Pietje Bell and Donald Duck

 

From time to time I receive an e-mail in which Piet Schreuders from Arnhem comments on my blogs. This week there was such a mail message. He commented on the list of books that I had enumerated in my previous blog and of which I had mentioned how important these books had been for me. Piet proceeded to mention some literary master pieces that through the years had fed his aging soul. He mentioned a few titles of children books that were very popular in the Netherlands, over half a century ago. But he also mentioned the fascinating books by Karl May and the works of Peter Cheyney, the ‘famous’ author of an endless series of crime novels, who has now been dead for almost 60 years.

Well, maybe I ought to confess that my mind has not just been nourished by theological works of high quality, but that I also can enjoy all kinds of secular, more or less literary, products. I am an avid reader of biographies and autobiographies, and there are several Dutch authors whose books I will read as soon as they come off the press. In my library you will find at least fifty titles of P. G. Woodhouse, the British author whose sense of humor is unsurpassed.  And you can always tempt me with a good espionage story or crime novel. Et cetera.

Something I read today on the website of the Christian daily Dagblad Trouw reminded me of the hot discussions in my childhood years about what a Christian (and most certainly a Christian child) ought and ought not to read. My mother had some interesting ideas in this respect. When I had succeeded in learning and reciting all 66 Bible books in the correct order, I was rewarded with a book that recounted the experiences of a rather naughty boy called Daantje.  And another book in that same series became mine when I has fully mastered the complete list of the OT judges (from Othniel to Samuel). The book entitled Dick Trom, about another naughty boy, was considered OK for a Christian boy, my mother had decided. But another book (about a boy called Pietje Bell) was definitely taboo, she thought.

Nonetheless, I managed to read several books filled with the dubious adventures of this Pietje Bell. From time to time I was sent for a few days to Amsterdam where I stayed with a couple that were good acquaintances of my parents. Mr. van der Meer, as the gentleman was called, was a rather solid type (in a spiritual sense, I mean). He was a church elder and would easily have qualified for the place on the Guiness Book of Records in the rubric of those who can say the longest prayers.  But, what happened? I discovered in his bookcase. among the commentaries on the Book of Revelation by Uriah Smith and others, a copy of a book from the Pietje Bell series. Life is indeed full of surprises. And at the time I already knew that we must be thankful for small mercies.

Later, as a teenager, I was extremely surprised when I saw in the library of the Adventist pastor of my local church a whole shelf filled with rather big books, bound in black covers. I soon discovered that these were bound copies of the Donald Duck weekly that our pastor had discovered in a second hand bookshop. Apparently, he was an avid reader of Donald Duck stories.

Back  to the daily Dagblad Trouw. I read a short item about a rather conservative Calvinistic pastor, a certain reverend Muilwijk in the coastal village of Katwijk, who exhorts his parishioners that reading the Donald Duck weekly is definitely ‘sinful’.  It contains lots of stories, he says, that are opposed to important Christian values. Think for a moment of the three small ducks who are always in the company of their uncle Donald. Is it not definitely unhealthy when such youthful characters dot not receive the care of a father and a mother, but are educated by a single elderly male? And there also appears to be quite a bit wrong with the attitude of the rich uncle Dagobert and aunt Catherine. It is seems that nowadays there are also stories in this despicable journal about a witch that is involved with weird magic.  So, definitely, this is not suitable material for Christian children (or Christian adults, for that matter!) And yes, it is a news item that dates from 2012!

It did make me think of the time when even watching the Polygoon film news was rather doubtful, if only because of the fact that it could entice you to go to the cinema. But the creepy, and often rather cruel, fairy tales of Grimm and others were considered OK. And the incredible naïve bedtime stories of Uncle Arthur were almost as sacred as the stories from a popular Dutch children’s Bible (including the murderous OT stories). Once in a while reflecting  on the past and on the moral ideas of a previous generation certainly helps to relativize some of the things we face today!

 

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Seventy

 

This weekend I will turn seventy. It is a rather odd feeling: Yes, I am that old!  In some regions of the Netherlands every fifth birthday (60, 65, 70, etc.) gets a lot of extra attention. Admittedly: I will have to get used to people saying: ‘Ah, you are now in your early seventies’, rather than: ‘in your late sixties.’

But why give it much further thought? After all, today I am only one day older than yesterday, and tomorrow I will be only one day older than today. And this is how it has been for seventy years. So, what’s the big deal?

On the other hand, however, it is a milestone. Especially since other people will see it as such.  The poet who wrote the Psalms saw reaching the age of 70 or 80, respectively, as serious moments. But I try to be a little more positive about it than he was. For him there was not much left at that age but misery and trouble. So far, I have had a life without too much misery. I have more reason to be thankful than to feel miserable.

It seems natural at moments like these to look back. What have been the most important moments for me in those seventy years? Who were the most important people for me? What were my major mistakes and failures? What have been my achievements (if any)?

From time to time I look back on my pilgrimage in the domain of theology and in the development of my faith. Where was I some fifty, forty, thirty, twenty or even ten years ago? And where am I today? Has there been a clear development? Have I arrived somewhere? Or have I gotten stuck somewhere in the wilderness? My response to such questions can only be very subjective. Others may look at my life very differently. That is OK, as long as they realize that they do not know my full story, as I know it myself!

How may I best chart my theological journey? By checking my memories? By analyzing my sermons from past decades? By comparing the books and articles that I wrote? This could all possibly be useful. But this morning it occurred to me that I might try to make a short list of the ten books that through the years have had a major influence on my thinking. I can assure you that I read more than ten books! But this may give some indication as to where I was heading through the years.

Here then is a little list with titles and the approximate year I which I read the book:

1. Fundamentalism (James Barr) – ca. 1966.  During my M.A. studies at Andrews University I got hold of this book that has become a classic. It opened my eyes to the phenomenon of fundamentalism. It did much to save me from the trap of fundamentalism.

2. Church Dogmatics, vol. I.2:  The Revelation of God (Karl Barth).  ca.  1973.  It was part of a reading assignment for one of the topics I was studying when working on my B.D. at the University of London. It was ‘heavy going’ and I managed only 2 or 3 pages per hour. Barth’s treatment of the Trinity, in particular, taught me that human words can never adequately define the mystery of the divine.

3. Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion  – ca. 1973.  This was one of books I had to read for the class in philosophy of religion when working on my B.D. It opened up a world that was until then totally foreign to me. It was a first encounter with the problems that occupy philosophers of religion, and with issues that, increasingly,  were also of personal importance to me.

4. Speaking Well of God (Edward Vick) – ca.  1980.  Written by a British Adventist theologian, who is usually regarded as rather ‘liberal’. For me, this book was the first systematic attempt that I had seen in the Adventist Church to deal with the doctrine of God. It strongly stimulated my theological interest.

5. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America -1740-1845  (Catherine A Brekius) – ca. 1999.  As an Adventist Christian I have always had plenty of questions about the nature of the experiences of Ellen G. White. This book deals with religious developments in the USA, in the time of Mrs. White. It describes how the prophetic gift was quite common, especially among women in Methodist circles. It made it clear to me that the phenomena that we see in connection with Ellen White were not quite as unique as many Adventists tend to think. It provided me with much background information that helped me to get a more balanced picture of her ministry.

6. What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Philip Yancey). – ca. 2000. A popular bestseller that helped me—better than any other book on the topic—to understand the mystery of grace.

7. The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) – a.  1995.  This book indeed shows ’where the rubber hits the road’. It reminded me again and again of the burning question: What does my faith mean in concreto? How does it affect the crucial choices that I make?

8. Warranted Christian Belief  (Alvin Plantinga) – ca. 2000. One of the most important books I ever read. It helped me to find answers to questions that became increasingly urgent, in particular about the key issue that always remains in the background: Can I be absolutely sure that what I believe is true?

9. Hans Küng’s  autobiografie, 2 dl.  – 2003, 2007.  The inspiring life story of a great man who has for decades lived with the tension of what his church expected of him and what he himself thought and believed—but who remained loyal to both (to the church and to himself). There is much that I can identify with.

10. Jezus van Nazareth (Joseph Ratzinger) – 2007. I cannot agree with all that the author says. But I have no doubt that the person who wrote this book, whatever his faults may be, and whatever we may deplore in the institution that he leads, truly knows Jesus!

These are ten books that may be seen as road signs along my pilgrimage. Looking back I conclude: Yes, this pilgrimage has led me somewhere. I have been at many beautiful places. But I am not there yet! One’s spiritual journey and growth are never complete and one’s life remains: ‘under construction’. Even at seventy.

 

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Variation

[Friday evening]  I cannot complain that life is boring. After having preached on Saturday August 24 in Ranst (near Antwerp, Belgium), a small Adventist Church, that assembles in a chapel in a former farm house, I drove back to my home in Zeewolde (the Netherlands). From there I left the next day for Schiphol Airport. My destination on that early Sunday morning was the Adventist University of ‘Collonges’, close to Geneva. ‘Collonges is on the French side of the French/Swiss border, at a sublime location, with on the one side a view on the city of (in ages past) Calvin, and of (today) numerous international institutions—varying from the Red Cross and all kinds of UN offices to the World Council of Churches—and, on the other side the Salève mountain massive.

The pastors of the (mostly) Francophone unions (thus, also including Belgium) were invited for a three day Bible conference. My current role in Belgium and Luxemburg explains why I also was there. The conference is one in a series in more than fifteen places around the world, about the theme of ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church. This much neglected topic within Adventism has long had my special attention. This interest led me to write a book about it, that was published some two years ago by the Review and Herald Publishing Association, one of the prominent Adventist publishers in the US. The book received the title: The Body of Christ, with the subtitle: A Biblical Understanding of the Church. (The cover design, unfortunately, is dramatically old-fashioned and I had also preferred a different title, but, alas, such things are determined by the publisher, ‘who knows best’.)

Some of the presentations were rather sleep inducing, while a few were quite worthwhile. Significantly (but not unexpectedly), the crucial topics were dealt with by representatives of the Biblical Research Institute—the theological watchdogs of the church. All possible risk of heresy (and freshness of thinking) was carefully prevented. However, I was greatly pleased to hear one of the presenters quote repeatedly from my book. I must admit that for a few moments I had a hard time suppressing the sinful feeling of pride. But, after all, it does not happen too often that one is quoted in one breath with such theological giants as Barth and Pannenberg!

With a delay of some two hours I returned home again rather late on Wednesday evening. The delay was partly caused by problems with a Vueling plane from Malaga, while the removal of an explosive from World War II, that was found during construction work at the airport, near one of the runways, did not help either to ensure the incoming planes could arrive on schedule.

On Thursday morning my wife and I drove to the northern part of the Province of North Holland, to meet up with one of my sisters, who lives in Canada, but was staying for two weeks in her beloved native country. We went for a day trip to a folkloristic market in one of the smaller towns in that part of the country, and ended the day with an excellent meal in an obscure village not far from there.

Today (Friday) I had to leave home early for the three-hour drive to Brussels, for a meeting with the developer of a new web site for the Belgian Luxemburg Conference. I write these words in the early evening in my reasonably comfortable hotel room in Brussels. Tomorrow morning I will preach in the Spanish Adventist Church in Antwerp. After that I hope to turn the nose of my Citroen car towards Zeewolde, for a 36-hour stay at home, before returning to Belgium. If I have any complaints, it is not that life has become boring during my retirement.

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Seventh-gay Adventist?

 

A short item in a recent Dutch newspaper. A Roman-Catholic priest in one of the southern provinces of the country refused to baptize a baby. Why? Because the parents are a lesbian couple. The priest concluded that his conscience did not allow him to perform the baptism. A colleague in another parish, however, was willing to baptize the infant. The bishop commented that the priest had not asked the advice of his superiors. He has the freedom to use his own judgment, even though he may, under these circumstances not have acted in the wisest possible way, the bishop added.

In any case, Adventist preachers will not face this particular dilemma. The Adventist church does not baptize infants, regardless whether the parents are homo or hetero. But Adventist pastors increasingly face similar problems. More and more often Adventist ministers face the question how their church thinks about same-sex matters, and must ask themselves what they think themselves and what choices they will make.

I know of a number of cases that currently play out in the Adventist Church, in the Netherlands as well as in Belgium. Can a lesbian woman, who has been living for years in a stable, monogamous relationship, be baptized and become an Adventist church member? Must we tell a homosexual couple that wants to receive a blessing on their relationship, that they ‘live in sin’ and that therefore the church cannot bless them? Can an Adventist homo safely come ‘out of the closet’ and retain his/her responsibility in the local church?

The discussion about homosexuality and everything that relates to it has hardly started in the Adventist Church. The church is still too busy with the commotion surrounding ordaining female ministers, and the problems concerning a literal six-day creation. But in the meantime it is clear that the questions regarding same sex relationships (which according to many Adventists are unequivocally condemned by the Bible) can no longer be ignored.  It is also clear that these various issues have one common denominator. It is the basic question: How does one read the Bible? Can you only read the Bible in such a way that you have little or no room for maneuvering in these matters? Or can you, in good conscience, (and with the unwavering belief that the Bible is the Word of God in tact), also read the Bible in a way that leaves room for a non-literal approach that also takes into account that we live today in a world that starkly differs from the world of Bible times?

Not too long ago I saw the film Seventh-gay Adventists—a fascinating documentary that followed three Adventist same sex couples over a period of some years. The film pictures in a clever, sometimes surprising, and often sad, manner what homosexual men and women must go through when they want to be full members of the Adventist Christ.

One of the partners of one couple asks his brother who is an Adventist pastor, to officiate at their marriage ceremony. He goes through a lot of inner turmoil. He does not know how to handle this situation. But, eventually, he decides to respond positively. ‘Because,’ he says, if I make a mistake, I rather err at the side of humanness and mercy, that that I make a mistake by giving too much emphasis to rules and organizational policies, without due regard for real people of flesh and blood.’

It will be a while, I guess, before we can have an open discussion about these matters at all levels of the church, in all countries and in all cultures. There is indeed a great number of theological, cultural and historical issues to consider. Might it be that, for the time being, we could follow the example of the two Dutch priests and his bishop, who stated that the priests could make their own independent decision in this matter.  Could it be possible that we give the Adventist minister, and the individual Adventist congregation, the same kind of space and freedom? I suspect that most of those with a ‘different’ sexual orientation will understand that not all pastors and church committees will, in good conscience, come to the same judgment. But it may, at least for now, provide a pragmatic and yet spiritually responsible way out of many terrible dilemmas.

It may be that my thinking may change again in the next year or so. It has changed in many ways in the last few years. I continue to struggle with several aspects. But I have concluded that always saying ‘no’ when brothers and sisters with a ‘different’ sexual orientation want to be full members of the church, is no Christian option.

 

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Theology or power struggle?

With mixed feelings I studied, earlier this morning, the reports of yesterday’s special one-day constituency meeting of the Pacific Union (the administrative unit of the 215.000-plus Adventist church members in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada en Utah). With 79 percent of the votes in favor, and 21 percent against, a motion was approved that in the future ordination of pastors will be open to men and women.  After a similar recent decision by the Columbia Union (in the North-East of the US), this is the second major administrative unit that chooses to depart from the policy that, until the very last moment, the General Conference (the highest administrative unit in the Adventist Church) had been pleading for. A similar decision was recently taken by the North-German Union.

I am delighted with the outcome of the meeting, (which was not unexpected, in spite of heavy resistance from men (yes, of course: men) like Dough Batchelor, and in spite of the fact that the president of the church, Ted. N.C. Wilson, together with two of his vice-presidents, addressed the delegates in person with a view to protecting the unity of the church and to urge the Pacific Union to wait with unilateral steps until the ongoing process of study and decision by the world church would have been completed.

It seems, however, that the General Conference leaders had expected that the outcome would be negative (from their perspective), for just a few hours after the meeting in California ended, a bulletin was already published on the website of the Adventist Review, signed by the three officers of the world church, in which the decision of the meeting in the West of the US was deplored and it was announced that the church would have to react in some way to this development.

Yes, I am happy with yesterday’s outcome, and so are many with me. It is time that the church will end this nasty form of discrimination, that, according to the majority of Adventist theologians, is not in line with the Bible, and that many members can no longer, in good conscience, support. But it the same time I am saddened and deeply disappointed about the fact that the church finds itself in the present situation.

Something that, first of all, is a cultural matter, has been turned by many into a burning theological question. Of course, we do have to deal with the underlying question: How do we read the Bible? This is an issue that is at stake in many different discussions, and it demands the church’s attention. But it is deplorable that the ordination of women has slowly but surely become the key issue in the debate between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, that may well split the church.

For a long time the world church has failed to come to any decisions regarding the ordination of female pastors and has appointed one study commission after another. In the meantime is has become extremely difficult to discover a clear line in the official statements and decisions. It is OK to have (ordained) female elders in those areas of the world that are open to this. Churches are also free to appoint female deacons and to organize a suitable service of induction (whatever that means).  Female pastors may receive a blessing (we call it ‘commissioning’). They are allowed to baptize and lead out in the Lord’s Supper. But they are excluded from a number of (administrative!) positions and they may not be ordained. That poses the question: What is ‘ordination’ exactly? Is it a ‘sacrament’ that may only be administered to certain categories of people? What then is the real difference between the ordination of a pastor and the ordination of an elder? (Some biblical arguments, please!) Most ‘ordinary’ church members cannot follow the reasoning that forms the basis for the current praxis. But what they do understand, loudly and clearly, is the basic fact that somehow women are not yet quite the equals of men. And many of them feel that the moment has come to protest against this state of affairs and to be no longer satisfied with promises that the church is engaged in a thorough, comprehensive study and that a decision will be forthcoming by 2015.

But the most deplorable aspect, I think, is that the matter of WO (Women’s Ordination) has developed into a power struggle. The decision by the three unions is seen by some (many?) as ‘rebellion’. A few weeks ago Wilson threatened with (undefined) sanctions against the unions that refused to follow the policies of the world church. Is this pastoral concern or ‘power-speak’? Many regard Wilson and his team as the ‘losers’ in this struggle and feel that their prestige as world leaders has clearly suffered. For many, the top leaders of the church are engaged in a rear guard battle. It is part of a process, they feel, that has been going on for considerable time. Increasingly, members want to see that many aspects of the church’s policy making takes place at lower levels, where local circumstances can be taken into account, and they no longer translate the concept of unity in term of uniformity. It is not easy for the leadership of the church to deal with the current impasse in a wise (and spiritual) manner. Unfortunately, the impasse has, to a major extent, come about as a result of the fact that the church has failed to adequately address the issue, mainly out of fear for reactions from the non-western regions of the church. Fear causes serious long-term problems. Courage, linked with tolerance and understanding for those who look at things from another cultural perspective, may often prevent situations such as they one we currently face.

The other day I read a comment on an article on a pro-WO website that invites further thought. The leaders of the church have invited us to be open to a process of ‘revival and reformation’. In Bible times, justice always was a key concept when prophets spoke about reformation and revival. When the Spirit descends on God’s people, there will be a deep desire for justice. Could it be, that the conviction that it is time to end the injustice towards women is a (perhaps unintended) fruit of the ‘revival and reformation’ to which we were called?  It might very well be.

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