Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Good Book

James Pate, a biblioblogger with some previous WCG experience behind him, has just reviewed the Book of Mormon. You'll find a link to James' blog in the sidebar. I'm struck with admiration, personally being of the same view as Mark Twain on this noble literary confection: chloroform in print. How did James stay awake to complete his task? In any case it's a fair and well written review, quite short, and definitely worth checking out.

I have an alternative suggestion for James however, and confess to be currently making my way through it. The Good Book by (sort of) A. C. Grayling. It's a compendium (kind of) of wise advice, observations and insight from some of the greatest writers in history, from ancient Rome to the modern day. Grayling has melded them together as "a secular Bible". Moreover, he's organised them into 17 biblical-style books; Genesis (nothing like the original), Wisdom, Parables, Proverbs, Acts... you get the idea.

The text is a bit uneven at times - I really didn't like Sages. But much - most - is helpful and enlightening. Dare one say inspirational? Nothing religious at all.

At the risk of being stoned, and based on what I've read so far (this isn't the kind of tome you want to speed-read through) I highly recommend it. Nothing here to offend any person of goodwill, Christian, Atheist or otherwise, and much to ponder. In due course I'll probably post a few quotes.

Better than the Bible? I wouldn't want to comment. Better than the Book of Mormon. Absolutely!

"I Must Go Down to the Sea Again..."

"So where is this bl*%dy sea?"
I must go down to the sea again, 
to the lonely sea and the sky;
I left my shoes and socks there - 
I wonder if they're dry? 

Spike Milligan

I believe there's another earlier version of that verse, but Milligan is a personal favourite, so let's begin there.

I've been neglectful of Paul Davidson's excellent blog Is That In The Bible? and have only just come across his latest post on that famous biblical body of water, the Sea of Galilee. You know, stormy waters, ships foundering. You find it appearing in our first canonical gospel, Mark.

Davidson has one of those inquiring minds that makes me feel quite dense by comparison. He doesn't blog frequently, but when he does, watch out. His is a voice of reasoned discourse, and he documents his ideas and conclusions with great care. He uses the word "nerdy" in a self-deprecating way, but despite not being in the hallowed academy, he runs rings around those self-serving apologists who have gathered the wagons around to defend the often indefensible.

Anyway, the question in this case is, did the author of Mark just plain invent the Sea of Galilee? It's a question I never considered before, but Paul lays out the evidence. Absolutely intriguing.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Sentimental Christianity (from AW)

There's an interesting discussion occurring off-blog about Lonnie Hendrix's recent "God and Jane Fonda" posting. Here's a couple of excerpts from that post.
I have been saying for several years now that Christianity is NOT an intellectual experience. True Christianity is not found in a set of doctrines or teachings. Like God, it cannot be fully or adequately explained by ANY book or pamphlet. Paul wrote in many places that Christianity cannot be explained or understood using man's words and wisdom - that it is OUTSIDE of that realm. Christianity must be experienced on an emotional level - in the gut. I'm not saying that you have to experience Christianity in the same way (or using the same words) that Fonda did, but I am saying that you can't be a TRUE Christian by comprehending and/or adopting a set of beliefs as your own. Choose your own words, but you must be "begotten again" or "reborn."

Try to forget the literalist and fundamentalist baloney. Abandon the apologetics. You're never going to get there on that road... It turns out that the HEART and SENTIMENTALITY are what it's all about! You've got to FEEL it on the inside. Wipe that smug, self-righteous smirk off of your face and let God and Christ into your heart.
Do read the entire piece.

I guess I know where Lonnie is coming from. I certainly agree strongly with many of these statements, but I still did a double take. I'm not so sure that something called Christianity can be primarily "experienced on a emotional level - in the gut." That's where values come from, the still, small voice, the conviction that something is right - or wrong. But Christianity has no exclusive market on that. Isn't that the whole point of Romans 1:19-20?

And I'm not sure that the heart and sentimentality are what it's all about either. It took more than sentimentality to motivate the reformers and abolitionists who fought the slave trade, who campaigned for women's suffrage, who work today for a just society worth handing on to future generations. There were few more "sentimental" varieties of Christianity in the years leading up to World War One than German Protestantism, especially in its Pietistic form, but that seemed to matter not at all as nationalism swept across the face of Europe, and the pastors fell in behind the Kaiser in whipping up unquestioning patriotic fervor.

My point, I guess, is that to identify good feelings and sentiments with Christianity creates a category error. And to focus on good feelings and intentions can lead to quietism and withdrawal from the great issues which should command our attention and passionate advocacy. Christianity, under any positive definition I'd be comfortable with, is as much about the hand as the heart.

Christianity, Lonnie contends, comes to us from outside the realm of human words and wisdom. Again, I know what he means, but can anything beyond instinct and lower animal behaviour really be conveyed outside the realm of language? Even if that was true, which I personally doubt, there is no other place that it - or anything good - can be expressed other than in this messy realm with all its uncomfortable paradoxes.

Doctrine, apologetics... on these I agree wholeheartedly with Lonnie. But if you strip them away, I wonder if what you're left with is best described as something other than Christianity. And, in my view, intellectual rigor, engaging the mind, at least at a basic level, is a non-negotiable element in negotiating one's way through life - and that includes faith commitments of whatever stripe.

As Lonnie often says, what do you think?

The demonic and the depressive (2 of 2) - from AW

I drive past the local Anglican parish church several times a week. An oppressive stone building, it sits on a main intersection in town. I've only been inside once, around age ten, when my parents drove up from Hamilton for a cousin's wedding. It seemed a fairly strange place to an out-of-town Lutheran kid, not least because of the impressive (brass?) eagle lectern which utterly fascinated my younger self. These seem to be features exclusively associated with Anglican churches and, I'm reliably informed, represent "St. John the Evangelist."

I wouldn't say this particular church is the ugliest I've seen. Churches of a similar age in Melbourne, judging from a trip there several years ago, probably trump this particular structure decisively. These buildings reflect a colonial age in which Christian worship was a rather dour, serious activity. Hushed voices, patronising ten-minute homilies, often cheerless hymnody, no room for spontaneity. The architecture was designed to put you in your lowly place. You attended because it was expected. Good people went to church in the same way good businessmen belonged to service groups like the Lions Club or Rotary. Which denomination largely depended on your family background. Scottish? Tick Presbyterian. English? Tick Anglican. Irish? Tick Catholic.

But times have changed, and the preference these days is for the bubble-gum flavoured mush that the happy-clappy charismatic, prosperity-focused churches vomit forth. The traditional churches haven't kept up. Perhaps they shouldn't even try, but the sad truth is that they're now so out of step with the surrounding culture that their demographic is rapidly sliding into senescence.

On an optimism-pessimism continuum, traditional churches tend to teeter at the depressive "op shop" end. Not that I'm against op shops, they provide a valuable service, but this is often as far as social engagement goes in the historic denominations - at least on a parish/congregational level. When your community PR and profile is mainly associated with this kind of down-in-the-mouth venture, it isn't likely that you're going to attract or retain millennials. It's worthy. It's earnest. But worthy and earnest need to be balanced with something from the joyful end of the spectrum. It makes more sense to me (but what do I know?) to have many local churches vigorously supporting a single initiative alongside other non-religious charitable groups with minimal - or no - church branding.

This whole thing is summed up for me in the audience response to a lecture at Auckland University some time ago by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is both a New Testament scholar and Jewish. She constantly used humour in her presentation, and very effectively. The attendees were the local Christian theological set. What amazed me was how the humour completely went over the heads of at least half the listeners. I was sitting a couple of seats along from a couple of what seemed to be young religious professionals. They seemed genuinely immune. Certainly they were unappreciative - not even a smile, perhaps they were just puzzled. It was a hard room to play to. The thought that these blokes were going forth into pulpits the following Sunday was genuinely worrying. It still is.

The demonic and the depressive (1 of 2) - from AW

City Impact's Mortlock
The New Zealand Herald has unmasked the worst demon-spawned sects that create havoc across the country's Christian landscape.

Of course, that's not the kind of language the august Herald chooses to use, nor that of the expert commentator they quote, but that's how I see it.

I'm using the term "demonic" and "demon-spawned" in a metaphorical sense. There are no fallen angelic entities that correspond to the literal definition many people still quaver in fear of. Demonic is still a useful descriptor, however, for high demand religious movements which mercilessly exploit gullibility through manipulation - and line the pockets of their leaders in the process.

Only one of these cults (and yes, I'm aware that in the academic realm where religious studies are pursued "cult" is a word avoided at all costs) is not a "prosperity gospel" franchise; the faux-Amish Gloriavale community. Gloriavale is however perhaps the most controlling of these entities, especially if you're a woman or someone with any kind of thirst for independent thinking.

Not surprising to find "Bishop" Brian Tamaki's Destiny Church on the list, nor City Impact Church led by Peter Mortlock. The others include C3, Victory, Life NZ, Equippers and Arise.

"Combined, the religious charities have amassed assets worth more than $214m."

That won't sound like much by American standards, but New Zealand is a small, overwhelmingly secular nation with a population of under 5 million. 

What's the appeal of groups with rubbish theologies and narcissistic leadership models? Peter Lineham of Massey University, whose background is Open Brethren, notes:

"All of these churches hold to what we call the ­prosperity ­doctrine - which argues that the sign of God's love for you will be that you become rich and that you will earn God's love by the generosity of your gifts to the church."

Frankly, you'd have to wonder how stupid someone would have to be to embrace this kind of abuse. Yet many do, and with great enthusiasm. At that point abuse also becomes self-abuse.

But where are the prophetic voices in the more mature Christian community? The voices calling out the prosperity gospel and exposing it for what it is? Where are the prominent Baptists, Presbyterians and others who are willing to decry these caricatures of churches? For God's sake, surely this calls for - at the very least - a measure of indignation.

The silence is deafening. The truth is probably that the virus has infected their denominations too, and that any attempt to effectively address the issues would have catastrophic consequences in low-energy denominations which try and project a smiling, non-threatening, irenic face to the world.

And so the "demons" go unopposed.

The Plain Truth about Balaam's Ass (from AW)

If you thought you already had a handle on the famous talking donkey tale, you might want to check out Paul Davidson's blog. Things are not as simple as they seem. Paul provides a mixture of archaeological data along with some impressive textual detective work that explores the contradictory information found in the Bible. This is one of the smartest biblical commentators I know of, and he makes a pretty watertight case. The Balaam character evolved down the years from a prophet of God to a pagan bad guy.

If you needed any further evidence that the Bible can't just be read at face value, this about clinches it.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Siesta time for Otagosh

UPDATED.

Keeping two blogs running is a demanding task, at least as far as I'm concerned. Over the years the balance has shifted back and forth between Otagosh and Ambassador Watch. The idea was to post more theological material - particularly related to biblical studies - on the former, and Church of God stories and commentary on the latter.

To simplify things I've decided to include all new Otagosh stories on AW first. The existing blog won't disappear. If you just want to view the latest posts that relate to the kind of things Otagosh has covered you can weed out the often surreal COG content with the Otagosh-specific link http://ambassadorwatch.blogspot.co.nz/search/label/Otagosh 

Every so often, time permitting, I'll reblog relevant posts back over on AW as well. We'll see how it goes.

Gavin
 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Off topic, but...

click to enlarge
Topical nonetheless. Just a few days ago I finally got around to ditching the landline. Unimaginable just a few short years back. A couple of years ago I got the shock of my life to see the plastic boxes with rotary dials on display as part of a communications exhibit at MOTAT (Museum Of Transport And Technology). I was shepherding a class of ten-year-olds through, and they were totally fascinated ("how do these things work?") Good grief, I remember the sacred black box that sat on its own dedicated "telephone table" as a kid, and how thoroughly modern I felt when I picked up my first push-button model for the flat in the nineteen mumble-mumbles.

Apart from that, the maths was compelling; paying hundreds extra each year for advertisers to interrupt evening downtime to solicit business was increasingly stupid. No more real estate agents at 7.00, hallelujah.

The mourning period lasted all of 5 minutes.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Galileo, the Bible and Science

There are those that maintain literalism and fundamentalism are modern importations into Christian belief.

That's a hard argument to validate. In a pre-modern world there were few other ways to view the Bible. Propositional truth was the default position outside a cloistered cadre of intellectuals who whispered amongst themselves. Hector Avalos reminds us what it was like for our forebears back in the 17th century.

Hector Avalos: Galileo, the Bible and Science

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the Bible, no holds barred

Here's some direct talking from a major British biblical scholar. Doesn't look like a biblical scholar, doesn't sound like a biblical scholar, but be ye not deceived, she's the real McCoy.

The interview is from a recent ABC Australia talk show.

 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Jihad - the real causes

Every man and his braying ass has an opinion about Islam, based on the gut-wrenchingly evil acts of terrorism perpetrated by ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and kindred extremist groups. Is the underlying problem Islam itself and its holy book the Quran?

British-born Iranian New Zealander Donna Miles-Mojab, writing in the New Zealand Heraldoffers some insight into the underlying issues.

The Military-Evangelical Complex

Douglas Becker has reblogged a provocative piece by Paul Rosenberg. While Rosenberg's politics may be somewhat suspect (a self-described "lifestyle capitalist"), he nonetheless makes a good deal of sense, speaking of "inverting the most fundamental elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition" in American society.

Friday, 8 April 2016

We the True Church

HT to Dr Val Webb.




Did Jesus Really Exist?


Like it or not, the "Jesus myth" is slowly entering mainstream discourse. This article from Canada's McLean's magazine is a case in point.

Sociology of an American sect

Good news, you no longer need to remortgage the house in order to acquire a copy of David Barrett's study Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God. Oxford University press is releasing a paperback edition (with a few very minor revisions) later this year.

Read the rest on Ambassador Watch.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The tea towel has been hung out to dry

And the winner is...
There'll be a few Aussies in mourning tonight. Our cousins across the Tasman, at least those among them with a sense of independent nationhood, were hoping New Zealand would adopt a new flag and thereby kick-start a similar debate in the Lucky Country.

In fact, we tossed out the uppity tea towel and kept the old design.

It's not that we don't need a new flag, a flag that dumps the anachronistic Union Jack. Times have changed. The Brits haven't qualified as "the old country" for many decades. But the Kyle Lockwood-designed pretender just wasn't up to the job.

And our brilliant Prime Minister didn't help things along. His partisanship for change helped form a stronger anti-vote. Every time he opened his cake-hole the tea towel lost support.

Nor did it help that know-it-all radio, television and newspaper non-journalist Mike Hosking tried to tell the country to vote for change. If Hosking is in favour then the rule of thumb is that anyone with active brain cells should oppose.

And oppose we did.

The Lockwood pretender
New Zealanders have never been particularly flag-conscious, unlike our American brethren. We don't salute the thing or have our kids recite pledges of allegiance. But the flag debate has stirred up a bit of the primal, and flags have been flying in front yards up and down the country in a way that's unprecedented. The received flag much, much more than the Lockwood tea towel.

We'll need to take another crack at it when we become a republic in the hopefully not too distant future. Once Elizabeth passes from the scene it'll be hard to transfer loyalty to Good King Chuckie. But then, with a bit of luck, we'll have a flag that Kiwis can genuinely embrace.

And I daresay we'll still beat the Ockers to the punch.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Risen



It must be Easter.

I saw the movie Risen today. Jesus is a Kiwi.

No, really. Actor Cliff Curtis, star of Fear of the Walking Dead (how appropriate is that!) has moved from zombies to the Lord of Life. As a proud New Zealander, I don't want to say his portrayal is a bit vacuous, but...

It's Joseph Fiennes who adds the character with long, intense, meaningful looks; though it's doubtful that this will rank as his finest performance. He portrays Clavius, a Roman tribune who is present at the crucifixion and is given the job of finding the missing body.

Pilate is portrayed as a bit of an egg who was pressured by the Sanhedrin into doing the deed. Yup, all that modern scholarship to the contrary, the Jews are responsible. And then the shroud of Turin gets chucked in for good measure. Oh yeah, the disciples have all the edginess of the Seven Dwarves on happy pills.

As a biblical epic, this one doesn't really achieve lift off. As a swords and sandals costume drama it's not completely terrible.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Easter Panacea

The Jehovah's Witnesses dropped their Passover brochure on the front doorstep last week. They're doing their annual Lord's Supper service on Wednesday night. As I understand it, almost nobody actually takes a sip of wine or eats the wafer/matzo/bread. That's reserved for the 144,000 who must now be extremely thin on the ground. I guess they just display the elements, listen to a message, read some verses and sing a bit. The leaflet says, "You will hear an explanation of how his death can benefit you and your family."

Come grab the benefit!

Later came the letterbox drop from the mainline Hope Project, a fat little 34-page mini-booklet. It's supported by a wide range of churches, but the tone is heavily evangelical. We'll come back to that.

Yesterday it was the turn of UCKG.

UCKG is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a South American sect. They're promoting their Easter services. The front cover illustration could have come straight out of Mel Gibson's splatter-epic The Passion of the Christ. Their slogan of choice: "Was It In Vain?"

UCKG gets a (deservedly?) bad press; but put your doubts aside. If you attend on Good Friday you'll get a free gift.
RECEIVE FOR FREE A BLESSED HANDKERCHIEF MOISTENED WITH WATER FROM THE JORDAN RIVER IN ISRAEL.
There's a nice Bible verse - this time not in caps lock - to follow: "... who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness - by whose stripes you were healed."

Healed. Thus saith the brochure:
Let's think together, it doesn't make any sense for Him to have conquered good health for you and yet you struggle with health issues; love and unity in relationships, but yours is falling apart; a rich and successful life only for you to lack the basic necessities; inner peace, but your mind is constantly tormented. It doesn't make sense! This is why for us, Good Friday is not a day of mourning - it's a day to stand up and claim the benefits of faith in God. We believe that there is nothing in this world that's too strong for Him; no addiction, financial problem, faily feud, health issue, love triangle or tragedy that an active faith in God cannot solve.
"Let's think together", just what kind of person is this targeted toward? Isn't this just manipulating people who are having a hard time in their lives? Bear in mind that other than healing, UCKG is very big on tithing.

Bring out the snake oil. Or, in this case, the holy hankies.

The thing is, while the UCKG advertising is crass and obvious in its appeal, the Hope booklet isn't really all that far removed, just more subtle and nuanced. The blood has been mopped up and things are a good deal nicer all round. But it's still the Jesus panacea. Is this really what Christianity is all about? It's hard not to wince when you come across a section titled "The ultimate insurance" (p.25).

The Easter story (or Christian Passover account if you prefer) has got to be about more than this, surely?

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Mythicists put their case

Raphael Lataster
Raphael Lataster (University of Sydney) engages with Richard Carrier on the issue of the Jesus myth theory, recorded recently and sponsored by Mythicist Milwaukee. The audio is available here. This is a long presentation, 97 minutes, but probably worth the time investment if you're interested in the subject.

Lataster calls himself a 'Jesus agnostic', so this isn't a debate from both extremes. Something here to offend everybody behind the apologetic barriers. James McGrath gets a bit of a drubbing, so I expect he'll have something to say in due course.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Religion - a fairly comprehensive guide

When Issac Asimov wanted to get the gist of a subject that was new to him, so the story goes, he headed for the children's section of his local library. If you're writing for kids you have to pare back the verbiage and express your ideas clearly. Kids aren't impressed by pretentious writing. Too bad we grow out of that. Asimov was onto something.

Now, just released this month, there's a DK title in the Penguin Random House stable that proves the point once again. It's called All About Religion, and it's a class act.

This illustrated large-format paperback isn't just about the Abrahamic faiths. Nor is there a whiff of apologetics. Atheism gets a fair treatment, and the approach taken is to open up the reader's thinking to the diversity that's out there. Given that it's under 100 pages and not text-dense, it does an amazing job of covering a lot of bases. Sikhs, Baha'i, Ninian Smart, the Nicene Creed, Sunni and Shia, yoga, Theravada and Mahayana, Mary Baker Eddy, Falun Gong, Feng shui, Humanism, Rationalism, Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, the hijab, Rastafarian dietary laws, Dawkins, Laozi... all get at least an introduction.

Aled Jones gets credit on the cover, but he actually just wrote the foreword. Jones first reached international fame as a boy soprano (his 1986 recording of Faure's Requiem with the Royal Philharmonic under Richard Hickox is still one of the best available) and went on to survive his stint as a child prodigy to pursue a career in British television and radio. We can all be grateful that Aled was in on the project and not N. T. Wright.

Being a kid's title - geared to smart 12-year-olds or thereabouts - it's not particularly expensive, and for most of us adults this is a great Religion 101, minus all the puffery.

Asimov would, I think, approve.

Link: the DK website.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

A new Tanakh

The Israel Bible is a new online resource for reading the Hebrew Bible. You can listen to the Hebrew version of the text and read along in English or Hebrew.

The focus of this translation is on the real estate in Palestine.
The Land of Israel is the most central aspect of the Bible with references to the land appearing on nearly every page... The Israel Bible is the world’s first Bible to highlight the Land of Israel, the People of Israel, and the unique relationship between them. The Israel Bible provides an original commentary which seeks to explain God’s focus on the Land of Israel.  In doing so, our commentary features comments pertaining to the Land of Israel, the People of Israel and the language of Israel.
So there's an agenda, one that might give readers pause in light of the illegal settlements issue and the legitimate concerns raised by BDS advocates. The endorsements so far aren't exactly stellar either, and one of the scholars responsible for the Israel Bible speaks of "his vision for honoring and nurturing evangelical Christian support for Jews and the Jewish homeland".

With those qualifications, it's still an interesting resource. How it is received as more people become aware of it and it is critiqued by a broader range of scholars is a significant question for the future.

(HT to Charles Savelle.)

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A Presbyterian Xmas, 1943

(Excerpt from Lloyd Geering's 2015 book On Me Bike: Cycling round New Zealand 80 years ago.)

December 1943
"Three days before Christmas Day I went down to the Kurow railway station and consigned our bikes to Picton. That year Christmas Day fell on a Monday, and as it was my first Christmas as a parish minister I decided to conduct a service in the Kurow Church on Christmas Day. In those days this was something of a novelty in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, because our denomination had long followed the tradition of the Church of Scotland in abandoning the observance of Christmas, Lent, Easter, and all the saints' days as Romish practices for which there was no biblical warrant. The observance of what is known as the Christian Year was only just emerging in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand when I was a student, having been introduced by the 'high-church' ministers whose lead I had decided to follow.
"An illustration of how strongly some people felt about this innovation comes from my own experience that very year. Nancy and I had two recently married friends, Rod and Olwyn Stockwell, to holiday with us over Christmas. Olwyn was the daughter of a staid Presbyterian minister and, on finding that I was conducting worship on Christmas Day, flatly refused to accompany us to church or allow her Anglican husband to do so, even though they were guests in our home. Nancy and I took no offence, but did allow ourselves to be quietly amused by it all." (p.100-101)

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Trump doesn't like losers

Donald Trump excites a lot of attention well beyond the borders of the USA. I still haven't met a Kiwi of whatever political persuasion who can believe that this man could actually become president of the most powerful country on earth.

The billboard shown is now on display outside St Luke's Presbyterian Church in Auckland.

Minister Glynn Cardy commented:
"For those of us at St Luke's, the cross is about politics. Jesus was killed - violently, publicly and shamefully - because he spoke truth to power and confronted the leaders of his day about their treatment of the outcasts. 
"To the Trumps of his day, and to those who see winners as having money and power, the Jesus of the Bible was a loser who associated with those rejected by society. And he died broke. 
"Jesus had an alternative vision of reality, however. He was a person who sided with minorities and those who were most vulnerable, and it was this that got him killed."
You can read the story in today's NZ Herald here.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Esther - what's going on here?

Esther is one of the books that's found in all modern versions of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic. But when was the last time you saw it used to furnish a proof text? Esther is a ripping yarn, but even Deuteronomy gets more exposure.

The likely reason, as David Lamb recently pointed out, is that God is conspicuously absent in Esther. The Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible spells out the background.
Esther purports to be recounting real events, but it is historicized fiction... The most remarked-upon characteristic of the book of Esther is its failure  to mention God even once; this lack of overt religiosity caused the book to have difficulty obtaining canonical status in Christianity... the book contains no prayers or hymns, and the heroine Queen Esther is married to a Gentile, does not observe the dietary laws, and to all appearances leads a completely secular life. (Crawford, "Esther").
 Crawford suggests that Esther was written to provide an etiology (explanation) for how the festival of Purim came to be.
The origins of Purim are cloudy; it first appears in the postexilic period, but its antecedents may lie in a pagan festival, either a Persian or Babylonian spring festival... The genre of the book of Esther is a novella or short story...
It gets even more curious. There are three different versions of Esther. Jews and Protestants use the Masoretic edition in their Bibles. Catholics and Orthodox use the longer Septuagint version (which does mention God and add a layer of piety). A third Greek version is similar, but not identical, to the LXX.

So what's going on? David Lamb, who teaches at Biblical Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, writes:
The problem with Esther, as many Bible readers already know, is that God is never mentioned in the book.  Neither of the most common terms for God appear (elohim, YHWH) any where in the book. Unlike the book of Daniel, the book of Esther never records anyone praying, receiving a vision or a dream, or meeting with an angelic being.
When Christians talk about the book of Esther, it can feel a bit like we’re playing Where’s Waldo?  We search diligently as we read each verse, running our finger over the text looking for God until we reach a point and yell out, “There he is!”
I’m trying to avoid a “Where’s Waldo?” approach to finding God in the pages of Esther, but perhaps that’s inevitable.  The divinely inspired biblical authors felt the need to record Esther’s amazing story, and then include in the canon of Scripture, so I’m sure they had a good reason to do so.
David's bemusement is understandable if we assume that the "divinely inspired biblical authors felt the need to record Esther's amazing story, and then to include [it] in the canon of scripture". I'm a bit confused here, though. Is  he actually saying, as he seems to be, that the authors canonized the text? (I have this mental image of Moses, three guys named Isaiah, David and Daniel sitting around in the heavenly boardroom and Jeremiah calling for a show of hands: "Esther, in or out?") Is he implying that "Esther's amazing story" is historical? If so, then I guess that Esther's inclusion in the canon must have "had a good reason" behind it.

Then again, what if we simply follow where the evidence points and concede that Esther is historicized fiction, an intriguing etiological novella that was part of an emerging national literature in ancient Israel? It's in the Bible because people other than the "inspired authors" put it there. What if we give ourselves permission, along with the early Christians, to wonder at its relevance and legitimacy as scripture? Is that such a scary question? Isn't this a better approach than playing "Where's Waldo", when "Waldo" is clearly nowhere in the picture to begin with?

To attempt to shoehorn God into the Esther story - unless you're willing to accept the primacy of the LXX version - seems to me more eisegesis than an exercise in exegesis.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Three traditional Catholic Bibles online


HT to Catholic Bibles which has posted a link to Catholic Bible Online, where you can find the text of the Knox translation alongside the Douay-Rheims and the Latin Vulgate. The Knox translation, based on the Vulgate, was released in 1950, the work of Msgr. Ronald Knox.
The style of the translation is in idiomatic English and much freer in renderings of passages than the Douay version. With the Deuterocanonical books, the interpretation of the passages was brought closer to the Septuagint. When the Latin appeared to be doubtful, the translation of the text was based on other languages, with the Latin translation placed in the footnote. (Wikipedia entry)
If Douay-Rheims has an equivalence to the KJV, Knox was something of a Catholic Moffatt. It's nice to see it available again in the Internet age.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Journal updates now on Ambassador Watch

Just a reminder that information about and links to The Journal: News of the Churches of God now appears on Ambassador Watch. The latest (featuring issue 181) has now been posted there. As a rule, all COG-related content will now be available on AW, with more general postings here on Otagosh.

Valerie Tarico on the Evangelical brand

The Evangelical “brand” has gone from being an asset to a liability, and it is helpful to understand the transition in precisely those terms.

Valerie Tarico

Read it here.


Was Hitler a Christian?

The question is worth asking. Even Whoopi Goldberg has an opinion. Her logic, speaking on The View, wasn't exactly impeccable, but there's certainly an argument to be made in favour of the proposition.

Hitler was raised Catholic and remained a member all through his life.

He was never excommunicated and his opus, Mein Kamf, was never put on the church's index of banned books.

Hitler even claimed on a number of occasions to be a Christian. "My Christian feeling directs me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter...As a Christian I do not have the duty to allow the wool to be pulled over my eyes, but I have the duty to be a fighter for the truth and for what is right...As a Christian I also have a duty toward my own people."

It's hard not to draw a parallel with Donald Trump, a man many regard as the antithesis of Christianity and yet is a member in good standing in the Presbyterian church.

Which leads me back to Anthony Le Donne's post on Trump at The Jesus Blog. Here's the opening paragraph, substituting Hitler for Trump and changing the tense.
Adolf Hitler was a Catholic. He may well have been the most famous Catholic in the world at the time. Does this make Hitler a Christian? Well, I suppose, sort of…. yeah. As a Catholic myself, I would like to make a distinction between identity and representation. In other words, someone can be a Christian (e.g. many Nazis were) and not represent Christianity.
Does that work for you? Or how about this adaptation...
If someone claims a label—especially when that label represents an ideology—it is difficult to prove otherwise. But few will doubt that Hitler’s emphasis of his Christianity was political expediency... We should not commit the sin that American xenophobes did in claiming that Obama is not really a Christian... Rather we should acknowledge that there are Christians who do not, by their words or actions, represent Christianity.
Some may object to drawing a comparison between Trump and Hitler, but the issue is still relevant; what to think about someone who claims to be something when they fail, in your view, to meet essential criteria. That 'someone' could be a politician, an End Times televangelist, or just the guy next door who yells at his kids. (Of course, there are fundamentalists who would deny that Catholics could possibly be true Christians anyway. These are likely to be the very same people who respond most enthusiastically to Trump-like rhetoric).

Hitler was opposed in Germany by many Catholic organisations and public figures.
In the Spring of 1931, a Catholic Reichstag representative, Karl Trossman, published a best-selling book entitled Hitler and Rome, in which he described the National Socialists as a "brutal party that would do away with all the rights of the people"... Not long after, the Catholic author Alfons Wild... proclaimed that "Hitler's view of the world is not Christianity but the message of race, a message that does not proclaim peace and justice but rather violence and hate. (Cornwell, Hitler's Pope, p.110)
Similar warnings are being sounded today among thoughtful Christians, though the 'rank and file', as in Hitler's day, doesn't seem to be especially paying attention.

So does the "distinction between identity and representation" work for either (or both) men?

Le Donne concludes:
Is Trump a Christian? Yes. Does he represent my Christianity? No.
So is it fair to say, "Was Hitler a Christian? Yes. Did he represent my Christianity? No."?

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Tobit story: fish therapy and a friendly dog

You won't find it in a standard Protestant Bible, but it's one of the treasures of the Septuagint, and included in Catholic Bibles. The book of Tobit (or Tobias) may well be my favourite deuterocanonical confection. It's a tall tale, part romance novel, that has inspired great art, novels and music down the centuries (along with a few attempts to use fish pastes in medical treatments.) Among those in modern times who've improvised on the narrative have been priest and novelist Andrew Greeley (in Angel Light), who transposed the characters into a computer-driven love story that moves from America to Ireland. It's an imaginative retelling well worth hunting down.

The composer Handel, the man behind The Messiah, is also credited with an oratorio on the book of Tobit... sort of. It's actually a recycling of Handel's earlier works, re-crafted to fit the Tobit narrative. It first saw the light in 1764, five years after the composer's death. While the libretto comes from another hand, the music is the master's own. Naxos has an affordable 2 CD recording.

Not at all imaginative is a prosaic essay I wrote on Tobit a few years back. Those of us raised on the "de-deuterated" 66-book canon often find ourselves at a loss when some wiseacre tosses in a reference to Sirach or Judith, so this was one way of bringing myself up to speed. Whatever else Tobit is or isn't, it's quite a yarn: a sort of (and yes, I'm stretching things a bit here) Tintin novella from the ancient world (and believe it or not - for anyone familiar with the Tintin series - an ancient precursor of 'Snowy' turns up in 6:2 and 11:4. How many other friendly dogs can you think of in the Good Book?)

Worth exploring in a modern translation. The best I could find online is from the New American Bible, Revised Edition.

(For more on Tobit's dog, follow this link.)

Off topic: a fascinating interview on Parkinson's

Broadcast on RNZ National this morning and available to listen and download.


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Ninety-eight and still outpedalling the pack

Murray Rae was one of the fine people whose classes I took during my time working on a theology degree at Otago. Otago's most famous son, theologically speaking, is Sir Lloyd Geering. During my studies, however, his name was verboten, which seemed a tad strange. Idiot savants from Dallas Seminary might be counted among course readings, and you had to chuckle when we were served a prophylactic chapter from Bart Ehrman's New Testament text (the least controversial that could possibly be found), but Geering? The invisible scholar. You definitely got the impression that the 'management' didn't approve.

So it is with some delight I discovered this recent exchange in the Otago Daily Times. Round 1: Journalist Ian Harris ponders the God question.
Many things that are real in human experience can never be subjected to mathematical formulae, laboratory testing or microscopic analysis - whether you love your husband or wife, for example, your response to a movie or concerto, a war or a disaster. 
Those responses flow from your thought-world and the values you live by, not science.
Would anyone argue they're not real? 
That is the order of reality to which God-talk belongs. 
As English novelist Iris Murdoch neatly sums up: "God does not and cannot exist'' (that is, as a separate, objective being). 
"But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. What we need is a theology that can continue without God'' (again, as a separate, objective being). 
In other words, God happens in our heads (or not, as the case may be).
Provocative stuff, I guess. What will the people in pews make of it? But fear not; in due course cometh Round 2. Murray rides to the rescue.
He says that "ideas of God'' are generated by human thought.
I take him to mean, and I may be mistaken, that God has no reality apart from these ideas.
If that is what Mr Harris means, then he fails, after all, to uphold the principle with which he began, the principle of God's ontological otherness.
Mr Harris' "God'' belongs to the same order of being as worldly reality, in this case the reality of human thought.
Here he parts company with the Christian tradition.
So there! I hope that's all sorted now. You can tell Murray is a theology professor by his deft use of the expression "ontological otherness." Try dropping it into the conversion next time the nice folk from The Watchtower come knocking.

Lest you think this was a knockout, Round 3 goes to Lloyd Geering.
Ian Harris serves your readers well by drawing their attention to what is happening at the leading edge of changing religious thought.
It is surprising, therefore, that he has been taken to task by Murray Rae (ODT, 19.2.16) for suggesting that all talk of God should be taken "out of the world of the human sciences and into the world of human thought''.
Even more astonishing is Prof Rae's appeal to the traditional understanding of God "as the Creator of all things'', without acknowledging that this idea is not a scientific one but one found only in the very world of human thought referred to by Mr Harris.
However much it may continue to be expounded by professors of theology in the great universities, as Prof Rae claims, the fact remains that whatever explanatory value the idea may have had in the pre-scientific past has simply vanished with the advent of the scientific discovery of the evolutionary process that now explains the universe.
Not that I'm taking sides, oh gosh, golly no. But Geering, along with Don Cupitt, are two 'radical theologians' that are well worth listening to. Geering, at age 98 - we should all be so lucky - is still able to run rings around lesser mortals. His latest book is called On Me Bike: Cycling Around New Zealand 80 Years ago, a nice counterbalance to his many books on religion.

Why do I loathe John Piper? Let me count the ways...

Calvinists!

John Piper is worried about all those Catholics and Lutherans in Minnesota. To make his exclusionary fanaticism more acceptable, he adds in a comment about Baptists too (he's a Baptist preacher), but we know what he means. Here's part of his wonderful advice on Desiring God.
I live in Minnesota and to be Minnesotan is almost to be Lutheran or Catholic. And those churches just as much as any Baptist church in the Bible Belt are shot through with people who think they are Christians when they are not.
Contrast this with an article by Anthony Le Donne on The Jesus Blog. Le Donne asks a question many of us have been wondering about; is Donald Trump a Christian?
We should not commit the sin that American xenophobes did in claiming that Obama is not really a Christian (such thinking is still prominent among Trump’s following). Rather we should acknowledge that there are Christians who do not, by their words or actions, represent Christianity.
Which is a generous and nuanced position.

My question: is John Piper a Christian?

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Gird up now thy loins


The Good Book contains the exhortation to "gird up thy loins", but what does that mean? Thankfully, The Art of Manliness hath the answer in the form of a step-by-step illustrated guide.

First, though, if you want to make like Jeremiah (1:17), Job (38:3) or other biblical worthies, you blokes will need to don a long skirt...

To view the full graphic, complete in six easy steps, click the link above.

Remember, practice maketh perfect!

Friday, 26 February 2016

Would you give your kids this book?

James Pate has been clearing out a mountain of book reviews on his blog. One caught my eye, a children's picture book with the title Yes Dear, There Really is a DevilJames gives it a kind review.
I was curious as to how a book would explain spiritual warfare to children, in a manner that they can understand... Overall, the message that they were trying to communicate was that we should make right choices, that God loves us, that the devil wants to disrupt our peace and joy, and that we can overcome the devil’s temptations by depending on God.  These are good lessons. 
I've got to admit, I took a double take. The devil? Satan, Shaitan, Ahriman, Lucifer? Seriously??

My first reaction is that anyone giving their children this as a gift would be committing a form of child abuse. It's not that kids should be wrapped up in cotton wool. There is tragedy, injustice and pain out there in the world they're growing up in. There is exploitation, poverty and bigotry. These are indeed real forces to be overcome. But a personal devil? Not only is it a trivialisation, it puts the onus back on guilt-laden individuals and redirects people of good will away from working for systemic change.

It's here where I definitely part way with the literalists. Satan, as commonly portrayed, is an import into Judaism from Persian religion, from where 'he' was subsequently mainlined into Christianity (those magi - the wise men in Matthew's birth narrative - were probably Zoroastrian priests). John Milton did a great job of tying up the loose ends and slotting the Ultimate Bad Boy into Protestant meta-narrative with his brilliant Paradise Lost. Holy Heilsgeschichte! It's great literature and fantastic poetry, but theologically it's a pastiche. A thousand imitators have followed, not least Ellen White in The Great Controversy. Reality check: if God is indeed omnipotent, there is no Che Guevara-style fallen archangel tempting ten-year-olds to raid the cookie jar.

Satan is a rebel, a revolutionary with ideas above his station. That's a useful portrayal for those who, down the centuries, have been defenders of the status quo. God is on the side of Kaiser, the Tsar, the Emperor, the King. Just look what happens when people start questioning the proper way of things!

No dear, there really is no Devil. But sit down and let's talk about what we can do to make our world a better place.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Political Prophets

Those of us who have come out of a fundamentalist background tend to associate Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah with prediction. In certain circles, those predictions are not only inerrant but aimed at our own times which are declared to be the End Times. Prophecy, we were told, comes alive in today's world news.

To illustrate this bit of myopia, here's a quote illustrating 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,...
I'd don't know where the author pulled his stats from - though an anatomical explanation may be apt. This particular 'expert' then goes on to shoot himself in the foot by adding;
... in this latter half of the twentieth century!
A quick check of copyright date: 1967.

In more enlightened circles this is all old hat. Of course the prophets weren't talking about today, they were forth-telling, not foretelling, and so on.

The trouble is, those circles of enlightenment are set on a very narrow beam, and they've yet to pierce the darkness down the road at the neighborhood church. The almost complete lack of "trickle down" to the pews is a major failing of modern biblical studies.

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! You don't have to read very far into the prophets without this reality leaping out at you. You're not always reading sublime spiritual insights; sometimes it's more Martin Luther King, other times it's just a Donald Trump speech.

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.
Not so evident to the good folk who watch Tomorrow's World on TV, or trawl through the shelves on 'prophecy' at their local Christian bookstore.
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.
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 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 with a word from the Lord.

There is apocalyptic writing as well, which does present itself as peering through the mists of time (usually with the advantage of hindsight!) but this is largely a niche genre restricted, in the Old Testament, to the book of Daniel.

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 pedlars with their arcane calculations and lurid fantasies about what will happen sometime very soon (and would you please send in your generous tithes and love offerings so they can raise the alarm!)

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.
Buzz.
A staggering turn in world events is due to erupt in the next four to seven years.
Buzz.
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!

Sources:

Armstrong, Herbert W. 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.]

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


(Adapted from a 2011 post)

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Some further thoughts on the art of apologetics

Stephen Bedard graciously responded to my previous post by making a number of very fair points. Here are a few quotes worth repeating (you'll find the full post here).
My statement about sheep is not a judgment about the intelligence of people in my congregation. We have doctors and lawyers in our congregation who are far smarter than I am. What I was saying is that the chosen image for ministers is that of pastor, which means a shepherd. The connection is that pastors have a group to care for just as shepherds do.
Why would people in our congregations need the pastor’s help if they are already well-read and educated? The fact is people specialize in certain fields. I am well educated but when I pastored a small country church and the people discussed farming, I was lost because that is not where my knowledge is. Education in one area does not mean the person is knowledgable in another.
My goal is for people in the congregation to read on these subjects for themselves, find where the resources are and be able to interpret statements in their proper context.
So how could you disagree with that?

'Pastor' is an interesting word, simply meaning shepherd. This morning I took my morning constitutional at the local reserve which happens to border on the sale yards. As I walked the shaded area beside the trees, the sheep on the other side became jittery. Sheep are not bold creatures. The gruff voice of a farmer, the yap of a dog, and they do what they're required to, quickly moving into another fenced area. Within hours they'll be at the abattoir. Shepherds were never intended to guard the long-term interests of their flocks. They're there to make sure that things are okay until the killing knife comes out.

You can only press the "good shepherd" metaphor so far.

The reality is, of course, that the people who sit in the pews are not sheep. A compliant "go ask the pastor" congregation is no credit to the minister. Stephen wants to play the "expert card". He's a specialist. How good a specialist can you be when you misrepresent someone like Bart Ehrman? Let's take an example. A parishioner approaches their pastor, disturbed by a popular article that quotes Ehrman. What to do? Demonize Ehrman, or suggest they actually read one of his books for themselves, find out what he's saying and see what they think, then invite them to come back and discuss it?

This whole "expert card" is a bit of a con, in my opinion. Most apologists (and I exclude Stephen simply because I don't know whether he does this himself) feel free to judge on a wide range of scientific and ethical issues which impinge on their paradigm. Astrophysics, paleontology. anthropology, genetics, intertextuality... the list goes on and on. Are the apologists experts in these fields? Do they, at least, give credence to the academic consensus?

As far as I can see, only when it suits them. They're all too often dilettantes with poorly formed views, which is why they get little respect from real experts.

What about expertise in genuinely related fields like biblical criticism? Same thing. When scholarship comes up, it's all too often a game of "pick a scholar": N. T. Wright? Yes. Tillich? No. Craig Evans? Yes. Bart Ehrman? No. The impressively full shelves in the pastor's study (and they should be impressively full!) are more often than not lined with imprints like IVP, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. Like attracts like.

Nurturing Christian belief in the twenty-first century is a struggle. It's not a struggle because of any imagined secularist agenda or the wiles of Old Nick. It's a struggle because, in part, the pastors haven't been honest with their flocks, settling for playing apologetic games rather than honestly confronting the issues.

Have you ever met an open-minded apologist?

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Curious Case of the Commonwealth Covenant Church

Today British Israelism in New Zealand is overwhelmingly associated with a few outlier sects largely made up of former Worldwide Church of God members, but that wasn't always the case. Lying out on a parallel trajectory is the curious story of the Commonwealth Covenant Church.

(Full article at Ambassador Watch)

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Mere Apologetics

(With the recent exchange on apologetics, here's a post on that topic that appeared in 2011. I'll be commenting specifically on some of the recent points Stephen Bedard has raised in a day or two.)

Apologetics is another name for self-delusion. What can be sadder than to see an otherwise intelligent adult 'cooking the books' to suit their comfort zone? But what do we make of Alister McGrath's 2011 book, Mere Apologetics?

McGrath is no intellectual slouch. He has an impressive CV and a string of well-regarded publications to his name. And yet, here he comes, skipping down the apologetics aisle with a book title punning on C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity).

C. S. Lewis may have been a tad strange, but he was, at least by all reports, a decent and compassionate kind of bloke. This is not true of too many other apologists, whether ancient or modern. The publicity blurb mentions other "great and articulate defenders of the faith" throughout history, from Augustine and Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Schaeffer... Talk about a rogue's gallery! Who in their right mind would count someone like Schaeffer among the 'great'? Certainly not his son who has lucidly portrayed his father's feet of clay, mired as they were in a near-fundamentalist form of bog-Calvinism, despite pretensions to the contrary. Augustine? Anyone who has read James O'Donnell's biography of the bishop of Hippo will likewise realise what a thoroughly toxic dead end his legacy has been down the centuries - craven hagiographies notwithstanding.

Nor is the publicity made any more convincing when it carries an endorsement by Paul Copan, whose weak (and arguably misleading) attempts to rescue Yahweh from charges of genocide have been so thoroughly savaged by Thom Stark.

But back to the blurb:
Mere Apologetics "seeks to equip readers to engage gracefully and intelligently with the challenges facing the faith today while drawing appropriately [selectively?] on the wisdom of the past. Rather than supplying the fine detail of every apologetic issue in order to win arguments, Mere Apologetics teaches a method that appeals not only to the mind but also to the heart and the imagination. This highly accessible, easy-to-read book is perfect for [those who want easy reassurance?] pastors, teachers, students, and laypeople who want to speak clearly and lovingly [with no intellectual rigour?] to the issues that confront people of faith today."
So these are the folk in the target market. Speak unto us smooth things Alister, prophesy porkies...

And yet, this may all be highly uncharitable. McGrath does have a reputation for honest, credible writing, despite an on-the-sleeve evangelical slant. Whatever the identified demographic above seems to be, the subtitle boldly proclaims "How to Help Seekers and Skeptics find Faith."

Skeptics? Really? Well if McGrath can pull that rabbit from his hat, we should all be impressed. That'll be the acid test, determining whether this is just another crooning lullaby to keep the peasants dosed and dozing ("there, there, never you mind your silly little head about those nasty questions") or something more. Perhaps McGrath really can lead the backsliders back to Zion with shouts of hosanna, though I probably shouldn't get my hopes up.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Apologetics and Predators

This post responds to one by Stephen Bedard called Why Apologetics is Essential to Being a Pastor. To be fair, you should read it first before going to the comments below. (Update: Bedard has since posted a response to this post, which you can find here.)

***

And now for my sermon...
Mr Bedard is a Baptist pastor. It seems he's also a proud apologist. His reasoning is that he's protecting the sheep from predators. He equates predators with people like Bart Ehrman. Wicked, wicked Bart!

There's a problem with this line of reasoning. The people who sit in churches are not actually sheep, they're people, just like their pastor. They're not illiterate, as were most folk in centuries past; they read, they think, they question.

Apologetics is the art of stopping people from doing this by conning them with often specious arguments or, if that doesn't work, scaring them with the threat of heavenly judgement. An apologist is seldom open to new thinking; he (not so often she) has it all worked out in advance, and the evidence is carefully massaged to fit. The wagons have already been drawn up. An apologist is an intellectual police officer armed with easy answers, delusions of competence and misinformation.

There are a lot of assumptions that go with the role. The people in the pews are dummies. They need to be treated as spiritual juveniles. The pastor is a heroic figure, a compassionate patriarch. Apologetics goes hand in hand with spiritual authoritarianism. Apologists are rarely good listeners; they're too eager to burst out confidently with their pre-packaged responses.

Mr Bedard says he wants to protect the 'sheep' from the wolves and coyotes. I get the impression he wants to protect them from asking questions he isn't competent to deal with. It's an arrogance that's hard to understand in a world where we increasingly encourage our kids to develop and exercise critical thinking and learn more about their world than we were able to. "Trust me, I've been to Bible College" just doesn't cut the mustard.

A good pastor is not a control freak. Nor is it their job to patronise the members of their congregations. No, apologetics is not essential to being a pastor. Maybe that was the way it was in pre-Enlightenment times when a tonsured priest was often the only educated person in the village, but I doubt that's true in St Catharines, Ontario in 2016. If this is Mr Bedard's position, it seems unlikely he's doing his congregation any favours.

So, who is the real predator here?

Ambassador Watch returns

As of today, all posts relating to Grace Communion International and its many spin-off sects and ministries will appear exclusively on the de-mothballed Ambassador Watch blog. Otagosh will continue to provide more general commentary as a non-academic biblioblog.

Why make the change? Writing on one blog with two quite different groups of readers in mind has blurred the focus on many occasions, so separating out Dr Jekyll from Mr Hyde makes good sense (which blog is which I'll let you decide). From my perspective it means, once AW has been given a modest makeover, no added time commitment; the only difference will be where blog items are posted.

The state of post-WCG commentary has changed hugely since 2010. Ambassador Watch will obviously have a more modest profile than previously. Even so, I hope it'll play a useful role alongside resources such as Gary Leonard's Banned by HWA blog and Dixon Cartwright's The Journal.

There's still a bit of work to be done to bring AW up to speed. Dead links in the sidebar have already been culled, but there's a lot to now add in. To use a gardening analogy, the weeding is mostly done, but the planting will take a while longer. Regardless of which blog you visit, there'll be links in the sidebar so you can hop the fence at any time.

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Prophet of Arroyo Grande responds

Bob Thiel is a regular visitor here on Otagosh. After reading Burn, Baby! Burn!  a few days ago, Bob seems to have decided that I'm pushing an unfounded rumour that the United Church of God is abandoning BI. Bob immediately leapt into action, calling UCG's Aaron Dean who denied any such intent. But then he would, wouldn't he.

My first question is what the heck Aaron Dean is doing taking inquisitorial calls from Prophet Bob of all people.

My second question is how Bob managed to put Otagosh in the center of his little storm in a teacup. There has been discussion on this matter in various places on the web, but the discussion first arose here only a few days ago with these observations from a regular commenter (on UCG Slides).
I tried the newly designed UCG website. It's a difficult labyrinth to get to the "Booklets", and when you do, the US & Britain one is at the bottom!! a crisis dilemma for them!! Look for it to disappear altogether this year.
Not my words, you'll note. Shortly after this comment was submitted.
Congratulations to those who have been hammering against British Israelism recently. It's really paying off now as the morons in charge of UCG are just about to give up on it. When they do, we can ridicule them for dropping a major plank of Armstrongism. Either way they lose big time. 
Again, not my words. In fact, I felt this was an uncharitable approach, and this was the thrust of the second piece, Burn, Baby! Burn! If anything, it was intended to strike a conciliatory tone. My own thoughts on the matter were reasonably clear.
Will the United Church of God walk away from BI? The best that can be expected is probably a continuing de-emphasis. And hey, that's progress, even though there's an awful lot more change needed yet.
Which is hardly cause for Bob to have a hernia over in his own little mini-me cult corner. But I guess this matter will settle itself as we see how much Beyond Today pushes BI over the course of this year.

Bob, being Bob, then launches on one of his lengthy screeds to prove just how much sweetness and light there is in BI. Racist? Oh my goodness, gracious no. Then he tackles the second issue I raised about anti-intellectualism - with a lengthy quote from Herbert W. Armstrong among other things, a strategy which seems a little self-defeating. Finally, he opines on accountability by reassuring us that God's "government leaders are accountable to Him."

My question is, exactly how is Bob accountable to God? How does that work? Do they have regular conference calls?

To be fair, I did mention Bob as one of "the one-man-band warlords" of COGdom, which may have been a tad indelicate, so perhaps an eruption was to be expected. The word count on Bob's response breaks 6,120. The Otagosh piece he's responding to was under 450. Maybe he pays himself by the word.

I'd give you a link to Bob's opus, but as he never links here I guess I'll return the compliment.

Which only leaves one further question. Who on earth is this "Gaving" character?

Strange Scriptures

When helping plan my father's funeral service, I very much wanted to incorporate a reading from Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy. While never officially a Christian Scientist, Dad had been a devotee of Mrs Eddy's teachings since his youth. Though not a particularly literate man, a much thumbed and marked-up copy of Science & Health was his constant companion, and he would copy out whole sections painstakingly in longhand. My sister and I placed it with him in his casket. It seemed appropriate.

Unlike my father, I have always loathed Science & Health. Finding something appropriate to read on this occasion was more difficult than I had imagined, and it turned out to be a very short reading indeed. The truth is that I had to cherry pick, and there weren't exactly an abundance of palatable cherries to choose from.

Science & Health is a modern (19th century) scripture of sorts. A strange scripture for anyone outside the mindset. I still possess a paperback copy, but while I can't bring myself to bin it out of respect for my father, I refuse to dignify it with a place on a bookshelf. It lies gathering much-deserved dust at the back of a wardrobe.

I was reminded of Science & Health recently as I thumbed through Willis Barnstone's The Other Bible, a collection of "ancient alternative scriptures"; Jewish and Christian Apocrypha, Gnostic texts and Kabbala. Gathered here are writings from Mrs Eddy's spiritual forebears; Valentinians, Manichaeans, Mandaeans and more. To a twenty-first century reader (except perhaps for the few remaining Mandaeans) they seem very strange indeed. If I had to pick one that intrigued me it would probably be the Gnostic The Thunder, Perfect Mind with its paradoxes.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
   and many are her sons.
Many of the other texts tend to repel casual readers, even the earnest, organic vegan sort who frequent New Age bookstores. If I had to write an article or essay on, say, the Ascension of Isaiah, I'd need to steel myself for the task. Be reassured: I won't be blogging on the Ascension anytime soon! There's so much here that simply has no resonance with someone millenia removed from the writers. Strange scriptures.

The bottom line for me, at least, is unless there's genuine literary merit - or an academic incentive - reading strange scriptures is an unengaging task. Science & Health, The Book of Mormon, the Shepherd of Hermas and the wonderfully named treatises of Hermes Trismegistus. Thanks, but I think I'll pass.

But the Bible is different, surely. Or is it. Tim Bulkeley makes some interesting comments in a recent blog post.
... I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World. 
Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced). 
Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture. 
That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!
Past generations were familiar with the Bible in its classic translations such as the KJV and the Luther Bible. Long before then, and before any kneejerk doctrine of inerrancy surfaced, its stories were familiar in music, performance, icon and art; embedded in Western culture.

But we're no longer living in those times. Christendom is a thing of the past. The Bible is now an increasingly strange scripture too, hardly helped by the misguided race to turn a complex mix of genres into easy-to-understand literary mush, an initiative that simply exposes the absurdity of homogenising ancient texts into a map for contemporary life. No wonder "devotional reading" is plummeting.

Alas, it seems unlikely that this particular genie will ever return to its bottle. Tim suggests that part of the problem might lie with a rising generation that now demands visual stimulation alongside text. It's an interesting thought but it doesn't seem to account for the popularity of those thick unillustrated Harry Potter volumes that sold in truckloads long before the movies appeared. Or Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Paul Jennings, or Eion Colfer (all of which are among this ex- teacher's tried and tested favourites) and many others.

Tim concludes:
This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!
Well, I guess this is my rather long-winded response.