Sunday, 7 February 2016

Where the Arrow Points (Part 2)

Ron Dart. I haven't heard his voice in well over twenty years. If I dug through the archives I might still find an old audio tape from his Church of God International (CGI) days. Probably seized up and unplayable.

I've never recommended his CEM ministry, nor his Born To Win radio program. It's probably more than fair to pigeon-hole Ron as "fundamentalism-lite". If you haven't already realised it, I don't do fundamentalism-lite.

But, way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a significant figure for some of us, helping open up our thinking and breaking the back of a one-true-church mentality. Given the fundamentalist mindset that many of us were still in thrall to, Ron was a force for change. Yes, I know he had his faults; Lord, don't we all!

At no stage in the years since I started writing about the Church of God movement have I ever regarded COG sects as anything other than wrong-headed when it comes to a wide range of beliefs and practices. Ron Dart was no different. Yet clearly they're not all equally toxic. Some are downright dangerous while others, by comparison, are relatively benign. Ron Dart's ministry, certainly after leaving the Worldwide Church of God, was of the latter type.

Think of it as scaffolding on a construction site - an analogy often used in education circles. We were scaffolded into a new mindset; nudged into reassessing the path by which we had come. Am I grateful for that? You better believe it.

Ron didn't preach authoritarian leadership or exclusivity. He didn't preach British Israelism - at least, I never heard him do so. He didn't preach triple tithing or make grandiose personal claims. In a lot of ways he was light years ahead of Ted.

Ron did stick with many of the 'distinctives' derived from Armstrongism. I don't have a problem with that, any more than with intelligent Latter Day Saints who still treasure the Book of Mormon, my Lutheran antecedents who took the doctrine of consubstantiation seriously ('ubiquity' to the confessional sticklers) or free-thinking Catholics who nevertheless display Marian artwork and crucifixes in their homes. No skin off my nose. I don't (to quote something Ron Dart once said) have a dog in those fights.

If I do feel a passion about Church of God issues - and I think I have a reasonable track record demonstrating that - it's primarily about abusive, manipulative, unaccountable leadership. Leadership that creates dependence, that scorns mandate, that nurtures mindless "trust me" compliance.

Ron Dart was not in that mold. When he left WCG he headed down a new trajectory, and that definitely included his time in CGI. I suspect Ron was a moderating influence on Ted Armstrong as Ted settled down (fatefully as it turned out) into his comfort zone in East Texas; a Cicero to Ted's Caesar. Maybe he should have walked away from Ted sooner. Then again, I know the wrestling match you have when confronting the need to tear yourself away from any significant commitment, something he'd already experienced in leaving WCG. I'm not about to judge him over that.

Yes, my assessment of Ron Dart's theology, all these decades later, is that it was half-baked. But most theology is - some would say all. I can only say that, when I learned of Ron's passing, I was saddened. Alongside people like Ernie Martin he had an overall positive influence "within the fold" during those crucial years, even if the effect was to create a revolving door out into the big wide world. I'm in debt to him.

That's definitely not something I'd say of Tkach, Meredith, Flurry, Pack, Kilough and the other "Yertle the Turtle" leaders. Believe me, when Meredith goes to meet his maker you won't find me writing any fond eulogies.

You don't have to agree with me. It's not a mathematical formula. It's a statement about personal lived experience. If you weren't "in the wilderness" in the late 70s and early 80s your experience will be different.

This much, though, is consistently true. For too many COG leaders the arrow points to reactionary beliefs, horrendous oversimplification, fudging the evidence, a flight from reason and encouraging their followers to abdicate responsibility. Ron Dart, at his best, pointed in another direction, even if he personally didn't move as far along that road as some would have liked. He had my respect.

[Any comments on this post will be moderated.]

Where the Arrow Points (Part 1 of 2)

How do you evaluate the life and ministry of someone whose views are different from your own? That's the conundrum faced by many of us who in former days were part of a religious group that we have since abandoned. In most cases we didn't leave because of "weak faith" or personal failings; we left (or were pushed out) because the advertised package was nothing like the reality. We left because of bad people in high places and blatant hypocrisy. We left because we saw the manipulation and exploitation of decent people. Later we came to see that, apart from being an ethical desert, the intellectual underpinnings of the whole enterprise were also thoroughly rotten.

Looking back across the years I have little time or respect for many (most!) of those individuals who once enjoyed a high profile in that organization, specifically in my case the Worldwide Church of God. But there are exceptions. The passing of Ron Dart has brought this into focus for me.

To be clear, I regard Herbert and Ted Armstrong as self-serving con artists, no question. The best you might say about Herb was that he became a victim of his own delusions. All of us have the temptation to maintain and enforce things we only half believe in, as long as it's in our own best interests. As the oft-cited proof text goes: the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Too bad Herb didn't apply it to himself.

But what about more contemporary figures, those who survived the breakup of the WCG and continued to preach in that tradition? The criteria I use, when I stop to think about it, is where the arrow points, the direction in which their ministry takes people.

I was around in the period between 1978 and 1981, a young guy without much nous starting off in the big wide world, and a fairly recent convert to Armstrongism. The WCG was undergoing a 'cultural revolution' at this time. In the wake of Ted's departure and then the receivership crisis, anyone who stood up to Herbert Armstrong was purged.

If I was to put my finger on one event that summed it all up, it would be the day in January 1979 when Wayne Cole took the stage of the Ambassador Auditorium to call on church members and employees to cooperate with the receiver's inquiries; a voice of reason. He never finished. Rod Meredith and his thugs stormed on to the stage and used physical force against Cole. They had new instructions from Armstrong. Cole was forcibly removed and disfellowshipped. You can still access the LA Times report (as reprinted in the Spokane Spokesman-Review).

Meredith has always remained true to form, older but no wiser. Choose your own adjective: arrogant? ignorant? authoritarian? His later treatment of Raymond McNair is a case in point. With Meredith it's always been about "follow the leader". Meredith feeds on dependency. In so many ways he is a spiritual son of Herbert. Perhaps one redeeming feature is that he seems to sincerely (or stupidly) believe his own publicity. I doubt we could say that for Herb.

Along with Meredith we could list a number of other posturing clown figures with their own Church of God franchises. These guys have all the answers to all the wrong questions. If you like to do your own thinking, stay well away.

Which takes me back to Ron Dart.

(To be continued)

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Journal - 180th issue

The latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is devoted in large part to Ron Dart, who recently died after a long period of ill health. I can recollect few if any other figures in the Church of God movement who have been held in this kind of regard across the fractures, and frankly stated, there will likely be few if any who will be so regarded in the future. As Ian Boyne notes, "No matter how cynical, you could not help but be impressed..."

Brian Knowles, a former Plain Truth editor, has also written in this issue about his friend, the late David Jon Hill.

A PDF of the issue is available to download.

The Malleable Jesus

The current issue of Word & World (Winter 2016) has an editorial by Frederick Gaiser called The Malleable Jesus. It's a reminder that your Jesus may not be mine. Being a church publication (out of ELCA's Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota) Gaiser is obligated to find a silver lining, and I can't say I blame him, but the unpleasant fact remains that we tend to create Jesus according to our tastes.
But who is the “historical Jesus,” the one sought by various “quests” of recent time? He is related to the Jesus of the “Jesus Seminar,” who seems to have spoken remarkably little, unlike the Jesus of some editions of the King James Bible, who somehow spoke in red letters.
I'd almost forgotten Bruce Barton's Jesus. He was referred to in various editions of a certain Bible correspondence course which some readers will remember. Barton's actual views weren't touched on, but the name of his book, The Man Nobody Knows, was used to great apologetic effect. (The ever-original Darris McNeely cribbed the same trick in an episode of Beyond Today.) What was Barton on about? Gaiser gives details.
So, who is this malleable Jesus? Perhaps most odd is Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, the title of his 1925 book. Upset by the sissified “Sunday school Jesus,” “a physically weak, moralistic man, and the ‘lamb of God,’” Barton describes Jesus as “the world’s greatest business executive” who was nothing less than “The Founder of Modern Business,” the strong masculine man “who created a world-conquering organization with a group of twelve men hand-picked from the bottom ranks of business.”
You can see how this 'hard' image of Jesus might appeal to an ambitious 1930s advertising salesman turned evangelist. Barton has a lot to answer for. Somebody should tell Darris.

Gaiser spends some time (not a lot; the editorial is only a two-pager) mulling over various artists' impressions of Jesus. Now there's a study in kitsch. Thanks to really bad artwork hanging in the 'sitting room', I grew up with the door-knocking Jesus imprinted on my mind ("behold, I stand at the door and knock"), looking a bit like a zoned-out Jehovah's Witness. Even then I thought it was pretty awful. I'm sure Barton would have concurred.

There's something to be said for iconoclasm.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Wisdom of a Pharaoh

I love this time of year. It's still summer. Everyone is back at work. The kids are back at school, as are their teachers, so the beaches are suddenly uncrowded. This weekend is an exception as New Zealanders observe Waitangi Day on Monday, a welcome respite from the return to routine. Oh, alright, I realise that you Northern Hemisphere types are still wrapped up against the cold and megadosing on Vitamin C, but that's half a world away from where I sit.

Of course, there are those who seem to feel they have to work every hour God gives them. To them comes this sage advice from the ancient scrolls. No, not the Bible, Herodotus. And not Herodotus himself, but Pharaoh Amasis II of Egypt who, according to Herodotus, was advised thusly by his counsellors:

"Sire, you are not conducting yourself properly by pursuing worthless pastimes. You ought to be seated solemnly upon your stately throne, transacting affairs of state throughout the day; that way, the Egyptians would know that they were being governed by a competent man, and your reputation would improve. But as it is, you are not acting at all like a king."

To which the pharaoh replied:

"When archers need to use their bows, they string them tightly, but when they have finished using them, they relax them. For if a bow remained tightly strung all the time, it would snap and be of no use when someone needed it. The same principle applies to the daily routine of a human being: if someone wants to work seriously all the time and not let himself ease off for his share of play, he will go insane without even knowing it, or at the least suffer a stroke. And it is because I recognize this maxim that I allot a share of my time to each aspect of life."

Though I wonder whether the lowly citizens of Egypt were blessed with the ability to follow this ancient endorsement of a balanced lifestyle, nonetheless it stands as great advice long centuries later.

Have a great weekend!

(A version of this posting appeared here in December 2011 under the title 'When Archers String Their Bows'.)

That Blog Roll

Not that anyone has probably noticed, but the blog roll (eyes right) has been split up, much like the Soviet Union. The idea is that very different blogs no longer jostle together, but the herbivores are now safely behind a predator-free fence.

Or something like that.

Trying to classify some blogs is however a bit like deciding where to draw the border around Crimea, it just hurts the brain. Could you describe Tim Bulkeley's excellent Sansblogue as "progressive Christian"? Yes, I think so.  How about James Pate? Quite possibly, but then again perhaps not. If anyone is offended with the way things have shaken down, my apologies and do feel free to set me straight.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Etymological Fallacy - By Golly!

When I was a young bloke, still in short trousers and serving time, age 11, at Peachgrove Intermediate School, I had a friend who was much given to using the word 'flip' as an exclamation. "I just heard Miss Levesque will be having a test on the algebra chapter after lunch." Response, "Oh flip!"

The term I preferred was the time honored "gosh!" (I much later incorporated it into the name of this blog on a bit of a whim, fusing it with the name of a certain fine - if chilly - institution of higher learning.)

Later I was informed that terms like these were euphemisms. Their original purpose was to wickedly circumvent evil and damnable outbursts. Gosh was just a sly way of saying God, thus taking the Lord's name in vain, whether or not you realized it or intended it, hence a serious sin, and I was on very thin ice indeed.

As for 'flip', well, I'll leave that to your imagination. But the list goes on; 'shoot' anyone?

This nonsense was reinforced in the fundamentalist cult that I was drawn into in my late teens. Religious fundamentalism and language fundamentalism are not unrelated. This was a sect where ministers actually thought they could prove a theological point by citing a Webster's definition.

This sort of logic is based on a fallacy, and happily linguists even have a name for it: the etymological fallacy. The idea is that words mean what they originally meant, world without end, amen.

Which is clearly wrong.

Word origins are intriguing. I'm a devoted follower of the UK Channel 4 show Countdown which features a segment on origins of words with lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent. You'd have to be the classic "moron in a hurry" to maintain the etymological fallacy after a even a couple of those episodes.

Meanings change and evolve. English - like all other modern tongues - is a living language. As difficult as it is for language fundamentalists to accept, usage determines meaning. I mean, where do these guys think the definitions in Webster's (or Strong's Exhaustive Concordance for that matter) came from in the first place? Clue: they didn't drop down from the sky on stone tablets. A word means what those of us in the land of the living believe it means. Consider words like gay and bimbo. The latter originally meant "a young child". In the Jim Reeves song it referred to a young boy!
"Bimbo is a little boy who's got a million friends,
And every time he passes by, they all invite him in.
He'll clap his hands and sing and dance, and talk his baby talk,
With a hole in his pants and his knees a-stickin' out,
he's just big enough to walk."
That's not how it's used in these Kardashian times.

If Granny thought differently, that's okay, then was then, now is now. It's also the reason that nobody today uses the first edition of the Concise Oxford, published in 1911, except as a bookshelf curiosity.

There is a great example of shifting meaning with the word (ladies be warned, a wicked word follows) bugger. The aforementioned 1911 Concise Oxford had no doubts, racing straight to a then illegal sexual practice. Move ahead into a new century and the first definition in The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (2005) reads "an unpleasant or awkward person or thing (the bugger won't fit)."

But if you were pedantic, insisting on the original meaning come hell or high water, neither would be accurate. The term simply meant heretic, with special reference to non-Catholic Bulgarians.