Simenon

I once had a vague plan to write a crime novel. It never happened and I suspect it never will happen in the future. But if I had succeeded in producing a “who done it?” alongside my other writing projects, I would not have been the first to combine theological activity with thinking up plots for detective books. The famous Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957), for example, did just that. She had even more talents, for besides mystery novels and theological treatises, she also wrote poetry and translated some of Dante’s books into English. As far as the Dutch language area is concerned, the name of Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) comes to mind. He was an orientalist and diplomat, who was successively ambassador of the Netherlands in a number of countries. He wrote various scholarly works about oriental culture, but as an author he became best known for his series of seventeen crime novels that were set in China, with Judge Tie as the main character.

This week, I was presented (on the occasion of the honor I received a fortnight ago) with a book written by an author who, in addition to the crime genre, also mastered the genre of the psychological novel. I am referring to Georges Joseph Christian Simenon, who was born in 1903 in Liège, Belgium, and died in 1989 in Lausanne, Switzerland. The ever-pipe-smoking Simenon wrote no less than some 500 novels and countless short stories. He owed his international fame mainly to his 75 Maigret books, in which a police inspector with this name was the main character. Who of my generation in the Netherlands does not remember the popular Zwarte Beertjes paperback series, with Havank and Simenon as the most famous authors? As a teenager I devoured both Havank’s books and Simenon’s Maigret books, but until a few days ago I had never read a “serious” book by Simenon. Until I read The Bells of Bicêtre in one breath last weekend.

It was an extraordinary experience. Not only is this book by Simenon beautifully written and very well translated from French into Dutch, but also the subject matter of the book really fascinated me. I should add, however, that you should not read this book if you are low in spirit, because most likely it will push you even deeper into your depression. It is not a book that makes you happy, but it is a book with depth that makes you think.

The main character is René Maugras, the successful publisher of a Parisian newspaper. One day he wakes up in a private room in a large hospital. He is one-sidedly paralyzed and has also temporarily lost his speech. Naturally, he wonders what will become of him. It is difficult for him to experience some structure in the small world to which he now seems to be confined. As the days go by, snippets of his past life pass by. The doctors and nurses work hard for him, but he does not know whether he will find the strength to return to everyday life.

The reason why this book made such an impression on me is not primarily Simenon’s writing skill (although that is beyond dispute), but the realization that so many people of my generation are struck down by a sudden stroke or another serious illness. It can just happen to you, as evidenced not only by Maugras’ misery, but also by the experiences of friends and acquaintances who have been immobilized by Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia or other serious illnesses. Last week I visited the closed ward of a nursing home and looked around. I did not come away happy.

We do not know what our personal future holds. Will we celebrate our hundredth birthday with flying colors, without being restricted by any nasty illness, or will the degree of our mobility be determined by rollators and wheelchairs? We do not know, and nothing can be taken for granted. But let us be grateful for all the days of good health we are experiencing, and for all the beautiful things life still gives us.

For or against?

Since about thirteen years, my wife and I have now lived to our great satisfaction in Zeewolde, a place with more than 22,000 inhabitants in the Flevopolder. This polder came into being when, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, dikes were built around an area of water of some 1,000 square kilometers before this land could be drained. Zeewolde was the last residential center to be built in the early 1980s in this piece of land, that lies several meters below sea level. It has a very central location in the Netherlands and is extremely spacious. Less than ten kilometers away is the “old land”, with the historic Hanseatic town of Harderwijk, and it a takes just forty-five minutes to drive to Amsterdam!

Yet, Zeewolde has more history than many people might think, because before the IJsselmeer (which has now been largely reclaimed), was formed, there was a wooded area where people lived. The name Zeewolde is therefore derived from Seaeuuald or Seuuuald, a name that first appears in documents from 793, for a village near present-day Zeewolde. (Uuald stands for ‘wold” and means ‘swampy forest’. Sew means ‘sea’ or ‘lake’). However, besides a past, Zeewolde certainly has a future, even though there are some questions about some developments in and around “our” our place.

A new airport has been built between Zeewolde and neighboring Lelystad. It is intended to relieve Schiphol, which is far too busy and has no space to grow. Lelystad Airport is intended to handle a lot of holiday traffic. Everything has now been ready for about two years, but not a single passenger plane has taken off or landed on the brand new 2700 meter runway and the arrival and departure halls have not seen a single passenger yet. If it were up to all sorts of action groups, it will stay that way.

I assume that sooner or later ‘Lelystad’ will open and will not remain empty and useless.
For me, Lelystad Airport, less than 15 kilometers from our home, is a kind of symbol for the ambivalence of living in the 21st century. I can understand the resistance of a large part of the population when they protest against the noise pollution that will certainly result from this airport in our immediate vicinity, and against the amount of traffic that will also certainly increase. But, on the other hand, I do like to travel and hope soon to be able to regularly board a plane, and I understand that new airports have to be built somewhere.

The ‘uncanny’ feeling that my habitat and way of life are made possible by technological and infrastructural developments on the one hand, but that these threaten our space, tranquillity and enjoyment of life on the other hand, is greatly reinforced by the fact that there are advanced plans to build one of the largest data centers in Europe on the outskirts of our village, where the industrial estate borders on extensive farmland. There is still a great deal of secrecy surrounding which data giant will be coming to Zeewolde. Will it be Apple, Facebook, Google or perhaps Amazon, which does not yet have a data center in the Netherlands? Of course, all sorts of administrative procedures are still ongoing, but it is generally expected that this digital supertanker has been set in motion and that the “shore” will not be able to turn the “ship”. 166 hectares have been reserved for a cluster of enormous oblong buildings. The Zeewolde administrators are trying to reassure the population that the problems of energy supply, water consumption, cooling, safety, etc. are not as worrisome as they seem, and that the arrival of this company will bring huge economic benefits.

Well, am I for or against the arrival of this datacenter? It will not be pleasant to see enormous blocks of steel and concrete on the edge of our village, and one may well ask whether the advantages are not being presented in too rosy a light and the problems trivialized. But I understand the need for datacenters. I spend, on average, five to six hours a day at my laptop. The data I produce and consume are “in the cloud.” But that “cloud” does not hang invisibly in the thin air above us, but consists of endless rows of servers, which have to be housed somewhere. Perhaps in Zeewolde as well…. ?

It is all part of our time. It is a process that will continue as long as this earth has not given way to the promised “new earth”. Nevertheless, in the meantime we must keep a critical eye on everything that happens and continually ask ourselves whether our way of life, from a Christian perspective, does not need to be drastically adjusted in order to keep things under control. For, as the authors of the famous “Report of Rome” said fifty years ago: There are “limits to growth.”

Knight

Because I knew it would be a busy week, I had already written my blog for this week. But that blog has been put on ice until next week, because I want to focus on a special event that really took me by surprise. On Monday morning my wife and I were more or less abducted to the town hall of Zeewolde, where we were received by Gerrit Jan Gorter, the mayor of our town. It slowly dawned on me what was going on. The last working day before the King’s birthday is the traditional “rain of ribbons” and two friends had, as it turned out, nominated me for a royal decoration and they had the pleasure of seeing that my name had come through the selection process. And as a result, the mayor could announce to me and my wife, and the ten guests who had been secretly informed and were already waiting in the council chamber at the prescribed Corona social distance, that it had “pleased” His Majesty to appoint me as “knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau.” Because of the Corona restrictions, he was not allowed to pin the decorations on me, but asked my wife Aafje to do so.

The Mayor gave a fine speech that showed personal involvement. It was clear that he had done his “homework”. The enumeration of my qualities and of a whole series of things I have been able to do in my life, could have been a little more modest. Perhaps those who made the nomination had embellished certain things a bit too much, in order to increase the chances of my getting through the selection. But it was all very pleasant and the Mayor had even delved into my weekly blogs to find some more background material for his speech.

The Order of Oranje-Nassau was established on 4 April 1892, to honor Dutch citizens in our Kingdom (including the islands in the Caribbean), who have “rendered exceptional service to society.” In the Mayor’s words, the work of the church is also very much part of society. This year, 2,832 citizens received a royal decoration, of whom over 86% were appointed “members” of the Order, and 325 persons received the rank of “knight”.

The local and regional press of our hometown and surroundings paid extensive attention to the decoration of four Zeewolders, including Helma Lodders, until recently a member of the Parliament, who received the decoration in The Hague from the hands of the chairperson of the Dutch Parliament. To my surprise, I found myself listed in the Nederlands Dagblad – a Christian national newspaper – with a short article, amidst some thirty others from Dutch church life, who had also been decorated this year.

I will have to explain to my foreign friends that being a “knight” in this Dutch order does not have the same meaning as receiving a “knighthood” in England, and that they do not suddenly have to address me as “Sir”. Nor will I be allowed to flaunt my decorations on a daily basis, as there are clear rules for wearing it. There is a small badge for daily usage that can be pinned into the buttonhole of a jacket.

I was very touched that two of my friends-Bert Slond in Naaldwijk, whom I have known for about 65 years, and Dr. Wim Altink, one of my most valued colleagues and my successor as the president of the Dutch Adventist Church-had taken the initiative to nominate me and to put a lot of time and energy into it. The large number of warm reactions from home and abroad also did me good. It is nice to hear from time to time that your efforts have meant something to a lot of people. Inevitably, there will always be a few people who find the whole thing rather questionable. On the denominational facebook page, someone expressed concern that accepting a worldly medal crosses the line that brings the recipient into the sphere of the much detested Catholicism. How that works is not clear to me, but investigating it is not a high priority. With all the praise, a single critical note might not hurt.

Writing this blog had to be done in some haste, because this week (from Monday to Thursday) there is an (on-line) symposium on “Adventism and Apocalypticism”, organized by the German Adventist University (Friedensau University). This keeps me (and over 200 others) behind my laptop for a large part of the day. Every day I write a report for the Spectrum website, and today I also have the privilege of giving a lecture. It is a good thing that I always try to prepare for these things in good time. Nonetheless, this week has become a little stressful . . .

The Spring Meeting of the Church: “So what?” . . .

Last week the Executive Committee of the General Conference held its Spring Meeting. It is one of the two major annual meetings of this committee, with representation from around the world, although the union presidents, who (in non-Corona-times) are physical present during the Autumn Council, are not invited to attend the Spring meeting, unless there is a special reason to divert from this practice. This Spring Meeting was, because of the ongoing pandemic, once again conducted via Zoom.

During this Spring Meeting two items dominated the agenda: the replacement of two top leaders and the decision to schedule a one-day special General Conference session. As I tried to follow the proceedings as best as I could from across the ocean, I came away with some serious questions regarding both items.

Shortly before the Spring Meeting was to take place, both the current general secretary of the General Conference and the treasurer of the General Conference announced their desire to retire. According to the policies of the church, the replacement of leaders in the GC normally takes place when the world church is assembled in a General Conference session. However, there is a provision that, if needed, such a replacement can be arranged in between sessions. At the division level “officers” (president, secretary and treasurer) may be replaced through a nominating committee (with the involvement of the GC president or someone he has designated to represent him), and through a vote taken by the division executive committee. The process is similar when a GC “officer” must be replaced. A nominating committee is chosen from among the members of the executive committee. The nominating committee then meets under the chairmanship of the General Conference president and the recommendation from this committee is put to a vote in the executive committee. Thus, the process that was followed last week to elect a new general secretary and a new treasurer was perfectly legal and correct.

Nonetheless, what happened does not feel good. Unfortunately, it has become quite common for leaders in a division or in the General Conference to announce their retirement relatively shortly before a regular GC session. Admittedly, at present things are somewhat different because of the Corona-restrictions which have led to a postponement of a regular session. However, I (and many others) feel that as a rule leadership changes in-between-sessions should be kept to an absolute minimum. It is feared that at times, however, making changes in between sessions is preferred. It is widely recognized that current leadership has a much greater influence on the process when the changes are made in-between-sessions than they would have at a general GC session. And, if this is not a fact, it is, at any rate a perception that should be avoided.

So, I am left with the question: Could the two retiring officers not have been persuaded to stay at their post until next year? Or, if a change had to be made, could there not have been an interim-arrangement until the church would have a regular session (possibly on ZOOM) with much broader world-wide representation?

One aspect must not forgotten. The church is usually very reticent to consider new names when only recently people have come into an office. And when you have two brand-new officers, it will no doubt be argued that, for the same of stability in leadership, the one other officer should be re-elected. This means—I believe—that the net result of the vote at the Spring Meeting has significantly increased the changes that the current GC president will be re-elected for another term when the church meets about a year from now at the GC session (in its re-organized format). Some may be happy about this prospect, but for others this smells a bit too much of church politics.

The other important item that the Spring Meeting considered was of a technical nature. The GC Constitution currently does not have a provision for a General Conference session that is –at least partly—held virtually, with many people participating electronically. Therefore, it is proposed to organize a one day special GC session with just one item on the agenda, namely to change to Constitution in order to make virtual attendance and full virtual participation possible. A rather artificial construction must make that possible.

I am at a loss to understand the reasoning behind this. Due to the current travel restrictions, this one-day special session must happen mainly with people who happen to be in and around Silver Spring, who are then expected to rubber stamp the proposal. However, if a virtual Autumn Council and a virtual Spring Meeting can be justified on the basis of current rules, why cannot a virtual session meet for the first half hour or so as a “special” session, which deals with the Constitutional item, and then go on with all other business? If needed the decisions can be considered provisional, to be ratified by a future “normal” session. Does that not seem rather logical?

But, having said all this: Perhaps our main concern should be something else. If the higher church organizations do not want to be become more and more marginal (as certainly seems to be happening in many parts of the world during this pandemic), it must be seen as a spiritual force that inspires us and sets the church on a path towards the future as a community that has a faith that is relevant and a mission that responds to the real needs of twenty-first century people. It must not be seen as being mainly pre-occupied with issues of a technical-organizational nature. The real danger is not that many people will protest against the decisions that were reached during the Spring Meeting, but that more and more church members will say or at least think: “So, what.”

(revised)

Does being a vegan increase your chances of being saved?

An article in the March issue of Christianity Today caught my attention because of its title: “Many Adventists in Asia and Africa believe you must be vegan to be saved.” Often the title doesn’t quite cover the content of an article, and this is also true in this case. But the title triggered me enough to find out where the writer of this article got her information. It turns out to be a study by Dr. Duane C. McBride, who since 1986 has been a researcher and professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Andrews University in Berrien Springs (Michigan, USA).

If you want to read the entire report, which was recently published and runs to about 60 pages, you can easily find it on the Internet. McBride wanted to find out what the members of the Adventist Church worldwide think about the importance of the health message of their church and to what extent they actually adhere to its principles. But more importantly, he also wanted to know whether or not Adventists believe that adhering to the health principles affects their chances of being saved for eternity.

The survey was conducted in 2017 and 2018 among a population of over 63 thousand people in all “divisions” of the world church. The questionnaire was translated into approximately 60 languages. Over eighty per cent of those surveyed indicated that they believe the Adventist health message is one of the most important beliefs of the Church. Many survey participants admitted to being selective in their adherence to the health principles, but 91 per cent said they do not consume a drop of alcohol and only three per cent confessed to finding it difficult to abstain from tobacco. The results did differ significantly between divisions with regard to vegetarianism and veganism.

The results are surprisingly positive, but in interpreting them one must bear in mind that in most cases this questionnaire was completed by churchgoers during a church service. This means that the answers come mainly from active members and that a significant group is not represented. But what really surprised me about the results was that, according to this survey, some 47 per cent of church members believe that compliance with health principles in some way affects whether or not they will be saved. How exactly this fits together remains (at least for me) largely unclear. For, when asked, some 95 per cent of all participants also said that they believe that people are saved through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Here we encounter a contradiction that continues to define the profile of much of the Adventist Church. On the one hand, Adventists are Protestants who stand on the Reformation foundation of sola fide (by faith alone). At the same time, however, there seems to be a widely held notion that whether we are saved or not also depends on our own behavior. Throughout its history, the Adventist Church has always had to struggle against legalism, work-righteousness and perfectionism. This study shows that this is still the case, especially in the non-Western segments of the church. While in North America only 4.3 per cent of church members believe that their salvation depends in part on their adherence to the church’s health principles, and this percentage is similarly low in Europe, in South Asia and East Africa, respectively, 80 per cent and 74 per cent believe that this does affect whether or not they will inherit eternity. The percentages in the other divisions are somewhere in between.

To be honest, I was truly shocked reading this report. It raises the question: What can we do globally (but also near home) to correct this situation? How can we promote and apply the health principles in such a way that they can be a blessing, without feeding the idea that our salvation is not only through Christ, but that we ourselves must also lend a hand? This is an enormous challenge if we really want to be a Protestant church with people who believe for the full one hundred percent that their salvation comes from Christ.