Americanah

 

[Thursday afternoon] My schedule demands that I not only present my lectures but also spend a fair amount of my time in preparations. Yet, I am not so busy that there is no time left for other things, in particular the reading of some good books. We did not take many books with us when we travelled to Loma Linda (one suitcase for each of us with a maximum load of 23 kilo brings serious limitations), but a few visits to one of the Barnes and Noble bookshops (complete with a Starbuck corner) had added to the number of books that we now have in our apartment.

Among the books that I read during the past few weeks is the very special story of William Kamkwamba, a boy from a small village in the East-African country of Malawi. It drew my attention when I saw it on a table with books that were especially recommended—perhaps because many years ago I spent a week or so in Malawi. At that time I visited the Adventist publishing house that is located on the same compound as the Adventist Malamulo hospital. And after this visit I also stayed a few days in Lilongwe, the Malawian capital.

The book “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind”  tells the story of a boy who was unable to attend the secondary school since his parents could not pay his tuition. However, he borrowed books from the tiny local library, in particular on technical subjects. He experimented with electricity and after a lot of hard work succeeded in collecting sufficient junk and disregarded parts of cars and machinery to build a primitive wind mill that could generate  electricity for the house where he lived with his parents and siblings. He not only became a celebrity in his village, but the story also reached the national newspapers and the Malawian television. Eventually, arrangements were made for him to continue his secondary school and he is currently a graduate student at a university in the United States. The book deserves to be translated into many languages. It is one of the most inspiring stories I have read since years. It is a fabulous tale of what you can accomplish if you have a passion you are not willing to surrender, whatever the circumstances.

Just now I have finished another magnificent book with African connections. I have some trouble remembering the name of the author: Chimananda Ngozi Andichie. The book’s title is much simpler: Americanah.  It is basically a love story between a Nigerian young woman (Ifemelu) and a Nigerian man (Obinze). But it is much more than that. In a fascinating way it describes how Ifemelu lives where two different cultures, the American and the Nigerian, intersect. Ifemelu leaves Nigeria for the United States for further study and in search of a more promising future. But after fifteen years she returns ‘home’. Andichie describes in a sublime manner what it means for a Nigerian woman to live and work among black and white Americans. It may be that my interest was especially kindled by the fact that I have lived a number of years in America as well as in Africa. And thus, I think, I have a pretty good sense of what Andichie is trying to convey.

In our society many courses are taught for people who prepare to live and to work in a place with a culture that differs from their own, or to work with, and between, people who have another culture. The Adventist Church also provides courses to train people who leave for the ‘mission field’. Between 1991 and 1994 I worked in the USA, at Andrews University, in the institute that organizes these courses. While reading this book Americanah I wonder whether this might not be an excellent textbook for persons who are taking that course. And I would definitely also advise it as compulsory reading for pastors with a multi-ethnic church. (Provided these missionaries and pastors are able to digest a bit of sex that emerges with some regularity in the book.)

But I have, in the meantime, not forgotten about books on theology. Tomorrow morning I intend to visit the theological bookstore of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena—about one hour’s drive from here. Fuller is the flagship theological academic institutions for the evangelical world and it has a superb theological bookshop. It may be a little awkward to take too many books home, but I am sure we can make room for a few extra books!

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On being more radical

 

Loma Linda is a pleasant place and it would be quite easy to forget the larger world outside. However, when I am not at home, I try to stay informed about what happens in the town where I live, in my  country, in the world, and in the church. I am a frequent user of the internet service that allows me the watch the latest Dutch television news programs. When I fire up my laptop at about 7 am, I watch the news of 15.00 hrs. in the Netherlands. In the evening we spend some time watching CNN and the news on a local PBS station. And thus we will stay abreast of the latest developments in the Ukraine, the new turns in the court case against Pistorius and the negotiations between the Netherlands government and the opposition parties about the Dutch heath care reforms.

The Dutch Adventist Church has an excellent news service. When I look at their site, it gives me a good feeling when reading about the many activities and developments. But, unfortunately, the news from the international Adventist church is not only positive. Regularly, there are news items that confirm how the leadership of the international church is steering an extremely conservative (and, I think, disastrous) course.

Last week I mentioned in my blog that the church has adopted a ‘guideline’ in one further attempt to put a halt to ‘alternative sexual behavior’.  It urges local Adventist churches to take measures against people with an undesirable sexual orientation. This caused a lot of reactions around the world—both positive and negative. However, I have great doubt that this ‘guideline’ will bring many changes. Once people have certain opinions in this area, it proves almost impossible to make them reconsider these.

This past week two regrettable news items caught my attention. For some years, one of the most important Adventist denominational publishing houses is in the financial danger zone. In 2013 the Review and Herald Publishing Association once again suffered a major loss, and 2014 has not begun well. Obviously, something must happen. One of the measures that have now been decided upon is to drastically reduce the number of new titles that has been planned for publication in 2015. It is beyond me how such a measure can bring any financial relief—except if we must assume that every new book will increase the house’s loss. Could it, however, be that the problem is that this publishing firm does not succeed in promoting its products effectively around the world? And could it perhaps be that, increasingly, this firm does not supply what the readers in the Adventist Church want? From what I hear from colleagues, friends and other people I know around the world, it would appear that they often prefer other Christian books. It would seem that such authors as C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Alistair McGrath, Max Lucado, Rick Warren, John Stott, and Tim Keller (just to mention a few) are more popular with a large segment of the Adventist public than even George Knight, Clifford Goldstein, Ellen G. White of Doug Batchelor (to mention just a few of the most popular Adventist writers). The solution for the Review and Herald is not primarily, I would think, a new round of lay-offs and economies, but a more daring strategy, with more innovation and creativity—and a far more effective marketing strategy!

And then there was the announcement that the church has gotten cold feet regarding The Record Keeper—a series of 11 video programs that attempt to communicate the essence of the ‘great controversy’ between good and evil in a contemporary format. The series targets young people in particular. Initially, the church gave its blessing. The people at the church’s headquarters had read the script and provided a considerable subsidy. (The church’s associate communication director was one of the key people in the production of this series.) But now that the series is ready, and has created a lot of enthusiasm with many of those who have had a chance to see it, the denominational leadership has decided not to release it. On second thoughts it was found that the series contains some inaccuracies in the way it depicts the biblical story. Maybe the church leaders have a point, but it is rather late to come to that conclusion.

For many young people it is yet another indication that the church leaders live in a world that differs from theirs, and that they simply do not speak (nor understand) their (mostly visual) language. The fact that they unexpectedly cancelled this creative project will cause a lot of frustration and will not be understood. The church must be prepared to take risks and even accept that mistakes may be made when people try to put the old message into new formats, so that people may be reached whom we now fail to communicate with. Too much reluctance to experiment with new forms (perhaps there have been a few conservative alarm cries?) carries the even greater risk that ever more young (and older) people will decide to leave the organized church in utter frustration. This is something that we should greatly worry about.

As I write, we are at the beginning of the Easter weekend. My wish is that the most radical  deed of God, that we focus on during this weekend, may inspire us to also be much more radical for his sake.

 

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Shame

 

For a number of years I had hardly watched 3ABN, an independent Adventist television channel. Before we moved to Zeewolde we had a satellite dish on our roof and were able to received both Hope Channel and 3ABN. One of the main reasons why, at the time, I bought a satellite system and made sure I could receive these programs, was my desire to stay abreast of what was being offered by these channels to the public–both in and outside the church. A considerable percentage of Dutch Adventists seemed to be regularly watching these programs. Whether they still do, I do not know.

At the time I was not very impressed with Hope Channel, the official television ministry of the Adventist Church. But through the years the quality of the programming has improved—as I have noticed when occasionally viewing the live stream via Internet. I have noticed that the German version is certainly a notch above the other editions. But I used to be very dissatisfied with 3ABN. Most of their programming seemed to be targeting their own back yard:  the people who were financially supporting the ministry (mostly elderly, very conservative, church members).

Now that we are (for some time) in Loma Linda we can ‘enjoy’ the huge amount of television offerings that reach us via the cable. It takes a bit of getting used to: seeing so much tv advertising. And it takes a little effort to discover the channels that may be worth watching occasionally. Some channels, such as the horrible Fox news channel I prefer to avoid. If we watch any television at all, it tends to be a program of one of the public broadcasting channels.

To my amazement I have so far not been able to find Hope Channel between the multitude of channels. But 3ABN is prominently present, as is the channel of the Loma Linda University Church—LLBN (Loma Linda Broadcasting Network). In this latter channel I have, so far, been greatly disappointed. Besides the registration of the worship services I have not yet discovered anything that I would want to watch for any longer than five minutes at most.  And 3ABN . . . ?  Well, when compared with ten years ago, nothing has changed. One evangelistic sermon after the other, with plenty of attention for the beasts from the Revelation, presented in a way that makes you wonder whether you have returned to the 1930s.  The talk shows and kitchen programs still feature the same uninspiring persons as a decade ago. Conclusion: this is not the way to communicate one’s faith in an attractive way to people who live in the twenty-first century.

To be honest: when watching all this I feel ashamed that my church communicates its message so poorly. Unfortunately, however, this past week I have another (more serious) reason to be unhappy with my church. The executive committee of the world church voted this week an important ‘guideline’. Admittedly, it is not a policy that must be applied everywhere, but ‘lower’ church organizations and local church boards are strongly recommended to follow it and are urged no longer to admit to membership (or continue the membership of) people who are gay or lesbian (not even when they live a a monogamous, enduring relationship).

It is remarkable (to say the least) to see this happen when the leaders who met in Capetown for their ‘summit’ on ‘alternative sexualities’ have hardly yet unpacked their suitcases. Was the exercise in Cape Town just an expensive but useless show?  It remains to be seen what effect this new ‘guideline’ may have. The reason given for the creation of this new document is that the church cannot tolerate situations in which people disobey the biblical norms for relationships between the genders. But does this also mean that, for instance, all those who have been divorced and have remarried without adhering to the biblical rules, can henceforth no longer become members or retain their membership?

But, in spite of everything, I continue to love my church, because I continue to believe in its future. In the meantime I hope (and trust) that local church boards will simply ignore this misguided guideline and will demonstrate that Christian compassion has another face than what was shown this past week in Silver Spring.

 

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The ‘shaking’

 

My first working week in my new job has almost ended. My first lectures went well (I think). It takes a little of getting used to, but things have started quite pleasantly—possibly apart from the 5.1 earthquake of last  Friday evening , a few minutes past eight. The quake was powerful enough for us to see how things in our apartment moved back and forth for about ten seconds. Surfing the internet I discovered that in this part of the US,  every years there are hundreds of small shocks and tremors. However, the quake of last week was the most powerful in about six year. In California the powerful earthquake of 1906, that destroyed a major part of San Francisco, has not been forgotten. There is a general fear that something on that scale will happen again. I read that this part of California has a 99 percent chance that it will experience a disastrous quake within the next fifty years. I don’t think this is going to rob me of any sleep. Most buildings of Loma Linda are constructed in a way that they will survive a number of major shocks.

I am a little surprised that things in the ‘School of Religion’ (as the theological faculty of Loma Linda University is officially called) are as formal as they are. For instance: the dress code for the professors is less informal than I had anticipated and I will probably use the few ties that I brought along quite intensively. But I am also struck by the frequent use of academic titles. The members of the support staff of the department address all professors with their titles. So, I will have to get used to the fact to be constantly referred to as dr. Bruinsma. Or, as something that sounds like it, since, for some strange reason, most foreigners, as in the USA, have difficulty using the Dutch ui-sound.

Last Saturday afternoon my wife and I joined a colleague and his wife to go to Glendale, at about an hour’s driving distance from Loma Linda. We went to a meeting of the chapter of the Adventist Forums (closely linked to the Spectrum journal). The famous Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt was the guest speaker. This week he will conduct a number of concerts of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Blomstedt has been a life-long loyal seventh-day Adventist, in spite of his phenomenal career. He gave a talk about the relationship between faith and music. After the program he was very accessible. I had met him in Poland once before, but that was many years ago. So, I could hardly expect him to recognize my face. But when I introduced myself, he told me he knew my writings and it was very flattering to hear him describe me as ‘one of his favorite theologians’ in the church. It was a great experience to meet a man of this caliber, who has remained so modest.

On Tuesday afternoon I attended a meeting of the entire staff of the theology department. Each first Tuesday of the month the department arranges for a meal and for someone to give a talk, followed by a discussion. This time I was scheduled to give a 30-minute presentation. Fortunately, I had known this for quite some time and I had been able to prepare something while still at home. One of the people present was Dr. Wil Alexander, a much respected member of the staff. He now has the status of professor-emeritus and is 92 years old, but he continues to teach and his lectures are as popular as ever. He has a razor-sharp brain en still disposes of a great sense of humor. I was delighted to meet him in person. I can only hope that in twenty years’ time I will be as fit and creative as he is. If so, I may perhaps also still occasionally teach somewhere!

 

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Southern California

This will be the first of a series of some thirteen blogs written in Southern California. To be exact: written in Loma Linda, a small town at about 90 minutes driving East from Los Angeles. Loma Linda has given its name to the Adventist university that is located there and which has made a name for itself because of its faculties in medicine, health care, dentistry, pharmacy and related disciplines. In fact, to a large extent, the university with the hospitals that are part of the medical complex define the town of Loma Linda. The town has almost 25.000 inhabitants, but, because of the 15,000-plus employees, the hospital patients and the people who visit the day clinics, this number more than doubles during the day.

My wife and I arrived here four days ago. By now we have just about overcome our jet lag caused by the time difference with the Netherlands of eight hours. As I mentioned in an earlier blog: I have come here to teach in the religion department of the university during the Spring Quarter. I could not have imagined that one day I would be a (temporary) colleague of such esteemed theologians as e.g. Jon Paulien, Roy Branson, Richard Rice and David Larsson.

I should say that this process of becoming a colleague of these people is quite complicated and I am glad I have arrived here a few days before my actual work starts (next Monday). There is a sizable amount of administrative hassle before I can receive the badge that certifies that I am indeed a ‘visiting professor’ and can have access to all facilities. With the badge I will be allocated an LLU e-mail address and a code that allows me to use ‘Canvas.’ This is an advanced computer system that provides the students with all the information they need when they follow a particular course and gives the professor the relevant information about the students who take the courses he is teaching. The students receive a digital warning when a certain assignment is due, and by consulting the system they can discover what grade the teacher has given them for their work. Yesterday a member of the support staff of the department has unveiled the secrets of ‘Canvas’ to me.

I have now also been assigned an office where I can work and I have discovered a nearby place in the Centennial Complex (where the religion department is located on the third floor), where I can heat water—a not unimportant aspect for a Dutchman who is used to having his hot drinks at regular times.

We have settled into a small but quite adequate apartment. The first expeditions to the local supermarkets have been successful and we have the first necessities for our daily life. It proved to be a little more difficult to find the post office. This has recently been relocated to  just outside the city limits of Loma Linda. The former location (in the center of the campus) was vacated because of the commotion that resulted from the decision of the US Postal Service to end the exceptional status of this post office. In the past it was closed on Saturdays and open on Sundays, in order to accommodate the predominantly Adventist population. The decision to end this peculiar situation met with much protest. The Postal Service then decided to simply move the office to a different location. (We found that they had no stamps for European destinations. For Europe one has to combine three stamps of different values.)

Apart from many short visits to the United States, this is the third time my wife and I actually ‘live’ in America. The first time was in 1965-1966 when, newly married, we went to Michigan, where I studied at Andrews University for my masters degree. We returned to Michigan in the 1991-1994 period, when I worked in the Mission Institute that was part of that university. And now, once again, we are in the ‘promised land.’ Right from day one it feels quite familiar. I have the fullest confidence that we will have three pleasant (though probably quite busy) months.

 

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