Monday, 29 June 2015

Theological Feudalism

Let them read Barth!
Ex-fundamentalists (a tribe to which I belong) often get a lot of stick from the theoristocrats, those who have attained a tenured place at the top table in Christian discourse without acquiring the deep scars that come from living through a biblicist nightmare.

These theoristocrats (a term that isn't entirely new, though the usage I'm putting it to may be) are invariably decent, much studied, perceptive sorts. They rightly appreciate that 'truth' is a nuanced concept, and that one person's truth may not be another's. They also tend to dialogue among their peers rather than bothering over-much with the common herd. Indeed, many eschew entirely the 'popular' contributions to their field even when those attempting this feat are as qualified as themselves. 'Popular' is a term of disdain.

And hey, all power to them. But I have a problem when these privileged few summarily discount the experiences of those not so fortunate.

The 'common herd' obviously make up the overwhelming majority of Christian believers. So those ex-fundamentalists or ex-evangelicals are not reacting to a straw man or a caricature of Christian faith, as is often implied. They're reacting to what is increasingly the most common, most virulent form. And reacting is not only their right, it's their responsibility.

If you doubt that, kindly take a hike - down to your local Christian book store. Browse the shelves looking for titles by Bultmann, Tillich or even (shudder) Barth. Good luck with that. What you will find is 'prophecy', creationism, below-the-belt moralism, biblicism and lashings of prosperity-gospel merchandise.

Or tune in, if you dare, to a Christian radio station or TV channel. Chances are you'll find the anti-intellectualism setting ratcheted up all the way to 'lethal'.

This is a world the ivory-towered theoristocrats seem in denial about. They're highly reasonable individuals, all too often willing to smile down benignly, paternalistically, on the eccentricities of the hoi polloi. Occasionally one of these Titans might suggest "let them read Barth," which is about as useful as Marie Antoinette's apocryphal advice to "let them eat cake."

(Not that I'm recommending anyone should read Barth. God forbid! Stay well clear of that one.)

I appreciate the need for rigorous scholarship, and that a lot of academic writing in this field (as any other) will of necessity be couched in terms not entirely accessible to those outside the discipline. That's life. The problem arises when there is no concomitant responsibility to communicate effectively in plain English (or German, French or Swahili for that matter) to the stakeholders who underwrite the whole enterprise; the people who - knowing no better - go out and buy books and downloads by Franklin Graham, Creflo Dollar, David Jeremiah and Joyce Meyer.

So when those who have survived the abusive, intellectual ghettoes speak out, they deserve much more than snootiness in return. They certainly don't need to hear a chorus of "let them read Barth." Bugger Barth!

Back to those Christian book stores and broadcasters plying sub-standard goods. The real question is, what are the theoristocrats doing about it? What? All too often the only response seems to be a softly whispered apologetic (in both senses) disclaimer.

And that's not good enough.

If those at the top table were doing their job rather than enjoying their sinecures there would be less need for the ex-fundamentalist voice to be heard. Until that occurs (sometime the other side of the Second Coming I expect) that voice will - and must - continue to be raised.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The NIV - how accurate is it?

The New International Version of the Bible (NIV) is a favourite among evangelically-minded Christians. It has been around since 1978 in the 66 book version that is standard in many churches (the New Testament was first released in 1973). There have been a number of updates and spin-offs since, but it has retained broad appeal despite a plethora of competing English translations. There have reportedly been 450 million copies sold, a nice solid earner for Rupert Murdoch's Zondervan and HarperCollins.

But is it any good? Well, that depends on your criteria for "good". Perhaps a better question might be, is it accurate?

Paul Davidson has been documenting the dodgy bits of the NIV for a long time, and he keeps digging up dubious translation choices. He's just added three new mistranslations to an impressively documented online article. It's a great resource.

It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to find that agenda-driven translators think it's okay to paper over the bits that they think are problematic. (How many of these issues have persisted through to the 2011 revision, the TNIV and NIVr - love those acronyms! - would be interesting to know.)

So back to the question. How accurate is the NIV?

Short answer: not very.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Is the Flurry Sect 'Non-denominational'?

I thought I knew what "non-denominational" meant, but then I read:
The Philadelphia Church of God is non-denominational... (source)

The PCG is one of the most rigorous Christian sects around. Shattered families, control-freak ministers. It's not in vogue to call groups like these "cults" any more, but that's pretty much what they are.

The Oxford dictionary defines non-denominational as "open or acceptable to people of any Christian denomination..." PCG hardly fits the bill. They openly reject all other denominations and exalt exclusivity.

Perhaps they just can't help indulging in double-speak. Perhaps they don't know what the word means. Perhaps they're just flat out misrepresenting themselves. Regardless, this claim is a sick joke.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Isaac on the Altar

The Akeda is the story of the binding of Isaac. As you remember, God gives Abraham a directive to do something utterly unconscionable, to offer up his son as a sacrifice. You can find the story in Genesis 22. Nothing metaphorical; this involved wood, fire and a sharp knife.

It doesn't seem a particularly apt text for a Father's Day sermon, but that doesn't seem to have occurred to the preachers in the Laestadian Lutheran tradition. Ed Suominen quotes a couple of homiletic attempts to draw blood from this particular stone, and rips into the entire enterprise.
"This is scary stuff. It is the kind of thinking, of non-thinking, that is bringing us beheadings in Syria and floggings and amputations in Saudi Arabia."
Ed is a former Laestadian and author of the only (as far as I know) "go to" text that provides an insider perspective on this non-standard version of Finnish Lutheranism, An Examination of the Pearl.

Ed is a bit more direct than I would choose to be (he writes, for example, at the wryly-named Ed Suominen's Shitty Little Blog, which seems to be taking self-deprecation to its outer limits) but it's hard to ignore the force of his distaste for this tale from millennia past. To find redeeming meaning in Genesis 22 is akin to making the proverbial silk purse from a sow's ear. That hasn't, of course, stopped a mountain of related midrash and apologetic bumf from rising up over the centuries.

To which, one might suggest, Ed is playing the kid in the tale of The Emperor's New Clothes. Is there really anything salutary in this "faith story"? Is Abraham's obedience really something to hold up as an example of righteousness? Have a read through and decide for yourself.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Hope Project Porkies

Tell that to your Jewish neighbours!
[This is the third in a series on the Hope Project booklet which purports to be a voice of mainline Christianity in New Zealand. Part 1 and Part 2 provide context.]
The Hope Project booklet states:

"In all its variety, it [the Bible] tells the unified story of God's plan..." (p.6)

"The Bible teaches that God supervised the contributors in what they wrote." (p.7)

To point one I can only repeat what I wrote in an earlier post about metanarrative, the idea that there is a big, unifying narrative that runs from Genesis through to Revelation.
Metanarrative: big word but simple concept. The idea is that there is a grand narrative, a saga, a big story that gives sense to the world, "an overarching story that defines your reality and who you are within it." There are, according to the theorists, competing metanarratives, but the one we're talking about is the story about sin, death, saviour and salvation (Eden, Satan, the Fall... all leading to Christ - birth, death, resurrection - and ultimately salvation from the sin that began back in the Garden.) Metanarrative is especially significant as a concept, according to Don Cupitt, in Reformed theology.
John Calvin in particular stuck so close to Augustine and was so Grand-Narrative-minded that preachers in his tradition (variously called Reformed, Calvinist, Presbyterian or puritan) long tended to maintain that the entire story, the Plan of Salvation, was implicit in every verse of Scripture...
And so it's deemed okay, even necessary, to go on a treasure hunt through Genesis, trying to find ways to tie it in to a theology that only emerged long after. The problem is not only that the Old Testament is pillaged for dubious proof texts, but that the standard metanarrative has gaping holes in it anyway. Is it worth rescuing? Death and suffering long predate the rise of human beings on this planet. Nature has always been red in tooth and claw. We didn't do it!

Apart from that obvious objection, there is no undisputed metanarrative in the Bible, only in the minds of certain of its interpreters. The popular version owes as much to Milton's puritan classic Paradise Lost as to the Bible. You have to mutilate the scriptures to make them "fit" into a metanarrative.
If there was some inescapably unified story, then what do you do with Jewish exegesis of scripture? You'd have to conclude, along with persecuting anti-Semitic theologians of time past, that they are just being bull-headed about ignoring the obvious. Surely on this side of the Holocaust we know better than that!

As to the second point, the various writers of the books that ended up in the Bible clearly had no idea that their words would meet this fate. Did Paul have any inkling that his letters would end up bound together with the Hebrew scriptures? The evidence for that just doesn't exist. They didn't see themselves as "contributors" to some larger epic literary project. The Bible is a collection of books each with its own identity. The decision as to what was included in the final cut was not unanimous (which is why Jewish Bibles, Catholic Bibles and Protestant Bibles have different canons) and the result of very fallible human processes long after most of these documents were composed. I've blogged at some length about this before, so won't repeat it here.

None of which clouds the naivete of Hope For All

Reading Josh McDowell will do that to you.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Hope Project - Epic Fail

Last time I introduced the booklet Hope For All: The Hidden Power, published by "a diverse group of Christian Churches throughout New Zealand". Let's take a deeper look.

The occasion for the publication is 200 years of Christianity in Aotearoa. The first Anglican sermon was delivered in 1814 to Maori in the Bay of Islands by Samuel Marsden. The booklet understandably emphasises these historical and bi-cultural themes in its design, but behind the thin politically correct veneer is good, old fashioned fundamentalism.

Some quotes:

"In all its variety, it [the Bible] tells the unified story of God's plan..." (p.6)

"The Bible teaches that God supervised the contributors in what they wrote." (p.7)

"Did you know that both the Old and New Testaments (of the Bible) are among the most reliable ancient documents on our planet? This book is more accurately preserved than Shakespeare's plays - which are only 300 years old!" (p.17)

"...the Bible today is the same as when it was written." (p.17)

"Many people in the 20th century tried to disprove the Bible's historical claims through archaeology, but the evidence ended up supporting the Bible's accounts of history." (p.19)

"What archaeology has shown is that this is a book of history - not mythology." (p.19)

Getting the idea yet? But wait, there's more!

"Even a cautious evaluation has the Bible containing 737 verifiable predicted matters. The Old Testament predicts over 60 specific things that a special God-sent man would do, all of which Jesus fulfilled.

"Professor Peter Stoner did some calculations on this in his book, Science Speaks. Having selected just eight specific prophecies, the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight of them was... 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000." (p.21)

This is worthy of a Seventh-day Adventist tract. But Anglicans? Presbyterians? Main-line Christians?

There are huge problems with each of the quoted sections. The Bible is not "the same as when it was written." Archaeology has not shown that "this is a book of history". Where have the anonymous writers of this drivel been? Have any of them actually studied the Bible in any kind of rigorous way?*

And if you're intrigued by the clap-trap statistics delivered by "Professor Peter Stoner" (professor of what and where they don't explain), you'll find - if you bother to delve down into the footnotes - that this information was simply culled from New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by fundamentalist apologist Josh McDowell. 

This would be pretty bad even if it was published by The Watchtower or Pacific Press. Dim-witted apologetics are not uncommon from the fringes of the Faith. But this was marketed as something else; a voice from the centre.

Given time I'll go through each quote in turn (in subsequent posts) and spell out some of the problems. But I'm guessing that most people who bother to follow Otagosh won't really need to be led through the issues; they'll be quite self evident.

Hope For All: Hidden Power. Epic fail.

*Apparently not. From what I can gather the work was outsourced to something called Shining Light Trust led by David Mann and Tony Collis, neither of whom (judging from their website) seems to have - apart from enthusiasm - much in the way of insight into the complexities of the subject. 

Hope Project

December 2014 marked 200 years of Christianity in New Zealand and the various churches got together to buy television advertising and launch print resources - specifically two booklets delivered a few months apart - into every letterbox in the country. The endeavour was called Hope Project.

These religious bodies included most of the major "Protestant" groups: Anglican, Wesleyan Methodist (not regular Methodist), Lutheran, Salvation Army, Vineyard, Elim, AOG, Congregational, New Life, Nazarene, Presbyterian and Baptist. The PR described these as a "broad based, main-stream organisations", though I'd raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that Elim, Vineyard, and the Assemblies of God are anything North of the nut-house. But hey, times are a changing.

Missing - apparently - are the Catholics, Orthodox and normal (i.e. relatively sane) Methodists.

Today I dug up booklet two, Hope For All: the Hidden Power, which has languished forgotten for a goodly time. On skimming through it my jaw dropped.

What I expected was a carefully worded little treatise that would offend no-one. With all these churches having a finger in the chalice I figured it would be a typical committee project, saying very little but with lashings of churchly wordiness. I expected cautious heads would moderate the content to deliver refined ambiguities. After all these two centuries begin with Anglicanism, the broadest of churches with sensibilities to match. Surely the end product would be vetted by the theological luminaries at places like St John's College in Meadowbank?

I was wrong.

It would be great to link to a PDF of the booklet in question, but I can't find it online. To add to the problem the website is about as usefully navigable as a coracle in Cook Strait.

But, why let that get in the way. In next posting we'll have a look at this little gem, the self-proclaimed voice of "broad based, main-stream" Christianity, and consider its credibility.