A few days ago I met Eppe de Haan. After more then 45 years I would not easily have recognized him if I had met him accidentally on the street. Once upon a time he was my student in a small group of first-year theology students at ‘Oud Zandbergen.’ In those days I was in charge of the boys’ dormitory and taught some classes at ‘Oud Zandbergen.’ The ‘seminary’ had been established in 1947 by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It was home to a secondary school and a small theology department.
I knew a little about Eppe’s background. I had preached quite a few times, in the 1970’s, in the house church in the village of Bierum (in the north of the province of Groningen). On Saturday afternoon a group of Adventist believers would meet in the living room of the small farm house of the Froma family. Eppe had ended up in Bierum after his widowed mother had remarried with Eppe’s stepfather.
Perhaps Eppe’s move to Oud Zandbergen was more of a flight to escape the dullness of the land just behind the Groninger dyke, rather than a sacred calling. Anyway, dr. Pieter Sol, the principal of the school, saw possibilities in Eppe that others had not discerned. Sol himself had an education of fine arts and urged Eppe also to seek his future in that direction, since he was clearly artistically gifted.
Today, scores of years later, Eppe is an internationally renowned artist, who has, in particular, made a name for himself as a sculptor. On October 5 an exhibition of his work was opened in the well known gallery Het Depot in the Dutch town of Wageningen. It was a very special experience to meet Eppe en his partner Julia again!
Both Eppe and Julia no longer regard Adventism as their spiritual home. They share this experience with many others who grew up in an Adventist environment. In some cases there is an sudden rupture with the church of their youth. More often we see a gradual widening of the gap. Usually this is not due to a change in theological insights. More often they experience the church as too narrow and feel that what happens in the church and what they hear in the church no longer aligns with the kind of world they now inhabit.
For people like me—who did decide to remain in the church and have continued to support the church—this is a sad state of affairs. But it is a situation for which I have a lot of sympathy.
Through the years it has become increasingly clear that it seems almost impossible to keep (younger and older) people who are endowed with special creativity within the walls of our church community. Though in general many Adventist will more often visit museums than they did in the past, we find few artists in the pews and there are but few members with an occupation in the artistic domain. Surely, there are exceptions: here and there a few art teachers, art historians, graphic designers, journalists and musicians. But Adventist novelists, poets, dancers, actors, fashion designers, painters and sculptors are scarce indeed. Most Adventists educational institutions have few offerings in the arts. Occasionally, an ‘artist’ finds his/her way to our church. But, more often than not, this proves to be a temporary relationship.
Why is this? Is man not created by God ‘after his image’? Would this not lead us to expect that we would pay special attention to the creative abilities that God endowed us with as the bearers of his image? Or is there deep down in our Adventist soul the Puritan, Calvinistic, conviction that in whatever we do in life we must be ‘useful’? Or do we perhaps think that ‘art’ and everything that falls in that category may easily lead as away from God rather than enriching our inner life? Or is there somehow in the Adventist tradition a a fatal lack of imagination? I fear that this is the case.
But whatever be the case: Eppe—like so many others—still has (and acknowledges) his Adventist roots. In the new book that has just been published about his work (Gijsbert van Es, Eppe de Haan—Dream and Desires, 2014) Eppe tells about his background. Aan Adventist buyer will read this book with special interest. But besides: A visit to the exhibition in Het Depot in Wageningen is a treat for every lover of art (whether he/she is an Adventist or not).