Books, and more books

During the festivities of some two weeks ago, to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt, I met a few friends I had not seen for quite some time. One of them was Per Bolling, a Swedish pastor, who in the past served for some years as the manager of the Adventist publishing house in Sweden, and later as the Swedish Union president. He was my translator on Saturday morning August 5, when I preached during the church service. Per wrote a number of books and brought a copy of his newest book along for me. Having already written a book on Paul’s letter to the Romans, in his most recent book Per deals with the letter to the Galatians.(1)  Per is a clear thinker and a gifted writer.

Sigve Tonstad had come, together with his wife Serena, from his current domicile in Norway to the Swedish town of Rimbo. He also brought a copy of a book for me along. As it happens it is also about one of the Pauline letters. It is a commentary on the letter to the Romans from an ecological perspective (2). The title certainly raised my curiosity. Glancing through the book and reading a few lines here and there told me that reading this 400-plus page book (with rather small print) will require a considerable (but probably very worthwhile) effort.

Sigve Tonstad and I have great respect for each other, During our meeting in Rimbo he was very appreciative of my recent book FACING DOUBT. He told me: ‘You write for the church members and what you have to say is very important for them. And I,’ he added, ‘write mostly on behalf of the church and want to present an Adventist view to a larger academic community.’ Sigve is both a medical doctor and a theologian. As an academic he is by far superior to me. I regard him as one of the most able and most creative theologians in today’s Adventism.

Leaving Rimbo I received yet another book, written by a few dozen of Blomstedt’s friends. It was presented to the maestro at this special moment in his life.  I was honored to have been asked also to contribute a chapter to this book. (3)

However, as far as reading during our holidays in Sweden is concerned, these books must wait their turn. Of course, I brought a number of books for our four weeks in Sweden. As usual, I am alternating regularly between something ‘light’ and something that is more ‘substantial.’ A novel by the Swedish crime writer Håkan Nesser falls in the first category. I am reading it in the original Swedish language, which means that my reading tempo is a little slower than it normally is. I find it remarkable to see how Scandinavia produces so many excellent crime writers. The reason for this still puzzles me.

The more ‘substantial’ book that I will probably finish later today was published just about two months ago by Boekencentrum, a prominent Dutch publisher. The author is Gijsbert van den Brink, a professor at the Free University in Amsterdam. When I translated some time ago a voluminous book on dogmatics that he co-wrote with a colleague at the same university, I got to know Van den Brink quite well and received an invitation for the book presentation. The book is entitled: En de Aarde Bracht Voort: Christelijk Geloof en Evolutie. The Dutch title indicates that it is about christian faith and evolution. One of the reasons why I was so interested in this book is the fact that Professor Van den Brink has his roots in a rather conservative section of Dutch Calvinism. Most people in this segment of Dutch Protestantism tend to be very negative towards anything that smells of evolution. They cling to a literal interpretation of the creation story. Many of them must feel very uncomfortable with the fact that Van den Brink has taken it upon himself to investigate whether christian faith and evolution can actually go together. He tries to demonstrate that there are no insurmountable hurdles for maintaining the cardinal teachings of the christian faith while also accepting evolution as a fact.

I have read the book with great interest. I have gradually come to rather similar conclusions. This does not, however, mean that Van den Brink succeeds in convincing me in everything he says. I admire him for his courage to deal with this topic so extensively and openly–even though he knew he would receive much criticism. But I also appreciate the fact that, apparently, it is now possible, even in those circles where Van den Brink has his spiritual home, to discuss topics that are controversial, without being excommunicated or totally sidelined.

The book is a must-read for those Adventists who have serious questions about the official view of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which offers  a literal six-day creation in a recent past as the only option. (A somewhat more technical edition of this book in English will appear in 2018.)  It would be great if Adventist theologians and scientists would also be able to discuss these matters openly without fear of repercussions. And how great would it be if church-related publishing houses would welcome authors who search for answers in the domain of faith and science, and would publish their writings.  I do not easily abandon my hope that one day this will happen!

——

[1]  De Zweedse titel is: Frihet: en Liten Bok of Galatenbrevet (Uitgegeven door Skandinaviska Bokförlaget, 2017).

[1]  Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists. (Uitgegeven in de serie: The Earth Bible Commentary, door Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016).

[1]  Herbert Blomstedt: Nahe am Herzen der Schöpfung. De inhoud is deels in het Engels en deels in het Duits.

 

Transgender and Adventist

It has been a long journey for me.  It was not until some twelve or thirteen years ago that I was first confronted with the issue of homosexuality in a concrete and direct way. I had been invited to an international Kinship-conference that happened to be held in the Netherlands (where I live), to give a series of devotional messages. It was the first time I spent a significant amount of time with a group of gay and lesbian people (mostly with Seventh-day Adventist connections). Listening to the stories about their challenges, in particular with regard to their often difficult relationship with the Adventist Church, forced me to rethink the fact that a considerable percentage of people do not neatly fit into the heterosexual world of which I myself am a part.

Since that first in-depth encounter with homosexual people I have studied the issue from various angles, especially from a biblical point of view.  I have, of course, taken a good look at what my church has said about homosexuality and at how my church has often discriminated against men and women who are gay or lesbian. And I have concluded that the official Adventist view of homosexuality is highly defective. It is based on a strictly literal reading of a few biblical texts–often without regard for the general context. However, it cannot be reconciled with the underlying message of the Bible that God does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of social status, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. I have–with many others–concluded that the Bible condemns various heterosexual and homosexual practices, but that this does not necessarily includes a condemnation of same-sex partnerships that are based on a monogamous, exclusive, enduring commitment of love.

While I have been on my journey with regard to sexual diversity, I have become more and more aware of the wide range of sexual orientations, nowadays often referred to as LGBTI (or a variation on that series of capital letters). More recently the transgender issue has come to the foreground in our society and people in general have become more aware of the fact that the group of transgender people is much larger than was often thought. Last year the Seventh-day Adventist Church felt it could no longer ignore the issue and published an official statement on transgenderism.[1] As could be expected, the statement met with considerable criticism, from those who felt it was too accommodating and from those who felt it fell far short of generously accepting transgender people for who they are.

The statement issued by the church is, in many ways, quite sympathetic. But it is in line with previous statements that underline the ideal of heterosexuality and leave no room for alternative relationships. Though recognizing that a non-heterosexual orientation is hardly ever a matter of choice, it leaves those who have this orientation in the cold, with no option but to remain single and often extremely miserable.

I continue to struggle with many questions. I accept that the entrance of sin into the world affected human sexuality. Some would, however, say that the sexuality that God created was not just of the binary male-and-female-kind, but was from the very first more fluid. They do not see a connection between the entrance of sin and the origin of homosexuality. At least for now, I do not agree with this view. It seems to me that sin has confused all aspects of life and that after the Fall nothing is quite like it was before. However, that does not make a person with a non-heterosexual orientation a greater sinner than a hetero person. And all of us must pursue our happiness within our individual sin-affected situation. But, admittedly, this is a topic that has various aspects I am still struggling with.

Then there is another question: it seems that transgenderism is more widespread today than it was in the past. Is this a perception or a reality? If it is on the increase, why is that so?

I have many ‘technical’ questions with regard to life as a transsexual person. I cannot imagine what it is like. And what all it implies when a person decides to undergo surgery and other treatments to become what he/she has felt he/she has been all along. In any case, to suggest (like the official church statement does) that gender re-assignment surgery is no option and that someone who is born in the wrong kind of body must accept that fact, however difficult it is, and not do anything about it–to me this sound totally unacceptable.

Some time ago I read this statement in a significant book about homosexuality, written from  a conservative Protestants perspective:  ‘‘For those of us who are straight and who don’t spend a whole lot of time processing, wrestling, hiding, or managing our heterosexuality, I think there will always be a gap in our understanding of what it is like to be persistently attracted to the same-sex.’[2]  The same principle, I believe, applies, to being transgender. If so, who am I, as a heterosexual person, to tell someone, who happens to be in the ‘transgender’ group, how to live his/her life as optimal as possible?

All my questions fade into the background when the topic is no longer one of an academic nature but when it concerns real people. The people behind the film Seventh-gay Adventists just released a fifth short portrait in its series about LGBTI-people. This short film is about Rhonda[3], who was born as a man and is now a woman, serving as an elder in a Seventh-day Adventist Church. Whatever questions I may have, I can gladly put these aside when I hear Rhonda relating her experience and present life as a trangender person and a Seventh-day Adventist..


[1] https://executivecommittee.adventist.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/111G-Statement-on-Transgenderism.pdf

[2]  Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, Generous Spaciousness; Responding to Gay Christians in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 214), p. 51.

[3] http://www.watchfirefilms.com/outs

 

Memory Lane: Selling books in Sweden

 

This past week my wife and I once again drove from our home in the Netherlands to Sweden. It usually takes us three days of not too strenuous driving to reach our destination. This year we combine a few weeks of vacaion with our son and our granddaughters with a few other activities–some of them church-related.

I have no idea how often I have made the trip to Sweden. My guess is that it must at least be forty or fifty times. During my years at the church headquarters of the Trans-European region, I came there quite regularly. But since then I have gone to Sweden two or three times a year. However, my Sweden trips started already when I was a student. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands had as a rule of Medes and Persians that anyone who wanted to become a pastor in the Dutch church had to do a minimum of one year’s of colporteur work with books published by the denominational publishing house. It was graciously allowed to cut this one year into four or five summer vacations. The philosophy behind this system was that this was the perfect way to learn how to meet the public. Besides, it was an evangelistic work of the highest order! It may have been a coincidence that the president of the Dutch church at the time was also the director of the denominational publishing house, and thus had a very direct interest in increasing the turnover of his institution.

The one-year canvassing rule had one fortunate loophole. It was not mandatory to do it in the Netherlands and since there was a (well-founded) rumor that it was much easier to sell books in the Swedish countryside than in the Netherlands, I was one of several students who went to Sweden and earned all the money needed for the next year at college. And thus I sold books in a number of different regions in Sweden. The last time I went together with my wife, shortly after we were married, to earn the money that would pay for a year at Andrews University in the USA to earn my masters degree.

One of the first places where I worked was the beautiful town of Gränna, situated on the shore of the long Vättern-lake in southern Sweden. One of the main highways passes Gränna and gives a fantastic view of the town and of the lake, with in the middle of the lake an island–Visingsö–where I also sold hundreds of books. Whenever I pass there–as on this Friday August 4–my colporteur experiences automatically come to mind. I must admit that at the time the economic aspect was far more dominant in my mind than the evangelistic blessings. I must also admit that I really hated the work–every day of it. But it was the only way I knew to earn enough to pay for my studies of the following year.

Colporteur work with books published by the church is an important part of Adventist history. From the beginning it was strongly promoted as one of the key methods to get the “Truth” to the people.  Actually, it was also a way to provide a living to people who had lost their job when they started to keep the seventh-day Sabbath–in a time when working on Saturdays still was the rule. And, there was also a strong economic benefit for the church!

In the Western world the colporteur work (in later times increasingly referred to with the more pleasant term: literature evangelism) became more and more difficult. Legal restrictions and the fact that door-to-door selling became more and more socially unacceptable–besides a number of other reasons–led to the rather sudden demise of this branch of church work. As a result many of the publishing house operated by the church in the western world lost a major part of their business, and many either collapsed or had to be drastically scaled down.

[Unfortunately, the world church has still not fully accepted the fact that the days of colporteur work in the western world are over. The world leaders of this department of the church, who come from parts of the world where selling books from door to door is still a booming business, feel that it is still an activity that must, in some form, be reignited, also in countries where the local leaders know it has no future. But then, this is not the only example that indicates that the folks in Silver Spring are not always sufficiently attuned to the conditions in other parts of the world.]

Tomorrow (Saturday August 5) I am scheduled to preach in the church on the grounds of the Swedish Adventist College in a service to celebrate the 90th birthday of the famous Swedish Adventist (still very active) orchestra director Herbert Blomstedt. And then, on Monday, we head North for the last 500-plus kilometers to our final destination of this trip.

 

The imperial toilet

 

In the final phase of the Weimar Republic the minister of foreign affairs had a fully equipped telegraph office installed in one of the toilets in the palace that at one time had been used by the German emperors as their residence. From this toilet the minister sent his messages to all important government leaders in Europe. However, nobody had told him that the cables had long ago been cut, and that, therefore, his messages did not go beyond the walls of the toilet.

I read this story in a beautiful book that I received as a Christmas gift a few years ago: Ett Annat Liv, written by the famous Swedish author Olov Enquist. Several of his books have also been translated into Dutch. But my knowledge of Swedish is good enough to read the original Swedish edition. Olov Enquist’s mention of the imperial toilet was just a side remark, but it was a striking comment on how useless communication attempts may be.

I have searched the Internet for more details of this story. There is plenty of information about the Weimar Republic and how it came to an end when Hitler ascended to power. But I was unable to find a more detailed version of this story about the imperial toilet. I assume it is historical, but even if it is not, it still is a marvelous illustration. We might even, with a biblical term, call it a ‘parable.’ For, unfortunately, a lot of communication finds its origin in a telegraph office in an imperial toilet, but, in spite of impressive technology, the message does not arrive anywhere.

Perhaps it is a bit risky to compare the church with an imperial toilet, but, I believe, in a parable that would be permissible. I cannot escape the impression that, in spite of impressive technology, a lot of our church communication does not reach the people for whom it is intended–even though the senders are firmly convinced that they are reaching the world around them very effectively.

Not long ago someone handed me a flyer (illustrated with colorful pictures of a few hideous monsters) in which a ‘SDA Bible Study Group’ announced a series of meetings about the judgment that is coming upon the world, about Babylon that is ‘fallen’, and the role of the USA in biblical prophecy. When I saw the flyer my thoughts went to the story of the telegraph office in the imperial toilet. Similar thoughts tend to emerge when I see all kinds of booklets and magazines that are published in the periphery of the church. The people behind these publications want to send a ‘clear’ message. Their products are often made and distributed with the best of intentions. But, I would like to tell them, dear people: the cables that carry this type of communication have long since been cut. You may be reaching a few people around you who have their ear to the door of the toilet, in an attempt to catch something of what you are saying–but that is it.

However, this does not mean that the official church is so much more succesful. Communication with the secular people of our time, who often no longer have any idea of a personal God and have no inkling of what the Bible says, presents an enormous dilemma. The solution is not just to arrange for a telegraph office with all the advanced technology money can buy. The most important thing is that we have something to say that touches upon the interests and emotions of the people we want to reach. And, then, it must be worded and packaged in such a way that it will ‘arrive’ and will be understood. We will not achieve anything when we use communication methods that, like the cables in the Weimar toilet, are no longer functional. We will constantly have to search for new ways to ensure that the message actually reaches our target audience.

It seems a hopeless situation that is doomed to fail.  True enough, as long it remains just our human endeavor.

Human endeavors remain a condition for success. God wants to inspire people to translate and transmit his message as best as they can. In every age. But the miracle that the message does actually reach its destination will only happen when our hard work and God-given creativity receives wings through the power of the Spirit.

(This blog was published earlier on Janury 4, 2009).

 

Church and state

 

A few days ago some interesting pictures emerged of a group of evangelical leaders in the White House, who prayed with and for President Trump, with their hands laid upon him. I find it strange that this would take place in the official work environment of the US president, and I find it even stranger that, apparently, lots of evangelicals are positive about this. Although the president’s over-all approval rating has sunk to ever-lower depths, many evangelicals still see him as a leader who shows great moral strength. I read on Facebook (I have forgotten who posted it originally) that the same people who a few years ago called Obama a Muslim now think that Trump is a Christian! It is clear that many Americans, on the other hand, are highly critical about the cozy relationship between som evangelical leaders and the Trump administration, and worry that the American tradition of separation between church and state is in serious jeopardy.

I have never believed in a total separation of church and state. Once upon a time the Dutch Reformed Church was the ‘established’ church in my country and had significant privileges. That is no longer the case, and even the ties between the royal family and this church are not what they have been for centuries. There was hardly any criticism when Maxima (the present queen) decided to remain Roman Catholic when she married Willem Alexander, who is now the Dutch king. And in a multicultural and multi-religious country like the Netherlands it is no longer deemed appropriate that the king would ask for God’s blessings in his speech at the beginning of the parliamentary year.

I appreciate these developments. It is proper that religion and affairs of state are separate, but on the other hand I see no problem in, for instance, accepting government money for denominational schools if certain conditions are met. Why should parents of children in public schools benefit from the taxes we all pay, and should parents of children in private schools not be able to benefit in the same way?  And why should churches and religion-based NGO’s–again under clear conditions–not be able to receive government grants for social activities, just like other organization with similar projects?  And why should churches not be able to accept tax-exempt donations, just like other charities and cultural institutions. If there are clear rules, it seems to me (and most European Christians, Adventists included) that church and state may legitimately interact in certain domains.

But then, I look at the United States. . .  I have never understood what separation of church and state actually means in the US.  For Europeans like myself it is hard to understand why the national flag is prominently displayed in American churches. And why virtually every major address by an American politician ends with the words: God bless America! And why would in past decades Billy Graham show up in the Oval Office when the president had to make a decision whether or not to take his country to war? And what to make of presidential prayer breakfasts? All this is difficult enough to understand, but Trump’s unashamed courting of evangelical support makes it even more complex.

I am reading in blogs and Facebook posts that some of my Adventist co-religionists see the intermingling of religion and politics as a clear sign of the end. They expect that religious leaders will so influence politics that eventually the ‘true believers’ will feel the negative consequences. They point in particular to recent statements by pope Frances regarding the need to take global measures and erect global structures to defend basic human values. Well, we must certainly remain alert, but we have seen time and again that it is unwise to make hasty predictions, as trends often come and go. However, for the time being, I am more afraid of the evangelicals who support Trump than of the pope.  I do not subscribe to many of the pope’s ideas, but his moral compass seems to be in much better shape than that of many of the religious leaders who hail the American president as a ‘born again’ Christian.