Elections and 100

 

[Wednesday morning November 7, 7 am].  I just put on the television in my hotel room in Kortrijk (close to the Belgian-French border), where last night I had an important meeting.  I had hoped for an Obama victory, and my hope had been fulfilled. Barack Obama will have another four years as president of the USA. He will undoubtedly have some difficult years ahead of him, for he will meet stiff resistance from a Congress with a republican majority. But everything is to be preferred over a republican president, whether his name is Bush or Romney. Most of the readers of my Dutch blog will agree with this. If the Dutch people would have had the task of electing the US president, the current president Obama would have been re-elected with a very comfortable majority of at least 80 percent. Many of my American readers of the English edition of this blog, however, are disappointed, for, unfortunately, a very sizable part of the American Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, votes Republican. I will never be able to understand this. While I am writing these lines, I am listening to Romney’s speech in which he admits his loss. It is remarkably reconciliatory in tone.  Obama has yet to give his acceptance speech.

This week China will also elect a new leader. The process is quite different from that in the USA, but the event is not less important.

Yes, and the Adventist Church in the Netherlands is also in the midst of elections. Last Sunday, during the second day of the Union session, the president was elected for the next five years. There was great uncertainty, until the very last moment, but in the end Wim Altink was re-elected. I had hoped that this would happen. But, like Obama, he must face the reality that many people wanted a different leader. I am happy that he accepted the assignment in spite of the strong opposition. He has experienced that leadership can be very challenging. But, fortunately, he has a leadership role in a church and one may expect that the choice of the majority will be respected and that he will receive full support. We pray that he may have the strength to truly lead.

But I start this day also with thoughts of a different kind.  November 7 is my mother’s birthday. Exactly one hundred years ago today, she was born. She did not live to be a hundred. We had to accompany her to her place of rest when she was 79, now some 21 years ago. November 8, tomorrow, was the birthday of my youngest sister. Tomorrow she would have turned 62, but she had to be satisfied with about half that number of years. It is not something I think about every day, but once in a while it underscores for me the realization that we all live just a day at a time, and we do not know when our name comes up.

Each day brings new surprises. When about half an hour ago I opened my e-mail, I saw an invitation to attend a congress of Adventists theologians, next March, in Beirut, Lebanon, where I am supposed to read a paper. I had not really expected this invitation, considering that  I am no longer ‘active’ in church work, in the regular sense of the word.

With these various thoughts in mind, I will go down to the ground floor to take my breakfast. Before hitting the road, I will spend some time reading, since I want to avoid the rush hour around Antwerp. I am reading a biography of the great, but at times bizarre, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Then, while I drive the 280 kilometers to Zeewolde, where I live, I will no doubt have the opportunity to listen to all kinds a analyses of the US election by ‘America-experts’.

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History

 

In spite of a busy schedule I managed to read in the past ten days a book that was written by the Dutch historian A.Th. van Deurssen, who died last year.  I am referring to In Katwijk is Alles Anders (All is different in Katwijk), which came off the press in 2011. I did not buy the book because of any special tie between me and Katwijk. But earlier books by this author had fascinated me, in particular his Een Dorp in de Polder (A village in the polder, 1994).

In Een Dorp in de Polder van Deurssen writes about daily life in Graft in the 17th century. Graft is a small place not far from Alkmaar, about 25 miles North of Amsterdam. As a child and teenager I lived about 6 miles away from this place. But at the time I had no idea about the illustrious history of this tiny town, which in the seventh century was well-known for its whale hunting far away in the Northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. All kinds of coincidences have resulted in the interesting fact that more sources about the daily life  in Graft during the ‘Golden Age’ have been preserved  than of any other town or village in Holland.  The interesting thing about van Deurssen’s book is not only that it informs us in detail about the lives of a few families in Graft in that period, but that it, by doing so, in fact offers us a much better insight into this period than we get from most classical history books.

The author deals with history in the way that has great appeal for me. That was the reason why I succumbed to the temptation to purchase this book about Katwijk. He follows more or less the same process as in his book about Graft. He chronicles very capably the developments of Katwijk over the past 60-70 years. But, without emphasizing the point, van Deurssen uses the changes in this conservative fishing village to demonstrate what happened in most parts of the Dutch Bible Belt. And, one might say that the book actually offers an excellent picture of the relentless progress of secularization in the Netherlands as it freed itself from its strong Calvinistic roots.

Other historians have used the same model. A famous example is the study by Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie, who a few decades ago—in his book Montaillou— gave a detailed description of how the Inquisition operated in a small fourteenth century village in the Spanish Pyrenees. The inhabitants of that village were suspected of belonging to the sect of the Cathars (often also referred to as Albigenses), a movement that was hated by the medieval Church. Though the book seems to be very limited in scope [a few families in a small village], one gets nonetheless the feeling that it provides a through survey of the Cathar movement—of what these ‘heretics’ believed, of what motivated them and of how they were treated. (Unfortunately, I no longer have the book. When in the late 1980’s I lived in Cameroon, I lent the book to the Dutch ambassador, but he failed to return it!)

History books often focus on the role of important leaders and their great achievements (or the lack thereof). Usually little attention is given to the lives of ordinary people, and, as a result, the reader gets a very limited and rather one-sided picture of what, in fact, happened. That is also true with respect to the history of the church. When dealing, for instance, with the history of the reformation of the sixteenth century, the emphasis usually is on men like Calvin and Luther and their associates. We hear preciously little, however, about the experiences of the men and women in the pews, or about how it was for a village priest to evolve into a Reformed minister.

Historians of the Advent movement tend to stress the role of important church leaders—the ‘pioneers’ of the early period and the presidents of the General Conference who followed—and the proceedings of the most prominent church meetings (such as the conferences of 1888 and 1901). But that does not tell the full story of the development of Adventism.

The history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands cannot be pictured by means of the photo gallery of union presidents in the corridor on the ground floor of the union office building (even though I am pleased to see my picture among them).

If someone would consider to write a history of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, one might want to focus on just one local church and research the history of that particular church: What has happened there over the years, and what processes were at work? How did that church function in the 1950’s? What did worship look like fifty years ago? And thirty years ago? And today? How did evangelism change through the years? What do the minutes of the church board reveal about disciplinary measures? Etc. Etc. This could give a fascination picture of the actual history of Dutch Adventism. Let us hope that someone will feel the calling to write such a book.

 

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Ayn Rand

 

[Tuesday evening, 23 October] Some twenty-five years ago my son brought a pile of books with him from the United States, where he went to college, when he came to visit us. My wife and I were living in West-Africa and every replenishment of our reading stock was in those days even more welcome than it is today. One of the books he had bought for me was a thick paperback by an author I had never heard of before. It was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1905-1982).

I began to read the 1.500 page book with considerable curiosity. Usually I finish the books I have begun to read, even if they prove to be somewhat disappointing. But this time I could not get beyond the mid-way point. I found the book in many ways quite fascinating, but I could not stomach the message. If I remember well, I threw the horrible book away when, a few years ago, I had to clear some shelves for new books that somehow keep arriving.

When this morning I was reading a copy the Christian daily Trouw in the high speed train to Brussels, I found a full-page article with the title: The time is ripe for Ayn Rand. The article was ae review of the Dutch translation of Atlas Shrugged that is being published this week, some thirty years after Rand’s death, by a Dutch publisher. Earlier, a rather amateurish translation had been privately published in the Netherlands, but this is the first serious publication of Ayn Rand’s most important book. From tomorrow the book will be in the Dutch bookstores at a price of 29,95 euros.

Ayn Rand was a Russian Jewess who, as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, emigrated to the United States in 1926, adopted a new name, and started a writing career. In her books she applauded the freedom of her new country and its laissez-faire capitalism. But she soon pointed to the ‘danger’ that this principle, that made the US into a ‘great’ country, could easily be undermined by socialist pervertions. She developed a philosophy (Objectivism) which proclaims that man’s highest objective is to care for his own interests and not to be led astray by altruistic sentiments. The dollar sign is the central symbol of this philosophy. Greed is good! Altruism is to be shunned, and sharing what you have is totally irrational. Atlas Shrugged translated this abject philosophy in a cleverly constructed novel.

A few decades after it was written, the book is once again quite popular, especially with many Americans—in particular with those Republicans who are attracted to the Tea Party ideas. This is quite remarkable, since many of those are conservative Protestants, while Ayn Rand was a diehard atheist. The influential Allen Greenspan found many of Rand’s ideas (also at times referred to as the ‘utopia of greed’) rather attractive. And, yes, Paul Ryan, the running mate of Romney, is one of her fans.  Now an important Dutch publishing firm thinks that the Netherlands is ‘ripe’  for Rand’s ideas. For the small Libertarian party in the Netherlands Ayn Rand’s book functions as a kind of Bible. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, last year praised her as ‘one of the great spirit’ of liberalism.

In spite of my deep dislike for the philosophy that is espoused in Atlas Shrugged, there is something in it that I admire. By pouring her ideas in the shape of a novel she succeeded in reaching a far broader public than she could ever have dreamed of, if she had written a complicated scholarly tome. Other authors have also used this model with success. One could think of The World of Sophie, written by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder, who presented an introduction to the history of philosophy in the form of a narrative, or Theo’s Odessey’, a history of theology by the French author Catherine Clément that is packaged as a novel. Or to point at yet another example: The Shack, by W. Paul Young, in which the theme of the Trinity is dealt with in the format of a novel. This remarkable book has helped millions to reflect on one of the great mysteries of the faith.[1]

Would it not be great of there were more Christians (including Seventh-day Adventist Christians), who have the creative skills to translate the Christian values and ideals in a literary form, in a way that would attract a worldwide public (and might also perhaps even interest Prime Minister Mark Rutte)?



[1] See my blog of 22 February 2011.

 

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Sermon

 

[Tuesday morning, October 16] Saturday afternoon, around five pm I realized it was about the time that the president of the highest body of the Adventist world church (the General Conference] was to preach an important sermon. It has become a tradition that the top church leader (this is the kind of terminology that is increasingly used), preaches during the worship service that is held on the Saturday morning of the Annual Council—the annual administrative council where some 300 delegates gather from around the world. My hunch that the service might be streamed by Hope Channel over the Internet, proved to be correct. I followed the service as if I was seated in one of the comfortable chairs in the auditorium of the church’s headquarters in Silver Spring.

Of course, I tried to recognize some well-known faces whenever the camera turned to the audience. And, indeed, I saw many people I know, but I failed to see the president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, who is one of the delegates during this five-day conference. [His wife, whom I saw on Sunday, however assured me that her husband was there!]

Ever since, over two years ago, Ted Wilson was elected as the church’s president, his sermons at important occasions, such as during an Annual Council, have been scrutinized by many around the world. More than in the past, the presidential sermons have become explanations of the program that he wants to realize during his presidency, and serve as an update on the various ‘presidential initiatives’ that the church has voted in the past two years and is in the process of implementing. When Wilson preached his much debated and widely distributed (through dvd’s) sermon in Atlanta in 2010, it became clear what things he was going to emphasize during his term in office. The reactions at the time varied greatly. Some were happy and felt that now at last the church would go in the right direction. Others were extremely disappointed, since they felt a new direction was announced that would set the clock half a century backwards.

In the past two years Wilson has, in a number of important speeches and sermons, repeated his emphases and talked about the initiatives that he has proposed and that the church has adopted. Among these initiatives are such as projects as, the Revival and Revelation theme, a massive distribution of the book The Great Controversy, evangelism in the megacities of the world, an emphasis on the traditional historicist interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation and the sanctuary, and a renewed focus on the books of Ellen G. White. Now another traditional theme is added: the integration of the ‘health message’ with other church growth activities.

The sermon of last Saturday afternoon (Dutch time) fitted the expected framework. Wilson based his sermon on a well-known portion of Scripture, Matthew 14. But he quoted Ellen White far more often than he quoted from the Bible. All ‘presidential initiatives’ mentioned above, were revisited. But he emphasized, in particular, the importance of unity, with clear allusions to the recent developments with regard to the ordination of female pastors and the decisions of some church entities to chart their own course. By so doing, Wilson, in fact, made his sermon into a church political speech.

Someone who had been physically present during the sermon commented that ‘it could have been worse’. That was exactly my conclusion after I had listened attentively. Does that conclusion show my lack of trust in the leadership of the church? Have I distanced myself too far from a number a traditional Adventist ideas and methods? Haven I been influenced too much by a postmodern way of thinking? Whatever answer one might give to such questions, it is a plain fact that many share in my feelings and concerns. The current leadership of the church would, I think, do well to initiate an intensive dialogue about this, if indeed the leaders are concerned about the unity of the church.

There is, however, another worrisome aspect. This sermon was once again a striking example of how communication fails when we do not use the language of the people of today. The sermon was so loaded with Adventist jargon that the non-Adventist person who happened to have seen the Hope Channel broadcast, will most likely have understood very little of what was being said. And I suppose that many (in particular, young) church members would also have wondered what it all meant. Their comment would probably be: ‘ What was this all about?’

I saw a short video clip of the explanation given by Gary Krause, one of the church growth experts at the church’s headquarters, of the new emphasis on the integration of the message for the spirit and the care for the body. He stated in clear everyday language exactly the same as Wilson tried to convey when he spoke about the message of health reform and the role of health ministries as the right arm of the three-angels message. Their topic was the same, but they communicated to very different audiences. Unfortunately, Wilson does not seem to realize this.

During the Annual Council week I will use all available channels that I have to follow the proceedings of the Annual Council closely. There are some important items on the agenda. I continue to trust that the Lord of the church will correct the course that human beings steer and that may at times get us to some undesirable stops along the way to the Kingdom!

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America

 

In a review of his newest book (Reizen zonder John), Geert Mak is characterized as the kind of history teacher you always wanted to have during your secondary school years. That is, indeed, the feeling I have, now that I am about half way in the book about his journey through America. When he realized that fifty years ago John Steinbeck—then seventy-five years old—decided to make a months long trek through the USA, in an old converted truck, and to write about his adventure, Geert Mak (and several others) decided to retrace the route that Steinbeck travelled and also write about it.

Mak’ s skills as a writer are the guarantee for a book that is very readable and that offers a wealth of information. But it is not an objective report. Mak’s view of the USA is quite similar to the opinion I have, over the years, formed of the US. One might summarize it as follows: America is a superb land for a long vacation, but it it not the kind of place where you would want to live permanently.

I easily recognize much of what Mak writes about, because these were things that I have also noticed. Newly married, my wife and I lived in Michican in 1965-1966, where I did my masters at Andrews University. Later, in the nineties of the past century, we were there again for some years, as I worked at the same university. In addition, many work assignments, meetings and vacations brought me to at least 25 different states. And in preparation for the book that I wrote in 1998 about spiritual life in America[1], I read voraciously about the history of America and about American religious history.

I would not be surprised if I knew about as much about the United States as Geert Mak does. But my interest is not based on Steinbeck’s journey through America, but on the fact that I am a member of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination that has its roots in the USA. Through my study of American history and my first hand knowledge of American culture, I think I have succeeded in acquiring a thorough understanding of many aspects of Adventism, and also have been able to chart the main differences between American and European Adventism.[2]

One of the specifically American characteristics that I see time and time again in my church, is the tendency towards pragmatism. Of course, theology has an important place in the church, but the emphasis is above all on the mission of the church, that must be executed as efficiently as possible. The church is almost addicted to statistics and to strategies with deadlines and projections. Things must, first of all, be useful! There is a strong emphasis on constant activity. All of this is decidedly American.

One of the decidedly ‘American’ phenomena is that of the ‘independent ministries’, also often referred to as  para-church organizations. It is not known how many independent ministries exist within Adventism, but the number is estimated at more than one thousand. If a church member in the USA sees a challenge, there is often an immediate urge to do something about it. It does not seem wise to wait untill the organized church begins to consider that challenge. No, one asks: How much money does it take? And how much manpower is needed?  Then, the fundraising starts and the work begins. Some organizations seek to work closely with the church, while in other cases that is hardly the case, or not at all. Many European church members do not like this approach. It may fit into the American culture with its pragmatic orientation, but much less so in European culture.

It is just one example.  I am now continuing with my reading about the journey (without John Steinbeck, whence the title) that Mak describes. He has just taken me from Detroit, via Kalamazoo to Chicago. I can easily picture what he describes. It is fascinating. But I am more convinced than ever that I would not want to exchange the Dutch polder around Zeewolde for Michigan, Indiana or Illinois. [And I certainly do prefer the European brand of Adventism over the American version of my church.]

 


[1] Reinder Bruinsma, Geloven in Amerika: Kerken, Geschiedenis en Geloof van Christenen in de Verenigde Staten (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 1998).

[2]  Reinder Bruinsma, ‘Culture and Adventism: Europe and the United States as a Case Study’,  Spectrum, winter 2005.

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