The great convergence of fear

As Halloween transcends borders and beliefs, everyone but Rome is becoming more catholic.

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Pope Francis visits Lund, Sweden today, to ‘celebrate’ the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ironic? Welcome to 2016.

It is no coincidence that this happens on Halloween. Because when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church (sic) in Wittenberg, breaking the Catholic Church’s monopoly on salvation, it is believed to have been on exactly this date, 499 years ago.

So what is it with Halloween? The feast has come full circle, with roots in Celtic harvest festivals as well as early Christianity, crossing the Atlantic, and now hitting Europe full force as a dumbed-down, Americanized celebration of saints, death, fear, scariness, candy, and pumpkins (at least we’re now also eating the pumpkins).

This is convergence – everything melting together. And nobody seems to remember that Danish Protestantism had actually retained an All Hallows’ Eve event in its curriculum with church services and the like.

Which in itself is strange, since the whole concept of Saints was one of the things the Reformation rebelled against. Nobody, living or dead, should have ‘special status’ according to God. And the Church should not wield its power by installing fear (of Hell) in its subjects.

As a good protestant I was brought up to fear Rome, not spirits. Halloween becomes a non-event when you don’t believe in ghosts, but await a physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time. The Catholic Church, however, was seen as a real, potential enemy, distorting the ways of God. Clergymen should not be people of power, and any human should have direct access to God.

When Catholics and Lutherans attempt to bridge the centuries-old gap today, it will be a cause for alarm for some. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has changed a lot since 1517, and burying the axe is not a bad thing.

Breaking down barriers – convergence – is true to the original meaning of the word catholic: universal; all-encompassing. Catholic uppercase has a different connotation, however.

An editorial in the usually very secular Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has some interesting points: They note the fascination with the pope, but also remind us that “in Lutheran eyes the pope is no more, no less Christian than the congregation.” They also remind their readers that “the [Danish] Lutheran People’s Church differs from the Catholic Church  by having room for differences, and that nobody can speak on behalf of the church.”

While the Pope is reaching out across differences, my own Seventh-day Adventist Church is becoming more and more Catholic in its actions; at least at the top organizational level it is no longer a movement, but an elite of the few with the ‘correct’ views, attempting to wield undue power over their flock.

Convergence. Old fault lines disappearing, organizations becoming that which they rebelled against, and new consensuses appearing.

My reaction is not to fear, even though today is Halloween. Rather, I will quote the “Litany of fear” from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Also that is convergence – finding inspiration in a fictional religion set in a distant future. Where will we be 500 years from now? Let’s not worry about that.

Women treated badly

On Donald Trump, women’s ordination, and basic human dignity.

Last week was not a good week for women.

Even as Poland’s government listened to the massive public outcry and backed down on their demeaning anti-abortion law, the good news did not continue.

It began with the surfacing of Donald Trump’s degrading remarks which amount to nothing short of sexual abuse. Understandably, the old radio clip caused outrage among Republicans and Democrats alike, while the nominee himself not only didn’t back down, but fanned the flame with further outbursts.

Then Nigerian President Buhari said, during a visit to Germany, that his wife belongs in the kitchen. She had had the nerve to criticise him in public.

And finally, back in Washington, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am (still) a member of, held its ‘annual council’, a synod of sorts. On the agenda was perceived dissent among several local constituencies, the issue being women in church leadership. The world church officially rejects the ordination of women; however churches in Northern Europe and elsewhere have tried to circumvent the decision to allow for equal rights. The end-game has yet to conclude, but there is a real fear that last week’s decision is essentially a power-grab by the elected few, which brings this movement many steps closer to the papacy they claim to reject.

It defies logic that something as random as your gender should have such a big impact on your destiny. For millennia – with varying excuses – men have felt justified in treating women as inferior, one way or another. In some countries we have come some way in rectifying the issue, but the global challenge remains in applying basic dignity to half of our fellow humans.

Last Tuesday marked the International Day of the Girl. And as the father of two, the fight is now also personal. We all want to create a society for our children that is better than the one we inherited ourselves. Let us do just that – and once and for all break away with the glaring inequalities that remain.

When Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” he was referring to anyone wrongly deprived of their place in society. Obviously, this should also apply to gender.

It seems fitting to quote newly honored Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “As the present now will later be past; The order is rapidly fadin’; And the first one now will later be last: For the times they are a-changin’.”

Let’s hope so. At least Michelle Obama got it right in her speech:  “It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any – not for another minute, and let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”

Rising From the Dead?

It’s Easter. Yellow bunnies, eggs, roast lamb and time off work. Great stuff. But what about that other thing? You know, God dying and all that?

In hugely secular Denmark, Easter is still the one time of year when Christianity does seem to gather some general interest, if only for the traditions. There are still people who may call themselves ‘spiritual’ or claim to believe in ‘Christian values’, whatever they are; but how many modern-day Northern Europeans believe literally in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Sunday morning?

Does that really matter, you may ask? Can we not share the Christian message of love and peace without necessarily having to subscribe to a belief in a supernatural phenomenon that cannot be explained by rationally thinking people?

But that’s the whole point. It’s not supposed to be something we can explain. Even in the accounts from two thousand years ago, there was widespread disbelief. The closest followers of this man had given up hope. The first witnesses of the risen Christ were those with the lowest credibility at the time: women. The movement that Jesus had arguably started had died with him. What followed – the Christian church – was built solely on the belief that Jesus had in fact conquered death. Incredible, yes, but reality nonetheless.

Paul says: “If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless.” (1 Corinthians 15:16-17)

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no hope that we will be able to do so ourselves as humans. Without that hope, Christianity is moot. Without the hope of resurrection, the church is a bunch of traditions built on a lie, and not worth our time. There can be no church, no faith, without the resurrection.

If, however, we choose to grasp in faith that which we cannot explain rationally, then Easter morning carries a promise of hope that is without comparison. With all our advances and scientific revolutions, we are still no closer to conquering death. And nobody seriously believes that it is within our means to do so.

What happened on that morning two thousand years ago is still as unique, crazy and unbelievable today as it was then. I have chosen to believe, against the odds, in the hope that it is really true.

Pure Evil Remembered

It has been one year today, and it’s not a whole lot easier to comment on now. I’m talking about the Utøya massacre in Norway, of course, which shocked the world last summer.

My 15-year old cousin Benedichte was one of the victims of this senseless killing. While I never really got to know her that well (being 16 years apart and living in different countries), her family is my family, and I do share their grief, even if my life seems safe and secure in the neighbouring country to the south. I haven’t been to Norway since, and I don’t want to meddle. But in more subtle ways the events have affected me, as they have affected everyone else.

In the months following last year’s events, I would imagine being there in my dreams. Seeing it mentioned on the news (which has happened frequently during the highly covered court trial this spring) still gives me that knot in my stomach. As does writing this post.

With a few exceptions, I haven’t been going regularly to church since then. I’m not saying that this is the only or main reason, but it may have been the mule that broke the camel’s back. At first, it was cause for not seeing other people in that setting, which then opened our eyes to the fact that by not going to that particular church we weren’t really missing anything. Have I lost my faith? No, not quite. Well…

Last year, Lars commented that he didn’t care about the Why of Breivik’s ideology and message, but that he did care about the Why of Why did this happen? And I agree that we shouldn’t focus on the killer’s agenda. But we have to wrestle with the other Why, as people have done in all generations of this earth. The Why of theodicy: the universal problem of evil, especially in the light of a supposedly all-powerful God. The most ancient book of the Bible (Job) tackles this exact question. And no crystal-clear and universal answers are given, neither here nor throughout history. So while any attempt that I make is bound to be insufficient, I still have to try.

Explaining evil

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday, the foreign minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre, wrote that “ideology can never fully explain why specific groups or individuals commit unimaginable acts.” That’s right. Ideology cannot explain evil. The only possible explanation for evil that makes sense to me is that of the Devil. Mind you, not a guy in red tights holding a pitch-fork. But a wise and cunning malefactor unlike any the world has ever seen, sowing seeds of devilry (literally) in every person alive.

But if God then is good and omnipotent, why doesn’t he do something? There are several responses to this, neither which are fully satisfactory.

1. He can’t, or he won’t. This obviously means that God is either not omnipotent, or not good, or neither. Not really my kind of deity.

2. He has – Jesus has shown us a new way of love and reconciliation, and it’s up to Christians to bring healing to the world. Well, excuse me, but where have you been the last 2,000 years? Clearly, this strategy is not working, and we’re nowhere near any realisation of this dream. I’m all for people wanting to making the world a better place, incrementally. But perfect – I don’t believe it. “Open debate is our strongest tool in standing up to extremism,” writes Støre. If that’s true, we’re doomed. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think it can change fundamentally without divine intervention.

3. He has, and he will – Jesus claimed victory over sin on the cross, but we’re still waiting for his return to do the final cleanup and make all well again. This is the Adventist world-view that I was brought up with, and which is still at the heart of my faith. But the nagging questions linger: When? Why wait so long? I’ve got no good answers to those.

In the meantime

Which is why Støre’s remarks do make sense after all. Because for all our sensemaking, and all our eschatological beliefs, we still have to live in this world. And we have to keep on living, in spite of seemingly senseless evils.

Jens Stoltenberg, prime minister of Norway, said today in his eulogy: “22 July shall forever be tied to those who lost their lives. Those we have lost will never come back, but we must remember them with gratitude. Again and again we must share images of unity and warmth, remember the dreams they carried, and tell the stories with joy. We must learn to remember the lives they lived more than the moment of death.”

My cousin’s last words were spoken on her mobile phone: “No matter what happens, Mummy. Remember that I love you.” Love wins. It’s hard to see sometimes. But I sure do hope it’s true.

The Worst Story Ever Told

While the art of telling stories is hard to master, the basic syntax is surprisingly simple. The large majority of books and movies follow some variation on a standard template. Very simply put, it goes like this:

Harmony – harmony threatened/lost – hero enters – hero overcomes trials – harmony restored.

We like stories like this. Why? Because we like the idea that good will prevail in the end. We can identify with the loss of harmony and the trials, but we so want to believe in the Hollywood ending. We want to sing with Bob Marley: Everything’s gonna be alright.

But it doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? Real life is not Hollywood. And sometimes the happy ending is lost. It becomes even worse if we see the hero, but he fails to overcome the trials. We get our hopes up, only to be let down. When you’re neck-deep in the trials, do you really know how the ending will be? The more dramatic the story, the less faith on the part of the hero.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo did give up hope before the end, and only by Sam’s assistance did he conquer and succeed. What if Sam hadn’t been with him? What if Frodo had failed his task and was captured by Sauron? No one would have been alive to tell the story (unless you speak Orcish).

The hero can be a person, but it can also be an idea. Take spring. Very appropriately, the hope of spring came early this year, with days of 18 degrees even in March. We Danes love speaking about the weather, seeing it as a major accomplishment simply surviving yet another winter. But what happened? Our hopes were ruined, and now we’re back to sub-zero night temperatures, and white flurries in April. What if spring never came?

Then take the aptly named Arab Spring of last year. Suddenly, it seemed, people from all over the Middle East were swept away by waves of hope: hope of freedom and prosperity. Governments have been overthrown in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. But what about the hopes of the people of Syria? Their country is still not free, and some estimates count 12,000 deaths to date in the uprising.

Not that far away, a similar story played out a number of years ago. An oppressed people in a Middle Eastern state, longing for freedom, yearning for redress after centuries of pain and disappointment. A new hero enters the stage, and many people believe that this time it’s for real. Finally, the Arab Spring had come (or was it Jewish?).

But the hero doesn’t win. He is misunderstood, and then he is betrayed and killed by his own people. The very people he came to save. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” one of his few followers says in despair while walking the long, hard road back to where he came from. No Hollywood ending. No hope. This was anything but a Good Friday.

Not the End of the World

Do you know what happened on May 21? Not a whole lot. The world didn’t end, as Harold Camping and his followers would have had us believe. Which didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Camping and his doomsday prophecies come off as lunacy, and reality proves him wrong. The world moves on. Nobody cares.

Nobody cares. Except that as Seventh-day Adventists we’ve grown up with a message that the world will actually come to an end one day. Back in the 1800’s when people believed all sorts of things, a small group of Christians believed that Jesus would come back to Earth on a particular date. He didn’t. They were wrong. And from the ashes of that movement, Adventism emerged. The ridicule abated (somewhat), they dealt (somewhat) with the issue of 1844, and they laid a foundation (somewhat) within classic Christianity.

Despite clear Biblical counsel to the contrary (“For ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh,” Matthew 25:13), the obsession with dates and numbers didn’t quite end there. So when the movement known as Jehovah’s Witnesses came around some 30 years later, it was partly an Adventist minister (Jonas Wendell) who spurred them into setting dates and interpreting numbers and years. I know of individual members of my church who have tried to calculate dates for the Lord’s coming, and although mainline SDA theologians would never do that, there’s still a widespread passion for timelines and figures.

The problem is, that to the general public all these ideas are ridiculed equally. Some churches that I know of use Harold Camping as a marketing gimmick to get people to church and tell them  the “real” version of final-day events: Come to our church and hear why Camping was wrong, and why we’re right. I think this is doing the church a disservice. In trying to distance themselves from his interpretation, in the public eye they’re actually joining his boat of crazy, end-of-the-world lunatics.

Camping’s own interpretation, post-May 21, is that Christ’s judgment did actually begin on that date, we just didn’t see it. As the independent Adventist magazine Spectrum points out, this is scarily reminiscent of what Adventists did, post-1844.

For good and bad, the apocalypse is an integral part of Adventist identity, as also Lars has recently reflected upon. I’m not suggesting we eradicate this completely, even if that were possible. But in the wake of Harold Camping and his obvious failure, I would suggest that a proper course of action would be… nothing. We shouldn’t put ourselves in the line of fire attacking him. And if we must talk about the Second Coming, I would suggest forgetting the when (because we don’t know the date), and forgetting the how (because Revelation is much too deep a book to be reduced into a cartoon depicting factual events). In stead, we should focus on the why: if/when the Second Coming occurs, it will be because God loves the world and wants to recreate (not destroy) it for the good of all mankind. That’s why Jesus came to Earth the first time. Let’s talk more about him, and less about the calendar.

The Randomness of Adventist Cuisine

How Midwestern agriculture conquered the world

Recently, I spent some time in Michigan – my childhood home, my parents’ home, and, not incidentally, the birthplace of Seventh-day Adventism. And somewhere (it may well have been Wikipedia) I came across a random fact about the state. “Leading crops include corn, soybeans, flowers, wheat, sugar beets and potatoes.” Not surprising, remembering the corn fields we used to play in as kids. Not really interesting, either, unless you’re a farmer or commodities trader.

But wait. Look what’s first on the list. Corn and soybeans? And then consider the history of Adventists. As you know, health and diet were (and are) a big part of the church’s mission. A calling for healthy eating, vegetarianism, and abstinence features prominently in the identity of traditional Adventists. The most famous product is, of course, corn flakes, invented by Adventist John Harvey Kellogg, and subsequently the whole breakfast cereal genre. Why use corn in a breakfast cereal? Because it was locally grown, and abundant. The same goes for the humble soybean which was an essential source of protein for vegetarians trying to come out in a meat-dominated society. Being cheap, efficient, and a major Michigan crop, soy became the ingredient of choice in the many meat substitutes produced by Adventist-owned food companies. Wheat also features prominently on the Michigan high-score list, and interestingly enough, gluten has also been a staple of the Adventist diet.

Now a lot of Adventism’s lifestyle advice is actually pretty sound. And multiple studies in the U.S. and elsewhere (including Scandinavia) show that adhering to some of all of the advice enhances your lifespan significantly. This is worth noting, and remembering.

But I find it interesting that the agriculture of Michigan should come to have such a big influence on the world. After all, the advice is to eat less meat, not necessarily eat more corn and soy. Still, as Adventism spread to the rest of the U.S. and abroad, it promoted not just the lifestyle advice, but also the specific remedies (meat substitutes) to go with it. So as Adventists in Denmark, we faithfully produced and consumed a wide array of soy products, even though soy wasn’t very abundant in these latitudes. Localization never played a big part, so essentially Adventist diet became Adventist cuisine (thus the title of this post). Certain staple ingredients and recipes epitomized Adventists’ dietary identity, regardless of their commitment to health issues in general.

How would it have looked if Adventism arose not in Michigan, but in Louisiana, or Russia, or Thailand? The focus on health might have been the same, but we definitely would have eaten very different things. Fortunately, as vegetarianism gains a stronger foothold in many places, so does the will and the means to diversify. We may still eat our soy sausages, courtesy of the MDA, but hopefully their importance will diminish as we discover local and/or more authentic alternatives.