A new tv

A few days ago, our flat-screen Panasonic 42-inch television started giving problems. The remote control didn’t succeed in turning the tv on, even after I replaced the batteries. I discovered – after my wife had consulted the internet on her I-pad – that the device also has a (rather hidden) on/off button. That temporarily solved the problem. That evening we were, after all, able to watch the news and the penultimate episode of a Swedish police series on Nextflix. But the day before yesterday we could no longer get our Panasonic to “work”. Even the attempt at a total “reset” was fruitless.

Yesterday morning I decided to stop by the local electronics store, to inquire how the problem might be solved. I could mentally prepare myself for the visit, because the Expert branch (a major Dutch electronics chain) in our town is right across the street from the “Old Library”-one of the few available stops for a cup of coffee during my morning walks.

When I entered the store, one of the staff members asked what he could do for me. So far, so good.
I outlined the problem, which was quickly diagnosed: “That will be a faulty power supply, sir. Happens quite often.” The Expert man consulted the computer. “I see that your tv is already seven years old.” He said it in a way that gave me the impression that our device was hopelessly antique.

Yes, perhaps the tv could be repaired, he said. But that was not certain. It could be sent to the place that handles repairs for Panasonic. That would cost 60 euros. And then they could see if it was indeed the power supply that had failed. (“But that surely looks like it!”). All in all, it would be most likely be an expensive repair, probably 150-200 euros. That is: if they still had the necessary new part. And that was far from certain (“After all, your device is already seven years old!”).
In short, the conversation ended with clear advice: “You’d better buy a new one. That’s what I would do, if I were you.”

A few hours later, I was back at the store with my wife, to choose a new tv. I was glad that the man assisting us with our purchase made no attempt to talk us into a larger and much more expensive device. The tv of our choice was in stock-but yes, they were very busy. (“You know, because of the European Soccer Championship”). They could deliver it next week and install it for us (“That will be an extra 49.50 of course!”).

So we unexpectedly bought a new television, without knowing exactly what the problem was with the “old” one, and ignorant about whether it could possibly be repaired. But we were reminded that the old set was already seven years old! This, apparently, is the way the system works, and it seemed the wisest option to follow the advice that we were given. When one thinks about it, however, one realizes that we live in a society that still cares very little about sustainability. Regular replacement, a new model, maximum turnover and maximum profit—these are the key words. And yes, “recycling” of course, as if that makes up for everything.

As thus, as a consumer I simply followed the pattern, with the powerless feeling that I simply cannot change the system. And this is indeed a fact: the way our society is structured has deviated so far from the original plan of the Creator that it will take more than a Covid-19 disaster to fix it. However, this does not absolve me as a Christian from continuing to protest and, where I can, to oppose the kind of consumer society of which I also have become a part.

In the meantime, we will manage without television for a week. There’s actually nothing wrong with that. We watched the latest episode of the Nextflix series last night on the screen of my laptop and the internet will provide us with the news. (So, I know that the Netherlands won against Austria 2-0).
And then there is still the radio and lots of CDs we haven’t listened to for a long time! And, starting next week, if all goes well, we’ll have a television set that will last us probably another seven years!

Church or Sect? What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between a church and a sect? That question is not so easy to answer. For most people the term “sect” evokes rather negative associations. One often hears: A sect is a religious group that turns secondary issues into main issues. This is, of course, a rather subjective approach, because who determines what is essential and what is not? Others claim: Sects are the lice in the church’s pelt. Sects are mainly characterized by their critical attitude towards the “established” churches, without contributing anything significant themselves.

The famous sociologist Max Weber gave a definition that, over time, has been used as a basis for many other descriptions. Weber said that the church is a religious organization in which membership is determined primarily by tradition. In most cases one becomes a member of a church by birth. In a sect, on the other hand, membership is the conscious choice of the person joining the group. Many denominations reject such a definition, especially those that do not practice infant baptism, but baptize people who have asked to be baptized.

Often the word “sect” is used primarily for religious groups that are quite aggressive in their recruitment strategies and/or are strongly influenced by a powerful, charismatic leader (in which case one often tends to speak of a “cult”). Probably the most important characteristic of a sect is that their adherents are convinced that they are in sole possession of the Truth.

In practice, it is not always easy to draw the line between “church” and “sect”. Some religious communities are undergoing a development whereby they slowly but surely shed their sectarian characteristics, and, as a result, are no longer labeled as a “sect.” This has happened in many areas of the world with Seventh-day Adventists. In some countries Adventists are still widely regarded as sectarians, but on the other hand, there are also more and more countries where Adventism has gradually become a respected, Protestant denomination.

Last Saturday there was an interview in my newspaper with the Belgian Cardinal Jozef de Kessel, who has now been archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels for several years. The 73-year-old Catholic Church leader is recovering from colon cancer, but his personal situation has not taken away his positive spirit. He emerges in the interview as an optimist, but also as a realist, and with a strong faith. He acknowledges that the Catholic Church in Belgium is decreasing in size, but firmly believes that “a more modest church” can be more “faithful to itself” and to its vocation in the midst of today’s secular culture.

What particularly struck me in the interview were de Kessel’s comments about sects and sectarian characteristics. According to him, even a large church can in many ways be sectarian. The bishop is looking for a “confessing church” that is carried forward by an inner core of active believers . . . But the church must remain open and avoid being focused on itself.”

The interview concludes with a statement that I would like to quote in its entirety: “In a sect, you know exactly who is inside and who is outside. Moreover, a sect does not tolerate dissent. If you disagree with something you can go. So, you can be a majority church with sectarian traits, and you can be a smaller church with an open mind. It’s nice when the door of a church is open. When you enter, nobody asks: what are you doing here, why are you sitting here, why are you walking around here? Are you a believer or a non-believer? We must be a church that is open and welcoming, without imposing itself.”

A small church that is open! A church that is not just focused on itself, but knows the problems and the language of the secular world around it. A church that warmly receives people without imposing itself. Where you can disagree with one another. Where you are welcome.

Yes, I feel at home in such a church. And I want to continue to do what I can to move my church in that direction.

In Memoriam: Dr. Anne van der Meiden

This morning I read in my newspaper that Dr. Anne van der Meiden died yesterday, on the day before his 92nd birthday. He suffered a brain infarct in 2018 and did not recover from it. Van der Meiden was a theologian as well as a communications scholar. He wrote a series of books in both areas of his expertise, but he gained particular fame for his translation of the Bible into the local language in Twente, a region in the Eastern part of the Netherlands: Bibel in de Twentse Sproake (2019).
Herman Finkers—an entertainer whom I greatly admire–said today in a regional television broadcast that van der Meiden, whether lecturing or preaching, exuded a fatherly, wise authority. Van der Meiden had close connections with the royal family. He officiated at the wedding of Prince Floris and Aimée Söhngen in 2005. “He didn’t care whom he talked to,” says Finkers, “the queen or the postman: he talked to them in the same way.”

In the period when van der Meiden was professor of communication science at the University of Utrecht, I once had a particularly interesting conversation with him. I was looking for a suitable topic for a possible PhD dissertation and was thinking of something at the intersection of church and communication. When I called him, he was happy to make an appointment. Van der Meiden himself had written his doctoral dissertation about the role of ethics in the proclamation of the gospel. In the process, he had, in passing, delivered quite a bit of criticism on the way the Watchtower Society recruited its members (at least in the past). Our conversation quickly took a turn toward Seventh-day Adventism. I asked, How might we succeed in convincing a larger number of people of the value of Adventism? Van der Meiden’s answer was twofold. As I repeat what he said, I must, of course, underscore that this conversation took place more than 40 years ago.

The first thing van der Meiden emphasized regarding the relative success of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they are very clear: Whoever has come into contact with the truth, as they proclaim it, and does not respond positively to it, is eternally lost. Period. “You Adventists,” said van der Meiden, “no longer dare to say that. And so, if people will be saved anyway without necessarily joining your church, then becoming an Adventist becomes much less urgent.” It didn’t seem desirable to me then (and it still seems undesirable to me) to adjust our strategy on that point. After all, we are not in charge of who is or is not going to be saved.

But van der Meiden also emphasized another point. He knew that in the past Adventist evangelistic meetings usually began with lectures about the condition of man in death. In his opinion, that was a fatal mistake, because it led to these meetings being attended mostly by older people, who in many cases had suffered the loss of a loved one. But often these people were so tied to their own tradition that they did not have the inner strength to make the transition to another faith community. According to van der Meiden, we as Adventists should design a recruiting strategy that targets young people-and more specifically: young business people. Often, they have a spiritual need that remains unmet in their materialistic context. Moreover, they are used to making decisions, and if they see that a certain choice will benefit them, they will be more inclined to join a (different) faith community than older people.

Since the conversation with Anne van der Meiden took place, a lot has changed in Dutch society and in church life. No, telling people that they will be lost forever if they do not become Adventists in a hurry is not an option. But is the second point he mentioned perhaps still worth considering?

Once again: something about sexual orientation

Occasionally, readers of my blog ask me why I regularly return to the topic of sexual orientation–as I did again last week. My answer is that it hasn’t been the last time either, because in the faith community which I call my spiritual home, full acceptance of LGBTQ people is still a long way off. Two things led me to raise this issue again this week.

I received a request to read a manuscript of a book that is about to be published in the US. The intention was that I would write a few lines as an endorsement for the book, which could be placed on the back cover (depending, of course, on whether I felt I wanted to recommend the book!) After reading it, I gladly complied with the request. The manuscript is written by an Adventist pastor who came “out of the closet” as a bisexual person after a lengthy struggle. She lost her job, but not her faith. In the first chapter she describes her journey. It is impressive and at the same time shameful. She has since married a woman, but would have liked nothing better than to remain a pastor. Unfortunately, that could not happen . . .

In response to my blog of last week, I received a brief comment from a certain David, a reader from Australia. When I saw his last name, it rang a bell. Was he the person about whom I had heard the vague rumor that he had come “out of the closet” as a gay man? He replied at length to the e-mail that I sent him. His story, he reported, was not a secret, so I could feel free to talk or write about it. He was indeed the person I was thinking of. For several years he lived with his parents in England. Immediately after his studies at Newbold College he had married. He became a minister in Australia and worked for the church in various capacities. In the meantime, he had also become the father of three sons. .

David had hoped that he could silence the voice of his sexual orientation by getting married, but that proved impossible. When he “came out of the closet” in 2006, after twenty years of inner struggle, it not only meant the end of his marriage, but it also ended his career in the Adventist Church. His ex-wife found someone with whom she could be happy. His children accepted their father’s decision, and David himself found a partner to whom he has been married since 2014. Their marriage took place in New Zealand where “same-sex” marriages were already possible at the time, and their relationship also received a legal basis in Australia a few years later.

That’s how it goes all too often—unfortunately also in Adventist circles. People are urged to marry someone of the opposite sex–against better judgment, assuming that the “other” orientation will wear off. The result in most cases is a mountain of misery, often ending in suicide. David has kept his faith, but has he lost his job and also lost his church. A homosexual ex-pastor had no place in the Adventist congregation of which he was a member.

Perhaps it is still a bridge too far to expect that someone with a “different” orientation, who is in a monogamous same-sex relationship, can become or remain a pastor in our church without difficulty. But at the very least, people who are eager to remain part of our faith community must be warmly welcome and be allowed to actively participate in the life of the congregation. As long as this is not the case everywhere, I will from time to time dedicate a blog to this subject. I cannot change the world-or my church–singlehandedly, but together with others I must make my voice heard and will do so until the goal is reached: full equality regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

The homo-trial in Faan

Until a few weeks ago I had never heard of a village by the name of Faan. But since I got hold of a book by amateur-historian Koert ter Veen (Protestant Fundamentalism in Faan, Groningen), my general education in this respect has further improved. Faan is a village in the vicinity of Groningen, which in the eighteenth century, together with a few surrounding villages, formed a community of about 1750 people. The special thing about Faan was that, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the center of the enclave Oosterdeel Langewold, which was ruled in turn by one of the leading land owners. This was the “grietman”, who had more or less feudal authority. His powers also included the administration of justice. This took place, from 1601 until well into the eighteenth century, according to regional legal traditions, but the Mosaic law was also used as a guideline.

The latter explains why in the early thirties of the eighteenth century in and around Faan “sodomy” was a crime that was severely punished. It was not always clear, however, what that term exactly meant. Sometimes, in all likelihood, it involved sexual intercourse between two males, but in other cases it could have involved (mutual) masturbation. Either way, these were practices that were believed to be condemned in the biblical book of Leviticus and were punishable by death.

In 1731 a certain Rudolf de Mepsche was the “grietman” who had to make sure that the people stayed on the “straight and narrow.” When he heard that certain (mostly young) men were suspected of the crime of “sodomy”, he decided to act forcefully. Sources from that time claim that he also saw his chance to eliminate a few political opponents in the process. What is certain is that he was strongly influenced by the local pastor, Hendricus Carolinus van Byler. He had written a book whose title left little to be desired: Hell-inspired iniquity, or the dreadful sin of sodomy, in its evil, and its well-deserved punishment, clearly explained from divine and human writings as a mirror for present and future generations (1731).

In April 1731 the arrests of a total of 24 suspects began. The interrogations were far from gentle. The professional executioner from Groningen had to be called in to (literally) tighten the thumbscrews in order to obtain the confessions. A few months later the court hearings took place and all were found guilty. One of the suspects had died in the meantime (possibly as a result of the torture). Two boys, who were below 14 years, were sentenced to a life-long stay in a disciplinary institution and the remaining 21 men were publicly strangled in the neighboring town of Zuidhorn, after which their corpses were burned.

In reading this horrific history, we must of course place things in the time in which they happened. Other trials against suspects of “sodomy” are also known from that time. And Rev. Van Byler’s book was not the only Christian protest against this “terrible sin.” But nevertheless, the Trial of Faan remains a stern warning of what religious fundamentalism can lead to.

Many will say, It’s all in the past and we have left this kind of abomination far behind us. That certainly applies to the Netherlands. After all, we are extremely tolerant. Wasn’t the Netherlands the first country where people of the same sex were allowed to marry each other?
But let’s not be mistaken. Although few Dutch people would like to apply the Mosaic laws nowadays, as people did in Faan some three centuries ago, many still interpret these laws in a fundamentalist way, which results in completely excluding (or worse) a considerable group of people.

We cannot sit back contentedly with the thought that it is now unthinkable to put non-hetero people to death, as long as being gay is still a life-threatening situation in all sorts of places around the world. The “problem” of how to deal with homosexuality and related aspects has not been “solved,” as long as there are schools in the Netherlands, too, where gay youth (and teachers) cannot safely “come out of the closet,” and as long as gays run the risk of being called out on the street.

And as an Adventist, I certainly can’t sit back when I consider that the world church still has a document on its website that puts homosexuality on a par with, among other things, bestiality, and when I realize that there are church leaders in some African countries who believe that the government should give practicing gays the death penalty. I must continue to resist the idea that church members with “other” sexual orientations cannot hold church office (as is the case in many local congregations). And I must not stay silent when hearing that in some congregations gay people are not really welcome or that even family members of gay or “transgender” people are shunned.

The deeper cause is still the same as it was in 1731 in Faan: a fundamentalist view of the Bible leads to inhuman conclusions that are completely at odds with how Jesus Christ treated people.