Saturday 30 July 2011

Raymond Brown on theologians

To the jaundiced eye of a biblical scholar it often seems as if theologians phrase their theories of inspiration by reflecting on books like Genesis, the Gospels, and Romans; they might do better by trying their theories out on the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles!

Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible, p.7.

Friday 29 July 2011

The Apostle Paul hits a SNAG

What to do, what to do with 1 Corinthians 11...
I want you to know, however, that Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ.  Every man that prays, or speaks under inspiration, with his head veiled brings shame on his head.  Every woman that prays, or speaks under inspiration, with her head unveiled brings shame on her head.  It really amounts to the same thing as shaving her head.  If a woman does not veil herself, then she should shave her head.  But if it is a mark of infamy for a woman to shave her head or cut her hair short, she should wear a veil.  A man, indeed, has no duty to veil his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.  Why?  Because man did not spring from woman, but woman from man.  The man, in fact, was created not for the woman's sake, but the woman for the man's sake.  This is why the women should have a symbol of authority on their head, out of respect for the angels.  (1 Cor. 11: 3-10)
Say what?!

There is just so much wrong with this passage, no wonder it's an embarrassment.  Something's gotta be fishy here, right?  Paul can't have meant what he seems to have said...  Just as well Alan G. Padgett is there to ride in to the rescue on behalf of evangelical Sensitive New Age Guys (SNAGs) everywhere.

On his blog Tim Henderson draws attention to Padgett's worthy strainings in a two-part review of an about-to-be-released book.  'Paul [according to Padgett] is not saying that it is wrong for men to cover their heads while praying or for women to pray with their heads uncovered, quite the opposite. “His ultimate purpose is to reject the custom he is describing”... '

Huh?  Hang on, back to 1 Corinthians...
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray unveiled to God?  Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear his hair long is an ignominy for him, and that for a woman to wear her hair long is a glory for her, because her hair was given to her as a covering?  But if anyone wants to pick flaws in my argument, neither we nor the congregations of God have any such custom.  (v. 13-16)
Tim Henderson lays out Padgett's logic, such as it is, himself commenting: "If Paul thought women could wear their hair/head coverings in whatever manner they wished, why did he insist that men “ought not” to have this same freedom but must pray with their heads uncovered? This is left unexplained."
Padgett concludes by highlighting the fact that his reading “is much more in keeping with everything we know about Paul, his theology, his common practice, and his ethical thinking” from elsewhere in his letters (124). I will leave it to readers to decide for themselves the merits of this claim.
Yes indeed.  The simple truth is most of us are willing to tactfully overlook Paul's misogyny.  He was, after all, a "warts and all" child of his own times, and nobody's idea of a SNAG.  Why would anyone feel the need to reconstruct his whole argument and turn it inside out.  How honest is it to give the opinionated apostle a trendily moderating makeover.

There's a strong case for scrapping the really offensive stuff in the context of readings in church services, which is why the lectionary in more traditional denominations wisely leaves out such chaff (the only section of 1 Cor. 11 to make the cut in the Revised Common Lectionary is v. 23-26 on the eucharist).  You've got to worry, though, when people go through all kinds of contortions to try and "clean up" the scriptures themselves, all the better - one suspects - to preserve the illusion that these are something other than the human, highly errant documents that they are.  Their function is to point beyond themselves.  Is it even faintly credible to imagine that Paul in 1 Cor. 11 is actually saying, in effect, "hey, whatever!"  Padgett is dreaming.

(The quotations from 1 Corinthians come from a newly acquired - but not 'new' - translation.  Any guesses?  You'll need to think beyond the obvious.  There's a CD recording of the Hovhaness: Guitar Concerto No. 2for the first correct response.)

Monday 25 July 2011

Passionate Uncertainty

International Investment Banker Robert Lawrence Kuhn is one smart pilgrim.  The host of Closer to Truth who is sometimes described as a "public intellectual", goes looking for 'elusive answers' to 'timeless truths' about cosmos, consciousness and God.  In a recent episode ("Does God Make Sense?") he quizzes a range of thinkers: Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Daniel Dennett, Huston Smith, Michael Shermer and representatives of Hindu and Islamic perspectives (Varadaraja Raman and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.)  It's quite a cast (though somebody should really tell him about Don Cupitt...)

Who'd have thought that this one-time protégé of windbag Bible preacher Herbert W. Armstrong, and assistant to his jet-setting son Garner Ted Armstrong, would end up with a sophisticated personal credo of "passionate uncertainty"?  This is the man who co-wrote the 1970s 'brain/mind' articles in the Plain Truth, and went on to then run the PT newsstand programme! It just goes to show that we can all outgrow our youthful follies, I guess.

My only question now though is, all considered, how come he left Mike Feazell's name off his list of latter-day luminaries?

Sunday 24 July 2011

Climbing the "Cold Case" Scaffold

TVNZ tonight aired a two-hour special, Jesus: The Cold Case.  It will be interesting to hear the screams from conservative church leaders and fundamentalists as they beat their breasts over the next few days and cast imprecations at presenter Bryan Bruce.

Of course there were one or two clangers in the script, though not nearly as many as I feared.  Poor old Marcion, who may well have been Jewish himself, gets accused of anti-Semitism yet again, and Constantine is unjustly credited with making Christianity the official faith of the Empire.  But overall it was well researched, given that its approach was necessarily popular rather than academic, and drew on some undoubted talents, including Dom Crossan, Geza Vermes, Lloyd Geering and Elaine Pagels.

The thrust of the programme was to debunk the old blood libel that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, a worthy motive quite powerfully conveyed.  For anyone who has studied New Testament in any formal way, there could be little surprising or new in the 'case' Bruce made.  If the faithful who still sit in the pews are offended or scandalised to hear that the nativity and passion stories are largely fictive, they have no-one to blame other than themselves, or perhaps their clergy, for being kept in the dark.  This is, after all, 2011 and not 1611.

'Popular' shouldn't be a pejorative word. Programmes like this are invaluable in providing scaffolding (in the educational sense of that term) for interested, intelligent laypeople to go deeper, and for that reason alone Jesus: The Cold Case should provide a fantastic opportunity for those privileged to work in the field of biblical studies to 'come clean' in a more academically rigorous way.  And yet I suspect there will be a number who, if not merely sniffing disdainfully, will line up with the apologists to cast stones instead.

Deane Galbraith asks, and it's a great question, "Where are the current and most recent experts on the issue: Maurice Casey? Dale Allison? Roger Aus?"  The answer could be fairly simple.  By and large these scholars have not engaged those issues outside the academic establishment.  The great shakers and movers, whatever their fallibilities, have always been willing and able to communicate with a wider audience, not restricting themselves to jargon-heavy academic tomes.  Dale Allison certainly comes close, but Aus?

And wouldn't it be tremendous to see Maurice Casey 'sent to the scaffold'... so to speak.

Addendum: a thorough review from the keyboard of Deane Galbraith is now up on ROG.

Friday 22 July 2011

Why it's hard to be a Unitarian

Ponsonby's distinctive Unitarian church
The Unitarian faith seems the ideal fit for a post-Christian world. Inclusive to a fault; no creeds, no dogma, no barriers to participation.

And yet they're in decline, losing 85% their young people.

In the US the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) turns 50 this year, though the separate strands that led to the merger in 1961 go back hundreds of years.

Unitarians were once a much greater force in New Zealand too, being one of the founding members of the (now defunct) National Council of Churches in 1941.  (Alan Brash, a high profile Presbyterian minister and father of current Act Party leader Don Brash, served as General Secretary of the NCC for seventeen years.)  Today most New Zealanders would know nothing about Unitarians. The only church left in the country is an old wooden structure in the well-heeled Auckland suburb of Ponsonby, now oversize for its small congregation.  Small fellowship groups still meet in rented rooms in three other centres.

An article by Daniel Burke on RNS offers some observations on why this most liberal of faiths is failing to retain traction in these most liberal of times, and asks if they'll still be around in another fifty years.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Parasites of Ill Fortune

Petra: wanna house swap Christchurch for this?
Though Christchurch remains a shattered city months after the earthquakes, 'Cantabs' are a hardy breed, as witnessed by their continued prowess on the rugby field.  In trying circumstances most have elected to 'stay put' and are, as people do in situations like this, getting on with their lives.

My old bete noire Bob Thiel rattled his keyboard over Christchurch recently.  Bob, a California alternative health practitioner and self anointed apologist for Roderick Meredith's version of Armstrongism, is a prophecy buff.  In fact he's even self-published a book on "2012".

Here's what Bob has to say about Christchurch.
New Zealanders are still rattled by earthquakes... Well, Jesus, of course, warned about a time with such issues... The Bible repeatedly indicates that “natural disasters” are intended to get people (and nations) to repent... Yet, the idea of national repentance does not seem to have gotten much press coverage over there... There will be other problems in New Zealand and elsewhere. The beginning of sorrows is not yet over, and the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7), AKA the Great Tribulation, will follow it. Whether or not your nation repents, you can personally. There is a Place of Safety for the Philadelphians and it may Be Petra.
Yep, the solution to earthquakes, my fellow Kiwis, is 'national repentence', the Trib is barrelling down on us, but as national repentance is unlikely you, if you are a 'Philadelphian' (part of the 'Philadelphia era' of the church which Bob thinks is described in the seven letters section of Revelation), can be 'spared' by joining the Meredith sect.  Do that and you'll be flown away on the wings of an eagle (jet planes, not the Darby rapture) to a prophesied 'Place of Safety' while all your dear friends and family go to hell in a hand cart. Bob hints heavily that this hidey hole is Petra, the famous tourist destination in the Jordanian desert.

Well, well...

The ethics of this kind of fear-religion are subnormal.  Parasites prey on people's uncertainties and tragedy, throw around a few proof texts with no regard to their context, historical setting or genre, prescribe the appeasement  of a foul-tempered god of their own imagination, and then toss out moronic speculation (parading as 'bible truth') about just how the divine deliverance will be, um, delivered.

I guess even on his death bed, hopefully at a ripe old age, Bob will still be spouting this nonsense.  No worse than Hal Lindsey, Harold Camping or Tim LaHaye.  But certainly no better.

Prophecy buffs or prophecy buffoons?

Monday 18 July 2011

If it's good enough for Alvin...

If it's good enough for Alvin... he's smart.
Scott Bailey has an illuminating, if somewhat jaw-dropping, quote from Alvin Plantinga regarding historical criticism of the Bible.
There is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing the procedures and assumptions of historical biblical criticism are to be preferred to those of traditional biblical commentary.
Theological flat-earthers like Plantinga tend to make statements like that, and all the apologetic hounds lift their noses to the skies and bay in chorus.

Of course that's his opinion, and he's welcome to it, but it's not written as an opinion, nor received by the long-eared pack as one. It's written as a clear statement of fact, and on that basis it's... rubbish.

Bailey comments: "It seems I keep hearing “thinkers” all across the ideological spectrum who are encouraging people not to think! Whatever you do: do not look at the evidence."

No, take it on 'faith'... my faith.  Take my word for it. Don't you worry your silly little head about it; just go back to sleep and let me do all the thinking for you.

Is treating the 'laity' as children - fostering their dependence, and whispering reassuring lies in their ears - half-baked opinions parading as fact - even ethical?  Is this scholarship?  

Thanks Alvin, but no thanks.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Living Fossils of the Herbozoic (2)

I spent some time listening to Ernest L. Martin (ELM) tapes back in the eighties.  Martin left his job teaching at unaccredited Ambassador College in Pasadena in the mid-70s in order to follow his own star, drawing a significant number of people out after him.  Lester Grabbe left AC some time later, but the difference between the two men was significant.  While Grabbe went on to build a very real and deserved scholarly reputation, Martin established something called the Foundation for Biblical Research, and began issuing tapes and booklets to publicise his new teachings.  These included a variety of universalism (of the sort promoted by A. E. Knoch's Concordant Publishing Concern), 'progressive revelation', and a number of dissenting positions from his years serving under Herbert Armstrong (Sabbath, tithing, prophecy etc.) 

Martin's style was consistently approachable, perhaps largely because it had almost no historical critical content.  To say he was popular among his target audience is to understate things, and he was widely regarded in the ex-Armstrong diaspora as a gifted scholar.  Certainly he played the 'new truth' game extremely well.  Every issue of his newsletter, The Foundation Commentator, seemed to trumpet an exciting new biblical understanding, often related to 'prophecy', thus keeping his followers focused and motivated.  This enthusiastic approach was highly effective, however academically lightweight it may have been.  Martin proceeded to issue impressive looking books under his own imprint, many of which are still available.  Some regard his The Star that Astonished the World as the magnum opus, bringing together his fascination with the Bible and meteorology in an attempt to identify the "star of Bethlehem".  It was credible enough to inspire displays in many planetariums.

Martin died in 2002.  A group called Associates for Scriptural Knowledge carries on his legacy, and his son Samuel has another small ministry based in Jerusalem.  Helping facilitate both (along with James Tabor's Original Bible Project) is an intriguing Pasadena-based online bookstore operation, CenturyOne Books.

CenturyOne Books ("The First Century's Biggest Bookstore") regularly advertises the ELM-inspired "Original Order" Bible in the Biblical Archaeology Review, and is now recycling Ernest Martin's rambling tapes in CD form.  It was the sight of this full page ad in the May/June issue that created a jaw-dropping personal deja vu moment.

As I said at the beginning, I've heard a few of the ELM tapes.  To imagine that they've been repackaged as an "exciting new [?] 6-volume, 40-CD" 'oral commentary' series on the Hebrew Bible is, well, remarkable.  In fact, the thought of anyone spending all those hours listening to ELM is more than enough to make my eyes water.  Those who can read between the lines will be able to judge the quality of the "scholarly reviews" offered.  Take W. H. C. Frend's comments for example: "All neatly tied up, with other interesting speculations... Martin's reconstructions read convincingly."  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  Nor is it likely that Frend, who died in 2005, was reviewing these 40-CD "capsule commentaries", despite the impression the ad gives.

The advertising copy in the BAR begins, "What better way to boost your 'Old Testament IQ'...!

I realise that it's a rhetorical question, but it wouldn't be too difficult to offer a fairly extensive list of suggestions...

Saturday 16 July 2011

Who's responsible for this?

click to enlarge
Don't you just love new Bible resources?  I mean, take this excerpt from a brand new volume on the Book of Books.  Here we are reassured that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and very comforting it is too.  Note the accurate Caucasian features of our first parents; so much for "out of Africa"!

So, who is responsible for this gem of scholarship?  Place your bets!

(1) The Watchtower (Jehovah's Witnesses)
(2) A Seventh-day Adventist publishing house
(3) The Missouri Synod Lutherans
(4) Thomas Nelson
(5) Zondervan (owned by the pious and saintly Rupert Murdoch)
(6) Plain Truth Ministries
(7) Family Radio (Harold Camping)

Living Fossils of the Herbozoic (1)

Thumbing through the May/June issue of the BAR I nearly had a coronary, right there in the Borders store in Albany.  A double shot of Ernest Martin in two full page ads.

The first was for "The Holy Bible in its Original Order" (page 7).  This volume had its genesis in the desire of Ernest L. Martin (often referred to as ELM) to 'restore' the Bible to its 'original' order.  The initial idea, according to James Tabor, was to gain permission to reprint the long forgotten Rotherham translation in an appropriately reshuffled edition.  The 'original' order for the New Testament was, according to Martin:

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts... (so far so conventional).
James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude... then,
Romans, 1 Cor., 2 Cor., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians...
1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and, finally,

You learn something new each day.

I'm not sure how ELM worked that out, or how the book order could be considered such a significant issue, but he self-published a large tome on the subject (The Original Bible Restored, which weighs in at over 500 pages and is still procurable on Amazon).  There was strong support for the idea among his followers, disenchanted adherents of one-time ad man turned apostle, Herbert W. Armstrong.  (Martin had been Professor of Theology at Ambassador College prior to the convulsions of 1974, and one of Herb's most influential lieutenants.  His doctorate - in education - was also from unaccredited AC.  Wikipedia calls him an archaeologist, but that's definitely a stretch.)  Eventually it was decided to go it alone with this 'original' Bible, which was a mistake.  Martin died before the translation project got off the ground.

Loyal supporters decided to continue with the project which, some years ago, fell into the hands of Dr. Tabor (UNC, Charlotte), another former Ambassador lecturer and disciple of Armstrong.  There's little indication however that "The Original Bible Project" will ever now see the light of day, with Tabor's last web entry advising progress on The Transparent English Bible dated November 2009.

But fear not little flock!  Into the breach stepped Fred Coulter, an ex-Armstrong minister, and one of the few who'd bothered to learn Greek at AC.  Fred released his own 'original order' New Testament in 2004, and later bought the rights to a KJV clone to bung together the Old Testament part (after, I assume, water-boarding the appropriate proof texts till they surrendered) with his New Testament.  The result was the very expensive item ($119.50 or $99.50, depending on the cover) advertised in the BAR.  My advice?  Save your money.

So far nothing new.  This 'unique' Bible has been promoted in the pages of the BAR for a very long time.

No, the near coronary occurred when I flicked over to page 13.

(To be continued)

Friday 15 July 2011

Bonking with Barth

Two Kiwi bibliobloggers have recently dealt with the Holy One of Bern's take on marriage.  Not just Kiwi's, y'know, but Dunedin-based Mainlanders.

Deane Galbraith has been drawing attention to the interesting relationship Karl Barth had with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, using a very amusing speech bubble innuendo-type method.  Who'd have thought such light-hearted creativity was even possible in sub-antarctic latitudes?  For some reason unfathomable to those of us who use the (ahem) superior technology of Blogger, WordPress blogs don't seem to let you link to all the thematically connected posts in one hit, but a stroll through the last few weeks' worth of Deane's fine work is time well spent.

Now Jason Goroncy has a post up called Barth on Marriage.  This is a heavier, more sober piece redolent with the kind of insightful (if sometimes opaque) discussion to be expected from a knowledgeable Presbyterian scholar.  No mention of 'Lotte' here.

Coincidentally, as mentioned earlier, I've been on a bit of a Barth binge.  Why?  Something to do with prolonged exposure to viral Barthian presuppositions while "doing theology" through Dunedin's Otago University.  Being from beyond the walls of the Reformed ghetto, I found this the most puzzling, downright irritating and frequently off-putting part of those studies, and yet Barth himself was never subjected to any kind of sustained critique in the courses I took.

A second reason is the capitulation of the fringe faith community of my salad days to Barthian influence since its much overstated and overblown "reformation". The result has been - at least as I see it - almost complete incoherence in that church's theology.  A good heresy at least provides coherent fantasy!  Incoherence may try to pass itself off as profundity; but it's just another variation of 'the emperor's new clothes'. Be warned, if you read The Surprising God blog regularly, your brain might well turn to mush.

I began the 'binge' thinking that Barth might only make sense if you first bought into the whole darn Reformed package.  In other words, you'd need to buy the clunky, obsolete Calvin software before you could apply the Barth upgrade.  And, well, with all due respect to anyone who owns the Geneva operating system, that simply wasn't going to happen!

Having now tackled Barth in greater "superficial depth" than previously, I'm approaching the stage where I kind of admire the guy for some things, while being violently repelled by others.  Over the next couple of weeks, with a break from routine, there's an opportunity to work on the promised podcast, which will hopefully be neither hatchet job nor hagiography.  Barth's thought, being as willfully obtuse as it is, can't of course really be covered by this kind of light once-over.  After all, his English publisher, SCM, once described the man himself (with absolutely no sense of dry humour, wit or sarcasm) as "the Einstein of twentieth-century theology."

An assessment which Charlotte von Kirschbaum would probably have agreed with.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

CEB - the best "broad spectrum" translation yet?

The complete Common English Bible has been unleashed at last, and it may give the NRSV and other "broad spectrum" translations real competition.

The CEB attempts to bring together readability with high standards in scholarship. Literal translations are famously 'wooden' making them almost impossible to use as spoken English.  Evangelical translations are, by their very nature, agenda driven, sometimes deliberately mistranslating in order to preserve 'proof texts', as with the ESV.

The controversial release of the latest NIV revision - and its troubled reception at the recent Southern Baptist convention - illustrates just how vulnerable modern translations are to haranguing from the 'cheap seats', and the resulting pressure to compromise.

The CEB promises something much better, and that is, well, uncommon.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Leaving the (Abusive) Fold

There are more than a few readers here who know what it's like to be cast out of the Kingdom, excommunicated, disfellowshipped...  That's something I share with them.  My terrible sin was questioning the authority of the imperious church leader who, it turned out, had "feet of clay."

Whether the mullahs get to you first, or you precipitate things by confronting them (as I did), the result is pretty much the same.  I've never been divorced, but I imagine the trauma you go through is similar in both.  Church membership - especially in more sectarian settings - is about identity as well as community.  Reinventing yourself is no easy thing.

So I found myself empathising with Shelley Branine.  She and her husband were recently dumped from membership of their church.  The sin?
The foundation crumbled when we started asking questions about how money was being spent and the lifestyle of some of the leaders doing the spending. We weren’t the only members wondering, just the only ones brave enough to ask. I was shocked to discover that such simple questions would cause so much anger, fear and defense. Our intention and demeanors were not harsh or critical. We simply and politely asked for answers.

So they kicked us out.
This is a tale oft told.  The last line of Shelley's post is, though, the one that struck me.
But regardless of all of the hurt feelings and confusion, I’m thankful, because I am better for it.
Abusive churches are lethal, no matter how much we have invested in them - study, financial, even (tragically) family.  Abusive churches want - and need - compliant, unquestioning members.  Perhaps in the past these churches tended to cluster on the sectarian fringes, but today, like Shelley's, they operate close to the evangelical mainstream with largely unaccountable 'pastors'.  If they were plumbers you'd call them 'cowboys'. You only have to read Tanya Levin's account of life in Hillsong to recognise the same pattern, and Hillsong is "respectable" in the eyes of the evangelical mainstream.

It's clearly much easier not to get involved in a rogue, personality-driven church than to have to tear yourself free much later.  The message has to be, buyer beware!  But, as Shelley has discovered, better late than never.  You'll be the better for it.

Friday 8 July 2011

Life in a snow globe

Compulsory reading for anyone who thinks the Deluge story in Genesis just might still be credible as history.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Flee to the hills!

Aging American evangelist Rod "Spanky" Meredith seems to be advising his flock to 'flee to the hills.'  Meredith is 'Presiding Evangelist' over a small sect known as the Living Church of God (LCG).

Today unofficial LCG web-apologist Doctor Bob Thiel, a California naturopath, stoked up concern on his blog over an earthquake in the Kermadec Islands which, briefly, raised a tsunami warning in Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand, sagely observing:
Jesus, of course, warned about a time with such issues... [citing Mark 13:8] We may be at this prophetic point as all the earthquakes and other problems that have happened in the past year could be considered as “troubles”.
Dr. Bob then goes on to quote the sacred words of his Glorious Leader from a 2004 church editorial.
Events prophesied in your Bible are now beginning to occur with increasing frequency. In this Work of the living God, we are able to warn you about what is going to happen soon. We are not talking about decades in the future. We are talking about Bible prophecies that will intensify within the next five to 15 years of your life! Please understand. We are not “scaremongers.” We love our fellow man. So it is our responsibility to warn our peoples—ahead of time—to prepare for the future. Most of our advice is spiritual in nature. However, in this editorial I want to give you some common sense advice involving your physical survival and your financial well-being…So we must each examine our own situation to determine what action we should take. Are we living in a low-lying coastal area where we may be in danger at a time of increasing hurricanes, tsunamis or similar natural disasters?
Time to sell that beachfront property!  (Not that too many triple-tithing members of the LCG could afford beachfront property.)

"Spanky" has been predicting the Great Tribulation in the "next three to five years" since the 1950s.  Time to dig deep for the last great push to fulfil the Great Commission!  I suppose it's progress that he's now stretched the time period out to a much safer "five to 15". 

I feel a prediction coming on; a prophecy!  In fifteen years time Rod will no longer be with us, there still will be earthquakes, and Bob, having learned nothing, will continue promoting naive apocalyptic nonsense.

Saturday 2 July 2011

White collar crime

Auckland's ever controversial Anglican church, St. Matthew-in-the-City, has a new billboard on display sure to tweak the noses of their more conservative brethren. It's part of an initiative to petition those old codgers who wear the funny hats to permit the ordination of openly gay and lesbian priests.

Whatever your views on the merits of such a campaign, the use of the term "white collar crime" is interesting.  When did you last see a "man of the cloth" out in public with a dog collar?  When did you last hear a functionary of a traditional church obsequiously referred to as "reverend" without flinching?

Back in the "olden days," when I was a kid, dog collared reverends were far more common.  In fact, there was a default attitude of respect toward them, even among those who rarely darkened the door of a church.  They were, if nothing else, professional gentlemen.  They had endured years of training, had more books on their shelves than their parishioners, and were both 'safe' and somewhat worldly-wise.  If you wanted a job reference, a clergyman was a sound choice, along with the family doctor and a high school teacher.  Need some astute advice?  You'd see Pastor/Father/Reverend so and so, particularly if you came from a lower-middle class or working class background.

Times change.  Clergypersons are no longer exclusively male.  Dog collars are out of fashion when appearing in public. Attendance has plummeted.  The church is caught up in its own interminable internal disputes, gay ordination being one hot issue that refuses to be hosed down, while Rome burns all around it.

White collar crime number one, as I see it, is the refusal of the mainline churches to come clean on their complicity in (to use a euphemism) the mushroom farming industry (keep 'em in the dark and pour on the effluent.)  Obfuscation reigns in an attempt to offend as few people as possible.  The old creeds continue to be recited by worshippers who know that they can't be taken on face value.  The unspoken rule is "play the game" and, while you're being sprayed with effluent, whistle loudly to keep your spirits up.

But why bother?  There's not much future in that, either with or without an enlightened policy toward the ordination of gay men and women.

Friday 1 July 2011

The Jesus story retold

I got around to Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ on the weekend. To repeat what has been said before, this is a creative retelling of the Jesus story. It isn't non-fiction, it isn't a biography, and it makes no pretence to be a work of scholarship. In fact this is Pullman's first book for adults; he has made his name as a children's author.

This didn't stop the morons who shelve items at Borders in Auckland from placing it in the religion section of course.

So, how good - or bad - is it? That is inevitably a matter of personal judgement, but for what it's worth here's my personal take.

It is a beautifully written tale that has a simple, direct style. You can read it in a couple of sittings easily, and if you've ever tackled a modern paraphrase (like the awful Peterson Message) you may even find Pullman a huge improvement in those parts where he follows the tradition.

They said 'Teacher, you're an honest man, we can all see that. No one doubts your sincerity or your impartiality; you show no favours, and you don't try to ingratiate yourself with anyone. So we're sure you'll give us a truthful answer when we ask you: is it lawful to pay taxes?'

They meant lawful according to the law of Moses, and they hoped they would trick him into saying something that would get him into trouble with the Romans.

But he said 'Show me one of those coins you pay taxes with.'

Someone handed him a coin, and he looked at it and said 'There's a picture on here. Whose picture is this? What's the name underneath it?'

'It's Caesar's of course,' they said.

'Well, there's your answer. If this is Caesar's, give it back to him. Give God the things that are God's.'

But of course this isn't a paraphrase, but a more literary enterprise. And Pullman isn't a pious believer but an upfront Atheist. I did find the plot a bit stretched to begin with: Jesus has a twin brother ("Christ") who ultimately brings him down. Then there's the mysterious stranger who uses Christ as his pawn in the subversion of the Kingdom of God message.

But does Pullman pull it off anyway? Yes, I think so.

Of course some Christians (but not all) will be offended. That's predictable. Tough.