[Beirut, Saturday afternoon, March 30, 2013] Last Tuesday had a bitterly cold start for me in Zeewolde, but the day ended in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, where at the time of my arrival, around 9 pm, local temperature was still about 20 degrees Celsius. That is where this blog is written, in a not very cheery hotel room at the third floor of Hotel Eden. Why this hotel has been graced with this name is, after four days, still unclear to me. However, the greatest part of my time I spend during this week, not in my hotel room, but in the auditorium and lecture rooms of Middle East University—the Adventist institution of higher learning that, since a few years, has the privilege of calling itself a university. [This gives me a lot of satisfaction, since I played a role in that development. At the time when I worked in the church’s regional office in England, the church in Lebanon was under the umbrella of this office. I requested, and after a long wait, received, together with a few other persons, an audience with the president of the Lebanese Republic. Our purpose was, among a few other things, to plead for university status of the institution. And this proved to be successful!
This week the university (MEU) organizes a conference with some sixty Adventist theologians from over a dozen European countries in attendance. The theme of the conference is: ‘The translatable gospel’. There is hardly a more suitable place for such a conference than the Middle East. How do you ‘translate’ the Christian gospel in a region of the world with millions of people who are hostile to Christianity? Or where, at most, there are some groups of Christians that are, at best, tolerated. And, of course, that is not all. A major part of the world is highly secularized. There the church finds itself in heavy water as millions turn away from the institutionalized church. How do you ‘translate’ the gospel for these people? And how do you do this for the younger generation that, as a rule, has so little interest in faith and church? And then: How do you ‘translate’ the Adventist version of the Christian faith? How does this translation process take place? How can you be sure that this ‘translation’ remains true to the original?
During the past few days I heard a number of fascinating lectures about this topic. I have made a contribution with a presentation that defended the view that not all ‘translations’ of the gospel—not even those in our own circle—need to be fully identical, since none of us can claim to posses the full Truth. The title of my presentation was: ‘Diversity as a Biblical Value.’
Yesterday we spent a major part of the day on an excursion to Baalbek in the Beka valley—the area that saw heavy fighting during the civil wars of a few decades ago. We were given a tour through the immense temple complex. Through the years I have seen quite a few ruins and reconstructions of ancient temples, but the (mostly) Roman Baalbak temple is one of the most impressive. There the Baal was worshiped, the pagan god we so frequently meet in the Old Testament. In Roman times Baal was replaced by the Roman gods. It took as buck to the world into which the early Christians had to ‘translate’ their message. Walking through the vast remains of this ancient temple complex you realize that we, in the twenty-first century, are not the first, nor the only ones, who have this ‘translation’ challenge.
I realized this even stronger when, upon our return from the excursion, I got talking with the Lebanese guide, a young woman in (I think) her late thirties. She told me she was working on her Ph.D in social sciences. She made her living at this moment in time as a tourist guide. I must say: she was very good at that. The cross around het neck suggested a Christian connection. When I probed this a little, she told me she had also started some theological studies. She was trying to learn Syriac, the language that is still used by the Maronite Christians in their liturgy. Fortunately, I remembered that the Maronites belong to a relatively small church, that dates from the fifth century, which is ‘eastern’ in mentality and form, but recognizes the pope in Rome as the head of the church. The conversation was not long enough to find out about the depth of her interest for the faith of her parents and ancestors. But it brought the theme of our conference very closely home to me: How could I possibly ‘translate’ my version of Christianity to communicate it to this Lebanese, Maronite woman in such a way that she might understand what I would want to say and grasp the importance of it?
As conference participants we hardly realized that yesterday was ‘Good Friday’. For a few moments a Roman-Catholic procession through the streets of the Christian area of Beirut, reminded us of it. And while we were walking through Roman temple complex in Baalbek, suddenly from the ‘new’ town of Baalbek (which is partly Christian), a hymn sung by a male voice was heard. It was amplified to the extent that it could be heard in most of the town. It was unbelievably beautiful. The guide told us that the hymn was about the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and was sung because it was good Friday, an important day for all Christians. But we, Adventist theologians, paid little attention. We were intently looking at old stones and ancient pillars!
[Fortunately, the worship service of this morning was devoted to the Easter theme. Dr. Daniel Duda, the education-coordinator of the Adventist church in a major part of Europe, preached on the topic of ‘Easter Saturday’. It was a most inspiring Easter message.]