Monday, 31 August 2015

Dr Bob on the Historical Bejeezus and more

You can probably hear the screams of outrage from certain religious studies departments already. Robert M. Price features on the latest Religion for Life podcast.
One of the most interesting (and entertaining) scholars with two Ph. D.'s, Robert M. Price, talks with [John Shuck] about three books: The Historical Bejeezus: What A Long Strange Quest It Has Been, The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul, and Preaching Deconstruction: Sermons Employing the Deconstructive Philosophy of Jacques Derrida and The Death of God Theology of Thomas J. J. Altizer. The question is: how critical can you go? Taking critical methods of interpreting scripture and turning over every dogmatic stone, Robert M. Price exposes Jesus and Paul as composite literary characters. If Jesus of the gospels is mythical all the way down and Paul's letters were written by a patchwork of authors, what is one to preach? Why the liberation of deconstruction, of course. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The problem with The Good News magazine

Of all the major Armstrong splinters, the United Church of God is probably the most balanced. But unfortunately that's not saying a lot, as the current issue of The Good News clearly demonstrates.

Two articles particularly stand out. The Iranian Nuclear Deal & Bible Prophecy, and The Gay Agenda Blueprint: A Plan to transform America.

In the first Tom Robinson rants about what a bad thing the Iranian accord is:
The appeasement of evil has sunk to new levels with the stunning nuclear agreement with Iran. Be warned: Terrible times lie ahead.
Not exactly temperate language.   
As of this writing, the U.S. Congress still has the opportunity to stop this agreement. But that may prove difficult.
These developments touch on Bible prophecy in a number of ways.
Robinson quotes conservative commentators and politicians, including Ted Cruz, to back his view and then - surprise! - leaps off into a discussion of prophecy larded with British Israel nonsense.
Then, horrifyingly, God foretells something like nuclear war or worse—with cities in America and other British-descended nations ravaged and destroyed. As Ezekiel 6:6 states, “In all your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste.”
What's that got to do with Iran?
Iran could also play a part in the rise of the end-time “king of the South” in the prophecy of Daniel 11. This chapter principally concerns an age-old conflict between powers to the north and south of the Holy Land...
Could? There's the key world that indicates he's daydreaming, and nothing more.

Which leads to this:
There is really no way to successfully negotiate with such people. Whatever they agree to is merely to buy time to prepare for the needed world conflagration.
UCG Iran "expert" Robinson
Where's the balance here? This is a petulant piece by a man with - please correct me if I'm wrong - zero expertise in this subject, and who has one suspects been spending far too much time on the sofa with Fox News and WND.

What's the allure of this kind of rant? Why won't the GN provide some sort of sane overview of the situation - which is what it would claim to be doing but clearly is not. Why are they incapable of even hinting at an optimistic assessment of the Iran deal... even if only to provide some much needed balance.

It just doesn't fit the narrative.

The narrative, based on a profound ignorance of what the Bible is (and isn't) has the world going into an irrecoverable tail spin. Things might look bad right now but they're going to get worse. And there's nothing you can do about it but belly-ache and moan. This constitutes "warning the world", which (don't laugh!) constitutes preaching the gospel. You couldn't get a clearer example of this kind of warped narrative than these words from Darris McNeely on page 4 of the same issue.
Europe is in crisis. Russia steadily extends its influence and power as it modernizes its military forces. China is likewise expanding its power and pushing its influence and control over regions once protected by the United States. 
America is being pushed back in its historic role as a global military, economic and political superpower—while within American culture we see the traditional roles and rules of marriage, family and sexual identity going through radical redefinition. 
What does it all mean? Where is God in all this? And what is He doing in today’s world?
The Good News is incapable of balanced commentary because it is in thrall to a myopic apocalyptic ideology. The UCG has a constituency that has largely bought into this anti-life narrative built on suspicion of all human progress and optimism. This is its heritage from Armstrongism, and the bad news is that other sects in that tradition are even worse. It explains why these groups can't resist the temptation to stick their thumbs into the most extreme of conservative political stews.

The UCG's constituency no doubt laps this up. The GN isn't interested in stretching and challenging its readership. That would upset the tithe-cart. But good journalism, including church journalism, does just that. That's how people grow.

The real "good news" is that the world is changing out from under groups like UCG. That they are still promoting a 19th century variety of British Israelism in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a damning indication that they are set on going the way of the dinosaurs, and no amount of repackaging of the old product will change that.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Feast of Tabernacles - Church of God version

Many [FOT] observances this year will fall from Sept. 27 through Oct. 5. The Feast is eight full days, counting the last day, but falls on nine days or partial days on the Gregorian calendar. (The Journal, July 31)
If you have a background in the Churches of God - a Sabbatarian fundamentalist movement originating in the ministry of Herbert Armstrong (1892-1986) - you'll know exactly what this is all about. If you don't, it'll be a bit of a mystery, so here's the "skinny".

Florida feast site for the 2nd largest Armstrong splinter, the Living Church of God
The Feast of Tabernacles is based on the Jewish feast of the same name - also known as the Feast of Booths or Sukkot. In the Armstrong tradition members and their families head to a "feast site" with (if they follow the recommended practice) ten percent of their annual income - yup, a full tithe - to spend on travel, accommodation, meals and liquid libations (which is why it is sometimes jokingly referred to as "the Feast of Booze"). During the day they attend church services lasting around two hours - one hour set aside for the major sermon, often on prophecy, preceded by hymns, announcements and a 15-minute warm-up sermon known as a sermonette. On the most important days (Holy Days) they double-dose: AM and PM services with the added bonus of Holy Day Offerings (separate from the festival tithe, naturally).

As a week-long bonding activity it's pretty powerful. People have been known to quit jobs to attend the feast when an employer refuses leave. There are a variety of social activities. Oh and that tithe (called "second tithe" - don't even ask about "third tithe") is supposed to be spent during those eight days exclusively, with any "excess" handed in at the end. Eight days high on the hog and then back to grim reality; COG members tend not to be in a wealthy demographic.

The Feast is interpreted - with the thinnest of foundations - as being a foretaste of the millennium, the coming kingdom of God (or in COG parlance "the world tomorrow") when Christ has returned to reign over the Earth. Jewish people would find this an interesting deviation from the norm.

But the origin of the Feast goes well back beyond the texts in the Hebrew Bible. COG leaders are invariably keen to point out the "pagan origins" and trappings of standard Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter, but seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the alternate festivals they have appropriated from the Old Testament.
"The Jewish festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread, which later became the Christian Easter, originated as early spring festivals celebrating the resurrection of nature to new life after the death of winter. The Feast of Pentecost originated as the early harvest festival. The Jewish Feast of Booths originated in the vintage festival." (Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God, p.229)
Put another way, Passover, Unleavened Bread, Pentecost and Tabernacles - all festivals celebrated in the Churches of God unto this very day - began as nature festivals... or fertility festivals. Tabernacles was the vintage festival, which perhaps adds to the irony of the "Feast of Booze" pun.

Kind of takes the sting out of the rhetoric about the evils of the Easter Bunny.

For those well advanced in their preparations for the 2015 FOT, I really hope you have a great time. Just remember not to uncritically swallow everything - hook, line and sinker - that you hear. And for those of us who no longer perform the annual trek to "the place God has set his name", enjoy spending (or saving!) that hard-earned "second tithe" in a more considered way.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Fitzgerald vs Gullotta - Discussing Jesus

The "disdate" between Daniel Gullotta and David Fitzgerald is now available on the Miami Valley Skeptics podcast. It's not a great debate, but still manages to be interesting - if a bit earnest - presuming you're into that kind of thing. It's also available on iTunes.

It's a polite affair. Who "won"? I give the debate to Fitzgerald - which has nothing to do with my own views which lean slightly in the other direction. Gullotta tends to over-talk and slip into a pontifical style, a lot of which is marginal to the discussion. His overuse of the word "I" can also be irritating.

One of the assumptions voiced on the podcast by Gullotta (and agreed to by Fitzgerald) was that only atheists take a mythicist position and that no Christians are mythicists: i.e. "all mythicists are atheists". That's just flat out wrong, as anyone familiar with the work of Thomas L. Brodie knows.

But what the heck!

Friday, 21 August 2015

Seed Faith

This is hardly news to those of you in the US, but for those of us in alternate parts of the English-speaking world, it's quite an eye-opener. It's not that we haven't heard of Oliver - he spent three hilarious minutes recently, for example, offering cogent comment on the drive by New Zealand's "Dear Leader" to change our flag. This segment, however, hasn't had much publicity here in the Antipodes.

I'd love to see local pseudo-Christian channel Shine screen this. Not much chance!



Wednesday, 19 August 2015

John Morgan update

John Morgan is best known for his investigative work on the death of Princess Diana. His most recent book, How They Murdered Princess Diana, published last year, summarised his previous research in detail. Not perhaps so well known is an earlier book, Flying Free, which chronicled his years of involvement in the Worldwide Church of God. I reviewed Flying Free when it was first released and found it very helpful, not least because, although I didn't know John personally, he was a contemporary in the Auckland WCG during my time there. His brother Rex is, as far as I know, still the contact man for what is now Grace Communion International in New Zealand.

This week John, who has been battling a debilitating illness for many years, released a statement about his health and his work.

Australian investigative writer John Morgan, who has written ten forensic books on the 1997 death of Princess Diana, has revealed he only has months to live... [He] has lived with the severe neurological illness Multiple System Atrophy, for the past 12 years.
In a statement released today the NZ-born author said:
“Recently symptoms of my illness have worsened considerably and I am now not expecting to live beyond the next few months... I wish to state categorically that I stand 100% by the results of my forensic investigation into the deaths of Diana and her lover, Dodi Fayed... after having named several people involved in the assassination and many Establishment-connected witnesses who have lied in their evidence, not one person has sought to sue me or clear their name.
John's passion and commitment as an investigative writer have been uncompromising and relentless. I'm sure many readers will join with me in saying that our thoughts are with John and his family at this time. Information on his work can be found at princessdianadeaththeevidence.weebly.com.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Gospel according to Yertle

Spiritual bullying is a problem in many Christian communities. It often happens when a congregation is split - whether formally or informally - into an A-team and a B-team. In many churches the A-team consists of those regarded as members in especially good standing. The titles vary, as do the responsibilities. In one community I was part of there were the ministers (themselves graded in merciless order of hierarchy), the deacons (the acceptable local suck-ups) and the "deakers" - wannabe deacons who set out the seating, were entrusted with hymnal distribution at services and were called on regularly to deliver opening and closing prayers. To aspire to such lofty heights you had to be a bloke safely restrained in the bonds of marriage (or at least appear to be), have a modicum of dress sense, avoid asking too many questions, carry a wide-margin leather-bound KJV, and show due obsequiousness to those above you in the food chain.

Then there's the B-team. Again, the markers vary from denomination to denomination. In the community we're describing here, the B-team consisted of women (except those who shared the marital bed with the high-up males), non-assertive males (married men naturally were ranked above singles) and minors. For these folk the appropriate behaviour was to pray, pay and obey. Occasionally one of the peón-level married males might aspire to a spot of "deaking," which was the only form of upward mobility open and involved a huge commitment of  "greasing" behaviour. Did the minister need a hand digging out a space for his swimming pool? The wannabes couldn't wait to arrive early and dig enthusiastically!

Naturally this led to a sense of privilege for those who had successfully clambered part way up the greasy pole. Sermons assumed the people in the pews (except for the front pew, which was where the favoured few usually sat) were near-imbeciles who needed to be told how to correctly comport themselves on the day of worship, dress for services, tithe... the list goes on.

Needless to say, I was not one of the favoured few, for which - in hindsight - I'm deeply grateful. There came a day when I realized that it was all a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. The whole sorry structure depended on the active cooperation and acquiescence of the great unwashed at the bottom of the pyramid. It was a Yertle the Turtle moment!

When churches preach about respecting "leadership," when the people in the pews are directed to do as they're told and even think as they're told, the claxons should be going off louder than a vuvuzela. There are really only two options:
1. Run like hades. Get outa there!
2. Face down the bullies. Refuse to be intimidated. Make a stand.
On balance I prefer the second option because it can inspire others to stand up for themselves too. There's nothing like a subversive role model! Gentle laughter at a preacher with a sense of entitlement is an act of self-confidence by the doer, and enormously deflating for the pompous bully. These guys love to be taken seriously, and when they're confronted with the ludicrousness of their own behaviour (and we're not talking about being obnoxious, but using reason and humour) it's a moment when I suspect even the Good Spirit cracks a broad smile.

Facing down the bullies also forces them to either follow through on their threats or look stupid and ineffectual. These guys would much rather you just walk away; much easier on them.

My anecdotes come from the fringe, but bullying ministers can appear in dog collars and with crucifixes as well. The specifics may change, but the issues are usually the same. And so is the response. That's not to say all ministers are abusive, which is absolutely not the case. Good ministers need to be treasured, and I've known a few. But that doesn't change the fact that many ministers - particularly those functioning in high demand sects - are open to the temptation to throw their featherweight "authority" around - with or without a funny collar. The onus is on you and me to not let him (and it usually is a him) get away with it.

There are Yertle-like poseurs in all kinds of places - not just ponds. It was a little bloke named Mack who brought his reign to a precipitous end.

May your inner Mack be with you.

Adapted from a 2010 blog entry

Hebrew Roots

A great article, by a Jewish writer, on the so-called "Hebrew Roots Movement."
These are non-Jews who have no intention of converting to Judaism yet follow laws, customs, beliefs, and practices commonly associated with Judaism. And while they do believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the messiah—though in these circles he goes exclusively by his Hebrew name, Yeshua—they are emphatically not Christian. They do not celebrate Christmas or Easter. They do celebrate Passover and Sukkot. They do not display, either in their homes or as jewelry, crosses or other traditional Christian symbols.
Some of these people might be more accurately described under the label "Armstrong Roots Movement", tallit-wearing William Dankenbring, a former Plain Truth writer, being just one example. Dankenbring claims:
Those who ridicules [sic] and ignore God’s commandment of wearing “tassels” on one’s clothing, and using the “prayer shawl,” may think they are clever and righteous in God’s sight, believing this commandment was ONLY for Israel, and has been superceded by the “New Covenant.” But alas, they are sadly mistaken. The New Covenant does not abolish God’s Law. Rather, it writes these precepts into our very HEARTS and minds, so that we will NEVER forget them (Heb.8:10).
There are clear historical linkages between the Adventists, WCG and the Sacred Names Movement. While some like to emphasise the differences between the HRM and similar groups (such as Messianic Judaism), it's intriguing that these movements seem to find their American heartland in many of the same places COG sects thrive. That's got to be more than a coincidence.
While the majority of Christian denominations subscribe to some version of replacement theology—that the church has replaced Israel, that the New Covenant has replaced the Old—a few have embraced certain aspects of the Torah. More than two centuries ago, a group of Russians who came to be known as the Subbotniks began observing the Torah, switching their weekly day of prayer to Saturday and adopting various Jewish practices like circumcision; some members of the group, whose descendants still live in the former Soviet Union, converted. A number of contemporary Christian sects observe the Sabbath, most notably Seventh-day Adventists, who also do not eat pork, shellfish, or other foods proscribed by the Bible, and do not observe Christmas, Easter, or other “pagan” holidays. The Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert Armstrong in 1934, was a radio ministry whose followers observed Saturday Sabbaths, most of the Jewish festivals, and many of the laws of kashrut. (It was later known as Grace Communion International.) Followers of the Sacred Name Movement, a Seventh-day break-off, call God “Yahweh,” and Jesus “Yeshua.”
Which isn't to say that the vast majority of Church of God believers and alumni would find an event like that described at the Dallas Sheraton anything but downright weird. As, obviously, do real Jews.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Not to be Mythed

A couple of soon-coming events on-line that I've marked on my calendar.

A "Disdate" (something between a discussion and a debate that may include a certain amount of politely restrained dissing) on Jesus Mythicism between David Fitzgerald (taking the mythicist corner) and Daniel Gullotta (taking the consensus position). Not the two debaters I'd most like to see - what a missed opportunity it was when the much awaited event featuring Ehrman and Price fell flat! - but it could still be interesting. I've never been particularly impressed by Fitzgerald, and Gullotta, while wonderfully confident, is not exactly a voice of experience. Gullotta writes on his blog:
Fitzgerald and I [were] invited to be involved in a recorded debate hosted by the Miami Valley Skeptics, where we would discuss the historicity of Jesus and why the two of us have come to us radically different readings of the evidence. The show is designed to be a question and answer style debate... There will be questions throw at David and I, in which we will be given space to answer, but also time given so we can respond and offer criticism or insight. The show will be published on the 24th of August.
The podcast, when it's available, will be posted at  miamivalleyskeptics.com

But wait, there's more!

John Shuck is interviewing Don Cupitt on an upcoming Religion for Life podcast (available sometime Sunday US time). Evangelicals and fence-sitters in mainline churches tend to loathe Cupitt. Moderate Baptists have been known to tear his books apart while foaming at the mouth - and that after only a few pages. I must admit that it took me a while to get used to the irritating Oxbridge accent and the writing style, but now I'm something of a fan. Julian Baggini in his Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003) comments:
Cupitt finds himself under fire from Christians and atheists, who both think he is actually an atheist after all and should just admit it, but I think his attempt to save something distinctive from the wreckage of religious belief is admirable and has lessons for believers and atheists alike. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Comments policy

The existing comments policy on this blog reads thusly:
This is intended as an apologetics-free zone.  A sense of humour definitely helps. Comments here are moderated.
It's not much of a policy, but perhaps it's better not to be too pedantic.

And yet I keep feeling uncomfortable when people who guard their own identity closely launch out on less than charitable terms regarding others, many of whom are willing to disclose their identity.

Of course it gets complicated. Some people post anonymously, but many of us know who they are anyway.

A clarification. Blogspot's idea of moderation is to either allow a comment to be posted in its entirety, or rejected in its entirety. I don't know the number of times I've though "that really needs editing!" but, alas, the option just isn't there. A reasonable paragraph followed by a petulant outburst... what to do?

Should it be open slather?

My idea of an acceptable comment is something you could say to someone's face over a cup of coffee, and still be on good terms.

I'd appreciate your feedback.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Journal - the Curate's Egg issue

The expression "the curate's egg" is believed to date from an issue of the satirical magazine Punch in 1895. A curate is served a bad egg (on toast?) for breakfast by the bishop. Ever the diplomat, the curate remarks that "parts of it are excellent."

Which brings us once again to the 175th issue of The Journal. Parts of it are indeed excellent.

A reprint of a 1996 article (appearing in In Transition) by the late Gary Fakhoury exposes the Achilles heel of the Tkach reforms. I hadn't read this when it first appeared, but even now I feel some sympathy, at least in broad outline. Fakhoury raised important questions and the cabal simply obfuscated and prevaricated. Their position was never based on scripture.
Furthermore, I was reminded, WCG leaders have a moral obligation to challenge the teachings of Herbert Armstrong, even if it splits the church. But you, little member, have a moral obligation not to challenge their challenge, for that is divisive.
While it's now all history, in '96 it was very much an alive issue. The self appointed, self entitled leadership bulldozed through change in doctrine without any accountability and at huge human cost. Reasonable people like Fakhoury - multiple thousands of them - were completely frozen out of the process, ignored, sidelined, by a smug pseudo-evangelicalism that brooked no systemic change in hierarchic structure, and absolved itself from acquiring any mandate.

Phil Arnold resurrects the hoary old chestnut, what did the 'W' in Herb Armstrong's name mean? He goes with the official version - Herb just added it in for effect - and has a personal story that confirms it. I'm still a bit sceptical. Back in the early seventies the Australian church magazine The Lutheran ran a major article entitled "The Spiritual Wilderness of Herbert William Armstrong." Where did they get that little gem of detail from? Who knows? There are other alternatives that have been tossed around over the years, some credible, some simply mischievous. On balance the meaningless 'W' is probably the most likely explanation, but hey, the guy was a compulsive liar on most things autobiographical, so the case is probably still open - as if anyone cares. More to the point brethren, what does the 'C' in Roderick C. Meredith stand for?

Reg Killingley slams an ad in the previous issue from the Obedient Church of God which refers to the head of the Catholic Church as "the Poop".
Perhaps you could ask advertisers to follow basic rules of protocol in referring to others in their ads. They can disagree with someone all they want but the payment of money should not be used as a license for puerile disrespect.
Sage advice. Sadly, as noted in the previous posting, the anonymous moron responsible for writing that ad is back again this month with something equally as grubby and offensive.

Ken Westby, one of the "bad boys" of "the 1974 Rebellion" has an intriguing article entitled Splits happen, even to one true churches.
They called me “the devil” back in 1974. Well, maybe not the devil or the Satan, but a bad hombre under devilish influence. I was accused of being used by the Prince of Darkness to attack “the church,” to cause a split.
Ah, the good old days...
Big church splits, firings and purges produce strange phenomena. One day the church has loyal, faithful employees, effective and good-hearted ministers; the next day these same individuals are evil plotters, disloyal dissenters, snakes, inciters to rebellion (which, you must remember, is akin to witchcraft), attackers of the [One True Church] and the poor innocent brethren within, etc., etc.
Well worth the reading. You can download the PDF of the entire issue here.

It's for material like this - as well as the nostalgia kick - that I still read The Journal. It portrays all sides of the ongoing COG experience as it meanders down the path to its inevitable terminus; the outrageous and the considered both. Thanks Dixon.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Journal - 175th issue

The latest Journal is out dated July 31, and it's a scorcher. Some really good features, which will be highlighted in the second of two postings here.

But to deal with the worst first, so we can all move on...

In the main news section:

Brian Harris with The new pope: Is he the one? Quote: "Prophecies relate to the arrival of an influential pope who, in an old quest, will give a new European leader his support, uniting the Catholic world against the mainly Protestant nations of the United States and Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the nations of Western and northwestern Europe, which are the descendant nations of ancient Israel migrated from their original homeland."

Sad, not to mention stupid.

Ray Daly with The wonderful earth tomorrow: What will it be like? Quote: "How about the several islands off of the Straits of Gibraltar? Think land masses. And, while thinking on these things, think Atlantis.

"These land masses in some circles, are called Pan. Atlantis was part of Pan. But Pan existed only until the earthquakes during the time of the reign of King Uzziah (840-790 B.C.).

"It was at that time that Pan sank beneath the seas and the mountain ranges rose to their present size. It was such a calamity that the earth tilted 10 degrees on its axis."

Ray should have stuck to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

In the Connections ad section:

The Obedient Church of God is back displaying its not inconsiderable ignorance and creative grammar. Quote: "I CHALLENGE all offshoot WCG sinisters 1 Kings 18:19 and dare you offshoot WCG sinisters to SPEAK UP and defend your lies of WHY you do not obey God’s 4th Commandment in 1/2 the World! So STOP HIDING from this SIN: While YOU “quietly” MOVE God’s SABBATH to FRIDAY using man’s phony 1883 IDL (International Date Line), just like the Poop moves God’s Sabbath to SUNDAY."

Talk about poop!

Art Mokarow announces "(TheBiblicalReporter.com) is a new website to take vital world news and compare it to Biblical Prophecy. It will compare today’s news with what was documented thousands of years ago in the Bible."

Oh how very original. C'mon Art, you've got to be well past retirement age. Time to sit back with a nice cup of tea and read some Dostoyevsky, learn some basic Dutch, or watch the complete seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Frankly dude, with this prophecy stuff you're just embarrassing yourself. One William Dankenbring is more than enough.

Now I know this sounds a tad unappreciative. But having isolated the more egregious guff in a strong Bullgeschichte containment field, next time we can go back and discover some material that is much more stimulating. If you can't wait (and why should you?) the PDF is available here.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Paul, the Great non-Communicator

No, no, that's starting to make sense! Change it!
Paul is generally agreed to be a great theologian. Deep, profound. Which may or may not be the case. But consider, hardly had the apostle to the gentiles shuffled off the stage, than everybody seemed to agree that his letters were downright confusing. Whoever wrote 2 Peter 3:15-16 (it wasn't Peter) certainly didn't think much of Paul's communication skills. Then, for three hundred years, all that deep theological stuff was either forgotten or ignored. If you asked a second century Christian about justification by faith, they'd likely just stare at you blankly. The only guy who allegedly came close was Marcion, and he's regarded as a heretic!

Two thousand years later Paul's letters have been pored over, each word and phrase studied, scrutinized and exegeted, to an extent unprecedented in ancient literature. The rule of thumb seems to be, if you think you've understood Paul, you haven't. But don't take my word for it, here's what Nicholas King, a British Jesuit scholar, wrote in the introduction to his 2004 translation of Romans: It is, he says:
“...very hard going, and the translator faces a formidably difficult task. A single phrase in Romans 5:12, for example, may have as many as eleven different meanings, and the jury is still out on which of them best suits the context.... At times, I have to say, I have despaired of making Romans intelligible to a modern reader.”
The crazy thing is that it's non-Christian scholars, including Jewish New Testament experts (now there's poetic justice!), who seem to have the best handle on the prickly apostle. Paul, it turns out, has been misread from at least Augustine onward. Was Paul anti-Torah? Did he eat the first-century equivalent of ham on rye? Probably not.

So if Paul was such a genius, brimming over with revelatory insight, how is it that he wasn't able to pass on those insights in any coherent form? What on earth did the Roman Christians - many of whom would have been illiterate - make of his letter to them when it was first read aloud ? How much of it did they - could they - understand? They didn't have the benefit of reading it for themselves at their leisure, it was read to them, everyone scratched their heads, and then it was apparently forgotten. In our hyper-literate age when everyone has a New Testament, and probably a selection of translations to draw on, are we any the wiser? How much do we really understand, even after reading it again and again?

Did Augustine? Luther? Calvin? Barth? or Herb Armstrong for that matter? Can you really expect to extract a meaningful, consistent theology from what are largely polemic, rhetorical writings?

It would be sheer arrogance to think that any of us has heard, or ever will, the definitive word on either Paul or his gospel. One suspects he himself kept moving the goalposts.

And you have to wonder whether the apostle is sitting up there somewhere, laughing.

Adapted from a 2010 posting


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Red in Claw and (von) Fange

I came across Erich von Fange's In Search of the Genesis World in 2010. It's a creationist text, and I hadn't tackled one of those in a very long time. Maybe, I thought, they've got some better arguments to offer than the ones I was pilloried with as a youth.

It's released by Concordia Publishing House, official publishing arm of America's second largest Lutheran body (2.5 million members), the Missouri Synod. Here's how they are currently promoting it on their website.
In Search of the Genesis World: Debunking the Evolution Myth strengthens readers' knowledge of creationism, offering a well-researched, Christian response to the origins of the world and the universe.
The Bible is shown to be a faithful framework for the study of the ancient world....
In Search of the Genesis World examines the sciences that treat the ancient world. It seeks to answer the important question: How does the Bible hold up against 'science'? Obviously, the search must be conducted in a responsible manner. We must distinguish carefully between fact/truth and "spin".
Prepare to respond to evolutionary theories withIn Search of the Genesis World.
So we're not dealing with backwoods snake handlers. Indeed Fange boasts a PhD. from the University of Alberta, and is a former professor at Concordia College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

So I settled down and diligently worked my way through the nearly 400 pages with a highlighter and a notepad at my side. I've got to concede that it's a remarkable book, though perhaps not quite in the way that Dr. von Fange intended.

The first thing to note - in view of the many "gap theory" aficionados who might frequent this blog (and you guys know who you are!) - is that Fange is an unapologetic Young Earth Creationist (YEC). But, wouldn't you know it, a certain Ambassador College graduate and Plain Truth writer comes into his account, and he's cited as an authority!

So let's dig in. We'll travel to Tonga, climb aboard the great Andean mountain elevator, turn popular journalists into evolutionary experts, try to find Rhodesia on a map, rub shoulders with Erich von Daniken, speculate on the lost continent of Mu and - especially exciting for a New Zealander like myself - discover fascinating, previously unknown details about Maori culture.

Into the Pacific

It must be a bother having to write a book about evolution when your own belief system allows only a few thousand years for the history of the universe. This probably explains why Erich von Fange spends so much time tip-toeing through some particularly vacuous material, like a rag and bone merchant on the prowl, that has seemingly little or nothing to do with his subject (see below on von Daniken and Mu.)

It also gives us an opportunity to check out von Fange's capacity for elementary-level research; the kind you'd expect of a competent twelve-year old. This isn't an unreasonable expectation given that Dr. von Fange's area of expertise is education (oh come now, you surely didn't expect it to be biology, palaeontology or geology did you?)
Before 2000 BC almost every corner of the world had been visited by people who possessed amazing technical skills. They erected vast astronomical instruments... They are found on remote uninhabited islands as well as on the continents and major islands... On remote Tonga island a massive stone lintel atop three huge stone pillars has two incised lines that indicate winter and summer solstices. (p.275)
Ha'amonga 'a Maui
Now let's pause for a moment. Remote Tonga island? Despite being a qualified professor of education, Fange seems to have an extremely limited grasp of world geography. Tonga isn't an island, but the name of a group of islands. The structure Fange refers to isn't found on "Tonga island" (there's no such place) but on the island of Tongatapu, and is known as Ha'amonga 'a Maui. It is believed to have been built in the thirteenth century, probably as a gateway to the royal compound. It was only in 1967 that the then reigning monarch of Tonga, perhaps eyeing the tourist potential, began claiming that it had Stonehenge-style astronomical significance. Fange could have saved himself considerable embarrassment just by picking up a copy of the World Almanac, or doing a Wiki search.

Fange's unique expertise also extends to New Zealand geography and history.
Before and during the Golden Age, small bands of the curious and adventurous, the rebels and the ostracized, left or fled the Iranian Highlands for the great unknown world, much like the defeated Maori rebel or chief who fled with his followers to find another island home or perish in the sea. (p.326)
I wonder just how many islands Fange thinks make up New Zealand? I wonder whether he knows the difference between the designations Maori and Polynesian? I wonder whether he did any serious research at all? The Maori are the first people (tangata whenua) of New Zealand. There are two main islands, bearing the highly original names North and South Islands, and most of the population prior to the arrival of Europeans lived on the North Island (and in fact still do). Evidence of atoll-hopping refugees? Zero. Certainly Maori arrived from elsewhere in the Pacific, but after settlement (and becoming the people referred to as Maori today) there is little or no evidence of return journeys. The sole exception might be the colonisation of the Chatham Islands by the Moriori, but I doubt Dr. von Fange has ever heard of the Chatham Islands, let alone the Moriori.

He has heard of Rhodesia though, and seems to think there is still a country bearing that name (p.301) - which is a bit weird if he bothers to even occasionally follow the news.

But then, if you're prepared to state that "there are good reasons to suppose that at least some dinosaurs were on the ark," (p.57) without providing a scrap of evidence for these "good reasons," or even the barest of footnotes, presumably ancient Tongan astronomical observatories and imaginary sea voyages by unhappy Maori chiefs are small change.

You have to wonder what Concordia is doing, promoting this stuff. Does anyone there actually edit for something other than spelling and punctuation?

The Scientific Genius of Robert Gentet

I'd like to say that this kind of nonsense is the exception, but unfortunately it isn't.

One moment you're reading a Young Earth Creation text from the Missouri Synod, then zap there's a flash of recognition: the author is citing a WCG writer. (For those unfamiliar with the acronym, WCG refers to an apocalyptic Adventist sect that has now largely sunk beneath the waves; the Worldwide Church of God.)

Thomas Lapacka I knew about. The former Pasadena WCG minister traded in his suit and tie for the clerical collar of a Missouri Synod clergyman some fifteen years ago, and went on to write a book about it. But I didn't know about Robert Gentet.

Gentet was a "science" writer (using the term science very loosely) for The Plain Truth. His best-known article may have been Dinosaurs Before Adam? which first saw the light in 1963, then achieved "reprint article" status as the definitive word on the subject for church members.

Obviously Gentet was a major promoter of the "gap theory," which is anathema to YECs. But Fange's approach is "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," so that wasn't too much of a jolt (he also cites ID gurus Behe and Johnson without indicating that their position is very different to his.)

But no, it seems Gentet had a Damascus Road experience on creationism - or perhaps St. Louis Road - for he returned to his LCMS roots after leaving WCG and, failing to find a job in the oil industry, went on to be ordained as a Missouri Synod minister. Along with this metamorphosis, Gentet completely abandoned the pre-Adamic theory of creationism which he had previously espoused, and adopted a variety of YECism (the "CCC" model). He now runs creationhistory.com - where you can find his potted bio.

Fange cites Gentet as an authority to back up his own views. Two dilettantes are, apparently, better than one.

Both of these illustrious gentlemen have the hard task of explaining how the planet came to be as it is in just a few thousand years. Noah's flood comes in handy here, and both of our geniuses seem to have been influenced by Alfred Rehwinkel's 1950s book called (not surprisingly) The Flood. I had a copy of this opus on my bookshelf as a teenager. Rehwinkel was yet another dilettante (his degree was in theology), LCMS member and - like Fange and Lapacka, his book appears under the Concordia imprint.

So, how do you explain, for example, those big, pointy things made of rock? The Andes mountains for example?
What is surprising is that the earliest intensive agriculture in South America is believed to be east of the Andes in the Amazon lowlands before it was carried over the Andes, perhaps even before the Andes existed. Much of the Andes chain is very recent - shockingly recent! (p.218-219)
Do tell!
The Andes rose abruptly in historical times when man was already sailing ships. There was a sea harbor in Lake Titicaca. (p.219)
Well, land sakes, who'd have thunked it! But then, this is the same guy who writes:
Our belief in a young earth is founded on the Bible, and there is nothing in the way of evidence to shake that belief. (p.289)
Can we hear an Amen! from Brother Gentet?

Honestly, one could rabbit on about the gaping holes in Erich von Fange's book for months, and not exhaust the possibilities. Could it get any worse?
The striking fact is that natives never seem to discover a new idea for themselves, nor do they modify anything in the slightest. When change has come to a community, it came from the outside. (p.47)
What racist drivel. Fange wisely omits to define what he means by "natives," but I suspect he has people of a different skin colour to his own in mind. On page 212 he gets explicit by referring to Africans as "natives." Why not blond Swedes? The truth is that all of us can trace our origins back to tribal communities: Angles, Saxons, Goths... The statement is garbage, and inherently illogical.

And let's be upfront about that term "natives." It's insulting and demeaning in contemporary usage. Only a moron in a hurry would use it in a serious work of non-fiction.

Racism seems to be an undercurrent in Fange's world-view. He clearly doesn't like the work of ground breaking French Jesuit scholar Teilhard de Chardin. Fair enough, that's his right. But when it comes to blaming someone for the Piltdown hoax, Fange has Teilhard collared right from the start. Why Teilhard and not one of the English suspects?
The whole business seems contrary and out of character for an Englishman. (p.157)
Yes, it has to be the greasy little Frenchman according to the von Fange logic. One can only observe that Herr Doktor von Fange can't have met a great many Brits in his travels. At times Fange seems to have "lost it" completely.

Fange doesn't endorse von Daniken, but he does spend a lot of time trawling through the guano trying to pick a pearl or two (p.299-308). His conclusion: "The point of our discussion is that interesting and useful facts may indeed be found in some very peculiar sources..." Perhaps if he spent more time reading Scientific American rather than a tattered copy of Chariots of the Gods he might have learned something more useful. He then goes on - heaven knows why - to commit another four rambling pages to the literature on the lost continent of Mu. This in a book with the subtitle "Debunking the Evolution Myth"?

Fange constantly divides the world up into Christians and humanist liberals. In fact, the only reason evolution exists is that "the evolution belief system is designed not to explain the world, but clearly to attack and erode the faith and values of Christians." (p.265)

To put the kindest construction on this statement, one could call it myopic.
[I]f in the future Christians are burned at the stake, evolutionists will light the matches. (p.265)
Is this really the best that Concordia and the LCMS can up with as a popular Creationist text?

(Note: rhetorical question.)

A version of this article appeared here in four parts in 2010.