Tuesday 31 August 2010

Tithe in life, chuck it on the Tkach bonfire in death

No, somehow I really don't think so...

I give and bequeath the sum of $_ to

Islamophobia and Kristallnacht

Jim West draws the parallel. Hatred of Islam - fuelled by loony toons like Glenn Beck - is as evil as anti-Semitism.

Saturday 28 August 2010

Caffeinated Confessionalism

No more pedantic species of clergyperson is known in the Christian multiverse than confessional Lutheran pastors. They seem to exist on another level of being to the rest of us, grappling manfully with the complexities of a sixteenth century mindset in a twenty-first century world. Safely shielded behind their off-white dog collars the Enlightenment has yet to shine its warm and healing rays on them. The holy book of these defenders of non-Reformed Protestantism is the Book of Concord, the lens through which everything scriptural and doctrinal must be viewed. "Way back when" Luther, Melanchthon and others put the then emerging evangelical faith (to be distinguished from what Anglo-Reformed types mean by 'evangelical' - that's another blog post) through the sausage machine in order to make it coherent for the intellectually challenged (i.e. small children and members of the German nobility.) What emerged was a compendium of documents known collectively as the Book of Concord.

You can tell a confessional Lutheran from a sane Lutheran by their unquenchable desire to praise the unspeakable excellencies of the BoC. It's much more than the equivalent of an Anglican regard for those forgettable Thirty-nine Articles, or the nonsense Presbyterians of a certain persuasion prate about the Westminster Confession. Confessional Lutherans are people of the book, and the book is the BoC.

It doesn't help of course that the BoC is as riveting as a 1953 telephone directory. Nor does it help that most church members neither read it nor own it. Most can lay their hands on the most popular bit, Luther's Small Catechism - a cutting edge document for the instruction of illiterate peasant kids by the time-honoured rote memorisation method, and a few might be able to dust off a copy of the Augsburg Confession, but whoever found devotional inspiration in the Smalcald Articles?

Enter hip, young and thoroughly caffeinated Missouri Synod pastor Jonathan Fisk. You have to wonder just how many Red Bulls it takes for this bloke to warm up for the camera. And how can he speak so about the saintly Zwingli? (Jim, forgive him!) No shades of grey here, the BoC is "the doctrinal symbol of the true church on earth," "perfect teaching; yes, true doctrine is possible"? Perhaps it's no surprise that Fisk is a convert from a marginal heretical sect (possibly Methodism).

But hey, the guy is kinda entertaining, which isn't something you can say about many LCMS clergy. And the gratuitous sideswipes at Catholic tradition and the Heidelberg Catechism will just make you yearn for the good old days when piety and true doctrine mattered - the Thirty Years' War.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Of long drops and banana frosting

I hate Winter. Rain, colds, flu, fog, short days, chilly evenings...

I hate not being able to get out for a regular walk, what the previous generation called a "constitutional." And while some of my own generation - and you know who you are - have capitulated to the demands of telemarketers to join a gym, that is a luxury denied to those of us with real jobs, restricted lunch breaks and long commutes.

Do I sound a bit grumpy?

Well, I'm making excuses for irregular blogging of late as I nurse a box of tissues. As I said, I hate Winter.

But even in the Southern hemisphere Winter is invariably followed by Spring, and August - the cursed month - is about to morph into September.

Watching TV news coverage of floods in Pakistan and China with their human toll, however, I'm a bit embarrassed to think there's anything at all worth complaining about in this neck of the woods. Auckland is a long way from the monsoon belt, even if it is built on supposedly dormant volcanoes. And now the bad news has extended to the African nation of Niger where yet more floods have turned an already terrible situation into a catastrophe. Real people, real loss.

Maybe theologies should be categorised by seasons too. I'm pretty sure Calvin cooked up his hateful stew on a grey Winter day, and Augustine had a persistent head cold when he invented original sin.

Luther, we know for a fact, was constantly constipated, which explains a good deal as well as providing one of my favourite stories (actually my only story) about the link between chilly castle long-drops and grace. I'd relate it now, but it's best told with the appropriate sound effects... I'm sure Luther himself would feel short-changed without the grunting sounds.

As the Crowded House number goes, you need to take the weather with you. Easier said than done, especially when a horde of Bible-quoting pessimists keep slagging off the human species as mired in its own total depravity. And the sad truth is that many Christians seem to think that the weather they need to internalise is, well, Winter's blast. Bah, humbug!

I know of a Christian community (loosely defined) where they've tried in recent years to flush away the Winter blues by introducing a genetically modified post-Barthian perversion of Reformed theology into their orthodoxy, along with a good deal of arm waving into their orthopraxis. Not a pretty sight. A bit like putting banana frosting on a traditional fruit cake. But that's another box of tissues.

Spring? Bring it on!

Saturday 21 August 2010

The Historical Jesus

I finally got around to reading the IVP Academic title The Historical Jesus this week. It features a diverse group of scholars who present their 'take' on the subject, and provide short, sharp responses to the other contributors. Those involved are:

Bob Price: Former Baptist, currently Episcopalian, and widely read in skeptical circles. Jesus didn't exist, but that's OK.
John Dominic Crossan: Progressive Catholic. Jesus opposed Roman imperialism with non-violence.
Luke Timothy Johnson: Conservative Catholic. Jesus is best approached as a faith-building literary character.
James D. G. Dunn: (I aint sayin' nuthin' about him!)
Darrell Bock: Teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary - say no more. "I believe, help thou everyone else's unbelief!"

Actually it's a bit of a shark tank. These guys aren't afraid to let rip. Bob Price and Dom Crossan aren't the only ones to get beaten up with lead-weighted crucifixes either. I picked up this book with some clear prejudices about some of those involved... well, specifically Johnson and Bock. Bock didn't disappoint, he definitely lives up (down, sideways) to his so-called 'evangelicalism'. Johnson however impressed me; though I don't buy his approach, he's obviously a very perceptive character, and I might even have to go back and reread his The Real Jesus. Dunn surprised me too, though I'll leave any comment on that to another time. Well worth the investment!

30 minutes with Doug & the Weasel

Dear lord, Mike Feazell has conned Douglas Campbell into an interview for Grace Communion International (formerly the Worldwide Church of God.) Jason Goroncy - who seems relentlessly impressed by the ongoing Feazell Follies - draws attention to the video on his blog.

What can you say about Campbell? Well, he has a fantastic accent... He writes big, dense books... and even Mike seems a bit out of his depth (and frankly bored) this time. If you're not into this kind of thing you'll probably not want to invest thirty non-refundable minutes of your life this way.

Campbell sounds at times like a fundamentalist: "this person God," "demonic forces." Clearly he's not, the man is merely Reformed. The most exciting moment in the half hour for me was when Campbell actually lifted up and drank from the "You're Included" coffee mug. Hey, I thought it was just a prop!

Earlier I did a potted review of Campbell's doorstop The Deliverance of God.

Friday 20 August 2010

Bonhoeffer quote

"If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction."

Where's Harry?

Across at First Things ("the most delusional pretentious important journal of religion and public life in America") you can find a list - fresh from the steamy depths of writer Joe Carter's subjective judgment - of the fifty most influential religious figures in American history. By 'American' the writer means US (rather than Canadian or Brazilian for example), a restricted usage that always puzzles a mere Antipodean like myself. Carter is also unwilling to include people like Carl Walther or Aimee Semple McPherson who were born outside the country, which seems more than a bit strange (by that criteria neither Samuel Marsden nor E. M. Blaiklock could be included among the most influential figures in New Zealand religious history.)

Of the fifty I recognized thirty-two, but could only make a semi-intelligent comment about twenty six, even if my life depended on it. Mary Baker Eddy makes the list but not Ellen G. White. Carl Henry is there but not Robert Funk. Gordon Hinckley gets the nod but Hal Lindsey is consigned to pre-rapture oblivion. Funk and Lindsey aren't hugely influential? Go figure.

And how on earth could anyone overlook Harry Emerson Fosdick?

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Tally ho fellow Ephraimites

click to enlarge
Neil Godfrey, in the sacred cause of promoting a mythicist-friendly understanding of Jesus, provided this chart on his blog. It's from the jingoistic world of British-Israelism (BI), a bizarre teaching that flourished in Britain's age of empire. The true Israelites were Englishmen! Neil's point: "Look at the mix of mythical and historical persons in the chart long cherished by British Israelites..."

Yup, it's what you'd call "a dog's breakfast." Where does fact end and fantasy begin?

I confess that I probably encountered BI around the same time as Neil, as a flagship component in the rat-bag of doctrines promoted by Herbert Armstrong, an ad-man who turned his considerable talents to the biblicist tithe-farming industry. One of his most popular books was The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy, actually a plagiarised rehash of a classic BI text by J. H. Allen (Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright.) The US was viewed as literal heir to the tribe of Manasseh, joining the English Ephraimites as beneficiaries of the Eternal's blessings. But there were obvious complications; for example, how did you get the Judean royal family - David's throne - grafted over onto the Brits who were supposedly descended from Ephraim, not Judah? That's the purpose of this chart, and I think you'll agree that what it lacks in facticity it more than makes up in creativity.

I still remember trying to make sense of all that as a fifteen-year old. I took the book on the family summer holiday break at the beach as reading material (go figure!) As Yoda might say, "sorely disappointed was I." To spot this garbage again brings a sulphurous whiff of nostalgia for a world that has long passed.

Except... there are indeed still people who believe this stuff is for real. It's foundational to a variety of sects including the United Church of God. Yes, they are a bit more discrete about it, and their charts might have nicer fonts, cooler artwork and carefully selected color coding, but that's little more than lipstick on a pig.

Whether this particular exemplar really helps Neil make his case I'm not sure, but clearly history and myth do indeed mix, as the chart demonstrates. This material has all the cogency of those contemporary orthodox theologies that insist that Adam (clearly a mythological character) wrecked creation, and that the whole need for salvation is predicated on this sinful bit of fiction. If anything that's even sillier than BI.

And if you're wondering whether anyone ever got around to sharing the exciting news of Davidic descent with members of the Windsor family, I recollect that a high-ranking Fijian chieftain (Ratu), who also happened to be a member of the Armstrong church in the 1970s, reportedly presented Prince Philip with a copy of the book referred to above during a tour of the Pacific nation.

His Royal Highness' reaction was not recorded.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Is Biblical Christianity Bankrupt?

James McGrath links to a stimulating piece by Michael Dowd called Biblical Christianity is Bankrupt. It begins with this revealing quote from Carl Sagan.

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said - grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way."

It's well worth checking out. Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution, has been engaging in an exchange with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler. Ayatollah Al should probably give up before he makes an even bigger fool of himself. Mohler is the genius who famously asserted that Christians and Jews worship different gods.

Meanwhile back on the Missouri ranch, Paul McCain of Concordia Propaganda Publishing House has reposted a bit of fundavisionist drivel from this selfsame Mohler. Mohler in the article flails about to produce what amounts to a potted update of Harold Lindsell's addle-headed The Battle for the Bible, released way back in 1976. Those were the days of "Chairman Jao" (for those old enough to remember J. A. O. Preus, the reactionary president of the Missouri Synod who single-handedly destroyed Concordia Seminary in St. Louis). Mohler also favorably cites evangelical mystagogue J. I. Packer - is this his idea of a credible source?

Well, probably.

Whether or not you agree with Dowd about the bankrupcy of biblical Christianity, it seems pretty certain that Mohler and others out on the fringe are bankrupt in another sense.

Saturday 14 August 2010

Of baramins and biology

Frank Marsh, a Seventh-day Adventist, invented the word "baramin" in the 1940s. Frank mutilated two Hebrew words, bara (created) and min (kind) by bunging them together to describe Genesis "kinds." The term is used almost exclusively among the ranks of creationism apologists.
"Creationists believe different 'kinds' of organisms - 'baramins' - were created separately about 6000 years ago."

Phil Senter
Enter Phil Senter. Phil is, according to New Scientist, the son of Southern Baptist missionaries. Not surprisingly, he grew up - as many of us did - accepting a variety of creationism, until he found out better at high school. These days Phil is a dinosaur biologist at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, and describes himself as an atheist. Yet Phil is "engaging in friendly mischief" (his own words) with creationists by using the research techniques of "creation science" itself to demonstrate the reality of evolution.
"I wanted to determine whether morphological gaps separated Archaeopteryx - the earliest known bird - from the various non-avian coelurosaurs, the group of predatory dinosaurs ranging from tiny Microraptor to giant T. rex. I showed that within this group there is too much similarity to indicate separate baramins. Contrary to the previous creationist view that these animals were separately created, their own pet technique shows that these animals shared a common ancestor."

Apparently Senter's work has actually been received positively by creation scientists.
"The creationist camp's militant reputation comes mainly from vocal but ignorant internet posters. Creation scientists themselves tend to be well educated and polite... My goal is not to make enemies with cold-hearted debunking, but rather to set the record straight..."
The man deserves a medal! Phil may make his case convincingly, but it seems naive to imagine that colossally ignorant creationism apologists (the sort who write the books that appear in 'Christian' book stores) will allow it to challenge their prejudices. Still, it's nice to know that the creation ranters can be confronted on their own chosen grounds and still soundly trounced.

You can read the full New Scientist interview with Phil Senter here.

Monday 9 August 2010

SDA Study Bible

Recently we've seen the launch of the awful ESV Study Bible, two competing Lutheran Study Bibles - a half-decent one based on the NRSV (from Fortress Press) and another stuffed full of half-baked nonsense accompanying the ESV text (from Concordia.) This year its the turn of the Seventh-day Adventists (cue in three trumpets.)

click for larger view
The Andrews Study Bible is produced by the good folk at Andrews University and an "all-star cast of Adventist scholars." Should you avail yourself of this fine volume, your base text will be the NKJV. Interesting. Maybe they hadn't heard about Fred Coulter's translation... (sorry, sarcastic comment, but the devil made me do it.) Among those denominational luminaries recommending the ASB I only recognized former WCG member and SDA convert Mark Kellner's name. Here's his endorsement.

The study notes found in the Andrews Study Bible are almost certain to delight longtime scholars, serious students and even new believers. They are clear and concise, yet detailed enough to answer questions and truly enhance Bible study.
– Mark A. Kellner, News Editor, Adventist Review/Adventist World

You can also find a brief, uncritical, in-house PR feature in the Adventist Review. Anyway, if you're looking - as I'm sure you are - for a biblicist, creationist, sabbatarian study bible, and you only laugh when you see those full-page ads for Fred Coulter's The Holy Bible In Its Original Order in the BAR, well then, this is probably the one for you! And, oh glory! - it's also available on Amazon.

Saturday 7 August 2010

A little diversion

Battleground God is a survey made up of seventeen questions that tests your logical consistency on the God question. Not being a wooden-headed Calvinist, and relishing the "creative tension" in life and theology, I thought I might do rather badly. But... ta da!

You have been awarded the TPM medal of honour! This is our highest award for outstanding service on the intellectual battleground. The fact that you progressed through this activity neither being hit nor biting a bullet suggests that your beliefs about God are internally consistent and very well thought out.

A direct hit would have occurred had you answered in a way that implied a logical contradiction. You would have bitten bullets had you responded in ways that required that you held views that most people would have found strange, incredible or unpalatable. However, you avoided both these fates - and in doing so qualify for our highest award. A fine achievement!

So why not try it out for yourself? Especially if you're a devotee of Calvin, Barth, Torrance or any of that ilk...

A Jewish take on Job

Alex Goldberg is writing an eight part series of articles for The Guardian on the book of Job. Refreshingly, it's from a Jewish perspective. At the moment six entries are online, and well worth checking out if you have an interest in this iconic book of wisdom literature.

1. Who was Job? Why does he matter?
2. Theodicy on the street
3. Balaam, Yithro and Job
4. Theodicy on Planet Auschwitz
5. Job's wife - did she bless or curse?
6. Satan

Friday 6 August 2010

Dagon's Temple - Flurry's Folly

Flurry's Auditorium in Edmond
I try not to link to stories like this these days, it doesn't help the blood pressure. But for some folk the latest news about Gerry "Six-pack" Flurry and his designer sect, the Philadelphia Church of God (PCG), will at least serve to keep their contempt fresh.

The short version is that Flurry has blown twenty-million dollars to complete a monument in Edmond, OK; a near clone of the Worldwide Church of God's Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena CA. (since sold to Harvest Rock church). Flurry's church is itself something of a clone, slavishly aping the teachings of the Worldwide Church of God as they were presented under the leadership of Herbert W. Armstrong.

No expense has apparently been spared as Flurry imports high-brow acts to grace his stage. These include the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Vienna Boys Choir, the Russian National Ballet Theatre and the Eroica Trio. Is he trying to buy credibility? That's certainly the view of his critics.

Armstrong's Auditorium in Pasadena
The PCG has a reputation for weirdness. This is a high-demand sect that exercises strict control over its members, including imposing "no contact" rules with family members outside the group, particularly those in other sub-sects of Armstrongism. The dropout rate - along with the human cost - is, unsurprisingly, reported as high. The sect is believed to have only a few thousand tithe-paying members, which makes the lavish headquarters in Edmond even more remarkable.

Local Oklahoma media have been largely uncritical of the presence of the PCG, presumably because Flurry keeps throwing shiny baubles at the community. The $20,000,000 obscenity in Edmond is provided, as former member Sarah Luther notes, "on the backs of church members, who have been warned to give extra special and generous offerings if they want to please God."

Read it and weep.