This past week began with a most interesting event. On Sunday afternoon I entered a place that until now was for me terra incognita: the Balie, a building for cultural events in the center of Amsterdam, near the well-known Leidseplein. At the other side of the street a number of television trucks were lined up that clearly were to report on something important. I had no illusion that they had come to film the occasion in which I was about to participate, but that their massive presence had something to do with the festivities around the MTV awards.

In the Balie an activity was to take place that was sponsored by a foundation for literary activities in Amsterdam and the publishing firm van Nijgh & Ditmar. It focused on the publication of a new book by Arnon Grunberg, who was to lead out in a panel discussion. The public had come in considerable numbers and paid 10 euros to be able to hear four experts discuss the topic of Apocalypse with Grunberg. The author was seated on the stage, with to his right a historian and an astrologist, and to his left a psychiatrist and myself as a theologian.

The topic of Apocalypse was inspired by the title of the newly appeared collection of short stories by Arnon Grunberg, who has become one of the Netherlands’ most popular authors. For about an hour and a half he skillfully led the discussion about various aspects of apocalyptic thinking. It became a lively discussion and Grunberg made sure that we would all be able to fully participate. I hope the organizers were not disappointed over my contribution. If they had hoped that I would ‘enrich’ the discussion with some strange details of bizarre endtime expectations (for which Adventists have been known in the past) they should have invited someone else. However, I believe, I was able to present a balanced picture of how (Adventist) Christians look towards the future, with hope rather than fear as their main sentiment. When I accepted the invitation I did not know what to expect, but as I left the hall, with a bag with Grunberg books under my arm, I had a positive feeling. Part of the 150 euros that I received for my participation was well spent on a meal with my wife and daughter, not far from the Leidseplein. (I certainly cannot be blamed for the fact that consumer spending in the Netherlands remains too low to create a speedy recovery of our economy.)

An extra bonus of this afternoon was meeting Rob Schouten again after many years. This author, poet and literary critic, who also since many years, twice a week, writes a column for the Christian daily Trouw, was born in an Adventist family. His father, who died years ago, was a pastor in the Adventist Church. Many of his poems and other publications show that Schouten has never completely detached himself from his Adventist origin. He told me that last month he was interviewed on TV by Jacobine Geel, on her weekly religious program. A few days ago I made sure to find this program and to watch it belatedly.

It was fascinating to hear Rob Schouten talk about the disappearance of his faith and about the church of his childhood. He sounded quite traumatized, but in no way malicious or frustrated. He speaks with a certain degree of tenderness about his Adventist upbringing. I cannot help but thinking: What a pity that ‘we’ could not retain such a gifted person in our ranks. (But than, we have seldom been successful in making artists feel at home in the Adventist Church. I could suggest a few reasons for this deplorable fact.)

Like Schouten, I was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist. I recognize many of his experiences, but it has not given me the same kind of trauma. In any case, the church that suffocated Schouten is not the church I remember from my childhood years. That certainly is true for the Adventist Church of 2013. In the meantime I look forward to the appearance of the new novel that he is presently writing. He mentioned that once again his Adventist experience will feature quite extensively in this new book. I can’t wait to find out.


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A sad story


1995 saw the publication of the book ‘Hoe God Verdween uit Jorwerd’ (How God Disappeared from Jorwerd). It was one of the early successes of the now famous author Geert Mak. In a novel-like documentary he analyses what happened during the last fifty years in a village in Frisia, in the North of the Netherlands. The character of the village changed dramatically. Not only the farmers and shopkeepers disappeared, but the religious outlook of the people was also totally changed. It is a beautiful book about an extremely sad reality: God disappeared from Jorwerd due to the relentless secularization of our times.

Just a few weeks ago another book appeared, also about God’s disappearance. Emiel Hakkenes (1977), the chief editor of the section on philosophy and religion for the Dutch daily Trouw, wrote a chronicle about his family. The title of the book may be translated as: The God of Ordinary People. And the subtitle as: How Faith Disappeared from a Dutch Family.

Hakkenes relates how very gradually he became estranged from his Christian Reformed background. The issue of his personal faith became acute when he had to decide whether or not his first child was to be baptized. Hakkenes tells his own story against the background of the history of his family. He starts at the beginning of the eighteenth century and follows the fascinating religious pilgrimage of his ancestors, building on the data he found during his careful (and adventurous) research. The thread that runs through the story is this: In the past religion was the basis of life in the Hakkenes family. But gradually, their religious experience changed and now faith is on the point of completely disappearing from this family.

There is much that many of us will recognize in these two books, both with regard to the process of secularization in general (that is certainly not limited to Jorwerd), but also with regard to the spiritual history of many in individual families. Many of my generation of early septuagenarians have seen how this same kind of process has taken its toll in their own family. More often than not the active involvement with faith and church has disappeared from the lives of their children who are now in their forties or below. When I take a look at myself, I cannot deny that over the years my faith has changed in many ways. But, fortunately, God has not disappeared from my life. Yet, I must add something to this.

On the website of the Dutch Adventist Church the reader is told there is every reason to be proud of his/her church. To a large extent I agree. There is much in my church, especially in the Netherlands, that I am happy with. And, in general, I have a lot of appreciation for the leaders of my church in the Netherlands. But my pride in the international Adventist Church is regularly severely tested. And many times I ask myself whether some of the top leaders do, in fact, live in the twenty-first century and do understand how people (in particular in the Western world) are thinking.

The commotion around the issue of the ordination of female pastors is developing into a very sad story. I was tempted to use the word ‘soap’, if it were not such a serious matter. While comprehensive studies are taking place, voluminous books are being written and one meeting is held after the other, the leadership of the church is in danger of losing its credibility. The largest subdivision of the church in the United States (Southern California) recently elected a female pastor as its president. Top leadership of the General Conference protested in vain. Days later, the umbrella organization for the Adventist Church in North America approved a document that endorses the full equality of males and females—also when it pertains to church offices. It was deemed irresponsible to wait any longer with stating clearly where the organization stands. I cannot but wholeheartedly agree. The top leadership again protested, but this protest did likewise not carry any weight. And a things are simply happening, the official discussion that is organized by the world church leadership, and is ongoing, becomes an almost superfluous and very sad story.

I hope I will not complete lose my faith in ‘my’ church and its leaders. I hope ‘my’ church will soon find a way to do what should have been done a long time ago, without jeopardizing the true unity (which is not the same as full uniformity) in the church. Perhaps I must accept that things often go slowly, and that hurdles may break the speed. In the meantime I will try to have some more patience. But it is not easy.


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Dutch polders and a lake in Cameroon


This past week I spend most of my time, from early morning onward, behind my desk and I plan to do so also in the coming weeks. I am working on a number of writing and translation projects and am facing some fast approaching deadlines. I also made a beginning with preparing a series of 20 power point presentations about ‘the doctrine of the church’, for an intensive course for Dutch Adventist ministers that is scheduled for January.

However, I have also found time for a fair amount of reading. About two weeks ago I discovered a Swedish thriller author whose name I had not heard before:  Jussi Adler-Olson. In the meantime I have devoured two of his, rather voluminous, books. The last of these two, with a rather unpromising title about a message in a bottle, proved to have a fascinating plot, and once I started reading I found it hard to lay it down. As I was reading these books in a Dutch translation, I decided to purchase some more books of this author in the original language when I pay my next visit to Sweden.

I also almost finished another book this week. It is written by a Cordula Rooijendijk, of whom I had never heard either. She earned a Ph. D in the field of urban geography, but her book Waterwolven (wolves of the water) is not about an urban environment but about a part of the Netherlands that has for centuries (and still is) threatened by the water. The subtitle tells us that it is ‘a history of floods, builders of dikes and of polders.’ I thought I knew quite a bit about that topic, but as I progressed in the book I discovered that there is a whole lot more to know. In spite of its documentary character it has been written almost as a novel full of suspense. Cordula Rooijendijk tells us about the origin of the Netherlands, about the man-made hills where the early inhabitants escaped from the water; about early attempts to protect parcels of land against the water; about the medieval Cistercian monks who were the first serious, systematic builders of dikes. And, of course, about the famous creation of the Beemster and the Schermer and numerous other polders. And about more recent masterpieces, such as the large Haarlemmermeer polder, between Amsterdam and Haarlem, the Afsluitdijk (across the inland Zuiderzee), the new polders in the large lake that resulted from the construction of the Afsluitdijk and the Delta works, which now protect the southern part of low-lying Holland.

On top of the stack of books that are as yet unread—next to the place on the couch where I usually sit—is the newest book by Frank Westerman that appeared just a few days ago. It is about a mysterious disaster that occurred in August 1986 in the West-African country of Cameroon. In an isolated area, not far from the border with Nigeria, almost two thousand people, and all their animals, died as the result of poisonous fumes that had emerged from a small lake. Since then various scientific explanations, as well as a number of conspiracy theories have been proposed and some colorful myths have developed among the local population.

The name of Westerman is the guarantee for another special book. See my blog of August 9, in which I wrote about his one but last book El Negro en Ik.  His newest book drew my special attention because I have vivid memories of this disaster. At the time my wife and I lived in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. We were suddenly made aware of some strange occurrence in the North-west of the country, but nobody knew exactly what had happened. The wildest stories began to circulate. Relatives in the Netherlands, who heard about it, were very worried and tried to call us. At first thy did not succeed. For a few days all international telephone traffic was impossible. Even today the area where the disaster happened is hermetically closed by the authorities and it is still unknown what caused this calamity.

The mystery of the poisonous lake Nyos intrigued Frank Westerman. In spite of intense research he has not discovered what precisely happened. When interviewed last night on TV he explained how he became fascinated by the myths that have emerged since 1986.  I am certain that the reading of this new book—De Stikvallei—will be a very rewarding experience.

But today (Friday) I will not have time for much reading. Apart from some very mundane duties, I must finish preparations for tomorrow’s presentation in the ARK in Zoetermeer—a meeting of (mostly) Adventist believers who want to hear and talk about aspects of their faith. And I must take some time to create order on my desk, for too often I must search a long time for items that I know must be ‘somewhere.’


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Black Pete


Greetings from Belgium. Friends who are on vacation have put their house for some ten days at our disposal. And so we are having a very comfortable stay near Antwerp. We have taken some work with us, but we also thoroughly enjoy this special break. It gives us the opportunity to meet some good friends, preach in the Antwerp church, pay a visit to the office of the church in Brussels and, in particular, to visit a few museums. We went to the M-Museum in Leuven—a beautiful museum in an extraordinary modern building, close to the marvelous Gothic townhall on the historic city square.

So far my wife and I had never visited the Museum for Contemporary Art in Antwerp. This was our opportunity. We were mostly interested in the special exhibition ‘Paintings and Other Stuff’ of works of the American artist Kerry James Marshall. Marshall is a prominent black artist, who was born in the South of the United States and presently lives in Chicago. This extensive exhibition of his work will remain a few months in Antwerp and will then move to Copenhagen, Barcelona and Madrid.

If I had been asked to suggest a title for this exhibition I would probably have come up with something that points to the contrast between Black and White. For this impressed me most: I was faced with a different world, a world of racism and oppression. This world is largely unknown to me, but I realize it is good to be confronted with it.  The intense blackness of most of the paintings and other objects presented an intense, compressed experience, a life history and a‘statement’ one cannot easily forget.

In this same week I followed, from some distance, the ridiculous debate in the Netherlands that became ever more extreme and even became an issue  for the United Nations. It was about the question whether Black Pete has to be eliminated from the St. Nicolas-feast. It was argued by some that this black person is a painful memory of an atrociously racist past. It can no longer be tolerated, so it was said, that in our twenty-first century a black fellow human being is cast in the role of a slave for a white man. Well, my appreciation for the United Nations had not been increased this past week. Does this organization not have any greater priorities?

I have tried to imagine what it means for an African, or someone from Surinam or the Antilles, to suddenly see a St. Nicolas and his back associates speed through the Dutch streets. Does this cause severe traumatic thoughts about ancestors who were sold on slave markets and then had to work for the rest of their lives on a plantation? It seems a bit exaggerated to me. When I (many years ago) regularly served as a St. Nicolas, and accompanied by two Black Petes and riding on a white horse, visited the local elementary school and the homes of sick children, it never occurred to me (or, I think, to anyone else) that I was guilty of reinforcing racist ideas in these tender souls.

In any case, if there are people who feel offended by the Black Pete tradition, I feel I have also reason to feel highly upset. As a member of the clergy I could feel utterly frustrated when I see how someone is dressed up as a Catholic colleague and treated as an object of derision. And, let’s be a little consistent: If Black Pete is a problem then we should also include Father Christmas in the discussion. For it could be argued that the figure of Father Christmas is highly offensive to elderly, bearded and obese men. Strange, that the UN does not feel it ought to be concerned about their plight.


My conclusion? If you have a chance, pay a visit to Antwerp and experience the impressive visual message of Kerry James Marshall. But ignore this nonsense about Black Pete hat is really about nothing.

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I do not know of anyone with a shorter family name than the current executive secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. I am referring to dr. Ng, who, as is the tradition, poured a flood of statistical data over the delegates to the  Autumn Council who have held there annual meetings in the past few days.

On the same day that I was looking at the data dr. Ng. provided, I happened to read a few chapters in the fascinating book that Amazon  delivered to my door a week or so ago: From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. The book is written by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who served for a number of years in a leading position in the Reformed Church in the US, but also had a distinguished career in the world of ecumenism.

It was remarkable to see the striking similarities between the picture that was painted by dr. Ng and what Granberg-Michaelson wrote about Christianity in general. His book explains to the reader how the center of Christianity continues to shift from the North to the South. An ever larger percentage of the Christians no longer lives in the Western world (the “North”), but is now found in the developing world (the “South”). The turning point was around 1980. Since that year the Christians in the South are more numerous than their brethren en sisters in the North. One hundred years ago 80 percent of all Christians lived in Europe and North-America. Today the percentage is only 40 percent. At the same time we note another trend: More than half of all migrants in the world is Christian! This causes the percentage of Christians in the Western world to decrease much more slowly than would have been the case if there were no large scale migration.

There was a time when almost all Seventh-day Adventists lived in the ‘North’. However, that changed a long time ago. Of the 18 million Adventists of today only about 1,2 million members live in North-America, less than half a million in Europe and only some 70.000 in Australia and New Zealand. Ng presented a list of countries where the Adventist Church is growing. These are almost all in the ‘South’. Where the church grows in the ‘North’ .or maintains its numbers, this is owed to a significant influx of Adventist immigrants.

It is not difficult to see the parallel between what happens to global Christianity and what the Adventist Church experiences. This applies, in particular, to aspects of governance. Though a major part of the ecclesiastical funds is still generated in the ‘North’, the agenda of the church is more and more determined by the ‘South’. This has significant consequences. The church is changing—in many respects in a more conservative direction. This will raise the question in the minds of many: Will the church of the future be a church where I, as someone from the ‘North’, will still feel at home?

The book by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson also made me think about another issue. It points out that only a relatively small part of global Christianityis involved in the ecumenical dialogue. One striking example: 349 (large and small) denominations are members of the World Council of Churches. But how many denominations are there in the world? Experts tell us the number is between 41.000 and 43.000. And these are certainly not all one-man operations, but some of these (of which we may never have heard the names) have many millions of members. Many of these denominations claim that they are the only true church. Seventh-day Adventists have also often claimed a unique position for themselves, and many individual Adventists today still believe their church is the only true church. I am a Seventh-day Adventists because I recognize in my church a number of important insights and activities. But to claim that my church is in all respects the only true church. . . ? After digesting the data provided by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson I will be even more hesitant with such a claim than before!


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