Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Wall to wall Greg

Once upon a time there was a magazine. It was called The Plain Truth. This free magazine had many faults, not least some very questionable content. The people whose names topped the editorial masthead were, with few exceptions, not particularly nice. Nor, one suspects in hindsight, particularly sincere. However the magazine was, for its time, lavishly produced. Countless children cut it up to illustrate school projects. Some adults, under the spell of its glossy pages and simplistic messages, took it seriously enough to become enmeshed in its sponsoring church. They then discovered that 'free' could be a relative term.

Then along came Greg. Greg Albrecht. Exactly how the ownership of The Plain Truth passed to Greg is not entirely clear to me. Why it was offered up in a church 'fire sale' of assets is also unclear. But it was. Greg quickly drove down circulation, which probably wasn't his intention. Greg also relaunched himself, no longer a senior minister in an abusive sect but, believe it or not, an advocate of niceness-saturated, religion-free Christianity.

Even unto this very day, the Albrecht Plain Truth endures. Not so glossy. Eight pages long. Published six times a year, circulation undisclosed. Fair to say, I suspect, that it's widely ignored and a mere shadow of its former self.

What is striking about the January/February PT is just how much of the entire issue is written by Editor-in-Chief Greg. Ruth Tucker has a one page column, and the back cover is the usual pot pouri of fluff, leaving six pages. How many of these are written by Greg Albrecht?

All of them.

Even in the days of Herbert Armstrong it would be hard to find this level of journalistic narcissism.

Available in flipping format (to keep Douglas happy) and - for the rest of us - PDF.

As for whether the Albrecht-sodden PT has equally questionable content as its predecessor, I'll let you be the judge.

Eric on The Friendly Atheist

Egad, the sky is falling.

Eric, a Chicago based writer, is the latest guest on the Friendly Atheist podcast. Eric was raised in some kinda weird sect called... hang on, let me check, um... the Worldwide Church of God.

Hemant Mehta writes: "We'd love to hear your thoughts on the podcast."

There's a link on the Twitter feed above or go to the web page direct. The show is just over 45 minutes long. I'm not sure Eric actually knows a lot about the background to his subject (he seems to think it's possible Herb had a military background), but the value isn't in bald, objective information, but in how the whole Herbal experience seems to someone who spent their childhood in the cactus patch.

To be honest, for me the interview is just a little too loose and informal to appeal overmuch - but then I'm an antiquated old codger and not given to chatty podcasts in the mold of commercial breakfast radio - and be advised, there are occasional lapses into expletives. It should however really speak to a younger demographic (Eric was born in 1986). If you can put up with the banter, perhaps there's actually some real insight to be gleaned.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Beyond the Good News

For the record, the lads at UCG have launched out into an exciting new era of magazine publishing.


In fact, The Good News has simply been re-branded as Beyond Today.

Think of it as putting lipstick on a pig.

If this seems rather harsh, consider what the theme of the first BT magazine is.


You'd think the lads would learn. Prophecy isn't exactly a subject they have a successful record in. Same old, same old, regurgitated endlessly. And in this first issue, predictably (no pun intended) they've got absolutely nothing new to say.

Gary Petty asks: "The Bible's Prophetic Puzzle - Can You Put It Together?" The artwork shows a jigsaw. Well, one thing I'm sure of, Gary can't put it together. Problem one, it isn't a jigsaw. But the lads have this thing about jigsaws, because on the next page there' s a picture of Nebuchadnezzar's famous image - superimposed on a jigsaw.

In UCG the Bible is one big jigsaw made up of proof texts that have to be slotted in 'just-so' to achieve 'understanding'. Earth to UCG, that's not how biblical exegesis works. Think hermeneutics instead of Herman Hoeh.

And lo, there's a silly little feature entitled "Why we watch world events - and why you should too." Nice. UCG (and before it WCG) have always made a big thing about watching world events (largely sourced from right-wing pundits), and with an astonishing record of consistency they've always misunderstood them. Just check back on one of those 1930's issues of The Plain Truth, or think about the hogwash Garner Ted Armstrong spouted on The World Tomorrow during the Nixon presidency. You'd think they'd have wised up decades ago. If that sounds like ancient history, consider the age of the lads who sit in their padded chairs at Milford Head Office.

Maybe it would be more tolerable if they tried, just a little bit, to give some balanced analysis instead of the usual myopic baloney. If that's your hope, probably best not to hold your breath.

One final observation. Until now the magazine has had the subtitle "a magazine of understanding" ('borrowed' from the old Plain Truth). Now it's "Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow".

The irony is that it delivers neither.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Mythmaker: Paul, who art thou?

Chapter 10 of Mythmaker raises the question of just who Paul thought he was. Clearly, as he dusted himself off after his Damascus Road experience, he wasn't just any old convert.
A convert is a person who humbly approaches the authorities of the religion which he wishes to join and submits himself for instruction. Paul denies such a description of his entry altogether... instead he goes off 'to Arabia'.
There's more than one resonance in the official story with Old Testament precedents.
Just as Moses, on receiving the tablets of the law, stayed in the Arabian wilderness for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 34:28), so Paul retired to the desert to assimilate and meditate on the new revelation before returning to impart it to mankind.
Once he has cogitated the situation thoroughly, Paul comes out with some astonishing claims, for example speaking of  "my gospel".
Paul is claiming a much higher authority than that of the Jerusalem apostles, Peter, James and John; for their claim derived from acquaintance with the earthly Jesus, while Paul's claim derived from acquaintance with the heavenly Jesus...
Then there's Galatians 1:16.
... what the Greek actually says is '... to reveal his Son in me', as the Revised Version says. Paul is saying, quite straightforwardly, that he is himself the incarnation of the Son of God. He is thus claiming to have even higher status in his new religion than was claimed for Moses in Judaism.
But wait, there's more. Paul gets plugged in to the magic revelation machine again, being caught up to the third heaven and hearing secret stuff that simply cannot be repeated to mere mortals (2 Cor. 12:2-3).

But wait, there's even more. Galatians 6:17 is all about the holy stigmata. Protestants tend to react by seeing this reference as mere metaphor, but perhaps not.
The stigmata of Paul, whether self-inflicted or psychosomatically produced, made him, in his own eyes and those of his followers, the supreme embodiment of the power of the mystery of god, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It all makes Joseph Smith's claims seem utterly credible. Can't you just see N. T. Wright choking on his communion wine? Paul isn't just adding a few more spices to the stew, according to Maccoby, he's cooking up a whole new dish.

(This is the latest part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Flag it!

I'm a Kiwi. New Zealanders differ from their American cousins in a number of ways, not the least in how we regard our flag.

From a Kiwi perspective, Americans are weird about their flag. Hands on hearts, kids reciting pledges, salutes, displayed in all kinds of unlikely places - sometimes including churches; completely "out there".

Not so in Godzone. Patriotism is an understated thing in Aotearoa. I was in high school before I consciously noticed the difference between our flag and the Aussie knock-off (yep, those Ockers rarely have an original idea). My parent's generation still regarded "God Save the Queen" as the national anthem and referred to the rain-sodden fields of Old Blighty as "the old country", despite both being born half a world away.

For people of my generation the nuclear-free legislation was a first taste of national self-assertion, beginning years earlier with opposition to nuclear testing. New Zealand sent a frigate to monitor French nuclear tests in the Pacific, bringing down the ire of France. Later France, in an illegal act of state-sponsored terrorism, sank the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. How soon we forget.

The tea towel
Then there was the decision to bar nuclear armed ships from our harbours. Margaret Thatcher sent a high ranking women apparatchik, a toffee-nosed baroness, to tear strips off our then Prime Minister, David Lange, apparently under the illusion that the colonies must still conform to Downing Street. In a press conference following the meeting, fronted by the PM with the lady diplomat nowhere in evidence, Lange remarked that the British rep had probably left by broomstick.

Ah, the good old days.

Then, while our best buds, the craven Canberra crowd, huffed and puffed about our responsibility to do as we were told by the US, we were kicked out of the ANZUS defense pact. The result? Never had Kiwi patriotism been as prominent in peace time. Even today the conservative National coalition government cannot bring itself to repeal that legislation.

The bombed out hull of the Rainbow Warrior
But flag waving was never part of that. That was something other people did.

On the weekend, driving around the local area with some old friends, we saw flags flying in what, by Kiwi standards, can only be described as profusion. Today I counted three flags flying within a just block of home.

The reason? We're gearing up for a flag referendum. The choice is between the current flag and a tea-towel design.

What fascinates me is that every flag I've seen flying in recent days is the one we have now.

I don't know what this augurs for the final referendum. Public opinion is always a fickle thing, and I fear time will favour the tea towel (and in the upper-income LOMBARD* suburbs of Remuera and the North Shore I suspect the tea towel is indeed in evidence). But, as I pondered those flags proudly fluttering from nearby houses, I had to wonder whether the combination of Southern Cross and Union Jack meant something more than a backwards nod to our colonial heritage. Perhaps it's also the flag we associate with the progressive policies that have set us apart as New Zealanders over many years.

I don't have a flagpole. But if I did, I know which one I'd be flying.

(* LOMBARD: alternative to Yuppie; "Lots Of Money But A Real Dick".)

Friday, 18 December 2015

Are You an Evangelical?

'Evangelical' means many things, and in the best of worlds it would reflect the Reformation definition which basically means, to quote the words Bob Brinsmead used to devastating effect in his critique of Seventh-day Adventism, "judged by the Gospel".

But the buffoons at America's National Association of Evangelicals couldn't have that. In partnership with something called LifeWay Research they've cooked up their very own four-point formula.
1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe. 
2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin. 
4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
All of these statements are problematic. Worse, they run contrary to anything that might be described as genuine Christian theology; Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. For these folk the Bible is their "paper pope", hallelujah, and their lives are circumscribed by sin and guilt passed down from imaginary forebears in a mythical garden. Worse, they turn faith into an act of assent that merits "eternal life"... like a bad TV offer, "free", but subject to conditions.

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this perversion of Christian faith is as big a "heresy" as any of the usual suspects. Indeed, maybe more-so.

It's not so much who's included in this definition, but who's excluded. But then 'evangelicals' have always been keen to reassure themselves that they're in the community of the saved by building walls to keep the riff-raff out; especially those who ask irritating questions.

More than a century ago a group of goofballs got together to publish "The Fundamentals", a series of papers published in twelve volumes and funded by a couple of oil company executives, thereby giving us the term fundamentalism. A hundred years later it seems nothing much has been learned by their spiritual descendants.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

ISSUU: Lapland, Europa's Oceans, the Celts

For anyone who hasn't yet been seduced by its allure, issuu is a fantastic way to enjoy publications, mainly magazines but also a range of books (some full, others samplers), both well known and obscure. This week, in the first of what might become a semi-regular series, here are a few of my recent discoveries.

BBC History: Vikings vs Anglo Saxons, Who were the Celts?, The Royal Navy's American Disaster. What's not to like in the full 100 page November issue? There might even be a few BI devotees who could profit from that Celts article.

Australian Geographic: Now that Rupert Murdoch has set about gutting National Geographic, it might be time to explore alternatives. The November-December issue of Australian Geographic has a distinct Aussie focus, but also some intriguing features for those beyond the Lucky Country, including Alien Oceans - love the artwork!

Blue Wings: The magazine of Finnair, helpfully published in English. The complete September issue has been uploaded featuring the violin makers of Cremona; the beaches of Brittany; Hoi An in Vietnam and the joys of pedaling through 21st century London. On a more Finnish note, trekking tours through Lapland. Airline magazines aren't to everyone's taste, but hey, how many people do you know who've thumbed through a copy of this one?

issuu takes a bit of getting used to, the search function is - shall we say - idiosyncratic, and the "suggestions based on everything you read" can often be eye-brow lifting, but it's nonetheless a great way to stay up to date with more magazines than you'll find in all the dentist's waiting rooms within a 100k radius. The iPad app is just brilliant.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mythmaker: Of the Tribe of Benjamin

Chapter 9 begins the second section of Mythmaker, now focusing on Paul beyond the Damascus horizon. The story is familiar. En route to Damascus Paul (Saul) is struck down, blinded and converted to the faith he has heretofore persecuted.
"It was through this event that Jesus' movement changed from being a variety of Judaism into a new religion with a theology and myth distinct from those of Judaism."
But there are problems with the story. Unlike Judea, Damascus was not under Roman occupation or rule at the time, having been ceded by Caligula in CE 37. So what kind of mission could he have been on?

Here is where Maccoby gets, in my view, either overly creative or overly literal, depending on your point of view. He suggests that Paul did indeed strike out for Damascus, but his mission was not legal or officially sanctioned.
"Saul must have been on a clandestine mission to kidnap certain leading Nazarenes and bring them back to Judaea for imprisonment or for handing over to the Roman authorities."
The words "must have been" are injudicious. Such things indeed happen even today where client states turn a blind eye to the activities of foreign powers wishing to apprehend persons of interest on their territory. But is this what Paul was on about? This assumes a historicity that may not be much more than an ancient 007 tale.

Maccoby isn't finished. He turns to a fascinating verse in Galatians (3:14) which reads "in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Creative commentators have wondered at Paul's identification here with Gentiles, almost as if he considered himself one. Maybe he's just one big cuddly ball of empathy? Not likely given his frequent rants.
"A better explanation... is that Paul here, in the heat of his emotion, has forgotten his persona as Pharisee, and has lapsed into his real identity and motivation."
That statement requires some backing up, but Maccoby has some further strings to this bow. One is the problem with Paul's claim to be a Benjaminite.
"As it happens, it was impossible for any Jew at this time to describe himself truthfully as of the tribe of Benjamin."
The reference here is to Romans 11:1 and Philippians 3:5.
"While it is true that part of the tribe of Benjamin survived in Palestine after the deportation of the Ten Tribes by Shalmaneser of Assyria, the Benjaminites later intermarried with the tribe of Judah to such an extent that they lost their separate identity and all became Judahites or Jews. Only the Levites, the priestly tribe, and that section of the Levites called the kohanim or priests (the descendants of Aaron) retained their identity because they needed to do so for cultic reasons."
So, what do we make of the claim? Sheer bluff.
"... when Paul described himself as 'of the tribe of Benjamin', this was sheer bluff, although the recipients of his letters, being Gentile converts to Christianity, were in no position to know this."
Again, Maccoby cites the Ebionites.
"According to the Ebionites, Saul's parents were Gentiles who had not been converted to Judaism [although he concedes they may have been 'God-fearers']; Saul himself, then, was the first of his family to be converted."
Again, perhaps Maccoby is stretching the evidence a little too far, but if he hasn't offended his Christian readers to the point of red-eared rejection, he certainly will have caught many off balance.

(This is the tenth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

From Radio Dunedin to Radio Gaga

It seems hard to credit, given the current situation with radio in New Zealand, but once this country led the world in broadcasting innovation. In 1922 4XD (albeit under an earlier call sign) became our first radio station, the oldest in what was then called the British Commonwealth and the fifth oldest in the world (beating out the BBC by more than a month). In later years it was to become the sole privately owned station in the country, maintaining its independence through the tumultuous years of pirate station Radio Hauraki.

Some time ago the station, now an impressive 93 years old, was effectively hobbled by the US vulture fund-owned MediaWorks conglomerate, losing its main frequency to another MediaWorks franchise. More recently it seems to have regained some mojo, continuing to broadcast in Dunedin on AM and a low power FM frequency and enjoying a lot of home town support.

Arguably radio in New Zealand has been going downhill for the last several decades. Today local radio has been almost totally subsumed by demographically determined formulaic networks owned by MediaWorks and NZME. It gets worse: New Zealand was not only incredibly slow to introduce FM frequencies, years behind Australia, but digital radio of the calibre now available in Australia (DAB+) is still limited to what are euphemistically called "pilot transmissions" unavailable to most listeners. Moreover the current government continues to starve the public broadcaster, Radio New Zealand, of funding. That's without even mentioning the parlous state of television.

Of course, people with a bit of nous (and a reasonably healthy discretionary income definitely helps) can take advantage of new technologies to gain access to a broad range of quality broadcasters via the internet. But hearing Australian, British and Irish programming, for example, while refreshing, is hardly a substitute for quality local content. Australians justifiably complain about deep cuts to the ABC, but are still much better served than those of us on the other side of the ditch.

Meanwhile RNZ National struggles on doggedly, despite having its hands tied behind its back, while more and more Kiwis are driven to the advertising-soaked tosser network ghettos, "newstalk" formats with their gratuitously overpaid shock jocks and narcissistic harangues.

Yeah, I know, Grumpy Old Man stuff. But, alas, not far off the mark.

Meantime I'll be spending some time on Radio Dunedin's stream... while it's still there.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Luther 500 - Die Bibel and Ockers in Thuringia

The year of our lord 2017 is approaching, and the One True Protestant Communion - Lutheran obviously - is making preparations. It's almost 500 years since Brother Martin posted (in a pre-blogging sense) his 95 theses and thereby kick-started the Reformation on the last day of October 1517. Travel agents haven't been slow to cash in, intent on making a buck (or perhaps more to the point, a euro) out of visitors heading for the heritage sites in Germany. In my view a bunch of Australian Lutherans of Prussian descent in bush hats roaming free in Thuringia is a much scarier prospect than any Syrian refugees huddling on the border.

Anyway, as any good ex-Lutheran blogger would, even a ratbag like me, Otagosh will be providing an intermittent series on the events, starting with a link to this article on Luther's Bible. The impact of this translation is much under-appreciated in the English-speaking world, but arguably was (heck, there's no argument to it) a far greater accomplishment than the later King James Bible.

For the curious, you can find the Luther Bible online, in the original sacred German, complete from 1 Mose to Offenbarung.

But fear not, there'll be no hagiographies appearing here. Luther's lack of conventional saintliness is legendary. But he certainly was an interesting fellow (which isn't necessarily true of his imitators then or now).

The Journal - 178th issue

The November 30 issue of The Journal has been released, and can be downloaded in PDF form.

In this issue, news of an Ambassador College reunion scheduled for 2017 in Las Vegas. The organizer is Bob Gerringer (who in a past life was one of the founders of Ambassador Report. I guess advancing age really does ramp up the nostalgia). Alumni from Pasadena and Bricket Wood can visit a dedicated website for more information, while there's another with details for former Big Sandy students.

The first part of a personal account relating to his involvement in the church by the late David John Hill, a former WCG evangelist, gets a repeat outing in this issue.

Lest one gets the impression that this issue is the rose-colored spectacles edition, Brian Harris, an outspoken advocate of British Israel bullgeschichte, has contributed an article entitled "Why Did God Allow 9/11 and the Paris attack?" How myopically predictable is the content of that one! And yes, it completely lives up to the reputation for racist, jingoistic pabulum that characterizes BI.

Perhaps somebody should submit it to The Onion.

This issue runs to 16 pages, including the ad section, and includes a couple of reports from 2015 Feast sites including the Ian Boyne-led Jamaican CGI (not to be confused with GCI). Exactly what relationship the Boyne CGI has to the Texas mother church is unclear to me, but they certainly seem to operate out of their own rule book. Unusually for an Armstrong group, the Jamaican brethren were treated to a debate.
Our usual speaking competition had addressed the controversial matter of divorce and remarriage. This year was unusual as it became a real debate with one of the participants who disagrees with the church’s position given the opportunity to make a full presentation to show why the church is wrong. However, her arguments could not match those of Stephen Scale, the 2014 champion of the competition, who regained his title in a sensational presentation in which he debunked the view that there were no grounds for remarriage. Mr. Scale looked at the best arguments for the no-remarriage view, drawing on scholarly sources, and refuted all of them.
Well, let's give them credit. A "real debate". Can't see that being adopted by other splinter sects. Let's see, how about the CGI in Texas inviting Lonnie Hendrix to make a presentation at their feast site? Nope, can't imagine that. Mind you, lest we get carried away with just how enlightened this all is, Boyne's reporting seems just a tad gleeful don't you think? And did you notice that Scale gets acknowledged by name, but not his debate partner?

I wonder how long Ian spoke after Scale's rebuttal to ensure that everyone fully understood that the forces of righteousness had indeed triumphed?

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Pope Lenny in Waiting?

According to a posting on Gary Leonard's blog, the Living Church of God (LCG) has a new heir apparent, and it's no longer Rod Meredith's brother-in-law Richard Ames.

In what seems to be a scoop that beats LCG's ponderous PR machine to the punch, Gary reveals the new anointed one as Gerald Weston.

Ames, it seems, is suffering health problems and Meredith, himself weighed down with the infirmities of age, has felt the need to designate a new successor. If you were expecting the elevation of Jim Meredith or one of the second-stringers on the Tomorrow's World telecast you'd be disappointed. The Weston decision was rubber stamped at a recent meeting of LCG's Council of Elders and the dauphin is reportedly now in the process of relocating to the sect HQ in Charlotte, NC.

A shudder should be running up the collective LCG spine. Weston is, according to Gary, well known as a conservative hardliner in a church that is already somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun.

If Weston ascends to the Throne of Roderick what can we expect?

First, every new broom sweeps clean. While heavily emphasizing continuity, you can be sure that Gerry the Unready will want to make his mark swiftly. Already the soon to be announced dauphin will have his little list conveniently tucked into a jacket pocket. Those who are offside with the boss-in-waiting should be afraid, very afraid.

Second, LCG has a surfeit - a veritable glut - of ministers with an abundant sense of self entitlement, many of whom will consider themselves far more suitable for the task. Weston will not ascend to the pontificate without cost. Initially things may seem fine on the surface, but the currents of ambition run deep in hierarchical organizations as we've seen demonstrated again and again. Expect a blood-letting without months, perhaps weeks of the transition (and you couldn't entirely rule out days and hours).

There are even suggestions that Weston may be enthroned before Meredith shucks off this mortal coil, leaving the fomer Presiding Evangelist in an emeritus role. In Rome they locked away Benedict so he couldn't interfere in his successor's pontificate. Somehow, given Meredith's personality and history, this doesn't seem even remotely likely.

Finally, how will we cope with two COG prima donna leaders named Gerald? Gerry Weston or Gerry Flurry? What is clearly needed is a respectful and affectionate pet name for the new dauphin. In the comments section of Gary's blog there are a couple of possibilities. I admit that I had to google "Snidely Whiplash" to appreciate the reference - thanks for that image Douglas. Perhaps more telling is this recollection from Byker Bob.
During the years that I was at AC, Gerald Weston worked as a student custodian. He had a diminutive sidekick, and they had the type of friendship where they joked back and forth and had their own special sayings as they went through their work hours doing their jobs. 
Years later, when LaVerne and Shirley became a popular TV program, the first time I saw Lenny and Squiggy, I immediately thought of Gerald. Lenny looked very much like him. Of course, the similarity in appearance, and the jovial nature were where the comparison ended. Gerald seemed to be fairly intelligent, and was serious about his studies. The stuff that has happened over the decades within the Armstrong movement has been so surreal, that there is no way any of us back then could have mentally fast-forwarded the tape and anticipated the current state of affairs.
Lenny? Whataya think?

Mind you, there's many a slip between the announcement of an heir and the actual placement of the crown on their sacred bonce. But isn't it nice to know that the soap opera, with a longevity greater than The Simpsons, still hasn't completely played itself out? Fun times ahead!

(In 2013 I posted on the problems of Meredith's departure in a piece called The Irreplaceable Mr Meredith. Whether those comments need revision remains to be seen.)

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Guerrilla Bible?

Tim Bulkeley has a brief but intriguing teaser up on his excellent Sansblogue blog.
The battle for the Bible was over before war was even declared. Modernity won the battle, and people today (both Christians and Atheists) read Scripture using modern categories and methods. It is a history book, a manual, a book of poetry, full of myths and legends… all categories modernity imposed on Bible readers. 
But there is another way, guerilla reading. Reading the Bible as it was meant to be read. The Bible is God’s love letter to humanity. Along the way it tells the story of his dealings with a chosen people, his entry into human life in the child born at Christmas, his death on the cross and triumphant rising to new life as the Spirit of God filled the church…
I enjoy Tim's postings, even those that raise my eyebrows, as did this one. I really doubt that the Good Book can be described as "God's love letter to humanity", or that an escape into fictive and triumphalist heilsgeschichte is anything other than compounding the problems and then multiplying them by 10. Ye olde Grand Narrative seems to me to be an even more artificial construct than anything using modern categories and methods; more Magilla Gorilla than guerrilla.

But it seems Tim might have something deeper in mind. He continues.
This series will teach you to read the Bible as it was meant to be read, to discover God through the ancient words of Scripture and to apply that knowledge today. 
If you have read this far how does this sound as the sales pitch for a simple how-to series on reading the Bible? Does it claim too much? Is it too warlike? Or just fun?
So there's a series on the way (or is that a series on the Che?) Again, once bitten twice shy, my first thought was an image of the thrice-cursed Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course which, as I recollect, promised much the same thing. Can there even be such a thing as "a simple how-to series on reading the Bible"? So yup, the alarm bells went off immediately. Hardly fair, as Tim is a good guy and an informed, progressive and thoughtful bloke not given to proof-texting.

My answers to Tim's questions are therefore 'yes' (not a good thing), 'yes', 'no' (though I'm not sure what he means by 'warlike') and 'you must be kidding'.

But, as they say, watch this space.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Mythmaker: The Stephen Story

Stephen is the first Christian martyr. But is the account in Acts 7 reliable? Hyam Maccoby thinks not. The problem lies with the attribution of this execution to the Sanhedrin.
"The Sanhedrin was a dignified body that had rules of procedure, and did not act like a lynch mob. It would not suddenly switch the charges against a defendant, or drag him out for execution without even pronouncing sentence or formulating what he had been found guilty of."
The charge brought against Stephen - the same one that was brought against Jesus - was speaking against the temple. In fact Maccoby asserts that the Stephen account "is simply a double or repetition" of the earlier account. Both in Stephen's trial and in Jesus' this charge "is forgotten when the defendant bursts out during the trial with what is regarded as a blasphemous statement."
"Formal procedures are then thrown to the winds and the defendant is found guilty of an alleged crime committed during the trial itself, and different from the crime for which he was brought to trial in the first instance. This travesty of legal procedure in a body like the Sanhedrin... is clearly fictional."
What about the division scholars find between the Hellenistic faction, represented by Stephen, and the Jewish faction led by James and Peter? Maccoby is having none of it. This is simply a case of which language was spoken. The Hellenists were Greek speakers. The real division was between the 'activist' Nazarenes - the anti-Roman faction - and the quietist Nazarenes - those content to wait and hope for their lord's return without upsetting apple-carts in the here and now.

So what really happened? Maccoby is of the opinion that the story is not in fact created out of the whole cloth, and attempts to reconstruct the actual event. Paul was indeed involved in the execution of the radicalized Stephen, but was acting as an extra-juridical enforcer for the High Priest, a Roman collaborator. In this reading Stephen was seen as "a dangerous anti-Roman agitator." This seems to me a step too far into speculation, but does not undercut the critique that has already been offered. The Sanhedrin/Pharisee connection does indeed seem highly problematic.

(This is the ninth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Jesus - Refugee Messiah

There's a lot of truth to this billboard graphic, posted outside St. Luke's Presbyterian Church in Auckland (report here). It's being described as 'controversial', though it's hard to see what could possibly be controversial in a Christian community drawing the public's attention to an issue related to the core values that Christians are supposed to uphold.

Jesus' family were, lest we forget, once refugees themselves, according to a literal reading of the gospel narratives. Fleeing from Herod, they moved to Egypt for sanctuary. I briefly commented on this in a letter submitted to the upcoming issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God, where such an act of compassion is apparently anathema to a large number of readers (see an earlier post here).

Bitter irony too in the Australian government's use of a distant locale known as "Christmas Island" as a detention centre for refugees.

(A nod of the noodle to the person, who I believe wishes to remain anonymous, who drew the billboard to my attention.)

Friday, 4 December 2015

Mythmaker: Paul's un-Pharisaic writings

(This is the eighth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

Chapter seven sets out to deal to the portrayal of Paul's writings as bearing the influence of pharisaism. Maccoby begins by reiterating the problem of Christology.
[The] idea of 'being in Christ', which occurs frequently in Paul's letters, is entirely without parallel in Jewish literature ... this concept involves a relationship to the Divine that is alien to Judaism... The idea of 'being in Christ', however, can be paralleled without difficulty in the mystery cults.
To apply the name kurios or Lord in its divine sense to a human being who had recently lived and died on Earth would have seemed... sheer blasphemy. However, to the recipients of Paul's letters, the use of the term 'Lord' for Jesus would not have seemed shocking at all, for this was the regular term for deities in the mystery cults...
So on what basis is the claim made that Paul thinks and writes as a trained Pharisee? For Maccoby the answer is clear, the claim is specious.
Though many authors confidently assert that Paul's Epistles are full of Pharisaic expressions and arguments, few authors have made a serious attempt to substantiate this... it may safely be said that if people had not already been convinced that Paul was a Pharisee... no one would have thought of calling him a Pharisee or a person of 'rabbinic' cast of mind simply from a study of the Epistles.
Two pieces of evidence are often offered in support of Paul's Pharisee background. These are his qal-va-homer (a fortiori) arguments, and his use of midrash. Maccoby refutes both, referring to passages in Romans 5 and 11.
Paul, in his Epistles, is quite fond of using the a fortiori argument, and this has been regarded as incontrovertible proof of his Pharisee training... [however] Paul had no idea of the validity of this type of argument [in Jewish discourse]... Hellenistic writers, on the other hand, often used a fortiori reasoning, but only in a loose, rhetorical way... This is just the way that Paul uses such arguments.
Midrash is equally problematic, and Maccoby focuses on Galatians 3:13 and Romans 7:1-6 to illustrate the point.
The idea [in Galatians 3:13] that anyone hanged on a gibbet is under a curse was entirely alien to Pharisee thought, and the Pharisee teachers did not interpret the verse in Deuteronomy [21:23] in this way. Many highly respected members of the Pharisee movement were crucified by the Romans... [and] they were regarded as martyrs.
In Pharisee thought "the curse was placed not on the executed person, but on the people responsible for subjecting the corpse to indignity."

Referring to the verses in Romans 7, Maccoby is scathing.
... Paul is here trying to sound like a trained Pharisee. He announces in a somewhat portentous way that what he is going to say will be understood only by those who have 'some knowledge of law', and he is clearly intending to display legal expertise... In the event, he has produced a ludicrous travesty of Pharisee thinking. In the whole of Pharisee literature, there is nothing to parallel such an exhibition of lame reasoning.
Maccoby rounds of the chapter by noting that Paul, unlike any known Pharisee, is dependent on the Greek Bible, the Septuagint.
The indications from Paul's writings are that he knew very little Hebrew. His quotations from the Bible (which number about 160) are from the Greek translation... wherever the text of the Hebrew Bible differs from that of the Greek, Paul always quotes the text found in the Greek.
Which is an especially strange thing for someone with a Pharisee background to have done, as the Hebrew text was the only one regarded as authoritative. Maccoby concludes: "the allegedly profound Pharisaic style and atmosphere of Paul's writings is itself a legend."

Thursday, 3 December 2015

San Bernardino live

With today's chaos (still unresolved) in San Bernardino it seems incredible to someone of my generation, living half a world away, just how connected we all can be to unfolding events - especially those in other developed nations. With an appropriate app some random guy (yours truly) in a small town south of Auckland can follow rolling LA news coverage direct on ABC7 in real time on their home TV screen.

Even for those of us who are 'news junkies' there seems a fine line between taking the pulse of a live event and simple voyeurism. On November 13 the world was likewise able to follow the terrible events in Paris on France 24, unfiltered by the parochialism of national news sources.

The world is in so many ways a smaller place than it has ever been before. Take your pick of international news channels that are free-to-air to anyone with some fairly minimal technology. It blows my mind to think that youngsters growing up today will take all of this for granted.

We can only hope that the current situation will be brought to the best possible conclusion as soon as possible.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Mythmaker: Paul & Gamaliel

(This is the seventh part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)

"Saint" Gamaliel
Significant to Maccoby's argument is the figure of Gamaliel, the leading Pharisee of his day.
"[There is a] failure of the narrative in Acts to make clear just how important a Pharisee Gamaliel was. It calls him 'a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in high regard by all the people', but it does not make clear that he was the Pharisee leader of his generation, a vital link in the chain of Jewish tradition, one of the veritable Fathers of Judaism. To say that he was a secret Christian, in the sense meant, is like saying that Saint Thomas Aquinas was a secret Hindu."
The account referred to is in Acts 5. There are problems with the text, particularly the reference to Theudas who is anachronistic - his rebellion is too late (circa 45 CE) to be part of any speech of this sort. Allowing for this, Gamaliel's portrayal still seems a tolerant one toward Peter, reflecting a historical reality.
"... Gamaliel does not in any way condemn the apostles as heretics or rebels against the Jewish religion. He regards them instead as members of a Messianic movement directed against Rome." (Author's emphasis)
Gamaliel is an inconvenient character in the gospel narratives demonstrating, as Maccoby argues it, that the relations between the Nazarenes and their Pharisee brethren were benign. (The Catholic church later canonized Gamaliel. If you believe the legends, both he and his son were later baptized by Peter and John and his body, which miraculously came to light in the fifth century, is now resting in Pisa, Italy!) However for Maccoby it isn't 'Saint' Gamaliel who is the odd man out, it is Paul. This mutual tolerance between Pharisees and Nazarenes will all change as Paul steers Christianity in new directions.
"Paul's new scenario, in which the Jews no longer had a great role to play, and had indeed sunk to the role of the enemies of God, would have filled Jesus with horror and dismay." 
"According to the Ebionites, Saul was not a Pharisee and not even a Jew by birth. His parents in Tarsus were Gentiles, and he himself had become a convert and had thereupon journeyed to the Holy Land, where he found employment in the service of the High Priest."
Maccoby will flesh all this out later in the book. He rejects any attempts to see tell-tale indicators of a rabbinical approach in Paul's writings.
"The style of argument and thought in the Epistles of Paul, we have been repeatedly told, is rabbinical; Paul, though putting forward views and arguments which 'go far beyond' rabbinical thinking, uses rabbinical logic and methods of biblical exegesis in such a way that his education as a Pharisee is manifest. Beloved as this view is of scholars, it is entirely wrong, being based on ignorance or misunderstanding of rabbinical exegesis and logic."
It is to this point that Maccoby returns in chapter seven.