In a review of his newest book (Reizen zonder John), Geert Mak is characterized as the kind of history teacher you always wanted to have during your secondary school years. That is, indeed, the feeling I have, now that I am about half way in the book about his journey through America. When he realized that fifty years ago John Steinbeck—then seventy-five years old—decided to make a months long trek through the USA, in an old converted truck, and to write about his adventure, Geert Mak (and several others) decided to retrace the route that Steinbeck travelled and also write about it.
Mak’ s skills as a writer are the guarantee for a book that is very readable and that offers a wealth of information. But it is not an objective report. Mak’s view of the USA is quite similar to the opinion I have, over the years, formed of the US. One might summarize it as follows: America is a superb land for a long vacation, but it it not the kind of place where you would want to live permanently.
I easily recognize much of what Mak writes about, because these were things that I have also noticed. Newly married, my wife and I lived in Michican in 1965-1966, where I did my masters at Andrews University. Later, in the nineties of the past century, we were there again for some years, as I worked at the same university. In addition, many work assignments, meetings and vacations brought me to at least 25 different states. And in preparation for the book that I wrote in 1998 about spiritual life in America, I read voraciously about the history of America and about American religious history.
I would not be surprised if I knew about as much about the United States as Geert Mak does. But my interest is not based on Steinbeck’s journey through America, but on the fact that I am a member of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination that has its roots in the USA. Through my study of American history and my first hand knowledge of American culture, I think I have succeeded in acquiring a thorough understanding of many aspects of Adventism, and also have been able to chart the main differences between American and European Adventism.
One of the specifically American characteristics that I see time and time again in my church, is the tendency towards pragmatism. Of course, theology has an important place in the church, but the emphasis is above all on the mission of the church, that must be executed as efficiently as possible. The church is almost addicted to statistics and to strategies with deadlines and projections. Things must, first of all, be useful! There is a strong emphasis on constant activity. All of this is decidedly American.
One of the decidedly ‘American’ phenomena is that of the ‘independent ministries’, also often referred to as para-church organizations. It is not known how many independent ministries exist within Adventism, but the number is estimated at more than one thousand. If a church member in the USA sees a challenge, there is often an immediate urge to do something about it. It does not seem wise to wait untill the organized church begins to consider that challenge. No, one asks: How much money does it take? And how much manpower is needed? Then, the fundraising starts and the work begins. Some organizations seek to work closely with the church, while in other cases that is hardly the case, or not at all. Many European church members do not like this approach. It may fit into the American culture with its pragmatic orientation, but much less so in European culture.
It is just one example. I am now continuing with my reading about the journey (without John Steinbeck, whence the title) that Mak describes. He has just taken me from Detroit, via Kalamazoo to Chicago. I can easily picture what he describes. It is fascinating. But I am more convinced than ever that I would not want to exchange the Dutch polder around Zeewolde for Michigan, Indiana or Illinois. [And I certainly do prefer the European brand of Adventism over the American version of my church.]