Monday, 4 May 2015

Bob Price on "The Isis Cult"

Bob Price has an insightful blog post on the attraction of ISIS to young Muslims living in the West. He draws parallels with the appeal of various cults to Western youth in the 1970s.
I believe the late fundamentalist Presbyterian Francis A. Schaeffer hit the bull’s eye in his 1972 booklet The New Super-Spirituality. He was discussing the earlier hyper-fundamentalist Christian groups like the Alamos and the Children of God. These groups made no secret of their contempt for mainstream evangelical churches and ministries. The COG, for example, would send into Sunday morning church services their own members clad in sackcloth and ashes, stamping wooden staves on the sanctuary floor, chanting verses of judgment and doom. It was a classic case of a repeating historical pattern described by sociologist Max Weber: sects begin by rejecting “worldly” religious institutions which have betrayed their founders’ radical, counter-cultural vision. But in a generation or so, as these Young Turks have children and assimilate to the societal norms they once repudiated, the sect becomes a church, and after a while the whole thing begins again.
Schaeffer was sectarian in one sense: at some of his lectures (I heard one of them at Princeton University chapel), he would stamp his feet and shout “We are the true Bolsheviks!” But in The New Super-Spirituality, he theorized that a new generation of Christian youth, raised on Sunday bombast about taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, were disillusioned by the complacent piety of their pew-potato parents and decided to chuck the affluent American lifestyle and put their money where their mouths were. They sought out Christian communes (I visited some of them: Reba Place Fellowship, Sojourners, Jesus People USA, Christian World Liberation Front), pooled possessions, took Bible names, and spent hours each day witnessing, praying, and reading scripture. All in the advancing shadow of the Second Coming.
I think we are witnessing pretty much the same thing with young Muslims leaving the West and heading for the Islamic State. You have to understand that the whole Jihad movement is a reaction against centuries of theologically devastating Islamic humiliation. In the early centuries Islam ruled an empire larger than the Roman Empire was at its height. This success could not but be experienced by Muslims as living confirmation of their belief that they were pioneers and inheritors of the Kingdom of Allah on earth. Thus when their empire began to fade, to fragment, and ultimately to face defeat, even domination, by Christian and secular powers, it was Allah’s own reputation that was impeached. It was no mere frustration; it was an existential threat to the religion: “then your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14)... 
What they heard in their mosques about Muhammad and the past glories of Islam sounded antithetical to the pluralism and secularism of the society around them. Pluralism inevitably dissolves any master narrative that may once have given a more monolithic society its identity and sense of direction. For Muslims, their very existence as one more plant in a larger garden seems to contradict the ostensible raison d’être of Islam. The blandishments of radical Islam offer what a secular, pluralistic society cannot give: a jihad to conquer anomie.
The whole piece is well worth reading.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Biblical Topiary

"Finding one's own understanding of the Bible invariably involves creating biblical topiary. I used to live near the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland where remarkable objects are sculpted out of shrubbery, including a fox hunt with dogs, horse and rider leaping a fence, and, of course, the fox. Although creating topiary is a complex art, it ultimately comes down to pruning away what is not wanted to leave only the desired object. And that is what people often do when they read the Bible. They select just what they want. But unlike topiary gardeners with their shears, practitioners of biblical topiary are often oblivious to what they are leaving out. And some of them become extremely hostile to anyone who calls their attention to parts of the Bible that they are ignoring to make its message fit their beliefs."

Richard Hagenston
Fabricating Faith: How Christianity Became a Religion Jesus Would Have Rejected
Polebridge Press, 2014

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Barth - the Enigma (der vierte Teil)

Protestant altar in Cologne during the 1930s
There is a good deal of nonsense made of the faithfulness of the Confessing Church during the Third Reich. The story goes that the German Protestant church was subverted by the "German Christian" movement which eagerly promoted Nazism. Of that there's no doubt, the record is quite unambiguous.

But, we're told, the Confessing Church stood firm against Hitler, led by spiritual titans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. But the truth is less clear cut. Yes, Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazi regime and paid for it with his life. The record of the Confessing Church, and of Karl Barth, is as a whole more ambiguous.

Few have dug as deeply into the disturbing world of the churches under Hitler as Susannah Heschel. Her book The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press, 2008) should be required reading for anyone seeking to comment on events in that period. Here's what she has to say about the Confessing Church and its attitude toward Jews and Judaism.
[W]hile the Confessing Church supported Jews who had become baptized Christians, most of them agreed with the German Christians that Germany needed to be rid of its Jews and that Judaism was a degenerate moral and spiritual influence on Christians. (p.5)
Even within the so-called "church struggle" between German Christians and the Confessing Church for control of the Protestant church, antisemitism became the glue that united the otherwise warring factions. (p.7)
[B]oth asserted that Jewishness represented a real threat to Christians but differed in their definitions of Jewishness. (p.161)
[A]ntisemitism linked the competing German Christian movement and Confessing Church during the Third Reich, and facilitated an easy transition of power from one group to the other at the end of the war. (p.286)
More recently Mary Solberg (A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement 1932-1940, Fortress Press, 2015) has written:
The organizational independence of the church, rather than the question of what was happening to the Jews, was perhaps the issue most bitterly contested between the German Christians and the Confessing Church. Even the question of whether the church would adopt a version of the Aryan paragraph was principally an issue of the church's independence from state interference, rather than... its implications for the Jews. (p.29)
The Confessing Church agenda was not fuelled by concern for the fate of Jews, Roma or the disabled. Martin Niemöller, a leading pastor of the Confessing Church, illustrates this sad reality.
Niemöller only gradually abandoned his national conservative views and even made pejorative remarks about Jews of faith while protecting—in his own church—baptised Christians, persecuted as Jews by the Nazis, due to their or their forefathers' Jewish descent. In one sermon in 1935, he remarked: "What is the reason for [their] obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years? Dear brethren, the reason is easily given: the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross!" (Wikipedia entry)
Later - too late - Niemöller was to express his regret with the famous mea culpa, "and I did not speak out..." In this Niemöller was not atypical.

This is not to say there were not many good and courageous men and women who sheltered under the wing of the Confessing Church, but as with all things in life, the situation was complicated. The simplistic rewriting of history serves nobody well.

So what about Karl Barth himself?

To be continued.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

What do The Simpsons and the ESV Bible have in common?

Smart Christians, including lots of well educated evangelicals, know that Moses couldn't have written the Five Books of Moses. The publishers of the ESV Bible know that too. But there's a problem. They want their translation to have credibility, but they sell to the conservative end of the market. No problem you say, they just need to keep quiet and offer no opinion.

Great advice, unless you want to expand into the Study Bible market in a big way, and the ESV PR machine is currently revved up to promote its new Global Study Bible as number one choice in the English speaking world. The issue then can't really be ignored, they have to say something. They could tell the honest truth but, oh dear, think of all those readers who'd be offended, especially as this translation has a reputation as evangelical-friendly.

Can't you just feel their pain.

What to do, what to do...

And so the time-honoured strategy of prevarication is trotted out. Say something suitably ambiguous.

Such as:
Traditionally, Moses is considered to have been the author of Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch (see Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:24; John 5:46). Of course, Moses lived much later than the events of Genesis. Presumably, stories were passed down about those earlier events, and Moses brought them all together. (Emphasis added)
Traditionally, presumably. Weasel words. If you're a literalist you can read right past them with your ignorance intact; if you're familiar with the textual and historical issues you spot them immediately.

It's a bit like a family watching an episode of The Simpsons together. Adults and kids both laugh - but for different reasons. What amuses the old folks goes right over the heads of the youngsters. It's a winning formula for entertainment, but perhaps not exactly ethical in the Bible business.

Which perhaps says a good deal about the contempt which the editors hold their readership in methinks.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Eunuchs for the Kingdom

Every so often you come across an article that leaves you blinking and mildly astonished. Stephen Patterson's column in the current Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) had just that effect on me. First, news that "Christian cage fighting is a trendy new phenomenon among some evangelical churches... men exchange brutal punches and kicks to the legs, torso or head until one or the other 'taps out,' that is, begs for mercy."

Say what?!

Then Patterson draws a line from this fine 'Christian' sport to male-on-male dominance in the Roman Empire. "Male penetration of another man was the quintessential  act of domination - think imperial 'prison sex,' not gay sex." Here's the explanation for all that phallic graffiti that adorns the ruins of Pompeii.

Now you might be wondering where this is all going. First a diversion back to Sodom. Those despicable Sodomites weren't "randy homosexuals out looking for a good time. They simply intended to put the outsiders [Lot's angelic visitors] in their proper place."

Okay, that makes a good deal of sense. Patterson now changes tack to fifth-century Athens, citing Eva Keuls' book The Reign of the Phallus in support. I've had this worthy academic tome on my bookshelf for a number of years (somewhat obscured in its placement lest anyone casually browsing the shelves come away with an entirely wrong impression).

Stephen Patterson
Finally Patterson zeroes in on his intended text of the day - one I believe is absent from most Sunday lectionary readings; Matthew 19:11-12. This is the eunuch passage which concludes: there are eunuchs who have castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone who can receive this, receive it."

Just a colourful metaphor for the virtues of sexual abstinence or celibacy? No, says Patterson, it means exactly what it says. This was apparently seen as one way to opt out of a brutally toxic culture. Cross reference Galatians 3:28 (neither male nor female) and 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 (on hair length). States Patterson: "Paul liked his men and women to look like men and women, but his Corinthian protégés had taken 'no longer men and women' to heart."

And though I hate to admit it, I think Patterson has made a convincing case. Anyone who has studied early Christianity knows it was pretty diverse (a handy euphemism for "occasionally weird") but apparently it could get weirder than many of us ever imagined.

Fancy a trip back to "Bible times"? I think not.

Speaking of weird, evangelical cage fighters (assuming any of them are actually able to read) please take note!

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Barth - the Enigma (der dritte Teil)

Earlier entries:
First part
Second part


What kind of man was Karl Barth? Certainly he was studious, as you'd expect from someone with his scholarly reputation. He began his day with 30 minutes of 'reflection', then indulged himself by listening to recordings of Mozart. This done it would be time to catch up with the daily newspaper. Then the great man would retire to his world of books and writing till lunch. In the afternoon, on days he had teaching commitments at the university, he would travel in to give a lecture, then head straight back home to pick up his pen once more.

There seems little joy in such a routine (except for his musical indulgence). Biographer John Bowden observes that his "gazing into heaven may have dulled his perception of what was happening around him on earth..." It seems a valid criticism. He did have his peccadilloes though, included pipe tobacco and alcohol, and an unusual (even by today's standards) domestic arrangement with his secretary.

Those who met Barth might have been forgiven for expecting such a bookish man to be shy and unassuming, a kindly old uncle figure. If so they would have been quickly disillusioned. Barth was not given to modesty, comparing himself at times with such notables as Jeremiah the prophet and the apostle Paul. Nor was he given to generosity of spirit with fellow theologians, including Rudolf Bultmann and Emil Brunner (more of his dispute with Brunner later in this series). While a man of great wit, he has also been described as a verbal sadist. Not so surprising then that this "grumpy old man" rebuffed speaking invitations and left letters unanswered.

Barth had his devoted admirers both then and now. He was the acceptable face of European Christian thought in the post-World War II world; a role that may well have fallen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer had he not been executed by the Nazis. Despite Barth's very lukewarm attitude to Catholicism, Pope Pius XII (described by John Cornwell as "Hitler's Pope") considered him the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.

Much of Barth's reputation rests on his leadership role in the Confessing Church, his part in writing the Barmen Declaration (seen as drawing a line in the sand with the Nazis) and his opposition to the Third Reich. This portrait of resistance is, as I hope to demonstrate, a simplistic and perhaps misleading one.

More to follow.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Passage to Zarahemla

Mormon mythology is a fascinating thing. Not that most Mormons think of it as mythology, their church isn't all that big on theological subtleties. Ancient America was filled with Nephites and Lamanites, and Jesus Christ appeared in the pre-European New World.

In this mythical America there was a city called Zarahemla, a Nephite stronghold. Zarahemla is a great name, and hence the title Passage to Zarahemla, a 2007 teen movie set in - where else? - Utah. I found the DVD staring back at me in a pile of el cheapo bargain movies ($3.99) and, lo, the spirit spake unto me, buy that sucker.

This is possibly one of the worst movies I've seen in the last decade. On one level it's Sci-Fi with the modern world overlapping across the centuries with the long lost world of the Nephites in an isolated part of Utah. On another level it's faith-building LDS propaganda. Troubled modern teenage girl falls for broad-shouldered Nephite warrior. Mormon granddad gifts her with an early copy of the Book of Mormon which makes it all plain. Lots of heart-warming family themes. Baddies and Goodies. Did I mention that, apart from a couple of the lead characters, there's some outstandingly bad acting?

A fictional treatment of a fictional subject which parades as real history. The Salt Lake Tribune called it "a stimulating Action-adventure", but I'm thinking they were somewhat predisposed to a positive review. When it hit the Utah cinema circuit it catapulted to #4 in the first week.

There are some Latter-day Saints who approach the Book of Mormon as an inspired novel rather than a text grounded in real historical events. I can respect that. But I guess if you take a more naive approach you come up with this kind of schmaltz.

Maybe there's a lesson here for those who do the same with Biblical epics.