Author: Walter van Beek

Forgiving our leaders

Redefining hierarchy: Escher's waterfall

It is about ten months ago now, that Sad Sunday when the ‘Exclusion Policy’ was upon us, the one that created a lot of problems, while solving probably none. In our ward we lost our bishop through it, and he still has not returned. Also, some of the Primary kids still have not been baptized, as some still wait for the exclusion policy to be revoked. There is ample reason for such a repeal; after all, as I analysed last year, the policy of excluding children of same sex parents from a normal entrance into our community does not really address anyone in practice, whereas it does send a signal of exclusion into the world. And into the Church. It is the wrong arena, the wrong battle, the wrong fight. Yet, a retraction is unlikely to happen for several reasons. In any formal organization, not just the Church, reversing a decision is much harder than taking one, as it erodes…

Abraham, a dilemma solved?

Abraham and Isaac as depicted by the Baroque painter Dominichino

The man who killed our former Secretary of Health, dr. Borst (see my last blog), will be institutionalized with mandatory psychiatric treatment, for a period as long as is deemed necessary by the experts, till they deem him no longer a threat to society. The judges opined that he was completely unaccountable, living in a totally parallel world. He had set out to kill his sister, and then ‘God told him’ on the spot to kill dr. Borst; he killed his sister later. The prosecution had demanded 8 years in prison first and then institutionalization, and considers to appeal the verdict. Anyway, in our day and age the ‘call of Abraham’ is judged as insanity, so let us return to the Genesis story, for a third angle on what I consider one of the most dangerous tales in the Script. In my first blog I treated the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac more or less in the way that…

Abraham, the legend

Abraham and Isaac, a favorite theme for painters

Right now in the Netherlands a man stands trial for the murder of former Health Secretary, Els Borst. The culprit has confessed, stating in his defence that God commanded him to kill dr. Borst as she was responsible for the new euthanasia laws. The immediate reaction of the Dutch public is that he is insane; also the court does not take his claim seriously. Now, such a claim in a murder case is rather new for the Netherlands, but in the USA this kind of delusion may sound familiar, like in attacks on abortion clinics. Claims on God’s command can be used for all purposes, also the most nefarious. The interpretation of a story’s message depends on who is telling it and what is the hidden agenda of the story teller. In my earlier blog we were wondering about Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son, our basic conundrum, and now let us view Abraham not as a historical person but…

Abraham: the problem

Caravaggio's version of Abraham's sacrifice

At the moment I am teaching a course on ‘Religion and Violence’ for Leiden University in the Netherlands. The topic is all too obvious these days, especially after the last brutal terrorist attacks in Brussels. As a text we use Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood. Religion and the History of Violence, a book in which she in fact defends the right of existence of religion as such, a defence which is called for indeed. All through the western world, religion sits in the dock, accused of instigating violence, and by increasing popular consent is found guilty as charged. Would the world be better off without religion? The question was raised during Enlightenment and but now roams larger, wider and much louder. Increasingly the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’. Of course this is triggered by excesses, such as we just suffered in Brussels. Forgotten for the moment the manifold contributions to our society and to western civilization by Christianity; or by…

A sad Sunday

It was a sad Sunday, this 15 November 2015. For two reasons; the major disaster of course was the murder spree in Paris, which has shocked Europe to the core. The Sabbath prayers in our Utrecht ward were for the many victims, and for the grieving host of their loved ones. Europe is united in grief, but also in anger. We consider ourselves at war, a word we do not use easily, not with Islam, but with IS. Even the problem of housing hundreds of thousands of refugees who voted with their feet not to stay in a completely radicalized country, pales in the face of this tragedy. But we will not be budged, we will not let our lives be dictated by thugs. On that, everybody agreed, and the grief binds us together. The other issue was totally unrelated, and very small in comparison with this, minute indeed, but the question kept our minds and tongues busy. We simply…

Winning the peace

My niece's wedding, with the children

The supreme court has decided, so now in all of the USA same sex marriages are legal. With this landmark decision the USA has joined the many nations in the world where such a union has become official, and from the Netherlands, the first country where these marriages became official, we extend a warm welcome to America. Great that you joined the swelling crowd who thinks that LGTB should not be discriminated against, also not in marriage issues. You are becoming a ‘modern nation’ now (I hope you recognize a European ‘tongue-in-cheek’). In an earlier blog I explained how preciously little impact this SSM issue has had on the members, wards and stakes in the International Church. i.e. in the largest part of the LDS Church, a notion repeated by many bloggers and commentaries. That means that the recent church statement has very little bearing on the situation outside the USA and will raise questions and eyebrows when read in…

Pilate and Jesus, a colonial view

Jesus was tried by the Jewish elite in a hasty trial

In studying the last days of Jesus, like in lesson 26 of Gospel Doctrine, we habitually view the complicated chain of events that led to Jesus’ death from the viewpoint of the victim, with the dominant party furnishing the bad guys, the culprits of the story. Evidently, the Jewish authorities are prime suspects, but throughout Christian history one specific player has had a very bad press, Pontius Pilate. Most Christians have at least partly blamed him for the crucifixion, pointing either at his ruthlessness or at his presumed lack of spine, or even both. That, however, is the view from below. Let us now have a look from ‘above’, and see the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in action as a colonial administrator. For me as a Dutchman, living in a country which has a – both lamented and glorified – colonial past, such a view might be closer than for an American. After all, Indonesia and West Papua once were…

We are all Charlie

French journalists with press cards and "Je suis Vharlie" (I am Charlie, before the premises of Charlie Hebdo.
Photo Gonzalo Fuentes

The horrendous attack on Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday has shocked the world. This is beyond humanity, and all reactions, also from the Muslim communities, is one of deep anger and clear condemnation. Everywhere this murderous spree is seen as an attack on a core value in modern free society, the freedom of the press. Whoever attacks the free press, attacks democracy and free society, so whoever attacks a free press in fact attacks us, all of us, none excluded. Throughout Europe, people flocked to the large squares, expressing their revulsion for this brutal massacre, voicing their conviction that this is not to be tolerated. Thus, the ever so divided Europe unites in one voice, that we are all Charlie. The target, Charlie Hebdo, is a satirical magazine which by definition is iconoclast. It choses provocation, not dialogue, trying to shock, not to gloss over. Their humor is not mine, and their policy is not the one I advocate to bridge…

Who killed Goliath? CSI in Jerusalem

David with Goliath's head, by Caravaggio

Who really killed Goliath? Of course, this is the most stupid question possible. After all, this is one of the most advertised killings in the history of the world, its record read by millions of admiring people, glorifying in the victory of the brave and smart reddish boy over the Big Ugly Brute. Add the pious invocation of Jahweh throughout the battle, and one has the making of an inspiring heroic story, and that is precisely how it functions in the Old Testament. All the kids in Primary know exactly who killed Goliath, and can explain in detail how he did it, with his sling and a few pebbles. Reading the story in I Samuel as a military history one can understand how David came to be a great army leader, for the chapter defines him as a smart soldier. Goliath is the quintessential massive warrior, “whose height was six cubits and a span” (1 Sam 17:4) (KJV); 6 cubits…

A temple, a temple, we already have a temple

Our invented tradition': the 'sea' as a baptismal funt

Yes, we do, a lot of temples, more than ever in history. We are, as the leaders never stop telling us, a temple building people, and if anything distinguishes us from our fellow-Christians it is our temples. For us the temple is a crucial religious and ritual focus, the apex of our notion of holiness; it is also somehow a link with a distant past, with the deep salvation history of mankind, through Israel. Indeed, one of the themes running through the Old Testament is exactly that of the temple. But what is temple, and what continuity is there among the temples? What is the ‘third voice’, the one of the author, on the temple tradition in the religion of Israel and Judah? We focus first on Jerusalem. It all starts, as everything in the bible, with Moses, with the Pentateuch. Exodus gives a wonderfully detailed description of the ark and especially of the tabernacle, richly decorated, with lots of…

A gospel born in grief

The interior of the Dome of the Rock, place of birth of our three Abrahamic religions

It is time now to ponder, after the silence of bereavement. For me the gospel is sometimes hard to believe, often an intellectual challenge, but always a comforting presence. Things go wrong in this world (well, many things go right as well) but in our day and age the things that do go wrong seem to do that in a grand way. The downing of MZ17 was one of these. What comfort can I find in the scriptures, how does the Old Testament – as that is what we are reading at this time – relate to the afflictions that flesh is heir to? The most inspiring messages and profound notions in the Old Testament are borne out of suffering, out of deep loss and utter despair. When history goes wrong, we, together with the heavens, construct the deepest meaning in our lives. Let us see how. Reading the Old Testament this way, means that we are using the insights…

Mourning and the Gospel

At this moment The Netherlands, like many other countries, are in deep mourning, shocked by the terrible news of the downing of MZ17 in the East of Ukraine. Each of us has somewhere in his or her network people who were in that flight; my faculty lost a whole family, the dean of Liberal Arts with his wife who worked in Communication Studies, and one daughter, a brilliant student who was in my Liberal Arts class last year. At this moment the news is completely dominated by images of a charred field with wreckage, masked soldiers trying to shut off the area, and especially of a long train of cooling-wagons carrying off some of the 298 remains to a safer area, in West Ukraine. At this very moment the whole of Holland is waiting for two airplanes to land at Eindhoven airport, with whatever is left of those dear corpses. A day of nation-wide mourning, this day, a day when…

Laughing with the Bible

Among the Dogon masks are serious business, important in their religion. Yet, also in mask rituals, people are satirized; on this photo a mask of a ''seeer', important and yet very funny in his particular dance.

Humor in the Scriptures? Come on! The Gospel is serious matter, isn’t it? Yet, humor is there, sometimes clear, sometimes disguised, but the ‘third voice’—the reading of the text from the viewpoint of the author—can be very funny. We saw Balaam being topped by a she-ass, very amusing, but there is a larger example, more elaborate and veiled, but definitely funny. It is the entire Book of Jonah, the prophet-in-the-fish and the most productive way to read it might well be as a satire. Why? Let us run through the story: Jonah was called by the Lord to go to preach repentance to the evil city of Nineveh. Immediately he fled to Tarshish, but the Lord called up a storm, and though Jonah kept sleeping, the sailors decided to threw the lots to know the culprit. That was shown to be Jonah, who confessed being a fleeing prophet. So, at his own suggestion they threw him overboard as a sacrifice,…

It always starts with a book

A man in Yemen reading his Thora

When the Lord wants to ‘refresh’ the gospel, He brings forth a book, it seems. The Restoration was triggered with the Book of Mormon, for the Reformation the first printing of the bible in German was indispensable and Christianity became something else than a Jewish sect the moment Paul’s letters and the early gospels came together as the core of what later would become the New Testament. We as LDS are a Religion of the Books, and that plural irks our fellow Christians to no end: it should be one Book. However, if they would read their own Book well, i.c. the Old Testament, listening to its ‘third voice’ – what it meant to the people for whom the book was produced, focusing on the authors – they would recognize that the appearance of a new book inside a scriptural tradition is not new at all. On the contrary, it is very old, as it is the way the Lord…

Who is Israel?

When teaching Institute recently to a class of LDS students in our ward, I used the term ‘Latter-day Israel’ and met with a surprised silence: they had never heard the term. Yet, all of them were second generation members, born and raised in the church and thoroughly schooled in whatever the church had thrown at them, several had performed a mission and as university students (most of them) they had read their church books. Being a convert member now for almost 50 years, I suddenly realized how much the discourse on Israel had changed in the church. Maybe this is just a Dutch or European phenomenon, but neither do we produce our own lesson materials, nor do we produce our own gospel discourse, so I do not assume it is. In effect, this demise of the Latter-day Israel discourse highlights the changed notions on descent and race that Armand Mauss analyzed so well in All Abraham’s Children. We transformed from…

The three voices of the Scriptures

A quite Mormon snack table

I love the Old Testament, both as an anthropologist and as a Mormon. None of our other Standard Works has as many wonderful stories as the OT, and none raises as many questions as this longest and most complex of all Scriptures. Now that we plough our way through it in Sunday School, we noticed how hard these stories are, and even harder are the parts we skip. That has everything to do with the purpose of these tales, what I call their ‘voices’. Jonathan Green correctly reminded us in his blog that the ‘Why told’ question is more interesting than ‘What happened’. Pursuing this angle, I think we as Mormons could have a privileged understanding of the Scriptures, also of the Old Testament. The simple reason is that we have been and still are witness to the genesis of scripture, as one of the few denominations in Christendom. Our last instance was in 1978, for most of us still…

Reading Bileam: an embarrassing prophet and us

Bileam, the donkey and the Angel by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1622

The Gospel Doctrine class gives quite some attention to one of the strangest stories in the Old Testament, the one of the prophet Bileam, or Balaam; I just taught it in our ward in the Netherlands. The story is strange in many ways, and with a personage that is surrounded by miracles one easily assumes that he is fictive to start with. But he really existed and as an important prophet! When studying anthropology at Utrecht University, during the archeology course the professor told us about his visit to Deir ‘Alla, a site on the East Bank of the Jordan river. A team of Dutch archeologists from Leiden University led by Hoftijzer and van der Kooy had found there a bronze age shrine, and lo and behold, they found a text on the wall of that shrine, in itself a rare event. But there was more to that text, it even spoke of BLM BN BR, which the scholars recognized…

Boko Haram, 200 schoolgirls and us

Book on Boko Haram

The French president Francois Hollande is convening an international conference with the countries around Nigeria on the question how to deal with Boko Haram, Michelle Obama addressed the USA on the plight of the abducted schoolgirls: all through the western world the media react to this incident in North Nigeria. Last Saturday I gave an interview on Boko Haram for the national Dutch radio: the media have ‘discovered’ Boko Haram, and so have international politics. Of course the furor is completely justified, especially when the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, announced that he would sell the girls, either as prostitutes, forced brides or slaves. But, as always, there is a history to this, and maybe a moral. So I want to raise two questions here: how could this happen – the history of this brutal violence – and why do we react as we do at this very junction of time? And maybe a third question: how do we…

A house with a gun is not a home

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Everybody was shocked by the news that on April 19 in Utah a three year old girl killed her two year old brother with a shotgun. Poor boy, poorer girl and still poorer parents, what a tragedy, also for the wider family, the ward, the community, the church, in fact for everyone. This is exactly what should never happen. Such an accident always depends on a string of improbable circumstances: the fact that the gun was within reach of toddlers, that it held still one bullet, that mother or father were just out of sight at that very moment, the improbable aim at the little brother, her finding the trigger at all, etc. Sure, each of the chains in this string can be broken if proper care is taken, but my point here is stating the obvious: there should have been no gun in the house, not in this house, nor in any home. A house with a gun is…

‘Traditional Marriage’: what are we speaking about? An anthropological view

Amalea 3

A modern Kapsiki groom, leading his bride (first one behind him) with her friends to the dancing ground No discussion in present Mormondom tops the issue of same-sex marriage. In the debates the notion of ‘traditional marriage’ is used, especially by people who want to limit marriage to a monogamous heterosexual union. Julie Smith, in her excellent guest blog, has shown that the gender division of providing and nurturing that is usually thought to be an integral part of so-called ‘traditional marriage’, does really not hold, but the notion as such is highly problematic. First, what is marriage? Like no other academic discipline cultural anthropology has a wide and varied experience with forms marriage throughout the world, and it has developed its understanding of marriage with the findings coming in from different cultures. Just after WW II, at the heyday of a basic field research, the famous field manual ‘Notes and Queries’ could still define marriage as: ‘A union between…

Why same sex marriage is not an attack on the institution of marriage: experiences from Europe

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A Dutch Mormon non-same-sex marriage: a proud father with his daughter The involvement of the LDS church in the issue of same sex marriage in the United States runs very deep and is highly emotional. The battle for proposition 8 was intense, highly visible and centrally directed and seemed at the time to result in a repeal of the liberty for same sex partners to formally and legally marry in California. At the time it drew a lot of attention in Europe as well, reflected in major articles in journals, newspapers and magazines. One of these was Time Magazine, the European version, reporting on the massive investment the Church did in California to further the cause of proposition 8. Also church members in the Netherlands became aware of it, and some joined in. Ironically, quite a few of them thought that the Church had ordained that prop 8 should be defeated, so prayers were sent to heaven to block that…

Why is climate change not popular in Deseret?

Not only Holland, but also the most beuatiful city in the world is threatened by water: Venice

The weather comes and goes, the climate stays. At least, that is what we were taught in our youth, but nowadays the stability of climate is in heavy weather, for the climate is changing. In windy and rainy Holland the weather is an obvious conversation starter; a Nepalese anthropologist who did his fieldwork in the Netherlands in the ‘80s was struck by our constant speaking about the obvious, the weather; he thought the reason was that everything else in this country was under control, man-made or well-regulated, so the weather was about the only variable item we could mention This discourse, by now, is supplemented by one on climate change, as today any mention of the weather is almost routinely accompanied by a referral to the threat-from-outside, the warming of the earth, the rise of the sea level, the more erratic weather. Not only Holland is threatened by rising water, also the most beautiful city in the world is, Venice…

Climate and gospel

foto tempel in het water NL

About a year ago I took the liberty of asking the Brethren what their opinion was on climate change. My reason was that we as Dutch have a temple below sea level, probably the only one in the world. How did the Brethren envisage the future of the Dutch temple, considering sea level rise due to perceived and expected climate change? As LDS temples are destined for eternity, what are the long-term perspectives of this particular House of the Lord? Is it going to be flooded when the waters rise, inundated when the ‘inconvenient truth’ hits Holland? We as Dutch Saints are concerned about “our” temple, as in the long run the slow sinking of the Netherlands and the rising sea levels due to climate change might well form a threat for us, and thus for our temple. The Dutch and Belgians are quite climate conscious, and follow with great interest the global debates about climate change. Last week the…

Malian elections, a good loss for an LDS candidate

The Malian presidential elections have run their course and have produced a new president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The second runner Soumaila Cisse has conceded and congratulated the new president. The election ran in two phases, first between all 28 candidates, and then a second phase between the two front runners. After the first phase, Keita had 39% and Cisse 19%. There was, as we know from an earlier blog, an LDS candidate, Yeah Samake. He ended with 0.56% in the first run, and has extended his congratulations to the winner. For our Mormon fans of Samake, some questions remain. The last 20 candidates showed under 2% of the general vote, among them Samake. Is this a waste of effort and money? They hardly influenced the elections, and people did pour money into it. In Samake’s case these sponsors were his American friends mainly, acting – as far as my information goes – mainly on information received from him.…

A Mormon Moment in Mali?

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Many Mormons in Utah are aware of the fact that a converted Mormon is running for president in Mali. Indeed, Yeah Samake, an important social entrepreneur in Mali, joined the Church in 2000 while studying at the BYU, and indeed he has registered as a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections in 28 July 2013. He is the mayor of Ouélessébougou, a community consisting of a small town and a group of villages in South Mali. Based on his success as mayor, he is running for president, already in 2012, but again in the present elections. Election campaigns cost money – no people know that better that Americans – and Samake has been able to generate quite some funds. During the last months he has run an effective campaign, basing himself on a successful NGO, Mali Rising Foundation, on a platform of decentralization, anti-corruption and ending aid dependency. As LDS we do not have a whole lot of presidential candidates;…

And shall not lead astray: the Church and ‘infallibility’

papal

As Mormons we follow the prophet, we proclaim, lifting our right hand at many Church occasions, for ‘he shall not lead us astray’. Quite a few General Conference talks urge us to heed the words of the Lord’s anointed, to follow his counsel as the true Iron Rod for our ecclesiastical lives. ‘When the prophet speaks, the debate is over’ First Counselor N. Eldon Tanner wrote in the Church’s Ensign magazine August 1975, echoing an Improvement Era’s message of June 1945, and this message comes to us over and over again.