For Andries Knevel (69), a defining event at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam prompted a radical change in direction. Since then, he has devoted his life to faith. He will be leaving the Evangelische Omroep (Evangelical Broadcaster) this month after some 43 years.
You initially started studying economics but later switched to theology. What led to that change of study?
„A defining event took place one ordinary morning. I was at an economics lecture with a number of first-year students. Out of the blue, my brain went haywire. It was as though I was struck by a lightning bolt of existential questions. ‘What am I doing here?’ I suddenly asked myself. ‘Who am I and where do I come from? And what is the meaning of my existence?’ I was overwhelmed and didn’t know what had hit me."
„When I arrived home, I started searching through the Bible for answers. Despite my religious upbringing, it felt as though this was the first time I’d read the words of Paul. I was hungry for knowledge and for faith and was no longer interested in studying economics. I wanted to make that experience my life’s work and saw a future for myself as a minister."
Why did you start searching through the Bible for answers to these existential questions?
„I couldn’t think of any other way than to search in the tradition of my upbringing. I didn’t get answers to my existential questions in one go during that first read, but I felt really strongly that I needed to search for answers within the Christian faith."
„I sometimes have the tendency to please, but it’s something I shouldn’t have done."
What did you think of the theology programme?
„Studying theology was wonderful. At that time, the great Reformed VU lecturers had not yet retired from Vrije Universiteit, which meant I experienced the tail end of the reformed movement. I started to value that more and more later on. I then went to Utrecht to follow a more orthodox study programme, but my best memories are of my time at Vrije Universiteit. I still love coming here. And yes, Vrije Universiteit has been a defining factor in my life."
You didn’t become a minister. You ended up at the Evangelische Omroep (EO) and presented various talk shows. Which interview is most memorable?
Without doubt, that’s my conversation with Hijltje Vink, a mother to foster children with all kinds of problems. Whether the children came from broken homes or had a disability; Hijltje took them all in. As a father of three children I was incredibly impressed by her. How do you manage to keep such a family going? Although I interviewed lots of celebrities and big shots, she made the biggest impression with her selfless love."
What part of your career would you prefer to have done differently?
„Twelve years ago, I made statements distancing myself from creationism and the Story of Creation. I did that in a very unfortunate way by signing a statement on television. The way I did this may have caused more of a stir than the message itself. I didn’t realise exactly what I was doing. I sometimes have the tendency to please, but it’s something I shouldn’t have done."
You were known as the presenter with the pointing finger. What do you think of that?
„I prepared myself very carefully for interviews and I often knew the answers before I asked the question. That meant I started answering the question before my guest had the chance to do that, creating the impression that I was often interrupting. But actually it was a form of impatience. In hindsight, I should have held my peace more."
Was that wrongly linked to your Christian Reformed Church background?
„I think so. I was seen as a moral crusader, as though I was mainly preaching. I’ve always been the town crier. For instance, whenever there was a fight in the school playground, I would be up there on the fence reporting it live. If I have great guests on a show, I want the people not yet in the school playground to hear what they have to say."
Has your journalistic disposition - wanting to know everything - ever clashed with your faith?
„It’s never clashed because, for me, faith also contains a rational component. Over the years, my faith has taken on other aspects as well. I don’t only believe with my mind, but also with my heart. That mysticism has made me accept that there are things I can’t reason or explain. I always wanted to get to the bottom of everything, but I don’t need to do that anymore. I want to reflect on the great mystery of the Gospel and that has enriched my faith."
„I always struggle with the issue of suffering. Why do so many suffer. And why does God not let His voice be heard in this?"
You just mentioned renouncing a literal reading of the Story of Creation as described in the Bible. What do you think of the argument that suggesting that certain aspects of the Bible are false can be a slippery slope?
„I was, indeed, reproached at the time; people wondered what else I would no longer believe in ten years’ time. But I can reassure everyone that nothing of the sort happened. The Bible contains sixty-six books with different literary genres, each with its own historic or metaphoric truth. When interpreting the Bible, you have to take the different genres into account. If you do that, the dilemma about true and false disappear."
Are there any questions of faith you find difficult?
„I always struggle with the issue of suffering. Why do so many suffer. And why does God not let His voice be heard in this? I do have a theological answer for this, but sometimes the fragility of life is such that my answer just doesn’t hold up. My father had MS his entire life and became an invalid as a result. His life was full of suffering. My theoretical answer doesn’t always hold up when I think back on that."
Has your faith ever been tested?
„My faith has been tested many times, but I’ve never lost it. It was tested most when my younger sister died aged 35. After a difficult life, she was finally happy, and had just got married. But then she suffered from cancer and died. I screamed at God."
Did you find answers to this?
„I still don’t have an answer. For me, the Bible is more and more a book of life that gives us texts that we can shout out to God. At difficult times I read Psalm 13, and then I can accept it and move on. I’ve learned to want to know less and to revere the unknown more. To have faith is to endure together with God all of the cultural temptations and scientific questions, and more importantly, for God to endure with me."