Tuesday 27 September 2011

The Tithing Trip

Living under grace, according to Michael Morrison of Grace Communion International means the end of all sorts of laws found in the Hebrew Bible.  He's probably right.

So it's bye bye Sabbath and dietary restrictions.  But what will Michael make of tithing?  Surely there's no possible confusion here.  After all, no Levitical priesthood, no temple, no New Testament precedent... no tithing. 

We might reasonably expect Michael to give us a clear message about stewardship though.  Things like; be generous, but take care where you send your money, support a variety of worthy causes, make sure they all have transparent financial accountability; you know, stuff like that.

Dream on.

In chapter 20 of Sabbath, Circumcision and Tithing Morrison gets around to tithing.  Considering how he ripped so lustily into the Sabbath and the Ten Commandments, readers may be surprised at how coy he now becomes.

Abraham "may have tithed regularly, but we cannot prove it."

Darn tootin'!

And Jacob?  "Tithing may have been a part of common worship practices of that time and culture - or it may have expressed an extra level of devotion."

Do tell!  The cautious tiptoeing continues.  Multiple tithes could be a misreading of the relevant passages, but "this assumption may be wrong."

May indeed!  Do we detect the slightest hint of prevarication on these issues?  But Morrison is just warming up, here comes the heavy guilt trip.
The Israelites were required to give 10 percent - and their blessing was only a physical one!  Christians in the new covenant have much better blessings - spiritual ones.  How much more willingly ought we to give in thankfulness for the eternal blessings we have in Christ Jesus? ...  Should we give less than a tithe when the blessings we have are so much more glorious than those of the Israelites?
Michael goes on to remind us, lest we've somehow overlooked the fact, that Christians are meant to be generous, and "shouldn't we be willing to give more than the minimum?"  Indeed, supporting the clergy is "a command for all of us."
Elders, especially those who preach and teach, should be honored financially as well as with respect... people who believe the gospel should provide a living for some who preach.  There is a financial duty and there is a promised reward... [Christians] have a duty to support the preaching of the gospel, to give financial support to their spiritual leaders...
Well, okay, but do you notice that there's nothing here, absolutely nothing, about the duty of 'spiritual leaders' to be accountable to the membership both financially and in other senses?  Nothing about church members having a responsibility to make wise, informed choices about which ministries and other good causes they choose to support?

On the other hand there is an awful lot of harping on about duty from the bottom up.  Morrison seems to think duty only flows one way, up to those 'spiritual leaders' from the lay members.  Those good folk get soundly whacked around the head by Morrison.  And the unmandated leaders of sects like GCI?  They apparently get a free ride.

Last time I checked (and please, someone tell me if it's all now changed) the sect that pays Morrison's salary consistently refused to open its books to public scrutiny.  The official line was that members could request financial statements, but strangely nobody seemed to know anyone who actually got hold of one.  I do know of one US member who naively took church PR at face value and did indeed request a copy.  Result?  Church HQ contacted the local pastor who informed them that this gentleman had been irregular in attendance for a while.  The luckless member then received a terse letter back rejecting his application and indicating that he was effectively in a state of disfellowship!

If Michael and his ministerial mates want to "be honored financially as well as with respect", wouldn't you think it might be a good idea to clean up their act first?  Honor and respect need to be earned, and GCI's record of transparency and accountability over the years (decades!) has been, to put it politely, dismal.

To throw money at an organisation which isn't totally up front with financial disclosure, or is run by a self-perpetuating cabal (including a non-elected "president-for-life") and without visible systems of checks and balances is, at least in my view, completely irresponsible, and worse, makes donors into enablers of a dysfunctional structure.  That's not tithing, it's just stupid.

Sorry Michael, this chapter is a definite 'fail'.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Sabbath salve (3)

Michael Morrison confuses me with his Sabbath rhetoric.  On the one hand we should, he seems to say, feel able to do whatever we want (more or less) when it comes to observances and special days.  On the other hand, any form of seventh-day sabbatarianiasm is a very bad idea.

I recollect the wise words of Paul Tonson, a Baptist minister who, commenting on the Sabbath question, took a 'live and let live' line.  "It's really just a matter of tradition."

Forget the proof texts (and boy, does Michael thrash those proof texts!)  We embrace a particular tradition, sometimes out of conviction, sometimes because it's a family or ethnic heritage, sometimes because we just misunderstood or were misinformed.  But the story doesn't end there.  People then imbue traditions - including dubious ones - with significance and meaning beyond what they have inherited; given time they become part of our identity, something precious.  If they're in danger of turning toxic, or they clash with emerging reality, we reinterpret them.  Only an extreme fundamentalist would find that objectionable.

Traditions, when they no longer function effectively, can be transformed to keep them fit for purpose: to unilaterally rip them out of the heart of a community (as GCI has done) involves horrendous, needless cost.   Human existence is unthinkable without traditions and identity markers.

The early church itself seems to have been incredibly diverse, judging from the documents that made it into the New Testament.  Morrison wants to put the New Testament evidence through his meat grinder and make burger patties, all nicely consistent and saying the same thing.  If Luke has Jesus say something (perhaps quite different to Matthew's Jesus) then it quickly gets dumbed down to "Jesus said."  Really?  Quick, bring over a Harmony of the Gospels...  Harmonisation is sleight of hand and a denial of distinctives, leading us to imagine an ideal "apostolic church" where everyone agreed on everything, which clearly wasn't the case.

Now I realise that Michael is talking down to the little people, and that he is a very significant person in a very important congregation of GCI.  But, y'know, that only makes it worse.  In the cause of apologetics is it okay to stretch the evidence to fit?

Isn't that what a sect does?  Is this any different from what WCG did in years gone by?

Like Michael I'm now against any wooden, legalistic form of sabbatarianism, of either Sunday or Saturday varieties.  The idiotic idea that it goes back to a literal seven day creation, for example, is both harmful and untenable.  Living in the twenty-first century with all the benefit of knowledge literally at our fingertips, that's inexcusable.  But think of it as custom rather than command.  There's a lot to recommend a form of Sabbath-observance that values a time set aside from the rat-race, time for family, reflection and rebalance.  And it's probably Seventh-day Adventists and kindred communities who realise that (in both senses of the word 'realise') rather than your run of the mill Sunday mainliners.

Maybe we could cut them some slack on that at least.

Well, maybe Michael has some valuable insights when it comes to tithing.  Let's see...

Saturday 24 September 2011

Sabbath salve (2)

Author Michael Morrison seems a well qualified man, with a Master of Divinity degree from Azusa and a PhD from Fuller.  He's an ordained minister of what used to be known as the Worldwide Church of God, re-branded in recent times as Grace Communion International.

I assume, given his academic background, Michael is up to speed with the basics in biblical studies.  Who would even consider writing a book on biblical laws - and which ones Christians should (or shouldn't) observe - without knowing something about underlying questions of authorship, for example, or the development of the canon?

So what do we do with statements like this?
The infallible Scriptures contain commands that are obsolete.
Well, obviously there are obsolete injunctions in the Bible.  Morrison accurately identifies not a few.  But what's this business about "infallible Scriptures"?  Infallible in what sense?  The author doesn't explain.

Then there's a section that delves into Ephesians 2. "Paul begins by telling his readers...", "Paul is talking about...", "Paul then summarises..."

No he doesn't.  Ephesians is, in scholarly parlance, deutero-Pauline, along with Colossians, 2 Thessalonians and the Pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.)  A good place to review the evidence might be in The Deutero-Pauline Letters (Gerhard Krodel, ed.) in the Proclamation Commentaries series.  In fact, I'm surprised Michael doesn't have a copy on his bookshelf.  If not, he can always click across to the handy guide provided by the nice United Methodist folk.

And Michael makes the same clanger with the other non-Pauline letters: "Paul uses the word Sabbath only in Colossians 2:16...";  "Paul cited the oxen and wages scriptures again in 1 Timothy 5..."

Sorry, whatever the qualities of these text, Paul almost certainly didn't write them.  Even if you were desperate enough to pretend that Paul just might have written Ephesians or Colossians, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there is even less wiggle room with the Pastorals.  Does Michael know this stuff, or is he just hoping that his readers are completely ignorant?

Either way, it doesn't exactly make the reader brim full of confidence that their guide knows a great deal about his subject.  I suppose we might speculate that the author is trying to convince his readers by manipulating their fundamentalist assumptions against them.  If so, he wouldn't be the first.  But, honestly, how honest, how ethical is that?

But sadly, it gets worse...

Friday 23 September 2011

Michael Morrison's Sabbath salve (1)

In a moment of giddy madness - a rush of blood to the head - I downloaded Michael Morrison's book, Sabbath, Circumcision and Tithing, onto my Kindle.  It cost 99c, and frankly that was way too much.

It seems a bit weird, having said that, but I actually agree with a lot that Morrison says.  He adopts a non-Sabbatarian (Saturday or Sunday) position.  Despite the endless posturing of Seventh-day Adventists and blue-stockinged Puritan Calvinists, the question has never been "which day is the Christian Sabbath?"  The question is, "is there a Christian Sabbath?"

And the answer is a no fuss no.  So far so good.

But the jungle paths Morrison walks down, NIV machete in hand, to get to his conclusion is full of pot holes, boa constrictors and the bleached bones of the unwary. 

Of course nobody is under the illusion (I hope) that Morrison is striking out to embrace any kind of considered, objective assessment of the evidence.  This is a blatant work of apologetic, decked out in wig and tights.  At times it even seems to read like a Chick tract.  In fact, by the last page I was almost tempted to re-embrace that peculiar variety of Christian pseudo-Sabbatarianism that Michael and I both emerged from, which wasn't nearly as toxic as Michael makes it seem, just out of sheer cussedness.


So its time to dive back in with a series of posts that engage Mr Morrison's arguments and approach.  Nothing systematic, it hardly warrants that, but some objections along the way in the spirit of, "Oi, Michael, mate!, you can't be serious."

Thursday 22 September 2011

Life in a Pocket Universe, part 145

The latest issue of the Journal (full title: The Journal: News of the Churches of God) is out.  Front page coverage goes to the ever-unfolding developments in the various gospel-preachin' acronyms, and there's a nice selection right there to greet the backsliding, COG-deprived reader who aches for once-familiar insider-language:
  • UCG
  • GCE
  • CGWA
  • RCG
  • WCG
  • COG
News also that editor Dixon Cartwright is recovering from a heart attack that struck in July.  Dixon is one of the good guys, and I'm sure all of us wish him well as he recuperates.

After updates on UCG and the dear departed of the CGWA, there's more to enjoy on the inside pages.  Letters from Sir Anthony Buzzard and an uncharacteristically concise Geoffrey Neilson, a reprint of a significant article on COG history (with some enchanting photographs from yesteryear) by the late John Robinson - compulsory reading!, the usual bloated, looney-tunes ads (which thankfully pay for the serious journalism), more of Ian Boyne's excellent evangelistic adventures in Jamaica (where CGI is still entrenched, long after GTA morphed from a morally dubious televangelist into a morally dubious video game), and more.  Gotta love it!

Four sample pages are yours to read online for free.  Nothing quite like it anywhere else in the known multiverse!

Ever decreasing circles?

Not much happening on Otagosh lately?  Yeah, I know.  It's been a time to focus on other things and cogitate on whether the enterprise is worth pursuing, and if so, where to from here...  and to be honest, it's been great to just set the blog to one side for a while and get on with other stuff.

I intend Otagosh to continue, but a bit of a "freshen up" probably wouldn't hurt.  It's amazing that so many people (apparently including even you, gentle reader) still bother to check the blog out, and presumably find the material here of some interest.  The original focus of my obsession - the ongoing, god-forsaken soap opera of the Armstrong sect(s) - has long since waned; though it's hard not to want to sneak a peek, as Lot's better-half did, back to the devastation from time to time.  Those who ignore history...

In more recent times, fueled by an irrational desire to "do" theology - and acquire some basic insight into the field of biblical studies (minus the delusions that came with the funda-literalist package) - the focus turned from the shattered Empire to wider concerns.  Now that I have an impressive looking piece of paper to prove that I'm not a complete doofus in that domain, and in the refreshing absence of slave-driving university staff wielding whips and deadlines, it may be time to tweak things here a bit.

So, we'll see where it leads.

Friday 16 September 2011

Fair trade for a Fair Go

It's good to read Tim Bulkeley's piece on Fair Trade, and a reminder to those of us who live in affluent countries that the rest of the world deserves a "fair go" too. 

More years ago than I care to remember I got collared into helping set up a local Trade Aid shop and trust (since deceased) in Upper Hutt along with - among others - an indomitible little Irish woman named Orleen.  Quite an experience, in which I learned that the best of intentions are still no reason not to stick to the day job!  Shops are usually both managed and staffed by volunteers, and that makes for an interesting demographic cross section. Green Party members may recollect that the late Rod Donald was a driving force behind Trade Aid before entering parliament. These days fair trade has moved out into the mainstream.  No longer do you have to go looking for a Trade Aid outlet (or its equivalent in other countries) in an unfashionable suburb.  Leading cafes proudly strut their ethical coffee-buying virtues, and the Fairtrade logo can be found on shelves in major supermarkets.  Doing your bit for economic justice has never been so simple.

Tim says it well: Fair trade is a Christian issue.  Justice is the root of justification, the imperative that flows from the indicative, and especially so for those who want to be known as Christians.  Good on ya Tim.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Dumb sheep? Doh!

Clawing through the bloated coverage of the Rugby World Cup in today's Herald on Sunday in the hope of finding something else to divert them, readers may have been surprised to find that "Bible believing" Christians featured in an unflattering report on research from the University of Edinburgh.

"The more religious you are, the less likely you are to be intelligent..."

Say what?!

"...Christians - particularly fundamentalists who believe the Bible is God's word - have a lower IQ than those who are less religious."

A Kiwi professor who participated in the research notes: "If you believe in religion, you haven't really questioned things."  Um...

The head of theology at Auckland University, Elaine Wainwright, seems less than convinced, though she would be, wouldn't she?

If I was the Herald journalist, I'd be pounding on Brian Tamaki's door for a comment, but I suppose it isn't worth the hassle, what with the body guards and all, so dear Abby took the soft option and found a more conventional bishop.  Perhaps Abby doesn't realise that, excluding Tamaki (who was ordained a 'bishop' by American 'youth specialist' Eddie Long) there are two Auckland bishops, one Anglican, one Catholic.  Which is Patrick Dunn?  She doesn't seem to think it's important for us to know that (he's the Catholic one).  Dunn himself seemed unable to respond in a coherent way, stating that the study's findings are "a bit hilarious."

"However, he did agree that less intelligent people of all faiths tended to be more fundamental in their thinking, 'whether they claim to be Christians or atheists or Muslims or whatever'."

Cold comfort your bishopness, cold comfort.

The actual research, shorn of journalistic 'gee-whiz', might make interesting reading.  If there is a negative correlation between faith and intelligence, it might have more to do with head-in-the-sand dogmatism (the fundamentalist's playpen concept of 'strong faith') rather than a sense of the divine.

But that hardly lets Dunn off the hook, does it?

Thursday 8 September 2011

Teacher teach thyself

By profession I'm a teacher.  This week I found myself discussing the characteristics of legend and myth with students. Nothing too weighty or profound... we'd read the story of the Four Dragons, and then the traditional Maori tale of Rahi.  What are the indicators that tell us that stories like these, while immense good fun, are not meant to be taken as wooden fact?

You don't need to be an adult to work out the basics for yourself.  Stories like these provide colourful explanations for how something firmly anchored in the real world came into being.  The great rivers of China are no myth, but compassionate, talking dragons are.  Ki-o-rahi is a very real game, with traditional Maori roots, but a giant manned kite which carries a payload of moa eggs is just a tad less credible.  I even scrawled up the word aetiology on the whiteboard.  Not that I expect anyone in the class will remember it, but on the other hand why dumb things down?

We expect young people to recognise genres as a basic competency.  Star Trek, Pecos Bill, Gilgamesh: we'd all be impoverished if they disappeared.  They capture our imaginations and take us places where hair-shirted literalist fact fanatics fear to go. So why won't fundamentalists recognise them in the Bible?  Why can't they appreciate them for what they are, rather than trying to make them into what they're not?

Dunno.  It took me long enough to wise up, so what can I say?

Ah, whaddatheheck... anyone wanna make up a ki-o-rahi team?

(Wanna see how the game looks when the big blokes play?)

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Who's been a busy boy?

Just when you thought "Packatollah Dave" had deservedly disappeared off the radar screen completely... Seems he's been strutting his stuff in Jerusalem.

Big Dave's "VIP welcome in Jerusalem included a private tour of the Knesset arranged by his host, M.K. Dr. Einat Wilf, a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense, Education and House committees. The two then met for an in-depth discussion of conditions in the Middle East and surrounding regions."

Wilf is obviously dosing up on the "stupid pills" which Stan Rader famously denied ingesting on 60 Minutes circa 1980. Much good may it do him and other doofuses in Israel who are pandering to the delusions of the self-proclaimed apostle.