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.
A staggering turn in world events is due to erupt in the next four to seven years.
By God's direction and authority, I have laid the TRUTH before you! To neglect it will be tragic beyond imagination!
Buzz, buzz, BUZZ...

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


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.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

A Christ for Klingons?

What means this Nicene Creed, P'tahk?
There's a new Star Trek series in the pipeline. Will it be set in the original timeline or the new one where the Vulcans have been all but eliminated? Time - and timelines - will tell.

But for those who ponder the significance of such things, there's another question, one that has surely bothered a lot of Trekkies.  How many sleepless nights have you spent worrying whether Jesus died to save all sentient species or just the human population of planet Terra?

What about Klingons, Romulans and Vulcans (of either timeline)?  Is Mr. Spock able to enter the pearly gates? What about Dr Phlox? Has God incarnated himself separately in gigs on all possible worlds - a kind of universal road show? Would Franklin Graham hold rallies on Romulus?

Okay, so Spock and co. are fictional creations, but the multiverse is - it seems - a pretty big place, and ETs are likely to be out there somewhere, right? Would alien religions all be false?

The Roman Catholic church has already determined that aliens can be baptized, though as far as we know the UFOs haven't been arranging package tours to Rome to take up the offer. It seems tough luck if you're tucked away in another corner of the universe without the benefit of either the Jesuits or Creflo Dollar to point the way.

It's apparently a serious question, even for the US government. So much so they brought in a heavyweight theologian tackle the big question.  Professor Christian Weidemann has been on the case; may the Force be with him. Whether he's clarified matters or just muddied the waters is a moot point.

It sure makes a nice change from the usual esoteric stuff German theologians concern themselves with.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The name game

Global Church of God service - that's not Rod Meredith with the mic!

What's in a name? The story goes that when Rod Meredith wanted to incorporate his second splinter church (after scuttling the Global Church of God) he favored naming it the Church of the Living God, based 1 Tim. 3:15. Sadly for Rod, that name had already been taken, hence the current title, Living Church of God.

But even then, the name isn't exactly unique. The United Church of God must find it even more problematic with many unrelated UCG congregations, largely of Pentecostal and African American heritage. Tagging "an International Association" on to the end probably doesn't help much. In Jamaica there's a Faith United Church of God International (presumably unrelated to Ian Boyne's CGI).

If you wanted to find what remained of Meredith's original Global COG, you'd be out of luck, but good news, there's a Global Church of God in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Nothing new, as they say, under the sun.

An unseasonable Xmas story - with an LCG twist

A really nice story about a Canadian LCG member, before he became an LCG - Living Church of God - member (you'll need to read all the way to the bottom to find the connection).

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Burn, baby! Burn!

This blog is often, and very fairly, labelled 'critical' in its dealings with the family of sects that have evolved from the Worldwide Church of God. A lot of the people who comment here have, like this writer, "done time" in that movement.

So why do we bother? What's our point? What would we like to see happen?

The answers vary from person to person. I was brought up short by these comments submitted for a recent thread.
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. 
How would you characterise those comments? My reaction: speak for yourself brother.

For me, there are three major pillars of Armstrongism that are fair game. More than fair game, they need to be continually exposed to fresh air and light for all to see. These are:

  • Racism (e.g. British-Israelism)
  • Anti-intellectualism, a kneejerk reaction to social and scientific progress (e.g. creationism)
  • Authoritarianism, exclusivism and non-accountability (e.g. church government)

I don't know what the contributor quoted above wants to see, but I get the feeling that he won't settle for anything less than a complete crash and burn so he can toast marshmallows in the embers. Collateral damage doesn't seem to be a concern, but past experience tells us that lots of people are hurt when a high demand sect collapses. Divorce, anxiety, suicide, estrangement and not least, leaping into the arms of something far worse. I'd opt for managed, sustainable change any day.

I'm one of those people who "have been hammering against British Israelism," and not just recently. 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. But UCG is one of the few groups that has demonstrated any capacity for negotiated change, unlike the one-man-band warlords (Flurry, Pack, Thiel etc) who have placed themselves beyond the pale.

Critics do help bring about change, almost always by first influencing individuals. But organisations are made up of individuals. The civil rights movement would have failed if it's message had merely been "burn, baby! burn!" What I really find remarkable is that this modest change - if it is change - can be greeted with gloating ridicule; playground taunting. Not for one minute do I think that UCG isn't struggling with this issue. That's a welcome development. For that, they deserve credit at least.

Spong on John

I've been reading John Shelby Spong's recent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. The now retired Episcopal bishop has long been a thorn in the side of conservative believers, and this attempt at reframing the fourth gospel will do little to change that perception.

Spong has a talent for using scholarship in the service of pastoral goals. Here he sets out to rescue John from it's anti-Judaic reputation, and it's near-docetic Christology. The solution proposed is that John was a highly creative Jewish mystic. Many leading characters in the Gospel (Nathaniel, Nicodemus and others) are fictive and symbolic. We make a huge mistake Spong contends when we approach John with assumptions that it contains literal, historical information.

While the author is no mythicist, his mysticism occasionally laps on those shores. The gospel writers built their narratives around stories from the Hebrew Bible. One minor example; the swaddling clothes reference in Jesus' birth story in Luke (2:7) is sourced from the deuterocanonical book Wisdom of Solomon (7:4-5). Swaddling cloth made out of whole cloth if you like.

The dependence of the gospel writers on the earlier scriptures and their re-crafting of those earlier narratives seems to be well established, and it's great to see that 'out there' for a general readership. When it comes to imbuing those same stories with multiple layers of skillfully crafted meaning, Spong is less convincing. If this was the case then John floated above the literary comprehension of his own day, encoding insights that were to remain opaque for centuries to come.

The Fourth Gospel promotes a form of progressive Christian apologetics, replete with buzzwords (wholeness, universal consciousness, radical humanity). It's well intended and better thought through than most apologetics at the conservative end of the spectrum, but it still boils down to wishful thinking. We are presented with a Jesus (channeled through Spong's John) in the image of his more enlightened, educated twenty-first-century admirers; the Jesus they would like him to have been. Alas, I doubt he was anything like that.

Still, this is a book that contains some interesting insights. Ultimately though it isn't really about John's gospel. It's about an updated version of the Christian faith that makes sense for believers who have moved beyond fundamentalist and so-called evangelical belief.
Faith does not, cannot and will not give us peace of mind, security and certainty. Faith gives us only the courage to put one foot in front of the other and to walk into tomorrow with integrity even though we know that in this world there is no peace of mind, no security and no safety.
No argument from me.

Monday, 15 February 2016


Word of the week; magpiety, a mix-up of magpie and piety dating back to the mid 19th century and coined by poet and humorist Thomas Hood. According to the nice people at Oxford Dictionaries, it means talkativeness and garrulity (an interesting word in itself) on moral and religious topics.

If like me, you haven't heard or read it before, that's not unexpected. While the online Oxford lists it, it's absent in the Merriam-Webster, the Macquarie Australian, Collins, the usually comprehensive Chambers and even the large one-volume Oxford.

But regardless, it's a great term, and I can think of a whole lot of possible applications - as I expect you can too.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Anglican misogyny

Fundamentalist churches are often rightly called into account over the way they devalue the role of women. But what about mainline churches like the dear old C of E? This story comes out of the Sydney, Australia Anglican diocese, widely regarded as a bastion of the denomination's evangelical wing.
"Students and teachers from some of Sydney's Anglican high schools say they are shocked and angered by remarks made by one of the church's most senior clerics. 
"Before delivering a speech to year 12 prefects during the Annual Service for Anglican School Leaders on Thursday, Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies faced a series of robust questions from male and female students about the place of women. 
"In explaining his view that the Bible says men and women have different roles in society and that God intended men to be the "heads" of women, many present believed he was saying women should not aspire to the same career heights as men."
Mr Davies apparently hasn't gotten the memo about living in the twenty-first century.
"A prefect at one of Sydney's most prestigious girls' schools, who declined to be identified because the students had been advised by their school not to speak to the media, said she and her friends were "angry" and "confused" that the Church was telling them the opposite message about gender equality to that told to them by their parents, educators and society in general. 
"Another said: "We're trying as much as we can, and to be told that in the end we're not going to get there because of our gender? … It was disrespectful to us, as girls." 
"When asked what Archbishop Davies said on gender equality, the students told The Drum that he told them the genders were equal, but the roles they inhabited were not.
"'We were told that men will make the decisions because men are regarded as having higher status and more power,'" one said. 
"As some of the students returned to their schools voicing their confusion, principals spoke privately to The Drum about the need to "hose" down girls who were told to submit to men by church elders."
The young people are right. Davies seems to be on a one clergyperson crusade to make Christianity irrelevant in Australia.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

UCG slides

It's nice to see the Silenced website ( active once again. Recently a couple of notable pieces on the decline of the United Church of God (UCG) have appeared, once the largest of the schismatic groups from the Worldwide Church of God.

Marking UCG's Decline (Feb.1)
COGWA on the Rise (Feb. 3)

I'm not sure what's up with the URL. Frustratingly, it sometimes loads happily, while at others it doesn't. Weird. Best advice; persevere. Unfortunately, the unusual URL is also not able to be added to the blog feed.

According to the (anonymous) Silenced writer, the UCG 2015 Feast of Tabernacles stats indicate that Roderick Meredith's Living Church of God is now numerically larger, as may be COGWA (Church of God, a Worldwide Association). The figures:
LCG: 10,400
COGWA: 9,300
UCG: 7,800 (US & Canada)
"... as UCG continues to transform and become less Armstrongized on its surface, new COGWA members may find their decades-old comfort zone restored."

"If anything, COGWA, which was once estimated to be a third of UCG's size and struggled to launch early on, is now very comparable and seemingly slightly larger than UCG is right now."

"COGWA has found a way to survive by acting as a safe harbor for existing COG members, the opposite strategy UCG has invested in as it vainly struggles to attract the great unwashed public into its ranks."

All very Darwinian; the survival of the fittest (and perhaps 'fittest' in this context simply means the stupidest).

Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters

Kudos to Gary Leonard and Ian Boyne for a letter appearing on Gary's blog today. The response so far has been positive.

Mind you, no comment from Douglas yet...

Vulture Circling: Big Dave's big move

In case you missed it, Dave Pack is now claiming to be "that prophet" of John 1:21-25 (KJV). That's contrary to what he's said in the past. Why the sudden about face?

If you're wondering who Dave is, stop reading now, it's complicated and you might want to spare yourself a headache. It also involves a detour into the convoluted world of Armstrong splinter sects.

What, you're still here? Don't say I didn't warn you.

David C. Pack is the imperious leader of the Restored Church of God based in Wadsworth, Ohio. Before we deal with Dave, though, we have to mention Gerry. That's Gerry Flurry, alias "that prophet". Gerry has been the self-appointed title-holder for a lot of years in his role as undisputed leader of the Philadelphia Church of God. He's even written an eight chapter booklet about it.

Gerry "That Prophet" Flurry
But Gerry is getting long in the tooth. He's seen better days. He may even beat Rod Meredith into a padded casket. With him dies "that prophet" as far as the PCG is concerned. Inconvenient!

Everything clear so far? Even if you've never heard of these dudes before, believe me, they're legends in their own teatimes.

Now Gerry does have an heir, his boy Stephen. It's something of a family business in the same sense as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. But Stevie can't possibly be "that prophet", it's a one-off appointment and Dad has already snatched that honour.

So what happens when Gerry goes the way of all flesh? There's a problem. Stephen will inherit the overall leadership mantle from Dad, minus the prophet title, but even then there's a question as to whether he's got the chutzpah to fill the role. I'm no prognosticator, but if I was forced to take a punt, my guess would be that Stevie wouldn't last a tribulated three and a half years in the big chair.

Dave "That Prophet" Pack
Could this be the backdrop to Dave Pack's sudden claim to be "that prophet" (as well as 'Elijah', but who's counting?). Both men appeal to a similar demographic in the ghetto-world of Armstrongism. If PCG hits the rocks, the scavengers will come from near and far.

For PCG members who are convinced that someone claiming to be "that prophet" is a necessary precursor to the End, Dave will now be the first cab off the rank. Fiendishly clever.

If this is Dave's intention, there are at least two big problems with this strategy. The first and most obvious is that Dave, who isn't a young man, will inevitably have to meet his maker too, which just defers the "that prophet" problem a few short years into the future at most.

The second is that all the blather around "that prophet" is the result of a King James mistranslation. The text actually just says "the prophet". In the narrative context (context, what a revolutionary thought!) John the Baptist is conceding that reference to Jesus.

Regardless, PCG members might like to keep their eyes on the skies; vultures are expected.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Man who (literally) Pulled a Religion out of a Hat

Previously I've noted a number of parallels between the Church of God and the Latter Day Saint traditions. One post on that subject, Cross Pollination: The Community of Christ and Grace Communion International, continues to turn up via search engine hits quite regularly, even though it dates back to 2011.

Mormonism isn't much of a concern on this blog. The various Latter Day Saint groups exist in something of a hermetically-sealed chamber among Christian groups - as do the Armstrong sects. In many ways it's an exemplary community which cultivates an aura of family values and wholesomeness. Mormons shouldn't have to deal with bigotry from outsiders, often based on misinformation. 

But legitimate criticism from "within the camp" is another thing. It was fascinating to come across just such a critical examination of LDS claims by member Jeremy Runnels (though that might not be for much longer, he's being hauled before the elders next month). Sadly, it's no surprise when church organizations react with denial and punitive sanctions, as many of us already know from bitter experience.

People in all traditions have to face up to unpleasant facts when it comes to the sanctifying mythology their leaders promote. Lutheran pastors for a long time told heroic stories about the Reformer, but ignored both his complicity in antisemitism and belligerent stance during the so-called peasant's revolt. Many still do. Moving into more familiar territory, Herbert Armstrong's autobiography has been described as a heavily creative retelling of events, a nice way of implying that he told an awful lot of self-serving porkies. 

Herb was apparently a thorough amateur compared to Joseph Smith.

If you feel like peering over the back fence (as opposed to into your hat) at the issues your Mormon neighbours are confronting - or should be confronting - have a look at The document itself is a substantial PDF, but has excellent graphics and is written in a very approachable style. It is available here

If the title of this post seems a bit cryptic (the artwork gives a clue) you'll soon see why I chose it.

If you even read half of the CES letter, you may know more about the LDS back-story than most Mormons.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Fear Factor

"Scientists have found a long-awaited explanation as to why humans have for centuries maintained orderly societies: the fear of an angry god."
That's the intro to an article appearing prominently in today's New Zealand Herald. It's based on a just-released study published in Nature.
"They found that people who believe their god is more punitive and knowledgeable behave more honestly and generously towards others who share their religion."
That hardly seems surprising. Religious identity, as those of us who've been part of a high demand movement know all too well, can be akin to tribal identity.
"[T]he study found that overall, participants who rated their gods highly as all-knowing and concerned with moral behaviour allocated more money to people who believed in the same god."
"These gods acted as a kind of social engineering, [Dr  Quentin Atkinson of Auckland University] said, so that people who believed in a morally-concerned god were more likely to follow the rules of the game and give money to their fellow believers over themselves and their village."
So there's the engine that drives tithing.

You can read the whole story here. On The Economist website there's also a review of God Is Watching You, a book written by Dominic Johnson of Oxford University, who is also quoted in the article.

While this is said to be about the power of religion to engender cooperation, it could equally be used to demonstrate the effect of religious fear in reinforcing fictive kinship, exclusionary practices, cultural and doctrinal rigidity and the non-acceptance of outsiders (heretics, heathen, infidels). Perhaps it's no coincidence that the rise of a global community (enabled in part by the Internet) parallels the decline in Western religious identity.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

What are you giving up for Lent?

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday.

Today is Ash Wednesday.

All very quaint. For traditional Christians (including Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists) today is the first day of Lent.

Lent means forty days of abstinence from an indulgence of your choice.

I have suggestions. Here are some of the things I'm prepared to sacrifice.

(1) Green smoothies
(2) Bungy jumping
(3) Scroggin
(4) Conservative NewsTalk radio
(5) Frank Sinatra recordings
(6) TV evangelists
(7) Quorn

As you can see, I chose a suitably biblical number. Technically I think you only have to select one thing but, in the spirit of sanctifying supererogation (a much-underused term on theological blogs), I think I may tackle the full set.

In fact, in keeping with the supererogation theme, I might keep up the giving up even beyond the end of Lent.

Feel free to join me.

The Norelli Test

Nick Norelli, a Pentecostal associate pastor in New Jersey who also describes himself as a layman, has an opinion on the question as to whether Christians and Muslims are talking about the same god in their separate discourses.

Norelli thinks it's an easy answer.

Do Muslims worship the Trinity? (No)
Do Muslims acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God? (No)
Does that entail a denial of the Father? (Yes)

And there you have it. Case closed.

"So I repeat, Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. It’s really not a difficult question to answer."

Incisive, huh?

But what if we change the first two questions ever so slightly.

Do Jews worship the Trinity (No)
Do Jews acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God (No)

From there you have to follow the logic with question three.

I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to give an 'amen' to that. Quite the contrary.

Maybe not such a simple question after all.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Bible with Typos

Every now and again I get careless and something comes out all wrong on the blog. Misspelling Brant Pitre's name in the previous post, for example (now fixed). It's nice to know I'm not the only person to goof up. Even Bible publishers can get it very wrong. Some early examples.

The Bug Bible.  Coverdale's 1535 translation.  Psalm 91:5 reads:  "Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night."  A handy promise that, if true, would mean no more need for insect repellent.

The Fool Bible.  An edition from the reign of King Charles I where Psalm 14:1 reads:  "The fool hath said in his heart there is a God."  Perhaps it could be rechristened 'the Richard Dawkins version'?

The Lions Bible.  Dating from 1804.  1 Kings 8:19 reads:  "But thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions."  Presumably, it wasn't a roaring success.

The Printers' Bible.  From around 1702.  Psalm 119:161 reads: "printers have persecuted me without a cause."  Many an author might cry 'amen' to that.

The Sin On Bible.  An Irish edition (1716) in which John 5:14 reads: "sin on more."  Begorrah!

The Wicked Bible. The best known of the bunch, printed in 1631. Exodus 20:14 reads "Thou shalt commit adultery."

The To Remain Bible.  A proofreader at Cambridge wondered about the placement of a comma in Galatians 4:29.  A helpful editor pencilled in "to remain" in response.  Nobody explained this to the printer.  The verse reads: "persecuted him that was born after the spirit to remain, even so it is now."

Source:  "Bibles: some specially named editions" in the 18th edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

Monday, 8 February 2016

Dogmatic Apologetics

It is an abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual to write dogmatic apologetics for lay readers.
Neil Godfrey

Neil Godfrey at Vridar has the first plain-talking review of a recent apologetic text by Catholic scholar Brant Pitre. This thing has been tossed around on various blogs with patsy reviews. Or perhaps Pollyanna reviews describes them best. You don't have to agree with everything that Neil writes to recognise that he, at last, has cut through this particular Gordian Knot.
The experience reminded me of delving into books published by my old religious cult many years ago, proving decisively and with impeccable logic and thorough research that the Bible really was the word of God, genuine scholarship proved that fact, and all modern scholarship that cast doubts on this was under the sway of the stubborn minds who refused to read the evidence seriously and foolishly relegated the Gospels to folklore and fairy tales. Form criticism was likened to the folly of that favourite juvenile Telephone Game that only works because the players don’t take the message they are asked to relay seriously and make up any old thing as they pass it along.
The quote at the top of this post comes at the end of the review. It deserves repeating. Indeed, it should probably be carved in granite and placed in reception areas at every theological department at every university that has one. 

I'd even chip in for one at Otago!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Where the Arrow Points (Part 2)

Ron Dart. I haven't heard his voice in well over twenty years. If I dug through the archives I might still find an old audio tape from his Church of God International (CGI) days. Probably seized up and unplayable.

I've never recommended his CEM ministry, nor his Born To Win radio program. It's probably more than fair to pigeon-hole Ron as "fundamentalism-lite". If you haven't already realised it, I don't do fundamentalism-lite.

But, way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a significant figure for some of us, helping open up our thinking and breaking the back of a one-true-church mentality. Given the fundamentalist mindset that many of us were still in thrall to, Ron was a force for change. Yes, I know he had his faults; Lord, don't we all!

At no stage in the years since I started writing about the Church of God movement have I ever regarded COG sects as anything other than wrong-headed when it comes to a wide range of beliefs and practices. Ron Dart was no different. Yet clearly they're not all equally toxic. Some are downright dangerous while others, by comparison, are relatively benign. Ron Dart's ministry, certainly after leaving the Worldwide Church of God, was of the latter type.

Think of it as scaffolding on a construction site - an analogy often used in education circles. We were scaffolded into a new mindset; nudged into reassessing the path by which we had come. Am I grateful for that? You better believe it.

Ron didn't preach authoritarian leadership or exclusivity. He didn't preach British Israelism - at least, I never heard him do so. He didn't preach triple tithing or make grandiose personal claims. In a lot of ways he was light years ahead of Ted.

Ron did stick with many of the 'distinctives' derived from Armstrongism. I don't have a problem with that, any more than with intelligent Latter Day Saints who still treasure the Book of Mormon, my Lutheran antecedents who took the doctrine of consubstantiation seriously ('ubiquity' to the confessional sticklers) or free-thinking Catholics who nevertheless display Marian artwork and crucifixes in their homes. No skin off my nose. I don't (to quote something Ron Dart once said) have a dog in those fights.

If I do feel a passion about Church of God issues - and I think I have a reasonable track record demonstrating that - it's primarily about abusive, manipulative, unaccountable leadership. Leadership that creates dependence, that scorns mandate, that nurtures mindless "trust me" compliance.

Ron Dart was not in that mold. When he left WCG he headed down a new trajectory, and that definitely included his time in CGI. I suspect Ron was a moderating influence on Ted Armstrong as Ted settled down (fatefully as it turned out) into his comfort zone in East Texas; a Cicero to Ted's Caesar. Maybe he should have walked away from Ted sooner. Then again, I know the wrestling match you have when confronting the need to tear yourself away from any significant commitment, something he'd already experienced in leaving WCG. I'm not about to judge him over that.

Yes, my assessment of Ron Dart's theology, all these decades later, is that it was half-baked. But most theology is - some would say all. I can only say that, when I learned of Ron's passing, I was saddened. Alongside people like Ernie Martin he had an overall positive influence "within the fold" during those crucial years, even if the effect was to create a revolving door out into the big wide world. I'm in debt to him.

That's definitely not something I'd say of Tkach, Meredith, Flurry, Pack, Kilough and the other "Yertle the Turtle" leaders. Believe me, when Meredith goes to meet his maker you won't find me writing any fond eulogies.

You don't have to agree with me. It's not a mathematical formula. It's a statement about personal lived experience. If you weren't "in the wilderness" in the late 70s and early 80s your experience will be different.

This much, though, is consistently true. For too many COG leaders the arrow points to reactionary beliefs, horrendous oversimplification, fudging the evidence, a flight from reason and encouraging their followers to abdicate responsibility. Ron Dart, at his best, pointed in another direction, even if he personally didn't move as far along that road as some would have liked. He had my respect.

[Any comments on this post will be moderated.]

Where the Arrow Points (Part 1 of 2)

How do you evaluate the life and ministry of someone whose views are different from your own? That's the conundrum faced by many of us who in former days were part of a religious group that we have since abandoned. In most cases we didn't leave because of "weak faith" or personal failings; we left (or were pushed out) because the advertised package was nothing like the reality. We left because of bad people in high places and blatant hypocrisy. We left because we saw the manipulation and exploitation of decent people. Later we came to see that, apart from being an ethical desert, the intellectual underpinnings of the whole enterprise were also thoroughly rotten.

Looking back across the years I have little time or respect for many (most!) of those individuals who once enjoyed a high profile in that organization, specifically in my case the Worldwide Church of God. But there are exceptions. The passing of Ron Dart has brought this into focus for me.

To be clear, I regard Herbert and Ted Armstrong as self-serving con artists, no question. The best you might say about Herb was that he became a victim of his own delusions. All of us have the temptation to maintain and enforce things we only half believe in, as long as it's in our own best interests. As the oft-cited proof text goes: the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Too bad Herb didn't apply it to himself.

But what about more contemporary figures, those who survived the breakup of the WCG and continued to preach in that tradition? The criteria I use, when I stop to think about it, is where the arrow points, the direction in which their ministry takes people.

I was around in the period between 1978 and 1981, a young guy without much nous starting off in the big wide world, and a fairly recent convert to Armstrongism. The WCG was undergoing a 'cultural revolution' at this time. In the wake of Ted's departure and then the receivership crisis, anyone who stood up to Herbert Armstrong was purged.

If I was to put my finger on one event that summed it all up, it would be the day in January 1979 when Wayne Cole took the stage of the Ambassador Auditorium to call on church members and employees to cooperate with the receiver's inquiries; a voice of reason. He never finished. Rod Meredith and his thugs stormed on to the stage and used physical force against Cole. They had new instructions from Armstrong. Cole was forcibly removed and disfellowshipped. You can still access the LA Times report (as reprinted in the Spokane Spokesman-Review).

Meredith has always remained true to form, older but no wiser. Choose your own adjective: arrogant? ignorant? authoritarian? His later treatment of Raymond McNair is a case in point. With Meredith it's always been about "follow the leader". Meredith feeds on dependency. In so many ways he is a spiritual son of Herbert. Perhaps one redeeming feature is that he seems to sincerely (or stupidly) believe his own publicity. I doubt we could say that for Herb.

Along with Meredith we could list a number of other posturing clown figures with their own Church of God franchises. These guys have all the answers to all the wrong questions. If you like to do your own thinking, stay well away.

Which takes me back to Ron Dart.

(To be continued)

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Journal - 180th issue

The latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is devoted in large part to Ron Dart, who recently died after a long period of ill health. I can recollect few if any other figures in the Church of God movement who have been held in this kind of regard across the fractures, and frankly stated, there will likely be few if any who will be so regarded in the future. As Ian Boyne notes, "No matter how cynical, you could not help but be impressed..."

Brian Knowles, a former Plain Truth editor, has also written in this issue about his friend, the late David Jon Hill.

A PDF of the issue is available to download.

The Malleable Jesus

The current issue of Word & World (Winter 2016) has an editorial by Frederick Gaiser called The Malleable Jesus. It's a reminder that your Jesus may not be mine. Being a church publication (out of ELCA's Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota) Gaiser is obligated to find a silver lining, and I can't say I blame him, but the unpleasant fact remains that we tend to create Jesus according to our tastes.
But who is the “historical Jesus,” the one sought by various “quests” of recent time? He is related to the Jesus of the “Jesus Seminar,” who seems to have spoken remarkably little, unlike the Jesus of some editions of the King James Bible, who somehow spoke in red letters.
I'd almost forgotten Bruce Barton's Jesus. He was referred to in various editions of a certain Bible correspondence course which some readers will remember. Barton's actual views weren't touched on, but the name of his book, The Man Nobody Knows, was used to great apologetic effect. (The ever-original Darris McNeely cribbed the same trick in an episode of Beyond Today.) What was Barton on about? Gaiser gives details.
So, who is this malleable Jesus? Perhaps most odd is Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, the title of his 1925 book. Upset by the sissified “Sunday school Jesus,” “a physically weak, moralistic man, and the ‘lamb of God,’” Barton describes Jesus as “the world’s greatest business executive” who was nothing less than “The Founder of Modern Business,” the strong masculine man “who created a world-conquering organization with a group of twelve men hand-picked from the bottom ranks of business.”
You can see how this 'hard' image of Jesus might appeal to an ambitious 1930s advertising salesman turned evangelist. Barton has a lot to answer for. Somebody should tell Darris.

Gaiser spends some time (not a lot; the editorial is only a two-pager) mulling over various artists' impressions of Jesus. Now there's a study in kitsch. Thanks to really bad artwork hanging in the 'sitting room', I grew up with the door-knocking Jesus imprinted on my mind ("behold, I stand at the door and knock"), looking a bit like a zoned-out Jehovah's Witness. Even then I thought it was pretty awful. I'm sure Barton would have concurred.

There's something to be said for iconoclasm.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Wisdom of a Pharaoh

I love this time of year. It's still summer. Everyone is back at work. The kids are back at school, as are their teachers, so the beaches are suddenly uncrowded. This weekend is an exception as New Zealanders observe Waitangi Day on Monday, a welcome respite from the return to routine. Oh, alright, I realise that you Northern Hemisphere types are still wrapped up against the cold and megadosing on Vitamin C, but that's half a world away from where I sit.

Of course, there are those who seem to feel they have to work every hour God gives them. To them comes this sage advice from the ancient scrolls. No, not the Bible, Herodotus. And not Herodotus himself, but Pharaoh Amasis II of Egypt who, according to Herodotus, was advised thusly by his counsellors:

"Sire, you are not conducting yourself properly by pursuing worthless pastimes. You ought to be seated solemnly upon your stately throne, transacting affairs of state throughout the day; that way, the Egyptians would know that they were being governed by a competent man, and your reputation would improve. But as it is, you are not acting at all like a king."

To which the pharaoh replied:

"When archers need to use their bows, they string them tightly, but when they have finished using them, they relax them. For if a bow remained tightly strung all the time, it would snap and be of no use when someone needed it. The same principle applies to the daily routine of a human being: if someone wants to work seriously all the time and not let himself ease off for his share of play, he will go insane without even knowing it, or at the least suffer a stroke. And it is because I recognize this maxim that I allot a share of my time to each aspect of life."

Though I wonder whether the lowly citizens of Egypt were blessed with the ability to follow this ancient endorsement of a balanced lifestyle, nonetheless it stands as great advice long centuries later.

Have a great weekend!

(A version of this posting appeared here in December 2011 under the title 'When Archers String Their Bows'.)

That Blog Roll

Not that anyone has probably noticed, but the blog roll (eyes right) has been split up, much like the Soviet Union. The idea is that very different blogs no longer jostle together, but the herbivores are now safely behind a predator-free fence.

Or something like that.

Trying to classify some blogs is however a bit like deciding where to draw the border around Crimea, it just hurts the brain. Could you describe Tim Bulkeley's excellent Sansblogue as "progressive Christian"? Yes, I think so.  How about James Pate? Quite possibly, but then again perhaps not. If anyone is offended with the way things have shaken down, my apologies and do feel free to set me straight.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Etymological Fallacy - By Golly!

When I was a young bloke, still in short trousers and serving time, age 11, at Peachgrove Intermediate School, I had a friend who was much given to using the word 'flip' as an exclamation. "I just heard Miss Levesque will be having a test on the algebra chapter after lunch." Response, "Oh flip!"

The term I preferred was the time honored "gosh!" (I much later incorporated it into the name of this blog on a bit of a whim, fusing it with the name of a certain fine - if chilly - institution of higher learning.)

Later I was informed that terms like these were euphemisms. Their original purpose was to wickedly circumvent evil and damnable outbursts. Gosh was just a sly way of saying God, thus taking the Lord's name in vain, whether or not you realized it or intended it, hence a serious sin, and I was on very thin ice indeed.

As for 'flip', well, I'll leave that to your imagination. But the list goes on; 'shoot' anyone?

This nonsense was reinforced in the fundamentalist cult that I was drawn into in my late teens. Religious fundamentalism and language fundamentalism are not unrelated. This was a sect where ministers actually thought they could prove a theological point by citing a Webster's definition.

This sort of logic is based on a fallacy, and happily linguists even have a name for it: the etymological fallacy. The idea is that words mean what they originally meant, world without end, amen.

Which is clearly wrong.

Word origins are intriguing. I'm a devoted follower of the UK Channel 4 show Countdown which features a segment on origins of words with lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent. You'd have to be the classic "moron in a hurry" to maintain the etymological fallacy after a even a couple of those episodes.

Meanings change and evolve. English - like all other modern tongues - is a living language. As difficult as it is for language fundamentalists to accept, usage determines meaning. I mean, where do these guys think the definitions in Webster's (or Strong's Exhaustive Concordance for that matter) came from in the first place? Clue: they didn't drop down from the sky on stone tablets. A word means what those of us in the land of the living believe it means. Consider words like gay and bimbo. The latter originally meant "a young child". In the Jim Reeves song it referred to a young boy!
"Bimbo is a little boy who's got a million friends,
And every time he passes by, they all invite him in.
He'll clap his hands and sing and dance, and talk his baby talk,
With a hole in his pants and his knees a-stickin' out,
he's just big enough to walk."
That's not how it's used in these Kardashian times.

If Granny thought differently, that's okay, then was then, now is now. It's also the reason that nobody today uses the first edition of the Concise Oxford, published in 1911, except as a bookshelf curiosity.

There is a great example of shifting meaning with the word (ladies be warned, a wicked word follows) bugger. The aforementioned 1911 Concise Oxford had no doubts, racing straight to a then illegal sexual practice. Move ahead into a new century and the first definition in The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (2005) reads "an unpleasant or awkward person or thing (the bugger won't fit)."

But if you were pedantic, insisting on the original meaning come hell or high water, neither would be accurate. The term simply meant heretic, with special reference to non-Catholic Bulgarians.


More Misery Synod Madness

The Missouri Synod continues in its relentless quest to give all Lutherans a bad name. This time its target is Doreen Pawelk,  a 92 year old woman who wants to be buried next to her husband. In fact the plot had already been paid for.

News of the elderly woman's treatment went viral after a letter upbraiding Mrs Pawelk for not taking the eucharist at a legalistically-determined frequency was released by family. A huge negative reaction led to a backtracking by Synod leaders and local pastor, LeRoy LaPlant. It was, so they now say, all a big mistake.

What clearly isn't a mistake is the existence of a nasty form letter saturated with a spirit of legalism that would take the breath away from any real Lutheran - or any decent person from whatever religious or non-religious background. Even if this was the 'wrong letter', it has clearly exposed the unpleasant side of the already famously narrow LCMS mindset. Adding insult to injury, this is a form letter that, despite its tone and gravity, can be churned out without the need for the pastor, or any congregational official, to as much as dignify it with a signature.

Of course there's a simple solution. In Minnesota there are a lot of ELCA Lutheran churches. I'd bet the farm that none of them have "self-exclusion policy" like this.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Greg Albrecht and the Imaginary Mark

Greg Albrecht has set out to educate us all about Mark's gospel.
This Gospel was written by John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. He is probably the young man who fled from the soldiers in Gethsemane (Mk 14:51-52)
Greg Albrecht, CWR Bible Survey, Mark, Week 1.
Well, that's fairly straight-forward. Greg, no mean wordsmith, paints a colorful portrait of the first evangelist.
Think about Mark as a boy. He grew up in Jerusalem, the city of the holy Temple, central to Jewish history and religious practice. He probably followed Jesus, Peter and the other disciples through the streets of Jerusalem during the week of the events leading to the crucifixion. He may well have been the young man who escaped the Temple soldiers that fateful day (Mk 14:51-52). 
Youthful experiences of Mark would have included knowledge of the early growth of the church, the gift of land by his cousin Barnabas to the church, the sermon and martyrdom of Stephen, and the conversion of the adversary Paul. He traveled with Paul and Barnabas to Cyprus and Asia Minor, but left to go home to Jerusalem, greatly upsetting Paul (Acts 13:13; 15:37-38). 
Why did he leave? The Bible doesn't say. Perhaps he had family responsibilities, or a fiancee waiting for him. Perhaps he was homesick, traveling through unfamiliar lands far from home. 
Whatever the case, Mark eventually decided to record the most important story ever written.
The problem is that most of this is pure invention. Greg is clearly a talented story-teller, but fiction rather than fact is his forte. We know very little about Mark. We can't be at all sure that he was the 'John Mark' written about elsewhere in the New Testament, and in fact it's fairly certain he wasn't! Here are some quotes from a few of the standard reference works that are readily available.
Like the other Gospels, the text does not identify its author, but early church tradition... attributed it to "Mark," a companion of Peter in Rome (1 Peter 5:13), who is then identified with the "John Mark" of Acts... This attribution is called into question by the apologetic desire to associate a nonapostolic Gospel with the apostle Peter, by the frequency of "Mark" as a name in the Roman Empire, and by the ancient tendency to attribute works to important figures from the past.
John R. Donahue, Mark, HarperCollins Bible Commentary.
About the author of the gospel we probably know very little. Ancient tradition calls him Mark, almost certainly intending to identify him with the John Mark mentioned elsewhere in the NT... None of this, however, is certain. It seems very unlikely, for example, that the author of the gospel was a Palestinian Jew. He appears to be rather ignorant about local geography (see Mk 5:1; 7:31), as well as about Jewish customs or laws (see Mk 7:3-4; 10:11-12). He may well have been called Mark, but the name was a very common one in the Roman empire and we cannot simply equate all the Marks we know!
C. M. Tuckett, Mark, Oxford Bible Commentary
Although the Gospel is anonymous, an ancient tradition ascribes it to John Mark (mentioned in Acts 12:12; 15:37), who is supposed to have composed it at Rome as his summary of Peter's preaching (see 1 Pet. 5:13). Modern scholars find little first-century evidence to support this tradition.
Richard Horsley, Introduction to Mark, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 4th edition
It seems those in-the-know know a good deal less about Mark than Greg does. A number of commentators (for example Paul Achtemeier in the Proclamation commentary series) largely ignore the issue of attribution given the dearth of real knowledge on the subject. Obviously Greg is unencumbered by any such reservations, which is okay as long as you bear in mind that he is primarily a spinner of yarns, an apologist more interested in flair than scholarship.

Not even informed by scholarship actually. Maybe he should take some classes...