Monthly Archives: April 2013

The (not so) Golden Age


[Friday evening, 26 April, 2013]  Recently the Netherlands national television aired a series of documentary programs about the ‘Golden Age’  (roughly the 17the century) in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I did not see all 13 programs, but those that I had a chance to see were superb. However, there is also another side to this period of prosperity and grandeur, and that side is portrayed in a beautiful book that I read last week. The title is (translated): People of Little Means—Small Change of the Golden Age, written  by the well known Dutch historian A. Th. Van Deursen. Earlier I dedicated a blog to two of his other books that I immensely enjoyed (31 October 2012). I also read this book with great interest.

In his book about the Golden Age van Deursen does not focus on the elite and the rulers, as was the case in the television series, and he does not write about rich merchants and Rembrandt and other master painters of that period, which brought our country so much international fame. He discusses the plight of the ‘common’ people: the workers, and the soldiers and other men and women of the lower classes. He tells us about the housing, and working conditions, the education of the common people (or the lack thereof), and informs us how the various institutions (such as the justice system and taxation, etc.) affected the great masses.

It is good to also know something about the less positive aspects of this glorious period in Dutch history. Even though one of our ex-prime ministers made an appeal to the Dutch citizens to re-awaken the VOC-spirit, it must be admitted that there were also many things in this VOC-period of which we cannot be proud.

Some things struck me, in particular, as I read this fascinating book. In the first place, it is good to see the relativity of many things. Foreign visitors of the Netherlands at that time often had much praise for the living condition in Dutch society in this time of great prosperity. They stated that these were a lot better than elsewhere in Europe. But this does not take away from the fact that, when measured against our norms (and when compared with the opulence that another part of the population enjoyed), these conditions were utterly miserable. It just depends on one’s perspective.

I was amazed to read about various aspects of taxation in this period. To have private entrepreneurs care for the gathering of taxes, and to permit them to put in their own pockets what they succeeded in getting in tax payments from the people over and beyond the amount that the government had estimated as reasonable, was hardly a method that promoted fairness and equal treatment. There were some kinds of taxes that we still know today, but some other taxes seem very strange to us. There was, for instance, an extra tax on  the wearing of costly garments by common people. The fact that commoners wore fine clothing was deemed undesirable, since it tended to obliterate the differences between the classes. This extra tax was not levied from the elite; in their case costly apparel could not be considered a luxury, but was ‘normal’!

There are numerous other things that struck me, but, in particular, the fact that many problems of today’s society seem to have a long history. People of the Golden Age were complaining bitterly about the behavior of ‘today’s youth’. And many felt that they were living in a time of intense moral decay. Is sounds like the refrain of many a litany of our time and age.

It must also be admitted that church life in the Golden Age could be far from peaceful. Maybe I should keep that in mind in the coming days. A few hours ago I arrived in a congress center near the French city of Lyon, where I will attend, as a special guest, the quinquennial session of the organization of Adventist churches in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. I recently ended my official church involvement in Belgium and Luxembourg, but I appreciate the fact that I have been invited to attend. The session faces some rather critical issues and I expect that things might become a little hot from time to time—to use euphemistic language. If that should be the case, I may be able to relativize matters somewhat by the information in van Deursen’s book about the frequent ecclesial troubles in the Golden Age. But, who knows. I may be wrong and this meeting in the coming days may turn out to be surprisingly peaceful!


‘To polder’


The choice of my topic for this week causes some problems for the English version. It is about a topic with a heading that is derived from the Dutch substantive ‘polder’.  A ‘polder’ is a piece of land that has been reclaimed from the water and is protected by dikes (also often spelled as ‘dykes’), since the land lies below sea level. The Dutch have taken the word ‘polder’ and have created a verb ‘polderen’—to polder—that refers to a model of decision making that, in spite of a plurality of opinions, wants to arrive at a consensus-based decision.

It is a concept that appeals to me. Partly, this may be a matter of emotion. I am fond of the polder, of this mostly (but not exclusively) Dutch method of ‘making’ land where once there was only water. I grew up in a village, some 35 kilometers north of Amsterdam, that was built on a strip of land between four lakes. Between the thirteenth and the seventeenth century these lakes were turned into polders. Since five years I live in a town that is built on the bottom of a much newer polder, the Flevopolder. Only half a century ago it was part of a large body of water, the Zuiderzee (or, since  1932, called IJsselmeer after a dike closed this lake off from the sea).

Many people find polders rather boring. Everything is flat, often there is not much to see or to experience, they say. You have to be satisfied with a simple system of straight canals and narrow roads. And the wind is always blowing stronger than elsewhere. But others, like me, love the polder. They love the fact that you can always see in the distance; they love the greenness and the open space; the beautiful skies and the windmills (to the extent that these have survived the centuries). Polders are often unique landscapes that have much to offer. The Beemsterpolder (one of the four polders near the village where I lived as a child) is now recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

How the verb ‘to polder’ came to be used in the way it is used today, is not totally clear. The best explanation I have been able to find is that the making of a ‘polder’ in past centuries required a far reaching degree of cooperation of various stake holders with very differing interests. Making a polder and making the new land suitable for agriculture and for habitation, required huge amounts of planning, many different skills, years of hard labor of a great many people, and enormous amounts of capital. The makers of a polder were truly required ‘to polder’ together.

The recent agreements between the Dutch social partners and the government that led to a comprehensive long-term agreement, is a good example of the poldering-model that time and again had brought satisfying results.

However, there are quite a few people in Dutch society that frown upon this ‘poldering’; they feel it is a sign of weakness to have lengthy discussions about a particular issue with the final result that there is a colorless compromise, in which no one party sees all its wishes fulfilled. If you are negotiating, they say, you must persist until you have reached one hundred percent of your goal. You must stand for the things you believe in and not be content with vague compromises. True, if parties negotiate, they cannot all win. Unavoidably, there will be winners and losers. That may be tough, but, in any case, the results are clear-cut.

Undoubtedly, there are occasions when you have to fight for your convictions, when you will have to say ‘no’ to every form of compromise—whatever be the cost. I believe, however, that in most cases it is much better to follow a process of give and take in an attempt to find solutions. This is true in the political area, especially in a country like the Netherlands, where none of the political parties can hope to reach a majority position. I admire politicians who are willing to work with others—including their political opponents, and want to strive for what is most feasible.  In many instances this also applies to a faith community. Far from every decision has to do with unchanging biblical principles. Most often factors as culture, history and personal preference play a major role. The process of ‘poldering’ seems to be, in many cases, a truly Christian way to remove barriers and create cooperation.

In summary:  It makes me feel good when I drive through a ‘polder’, and it has often given me great pleasure when in my work in the church I have seen the positive results of ‘poldering’.


Looking back


The past week was a week with a lot of history. Since yesterday, after ten years of intensive and costly renovation, the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is open to the public. Finally, people can once again admire the famous paintings (that were for a long time stored away or lent to other museums), as well as numerous historical artifacts. By chance, yesterday I also found in my mailbox my new museum card that will allow me unlimited entrance to most Dutch museums during the next twelve months. One of my future visits will certainly be to the Rijksmuseum. I can hardly wait.

This was also the week in which Margareth Thatcher died. As expected, public reactions were very mixed. They are still many British—and other—people who idolize her, but, even today, there are many others who are horrified when they think of her. I belong to that latter category. When (from 1994 until 2001) I worked and lived in Great Britain, her period as prime minister was, fortunately, already something of the past. But I vividly remember the many hot discussions with one of my closest colleagues. He was appalled by my Labour sympathies. I, on the other hand, found it very difficult to understand how someone could combine his Christian views with the kind of politics that divided people in the way Thatcher’s policies did. I certainly do not approve of throwing a party in the streets because of the death of the Iron Lady, but I can well understand how she continues to evoke many negative feelings with very many people.

And then, last week it was exactly twenty years ago that the massacre took place in Waco (Texas, USA), and the American authorities stormed the headquarters of the Branch Davidians with some seventy dead people as the awful result. It is still, after two decades, not clear what exactly happened, and whether there had not been a more peaceful way to end the standoff. Currently a symposium is held in the city of Waco, by a Baptist institution (Baylor University), where experts will once more try to analyze the Waco-event.

For Seventh-day Adventists ‘Waco’ is a sad episode that we simply want to forget. The followers of David Koresh belonged to a small sect that had been spawned by the Adventist Church, and most of his disciples were still officially members of the Adventist Church. Some important lessons must be drawn from the terrible events in Waco. In the first place, Waco was, especially in its initial phase, a horrible public relations disaster for the Adventist Church. For days the church had no clear communication strategy how to deal with such a calamity. It took far too much time before the church had a clear message for the media. But, more importantly, it is important that we do not forget how an extreme version of a weird apocalyptic message may, through a brain washing process, lead towards dangerous fanaticism or even religious madness. Also today we see examples of men and women who confuse people with their bizarre interpretations of biblical prophecy, and put them on a road that can easily lead towards a new Waco!

And finally, the day of tomorrow will provide me with another opportunity to look back to the past. I will meet two colleagues, who, like me, have retired, and with whom I spent—some fifty years ago—a summer in Sweden. Marc Cools, who is Flemish and now lives in Luxembourg, Dieter Versteegh and myself will meet in a restaurant near Utrecht to share our memories of this Swedish adventure. All three of us studied at Newbold College and had to find a way to earn enough money for our studies. At the time, canvassing (selling books from door to door) in Sweden was a popular method among Adventist students, to relatively quickly make a neat sum of money. Many Swedes, especially in the countryside, were willing to assist foreign students through the purchase of a book. In most parts of the world the colporteur system has now long been abandoned by the Adventist Church. But there was a time when it was regarded as a useful way to distribute Adventist books and magazines, while it was economically quite advantageous for the church (and for the three of us). I hated every moment of this work, but knew it was the only way I could hope to earn enough for a full year in college. However, after half a century the pleasant memories predominate. Tomorrow, while enjoying a good meal, we intend to savor these for a few moments.


A quiz, a book, and an interview


A quiz. On Thursday evening one of the national Dutch television stations broadcasts a quiz program that I like to watch. Two duos must answer 12 general knowledge questions. If they do not know the answers they may search in a number of digital and non-digital sources. With the initial letters of the 12 responses they must then form a word.  This past week I was a little surprised when the first duo consisted of two men, who, as they were introduced, told the viewers that they were each happily married with a man. In the not too distant past such a detail would not have been permitted on national tv, but today this does not cause any problem.

A book. In the past week I read the most recent book of the American crime novelist Elizabeth George. So far, I have missed none of her books. Believing the Lie—that appeared in paperback a few months ago–once again is a real page-turner. Inspector Linley is, once more, the main character, assisted by Barbara Havers and the St. James couple. They have become ‘regulars’ in Elizabeth George’s books, but through the years the plots ands subplots of her books have become more ingenious and complex. On that score Believing the Lie does certainly not disappoint.

However, as I was reading, I realized how the world in which the inspector and his assistant must solve their crimes, is changing. I have the impression that gradually the books contain a somewhat heavier dose of sex. In addition, different aspects of our current society, that were absent in earlier books, have now become part of the story.  In her last book Elizabeth George writes about the desire for motherhood of two women, with surrogacy as a possible solution. We are also confronted with a man who leaves his wife and begins a relationship with another man. The popular novelist apparently feels that these things will not negatively influence the sale of her newest book.

An interview.  The famous Adventist neurosurgeon Ben Carson is more present in the media than ever before. The black doctor has become well known, because of his medical achievements, but also through his books and his appearances on Ophrah and other talk shows. He tells in his books and television appearances about his childhood and youth in a poor one-parent family, and how he overcame all the odd and became a renowned medical specialist. The 61-year old Carson will soon retire. There are persistent rumors that he may want to try for the presidency of the United States. In the past few weeks he has been more visible in the media than ever before. Many of his (conservative) political ideas seem to be popular. Perhaps the American public will quickly get used to the fact that, after a Mormon presidential candidate, a Seventh-day Adventist will try to reach the highest post in the US. This past week, however, dr. Carson had to apologize profusely because of his negative remarks on the Fox news show about homosexuality and same-sex marriages. His comments were quite ‘kosher’ when judged according to the official documents of his church, but for many viewers they were totally unacceptable.

It would not be difficult to add many more items to these three recent encounters with the phenomenon of homosexuality. And one does not have to be a prophet to predict that the topic will rise further on many agendas. The Adventist Church will need to enter into an honest and open dialogue, internally and externally. Just continuing to shout from the rooftops that all same-sex relationships are sinful, and that homosexual people must simply have the will power to live a celibate life, is not good enough. It is a point of view that will cause the church endless problems. And it is a standpoint that leaves many of its members mercilessly out in the cold.

Does this mean that the biblical ideal of a monogamous heterosexual relationship is totally outdated? I do not think so. But in our imperfect world the biblical ideal (as it was ‘from the beginning’) is out of reach for many. When I read the Bible I discover how God showed understanding when his ideal was not always achieved. (I think, for instance, about God’s attitude towards polygamy in Bible times.) The Adventist Church, to mention another example, continues to condemn divorce on biblical grounds. But at the same time it has found a way to deal with divorce in such a way that those who have seen their marriage fail, may have an other chance of marital happiness.

I do not have all the answers. But I hope my church will in the near future find a way to deal in a more charitable manner with the phenomenon of homosexuality. Of one thing we can be sure: the topic will not disappear any time soon. And if Ben Carson becomes an official presidential candidate, he will yet have to answer many questions in countless interviews about same-sex relationships. I hope his church will help him to formulate better answers than he gave in his recent Fox-news interview.