Saturday, 31 January 2015

From the Garage Archives - a 1996 view of WCG changes

I've been cleaning out the garage, a major undertaking. Apart from the pain of decluttering, there has been the wistful rediscovery of things long forgotten. Among them an article I wrote in 1996 which, unless I'm much mistaken, was my first attempt at journalism on the subject of the Worldwide Church of God. It was intended as an overview of the situation as it then was, aimed at a general readership in New Zealand. Whether I'd yet begun on The Missing Dimension project (which later morphed into Ambassador Watch) I'm not sure. If so it would have been very early days indeed. It has never before appeared online or in print. 

Here - after all those years - is that article.

Worldwide Church of God Plots New Path: An American sect enters the mainstream 
Herbert W. Armstrong must be turning in his grave, perhaps even rotating like a rotisserie chicken. Armstrong, founder and leader ("pastor general and apostle") of the church that sponsors The Plain Truth magazine, could hardly have anticipated the massive changes that would be implemented in the Worldwide Church of God following his death in 1986. 
Doctrine and Disaffection 
Once preaching such unorthodox beliefs as strict Sabbath observance (Saturday and Annual Jewish Feasts), British Israelism (the belief that Anglo-Saxons are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel), the conviction that theirs alone was the One True Church, and the literal rebirth of humans as gods at the resurrection, the Worldwide Church of God now stands firmly within the Evangelical Protestant camp after little more than a decade in transition. In the process a huge chunk of the membership, once numbering up to 100,000, have abandoned their former spiritual home to join splinter groups built around disaffected ministers.1 
The church's repositioning, and a resulting crisis of confidence among the membership, has meant a dramatic decline in income. Members formerly gave up to 30% of their gross incomes to church related causes. The church has now, however, relegated its demanding tithing system to the dustbin, and those who remain within the fold are less inclined to such sacrificial giving. Whereas The Plain Truth could once be mailed free of charge to all who requested it, the magazine is now being sold by subscription (in the United States), or renewed only in exchange for an annual donation (in New Zealand). The once extensive World Tomorrow radio and television ministry has been completely axed, and church employees both at the Pasadena, California headquarters and in the field have had their numbers slashed in a major restructuring effort intended to balance the books. 
Errant Heirs and Great Tribulations 
Problems for Worldwide Church of God (WCG) members predated the death of their founder, an advertising salesman who was converted to a schismatic variety of Seventh-day Adventism in  the 1930s.2 Armstrong had several false calls predicting the end of the world. In 1972 the "Great Tribulation" was predicted to commence, with faithful members expecting to flee to a "place of safety", rumoured to be the abandoned Jordanian rock city of Petra, in order to escape nuclear Armageddon. Earlier predictions included the victory of Germany and Italy over the Allies during World War II. 
The church suffered further bad publicity during the 1970's when it was rumoured that the WCG's most prominent personality, Armstrong's son and anointed heir, Garner Ted Armstrong, was guilty of philandering on a major scale. The younger Armstrong, once heard widely in New Zealand on The World Tomorrow radio broadcast, finally left the WCG in 1978 following a lengthy internal power struggle.3  This was followed by a period during which the WCG receded further into a cultic shell, and thousands of members were disfellowshipped in purges designed to prepare the church "as a spotless bride" for Christ's imminent return. 
To add to the angst, accusations of incest and alcoholism were to be levelled against the elderly apostle in the early 1980's, now an octogenarian in failing health.4 Credibility was further eroded when the church was placed in receivership by the State of California while its financial affairs were investigated. 
All of this was in stark contrast to the carefully crafted PR image cultivated by Armstrong. The dapper, white-haired patriarch was regularly being flown around the world on the church's corporate jet to hobnob with leaders such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, ostensibly in his role as self appointed "ambassador of world peace". In return for the publicity such meetings offered, pet charities selected by the host would usually receive generous grants from the church's cultural and philanthropic arm, the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation. 
As fate would have it, on Herbert Armstrong's death a virtual unknown, Joseph Tkach, was designated as heir to the leadership in a move that left many longtime Worldwide-watchers perplexed. Shortly after ascending to the church's highest office Tkach was to be converted to a "born again" form of Christianity. Until his death late in 1995, he pursued a relentless programme of reforms which are being continued by his own son and successor, Joe Tkach Jr. The WCG is now widely regarded as more mainstream than the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which it is related. Indeed, many Adventist observers were deeply disturbed when the WCG officially abandoned Sabbath-keeping, retaining Saturday services only as, in effect, a cultural feature.5 The highly centralised and autocratic structures of the past are also being dismantled. Most observers believe the WCG has long passed the point of no return, making the sectarianism of the Armstrong years a fading memory. 
The human cost has been significant. Weekly attendance is at a low ebb and "the brethren" that remain seem thoroughly shell-shocked at the pace of change. The number of ex-members is now believed to exceed those left in good standing. Ministers who formerly wielded their authority in an uncompromising and dictatorial manner ("like jack-booted fascists" according to one former Auckland member) have had to learn a pastoral style more appropriate to the changing times.6
The Christian world has lost a fiercely distinctive sect, and gained one more evangelical denomination, albeit one which retains some unusual features. Time alone will tell whether the patient will survive the treatment. 
1. Principally the United Church of God, the largest and most stable grouping, and the Global Church of God, headed by former Armstrong lieutenant Roderick Meredith. Both groups are represented in NZ, along with the Philadelphia Church of God, an extremist offshoot. 
2. Armstrong initially took up ministry in the Church of God (Seventh Day), an Adventist group (still extant) that parted company from Seventh-day Adventists in the 19th century over the doctrine of the millennium and the authority of SDA prophetess Ellen White.
3. GTA, as he was known to insiders, then founded his own Church of God, International, attempting to relaunch his career as a televangelist. However he continued to be dogged by scandal. Many of his supporters have since reaffiliated with other groupings.
4. Former senior minister David Robinson put the incest stories in the public arena in his book Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web. Armstrong's drinking habits had been less of a secret.
5. One major critic is high profile Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi, who has publicaly sided with dissident ministers. The about face on Sabbatarianism was partly the result of church leaders grappling with the writings of Australian Robert Brinsmead, a former SDA who published an influential series of monographs on the subject in his journal, Verdict.
6. The chameleon like character of many long-term ministers has often been remarked on. Many happily adjusted to the relatively liberal "Indian Summer" of the mid-70s, only to then enthusiastically champion the cultic regressions and purges that lasted from 1978 till Armstrong's death. The same men are now implementing changes that are diametrically opposite to those pronouncements.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Another Atheist Theologian


I first referenced Daniel Maguire's work on ethics back in 2009, then posted a YouTube clip in 2011. At the time I was trying to rinse the taste of Reformed ethics out of my mouth, a legacy of taking a couple of very inadequate courses in that subject at Otago while in pursuit of my B.Theol. Maguire appealed on at least two levels. First, as a Roman Catholic his arguments weren't poisoned by deviant Calvinist assumptions. Second, he addressed issues directly, not beating around the apologetic bush. I admired then (and still do) his brilliant little book A Moral Creed for All Christians which I've described elsewhere as "worth a truckload of Reformed gnat-straining."

Today I learned that this troublesome priest has outed himself as - shock, horror - an atheist.

In an interview with Religion Dispatches he talks about his new book Christianity Without God (also the provocative title of an earlier book by Lloyd Geering) and makes some memorable remarks.
"I think the main passion of the conservative mind is fear... Fear makes you reach for a supernatural insurance policy."
Unlike all too many of those who have transitioned from various forms of Christianity to godlessness, Maguire retains the ability to engage in the conversation without the smug, tone deaf invective that shuts off communication rather than opening it up.
"I grew up in a household with four sons and three of us became priests. That’s part of my story and its still part of my thinking. My moral creed for all Christians does not require belief in a god; there’s a whole cultural development that’s very dependent on Judaism and it’s something that I treasure. Many of my sensitivities are still rooted in that tradition."
And it's for that very reason I think this might be an invaluable contribution to the discourse, moving beyond the barricades and the cheap 'talking points' that characterises the all too common sniping from the cheap seats. Hopefully an e-book edition will be released before too much longer.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Mainly Classical (#1) - Mozart's Wind Serenade

Light, sumptuous, engaging. Mozart composed many enduring works, but this is definitely among my favourites: a 'must listen' for anyone building a musical library with an emphasis on the classics. Not a lot is known about the origin of the Wind Serenade (K361, sometimes known as Gran Partita); exact year or occasion. It hardly matters. There's a pastoral feel to the work, great music to sit back in a comfortable chair and de-stress to.

My choice of recordings is a performance by the London Philharmonic Wind Ensemble (you can hear an excerpt here), but almost any credible alternative will do, with Mozart you're always spoiled for choice. Most recordings come in around the 50 minute mark.

Oh yes, and today happens to be Mozart's birthday. Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag Wolfgang! The man may be gone, but the music remains.

Quotable - Ryan Bell

The historic, liberal seminaries in the United States and Canada teach modern textual criticism and pastors who graduate from those institutions know that the Bible is a human construction with many problems. Yet the average member would never know it. The clergy keep the story alive by hiding the truth behind ancient rituals that keep the myth alive... It would be a good time to pull the curtain aside and let all the lay people in on the clergy's little secret.

Excerpt from Ryan Bell, The Courage of Gretta Vosper.

Wisdom Ignored

Back in the early days of the 'Joeytocracy', Pastor General Joe Tkach Jr. gave an interview to the church newspaper. I came across a photocopy the other day. Here are the words of el Presidente.
"I've shared this with some of the ministry: Would it not be better for me to only be Pastor General for 10 years, and give it the best 10 years of my life? I'm in my prime, my health and my energy level, give it the best for 10 years and then I'd be happy to go pastor a church somewhere, and then let someone else do it for their 10 best years... I think there's wisdom in this approach."
I don't have a date for the article. It presumably appeared in the Worldwide News some time after the Dear Leader ascended on his father's coat tails.

Here we are now in 2015, the 20th year of Joey's mandate-free reign. So much for wisdom.

And even now do we know what process will be followed when Joey finally steps down? Another appointed PG? Appointed by Joey?

In case you missed it, here's what Joe Jr. wrote in his book Transformed by Truth in 1997.
"Our denominational governance is yet another major change we are in the process of making. The hierarchy of church structure is being modified to feature a board vested with authority both to appoint and to remove the president/pastor general. We also plan to limit the length of the pastor general’s term to a specified number of years. Until now, the office of pastor general has been a lifetime appointment made by the previous pastor general."
Yeah, right! The road to hell is paved, it seems, with Joey's good intentions. Too bad he won't act on them.

Does the man know no shame?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

No Big Black Line

"When a Realist crosses the equator he’ll expect to see a vivid black line across the ocean; while a Critical Realist will expect to see a faint grey line. The non-Realist, on the other hand, knows that the system of lines of latitude and longitude imposed on the Earth by us exists only in our own heads, but it helps us find our way around the globe. The same goes for religion: it is a system of guiding myths to help us (decide) how to live. Use it. Rejoice in its poetry and spirituality. Just don’t waste your time looking for that big black line in the sea."

Richard Holloway writing about Don Cupitt.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Bible Humour?

Tim Bulkeley has embarked on a bold new project demonstrating that the Bible contains humour.
[T]his series will argue that humour is widespread in Scripture and will attempt to begin classifying and organising it to enable clearer discussion of its presence and function.
Humour? In the Bible? Widespread?

Tim's initial posts indicate that he will be focusing - among other places - on the parables of Jesus. Is there humour in the reference to splinters and beams in eyes, for example, in Matthew 7?

Tim isn't talking about humour being read into passages in the Bible by creative preachers, nor the possibility of a hilarious reading of certain texts (Revelation in Monty Python voices perchance?)  No, he seems to be saying the humour is intentional.

I'm happy to be convinced on this question, but have to admit to a degree of scepticism at the outset. It'll be an interesting series to follow, and I'll be keeping (as much as lieth within me) an open mind. You can follow Tim's postings over at Sansblogue.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Creative Faith

It is probably fair to say that Don Cupitt's work can be demanding. Then again, compared with other philosophers, you could also say he is one of the more approachable voices in the field. What makes Cupitt interesting is he is a 'radical theologian', Anglican priest and (depending on what you mean by the word) atheist.
'He rejects all ideas of gaining salvation by escaping from this world of ours. "All this is all there is", he says and he now sees true religion in terms of joy in life and an active attempt to add value to the human lifeworld. ‘Life’ is all that there is and all we have, and must be accepted with its limits as a package deal. We must avoid all attempts to deny or escape the limits of life — traditionally time, chance and death.'
Once you get familiarised with the vocabulary he uses, Cupitt can be hard to ignore. There's a short but fascinating audio interview with the man on the Philosophy Bites podcast. It's a pretty good introduction to his thought.

All of which is a just a preamble to noting that Cupitt has just (January 8) published a new title through Polebridge Press, Creative Faith. It won't earn many kudos from traditional theologians I guess, but hey, having read almost everything the man has in print, I'm keen enough to have already downloaded a copy on Kindle.

Is there Intentional Fiction in the Bible? (Part 3)

In part one we noted that fictional writings - such as Jonah - do indeed exist in the Hebrew Bible. In part 2 we looked at the evidence against 2 Peter being what it says it is, a letter penned by Peter of the Pearly Gates. That evidence is fairly unequivocal.
  • 2 Peter bears all the marks of pseudonymity, a reality conceded by many conservative and evangelical scholars.
  • It is derived in large part from Jude, and had a devilish hard slog being accepted into the New Testament in the first place.
  • The first evidence of its appearance is around 220 CE. Assuming Pete wrote it just before he was martyred (supposedly) in 64 CE, that's a gap of up to 156 years. That's the distance we are from the year of our lord 1859.
  • Why was it accepted in the end? The church fathers finally convinced themselves it had to be genuinely Petrine. But it isn't and wasn't.
  • It add insult to injury, the writer clearly claims to be an apostolic witness (1:16-18).
It's a mess. Made worse by those scholars and apologists who refuse to deal with the unpleasant facts. The editors of such widely promoted translations as the ESV for example.

So, what do we do with 2 Peter. I suppose there are more than three options, but let's assume that we regard the scriptures as authoritative in our heritage, and that we wish to deal honestly with them.

One option is to do a Luther. The reformer consigned Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to the fringes of the canon - a sort of appendix to the New Testament - on theological grounds (one can only wish Revelation, in particular, had stayed there). So the precedent definitely exists. The problem would be, I guess, once you started down this road - where would one stop? 2 Peter might be the most egregious example, but there are others not far behind (see Luther's list just for starters!)

A second option is to concede the problem but then boldly declare that it doesn't matter. "So there are fictitious accounts in the New Testament? So what? We just need a more sophisticated reading."

Sophisticated and sophistry come from the same root.

No, this will hardly convince the fundamentalists, nor most evangelicals who are, to speak plainly, not a particularly sophisticated lot when it comes to the Bible. Franklin Graham would have a hernia and the entire Southern Baptist Convention would go into meltdown - not to mention those two nice Jehovah's Witness ladies trying to give away literature on the main street in Pukekohe this morning. Liberal non-Catholics (we used to call them Protestants) might be comfortable with this stratagem - indeed, I know more than a few who are - but Christians of this persuasion are greying and dying out as mainline denominations enter an irrecoverable senescence. Hard to see bright-eyed, bushy-tailed missionaries heading off to convert the heathen when they have to admit that the source of their enthusiasm for the Water of Life is a such a muddied puddle.

So yes, I think it does matter when we have cuckoos in the nest like 2 Peter and no, there is unlikely to be any amount of clever sophistry that will provide a palliative.

Bugger this!
Option three is to accept the New Testament for what it is, and yes it matters. The Bible is authoritative in the same limited sense that a denomination's confessional documents are (for example the horribly dated Westminster and Augsburg confessions). It marks the way along which we came and a shared history. It's a rough and weedy path and we've stumbled more than a few times, cursing the potholes and thorns. But it's only a means to an end, our eyes are on a more distant horizon. The Bible has a functional value. Pilgrims don't worship the ground they walk on en route (at least most don't), they strive to reach toward something that lies beyond. If you actually reach your pilgrim destination you're likely to be hugely disappointed. Forgive me dragging Luther into this again ("unhand me Schwein!") but think about his disillusionment upon finally reaching Rome ("I went with onions and returned with garlic.") This option shares many of the same problems as the second, but at least affirms that 'honesty is the best policy'.

And no, none of these options will satisfy most true believers. But there's no going back. 2 Peter is a junk epistle, worthless for proof texting, dubious for devotional purposes, our own little Book of Mormon within the Good Book. A junk epistle? Strong words maybe, but again, it was Luther who called James "an epistle of straw". Again, nice to have the precedent.

Are we dealing with intentional fiction? That's surely flattering the situation. Jonah, on the other hand, is a different genre of literature, and unlikely to have been written with duplicitous intent. It's hard to be as forgiving when we get to 2 Peter. We may be stuck with it, but we don't have to like it, lie about it or deny that a problem exists.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Ancient Prophets - Politics not Prediction

Another Otagosh piece reprised from 2011.

Those of us who have come out of a fundamentalist background usually associate the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and others, with prediction. In certain circles those predictions are not only infallible, but aimed at our own times which must be therefore, not unsurprisingly, the End Times. Prophecy, we are told, comes alive in today's world news.

To illustrate this bit of myopia, here's a quote that illustrates this perspective.
An exciting, pulsating, vital third of all the Bible is devoted to PROPHECY! And approximately 90 percent of all prophecy pertains to OUR TIME, now,...
This particular 'expert' then goes on to shoot himself in the foot by adding;
... in this latter half of the twentieth century!
Oops. Quick check of copyright date: 1967.

In more enlightened circles this is all passé. Of course the prophets weren't talking about today, they were 'forthtelling', not foretelling, and so on.

The trouble is, those circles of enlightenment are set on 40 watt narrow beam, and they've yet to pierce the darkness down the road at the neighbourhood store-front church. The failure of modern biblical studies is the almost complete lack of "trickle down" to the pews.

So what were the prophets on about? It's not saying anything original to suggest that they were more often than not the political activists of their day. Many of the soaring passages in Isaiah are not only reminiscent of political rhetoric, they are political rhetoric. Did Jeremiah have a political agenda? You bet! Did Samuel have a political agenda? Ask Saul! You don't have to read very far into the prophets without this reality leaping out at you.

Unless you've been overdosing on popular 'prophecy' material like the book quoted above, in which case it might well be a totally new thought.

Ronald Clements, a fairly conservative scholar, writes:
From the very beginning of modern study of these figures it was evident that their messages had a strongly political content.
Well Ronald, evident to you maybe, but not so evident to the folk who trawl through the shelves at the local Christian bookstore where every unclean and foul fowl finds a roosting place.
In the course of this engagement with a specific set of political judgments and policies they [the prophets] clearly intended to influence the policies adopted and thereby the outcome of events.
Clearly? Does this man not watch Sunday morning television? Well, no, of course he doesn't, which is probably why all this is clear to him.

Ever wonder why the powers-that-be, in most cases the royalty and priesthood of Israel and Judah, were so thoroughly hacked off with the prophets? (One memorable example is Jeremiah 36, the story of King Jehoiakim burning Jeremiah's scroll.) Was it because they were predicting events yet to unfold in the far distant future? Where, in practical terms, was the threat in that?

Of course there is poetry and theology in the Prophets. They wrote in a world where there was little separation between secular and sacred, no concept of democracy and no political parties. If you wanted to beat the king over the head for his questionable alliance with Egypt, for example, which is after all a very political thing to do, you picked up the club of prophecy, gathered your mantle about yourself, and whacked him lustily with a freshly minted word from the Lord. The prophets, more often than not, were the 'opposition party' in ancient Israel, which is why there were so unpopular with the royal regimes.

Naturally there is apocalyptic writing as well, which does present itself as peering through the mists of time (usually with the advantage of hindsight!) If someone wants to delve into Daniel or Revelation it'd be really helpful to get a grip on the basics of the apocalyptic genre first, before making a complete egg of oneself.

The incredible thing is that so many Christians, invariably good people with fine motives and an unquestionable commitment to their faith, are still being led down the garden path by the manipulations of modern prophecy merchants with their silly calculations and lurid fantasies about what will happen sometime very soon.

Back to the source of that first 1967 quote. Boldly, boldly, thus did the man of God proclaim:
Events of the next five years may prove this to be the most significant book of this century.
A staggering turn in world events is due to erupt in the next four to seven years.
By God's direction and authority, I have laid the TRUTH before you! To neglect it will be tragic beyond imagination!
Buzz, buzz, BUZZ...

But he did get the last sentence right.
The decision is now YOURS!


Herbert W. Armstrong. The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy. Pasadena, Ambassador College Press, 1967 [The same points could easily be made with Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth.]

Ronald E. Clements. Old Testament Prophecy: From Oracles to Canon. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

More Evidence for "Mrs God"

Female figurines and inscribed prayers to a "divine couple" found in temples in Israel suggest that the “one God” of the Bible may not have been entirely alone.
A recent excavation in Tel Motza, not far from Jerusalem, found what archaeologists believe to have been a ritual building - with clay figures of animals and men from the time of the First Temple, according to Israel's Haaretz news site.
The find suggests that Iron Age religion in the area around Jerusalem may not have been monotheistic just before the time the Hebrew Bible – the basis of the Old Testament - started to be written.

 Read the rest of the story here.


Steve Wiggins over at Sects and Violence in the Ancient World has posted some musings on the movie Divergent. Here's an excerpt.

"As I watched the movie I thought about religious groups that preach self-denial. Granted, I'm only one person, but growing up that was the message I continually heard loud and clear in the teachings of Jesus, according to the Gospels. Deny yourself so that others might have more. The deeper I became involved with the church, however, the rarer I found such behavior. By the time I reached college, I still hadn’t figured out that religion had become an industry, like any other. A service industry, to be sure, but it still had CEOs and treasurers and, increasingly, political power. The political seduction of religion already had a history by the time I became aware of it, but I still believed that self-denial was at the core of true religion... 
"Is there a place in the world for those who legitimately want everyone to share? I think that every time I find myself driving. Behind the wheel, selfish maneuvers that lead to little, if any, ultimate gain seem to be deeply embedded in those who want to get there first. Abnegation, it seems, is a danger on the road. Driving, it seems to me, is a real test of someone’s religious convictions." (Read the full post)
I'm not all that comfortable with terms like 'abnegation' (from the movie) and 'self denial' in that they imply a world-denying asceticism. But if we're talking empathy and selflessness, which are both relational terms, then I'm fully on board with these sentiments.

As for the comment about the "religion industry", gotta add an 'amen'.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Groundhog Day in Grace Communion International

The year is 1997. These are the words of Joe Tkach Jr.

"Our denominational governance is yet another major change we are in the process of making. The hierarchy of church structure is being modified to feature a board vested with authority both to appoint and to remove the president/pastor general. We also plan to limit the length of the pastor general’s term to a specified number of years. Until now, the office of pastor general has been a lifetime appointment made by the previous pastor general."
Joseph Tkach. Transformed by Truth.

Eighteen long years have gone by since those fine intentions were voiced. 2015 is the twentieth year Joe has warmed the throne.  Twenty years. So a simple question for Joe and those he deigns to share leadership with in Grace Communion International as we enter 2015.

Where are we up to with this?

Back in the day - when I was still running the precursor website to Ambassador Watch (then named The Missing Dimension) - which in turn morphed into the blog of the same name (archived here) I editorialised on Joe's leadership in a piece called "The Apostolic Chair". This was probably written circa 2002 - but that's a guess. The quotes are dated, and I wouldn't write it quite this way now, but more to the point. what's really changed in the Tkach church? One thing seems clear: Joe still has a vice-like grip on the reins.

The Apostolic Chair 
A screenshot of the old Missing Dimension site
Americans elect their president every four years, and wisely limit any one incumbent to two terms. The same cautious approach is evident in the constitution of many churches. A church, like a nation, should not become the personal fiefdom of any individual, no matter how sincere or gifted they might be. Yet Pastor General Joe Tkach was appointed, not elected. Moreover he's already served a lengthy term as spiritual leader of the Worldwide Church of God, and apparently has "life tenure". Doesn't that sound more like a fringe cult than an evangelical denomination?
Almost all churches, including related movements like the Church of God (Seventh Day) and the United Church of God, have systems in place that hold their leaders accountable to the membership. Church presidents serve a limited term. Not so the WCG. Joe Jr. (he prefers to be addressed as Doctor Tkach these days) holds the very same title and office that Herbert W. Armstrong held. And while Joe is happy to trash any number of church traditions and doctrines from the past, he shows no enthusiasm for seeking endorsement for his position as the church's top dog. No General Conference exists to provide a counterbalance to the Pastor General's authority. The power of the ministry has been shown to be severely limited: stand up to Joe and Co. and you're likely to become a "pastor without portfolio".
The traditional argument that the Pastor General is accountable solely to Christ won't wash. The theology on which that particular bit of self-deception was based has long since been swept away in the flood waters of change. Has Joe heard about "the priesthood of all believers"? His friends in the wider evangelical community certainly have. In practice, "accountable to Christ" means not accountable at all.
But it gets worse.  Legally it appears that the Worldwide Church of God is still "privately owned", and Pastor General Tkach is "sole proprietor". Caught off guard in a radio interview, he was asked what would stop him from just taking the money and leaving. The only reply he could come up with was that his family would stop him.
While Tkach might deny that he "owns" the church, with the current legal structure of the organization the reality is that he can hire and fire all board members at his personal discretion with absolutely no reason given. That's in writing. He can do whatever he wants with the corporation as long as it complies with government rules for a non-profit organization.
That things don't have to be this way was demonstrated recently by an independent Church of God congregation in Tulsa. The Journal, May 2001, reports the ordination of new pastor Ray Kurr. These Sabbatarian Christians have decided to bring the terminology of ministry into line with the service-oriented function originally intended.  "Minister" refers to all church members, since ministry ("serving") is the responsibility of all Christians. "Elder" refers to mature members of the congregation. "Pastor" refers to the job of leading the congregation
Ray Kurr comments "I showed that a pastor does not get between members and Jesus Christ." The article continues "In other church groups... a pastor had to grant permission for the general membership to do many things. 'As a pastor I have no intentions to behave in such an oppressive manner. If the Holy Spirit is moving you to benefit other churches with special music or take a group of friends of the congregation to help at the local shelter, just do it.'"
Joe might regard the members of this local church group as "legalists" due to some of their doctrinal beliefs. Yet these people have a fuller grasp of the freedom of the gospel than the top leadership in Pasadena demonstrate. Here's what one member recently posted on a news board:
The ministers have their marching orders and you will see more and more of this coming up soon... the subject of "days" [to worship on] seems to show the most clearly how things are being done...
We were given the right [for local churches] to choose the days ourselves. No real restrictions were placed on us and I felt Wow! this is a real empowering of the people. Well, it hasn't turned out that way. The clear motive now is a complete move from our past traditions to mainstream ones. The people may have chosen to keep the older ones but the ministry are to move us along. So there really wasn't a choice after all.
This is not empowering the people. One leading evangelistic advisor, I believe he is from Australia, said that a church should be full of lots of "ministers" and one "enabler" [something Ray Kurr understands]. The level of control on the WCG members is not unlike the Roman Catholics or even the Mormons for that matter.
Empowering the people is a scary thing. It means that you will not be able to control everything the way you would like. But maybe what this produces is something wonderful for the people.
Here's what Michael Feazell said back in 1996, speaking to a conference of regional pastors.
"The church needs to be a priesthood of believers... It needs to be doing ministry. Everybody in the church has a stake in that--whether it's women, men, teens or children."
Stakeholders must have a voice. They are not powerless, passive observers.
The simple truth may well be that Joe doesn't trust the church he presumably serves. He won't risk relaxing the reins lest people come up with ideas he doesn't endorse. Perhaps Joe considers himself indispensable. Perhaps he's a control freak. Could it be that he is unwilling to lose his comfortable sinecure?
Pastor General Joe has been chief shepherd of his dwindling flock for far longer than is decent without, at the very least, endorsement from the membership. How long will he remain on his pontifical throne? (even the pope is elected by a college of cardinals). Will he be Pastor General for life - a religious version of Fidel Castro?
Michael Feazell writes in the July 2001 Worldwide News
"If your church is a spiritual detriment to you, then you should consider finding another one... When the leader of a church indicates that he is God’s unique messenger or special representative in comparison with other Christian ministers...  then you have another example of a church that is spiritually detrimental to its members." 
Wise words. But what about churches where the leaders have safely elevated themselves beyond the influence of the members? A church, for example, that permits only token involvement of it's members in governance at either local or denominational level? How can Feazell justify the office of Pastor General and the hierarchical structure of the church in light of his own statement?
Tkach is on record as saying: "This fellowship has always been Episcopal, which is hierarchical..." Perhaps so. But this fellowship had always been Sabbatarian too, but that wasn't allowed to stand in the way of change. Even if an "Episcopal" model is to be used, there would need to be a long hard look at the parliamentary procedures actually used by the groups like the Episcopal Church; procedures which do indeed involve representative bodies of lay members at all levels.  The Worldwide Church of God is out on a limb when it claims "episcopacy" as some kind of precedent for leadership by a clique or self appointed oligarchy. It is no such thing.
Joe has been single-minded in his efforts to inveigle his way into the evangelical mainstream. But despite cuddling up to evangelical leaders, his leadership style arguably has more in common with Louis Farrakhan than Billy Graham.
They used to say in Pasadena that the only thing that would topple Herbert Armstrong from his throne would be the Second Coming.
Apparently some things don't change.
Has it changed even yet? And if not, why not?

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Prophecy that Wasn't

An earlier version of this article first appeared here in January 2011. 

Then God said to the serpent, "Because you were used as a tool of Satan, I cannot continue to let you be the most beautiful creature in the garden. You will now be lower than any of the animals and will crawl on the ground eating its dust. Also, I will place a hatred of sin in the heart of the woman and her descendants. This hatred of sin will find its ultimate expression in One of her offspring. Satan, like a striking serpent, will try to kill Him, but as a man crushes the head of a poisonous snake with his bare heel to save his children - knowing he will die - so the Savior will sacrifice His own life to save those who love Him, and He will utterly crush the serpent's head.
That's Genesis 3: 14-15, probably as few have read it (or into it) before. The credit for this fulsome embellishment goes to Jack Blanco in The Clear Word, a paraphrase of the Bible popular among Seventh-day Adventists.

Blanco is hardly the first Christian writer to find in these verses a prophecy of Christ. I first came across this bit of exegesis as a kid, when I should have been doing something really useful like reading Superman comics. Being just a kid I was puzzled. Exactly how does this verse refer to Christ? I guess it would have been clearer to me if The Clear Word had been around back then, but it wasn't, and I decided that this whole interpretation trip was obviously far too deep for someone like myself.

Here are those same two verses in the JPS:
Then the LORD God said to the serpent,
"Because you did this,
More cursed shall you be
Than all cattle
And all the wild beasts:
On your belly shall you crawl
And dirt shall you eat
All the days of your life.
I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers;
They shall strike at your head,
And you shall strike at their heel."

So where's Satan? Where's the One? Where's the prophecy? Not there. They're not in the text. It's an aetiological account of why snakes get around without legs and cause most humans to react with fear and revulsion. Is there more significance to it than that? Maybe, but if so it's certainly not evident in the text itself. Anything more is pure speculation. The Oxford Bible Commentary states it succinctly:
The various punishments imposed by God on the guilty (3:14-19) all have aetiological bases: serpents have no legs and are thought to 'eat dust', and bite human beings but are killed by them...
So why does the New Berkeley Version - a Reformed translation popular when I was growing up - provide this interesting footnote to those verses: "First promise of the Redeemer, Victor over sin and Satan." A more recent and egregious example comes from the footnotes of the God's Word translation.
The snake was Satan, the devil... Satan bruised Jesus' heel in the crucifixion, but Jesus crushed Satan's head by defeating the power of sin in the world through that very same crucifixion. 
Yeah? Says who? To find that in these verses you have to read it back into the text. It's not even an intertextual reference. How could you make an intertextual reference to something that hadn't been written about yet?

Beats me.

It's not fashionable in certain circles to use the term eisegesis any longer, but if you wanted a clear example of the phenomenon, this would surely be it. To read these verses as prophecy, first you need to put on your metanarrative blinkers.

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.

Which is, in my opinion, what Jack Blanco has done. The pack of cards doesn't stack up, so you flick the Jokers off to the side and replace them with some more convenient cards from an entirely different deck. Creative writing for Blanco, creative exegesis for conservative scholars.

This prophecy exists only in the eye of the beholder.

John Morgan and "Truth, Lies, Diana."

John Morgan must be the only member, past or present, of the Worldwide Church of God to feature as a character in a West End play.

Last month John's latest book How They Murdered Princess Diana was launched. John kindly sent me a copy (my initial comments are found here). The book builds a case with relentless care. I don't know if John has 'proven' anything as such, but only a fool would discount the meticulous evidence he brings to bear. It seems clear - to me at least - that this is not just another 'conspiracy theory'.

British newspaper The Daily Mail features an article by Sue Reid in Wednesday's edition. Reid has the title of "investigations editor", and she takes the opportunity to review the new play "Truth, Lies, Diana" and at the same time connect some of the dots herself.
"The play draws heavily on a new book How They Murdered Princess Diana by John Morgan, who forensically examined 7,000 pages of inquest documents, police statements, and medical reports about her death aged 36."
Reid makes it clear that her own investigations lead in similar directions.
"[Truth, Lies, Diana] portrays a writer called Ray investigating the Princess’s death to write a play about her. The plot shows Ray being advised by John Morgan, a character based on the real-life author of the new book claiming she was assassinated."
There is enough in the article, and even more so in the play (let alone the book!) to send a shudder down the spines of many of those named. The play is scheduled to run until mid-February.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Stewie Griffin is God

Exodus: Gods and Kings.

What can one say?

In print you can isolate the nicer themes from the Exodus story and impute nobleness to the cause. Exodus and human liberation, a low humming of African-American Spirituals in the background.

The actual narrative is much darker than that. Plagues, suffering, death.

It doesn't matter that it never happened. Fictive narratives can have great power, and Exodus is the gold standard in fictions that have echoed down the centuries.

The movie has more than its share of disturbing moments. The one that caught me by the collar was the confrontation between Ramses and Moses, a distraught Pharaoh clutching his dead infant and tossing out the challenge: is this your god?

God, it so happens, is portrayed as a petulant child, Malak (Isaac Andrews). Stewie Griffin enfleshed!

Then there are the truly weird moments. Who'd have thought that Moses carried a sword with Excalibur properties?

I found myself rooting for the Egyptians more than once.

Is this your god?


Updating the KJV - MEV as Windows 8

In 1611 the King James Version was launched upon the English-speaking world, and quickly became the default translation for the vast majority of Christians. It was a dominance that arguably lasted until the 1960s when the Revised Standard Version finally gained traction after a shaky launch in 1952.

And since then it's been open slather. The good, the bad and the downright appalling.

The KJV's near universal acceptance until the middle of last century meant not only a shared text, regardless of your denominational affiliation, but encouraged memorisation of verses (everyone knew the KJV rendering of John 3:16) and the dubious discipline of proof-texting. Those sects which most effectively exploited proof-texts had a powerful tool on their side.

But alas (or hallelujah! depending on your perspective) the KJV is now a largely spent force and now each of us tends to read and quote whatever version most takes our fancy. How frustrating; no wonder many biblicist sects are in decline.

There have been a few efforts to resuscitate the KJV by lightly modernising the text, most notably the awful New King James Version. This is now the official translation of groups like the Living Church of God.

Now there's a new entry, the Modern English Version of 2014. This is a non-denominational translation with heavily conservative underpinnings. Originally a project for military chaplains in the US and UK (the copyright belongs to something called the Military Bible Association), in its development process it has morphed into something more ambitious.

And get a load of the dedication:
To Her Majesty Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. The translators of the Bible wish grace, mercy, and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Well, that's special. What, one wonders, does the lady herself think of that? And did they clear it with Buckingham Palace first?

But back to basics: "The Modern English Version is a translation of the Textus Receptus and the Jacob ben Hayyim edition of the Masoretic Text, using the King James Version as the base manuscript." Not surprisingly it bills itself as a literal, "formal correspondence translation."[1]

The question is, is it any good? The MEV is promoted as an "update" of the KJV for the twenty-first century. There are a lot of claims in the PR that it preserves the cadence and beauty of the KJV.  That is to some extent a subjective judgement. The first "hot point" I wanted to check out was what the MEV did with Romans 3:22. Here the original KJV [2] translates pistis christou as "faith of Christ" rather than "faith in Christ" (which is the option taken my most translations for - could it be? - doctrinal reasons).

Perhaps unsurprisingly the MEV has chosen the path of least resistance and gone with the "in" option (as did the NKJV before it.) Douglas Campbell will not be amused.[3]

If you're looking for a translation with a 'familiar' feel, and grew up in the KJV generation, then the MEB might be a solid option, and is almost certainly preferable to the earlier NKJV. I haven't had the chance to 'test drive' the MEB with such proof-texting abominations as a certain Bible Correspondence Course some readers will remember, but suspect it'd hold up well there. But if you're looking for real credibility and scholarship, you're probably going to have to look elsewhere.

As for being an update, it might be helpful to think of the MEV as Windows 8 for the KJV... or even Windows Vista.

[1] Preface to the Reader

[2] The Common English Bible (CEB) of 2011 adopts the same usage as the KJV. So do some of the newer online translations such as the ISV and Net Bible. It might seem a nitpicking debate, but the implications are far reaching.

[3] Campbell (Duke University) is one of the main protagonists in the pistis christou debate, and author of the very dense The Deliverance of God.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Brinsmead on Biblical Scholarship

Excerpted from Robert D. Brinsmead. "Living by the Bible." The Christian Verdict, essay 23 (1985)

Many earnest Christians today are uneasy about the findings of modern scholarship. But biblical scholarship, particularly since World War II, has made amazing progress in the study of the Bible. Advances in biblical understanding in the last fifty years exceed all advances made in the previous nearly two thousand years of Christian history. 
Four contributions of biblical scholarship should be emphasized: 
1. Biblical scholarship has made it abundantly clear that the Bible is not inerrant. It contains numerous mundane mistakes and inconsistencies... perhaps the mistakes are a protection against bibliolatry, a defense against a religion of the letter. 
2. Biblical scholarship has also made it abundantly clear that we have no accurate, direct access to the historical Jesus. Even that history is seen through a glass darkly. There are historical discrepancies in the four Gospels. They do not constitute a biography. The records that we have of the life of Christ are from second and third generation witnesses. We are cut off from direct historical access. 
3. There is no homogeneous body of teaching in Scripture. Rather, there is diversity. There are tensions. There are different points of view. 
4. Scholarship has clearly demonstrated that despite all the professions of living a life controlled by the Bible, no one does it anyway.

Comment: cleaning out the garage can be fraught with unexpected consequences. Like discovering a pile of ancient publications you'd half forgotten. Bob Brinsmead was one of the main influences on my thinking back in the eighties, providing the intellectual grunt to put fundamentalism far behind me. There were other good reasons, of course, to leave an arrogant, hierarchic sect; but without Verdict (in its various incarnations) I'd probably just have settled down in another related group - hopefully one that was less abusive, hypocritical and manipulative.

How does Bob hold up after all these years? Well, life is growth, and most of us have (hopefully!) had a few new thoughts - and I'm pretty sure Bob himself has moved on in new directions. Nonetheless I'm intrigued to find that there's a lot that I can still utter a heartfelt 'amen' to. As I work my way through the pile I'll post an occasional item.

For a sample of the Brinsmead style here's a 34 minute YouTube time trip back to 1985.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Jim West on Karl Barth

Jim West speaketh of the mid-twentieth century Reformed theologian Karl Barth thusly:
"Karl Barth, male strumpet and grudge holder."
Now Jim, don't hold back.

Not content therewith, Jim provides this image. Barth on the right, his fellow Reformed theologian and bete noire Emil Brunner on the left.

(Karl had a thing for secretaries? Jawohl.)

Now, just to make it abundantly clear for any humourless Presbyterians reading this, Jim is indulging in satire. Indeed his blog Zwingli Redivivus is a kind of Charlie Hebdo of biblioblogs.

At least I think it's satire; sometimes with Jim it's hard to tell...

Actually, I am more than a little sympathetic to Jim's views on Barth. The guy was a one-man dead end in Christian theology. Who else would write not one but two incredibly tedious and largely unreadable commentaries on the Book of Romans, neither of which qualified as an actual commentary?

John Bowden had the measure of the man in his 1971 SCM classic, Karl Barth. Sadly out of print, but you can pick up a second hand copy for next to nothing on Amazon. If you want to know about this genius in any detail, Bowden is the bloke to go to.

If you require less detail, Jim's one liner is probably quite sufficient.

Big Sandy, Spanky and a new End Times date

The December 31 issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is now available. The main feature is an article by John Warren relating the history of the now defunct Big Sandy campus of Ambassador College from 1964 through till 1981.

It seems the venerable Doc Meredith has been contemplating his mortality. The LCG Council of Elders, a toothless 'advisory' body serving under the Presiding Evangelist (Meredith of course), "passed an 'affirmation' stating who would be next in line to succeed Dr. Meredith in the event he was no longer able to preside over the church." Journal writer Edward Malone notes that the council "has no binding authority over the church or its administration."

Which is, of course, a recipe for disaster when Meredith kicks the bucket or wafts off into dementia. Richard Ames has the nod (hardly news, that's been in the public arena for ages, so why the fuss now? Is Meredith's competence questionable?). Could 2015 be the year that the spluttering torch is passed? If it is you can be pretty sure the operation will be fumbled - judging from past examples of "sticky transitions" - and the LCG will shatter.

Meanwhile Mac Overton has an interesting suggestion in the 'Letters' section.
"Why doesn't The Journal establish a Diotrephes award in honor of great examples of ministerial malpractice and allow church people to vote on it?"
What a fantastic idea. No likely shortage of nominations! Somehow though I think editor  Dixon Cartwright will probably pass on that idea. What a shame.

And don't miss Geoffrey Neilson's letter, a long, poetic ode in which he suggests that the Feast of Trumpets on September 10 2018 might be blastoff time for "Jacob's Time of Trouble". How'd he work that out? you ask:
"From and including Sunday, July 31, 1892, Herbert W. Armstrong's birth, to and including Friday Sept. 28, 2018, the fifth day of the Feast of Tabernacles (and ninth day after Atonement that year) =  46,080 days or 8 x (8 x 8) x 360 days. The numerical value of the name Jesus in Greek = 888."
Wow. So there ya go, sheer genius, nicht wahr? Sure seems like proof positive to me, who could argue with such clever sums? I'd suggest Geoff get that first Diotrephes gong, but I don't think he meets Mac's ministerial criteria, having never "had hands laid". Maybe a special 'honorary' award in the interim, till voting procedures can be circulated. For creative exegesis? Wait... we can do that!

Does God Care for Dolphins?

(Continuing from the previous post)

Bob Brinsmead, the remarkable ex-Adventist theologian, makes a strong point about ecological awareness, commenting on Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 (" the Law of Moses we read, 'You shall not muzzle a threshing ox.' Do you suppose God's concern is with oxen? Or is the reference clearly to ourselves? Of course it refers to us...")

"If we were to extrapolate from Paul's argument, we could say, 'Does God care for the dolphins being destroyed by the driftnetting of man and the destruction of precious endangered species on the earth? Of course not. Does God care for the slaughtering of whales? Of course not. Does God care that beautiful seals are clubbed on the head so that people can strut around in fur coats. Of course not.' Was Paul's argument truly human? Of course not!"

Brinsmead's point seems to be that, historically, Christianity had little concern about the world beyond the arena of mankind's salvation. Is he "on the dolphin's nose" with these observations? [1] If you think he was, what do we then do with the text? Was Paul correct or, as Bob argues, terribly wrong?

No I'm not really trying to be disingenuous (who, me?) Yes, I admit that I've read and enjoyed eco-theologian Norman Habel's book An Inconvenient Text for example, which I warmly recommend, and not only because of a shared upbringing in Antipodean Lutheranism. [2] But then I suspect very few readers of this blog have been much exposed to concepts like 'green' and 'grey' texts in the Good Book. (Strangely enough Habel doesn't refer directly to this particular Pauline text, but using his terminology this one would surely have to be darkest grey.) To be clear, lest anyone think this is all a bit of self-indulgent 'Christian bashing', neither Brinsmead (see note below) nor Habel were engaging in an atheistic rant, simply directing us to do some critical thinking.

[1] It's only fair to add that, at the time he wrote, nearly a quarter century ago, Bob had fairly rosy eschatological expectations about a humanity 'coming of age' grounded in post-modern appreciation of the human figure of Jesus. The reference for the quotations is Robert D. Brinsmead. "Jesus and a Post-Modern Worldview." Quest 9 (February 1991), 1, 5-10.
[2] Norman Habel. An Inconvenient Text. Adelaide, ATF Press, 2009. Unlike the volumes in the 'Earth Bible' series published by Sheffield Academic Press, An Inconvenient Text is both more affordable and written for a broad readership. For a specifically Lutheran (ELCA) perspective on eco-theology see David Rhoads's online article Reflections on a Lutheran Theology of Creation: Foundations for an Eco-Reformation.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Of lilies and mountaintops

Consider how the lilies grow in the fields;
they do not work, they do not spin;
and yet, I tell you,
even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these.
Matthew 6:28-29 (NEB)

"In reading hundreds of years of Christian literature, it is not until the seventeenth century that anyone ever climbs a mountain in order to bask in its greatness and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Christians were so unworldly, so ascetic, that they had no proper appreciation for the joy of nature."

The above quote is from a 1991 seminar transcript by Bob Brinsmead (Jesus and a Post-Modern Worldview). Certainly there are passages in the Bible - such as the one from Matthew and others in Psalms - that can be read as demonstrating some sense of aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. But the contention here is that this kind of awe disappeared as the church rose, that by implication the original Christian view of creation was entirely utilitarian.

Can anyone cite a church father or other Christian source prior to the seventeenth century to the contrary?

Science and Creationism

An oldie but goodie that did the rounds a few years ago. The second frame applies to apologists of all stripes.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Newtonian Asperger's?

In recent days - and with no intended reference to anyone who posts here - I've been thinking about the way certain academics (and by no means limited to the fields often discussed on this blog) seem to suffer Asperger-type symptoms. There's a degree of single-mindedness, a lack of empathy or tolerance, a degree of obsessiveness and defensiveness which characterises certain debaters residing in the ivory towers.

This is not of course the way its supposed to be. Academics claim to follow the trail of evidence, go where it will. Sweet reason prevails, theories are testable, and may the soundest reconstruction prevail.

And let all the people say, Amen.

But that is more sanctified ideal than everyday reality, and only a fool would claim to be immune from self interest, including more common clods like thee or me. (Actually, when I think about it, blogging may be a prime indicator of dysfunctionality!)

What sparked off the thought was the suggestion that Sir Isaac Newton's "obsessiveness suggests that he may have suffered from a mild form of autism, such as Asperger's Syndrome." (Lloyd & Mitchinson, The QI Book of the Dead, p.12-17 throughout). Newton clearly was a brilliant man whose legacy will endure till the end of history, and yet the "slightest criticism of his work drove him into a furious rage, and his life was blighted by vicious feuds with other eminent mathematicians such as Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz and Robert Hooke."

Newton was more than a scientist, he was a devoted Bible student who "spent the bulk of his working life trying to calculate the date of the end of the world as encoded in the Book of Revelation, unravel the meaning of the prophecies of the Book of Daniel and relate the chronology of human history to the population cycle of the locust." Clearly misdirected genius, more in common here with Hal Lindsey than Einstein. "Newton believed that it would be for his religious theories, rather than for his work on optics or motion, that he would be remembered."

So you have to wonder about other great figures in Christian history; the vile Athanasius, the humourless Calvin, the [choose your own adjective] Barth... the list could go on. Undoubtedly gifted, one and all. (Point of clarification: we're not talking about Frankin Graham and Creflo Dollar here. You can be a ghastly human being without being anything close to intellectually competent. Nor did a surfeit of duplicitous cunning upgrade Herb Armstrong to sit alongside such heavyweights.)

Any thoughts?

An Escalation of Outrage

"It isn’t satirical cartoonists who dishonor Muhammad. It is people who kill satirical cartoonists in his name."

James McGrath

Most of us rub shoulders with Muslims on an almost daily basis, whether we're aware of it or not. They seem to me for the most part fine people, focused on working hard to build a good life for themselves and their families. As immigrants (in the main) they also have the difficult job of adjusting to a very different culture. Ours no longer defers to religious sensibilities. Not Catholic, not Evangelical, and not Muslim. Secularism and freedom are non-negotiable.

I am a descendant of non-English speaking immigrants. They had the misfortune to arrive in New Zealand from Germany just in advance of the Great War. Their children then grew up in the shadow of World War II, tormented in their turn by the jingoism of those times, the abuse, the bullying. Their response was all too often to keep their heads low, anglicising  their names, changing their religious affiliation, and sometimes claiming a different family origin (Danish was a little more acceptable). By and large they assimilated quickly (there didn't seem to be any choice) becoming "more Kiwi than the Kiwis."

And then there were those who toughed it out through the pain and confusion. It came at a cost, not least in mental health.

One can only feel for the many, many members of the Muslim community who will be truly horrified at today's events in France. The terrorists - murderers - have not advanced the cause of Islam one iota. This is an 'own goal', and it has been scored at the expense of members of their own community trying desperately to participate constructively in their adopted societies. While outrage may be a natural reaction, it should not be directed at these people.

Outrage is what caused this situation in the first place.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A sharp new voice in the Mythicism conversation

A new blog takes up the cause of mythicism. And here's the thing - it's actually well written. The anonymous blogmeister is obviously well grounded in the field of biblical studies and, hallelujah, doesn't come across with the earnest pretentiousness of so many of those "bah, humbug!" types in the 'historicist' camp.

My one initial reservation concerns the anonymous thing. I understand that "coming out" as mythicist-friendly can be akin to committing professional harakiri (just ask Bob Price!), but it would be helpful to know - for example - if the writer is a graduate student.

The Mythicism Files is likely to become a frequent port of call for those curious to explore the concept. It doesn't seem to have gained much profile yet... but I suspect that will change quite quickly. I'll be bookmarking this one.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Hamilton's crowning glory

Nothing makes me prouder of my natal city than Hamilton Gardens. A leisurely Summer stroll there, set alongside the Waikato River and only a few minutes from the city centre, is capable of transporting one from China to Italy, from pre-European New Zealand to Japan, England to India, all in the space of a half-hour.

Not that I'm a garden connoisseur. My dear sister picked up all the gardening genes leaving me with a total disinterest in grubbing around in the soil. I even avoid mowing the lawn. But even I, poor benighted soul that I am, can recognise beauty in a place like this.

My favourite sections, based on today's long overdue wander, include the Italian Renaissance Garden, the Japanese Garden of Contemplation and the Chinoiserie Garden (which wasn't there when I last visited a year ago). Special mention also goes to another new feature, Te Parapara Maori Garden. No surprise that Hamilton took out the International Garden of the Year Award in 2014.

At the end of January a Tudor Garden is being unveiled, so I don't want to leave it for another year before I return.

For fellow Kiwis who monitor my rantings - and especially all those who live in the Waikato (all three or so of you!) - do yourself a favour next time you're in "The Tron" and set aside an hour or two to enjoy this amazing asset. Take a friend. Entry is, as it should be, free to all. I'll post a couple of further photos later.

In the meantime check out the website!

Monday, 5 January 2015

LCG - bull-roaring midget

Is anyone listening?
It's funny how you tend to credit today's micro-sects of COGdom with the attributes of the original body. "Back in the day" the Worldwide Church of God boasted large congregations in cities throughout the English-speaking world.

Even Auckland, where we filled up Epsom Girls Grammar School Hall to capacity each Sabbath to belt out Dwight Armstrong's hymns and listen to hour long sermons by worthies like Bob Morton and Jack Croucher.

But the years have gone by brethren, yea, even the decades and the WCG that we knew is no more. Papa Joe's Grace Communion International is a shadow of the original body, an insipid version of evangelicalism fed on the rat poison of Karl Barth and 'interpenetrated' by the trinitarian Torrances.

Putting aside the United Church of God for the moment we come to the LCG, Rod Meredith's remnant group. Depending on who you believe, its the third largest derivative group from ye olde WCG.

So how big are those LCG congregations? Gary Leonard has these stats up on his blog.
LCG publishes list of ten largest congregations.  
1. Charlotte North Carolina 258
2. Kansas City Missouri 195
3. Chaguanas Trinidad 128
4. Ft. Lauderdale Florida 116
5. Houston Texas 115
6. Dallas Texas 113
7. Phoenix Arizona 107
8. Quezon City Metro Manila, Philippines 99
9. Kingston Jamaica 96
10. Christ Church Barbados 94
Assuming we're talking about attendance, which seems probable, these figures are a joke.

And it's clear big-talking Spanky and his 'evangelists' are a joke too.

Minimalism mon amour

Uri Avnery's comments, quoted in the previous post, seem to have created a bow wave ranging from herniated shock to guarded reservation among readers of this blog. So, what the heck, let's stir things up further with this short article on the Bible and Interpretation site by Jim West: A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism.


Sunday, 4 January 2015

Archaeology and the State of Israel

Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery has a transcript of a speech entitled The Connection Between Archaeology and Ideology in the Middle East up on the CounterPunch site. It's a brilliant introduction to the politically inspired deceit that surrounds much popular rhetoric on this subject.

 An excerpt:
"[W]ith the coming of the Zionists to Palestine, a frantic archeological search started. The country was combed for real, scientific proof that the Biblical story was not just a bunch of myths, but real honest-to-God history. (Pun intended.) Christian Zionists came even earlier.
There started a veritable attack on archeological sites. The upper layers of Ottoman and Mamelukes, Arabs and Crusaders, Byzantines and Romans and Greeks and Persians were uncovered and removed in order to lay bare the ancient layer of the Children of Israel and to prove the Bible right.
Huge efforts were made. David Ben-Gurion, a self-appointed Biblical scholar, led the effort. The Chief of Staff of the army, Yigael Yadin, the son of an archeologist, and himself a professional archeologist, searched ancient sites to prove that the Conquest of Canaan really happened. Alas, no proof.
When remnants of the bones of Bar Kochba’s fighters were discovered in Judean desert caves, they were buried on Ben-Gurion’s orders in a big military ceremony. The uncontested fact that Bar Kochba had caused perhaps the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history was glossed over.
And the result?
Incredible as it sounds, four generations of devoted archeologists, with a burning conviction and huge resources, did produce exactly:
From the beginning of the effort to this very day, not a single piece of evidence of the ancient history was found. Not a single indication that the exodus from Egypt, the basis of Jewish history, ever happened. Nor of the 40 years of wandering in the desert. No evidence of the conquest of Canaan, as described at length in the Book of Joshua. The mighty King David, whose kingdom extended – according to the Bible – from the Sinai peninsula to the north of Syria, did not leave a trace. (Lately an inscription with the name David was discovered, but with no indication that this David was a king.)
Israel appears for the first time in sound archeological findings in Assyrian inscriptions, which describe a coalition of local kingdoms which tried to stop the Assyrian advance into Syria. Among others, King Ahab of Israel is mentioned as the chief of a considerable military contingent. Ahab, who ruled today’s Samaria (in the north of the occupied West Bank) from 871 BC until 852 BC was not beloved by God, though the Bible describes him as a war hero. He marks the beginning of the entry of Israel into proven history.
(Tip of the fez to Jim West who drew attention to Avnery's article a couple of days ago.)