Do you know why people in Urk don’t buy Ikea furniture? Because they are not supposed to swear during the assembly process. I read that joke in an extensive review of a recent book about Urk, written by the Belgian journalist Matthias M. R. Declercq. He gave it the title: The Discovery of Urk. I have not yet read it, but I’ve put it on my reading list (as well as the voluminous biography of the Dutch politician Hans Wiegel that also appeared this past month.) The fact that there is a joke about Urk in the book doesn’t mean it is not a serious book – on the contrary.

As is well known (at least to the Dutch readers of my blog), Urk is an enclave in the Noordoostpolder. Before this polder was reclaimed from the sea (in 1942), Urk was an island in the IJsselmeer. Until 1932, when there was no Afsluitdijk, the Urker fishermen had a direct connection to the North Sea. Urk still has the largest Dutch fishing fleet, but most ships are fishing far away and come to Urk only occasionally.

The name of Urk already appears in medieval documents. Later it was owned for some time by the city of Amsterdam. With its 21,000 inhabitants, Urk is an independent municipality in the newest Dutch province: Flevoland. The place is known for its many strict Protestant-Christian churches that belong to about 25 different denominations, and the closed character of its population. But nowadays Urk also often gets publicity because of the misbehavior of the (often alcohol- and drug-addicted) youth.

Occasionally I visit Urk. It is about three quarters of an hour’s drive from where we live. If we want to take a ride with guests, we sometimes go to the Noordoostpolder and visit Schokland, the other former island, and then Urk, fifteen kilometers further away. Schokland offers an interesting small open-air museum, with a nice restaurant that serves excellent coffee and cake. In Urk you can stroll through the narrow streets, past the historic shipyard with historic boats and, of course, the monument dedicated to the 368 fishermen who through the years have nor returned from their work at sea.

You could say that I have a reasonable idea of what Urk is, but I can’t say that I know Urk and the people of Urk. This, however, can be said of Matthias Declercq. In 2009 his Flemish newspaper sent him for a day to Urk to write a news story about a notorious murder case. That visit fascinated him so much that he decided to return to discover Urk in more depth. Ten years later he finally made it, but then he stayed there for six months. He rented accommodation in the old part of Urk and participated in daily life in every possible way. In the book announcement I read: “Declercq lives as a stranger in the heart of the town and goes fishing, praying and drinking. Step by step reality reveals itself. Declercq observes a pleasant and God-fearing people, but also discovers a shadowy and tragic world, with youthful mischief, fishery fraud and drugs. A world in which nothing is what it seems. In this personal quest Declercq has succeeded in uncovering the identity of the country’s seemingly most closed and misunderstood community.” I will have to read the book before I know if I can fully agree with this characterization.

Most of us tend to have rather quickly an opinion about a population segment, a country or a religion, but often that knowledge is very superficial. Declerq reminds us that we can only “discover” the true character of a culture, a place, a country, an ethnic or religious group, if we really immerse ourselves in it. Preferably, “discovering” means an extensive personal acquaintance, with intense conversations and participation in all kinds of activities. Only then can we form a sound judgement. Of course, such an extensive process of discovery is not always possible. We usually cannot, as Declercq did, go somewhere for six months. That does mean, however, that, as long as our knowledge is superficial, we have to be careful when making a final judgment.

I am often annoyed when I meet people who have made very little effort to find out what my church believes and how my church thinks about all kinds of theological and social topics, and yet feel they can have a solid opinion. I believe, they only have the right to voice their opinion if they have studied it more than superficially. But—in all fairness– people in my own church should also be careful not to immediately have an opinion about other believers if they have never entered into dialogue with them and gone on a trajectory of discovery.