Friday, 31 July 2015

The LXX and the New Testament

I really like this chart from Yuriy and Inna's blog. It demonstrates the dependence of New Testament writings on, not the Hebrew Bible and the much trumpeted Masoretic Text, but the Greek Septuagint (LXX).

Yuriy's series of posts, Why I Don't Trust The Bible, is worth checking out. He describes himself as a recovering Pentecostal fundamentalist.

(HT to James McGrath for the link on Twitter.)

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A Not-so German Requiem

Classical music lovers - of which I count myself one of the lesser in sophistication - tend to have a "personal canon" of composers and compositions which press their buttons. Amongst my own "top 100" I've a special place for Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem. Until recently however, I'd not heard it sung in English.

Wandering through Marbecks in Queen's Arcade - which every Aucklander should do once in a while - I stumbled on a 1999 recording on the Telarc label, an adaptation by the late Robert Shaw. It was on the 'specials' table, so being a fan (and always fond of a bargain) I was led astray.

There's an argument that Ein deutsches Requiem should only be sung in German, just like Italian opera is only supposed to be authentic in Italian. It's a position that can certainly be argued. The reviewer at Classics Today notes; "There’s no great English substitute for the sheer phonetic power of “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” in the context of Brahms’ setting; and how do you compare the hair-raising force of “zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune” with “at the sound, the sound of the trumpet”?

Fair enough. I wouldn't trade in my German recordings, but to hear it in English - without the need to mentally translate (or consult the liner notes) - certainly gives it a new focus.

Brahms' Requiem sets aside the traditional, and somewhat depressing, Catholic formula for texts from Luther's Bible and (in a couple of places) the Deuterocanonicals. Not exactly the ideal Lutheran - Brahms was more of a humanist - he created a masterpiece that not only defied the conventions of his age, but touched on the theme of death with subtexts that affirmed rather than awed.

The Shaw version uses the King James texts in place of "the inspired German" - no mean feat. This recording harnesses the forces of the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The notes in the booklet are pretty naive, but that doesn't affect the impact of the performance.

In an age in which we don't much like to consider the transitory nature of our existence, Brahms' Requiem speaks a word of challenge. How do you manage to crack the consumer-driven veneer to do that? Ancient writings are a terrible (or, to use the Kiwi vernacular, "bloody awful") source for dogma and doctrine, but they nonetheless are capable of capturing some pretty basic human insights, something the non-religious Brahms well understood. The words (text) are one thing, the tone of the work is another. Perhaps having had my own little "health adventure" in recent days has fine tuned my appreciation of such things.
Behold, all flesh is as the grass,
and all the glory of mankind is as the flower of grass.
For lo, the grass withers, and the flower thereof is fallen.
(1 Peter 1:24) 
Lord, make me to know the measure of my days on earth,
that my life is but frailty, and I must perish.
(Psalm 39:4)
It sounds like a downer, but it's not. This requiem, like the very different work by Gabriel Faure, is a work of ultimate assurance and confidence. What's not to like?

Friday, 24 July 2015

Oh the Irony!

Demolishing a dream - farewell to Ambassador College's Hall of Administration.
As part of a planned multi-year redevelopment of the former Ambassador College campus, the Hall of Administration is scheduled for controlled demolition between July and September, 2015.  During preparation and throughout the demolition process, requests to film at this 4-story office building will be entertained on a case-by-case basis.  This is a unique opportunity for production companies to film scenes which might require such scripted elements as: explosive pyrotechnics, controlled burns, interior simulated gunfire, vehicle crashes, demolition and/or other types of sfx and stunt sequences.

Fireworks as the WCG's Vatican goes up in an apocalyptic B-grade movie end worthy of a Basil Wolverton scenario.

Gary Leonard, who knows whereof he speaks, details the colourful unofficial history of the building.
From adulterous romps in department head's offices to in flagrante delicto in the Pastor General's office, this building has seen it all.  From masturbating ministers listening to coeds tell their secrets to stolen gropes and kisses in the elevators.  From gay romps in the AICF offices to the State of California coming in and changing locks kicking church officials out.  From protests and sit-in's to exhibits of the terracotta soldiers from China to exquisite gold and silver crafts from Thailand.  Kings and Queens walked its marble floors.
Rather than a Bible passage in tribute, perhaps a reference to Shelley's Ozymandias poem is not inappropriate...
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Here endeth the lesson.

(Thanks to Gary and Reg for the heads up).

Queen of the Sciences

Theology was once described as the queen of the sciences.

But so was astrology.

Both of their majesties seem to have known better days.

An opinion piece in The Guardian raises some interesting issues. Andrew Brown comments on a speech by Richard Burridge of Kings College London ("a clergyman in a brightly coloured shirt") on Global Warming. The good clergyperson's motives were doubtless good, but he made the mistake of bringing the Bible (Leviticus 18 and 25 in particular) into the discussion.
... by the rules of theological debate, it seemed quite approved to twist his disapproval through 180 degrees, so to say. The speech left me wondering, for the umpteenth time, whether there is substance at all to theology, or why it is that highly intelligent and well-educated people of unquestioned benevolence talk as if there is. 
The nearest I can come to an answer is to suppose that it is the very dislocation of meaning that makes theology so unattractive to the rational mind, which simultaneously makes it useful to the practitioners. A theological image, or a story, is not anchored to the historical world in any fixed way.
Read the whole piece if you've got the time. Brown has identified the Achilles heel of much of the theological enterprise.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Functions of Religion

The pseudonymous but very perceptive 'Sabio Lantz' has enumerated nine functions he feels that religious affiliation provides believers. It's summed up in one a graphic which you can view here.
On the list are:

  1. Morality signal
  2. Behaviour control
  3. Identity support
  4. Community resources
  5. Entertainment
  6. Family/Tribal bonding
  7. Happiness, peace, comfort
  8. Magical hope (healing, money, safety)
  9. Fear alleviator
There are other possible lists, but I think this one provides a pretty fair analysis. Different people would rank the relative importance of each factor differently, and that ranking would probably also change with age - identity support seems a natural fit for younger people seeking to make their way in a challenging world, for example.

You can read the original post over at Triangulations. Here's an excerpt.
People use religion to signal to others that “I am safe”, “I am moral”, “I am an upright citizen” and more ...  Not only do they use religion to signal to others that they are moral, but they also use it to comfort themselves, to signal their other selves. 
Whether you're a person of faith or not, the list provides an interesting mirror to our religious impulses. I'd tick off 5 of the nine as highly significant during my youthful sojourn in a certain sectarian body.

How about you?

Sunday, 19 July 2015

"For the advanced believer..."

Every week The Post, a local weekly newspaper, runs a column from a religious group with ties to the Adventist church. In the July 7 edition it begins with the words "For the advanced believer..."

Advanced believer? What does that mean?

Well, reading through the column it's pretty clear "advanced believers" should be wary of coercive governments and a coming "instant total Dictatorial vice grip control of everything."

Says who? The Bible proof texts give it away. The anonymous writer has been mainlining Daniel and Revelation, with an occasional puff on Matthew 24.

So "advanced believer" basically means you're plugged into the apocalyptic speculations of Uriah Smith and the SDA church. Not belief informed by compassion, or belief informed by education. No, it's belief informed by 19th century proof texting.

Lord save us from advanced belief!

Apparently there are at least three grades of believer in this gentleman's mind. First there are the simple believers. These dummies don't understand about the 2300 days of Daniel 8, and consequently the poor suckers are likely to lose their tenuous hold on salvation when the Pope makes Sunday worship compulsory - which is due any day now.

Then there are the advanced believers who read Adventist literature (such as his column and Smith's Daniel and the Revelation) naively.

Finally there are the super-duper genius believers - who are out there loudly muttering about the Third Angel's Message and ready to tell the Pope where to stick his communion wafers. Their overwhelming confidence is based on the work of 19th century dilettantes like good ol' Uriah.

Now I know there are some smart Adventists out there; people who would be genuinely embarrassed by this sort of moronic drivel. But you have to wonder all the same. While Uriah Smith may have some few detractors within the fold, he's still the Big Cheese over at
Written more than a century ago, this classic book has had an unrivaled influence on the understanding of prophecy. Originally distributed as a series of articles, and then as separate books about Daniel and Revelation, these writings were combined into one book in the late 19th century and sold door-to-door. Remarkably, Uriah Smith's interpretation of prophecy has borne the test of time and is as highly regarded and relevant today as it was years ago. With wisdom and clarity Smith explores the symbols, meaning, and significance of the biblical prophecies and causes readers to trust the sure Word of God. Join the long line of believers who have studied this work, discovered God's leading in earth's story, and look forward to the triumphant finale of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

This is Good News?

Apocalyptic fundamentalists just love being relentlessly negative. It all goes back - at least in the Church of God DNA - to our Adventist roots. No need to work to build a better world for the next generation or reform unjust, oppressive structures in society. It's all useless. The only hope is to give up, dive beneath the covers of the Bible, and pretend Jesus is coming again in three to five years or so.

Trouble is, it was three to five years away back in the 1950s too, then the sixties, then... well, you get the idea.

And between the "ain't it awful" now and the magic make-believe millennium then lies the Great Tribulation. War, the Four Horsemen of Revelation. You have been warned!

Which explains why outsiders reading The Good News, flagship publication of the United Church of God, have often been puzzled by its title. Here's an article featured in the latest issue. Good news? Not likely.

Yes, dear old Tom Robinson is beating the drum again. How does he know this stuff? In a word, prophecy. The same mistaken approach to prophecy that fed all those incredibly wrong expectations in the 1970s when the Worldwide Church of God assured everyone it was all going to happen "in your lifetime." 19-year time cycles, gun laps, 1972, Petra, 1975.


The track record - along a well worn rut that Tom and the GN crew still jog zombie-like each month - obviously isn't good. The loudest of the prophecy buffoons of a half-century past have gone to their graves, along with their predecessors in the Millerite movement (1844 anyone?) We're now just waiting for Rod to succumb to the way of all flesh. That could be in three to five years, but possibly earlier!

Whatever else the prophetic parts of the Bible are, they're not predictive. Have any of these clowns actually bothered to do some serious reading on the nature of ancient apocalyptic literature?

Apparently not.