Monday 28 June 2010

Paul - an observant Jew?

Paul, as we all know, is the true founder of Christianity, understood as a new, separate religion from Judaism. Paul rejected the Torah and lived a law-free lifestyle, encouraging Gentile Christians to do the same, right?

That Paul advocated a law-free approach for Gentile believers seems clear, but what about Paul himself? Paul, after all, was not a Gentile. Did he indulge in duplicitous activity, pretending to be an observant Jew when in the company of Jews and pretending to be be liberated from the Torah in the company of Greeks? That's the standard explanation of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

But hang on! Is it a Christian thing to flip-flop depending on who you're trying to win an argument with? Imagine you've been convinced by the blighter into thinking it was hunky-dory to continue as an observant Jew while coming to Christ, then discovering you're labelled "weak in the faith" at best, and accused of clinging to traditions that have been made obsolete and cancel out genuine faith. Wouldn't you feel you'd been misled?

And how do you explain Paul's claim in 2 Corinthians 11:24 that he received thirty-nine lashes no less than five times from synagogue authorities. You had to be a self-identified Jew - not an ex-Jew - to fall under the authority of these Jewish authorities. Try that trick on anyone else and the Roman authorities would be seriously hosed off.

Then there's that Nazarite vow Paul takes - in the Temple no less - just before his arrest. He does it to convince his critics that he's dutiful in his (Jewish) religious observances. Did he have his fingers crossed behind his back at the time? This, remember, is the bloke who hauls Peter over the coals and calls him a hypocrite in Galatians.

Mark Nanos is a contemporary Jewish scholar of the New Testament who asks provocative questions like these. His discussion of 1 Corinthians 9 is well worth checking out.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Ecclesiastical condoms for Calvinists

Jason Goroncy reports on his blog about the grand sounding United General Conference of the newly formed World Communion of Reformed Churches, where he is a delegate for the New Zealand Presbyterians. He writes:

One of the issues that I was keen to ‘place on the table’ at this gathering concerned the relationship between Reformed Churches and the State. It seems to me that a tradition like mine which is so heavily imbedded in what is now a rapidly-disappearing Christendom has well and truly entered (in most parts of the world) a time in which our relationship with the State is overdue for a rethink. Put differently, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long been in bed with the State to start thinking about wearing an ecclesiastical condom, at least at more ‘risky’ times of the month? Conversely, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long sidelined themselves from their societies to re-think their bed etiquette?

What Jason states here with great eloquence goes twice over for confessional Lutheran bodies which infamously have hidden behind a wooden reading of Romans 13 and the bizarre doctrines of "two kingdoms" and the "left hand of God" to consistently excuse the utterly inexcusable. He goes on to cite four points (excerpted from a longer remit) which he offered at a session of the body:
  1. We will not kill one another.
  2. We will make disciples in our congregations who might learn to resist participation in the State’s machinery of violence and thereby offer a distinctive Christian witness to an alternative way of living that is determined to not perpetuate the practices of that world which is passing away but which is formed by the new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  3. We will communicate – in word and in action – to our respective states and governments that our principle allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
  4. We will offer our full support to all those in our communion for whom this commitment will come at great cost.
The motion did not pass, though that seems to have had as much to do with the dynamics of the council organisation rather than the merits of the proposal. Perhaps though it might inspire others...

Saturday 26 June 2010

Reinventing Paul

The final paper in the B.Theol programme is about to kick in, and its focus is on Paul and especially his convoluted arguments in the first eight chapters of Romans. In preparation (though it's not on the reading list) I went through John Gager's Reinventing Paul with a yellow highlighter. It's a slim volume, but there's a detonation on every second page, and I'm left toying with a reconstruction of the apostle's gospel in marked contrast to anything I've seriously considered before.

Reading early Christianity backwards through Paul has long been recognised as causing more problems than it solves, particularly as Paul's writings are far from simple in their construction. For some this head-whacking, concrete-like density (especially in Romans) indicates Paul's genius as a superlative theologian, but perhaps it indicates instead that he was just making it up on the run. And of course, as advocates of the "new Paul" have convincingly demonstrated, we have long been reading Paul himself through the lenses of later times and issues.

What does seem clear is that these earliest believers centred in Jerusalem, continued to worship at the Temple, and depending on how you read the evidence, some may have served in Temple-related rituals. This would seem to indicate that, however sectarian they were, they did not reject or delegitimate other forms of Judaism completely.

So, here's what may be the first in a series of posts that relate to those issues. Not a conclusion, just a question concerning the world of Second Temple Judaism of which Paul (and the early followers of Jesus) were a part: Is there any historical evidence - putting aside those cloudy Pauline glasses - that the early Jewish Christians (at the risk of using an anachronism) were "exclusive" in their self-understanding? In other words, did they see other factions of Second Temple Judaism as false rather than simply deficient, rejected by God rather than simply incomplete.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Tithed Alive

I sat through a very polite discussion on tithing, screened this evening with mainly Pacific Island Christians participating. In Pasifika congregations tithing tends to be the norm, and then there often are further financial obligations laid on (mainly poor) members. In one Auckland Tongan church the pastor has just handed down instructions that each family is expected to donate a thousand dollars to a special cause. To then fail to do so would be to lose face. In a number of churches the weekly offering is read out in services. Not the total, but what each family gave that week. Not even my former affiliation, which had honed tithing to an art form, approached that degree of brutal, manipulative crassness.

It wasn't too much of a surprise to hear the same sad old proof texts trotted out, especially Malachi 3:8-12. One woman actually asked a Palangi pastor on the show whether she would go to hell if she failed to tithe!

It continues to amaze me that this discussion is relevant in the twenty-first century. We know that the Malachi text is talking about the Jerusalem Temple with its grain silos. We know that tithing never meant "ten percent" in a culture that knew nothing of decimal points. We know that tithing was on the agricultural increase, not on paychecks (which didn't exist then.) We know that Jews outside Palestine were under no obligation to tithe - and in fact were not permitted to tithe as such. We know that Jews today do not tithe, as there is no temple and therefore no legitimate place to tithe.

Pastors who preach rigorous tithing today are either ignorant or deceitful. There isn't much middle ground between those two options. It simply isn't possible to tithe biblically today. Talk of a "tithing principle" is complete nonsense. You could argue, based on the fact that income generated outside Palestine was not tithable, that the "principle" then determines that today no foreign investments are tithable. Frankly, I've yet to see a tithe-farmer teach that, but why not?

(Coincidentally, today a work colleague remarked that she was amazed when attending a wedding recently, to discover that the church had a prominently displayed eftpos terminal installed. She was so surprised in fact, that she took a photograph!)

Perhaps the saddest part of the program was when a Pasifika Labour MP suggested that, faced with the thousand dollar ultimatum from the pastor mentioned above, anyone unable to comply should simply go to the Big Man, cap in hand, and plead their extenuating circumstances. This amounts to abject grovelling, reinforcing the imaginary power of the pastor. Bad advice. Better solution, find somewhere else to go. That may not be so easy when your family and cultural ties are invested heavily in a particular church. Even better solution, laugh openly at the suggestion, ignore it, and encourage others to treat it with the disdain it deserves.

The only power totalitarian preachers have is that power that is given to them by people who abdicate their personal responsibility and autonomy. That's easier to appreciate in an individualistic, Western worldview, though it might also blind us to the strong features of Pasifika culture. However, if nothing else it's good to see these issues being addressed. As one participant observed, if God blesses the faithful tither, Pasifika New Zealanders should be the most affluent section of our society, not among the poorest! Hopefully this kind of dialogue is a harbinger of change.

Saturday 19 June 2010

YECs in Space?

Jeffrey Williams has done time as an astronaut, flying on the space shuttle and spending six long months on the International Space Station with a Russian cosmonaut for company, with whom he attempted to discuss theology. He's apparently also a talented photographer, and what an opportunity that would be for someone perched in orbit.

Williams is also a member of the fundamentalist Missouri Synod, and has just published a book of photographs taken "on the job" through the Synod's publishing arm, Concordia, called The Work of His Hands. At the launch in St Louis "Williams screened a video from his most recent mission on the Space Station for about 300 employees of Concordia Publishing House. Afterward, about 250 of them crammed into the publisher's bookstore to have Williams sign a copy of his book.

"Lisa Goodsell, 42, from Waterloo, Mo., and Diana Szolga, 50, from Fairview Heights, waited in line to talk to Williams as a man dressed in a space suit handed out "astronaut ice cream" to kids in the store and told them the creation story from the biblical book of Genesis."

Astronaut ice cream and creation myths delivered by an actor in a space suit? Whoever said those Missouri Lutherans couldn't do things in style!

"His book documents the peace in one astronaut's mind between the often dueling fields of faith and science. "Good science and the Bible are consistent," Williams said. "I don't see any conflict there." '

It would be interesting to know what Williams thinks "good science" is. The Missouri Synod is a notorious proponent of old fashioned Young Earth Creationism.

According to Williams, "True, life-transforming faith in God and relationship with Him is based [on] God's Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in His work on the cross as revealed in the supernatural revelation of the Bible."

It would also be interesting to know what Williams thinks "the supernatural revelation of the Bible" is.

Maybe the answers are in his book, but despite the showcasing of some stunning images, somehow I don't think I'll be adding it to my wish list on Amazon.

Friday 18 June 2010

Facing down the bullies

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

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

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

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

When local churches preach about respecting "leadership," when the people in the pews are directed to do as they're told and even think as they're told, the claxons should be going off louder than a vuvuzela. There are really only two options:

1. Run like hades. Get outa there!
2. Face down the bullies. Refuse to be intimidated. Make a stand.

On balance I prefer the second option because it can inspire others to stand up for themselves too. There's nothing like a subversive role model! Gentle laughter at a preacher with a sense of entitlement is an act of self-confidence by the doer, and enormously deflating for the pompous bully. These guys love to be taken seriously, and when they're confronted with the ludicrousness of their own behaviour (and we're not talking about being angry and obnoxious, but using reason and humour reasonably) it's a moment when I suspect even the Good Spirit cracks a broad smile.

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

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

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

May your inner Mack be with you.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Death of sect founder's daughter

This notice appears in the latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God.

Dorothy Mattson, nee Armstrong, was an unintentionally significant figure in the story of her father's sect, the Worldwide Church of God (previously the Radio Church of God),though she kept a low profile over many years. Mrs Mattson kept a dignified silence about moral allegations against her father, a self-proclaimed "End Time Apostle", that surfaced very publicly in David Robinson's 1981 book Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web, and were later widely repeated in many media.

As far as I am aware, none of Herbert Armstrong's descendents are today associated with the church he established (recently rebranded as Grace Communion International) although one grandson, Mark, leads a minor splinter ministry that relies heavily on the reputation and resources produced by his father, the late Garner Ted Armstrong, Herbert's estranged son.

Front and back pages of The Journal are available as a PDF download.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Barnstoning the New Covenant (2)

These comments are somewhat freely adapted from Willis Barnstone's essay on the historical bases of Jesus' life and death in the 2002 edition of his book The New Covenant (a translation of the Gospels and Revelation.)

Since the gospels are all we have as a detailed record of the life of Jesus/Yeshua, they are what we investigate and evaluate and about which we come up with guesses and broad theories. In short, all the historical events of Yeshua's life take place within the frame of unverifiable religious scripture.

One looks, of course, for the deepest meaning within a text, but always with the awareness that great religious scriptures of the world, in this and apparently all instances, are not tape recordings or photographs, but late transcriptions that have gone through an unknown plethora of transmission activity. The danger is to forget, especially during a lifetime of research, that so little is known.

It is hard for many scholars to move freely from nearly two millennia of theological exegesis to an unprejudiced walk through historical investigation. The holy precints of Christianity are a powerful tradition and fortress, and judgment contends with almost insuperable temptations to normative belief.

We have only guesses to describe the mysterious chemistry that turned a Jewish movement in Jerusalem into Greek Christan scripture. Where did the evangelists, who were not witness to these events, obtain their information? There is no knowledge about this void.

The sundry faces of Yeshua confound, but it must be remembered that an emerging new sect needs to erase its parent. We do not know even the most fundamental facts of the life of Yeshua - including the nature of his birth, the sect or segment of Jews (Essenes, Galileans, Zealots, Pharisees, Hasidim) whose views reflect his formation, the specific cause of his crucifixion. It should be clear that in the schizoid way in which Yeshua is presented - as [both] rabbi and denouncer of Jews - there is a deep confusion of conflicting disguises of identity, and diverse voices speaking through his persona.

This doesn't mean Barnstone is a mythicist (a position he seems to reject quite forcefully), but he is obviously a realist. His complete New Testament translation was released in 2009.

Oh sheesh, I hate Calvinism!

I might complain about the Missouri Synod, but they're light years ahead of this guy. Robert Morey regurgitates nine minutes full of hateful, pouting, effete, self-obsessed Calvinism. His message (paraphrased): smile, God hates you!

Felix Taylor had this clip on his blog, where he graciously concluded with the observation that one "might not agree with Dr. Morey but I am sure he will make you think." Felix is an unusually acute observer and a scrupulously honest commentator, but this is one of the few times I have to shake my head in despair. Morey indeed causes a reaction, but it sure isn't an intellectual one. It reappears here to simply, quoting a good friend, "keep our disgust fresh."

Morey has a motley history (as well as a motley theology) and has been aligned with the wingnuts at WorldNetDaily.

It shows.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Of Rice Bubbles and Missouri Mullahs

Every now and then I go off on an uncharitable rant about the LCMS. For those folk outside the US, I'm not talking about the Australian Kellogg's rice bubble bars, but the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. I grew up in a household where the kitschy Concordia calendar hung on the wall in the kitchen, and the trite little devotional digest Portals of Prayer was one of the few regular periodicals in the home. As a thirteen year old I remember having to study Catechetical Helps in confirmation classes: all Missouri Synod productions. Remarkably my family was living not in St Louis, Missouri, but Hamilton, New Zealand. In those days (and still to some extent, though less so) Australasian Lutheranism was in cultural thrall to the mad mullahs of Missouri.

Finding any objective assessment of Missouri Synod Lutheranism today isn't easy. Lord knows, I certainly don't claim to be impartial. LCMS members tend to be, as I see it, either brainwashed or brain-dead, so that rules them out (see, I told you I wasn't impartial.) So it's nice - in fact it's near miraculous - to find a journalist who can hang an intelligent, respectful, yet critical article together. Larry Mitchell is the man who has pulled off the feat in the Chico Enterprise & Record (sadly, the praise doesn't extend to Mark Noll's facile pontifications.) If you've ever wanted the skinny on the LCMS, this is probably the place to get it.

Friday 11 June 2010

Barnstoning the New Covenant (1)

Very occasionally someone comes along who provokes all kinds of new thoughts on a subject. Such a someone is Willis Barnstone, acclaimed translator of obscure Gnostic documents. Some time ago he turned his focus on the New Testament, beginning with a translation of the four canonical gospels and the book of Revelation (the project has recently been completed.) The translation itself is interesting for a variety of reasons, but for now my interest is on the additional material he provides, starting with an article dealing with the unknown sources of the gospels.

"By Old Testament criteria, the gospels are the canonical Apocrypha of the New Covenant."

Eh, what's that?

"As in the instance of the canonical Apocrypha of the Hebrew Bible, we also lack an original Hebrew or Aramaic text to support them."

The point Barnstone is making is that the decision by Jerome and others to sideline the deuterocanonical books was occasioned by the lack of evidence for these documents in an "original" form prior to their appearance in Greek. A case of little Johnny's mother's sage advice on seeing her son bullying a younger kid: "put down that boy Johnny, you never know where he's been!"

Barnstone also notes that these apocryphal writings have since emerged from under that cloud.

"The main difference between the apocryphal status of the gospels and the canonical Apocrypha is that, while we still have no earlier documents to authenticate or trace the tradition of the gospels, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we now have fragments in Hebrew and Aramaic for some of the Septuagint Apocrypha."

Gospels 0, Apocryha 1.

As for the gospels, "[t]here are no original fragments in Hebrew or Aramaic and little hope that there will be any found."

"Before the Greek scriptures is the void."

Galilean fishers are unlikely candidates for Greek literacy, but there are more problems than that.

"It is not likely that Pilate ever addressed Yeshua in Latin, and whether or not Yeshua had Latin to respond to him is unknown. It is similarly unlikely that Pilate and Yeshua spoke to each other in Greek. If they spoke, it was through interpreters. And because of language differences, it is also improbable that they exchanged those austere life-and-death questions and retorts heard dramatically in the gospels. What fidelity of phrase was there when the Latin of Pilate and the Aramaic of Yeshua moved into the Greek of the gospels?"

There's enough raw material here for a book, let alone a series of blog posts. Barnstone's gift is to extract the obvious from the well worn observations of others and wave them under our noses as something needing our immediate attention. Could the conversation between Jesus (Barnstone prefers the Aramaic form of the name rather than the Latin) and Pilate really have happened that way? Why the rush to canonise Greek gospels that appear out of "the void" when skepticism reigned over Tobit, Wisdom and the Maccabees?

Good questions to mull over, and even better for the fact that while they've been in plain view all this time, they've also been largely overlooked.

(Quotes are from the previously issued first volume of Barnstone's translation, containing the gospels and Revelation.)

Monday 7 June 2010

Wright gets whacked by Ocker Pastor

His bishopness, the most 'whatever' Tom Wright, has had his critics, including blogdom's late, great N.T. Wrong (and considering the previous post, we'll have to add Bob Price.) Now Australian Lutheran pastor Mark Henderson has joined the fray, accusing the doyen of Anglogelicanism of completely misreading (and misrepresenting) Luther on law and grace.

Henderson seems to be an interesting character himself, an Anglican by upbringing who subsequently upgraded from the Thirty-Nine Articles to the Augsburg Confession. Well, who could argue that that isn't a move in the right direction, even if Henderson seems to favour the sectarian form of Lutheranism promoted by the Missouri Synod.

As for Henderson's protestations on Luther, I'm giving him a 7.5 out of ten. After all Wright, a victim of his own Calvinist tendencies, can be pedantic himself when apologetics demand it, and what's sauce for the goose...

Sunday 6 June 2010

Strobel's Apologetics Thoroughly Flayed

I've said it before, I'm a huge fan of Robert Price.

The tragedy is that Bob, a former Baptist minister who still sings in the choir at an Episcopal church, has to publish his books through imprints like the American Atheist Press, rather than mainstream publishers. This means his readership is usually heavily weighted toward confirmed skeptics, whereas the folk who should be cracking open the covers are unaware that they even exist.

That's especially so with his new title, the Lee Strobel-busting The Case Against the Case for Christ.

Here's the blurb.

Lee Strobel arguably is now the leading apologist in America for evangelical, fundamentalist, benighted forms of Christianity. Although not an authority himself in any of the fields in which he defends his faith, he has produced a series of best-selling The Case For... books in which he consults alleged experts to obtain 'evidence' and problematic information with which to prop up dubious beliefs he has adopted. He does not appear to have done any competent investigation on his own or consulted any genuine authorities on the relevant subjects. It is fair to say that all of Strobel's books are long exercises in applying the fallacy of informal logic known as 'The appeal to authority.' Originally published in 1998, The Case For Christ has now bamboozled and hornswoggled the better part of a generation of Americans. Something needed to be done!... Because Strobel has drawn upon the best-known and prolific apologists alive today and brought their arguments together for easy reading, Dr. Price has seized the opportunity to wipe out the entire field of Christian apologetics in the course of refuting Lee Strobel. With punning as well as penetrating humor, Price has created a book that can be used as a handbook by anyone troubled by the claims and importuning of Christian apologists.

Sounds like fun.