Sunday 30 May 2010

Two new books to look out for

Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. L. Michael White was impressive in his earlier work, From Jesus to Christianity, but this promises to be even better.

"In Scripting Jesus, famed scholar of early Christianity L. Michael White challenges us to read the gospels as they were originally intended—as performed stories of faith rather than factual histories. White demonstrates that each of the four gospel writers had a specific audience in mind and a specific theological agenda to push, and consequently wrote and rewrote their lives of Jesus accordingly—in effect, scripting Jesus to get a particular point across and to achieve the desired audience reaction.

"The gospel stories have shaped the beliefs of almost two and a half billion Christians. But the gospel writers were not reporters—rather, they were dramatists, and the stories they told publicly about Jesus were edited and reedited for the greatest effect. Understanding how these first-century Christians wanted to present Jesus offers us a way to make sense of the sometimes conflicting stories in the gospels.

"One gospel's version of events will be at odds with another. For instance, in Jesus's birth narrative, there is no mention of a stable in Matthew or Luke, but then there are no wise men in Luke and no shepherds in Matthew. Jesus has brothers in some gospel accounts, and sisters in others, and their naming is inconsistent. Depending on which gospel you are reading, the disciples shift from bumbling morons to heroes of faith. Miracles alter or disappear altogether, and whole scenes get moved around. Such changes from one gospel to the next reveal the shaping and reshaping of the basic story in the living world of the first followers of Jesus."

Then there's The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity. Richard Pervo is a significant figure in the study of Acts, and an independent thinker when it comes to challenging received wisdom.

"The influence of the apostle Paul in early Christianity goes far beyond the reach of the seven genuine letters he wrote to early assemblies. Paul was revered —and fiercely opposed— in an even larger number of letters penned in his name, and in narratives told about him and against him, that were included in our New Testament and, far more often, treasured and circulated outside it. Richard Pervo provides an illuminating and comprehensive survey of the legacy of Paul and the various ways he was remembered, honored, and vilified in the early churches. Numerous charts and maps introduce the student to the "family" of Pauline and anti-Pauline Christianities."

Sadly, you probably won't find them featured on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore, where you're more likely to find the latest sickly grunge from some big-name, tithe-farming television evangelist. Happily, both are available on Amazon.

Comments policy: Play Nice

Moderation is enabled on comments at Otagosh. That basically means that if a comment:

*sheds more heat than light
*requires a detailed response from me over trivia (hey, there are only so many hours in the day)
*is in poor taste
*would cause unnecessary offence
*is off topic
*insults another commenter rather than addresses the issue
*pontificates based on a total misunderstanding/ignorance of the topic on which the comment is based
*or just plain doesn't seem appropriate

...then it will probably go into the trash. Judgement on these things is subjective, so while I'll try to be consistent, someone else may think differently.


That said, comments are of course welcome. If it isn't angry, belligerent, irrelevant or insulting there's usually no problem.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Christian Community Bible Online

It's a terrific Catholic Bible translation, and a nice contrast to the more common (in both senses of the word) Evangelical offerings that saturate the market. I hadn't realised until now that it was freely available online, either to read on the Web or to download to your own computer.

Of course you don't have to be Catholic to appreciate it, though it probably helps. It may not be the NRSV, but it's kinda cool anyway. There are some really interesting features included, such as this diagram (click to enlarge) which you most certainly won't find in your NKJV, ESV or NIV!

The CCB originated as a Spanish Bible produced in Latin America by a French priest. The English version was later produced in the Philippines. Different! The version you can currently download is the 48th edition (which makes my hard copy of the 30th edition look a bit dated.)


Friday 28 May 2010

What is theology?

This was a deep and many-faceted question when I first embarked on theological studies at Otago. One of the first papers I took was "Doing Theology." The textbook for the course was Alister McGrath's comprehensive Christian Theology: An Introduction. It was in this 100-level paper that I was first introduced to such luminous figures as Colin Gunton. It was, in some ways, a "baptism of fire," and to this day a mere mention of Gunton's name produces an involuntary shudder from somewhere down in my lower brain stem.

It seems I needn't have bothered with all that work, because Terry Sanderson, president of something called "the National Secular Society", has sussed the question in a single column in The Guardian: Theology: Truly a Naked Emperor. Theology, proclaims Sanderson, is drivel.

He has also uncovered a slightly longer definition by sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein: "Theology ... is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything."

Obviously McGrath needs to come down from Oxford and give Sanderson a good talking to!

Then there's the reference to Rowan Williams who "is said to have a brain the size of Jupiter because he can produce convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend."


But wait, there's more! Here's a one-liner attributed to H. L. Mencken: "For centuries, theologians have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the-not-worth-knowing."

Sanderson is just lucky that it's not normal C of E practice to issue fatwahs.

Another Sanderson attempt at answering that question: "Theology is an excuse for grown men to spend their lives trying to convince themselves, and others, that ridiculous fairy tales are true."

I know some former co-religionists and bearers of the purple hymnal who would now gladly raise holy hands in choruses of 'amen' at that statement. Who knows, maybe he's got a point, but I can assure you that neither the Mencken nor Heinlein quotes appeared anywhere in the 420 page "Doing Theology" study guide! Perhaps it's also worth pointing out to Terry that there are not a few "grown women" involved in the theological enterprise these days.

But the thing that particularly caught my attention in the Guardian column was a link to a very old routine by comedian Stanley Unwin, blessedly preserved on YouTube. Unwin achieved fame by developing his own nonsense language which he called 'Unwinese,' a form of glossolalia for the stand-up circuit. The implication being that theological language, like Unwinese, makes no sense whatsoever.

Interestingly, Unwin donned a Roman collar to star in the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson children's series The Secret Service as a priest (it was never quite clear whether he was supposed to be Catholic or Anglican.) This was the last - and least successful - of the Anderson's puppet productions which previously included Thunderbirds.

At times Unwin appeared "in the flesh," but mostly did a voice-over for a puppet character endowed with his features.

Needless to say, "Father" Unwin's acting was a bit wooden.

On balance I'll confess a preference for Anderson over Sanderson. As for Unwin and Gunton, it's surely got to be the comedian who is the more lucid of those two.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Paul for the Sensitive New Age Evangelical

Paul says in Galatians:

... if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you have received, let that one be accursed! (1:8-9 NRSV)

The Paul of Galatians famously comes across as an egotistical ranter. He simply doesn't handle theological diversity well! It's his way or the highway, no matter that senior figures in the early Christian movement (Peter, James) have quite a different take on things than he does. Forget all the elevated prose you might find elsewhere - the fruit of the spirit, the love chapter - in Galatians Paul lets the mask slip, and it's not a pretty sight.

And thus, ever since, the apologists have fretted over this ugly self-portrait. Poor Paul, the commentators usually say, he was so passionate in defending the Galatians against heresy he did get rather worked up, but who can blame him?

There are other ways of looking at passages like this. The obvious one is that Paul was a deeply threatened and insecure man, well aware that his claim to apostleship was built on shaky ground, and out of step with the rest of the church. In short, the apostle protesteth too much. I don't see that this is too much of a problem for Christians to come to terms with in that, after all, Paul was obviously a flawed human being just like the rest of us.

Bibliolatrists will of course disagree.

A second approach is that we misread Paul's hissy-fit. He didn't really mean to curse anybody. It's all a terrible misunderstanding. Mark Edgecombe takes this view in the latest issue of Stimulus.

What does Paul mean when he wishes eternal condemnation - not once, but twice - on those preaching a gospel other than the gospel of Christ? ... perhaps he means this: that those who preach the law are wilfully opting into ongoing subjection to a curse.

Yeah, right. You see, they're doing it to themselves. It reminds me of the woman I once met at a parent-teacher conference who appeared with facial bruises. The community knew very well that her husband was a drunken sot with a long record of domestic abuse. I was new to the job and aware that it wasn't my role to say anything, but the shocked expression on my face must have spoken anyway. The first thing the woman said, in a tone that dared me to contradict her, was that she'd walked into a door!

No, Paul didn't curse anyone, oh my goodness gracious no. If they were cursed it was their own fault, silly people, as they had wilfully opted into a beating.

Let's back up a bit. Is Paul is defending the "gospel of Christ"? We've got to concede that if he was, his opponents (fellow Christians) thought they were doing that too. No, he's defending the gospel of Paul: "the gospel that was proclaimed by me." Go through just chapter one of Galatians and notice all the 'me' and 'I' statements. It's an eye-opening exercise.

Galatians is about a territorial dispute, and Paul is marking his territory. So does he mean to lay down a curse or not? It seems a no-brainer. It doesn't much matter whether you want to understand accursed as hell-bound or excommunicated, it amounts to the same thing. Like an abusive husband Paul can mutter sweet nothings when necessary, but to accept them on face value is naive in the extreme. Shades of megalomania (a term Edgecombe actually refers to)? Quite possibly.

I persevered through the article, and was unsurprised when the writer went on to beat up on Richard Holloway and Lloyd Geering (or did I get that wrong - maybe they slapped themselves silly.) Anyway, of these two figures he writes, "it's the kind of stance that Paul wouldn't have a bar of."

Well at least he got that right.

Not to bother, Lesslie Newbigin gets a pat on the head.

I can't wait for the next installment to find out what kind of creative exculpatory rereading will be applied to Galatians 5:12!

Saturday 22 May 2010

A pain in the ark

It's a title that I'd have loved to come up with first, but British journo Adam Rutherford got there first. Writing in The Guardian he also coins a term I've never heard before, but may be tempted to adopt, "duff theology."

"Christian fundamentalists are of course silly people. This primarily 20th-century phenomenon uses James Ussher's silly biblical generation calculation to assert duff theology and literal truth to Genesis, which while quite elegant in its prose, is also quite silly. The story of Noah is not just silly but hateful, and impossible... I just don't understand why anyone would want to hunt for physical proof of a story that revealed your God to be a bit of a genocidal arsehole."

Oh come now Mr Rutherford, aren't you overstating the hateful and genocidal bit. Haven't you seen those cute kiddie illustrations of the animals placidly going in two-by-two? Just look at this delightful illustration from the Gustave Doré Bible. Anything hateful or genocidal here?

Oh, uh, wait a minute, um, er, scrub that last comment...

Monday 17 May 2010

Denial, thy name is Missouri

I keep trying to avoid negative comments about the Missouri Synod, but it's hard. Especially when leading figures within this multi-million member sect keep saying outrageously silly things.

I'm sure there are intelligent, thoughtful people in the Missouri Synod... somewhere. While most of those fitting that bill probably left way back in Seminex days, there has surely been time enough for a marginal increase in IQ levels across the synod since.

Here we are in the twenty-first century, and a church executive who can also presumably manage to tie his own shoelaces, seriously suggests Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals.

Now I know the LCMS was, along with the Seventh-day Adventists, one of the original big promoters of Young Earth Creationism, but even so you'd think at least one of the bigtime synodical shakers and movers would occasionally pick up a copy of Scientific American.

Or perhaps New Scientist.

Or, all else failing, an issue of National Geographic.

Apparently not, unless it's to tut-tut over the evils of evolution.

Here's what I'm talking about:

I’ve been following debates/arguments/dicussions/conversations about the historicity of Adam and Eve. For our Lord Christ, the fact of the creation of Adam and Eve by God, and their union to one another, ordained by God, is the very foundation of marriage and all human sexuality. Precisely because the Lord taught this, this has an enormous impact on how the Church and the faithful, should — no not should, that’s way too soft a word — absolutely must — affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve.

Where does any scientific evidence fit into this bit of logic? It doesn't. A literalist reading of Genesis trumps anything the modern world can throw at it. Adam and Eve were historical because... this guy can't think of another way to endorse marriage???

The writer goes on to quote an obscure British fundamentalist to "prove" his point.

The historical reality of Adam is an essential means of preserving a Christian account of sin and evil, a Christian understanding of God, and the rationale for the incarnation, cross and resurrection. His physical fatherhood of all humankind preserves God’s justice in condemning us in Adam (and, by inference, God’s justice in redeeming us in Christ) as well as safeguarding the logic of the incarnation. Neither belief can be reinterpreted without the most severe consequences.

In other words, if my dogma runs aground on contrary evidence, the facts are wrong. Above all else "safeguarding the logic of the [author's understanding of the] incarnation" and letting God slip out of responsibility for "condemning us" is paramount.

You can imagine these guys baying for Galileo's blood. A heliocentric cosmology at the cost of "severe consequences" to our tidy doctrines? No contest! String the heretic up!

This is medieval thinking. Medieval logic. The Enlightenment has yet to break across the fusty "confessionalism" of this dinosaur synod.

Which is why it keeps publishing Alfred Rehwinkel's laughable 1950s creation science text, The Flood.

And why in recent times it has published and promoted the specious YEC drivel mentioned here, here, here and here.

Coincidentally, the current issue of New Scientist has a cover feature on denial.

Denial... is the automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it - sometimes even in the teeth of evidence. Denialism is typically driven by ideology or religious belief, where the commitment to be belief takes precedence over the evidence. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to ensure that the belief survives intact. (p.36)

What New Scientist calls denialism could just as aptly be called idolatry.

Friday 14 May 2010

Dennis faces a tag team in Tyler

I've never met Dennis Diehl in person, but I've got to know him as well as you can know anyone via the Internet. On a previous website I published some excellent articles by Den. He's far too honest and reflective a guy to have remained a fundamentalist minister.

Recently Dennis debated former WCG ministerial training honcho and AICF executive Art Mokarow in Tyler. The subject: Is the Bible the inspired word of God? What Den didn't realise when he accepted the invitation was that he'd end up facing a tag team: Art and "Oxford" educated academic Ron Moseley.

I've just read the transcript, and Den did a great job on behalf of all of us who have left fundamentalism behind. Reg Killingley was a fair and skilful moderator, Mokarow was thoroughly pleasant and polite (though it was hard to find much of an argument in his statements), while Moseley came across - and this is of course just my impression - as a total blowhard.

Art Mokarow introduced Moseley thus: "I met this gentleman three years ago at the Dallas gathering of scholars. We had 25 scholars come. We were in Dallas for five days. They were from a variety of denominations, and many from Worldwide and splits. I met this gentleman [Dr. Moseley]. I found out he had a doctorate from Oxford."

Well, actually not. In 2008 I wrote the following very brief comment on Ambassador Watch after Moseley was featured in Dixon Cartwright's publication The Journal.

A seemingly scholarly article by Ron Moseley, a graduate from Oxford Graduate School and a Fellow and Scholar of the Oxford Society of Scholars. Sounds impressive, but considering the blatantly apologetic quality of the writing I googled the guy and found that Oxford Graduate School isn't associated with Oxford University but is located in Dayton, Tennessee. Moseley now runs his own school which is, according to its website "accredited and in good standing with a religious accreditation commsion [sic]".

I thought it was a fairly tame comment. A blistering response was however received from the man himself. This is a cut down version.

Concerning the article posted by Gavin, whoever that is, I will gladly clear the record. Yes, I studied five separate years at Oxford University in Oxford, England, and have read numerous papers at Kellogg College, and Magdalen College, which are major parts of Oxford University. I lived in the dorm at Rewley Center at Kellogg College. I have also studied twelve years during the summers at the Hebrew and Jerusalem Universities in Jerusalem (that is in Israel) not Tennessee. Yes, I did graduate from Oxford Graduate School, which is in Tennessee, which is a fully regionally accredited graduate schoo. It is not associated directly with Oxford University nor has it claimed to be. However, if one graduates from Oxford in Tennessee, it is required they earn a minimum of one semester in Oxford University in Oxford, England, as a part of their education. Oxford Graduate School in Tennessee has at least two professors, one in law and one in philosophy, which are also instructors for Oxford University in England and live there and travel to Tennessee due to the close association of the schools although not academically. I have also studied at the University of Texas in Austin, as well as several other fully regionally accredited colleges including Princeton Theological Seminary, which is a part of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. I might add, of all the schools named both in the U.S., Israel, and Europe, by far the best school was Oxford Graduate School in Tennessee... I resent any insinuation of a second class school due to it being located in Tennessee or its quality. While in Oxford University one of my courses in Literature was on Frankinstein, there were no such cases of inferior curriculum in Tennessee... Tell Gavin commission is spelled "commission" not commison (sic). Go figure... It case you didn't get the message, yes, it pissed me off!

Charming fellow! How could one not respond in a spirit of Christian humility!

Ron, thanks for the info. Unfortunately you posted under the wrong thread.

I fully and unreservedly accept your scholarly claims, but would respectfully make the following observations.

1. Paragraphs are useful in breaking up a body of text, even in Brill publications.

2. Schoo is spelled school.

3. Frankinstein is spelled Frankenstein.

4. The word "commsion" appears in that form on your Institute's website. I just cut and pasted it, adding the (sic) in order to show that the error originated elsewhere.

5. Does your Institute offer anger management courses? The response you offer is way out of proportion to the comments offered on the blog.

Fully accepting your fine credentials, which are of a far higher order than any I possess, I am still struck by the less than scholarly tone you adopt.

Yes, I know, I shouldn't have, but the Devil made me do it. Note however that Moseley made no claim to degrees from Oxford (UK) or Princeton, or Hebrew University for that matter. In fact Dr. Moseley supplied the following information to The Journal.

He studied in America, Jerusalem and England. He has a Ph.D. in Second Temple history from Louisiana Baptist University and a D.Phil. and D.Litt. from Oxford Graduate School, Dayton, Tenn. He studied during five separate years at Oxford University in England and studied parts of 12 years at Hebrew University and Jerusalem University. He has also studied at Princeton University.

Putting aside the minor matter that, Dr. Moseley's claims notwithstanding, Princeton Seminary is a separate entity to Princeton University, how exactly do you explain the listing over at St. Elias' faculty page?

Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, and Second Temple History
Dr. Ron Moseley, Ph.D., Oxford Graduate School, England, D.Phil., Oxford University, England, D.Litt., Oxford University, England, M.Div., Luther Rice College, M.A., (Jewish Studies), Oxford University, England.

Beats me. They read differently again (and presumably with greater accuracy) here. I looked up Luther Rice and the wonderfully generic-sounding International Seminary, but to use Dr. Moseley's own delightful expression, they seemed pretty "rinky-dink."

Ph.D. provider Louisiana Baptist University is cheerfully unaccredited.

In any case, reading the transcript of the debate I was struck by Dr. Moseley's colorful turn of phrase.

[I]n the New Testament, all these cats who were with Jesus died or had gone off to India.

It’s like when one of these old boys gets a tattoo of an ant on his shoulder and by the time he’s 60 years old it looks like an eagle drug down to his knees. Can I get a witness?

Paul was so prominent and not one of the 12 apostles because Jesus said to the 12 apostles go only into the Jews and nobody else because you guys got real problems with circumcision and even touching, eating, with these other cats.

But Paul had a non-Jewish dad.

The word rib means cell. I’m not saying He cloned Eve, but the word dust [in Genesis 2:7] goes back to the root of a-tom, not Adam but a-tom, like atom.

Well, we learn new things every day!

The transcript is due to appear in the May 31 issue of The Journal. Beg, steal or borrow a copy. Well, maybe not steal... It's a clash of world-views ranging - again, just my opinion - from perceptive, through slightly confused, to ludicrous (Den, IMHO, provides the perceptive part.)

Can I get a witness?

Photo of Dennis Diehl: Dixon Cartwright, The Journal: News of the Churches of God

Tuesday 4 May 2010

The impossible Ark

Thankee koindlee to Jim West for this link to an article on the Ark over at The Bible & Interpretation.

It's kind of sad that these common sense points even need to be made in the twenty-first century, but the human instinct to believe nonsense - "as many as six impossible things before breakfast" to quote the Queen of Hearts - is still a powerful drive.