Saturday, 1 November 2014

Of Pumpkins and Castle Doors

Yesterday was Halloween, the one evening of the year when the front door gets barricaded against marauding bands of munchkins on a demonic sugar fix.

And it's also Reformation Day, commemorating the day in 1517 that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. It is a public holiday in 5 of the German states, Slovenia and - go figure - Chile.

Gene Veith is a conservative Lutheran of the LCMS persuasion. An excerpt from his commentary, posted on the Cranach blog, is "nailed up" below.

Luther's theology played second fiddle to the sense of moral outrage he tapped into. Luther is one of those fascinating characters full of self-contradictions. The bombastic peasant, German nationalist, beer connoisseur, scatological humorist, gifted translator, biblical scholar and change-agent with an unshakeable commitment to the oppressive political power structures of his day. Perhaps it's those very human contradictions that enabled him to break the monolithic Western church apart where others (think Jan Hus) had failed.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Grinch puts his case

As all Dr Seuss fans, past and present, know; it was the Grinch who stole Christmas.

But there have always been oddball Christians, usually inheritors of thin-lipped, bloodless Puritanism, who have condemned the seasonal frivolities. Then there are literal-minded folk for whom Christmas is not so much frivolous in the Scrooge sense, but just plain pagan to the core.

Amongst these sects, the various Sabbath-keeping Churches of God stand out. Unlike Jehovah's Witnesses these bodies (there are a plethora of feuding variations) have substituted faux Old Testament Holy Days - radically re-engineered from their Hebrew roots - for the traditional liturgical calendar that includes Easter (pagan!), Lent (pagan!) and, of course, Christmas.

Selling an anti-Xmas message is no easy thing. It's a bit like making nasty comments about "Mom and apple pie". But it does serve a very real social function in putting real kinship ties under pressure (yup, that's 'Mom' and the extended family outside the faith community) and shoring up the fictive kinship bonds among insiders -  'the brethren'. No more exchanging gifts or taking the kids around to the grandparent's place on Xmas Day. No special Christmas meals, coloured lights, Secret Santa, decorations or greeting cards. Pagan!

(And considering today is October 31, let's not even get started on what these folk make of Halloween!)

So how do you put a positive spin on something like that? The current issue of Discern - published by one of the more hardline COG sects - tackles the task manfully.

Other competing COG ministries will very soon be joining in the yowling Grinch-like chorus if past years are anything to go by.

Of course much of the commercial Christmas experience is kitschy, and there's no doubt that a lot of people get sucked into a debt vortex by unnecessary seasonal expenses. And, at the risk of sounding like a Discern article, a lot of the religious trappings aren't much better. 

Kilough and Jones will make those same points, but that's not their chief beef with Xmas. They're against it in principle because they read the Bible like Auntie Ruby reads the assembly instructions for Ikea furniture. 

The thing is, those so-called 'biblical festivals' which Clyde and Erik champion have their roots in Near Eastern agricultural fertility festivals that pre-date the oldest parts of the Bible. They were adapted into Second Temple Judaism in the same way similarly colourful European customs were later reinvented as Christian celebrations.

And so, you've got to ask, why not eggnog? What's the difference?

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Marcion and the gnotty problem of Gnosticism

Marcion is one of the truly under appreciated (and I would argue most misrepresented) characters in early Christian history. Good news, Daniel Gullotta (Australian Catholic University) has just posted his Masters' project - Marcion, a Gnostic without Gnosis - on

If that sounds daunting, it's just 37 pages long, and written without an oversupply of technical verbiage, which definitely makes it worth a look despite an occasional typo.

There's more available from the writer's WordPress page.

Trotter on the Noah movie

Did you see the movie Noah? I for one found it a let down. I mean, oh brother, get a load of those bizarro 'watchers'! And I'm still confused about the exact nature of Ham's unforgivable indiscretion after the ark grounded on Ararat. As for the acting, well, Russell Crowe has been more convincing.

But I didn't expect a leading political commentator to take aim at the not-so Epic. Chris Trotter is a chap of considerable insight who usually concerns himself with what is happening on the left of New Zealand politics. But this week he's moved his beady focus to Noah instead. I was prepared to be let down. Political pundits of whatever stripe should, as a rule of thumb, steer well clear of religious posturing. Invariably they end up saying really dumb things.

But, hallelujah, Trotter indeed proves to know something about his subject. His focus is on why the Bible-belt Right failed to endorse the movie.
As it is, the screenplay of Noah is neither fish nor fowl. It’s certainly not a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but neither is it a work of science fiction like Stargate. Instead, Noah is that rarest of things in this irreligious age, a heretical work. 
Sensing that the biblical version of the Great Flood is but a fragment of a much older and more finely textured myth, Aronofsky and Handel have attempted to construct from its ill-fitting remnants a story about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That they failed, producing a film so filled with gross failures of logic, motivation, and theology that not even the participation of Russell Crowe, Emma Watson and Sir Anthony Hopkins could save it, is not to be wondered at. Myths are the work of many literary hands, constructed over centuries. It’s takes a scholar of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stature to make a believable myth from the contents of a single mind.
I vote it the best review of Noah I've seen yet! You can read it in full over at The Daily Blog.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Turin Shroud Under a Cloud

You'd have to be a couple of communion wafers short of a requiem mass to think the famous shroud of Turin was anything other than a fake, but plenty of folk with a desperate need to believe unlikely things do in fact assert it's legitimacy. Of course it helps to be Catholic. Not too many Baptists or Mormons seem overly convinced.

Now there's a claim from Charles Freeman, reported in The Guardian, that the shroud originated as a stage prop for medieval Easter pageants.

It has the ring of truth.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Understanding Fundamentalism

There is a lot of heated rhetoric about fundamentalism. We know we're against it, and we may even have been 'burned' by it in the past... but do we understand it?

Then there's the sick irony of Christian fundamentalists engaging in a frenzy of verbal lapidation when it comes to Islam.

If you want to move beyond the usual game of "ain't it awful" and understand some of the issues involved in the various forms of fundamentalism, you could do worse than track down a copy of the eminently readable Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven, just one of many titles in Oxford's simply brilliant 'Short Introduction' series.

If you just want a spleen-venting 'feel good' tirade, Ruthven isn't your man. In this slim volume he pushes us well up the learning curve. At the end you might not feel any more kindly toward the phenomena - I know I didn't - but you will have a deeper grasp of what motivates otherwise rational people to embrace these dire views.

You might think recommending a book on fundamentalism to a group of largely ex-fundamentalist readers is a bit like teaching your Granny to suck eggs; after all, many of us have seen the beast from the inside. But sometimes folk can be too close to something like this, or too emotionally involved, to see what would otherwise be blindingly obvious.

Ruthven covers Protestant fundamentalism well, but takes a broader brush, including related tendencies in other religions. I picked up a lot of incidental information, for example, on Islam.

And, wouldn't you know it, Fundamentalism is available free on ISSUU. If you've got an iPad or tablet, the app is well worth downloading.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Bob Brinsmead in the NYT

Bob Brinsmead was a huge influence in my own journey from sectarian Christianity to the place I am today. Bob, a former hardline Adventist, came to be a thorn in the side of his former denomination, advocating a radical "gospel plus nothing" theology and publishing an influential magazine, Verdict, that led many - including many outside Adventism - to abandon Sabbatarianism and rethink their concept of God.

That was a long time ago; Verdict ceased publication in the 1980s, and Bob moved on to other things. So it comes as a surprise to see his name appearing in the October 10 New York Times in a feature on Edward Fudge and "conditional immortality". Somewhere I still have a copy of the first edition of The Fire That Consumes, mentioned in the article.

The following statement currently appears on Bob's website.
Robert D. Brinsmead’s theological interest has inspired most of his books and papers. Bob will tell you that being a theologian doesn’t mean that one can pretend to have an extensive knowledge of God. After a lifetime of thinking in this field, he readily admits, “All that I know about God could be written on a postage stamp with a large piece of chalk.” He concurs with Alexander Pope’s poetic line, “Cease from God to scan / the proper study of mankind is man.” So Bob says that good theology is thinking about the mystery of human consciousness, the mystery of love, the nature of the human spirit, the ground of being, the quest for meaning, and the great story of the human exodus to freedom, to an ever improving human condition and a human potential that in the words of Freeman Dyson “is infinite in all directions.” His scholarly interest has covered history, apocalyptic, myth, and literary criticism in the age of science. He describes his thought as being spiritual rather than religious. Unlike some ideologues who start out with a paradigm (system of thought or worldview) and then spend the rest of their lives defending it like a patch of turf, Bob’s ideas have always been evolving and developing. He is more like a man on a journey who doesn’t have to defend any patch of turf.
Definitely quotable!