Observation and Interpretation

 

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine pointed me to a book he had just read and was enthusiastic about. Since the book is in German and is so recent that no English translation is as yet available, I hesitated whether I should order it. However, I overcame my hesitancy and ordered it through bookdepository.com—a British internet bookseller that I have found to be very good. [The advantage when compared with amazon.com is that they do not charge any postage for shipments anywhere in the world!] The book is written by someone called Martin Urban, and is entitled: Ach Gott, die Kirche: Protestantischer Fundamentalismus und 500 Jahre Reformation (Oh God: the Church: Protestant Fundamentalism and 500 years of Reformation).

I find reading German more difficult than reading Dutch and English, and it will therefore take a while before I will hav it read this book in its entirety, the more so since I will be quite busy in th next few weeks with appointments in my own country, and in Germany, Belgium, Denmark and the US. But I can usually still find a little bit of time for reading.

In the first few short chapters I found a few items that I found vry interesting. One of those things was captured in the header above one particular paragraph in chapter 2: Zehn Prozent Beobachtung, neunzig Prozent Deutung. Literally translated: Ten percent observation, ninety percent interpretation. The author argues that usually our opinions are formed through a rather uneven process. He bases this on insights he acquired as a scientist, and as a journalist who grew up in a family of theologians.  The way we form our opinions, he says, is to a major extent the result of how our brains function. W have our senses through which we absorb information, but then our brain takes hold of this and begins to interpret on the basis of earlier experiences and all kinds of influences, many of which we are not even aware of. This, in the end, determines what we think about a given topic

I have no idea whether Mr. Urban is totally right and whether this 10-90 relationship can be scientifically proven. However, I believe he is certainly right in his argument that we are in most instances far less objective than we realize. It would be very desirable if,  in forming our opinions, we would be much more aware of our background and personal history, our wishes, interests and the intellectual baggage we carry along. Often unawares, we sift the information that comes at us, and we select from it what we find attractive or useful and pay less, or no, attention to what we do not like or do not find useful.

We currently see a vivid illustration of this in the United States. Trump-fans see their president in a totally different way whn compared to the people who are completely fed up with him. The anti-Trump camp immediately notices anything that confirms and will reinforce that negative view. I admit that, even though I do not live in the US, in am in that latter category.

A Seventh-day Adventist sees and interprets many things that happen around us differently from how a non-believers with another background sees these. Usually there is no careful analysis, but an opinion is quickly formed. Our background is quick to add the ninety percent of interpretation to the ten percent observation. The same is true for different streams in the church. And this is precisely what hampers any dialogue. We see, hear and read selectively. We absorb what fits into the framework we already have and interpret this within the context of what we already (think) we know. ‘Liberals’ accuse their often more conservative fellow-believers that they operate according to this process. But ‘liberals’ should also be willing to admit they often do the same.

Of course, this cannot be applied to every individual in equal measure and not all of us will fit into such a 10-90 pattern. And, fortunately, there are many people who do their best to be as objective as they can be. However, the realization that much of what we observe is colored by our (often subconscious) selection of what we take in, before we subject this to our interpretation, that has also been colored by all kinds of factors—that realization should urge us to be less dogmatic, to more often doubt our own correctness, and to give one another more space for having different thoughts.

 

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Limits to our power

Until this week I had never read a book by Amos Oz. He is a much-praised author, whose books have been published in many languages. But for some reason I never decided to buy one of his books or to borrow it from our local library. A few weeks ago, however, a friend gave me the latest book by Oz, entitled Judas. He had two copies. After he had bought one, he got another one as a present.

At first I found it hard to get going in the book, but after some twenty or thirty pages I got hooked. It is beautifully written and expertly translated. The plot is  unpredictable and fascinating. A jewish student, Sjmoeël Asj,  stops his university studies for personal reasons. When his parents go bankrupt, he has to find a way to earn enough money to survive. He responds to an advertisement in which someone is sought who—for a modest salary, but with food and accommodation—will keep an old man, who has lost most of his mobility (Gershom Wald), company during the evening hours and is willing to discuss all sorts of things with him. An equally enigmatic as unapproachable widow in her mid-forties (Atalja Abarbanel), who lives in the same house, soon has Sjmoeël in her grip. Political themes play a major role in the book, but also the topic that Sjmoeël had wanted to write a thesis about. This concerns the person of Judas, the disciple of Jesus who, according to Sjmoeël, differs greatly from the picture the Christians have of him.

Reading this wonderful book I regretted that I did not discover Amos OZ earlier. I am sure to also read some of his other books. In this blog I do not want to give a summary of the plot of Judas, but I want to quote (translated from the Dutch translation, since I do not have the English edition) a few lines that stayed with me during the week. On page 137 we are somewhere in the middle of a discussion between Sjmoeël Asj and Gershom Wald. At a given moment the question is raised whether there is something like unlimited power—political power, but also other forms of power. This is what Sjmoeël answers: ‘The truth is that all powers in the world cannot change an enemy into a friend. They can change an enemy into a slave, but not into a comrade. Even all the powers in the world cannot alter a fanatic into a tolerant person. They cannot transform a revengeful person into a friend.’

In history and in the world around us, as well as in our personal experience, the truth of these words has been confirmed time and again. When people are enemies or competitors, friendship and cooperation are out of reach. Even in a faith community we see this all too often. When opinions are miles apart and a state of polarization has arisen, in which ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ have become totally estranged from each other, we have a deadlock that no one is able to break.  No church leader and no amount of church politics can change this. Here we are confronted with the limits of human power.

However, the good news is that there are no limits to the power of the Lord in whom we believe. He has the power to bring people together. His Spirit can bring reconciliation and unity. This is a core belief of the Christian faith. And that is why there is always reason for hope and optimism, even when different parties are embroiled in a bitter conflict and refuse to move or give any space to the opponent. Therefore my reply to Sjmoeël Asj is: You are wrong. There is a Power who can transform a fanatic into a tolerant person and an enemy into a friend. But this will only happen when we are willing to invite that Power into our personal and collective lives. There is no other way. And this applies to all of us.

 

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New light on ‘Steps to Christ’

 

The discussion about Ellen G. White’s use of the work of other authors is not new. In 1883 the book Sketches from the Life of Paul was published. Soon criticism arose, even from some important Adventist leaders of that period. It was discovered that a substantial part of what Ellen White had written in this book strongly resembled the work of a few other authors.

Ever since the accusation of plagiarism has regularly been revived. It was soon clear that in her perhaps most important work—The Great Controversy—she derived a lot of her information from historical sources and that she quoted freely from these without, at least initially, mentioning her sources. That only happened in the final edition of 1911.

When Ellen White wrote The Desire of Ages (during her stay in Australia), she relied heavily on her faithful assistant Marian Davis. In the 1980’s Fred Veltman was commissioned by the General Conference to investigate the rumors that in producing this book Ellen White had made substantial use of the work of others. After his 8-year study he concluded that about 30 percent of the content of this book about the life of Christ was in a greater or lesser degree dependent on various outside sources.

For a long time the denomination downplayed the fact that Ellen White made extensive use of other sources. The frequent accusation of plagiarism was simply pushed aside with the (in itself correct) argument that it was quite common in her days to cite other authors without giving them due credit. And when some persons attacked Mrs. White publicly this often happened quite aggressively—which in turn provoked an almost equally aggressive defense of her person and work. A well-known example was the controversy that erupted around the book The White Lie, written in 1982 by the recently deceased Walter T. Rea.

Often those who argued that much of what Ellen White wrote was not original, were accused of no longer believing in the “Spirit of Prophecy’. Indeed, this was true in some cases. Some critics felt that Ellen White had, for them, lost all credibility. But the question is not primarily—at least not in the context of this discussion—whether Ellen White was indeed a prophet. What is here at stake is that—assuming that somehow God spoke (and speaks) through her in some special way—we must try to understand in what manner God inspired her. Apparently we are not dealing with a concept of inspiration that implies that everything was directly revealed to her in some supernatural way. This, of course, also has consequences for the way we look at inspiration in general (also of the Bible). The Adventist Church could have avoided a lot of hassle if the leaders had, at some earlier stage, been more willing to share with the members in the pew what many of them had already been aware of for a long time.

Gradually attempts are being made to give fuller information to the church members. Dr. George Knight, in particular, has made significant contributions in this respect. However, very recently, a new development may further hasten this process. Andrews University Press has just published an annotated edition of Steps to Christ. Denis Fortin, a former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, comments extensively on the history of this popular book. It first appeared in 1892 (published by Revell, a non-Adventist publisher). It consists almost entirely of material Ellen White wrote at some earlier stage and that was compiled by her ‘book maker’, Marian Davis. Fortin also explains that Ellen White worked in a particular historical context. Her Methodist background ‘colored’ her theological understanding at least to some extent. Moreover, in this book we also find traces of material from other sources.

But does all this make the book Steps to Christ less valuable? Must we conclude that it was not really inspired? No, but we must be prepared to recognize that inspiration apparently functions differently from the way our Adventist tradition has usually insisted upon. Fortin’s work shows that we have now come to a stage where we can openly say such things. This may make us hopeful that it is, indeed, possible to adjust long held standpoints. (And I could suggest a few others topics where, in my opinion, some adjustment would be welcome!)

 

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March 25 – Day of Dialogue

 

The preparations are in the final stage for the event that will take place on March 25 in the Triumfator-church in Utrecht (the Netherlands). Until recently the church was the home of one of the congregations of the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN).  It has now been bought by the Adventist Church, after its former building in the center of the city was sold. Those who have not yet visited this ‘new’ Adventist church should decide to do so. The event of March 25 is an excellent opportunity.

On March 25 a day of dialogue will take place around the theme: DO I GO or DO I STAY? Most of my blog readers will know that some six months ago a new book of mine was published. The theme of this special day reflects the title of the Dutch edition of that book. (The English edition is entitled: FACING DOUBT.) This book has caused a considerable amount of discussion. A small group has now taken the initiative to organize a day of dialogue devoted to this topic.

The first part of the program will consist of two short introductions. Pastor Rob Doesburg will explain why he decided to leave the Adventist Church. After having studied to become an Adventist pastor, he continued his theological studies elsewhere, and he is now a pastor in the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands. His story promises to be very interesting and personal. I will be the second speaker and will explain why I decided to remain in the Adventist Church—despite my doubts regarding some doctrinal issues and my worries about recent trends in my church.

These two introductions will be the basis for an open discussion during the rest of the morning. In the afternoon the visitors can choose from five different ‘workshops’. The topics will be:

  1. Who makes the decisions in the Adventist Church?
  2. How do you read the Bible?
  3. Contemporary trends in Adventism
  4. Question regarding the 28 Fundamental  Beliefs
  5. How relevant is the church of today?

The final part of the program will be a plenary discussion. Hopefully it will also become clear whether this initiative must be followed by something else—and if so, in what form.

I look forward to this day with great interest. I believe it can help many people to understand more clearly their own role and place in the church, and how they can constructively deal with their own doubts and concerns. I hope this can be a start for a further, open dialogue, in which difficult questions are not evaded.

If you happen to be in the Netherlands around that time, please note these details:

Where:          Triomfatorkerk (Adventist Church, Utrecht) Marco Pololaan 185, Utrecht.

Time:             25 March,   10.00  to 16.00 hrs.

(Bring your lunch. There will be soup and coffee. No program for children. Adequate parking near the church).

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Update FACING DOUBT project

 

Since my book Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’ was launched, a lot has happened. Messages from around the world, but in particular from the USA and Britain, indicate that the book has found its way to a wide array of readers, and has also caused a lot of discussion. Some (but not many) have reacted negatively, as I had expected. But I have been surprised at the many positive reactions I have received from people who have told me that they recognized themselves in the book and have found it stimulating and helpful to read it. I want to thank all who have encouraged me to pursue this project further.

The English and Dutch editions have now been available for some six months. The major hurdle that we have faced (and are still facing) is that it has (predictably) proven very difficult to get publicity through the regular Adventist media—with some notable and much appreciated exceptions. We have been fortunate in receiving good support from Adventist Today and Spectrum, but we have had to rely mostly on the social media and word-of-mouth.

It would seem that the time has come to ask you, as my blog readers, to help give the project another boost. You can do this by making others aware of the book, and by sharing the Facebook message that I just posted on my FB page.   @Reinder Bruinsma. Please do so, and ask you FB friends also to share this announcement.

You may also want to look from time to time at the special FB page for the book:  @Facing Doubt, or to check the reviews on the Amazon.com website.

The main distribution channel for the English edition edition is: www.amazon.com, but many other on-line booksellers in many different countries also carry the book. The Dutch edition may be ordered by sending an e-mail (with name and mailing address) to book@bruinsmas.com.

We expect to launch the French edition: FACE AU DOUTE per 1 April. The main distribution channel will be www.amazon.fr.

The Russian edition is also about to appear. It will be available though a Russian on-line-bookshop.  Details about the name of the website and the sales price in rubles will soon be announced.

Work on a Danish edition is progressing nicely. The plans for a German edition are now also taking definite shape.  In addition, we are pursuing Czech, Norwegian and Portuguese editions.  And we will promptly react when further opportunities present themselves (and as funding for the initial expenses is available.

So—once again—please help to promote this important project further. There are thousands of people ‘on the margins’ of the Adventist Church that we are eager to reach—all around the world. Let’s do what we can to tell them they are not alone in their doubts and concerns, and that there may yet be a constructive way forward for them in the church they once embraced.  Thank you so much for all the help you can give in making people aware of this book that could be meaningful to many of them.

 

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