Fake news

Dealing with history is never fully objective. Writing about the past always requires a selection of the facts. Moreover, the historian will always view these facts from a particular perspective. And the reader of the product of the historian reads through his own, usually colored, lenses. Therefore, any student of history does well, if at all possible, to consult various sources.

The fact that history is always characterized by a certain degree of subjectivity does not, however, mean that is therefore defensible to consciously alter the facts and to select them in such a way that a totally warped picture is created of what happened. In that case we are confronted with the falsification of history and that is an ugly matter.

But even when we try to describe the present, a degree of subjectivity is unavoidable. Most things that happen around us are so complex that this also forced us to be selective in our descriptions. And, also here, much depends on the perspective from which we view things. Usually it makes quite a difference whether our political leanings are more to the right or more to the left. Aspects like gender and ethnicity, religion and culture, also impact on the way we see events that happen far-away and nearby. However, we enter the dubious realm of ‘fake’ news when there is a conscious effort to ignore certain relevant facts and to enlarge and color other things, with the clear intent to mislead people and by manipulating “fake” information in such a way that particular pre-planned objectives are reached. Sad to say that nowadays this type of news delivery and communication has become a common phenomenon.

The processes which are at work in the descripting of the past and in reporting on the present are not limited to the world of the secularl media (including the social media) but are also seen elsewhere. Even in the world of the church it is difficult (or maybe impossible) to be fully objective. I remember a statement made by a theology professor at Andrews University in the middle of the 1960’s about the official journal of the worldwide Adventist Church: the Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald. (The name was later shortened to Adventist Review.) This professor said that a regular reader of this Adventist journal would have to conclude that everything in the Adventist Church is OK; that only good things happen in the church and that nothing ever goes wrong. At the time I was rather surprised by this critique but after a little thought I could only agree. Since that time things have improved. Recent books about the history of our church have become much more professional and critical. Even today the church’s media often tend to sound a hallelujah note, but it must be said that they no longer avoid all problems and all challenges the church is faces. Nonetheless, it remains advisable to consult various sources and non-official media such as Spectrum and Adventist Today are a welcome (and necessary) complement to the official news channels. For, unfortunately, it must be said that even today at times the church’s media remain silent about controversial issues and tendencies in the church, or paint such a one-sided picture that it can only be characterized as “fake” news.

Now, it is rather easy to point an accusing finger at others and to forget that most (or all?) of us may at times be guilty of spreading some “fake” news. We tend to be subjective in the stories we tell of what we have experienced and in the way we talk about individuals and groups of people. We all come with our own bagage, which colors our opinion, and we most often do not possess all the facts. That is why it is usually not wise to just listen to one version of a story. But it becomes a very nasty thing when we consciously give a story a certain twist in order to mislead others. It is good to once in a while give this serious thought and ask ourselves if we perhaps at times, either consciously or unwittingly, may have been guilty in passing on “fake” news.

Speaking up against evil

Adventist Professional Ministersis is one of the Facebook groups that I follow regularly. A few days ago Dr. Nicholas Miller, (a professor at Andrews University with a background in law and theology) started a discussion about the question how pastors in their preaching might address some of the moral dilemma’s that are currently hotly debated in the United States. How might they do this in a way that respects the separation between church and state? Whenever, in the USA, one speaks about the glaring inequality between rich and poor, the increasing influence of Islam, racial hatred or the refugee problem (or not to mention gun control, the LGBTI-issue and the controversy concerning climate change), one inevitably enters domains where Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided. A pastor who speaks about such topics from his/her pulpit will have people in the pews who belong to either political party. Some of them are great admirers of Donald Trump, but others believe this president is not just a danger for the future of America but even a threat for the entire world. It is no secret that Adventists in the United States are just as heavily polarized on all these issues as is the population in general. I have learned from experience during visits to the United States (and mixing with American Adventists) that I must be rather guarded in my criticisms of the president, since many do not appreciate any negative words about their commander-in-chief. And I have been utterly amazed to find, even among Adventist friends whom I highly respect, a lot of resistance against a type of universal health care coverage that, since a considerable time, has proven to function quite well in a number of European countries (among those my own country). When this approach is labeled ‘socialist’, it surely betrays a definition of socialism that differs significantly from that of most people in Western-Europe.

However, perhaps first a few words about the separation between church and state, since many people will refer to the need for absolute separation between church and state, as soon as dilemmas are brought to the table that also have political dimensions. It should be pointed out that there are different ways in which the relationship between church and state can be arranged. The important thing is that church and state must both be able to function well in their own sphere and that all faith communities share in the same rights and duties. Americans will often claim that their country has realized a full separation between church and state, but looking at it as a European I am not so sure. Whenever I visit a church across the big pond, I see, to my amazement, a national flag on the podium. And I wonder why there is no protest when the president ends his speeches with the words: ‘God bless America!’ And how is it that American leaders will host ‘prayer breakfasts’ and that the Senate has a ‘chaplain’? I could mention many more things that make me wonder. And, certainly, the close contact between the president and some evangelical leaders does not seem to fit into a model of total separation between church and state. Or do I miss something?

But this may be as it is. Let’s go back to the prophetic role of the pastor in the pulpit. The studies of our Sabbath School quarterly of the current quarter remind us of the prophetic role of all Christ’s followers—and, thus, most certainly also of church leaders, at every level and most specifically at the level of the local church. Injustice and evil must be addressed in the light of the gospel. A Christian is called to protest against all evil in society and to do all he/she can to help eliminate this evil.

This does not just apply to the United States. I must admit that also in the Netherlands, the country where I live, we find racist tendencies and there are right-wing radical groups that flaunt their islamophobia and/or homophobia (sometimes in addition to their antisemitism). In the Netherlands also the material prosperity is very unequally distributed (not as badly as in the USA, but nonetheless . . .). Regrettably, we also find far too many church-going Christians who do not want to accept refugees into their community and would gladly see all assistance to developing countries halted tomorrow.

So, where does that leave me as a minister of the gospel? I will have to try to translate the gospel into the concrete situation of the society in which I live. I must have the courage to call evil by its name, even though this means that I fiercely disagree with some political parties and some popular opinion leaders. I realize that, in so doing, I will offend some (many?) church members, whether or not I will mention particular political movements or persons by name. In extreme cases this may mean that some members decide to leave the church, or, in any case, will stay home when I am scheduled as the preacher. Yet, this may not stop me from proclaiming the values of God’s kingdom loudly and clearly. In an ever more polarized environment this presents an enormous challenge. It may cause some to accuse us of violating the separation between church and state. So be it. To remain silent when hatred is being promoted, when large ethnic or racial groups are seriously discriminated against, when the rich become ever richer and the poor ever poorer, and when large groups of people in the margins of our society are overlooked, is no option. It truly is no option when we decide to take God’s Word seriously with regard to love for our neighbors, equality for all, justice and righteousness. I wish my colleagues, everywhere—and especially in the USA—a lot of courage and wisdom from on high!


In between jobs

These past few weeks I have felt a bit like an independent contractor who is in between jobs. Some significant assignments have been completed, but after a short while I will slowly get ready to start a new project .

After having been intensely involved with the FACING DOUBT project (in six different language editions), I spent a major part of the last twelve months—in between numerous other activities—with the writing of two new books. If everything goes according to plan, they will both appear around the end of this months.

I HAVE A FUTURE: Christ’s resurrection and mine is published by Stanborough Press in England. When I approached them with a proposal for a book about this theme, it was immediately received with much enthousiasm. For a considerable time very little has been written in the Adventist Church about this topic. There was, so I was told, a clear vacuum that needed to be filled. However, I was given the suggestion to treat the subject in a fresh way, and to write in such a manner that the book might also appeal to non-Seventh-day Adventist Christians. I have done my very best and the folks at the Stanborough Press, and others who have critically read the manuscript, feel that I have succeeded quite well in what I set out to do.

The marketing department of the publishing house does not only want to promote the book in its home market, but also in Anglophone Africa and in the English-speaking countries in Inter-America. In addition the books from Stanborough Press are also available in the Adventist bookstores in North-America and Australie. It is also hoped that there will be an interest on the part of Christian bookstores in the United Kingdom.  The Stanborough Press expects that several translations into other languages will follow. As I write these lines, the first edition is being printed in Belgrade. The Adventist Church operates a modern printing facility which offers very competitive prices and Stanborough Press has a lot of its printing nowadays done in the Serbian capital. All in all, it is quite an adventure and I hope the book will be a blessing to many.

I wrote the second book that is about to appear in Dutch and sent the manuscript a few months ago to Boekencentrum Publishers—one of the prominent Dutch Christian publishers that has recently fused with a number of other Christian publishers. Having looked at the manuscript they decided to accept it and to publish it under the combined imprint of Boekencentrum and Boekscout. This means that the book will be produced by the printing-on-demand-process but will be marketed together with the other Boekencentrum titles in the Dutch book stores.

The Dutch title of this book translates into English as: Thinking and Acting Christianly: How faith directs our life. In this book I wanted to target Dutch Christians in general. I certainly do not hide the fact that I am a Seventh-day Adventist Christian and am writing from that perspectieve. I try to explain in about 200 pages on the basis of my specific Christian tradition how our faith and our Bible reading enables us to find the right direction in our choices in the many different domains of life—choices in politics and in choosing our profession; choices in what we eat and drink and how we spend our time; choice in dealing with such issues as violence and peace and justice, and with problems regaring the beginning and end of life. I am, of course, very anxious to know how this book will ‘land.’ Will my Adventist point of departure perhaps keep people from prucasing and reading the book? Or will my Adventist readers perhaps feel that I am not ‘clear’ enough?

There is little doubt that before too long I will start work on another book. I have a few preliminary ideas, but want to take some time to let these mature. In the meantime I decided to spend some time this week in restoring some order in my study. No one needs to worry: there are plenty of other activities to keep me from becoming bored.

Problems for a preacher

While last Tuesday the outside temperature was steadily increasing, my study remained reasonably cool—cool enough to work on a new sermon. For a few weeks I had been thinking of a sermon about the foolishness of the newly converted Christians in Galatia, who allowed themselves to be confused by people who had come from elsewhere, telling them that we as humans  have to do our part in ensuring that we will be saved, and that it is just too easy to simply expect that Christ will take care of everything. Paul did not beat about the bush in his approach to the Galatians. They had abandoned the gospel of sola gratia with their acceptance of the message that you cannot be saved unless you stick to certain rules. This legalistic approach continues to present a great danger to Christians of today—most definitely including Adventist Christians..

So, the sermon for my next preaching appointment is ready. Sometimes I preach a sermon just once. When I sense that the message has not ‘landed’ the sermon disappears in the digital rubbish bin. But   when I sense that the sermon ‘did’ something for the listeners, I tend to preach the sermon a number of times in different churches, hoping that there are no members who move between different churches and then might have to listen to a sermon they already heard.

Working on my sermon I was suddenly reminded of a little rhyme that I saw written on a wall in the small museum at Schokland. Schokland used to be a small island in the Zuiderzee, the body of water in the center of the Netherlands, that has now for a large part been made into dry land. So, presently, Schokland is  a small elevated area surrounded by reclaimed land. The same is true for Urk, that also was an island before the land around it was reclaimed from the water. The little four-line rhyme is about a pastor who lived in Urk, but had accepted a preaching assignment in Schokland. As he made the journey by boat, the sea was so rough, that he completely forgot the text he had planned to preach about!

In the early nineteenth century it must have been quite an adventure to travel from Urk to Schokland for a preaching appointment. As the crow flies it was no more than 10 or 12 kilometers, but in those days the only way to get there was by boat. The Zuiderzee could be quite treacherous, which made the journey sometimes even a bit perilous. This is what the pastor from Urk had experienced. He had been so worried about the weather that he had totally forgotten the text and the theme he had planned to preach about. Apparently, he had the gift of being able to preach without any notes. But in his anxiety he had fotgotten what he was to preach about.

I do not have the gift of being able to preach without notes. I must have very full notes in front of me and many of my sermons are written out almost verbatim. This always results in about nine to ten sheets of A5 paper. I have never completely forgotten my sermon notes and left them at home. But it once happened to me that I was already on the podium of the church where I was to preach when, as the hymn just before the sermon was sung, I realized that my notes were still in my car.  Fortunately, the car was parked right in front of the church and I was able to sneak away and get my notes just before the last lines of the final stanza of the hymn was sung. (The audience probably thought that I had to make an emergency sanitary stop.) This has never happened again. Ever since I check and double-check whether my sermon notes are safely stuck in my Bible.

It happened once that my small stack of A5 -format notes had somehow shifted and were no longer in the right order. As I was preaching I had to re-arrange the order of the sheets. After that unpleasant experience I have always been careful to number my sheets of notes. You can be sure that the ten A5 sheets with my notes of the Galatians-sermon are carefully numbered from one to ten!

An invitation

On Wednesday morning the bell rang. Since we are living in an apartment building, visitors and parcel deliverers must first announce themselves before they can enter. From our apartment we can see and hear the person and can decide whether we allow the individual to proceed to the front door of our apartment on the second floor. There were two ladies with a simple request. Would it be OK if they put a leaflet in our mailbox? The leaflet was about a congress (about love) that was soon to be held. I appreciated their approach, for there is a sticker besides our mailbox to indicate that we do want to have the local newspapers but do not want any advertising materials.

My thoughts were confirmed when a few hours later I checked our mailbox. The ladies were Jehovah Witnesses. The leaflet was an invitation for a congress of the Watchtower Society to be held on August 2, 3 and 4 in the huge exhibition halls in Utrecht.

I am not an expert on the strategies that the ‘witnesses’ nowadays employ in their recruiting activities. Their former, rather aggressive, tactics are definitely a thing of the past. And their witnessing on the streets has also taken on a new form. I saw in several countries how they employ a handy, foldable standard that allows them to show their products. It seemed to me that the public is only approached when they show some interest. And when, occasionally, I get a copy of the ‘Watchtower’ or ‘Awake’, I notice that the headlines of the articles are much more moderate than in the past and have lost much of their former alarmism. Likewise, the leaflet that I found in my mailbox had no reference to Armageddon or other terrible events that are about to happen!

The question is, of course, how successful the Jehovah Witnesses are nowadays in their recruiting of new members. It is difficult to find exact statistics. According to a site that seems to be reasonably objective (https://wachttorenkijker.wimdegoeij.nl/jehovahs-getuigen-statistieken/) the society had some 29,500 Dutch members in 2015, which was about 1,500 members less than twenty years earlier. The growth in 2015 amounted to just 15 members, while there was a loss of 18 members in 2016.

It always bothers me when Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists are mentioned in one and the same breath. Fortunately, that happens less and less. Most people who know anything about Adventists regard them as a bona fideProtestant faith community rather than a sect. Many Jehovah Witnesses are, no doubt, sincere in their faith. Their zeal for the spreading of their convictions may have decreased, but continues to be an example for most ‘main-line’ Christians. Their search for new strategies is certainly laudable. Any religious movement that fails to do so must accept the negative consequences.

As a Seventh-day Adventist I want to see my church grow. I doubt, however, that we should go back to our former strategies of going from door to door, or that we should mobilize the church in distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets. (If we feel that distributing leaflets can still be effective, it is a job we can with full confidence leave to one of the postal services.) Likewise, I also doubt that organizing large congresses will result in many new contacts. We will probably never find out how many non-Jehovah Witnesses will attend the Utrecht congress. The congress may inspire many members of the Watchtower Society, but I suspect it will not result in many new members. And I wonder whether their new way of presenting their publications is really effective.

Adventists must also continue to search for new ways in which to communicate with the world around them. I repeat, however, what I said in last week’s blog: The greatest priority is to be (or to become) an open and warm faith community where people truly ‘belong’—a community that binds people together and radiates that this community has something important to share, that enriches life. The reactions on my blog of last week, which I received through various channels, underline the sad reality that in this respect, in many places, our local churches still have a long way to go.