had the proverb “Love God, and then do as you please” for centuries, Venden’s exposition of what loving God first means is marred by his blindness to his denomination’s failure to do so. A church that began as Universalists, or one that gradually evolved in that direction, might be said to honor God in its way…but a church that began by requiring adherence to rules, and then turned against those of its members who followed those rules, cannot be said to love or honor anything.

If Venden had recognized the “liberal legalists” as the greater problem within his church, and expounded on the theme that loving God would require them to honor the sincerity of people who chose to adhere to older rules, his book might have become valuable for devotional use. He didn’t.

So, this book can be recommended primarily to those studying the decline of the Seventh-Day Adventist church as an American denomination. If the Adventist denomination is still viable, according to the statistics, it’s in Spanish-speaking countries…and so Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras is likely to be more useful to more people than the original Love God and Do As You Please. 

Today, a Google search for Morris Venden brings up the obscenely detailed charges brought against him by his partner in adultery before it brings up Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras. And, since the book is displayed on a web site for free, it’s unlikely to be republished. I had a copy, once. I sold it. I may or may not be able to get another copy. Venden no longer needs a dollar. Go ahead and download it if you have US$8.99. Print copies for your friends, if they don’t have US$8.99. This book hardly deserves better.

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