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Dr. Phil and loneliness

Yesterday I happened to see a Dr. Phil show on one of the Dutch commercial channels. This is not a channel I often watch. And Dr. Phil’s show isn’t at the top of my list of “favorites.” A few years ago my wife and I got a tour of the Paramount studios in Los Angeles and we saw, among other things, the studio where Dr. Phil’s program is recorded. It is a very popular program of which there have been about 2700 episodes since 2002. Dr. Phil McGraw (as his full name is) became famous from the moment he regularly appeared on the Opra Winfrey show. Since then he got his own program, in which relational and lifestyle problems are central. I continue to be amazed that people are willing to have their most intimate problems analyzed by Dr. Phil in front of the cameras, with an adiene of tens of millions of people.

Yesterday I saw an episode in which a (American) woman of (I guess) 60-plus was the main person. She had, I understood, become a widow and had subsequently tried to find a friend via a dating site. In this way she had come into contact with three different men. She enjoyed the contacts she had gotten with these men. She was addressed with all kinds of affectionate names, and she enjoyed the constant assurances that she was an extraordinarily sweet and special woman. But none of these men lived in the U.S., and while these online “relationships” had now flourished for a few years, she had not met any of these men in person. What these men had in common was that they (according to what they said) went from one hardship to the next, and needed urgent help to get out of their acute financial problems. Their “sweetheart” in the U.S. was sensitive to such pleas and wired them in the last three years a total of no less than $266,000.

The sad story showed that this was not a rich lady. On the contrary. She had taken out an extra mortgage on her house, sold valuables, took out loans, etcetera. Now, during Dr. Phil’s program, she finally realized she’d been swindled in a sophisticated way. During the conversation, it also became clear what had made her so susceptible to the scams of her three friends. It can be summed up in one word: LONELINESS

(We have seen all too often also in the world of religion that people with modest financial means fall victim to swindlers who cleverly exploit others (often older women). Televangelists, but also leaders of other so called “independent ministries,” are often masters in relieving their victims’ of their last bit of savings).

But, back to the lady in Dr. Phil’s program. Unfortunately, loneliness is a great problem that leads many (especially, but not exclusively) elderly people to desperation. Most of them don’t appear in talk shows. Of some we suspect that they are lonely, but many try to keep it hidden that they are lonely. During the past few months it has been extra hard for many people to see and talk to others. Now that social life is starting up again, it is obvious that our priority is to visit (or receive visits from) family and friends. But, unfortunately, there are too many people who can’t expect a family visit and don’t have any kind of social network. They are people who are lonely. Couldn’t we decide that we also regularly visit someone who doesn’t belong to our immediate family or our circle of friends, but of whom we know (or suspect) that he/she is lonely and would enjoy a little personal attention? Surely that shouldn’t be too difficult. . .?!

Farewell to fundamentalism – 2.0

During the academic year 1965/1966 I studied at Andrews University in Berrien Springs (MI, USA), with the aim of obtaining a master’s degree in theology. I succeeded and after a little more than a year I got my MA degree with the mention cum laude. I always look back on that period in a very positive way. It was hard work, and financially very tough. That we survived depended to a large extent on my wife, who had found a job in the book bindery of the university.

The study during that year was very important for my theological development. One could say that I left for America as a fundamentalist and came back as a liberal-thinking theologian. The person I will always be grateful to in this context is Dr. Sakae Kubo, who is now in his 90s, and with whom I still have occasional mail contact. Through his lectures Introduction to the New Testament I was for the first time confronted with all kinds of critical questions about the origin of the Bible. During a conversation I had with him in his office he advised me to read James Barr’s book Fundamentalism. This is still recommended reading for anyone who has questions about the inspiration of the Bible. How did the Bible originate? Is everything in it historically accurate? Do you have to take everything literally? Or is there another way of reading the Scriptures? And so on. Reading this book was a turning point in my thinking. It’s still in my library and every now and then I browse through it and remember my conversations with Dr. Kubo.

During this past week I read a book that I will from now onwards consider as a sequel to James Barr’s book. It will have a place on the shelf next to Barr’s book. During a Zoom meeting of an American Sabbath school someone referred to this book. What I heard caught my attention, and I decided to order it through Amazon. The book is called The Human Faces of God, and was written by a certain Thom Stark (of whom I had never heard before).

I have to say that the content of this book is rather heavy-going, not so much because the author uses difficult language or presents complicated arguments, but because he deals with problems that most Bible readers prefer to avoid. And it’s not just about contradictions in the biblical stories, such as (to give just one example) whether it was David or a certain Elhanan who killed Goliath. No, it is mainly about much more worrisome matters, e.g. about texts that seem to indicate that also in Israel children were sacrificed (with God’s approval!), and that monotheism was only slowly replacing polytheism. For me the most confrontational part was the chapter on the conquest of the promised land, which the author describes as outright genocide.

Many other topics are also discussed, but in the end the crucial question is: Can a book like the Bible, which has so many problems, if you look at it critically, still have value for us as Christians today? Can it still be authoritative? Yes, says Thom Stark. The Bible doesn’t have to be perfect to have great value for us. He compares it with the authority we have as parents over our children. That authority doesn’t presuppose that we never make mistakes. For the author of this book, the Bible remains an extremely important resource for our life of faith. He is convinced that we can still hear God’s voice in the Bible, even though there are many things in it that will continue to bother us.

On one of the last pages of the book I was struck by a short paragraph that I underlined. It will give me food for though for some time to come.
God is not confined to the pages of a book. God has the power to speak to us, and always chooses to speak to us, only to the extent that we are willing to listen. Listening to God means being willing to listen to the wholly Other—to the alien, to the stranger, to the enemy, to the heretic, to the fundamentalist. If God can speak to Balaam through an ass, God can speak to a Baptist [and to an Adventist; RB] through an atheist. The key is knowing how to listen for God’s voice, and that takes practice, and that takes community (p. 237).

The mask and the necktie

Since the coronavirus disrupted our every-day life, I have not used the train. I missed it, because I like to travel by train. I allow myself a certain luxury, because as long as I can remember I have opted for first class. That gives peace and quiet and makes it easier to enjoy a good book. As a senior citizen I can travel with a discount card, which also gives me the pleasure of six free train journeys a year, within the Dutch borders. Since a few weeks we are allowed to take the train again, also for non-essential journeys. And, as an e-mail from the Dutch Railways informed me a few days ago, there is a free trip waiting for me in the next two months. It’s just a matter of a few simple actions at the vending machine at the entrance of the station, and I can get on the train for free – to Maastricht or Groningen, or anywhere else, and of course the return fare is also free!

But… if I’m going to take advantage of my free train ride in the next week or so, I’ll have to wear a mask. Although it’s still not scientifically established whether masks are really effective to prevent the spread of this terrible Corona-virus, the Dutch government has made it compulsory to wear masks in public transport. So, I will have to comply. By the way, my wife and I have already had a supply of masks for a few weeks, and yesterday my wife brought another box of 50 masks home from the supermarket. After all, you don’t know, whether at some point, a Corona flare-up will be discovered in our village, with the result that we will have to wear a mask when going to the supermarket.

In the meantime, according to several experts, it is doubtful whether making masks compulsory is completely legal. A little over a year ago a law came into effect in the Netherlands that forbids the wearing of a nikab in public transport, in schools and in government institutions. The most important argument was public safety: one should be able to look other persons in the eye and recognize them quickly! The new law also applied to integral helmets and balaclavas, but it mainly affected Muslim women who insisted on wearing a nikab (which was also the intention of the initiators of the law). However, a problem presents itself: According to several prominent lawyers, the government is going against the law it introduced a year ago, by making it compulsory to wear masks, since these also cover most of the face. Undoubtedly extended legal battles will follow.

In the meantime, some wonder whether the Corona-mask will become so common that it will soon be a permanent part of how we dress. Fashion designers are already busy turning the mask into a “fashion statement”. And let’s face it, fashion changes and certain garments come and go. Both the bra and the necktie only became generally accepted in our western world from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. In any case, the necktie is now clearly on its way out. It hasn’t been that long ago that I didn’t want to appear anywhere without a tie. Now there are about fifty ties hanging aimlessly in my closet. Actually, nowadays I only wear a necktie when I’m preaching or attend a funeral.

Will, before too long, the necktie disappear forever and will the mask become a permanent part of our outfit? Who knows? By the way, we can just wait for inventive people to use this new “garment” as an evangelistic tool – to communicate a religious symbol or a pious slogan. But be reassured, the specimens we have purchased are completely neutral.

150 years of papal infallibility

It was exactly 150 years ago last week that the pope was declared infallible. This happened during the First Vatican Council, when Pius IX was pope. On Monday, July 18, 1870, the council fathers voted on this new dogma and supported the proposal to further strengthen the authority of the Holy Father with 433 votes for and two against. During the promulgation of the dogma an unprecedented thunderstorm broke out over the Vatican. Some historians saw it as a sign of divine indignation, but others compared it to the phenomena that accompanied God’s revelation on Sinai.

The declaration of infallibility was not a sudden whim of the church leaders who were gathered in Rome. It was the result of a fierce battle that had raged for a long time between those who wanted to give “Rome” more power and those who wanted to reduce Rome’s influence. In 1870 the so-called ultramontanists (literally: “over the mountains”) were victorious. The fact that the pope was declared infallible did not mean that henceforth people believed that the pope is right in everything he does and says. The infallibility only applies to official papal statements about ecclesiastical doctrine and morality. In fact, the pope has very rarely made use of it in the past 150 years.

Now, after 150 years, the discussion within the Roman Catholic Church about the authority of the Pope is still continuing. There are still groups in the church who feel that the role of the pope should receive greater emphasis, while many others oppose this idea and consider the concept of infallibility an ancient relic. The popes of recent decades have tempered pontifical triumphalism in various ways. In the Nederlands Dagblad of July 18 Hendro Munsterman summed it up succinctly: “Pope Paul VI abolished the papal tiara in 1964 and sold it to give the proceeds to the poor. John Paul II was the first pope in 1978 who was not ‘crowned’ and who was no longer carried on the sedia gestatoria into the St. Peter. Pope Benedict XVI had the tiara removed from the papal coat of arms and replaced it with a simple mitre. The pontificate of St. Francis continues along this same path.

Seventh-day Adventists have always been very critical of Catholicism, and especially of the role of the pope. There was, and often is, little attention for the fact that a lot has changed in the course of time and that today’s Catholicism-even though, as a Protestant, I still object to many things—does not equal the medieval church. Moreover, it must be taken into account that the Catholic Church does not have the same face all over the world. And who knows what developments will take place in the future? I think it is wrong to assume that future developments must be negative, as many of my fellow believers think.

But let’s not just point accusingly in the direction of other faith communities. There is no infallibility dogma in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist Church. But in practice, the voice of a world congress has been given such a stamp. The discussion about women’s ordination has clearly shown this. And for many, the statements of Ellen G. White are infallible, or approach that status. It can also not be denied that the Church has gradually become more hierarchical in many ways, and that the “president” of the Church has steadily become more influential, and in some ways is even more influential than the pope is in his Church. This is a tendency, which has been noted by many, and especially by George Knight, a voluminous author and historian, who has emphasized this (and substantiated with facts) in a number of his publications in recent years. Hopefully, there will be a turning point in this regrettable development in the Adventist Church, because the basic idea of the church in which all believers share in the “priesthood” and have the same status before Christ, has been seriously compromised. And that is a deplorable situation.

Should the church accept money from the government?

The rules for the relationship between church and state vary considerably from country to country. In some countries the government still has a considerable influence in the church, and vice versa, while other countries have a very clear separation between religious and secular authority. In the Netherlands the Dutch Reformed Church once had a privileged position, but today all religions are equal before the law, and there is a strict separation between religion and government. In the United States the situation is a bit more complicated. Although many Americans pride themselves on the fact that there is an absolute separation between church and state, I have often wondered about many things one comes across when one gets to know the U.S. a little bit. When I first visited an American church, I wondered why there was a national flag on the podium. I also found it strange that the Senate has a “chaplain” (even though he happens to be a Seventh-day Adventist), and that the president invariably ends an important speech with “God bless America”. From time to time, the president and other important leaders even organize a “prayer breakfast”. And it is well known that the current president has a more than healthy relationship with some conservative evangelical leaders.

Seventh-day Adventists have always stressed the importance of a strict separation between church and state. Initially, in some countries this even meant that people were told not to participate in elections, and being active in politics was totally taboo. That position has since been abandoned almost everywhere in the world, and nowadays church members are urged to participate in elections. Being active in politics now brings praise rather than criticism. Today several countries in the South have Adventist government leaders, ministers or high-ranking civil servants. In the U.S Ben Carson, an Adventist, made a bid for the presidency during the 2017 presidential elections. He is now a minister in Trump’s cabinet. Until recently, a political party in the Netherlands was headed by a member of the Adventist Church.

But taking money from the government remained a tricky business. In Europe the Adventist Church, in general, was less hesitant in that regard than in the US. If other faith communities were given certain facilities, European Adventists thought, they should also be able to make use of these. This was especially true concerning the financing of educational institutions. But in the United States it remained a different matter. The international ADRA office in the U.S. had no problem applying for public development funds, but accepting money for schools was always much more sensitive, and the Church certainly did not want public money for direct church activities. This position was not entirely consistent, by the way, because the Church does not object to the advantage of tax exemption and is happy to make use of a provision that gives ordained ministers a considerable tax advantage for their “parsonage”. (This is a point that plays a role in the background of the battle for the ordination of female pastors).

The Corona crisis has changed a lot of things. In a number of countries the government has allocated a large amount of money to ensure that, in this time of crisis, as many companies and small businesses as possible will survive, and that social organizations – including churches – can continue to pay their personnel. In some countries the Adventist Church has decided to make use of this provision. The British Union, for example, has sent part of its pastors on “furlough” for a number of months. During this period the British state provides a substantial subsidy for the salary payments. Newbold College also made use of this government support. And in Belgium, the Church utilizes a similar scheme.

The American government came up with a large financial support package to help companies and organizations survive. This support was also available for churches and religious institutions. The question now was whether the Adventist Church in the US would apply for this aid. The leadership of the church in the United States and Canada (the North American Division) decided to advise all Adventist church organizations not to apply and to remain with the traditional position that accepting money from the government would be a serious violation of the principle of separation of church and state. But what happened? Church revenues decreased significantly in the past months. Cuts had to be made in many instances. In several places the workforce had to be reduced. The help offered by the government was now very attractive. And so, many conferences and church institutions in the US decided to apply for the government subsidy, in spite of the advice from the higher organization. From reports in the independent Adventist press (Spectrum and Adventist Today), we now know that at least 55 Adventist organizations have applied for, and have received, financial support and that this could amount to as much as 120 million dollars. To date, the General Conference has refrained from commenting.

I have no problem at all with the Church accepting this assistance, at this exceptional time. But it does surprise me how easily a principle can be abandoned, when the need arises. I cannot help but wonder whether it is easier to abandon a principle when money is at stake than when it concerns other matters that might also need to be reviewed! Well, maybe we should regard it in a positive light: change is, after all, a possibility!