Monday, 2 March 2015

Lions, lambs and the Big Rock Candy Mountain

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the panther lie down with the kid,
calf, lion and fat-stock beast together,
with a little boy to lead them.
Isaiah 11:6 NJB

The wolf and the young lamb will feed together,
the lion will eat hay like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent's food.
No hurt, no harm will be done
on all my holy mountain,
Yahweh says.
Isaiah 65: 25 NJB

Peaceable Kingdom with Two Olives, by Will Bullas
Once upon a time I believed history was heading toward an omega point. Nothing sophisticated in the Teilhard de Chardin sense, but a very literal understanding of the utopian passages in scripture. In the particular community I was drawn into it was commonly referred to as "the world tomorrow".

Lots of Bible-believing folk believe in just such a literal millennium, a thousand years of peace following on from a time of "great tribulation" in which civilisation collapses and Christ the pantocrator (almighty ruler) rides in at the head of the heavenly cavalry to smash a few kneecaps (for "every knee shall bow") and rescue us from ourselves. Following a near touchdown on the Mount of Olives all the bad guys get zapped and the good guys (that'll be the true believers) take over and establish a kind of worldwide version of North Korea - an Islamic State without the Islam - to set things right. The Puritans called it the Peaceable Kingdom.

And after the thousand years? Well, there's a variety of interpretations available. In my one-time faith community there was a touch of universalism. Almost everybody eventually turns away from the dark side, and only a very few incorrigible types end up in a non-everlasting lake of fire. It's only fair to say that most scenarios are a lot less pleasant than that one.

But it was the poetic imagery that really appealed to my younger self. The lion dwelling with the lamb, carnivores morphed into herbivores, every man (sorry ladies) chilling out under his own vine and fig tree, every tear wiped away. Sweet!

It's a theology that shares a lot in common with the Big Rock Candy Mountain ("the land of milk and honey"). Minus the cigarette trees of course (the updated twee kiddie version has changed that to "peppermint trees".) No lions and lambs but...

The bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs

We all recognise the lyrics for what they are. Even the most wooden-minded Southern Baptist. 

But the biblical images - at least some of them - are just as shallow. The mountains are all levelled and the sea disappears (Rev. 21:1). Imagine Planet Earth without majestic snow-topped mountains and vast oceans. This would be an improvement?

[Y]ou will thresh and beat the mountains to dust
and reduce the hills to straw.
You will winnow them and the wind will carry them off...
Isaiah 41:15-16 NJB

You can't be serious about anyone taking that literally you say?
"But God has the solution [to population pressure], and how simple it is. Simply make most of the earth cultivatable... Make level the awesome Pamir Knot, the huge giants of the Himalayas, the Atlas, Taurus, Pyrenees, Rockies, Sierras and Hindu Kush - level the immense sweep of the Andes, and all the other forbidding, towering, virtually uninhabitable mountains of earth." 
What kind of total moron would suggest such a thing? I can only note that the quotation comes from something called The Wonderful World Tomorrow: What It Will Be Like, 1982 edition.

But there's no such thing as cigarette trees.
Or lemonade springs.
The mountains won't be pulverised.
And without the oceans there'd be no life.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is an entertaining bit of fun.
The World Tomorrow is a poetic mirage. At times it conveys great beauty while at others it's downright trite.

The virtue of any poetic vision is it's ability to inspire, not to program into the reader a deadening dogma. Truly, don't we all yearn for the lion to lay down with the lamb?

The omega point burns ahead of us on the far horizon. But as we all should know, horizons recede, and you can never reach the end of the rainbow to find that pot of gold.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Modigliani, Meeham and Mouskouri

I'm an obsessive collector of classical music, but I'm also into sixties folk. Others may groan at the thought of Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger or The Seekers, but I'm in my element. Ja, I know it dates me but I'll happily extend to Nana Mouskouri, The Kingston Trio and Joan Baez. My folk CD collection is extremely modest, but hey, this is the age of Pandora, so that's no issue - and no expenses incurred.

But Jazz? Not so much.

But then along comes an album that captivates you. You'd think New Zealand would be a jazz backwater - and perhaps it is - but it nonetheless has a surprising pool of talent. In January I wrote about Brian Smith's album Taupo. This month it's Norman Meeham and his 2007 album Modigliani.

I confess to buying it on spec because (a) it was way, way cheaper than the horrendous list price of $25 and (b) because in my alternate non-Otagosh life I occasionally teach art to kids, and Modigliani is one artist I draw on to inspire the little ratbags to try their hand at portraiture. Modigliani was a master of the stretched technique - taking the proportions of the human face and working wonders. That his visual art has inspired musical art... who could resist?

I'm not a jazz aficionado, but as with other forms of art I know what I like, and I enjoyed this album immensely.

(Too bad Modigliani didn't get around to creating a portrait of Nana Mouskoui...)

Progressive Redneck Preacher

Back in 2005 I was running a website called Ambassador Watch when I was contacted by a recent AC graduate named Micah Royal. To cut a long story short, I ended up publishing an article he wrote. As I recollect it, Confronting Bible Abuse was meant to be the first in a series, but life being what it is, Micah moved on and I forgot all about it (the text follows on from this post.)

With Miller Jones' recent articles raising some sensitive issues on sexuality I decided to find out what had happened to Micah and Katharine who, I think it's fair to say, both veered off the expected path for Ambassador alumni in a radical direction. These days Micah is blogging at (last updated December 31 last year) and seems to be continuing his advocacy on GLBT issues. There are sermon transcripts, some of which are quite thought provoking. I think it's reasonable to say you won't hear anything like them at UCG or LCG services!

Here's what Micah wrote nearly a decade ago.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Sexuality Questions

CGI's Bronson James on Armor of God
Miller Jones is a blogger who I'd characterize as a thoughtful Christian. His postings at God Cannot Be Contained have provided a considered defence of non-fundamentalist beliefs. That he, like myself, has a back-story in a particular sectarian community has helped me identify with some of the points he makes. And I really wish all past pilgrims in that tradition could exercise the same degree of civility as he does when engaging in discussion.

In two recent posts Miller has gone where few (at least in the ex-Church of God fold) have dared tread. He has asked some challenging questions about gay Christians.

Of course if you're a flamboyant homophobe like Roderick Meredith (author of that 1961 classic The Shocking TRUTH about "QUEER" Men!"), or any of the usual gang of commentators with an Ambassador College non-qualification, the very term "gay Christian" might well be an oxymoron. The reality is that a number of gay individuals have played prominent roles in the Church of God over the years. More often than not, though, their experiences have paralleled Troy Fitzgerald's as he documents it in Cults and Closets.

In the first post Miller simply poses a series of questions. The cumulative effect however is telling. There's enough here to fuel an ongoing discussion for months on end. See A Few Questions about God and Homosexual Behavior.

Now, in a follow-up post, he addresses a recent "Armor of God" telecast on the subject from the Church of God, International (no, despite appearances to the contrary they're not extinct, just endangered). Miller makes an interesting distinction between lifestyle choices and the characteristics that are part of who we are.
Your attraction to the opposite gender is a natural part of who you are - it is a characteristic of you. Think about it for a moment. Do you remember ever making a decision to be a heterosexual? When you started into puberty, were you torn between same sex attraction and an attraction to the opposite sex? OR Did an awareness of and attraction to the opposite gender come naturally to you? Do you remember a time when you decided that Jill was desirable and Jack wasn't? Do you remember deciding that breasts were more attractive than pecs?
To be sure, one does have lifestyle choices to make in the realm of sexuality. One can choose to be celibate, monogamous, polygamous, promiscuous or faithful. We all make choices in this regard. One can choose to associate or disassociate sex and love. You can decide to live the lifestyle of a playboy or to be the faithful husband of one wife. These are choices... I think that it is safe to say that you never made a decision to be a heterosexual. You didn't wake up in college one day and decide "I think I'll like girls." Isn't sexual attraction a natural part of who you are?
The full post is available here.

It's a subject that deserves an airing, and while it has become an obsession in more mainline churches, there has been little in the way of reasoned debate in either the Armstrong churches or ex-member forums - other than the expected rants. The place to join this discussion is over on God Cannot Be Contained rather than here, so for this once comments have been disabled. Click across to have a say.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Scholarship and Apologetics

James McGrath asks whether you can be both an apologist and a scholar. As usual any discussion of this sort must contend with the slippery nature of words, and in this case the floor is littered with banana skins, so please forgive the over-simplifications in what follows.

For me the notion of scholarship is tied up with the conviction that you follow the evidence. If the evidence (let's say for the authorship of 2 Peter, or the effectiveness of homoeopathy) points in a particular direction - and it does - you acknowledge that. If the evidence runs contrary to your own views, you acknowledge that too. You don't fudge the issues.

Raymond E. Brown
Can that be done by a scholar with a strong existing faith commitment? Sure. Case in point, Raymond Brown. Brown was a leading Catholic scholar of his generation (died 1998). Many of us were slapped around the chops by his brilliant treatment of the birth narratives in the New Testament. For a younger version of myself reading The Birth of the Messiah was a jaw-dropping experience. Brown laid out the case, left his readers to reach their own conclusions, but nonetheless maintained his personal allegiance to the church's teaching.

It bears restating. Fr. Brown remained loyal to his church's dogma, yet he didn't let that affect his commitment to laying out the clear evidence which led in a different direction.

Was he a scholar? Absolutely. Was he an apologist? Not in my book.

An apologist selects, shapes and massages the evidence to support an existing view. Like Calvinists who read the Bible backwards (the Old Testament in the light of the New) they begin with a conviction then engage in a cherry-picking exercise to lend it credibility. An apologist can certainly use scholarly tools, but are they truly free to follow where the evidence leads? How can they when they've already reached the conclusion in advance?

Then cometh the chorus: but we've all got a bias. No argument. But the point is largely irrelevant. Most of us can distinguish between what we'd like to believe and the uncomfortable facts. When the two clash we either draw the wagons into a circle or we are forced to grow a little by accommodating the new information.

The apologist does the former, the scholar the latter.

Monday, 16 February 2015

David C. Pack - a new low point?

The Whitened Sepulchre - RCG 'Hall of Administration' in Wadsworth, Ohio
Which is the most dangerous of the Armstrong splinters? A nomination for Dave Pack's RCG (Restored Church of God) cult.

And cult it is. The cult of Dave. Here's what a long-time RCG-watcher recently wrote.
... he's really gone off the deep end. His new three-part sermon, which I'm listening to now, is INSANE. He's declared HWA was NOT Elijah but instead Moses, because he is Elijah. And then here's the kicker at the end of part one, which he claims is a truth God has restored through him: "If you were called by God, and you are to participate in his ways, you have to turn over your assets to God's church."
And I wonder what kind of people sit still for this kind of blatant manipulation. In comparison Rod Meredith looks like Mother Teresa (now there's a scary image).

In all the years I've followed the shenanigans of the various splinters, few of the pretenders have been as universally disliked as Pack. Why would anyone - other than compulsive spiritual masochists - follow this pompous, tin-plated führer-figure?

Meanwhile Gary Leonard is reporting that the RCG has spawned a new splinter of its own, the Abiding Church of God, based in Atlanta (presumably the RCG congregation there gone rogue). Notice the highly original seal design!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Joy of Tithing - Say "Cheese"!

But do they send their money to Spanky?
It's always amused me that certain fundamentalist publications promote their "mom and apple pie" image through carefully chosen photographs in their publications. You know the sort of thing, happy, smiling families promoting the joy of tithing.

The latest issue of Tomorrow's World illustrates the point. The focus for January-February is, yup, you guessed it, tithing. Now this isn't the easiest of sells. Rod "Spanky" Meredith hits the usual proof texts hard, but how do you put a positive spin on an article of this kind? The answer seems to be to find a nice, attractive family who smile and are obviously overjoyed to shell out to the cause.

So where do you go to find a photogenic family of this sort? Good teeth, nicely dressed, one kid of each gender. You'd think there'd be lots of real life families in the Living Church of God to choose from, right? And you'd obviously expect the smiling subjects to be a member family, right?

Well, it ain't necessarily so. The nice people who appear on the cover of the current TW, and reappear as deliriously happy tithers on the inside, come to you courtesy of (see the small print at the bottom of page 33). They could be Anglicans, Adventists or Atheists, who knows? Do they tithe? Again, who knows? Are they even a family group rather than just playing the part for the camera? Quite possibly not. And it's highly unlikely any of them would want to help finance Meredith. Could all this then be just a tiny bit deceptive?

We do expect people in TV ads to be paid actors or models. But there's a difference between a high demand sect and a toothpaste brand.

Isn't there?

Tomorrow's World (along with similar publications) is all about pushing the distinctive doctrines of its publisher. It isn't an objective source of news, information and commentary; its a glorified advertising mailer. Which is fine, just as long as you know that.