Sunday, 20 April 2014

Underwhelming Lutheran Interview

Radio New Zealand National featured Lutheranism on its Sunday evening Spiritual Outlook programme this week.

Being brought up Lutheran, and having been tipped off that the show was airing earlier in the day (thanks Rols) I decided to tune in.

First some background. Lutherans in NZ, unlike Australia and the US, are only a tiny percentage of the Christian population. Like other mainline churches they're also in irreversible decline. Two of the three churches I once attended (New Plymouth and Lower Hutt) have subsequently closed their doors, as presumably have others. Pastors are usually imported from Australia as the NZ church is an outpost of the Aussie General Synod.
Jim Pietsch

RNZ, apparently after some importuning, decided to focus on this largely unknown faith community, despatching their intrepid interviewer Mike Gourley out to St. Paul's, the capital's only Lutheran church, to interview pastor Jim Pietsch, and even scheduling it for nationwide broadcast on Easter Sunday.

It was supposed to be a pleasant chat, and Gourley certainly did his best with gently probing questions. An easy ride? Not really. Pietsch over-thought his responses and came across as a somewhat stolid PR spokesman, distant and pedantic. As he tip-toed his way through the questions I wondered whether ministers receive any media training in their holy city of Adelaide. Perhaps they do, but it certainly didn't show this time.

It was, in my view, a wasted opportunity for all concerned. Pietsch didn't manage to connect with either interviewer or audience, and RNZ's man with the mic failed to ask any questions worth asking. The references to the composer Bach were almost gratuitous.

Next week they're airing part 2, this time featuring District President latterly turned Bishop, Mark Whitfield. It'll be interesting to see whether he managed to do anything more than go through the motions.

(The online audio isn't available yet, but it'll be added here when available.)

Good News Blues

I know, I shouldn't have done it.

But, you know how it is, the devil hops up on your shoulder and says "why not?"

So in a moment of premature dementia I opened up a copy of the latest Good News magazine.

You know, The Good News, published by the not-so aptly named United Church of God.

As usual it's a slick little number; nice design, layout, artwork. Other churches could learn a lot from the lads who produce this loud and glossy bi-monthly.

Content? Well, that's another matter.

For example, in this issue there's an article entitled "Do Prophecies About Jesus Prove He Was the Messiah?" I got mildly excited. Could it be that they were going to finally dump the rear-vision proof-texting argument?

The first thing I noticed when I flicked through to page 11 was the teaser.
"The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled hundreds of prophecies. Every one came to pass with incredible accuracy. Such fulfilled prophecy serves as proof that the Bible is true - and that God's plan for your future will come to pass."
Well, that answers that question straight away. No need to read further.

Then there's the crass "Current Events & Trends" section for all those dutiful types trying to read their newspapers (or more likely World Net Daily) in the light of their wide-margin NKJV. "Symptoms of America's Cultural Darkness", "A World in Turmoil", "Israel: A Nation in Dire Peril".

Don't expect an item headed "Palestine: A Nation in Dire Peril" any time soon.

Another article asks "Christianity or Capitalism: Do They Go Together?" That's in response to a statement by Pope Francis on the matter. The result is, as with everything else in the mag, totally predictable.

But it was all worth the wading through the verbiage by Bill Bradford, Noel Hornor, Mario Seiglie et al to finally reach the back cover and find the illustration tying the Bible together with Easter. Be sure to read verse 2.

Well done blokes, all is forgiven.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Bad Boy Bart vs the Barbarians

Southern Baptists engaging in respectful dialogue
Bart Ehrman has a new book out entitled How Jesus Became God, and James McGrath has been channelling some of the reactions on his excellent blog.

One such comment caught my eye. Craig Evans opines:
At work in Ehrman’s books is an unrelenting attack directed against the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. Ehrman is not attacking a straw man, for the object of his attacks does indeed exist. But his books address fundamentalist readings, not mainstream understandings of the Bible and the stories it tells.
At first blush it might seem a legitimate point, but is it? Fundamentalist readings are the mainstream among committed Christians, and that's been the case for some time. Just check out the garbage being sold at your local Christian book store. The old, tired mainstream has moved to the fringe as mainline denominations continue to grey and contract, drawn slowly yet relentlessly into irrelevance.

Which is why Ehrman's voice needs to be heard, as others sit placidly on the bleachers and mumble hopeful nonsense to reassure themselves that the Biblicist barbarians are not at the gate.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Hogwartz, Frankfurters and the original Robbie Burns

Deane Galbraith is a fine chap, but he suffers from occasional bouts of delusion... one being that Otagosh is frequented by folks who might be interested in the kind of seminar described below. But I'm passing it on anyway, if only to ruffle a few feathers. And let's face it, when you've had your fill of post-Marxism, post-structuralism and ecocriticism, there's always the beer and (being Dunedin) a wee dram!

As for me, I'm all for frankfurters... but the Frankfurter Schule? Nein, not so much.


Deadline for proposals: 31 August 2014

Im nächsten Jahr bei Hogwartz!
The Seminar calls for papers at the intersection of critical theory and the Bible. We interpret “critical theory” broadly to include not only the seminal work of the Frankfurt School, but also approaches such as Marxism, post-Marxism, post-structuralism, feminism, queer studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, human-animal studies, ideological criticism, Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, ecocriticism, cultural materialism, new historicism, alternative economics, etc. Likewise, we interpret “the Bible” broadly, to include the various Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures and related ancient literature, including their history of reception, use, and effect.

Please send paper proposals of 150-200 words to:
Roland Boer: Roland.Boer(at) and
Deane Galbraith:


Dates for Seminar: 10-11 December 2014

Venue: The Original Robert Burns Pub (“The Robbie”), 374 George Street, Dunedin, New Zealand

The Bible and Critical Theory Seminar returns to Dunedin in what is the tenth year of publication of the Bible and Critical Theory Journal and the seventeenth year in which the Seminar has been held. We will meet in the Poetry Corner at the Robbie Burns Pub, which we will have to ourselves until joined by regular patrons in the late afternoon. We will also make our way to Eric Repphun’s new venture, the Governor’s Cafe, for a delicious lunch.

Please also note that the BCT Seminar will follow the annual meeting of the Aotearoa-New Zealand Association of Biblical Studies (ANZABS), also to be held in Dunedin, at the University of Otago, on 8-9 December 2014.


While there is no official accommodation and a range of options around the city, for those comrades who appreciate the conviviality of low-cost communal living, I (Deane) recommend Hogwartz Backpackers, a short ten-minute walk to the Seminar venue and, from 1872 until 1999, residence of the Roman Catholic bishop. Prices start from NZ$29 for a shared room with 4 to 6 beds, and it is approximately NZ$63 for a single room (

Monday, 14 April 2014

Nisan - not a Japanese Car

Gary Leonard has a not-so starry-eyed recollection of the Church of God celebration of Passover up on his blog. To which I would only want to add that it was remarkable how many ministers in that movement managed to so determinedly ignore the very advice and counsel they passed on to others at that season...

Meantime, are these the worst Christianized Passover hymn lyrics ever? Hint: they weren't written by Dwight Armstrong.

The Lord's Evening Meal 
Jehovah, our father in heaven,
Oh, this is a most sacred night!
It was Nisan fourteen when your glory was seen,
Your love, justice, wisdom, and might.
The Passover lamb was then eaten,
And Israel's tribes went forth free.
Cen-t'ries later our Lord his own life blood out-poured
To ful-fill this divine prophecy.

There's another verse, but I'll spare you. The writer is anonymous, but you'll find it in the Watchtower publication "Songs of Jehovah". Thanks to Sam for passing it on. The purple hymnal has nothing like it. Does anyone know if there's anything similar in the Church of God (Seventh Day) hymnal?

Theology and Popular Religion

Further thoughts from Robert McCauley (Emory University), writing in The Big Questions - a New Scientist special edition.
Theologians try to make intellectual sense of the enigmatic claims of popular religion. They reflect, debate and sometimes generate abstract formulations that [authorities] decide to label as doctrines... Unlike popular religion, theology routinely makes abstract and radically counterintuitive statements that are conceptually complex and difficult to understand... This is why religious people must often make an effort to memorise them and why religious leaders adopt a variety of measures to indoctrinate and police "theological correctness". 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Faith Tweaking Understanding

What is theology? When I took the 101 course the nice lecturer seemed perfectly happy citing the old (really old... eleventh century!) chestnut, "faith seeking understanding." The problem is this doesn't allow for the sceptical enquirer. In the mind of the teacher, however, this didn't seem much of a problem: only people of faith could understand theology... faith (of the suitably patented Christian variety) was a prerequisite.

Very convenient. Could a non-Christian really come to grips with this field of thought? The lecturer thought not.

This response came as a surprise to me, especially given that we were studying in a well-regarded secular university, not some two-bit, tithe-funded Bible college. I countered by offering examples of Jewish scholars who contribute greatly to the field; but no, the point wasn't conceded.

This whole approach is, of course, nonsense, regardless of what crotchety old Anselm of Canterbury might have thought "back in the day." It's akin to shutting yourself in to a deadlocked room, tossing the key out of the window, and then blubbering about how free you are.

But back to the question: what is theology? "Faith seeking understanding" might cut it for those poor wretches who describe themselves as apologists, and expend their energies whitewashing crumbling sepulchres, but that's about it.

To the rescue comes Robert McCauley writing in the New Scientist publication The Big Questions.
"Deliberate, conscious reflection about the meaning and truth of religious claims is called theology."
Amen brother - high five! A useful, inclusive definition at last.

McCauley continues, making some further insightful comments, some of which I hope to cover in a follow-up posting.