Urk

Do you know why people in Urk don’t buy Ikea furniture? Because they are not supposed to swear during the assembly process. I read that joke in an extensive review of a recent book about Urk, written by the Belgian journalist Matthias M. R. Declercq. He gave it the title: The Discovery of Urk. I have not yet read it, but I’ve put it on my reading list (as well as the voluminous biography of the Dutch politician Hans Wiegel that also appeared this past month.) The fact that there is a joke about Urk in the book doesn’t mean it is not a serious book – on the contrary.

As is well known (at least to the Dutch readers of my blog), Urk is an enclave in the Noordoostpolder. Before this polder was reclaimed from the sea (in 1942), Urk was an island in the IJsselmeer. Until 1932, when there was no Afsluitdijk, the Urker fishermen had a direct connection to the North Sea. Urk still has the largest Dutch fishing fleet, but most ships are fishing far away and come to Urk only occasionally.

The name of Urk already appears in medieval documents. Later it was owned for some time by the city of Amsterdam. With its 21,000 inhabitants, Urk is an independent municipality in the newest Dutch province: Flevoland. The place is known for its many strict Protestant-Christian churches that belong to about 25 different denominations, and the closed character of its population. But nowadays Urk also often gets publicity because of the misbehavior of the (often alcohol- and drug-addicted) youth.

Occasionally I visit Urk. It is about three quarters of an hour’s drive from where we live. If we want to take a ride with guests, we sometimes go to the Noordoostpolder and visit Schokland, the other former island, and then Urk, fifteen kilometers further away. Schokland offers an interesting small open-air museum, with a nice restaurant that serves excellent coffee and cake. In Urk you can stroll through the narrow streets, past the historic shipyard with historic boats and, of course, the monument dedicated to the 368 fishermen who through the years have nor returned from their work at sea.

You could say that I have a reasonable idea of what Urk is, but I can’t say that I know Urk and the people of Urk. This, however, can be said of Matthias Declercq. In 2009 his Flemish newspaper sent him for a day to Urk to write a news story about a notorious murder case. That visit fascinated him so much that he decided to return to discover Urk in more depth. Ten years later he finally made it, but then he stayed there for six months. He rented accommodation in the old part of Urk and participated in daily life in every possible way. In the book announcement I read: “Declercq lives as a stranger in the heart of the town and goes fishing, praying and drinking. Step by step reality reveals itself. Declercq observes a pleasant and God-fearing people, but also discovers a shadowy and tragic world, with youthful mischief, fishery fraud and drugs. A world in which nothing is what it seems. In this personal quest Declercq has succeeded in uncovering the identity of the country’s seemingly most closed and misunderstood community.” I will have to read the book before I know if I can fully agree with this characterization.

Most of us tend to have rather quickly an opinion about a population segment, a country or a religion, but often that knowledge is very superficial. Declerq reminds us that we can only “discover” the true character of a culture, a place, a country, an ethnic or religious group, if we really immerse ourselves in it. Preferably, “discovering” means an extensive personal acquaintance, with intense conversations and participation in all kinds of activities. Only then can we form a sound judgement. Of course, such an extensive process of discovery is not always possible. We usually cannot, as Declercq did, go somewhere for six months. That does mean, however, that, as long as our knowledge is superficial, we have to be careful when making a final judgment.

I am often annoyed when I meet people who have made very little effort to find out what my church believes and how my church thinks about all kinds of theological and social topics, and yet feel they can have a solid opinion. I believe, they only have the right to voice their opinion if they have studied it more than superficially. But—in all fairness– people in my own church should also be careful not to immediately have an opinion about other believers if they have never entered into dialogue with them and gone on a trajectory of discovery.

The Apostolic Society

Until a week ago I knew absolutely nothing about the Apostolic Society. I had no idea where this religious community originated, what “apostolic” people believe, and how their philosophy impacts on their daily life. But that changed after I read Renske Doorenspleet’s recent book entitled Apostelkind (literally: Apostle’s Child). The subtitle of her book expresses exactly what it is about: In the grip of a closed community. The author, a political scientist who now lives in England, bade farewell to the faith community in which she had been raised and to which she had vowed her loyalty. However, gradually she began to feel so claustrophobic, that she began to distance herself more and more from the thinking of this community, until she finally decided to leave. But only many years later was she able to look back and put her experiences on paper.

Often books written by former members of religious communities are full of bitterness and resentment about what they
experienced in their church or group. They tend to urge others to take the same step and free themselves from the spiritual straitjacket that kept them imprisoned for such a long time. Some started a foundation to assist others who also want to leave. This is clearly not the intent of Renske Doorenspleet. But throughout the book one senses her regret and amazement: How in the world could I stay in this oppressive club for so long?

In the Netherlands the Apostolic Society has about 30,000 members. Strangely enough, for a very long time they remained almost completely under the radar. They didn’t get publicity because of sexual or financial scandals. Occasionally the name “apostolic” surfaced, for example in connection with Volkert van der Graaf, the murderer of the Dutch populist politician Pim Fortuin. Volkert was a member of the Apostolic Society.

The picture sketched in the book is oppressive. The Dutch branch of the organization is led by an apostle, to whom (at least until recently) a kind of semi-divine status was attributed. He is assisted by an elaborate network of men and (nowadays also) women who diligently perform a range of precisely prescribed tasks. The word of the apostle is law and his weekly letters have more authority than the Bible. Although Christian in origin, little is left in the Society of the Christian faith. The hope for an afterlife has been completely abandoned. The members are indoctrinated and have to live in such a way that they become a kind of leaven in the world, through which it can become better and better. How that can happen when the members do not tell others about their ideals has remained a mystery to me, even after reading this book.

What probably struck me most was that the members of this Society live in two completely separate worlds – the world inside the Society and the world outside. Those two worlds hardly, if at all, meet. Renske Doorenspleet describes in detail how all-absorbing her world was during her time in the Society, but how she tried to keep it hidden from her friends and in her everyday life. And this was true for all fellow-members of the Society. This raises the question of the value such faith commitment can possibly have. If you have found an ideal in which you invest a lot of emotion, time and energy (and also a lot of money!), it would seem obvious that you want to share this ideal with others. And you may expect to be encouraged to convince others to follow that same ideal! Moreover, how that ideal is developed and expressed must certainly be influenced by what is going on in the wider world and by what the members of the community experience in their daily life! This applies not only to members of the Apostolic Society but to every faith community. Life inside a faith community and life outside that community must be communicating vessels. The content of what the group believes and how it is practiced must have meaning for everyday life. And, conversely, experiences in life in the wider world must be brought inside the group, so that it continues to deal with things that really matter to its members in their daily lives.

Thank you, Renske Doorenspleet, for your book which so clearly illustrates this vital point.

(Renske Doorenspleet, Het Apostelkind: In de greep van een gesloten genootschap. Publisher: Uitgeverij Balans, 2020. Paperback, € 22,90.)

Does EGW have the final say?

It has become a tradition during a General Conference session of the Adventist Church to ask the delegates to vote on a statement regarding the church’s confidence in Ellen G. White. It is the intention that this will also happen next May when the world church holds its (postponed) world congress in Indianapolis (which may actually be, at least in part, virtual). One may ask why it is necessary to go through this quinquennial ritual of formally emphasizing the church’s continued trust in the ministry of Ellen White. Is this a sign that church leaders worry that confidence in the ministry of Ellen White is slowly eroding, and that there are concerns about the world-wide distribution of, and interest, in her extensive oeuvre?

There are a few lines in this new “Statement of Confidence in the Writings of Ellen G. White” that greatly trouble me and that actually seem to contain some serious internal contradictions: We believe that the writings of Ellen G White were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are Christ-centered and Bible-based. Rather than replacing the Bible, they uplift the normative character of Scripture and correct inaccurate interpretations imposed upon it, derived from tradition, culture, mere human wisdom, and personal experience. They also help us to overcome the human tendency to accept from the Bible what we like and distort or disregard what we do not like.

To say that the writing of Ellen G. White were “inspired” has, through the years, caused a lot of discussion, since there remain many questions as to how her “inspiration” should be defined. And recent scholarship has shown that the genesis of much of what Mrs. White wrote is not as straightforward as has long been assumed by most readers. However, let’s skip this issue for the moment. It is good to see the affirmation that the writings of Mrs. White do not replace the Bible and uplift the “normative” character of the Holy Scriptures. However, what follows seems to contradict this “normative” status of the Bible. For, we are told, that the writings of Ellen White “correct inaccurate interpretations.” I can only read this in one way: the “norm” for interpreting the Bible is found in what Ellen White has written. This, in fact, raises the authority of Ellen White to a level that supersedes even that of the biblical prophets. Is this really what I, as a Seventh-day Adventist, am supposed to believe?

Not only is this view highly questionable, but is raises some other serious questions. One of these is how we determine what Ellen actually thought and said about numerous issues. She herself repeatedly said people should not expect her to have a ready-made answer to all dogmatic topics the other leaders were wrestling with. On several issues she changed her mind as time went by. Her thinking developed and matured as she grew older. Moreover, she did not live in a timeless vacuum, but was part of 19th century American culture and carried a lot of, in particular methodist, baggage with her. So, who will determine what Ellen White’s “correct interpretations” are, and how they should be applied in today’s context? Is this the task of the church’s theologians or the church’s administrators? I rather fear that the church’s administrators, who are mostly no theological experts, increasingly feel they are the protectors of sound doctrine, and that they may well go against the majority views of the church’s prominent theologians.

We can only hope that this statement will not be accepted during the upcoming world congress of the church. It would probably be too much to hope that the document will be outright rejected. But perhaps it can, at least be referred to a committee for further study! (After all, that is also a revered Adventist tradition.)

James White between the mules

James Springer White (1821-1881) was one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He was barely twenty years old when he was already a full-time preacher in the small community of people who had, totally disappointed, come out of the Miller movement, and were now trying to make sense of their recent experiences. Within a few years James became one of the leaders of this group which organized itself in 1863 as the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Three times—between 1867 and 1880—he served a term of two years as president of the General Conference. In 1880 this meant that he was in charge of a church that had grown to just over 15,000 members.

James was not only the “president” of the church, but he was also the leader of its publishing branch, first in the East of the USA, but later also in California. He was one of the church’s most important authors and played an important role in establishing the church’s first health institutions and its first schools. In addition, and perhaps this was even more important than all the tasks mentioned, he was also Ellen White’s husband. His influence on the prophetess of the church should not be underestimated.

One could say that James White was a genius. He had many talents and an enormous zest for work. With his wife and a number of other “pioneers” he made unprecedented sacrifices in the early days of the church. But there is another side to the story as well. James experienced periods of depression and total exhaustion. He had at least five strokes, after which he struggled to regain his strength. His personality was affected in an unfavorable way and this often made him an extremely difficult person to deal with. He had an extraordinarily sharp tongue and pen, and he would often severely criticize or even humiliate closest colleagues. Moreover, there were periods in which the relationship between him and his wife Ellen was under great strain; they did not live together for a considerable time.

What would always haunt James White were his financial activities. In the first few decades the preachers in the Advent Movement were often poverty-stricken. There was hardly any regular salary system and the workers often experienced outright poverty. It is understandable that they were looking for ways to earn some extra money and this brought little or no criticism from the church members. But James was, despite all the activities for the church, constantly busy with trade–much more than any of the other preachers. He always saw opportunities to make some money, by acting as an agent for certain products, or by buying and selling real estate or goods. Twice the church’s leadership conducted a thorough investigation into James’ business dealings. The outcome was in both cases in James White’s favor, but that he was a shrewd businessman is beyond question.

I knew a lot about James White’s extra-ecclesial activities, but only very recently did I read about an episode I hadn’t heard of before. Many Adventists of the first generation, including their leaders, lived very unhealthy lives and had to struggle with illness time and again. The State of Colorado, with its mountains, had a reputation for being a place where one could regain one’s health. In 1876, a group of Adventists in North Texas decided to migrate to Colorado for health reasons. Somehow James White became involved. He would help these people to make the challenging journey. But he also immediately saw dollar-signs. Mules were in great demand in Colorado, because of the fast growing mining industry, in which large numbers of mules were needed. James discovered that he could buy a mule in Texas for $80, and that in Colorado it could bring around $200. And so, in March of 1876, a small colonne of eight covered wagons, and the 2-seater carriage of James and Ellen White, departed from Dallas with a herd of mules (how many is unclear). Three or four cowboys were hired to help with the transport, over about 700 kilometers, along the Chisholm Trail that was often used for such animal transports. It was an adventurous journey of several months. James was the leader of the expedition, while Ellen and her assistant Marion Davis took care of the catering. Ellen kept anything but pleasant memories of this experience. Immediately after arriving at their destination, she left by train for California, while James remained behind to sell the mules, and stayed for some time in the “cabin” that the Whites now owned in Colorado.

It’s a strange story. The president of the General Conference is traveling with a herd of mules through an area that was largely still inhabited by indigenous tribes. And one of the travel companions, who apparently had a great talent for herding animals and keeping them together, was young Arthur Daniels, who would later become president of the church, like James White.

What is the moral of the story? It illustrates that the ‘pioneers’ were not otherworldly saints, but people of flesh and blood, who could do rather unexpected things. They command admiration for their tremendous sacrifice and their commitment to their ideal, but they are not the undisputed “role models” for us, as some maintain, who think that the Church can only prosper if we take these leaders of the first hour as our guide in everything we say and do.

Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well

My friend and (emeritus-) colleague Bram van der Kamp is rather good in remembering birthdays. When we met a few days ago, he had a birthday present waiting for me. It was a collection of poems by Szeslaw Miloz (1911-2004), a Polish poet who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Bram predicted that I would find phrases in these poems that would touch me. It turned out to be true. The third poem in the collection starts with these words:

I’m not and don’t want to be the possessor of the truth.
Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well.

In the past I often heard my Adventist fellow-believers say: “We have the truth.” That was not an exclusively Adventist claim. Many adherents of other religious movements also knew for sure that they had “the truth.” Nowadays churches tend not to express themselves that strongly anymore. But many individual Christians still think that they “have” the truth, and that, if others disagree with them, these people do not “have” the truth. I concur with Szeslaw Miloz: “I am not a possessor of the truth and I cannot (and do not want to) be such a possessor.” Any Christian who says that he/she “has” the truth, suffers from a boundless overestimation of himself/herself. God’s truth is infinitely greater than a person can grasp. Dogmas or Fundamental Beliefs can never adequately express “the truth.” Our speaking about God is at most a kind of human stammering. The reason is that Truth cannot be reduced to human words, because Truth is a Person: Jesus Christ. Therefore: “I am not a possessor of truth,” but am grateful that Truth wants to “possess” me.

I can also agree with the second sentence of Szeslaw Miloz’s poem. It suits me, too, to “wander along the edges of heresy.” In the Dutch language the word “heretic” (ketter) comes from the name Cathars–a group of Christians who in their theology in many ways deviated from the views of medieval Roman Catholicism, and who were often barbarously persecuted. The English language uses the words “heresy” and “heretics”, which are derived from Greek (the language of the New Testament). The basic meaning of “heresy” is “being able to choose” and a “heretic” is someone who has views that deviate from established opinion.

One could say: Heretics are believers who do not simply accept the established ideas of the majority and the ecclesiastical tradition, but ask questions, and thereby search for greater spiritual depth. They want to look at things from a different angle and do not need to know everything for certain. They sometimes come up with proposals that the majority would prefer not to have heard or with criticism that is painful. For church leaders these “heretics” are, of course, a challenge. They form a thorn in the flesh of their venerable hierarchy. But the “heretics” must remember that they always remain co-responsible for the welfare of the Church and that, therefore, they cannot just spout their “heretical” ideas everywhere and under all circumstances.

Johannes van der Ven, who passed away last year, was a long time professor of practical theology at the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands), and was highly appreciated internationally. He was of the opinion that the church always stands in need of reformation and that reformation does not happen without conflict. If there are no controversies in the church it is not proof that everything is all-right, but rather the opposite. “Heretics” who “wander along the edges of the church” force the church to examine itself and to consider whether these “heretics” may perhaps be right in certain respects. A church, therefore, does well to create, or allow for, channels through which “heretics” can ventilate their insights.

Most “heretics” are not enemies of the church but love their church and are intensely loyal to their church. The church needs them. That is why I don’t mind sometimes being called a “heretic.” The words of Szeslaw Miloz appeal to me: “Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well.”