Wednesday 30 November 2011

Noah and the Preachers

(Warning: intemperate rant follows.)

One of the leading Missouri Synod clergy-bloggers has posted the following lectionary gem for November 29 about the Old Noah the Ark Builder.
Noah, the son of Lamech (Gen 5:30), was instructed by God to build an ark, in which his family would find security from the destructive waters of a devastating flood that God warned would come. Noah built the ark, and the rains descended. The entire earth was flooded destroying “every living thing that was on the face of the ground, both man and beast” (7:23). After the flood waters subsided, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. When Noah determined it was safe, and God confirmed it, he and his family and all the animals disembarked. Then Noah built an altar and offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for having saved his family from destruction. A rainbow in the sky was declared by God to be a sign of His promise that never again would a similar flood destroy the entire earth (8;20). Noah is remembered and honored for his obedience, believing that God would do what He said He would.The world had become extremely corrupt, so God instructed Noah, the son of Lamech (Genesis 5:30) to build an ark to provide security for his family and selected living creatures from the waters of a devastating flood that God warned was coming (Genesis 6). Noah built the ark, and the flood came soon after its completion (Genesis 7). The entire earth was flooded, blotting out “every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. (7:23)”
What's wrong with this potted bio? Well, nowhere here is there any indication that the Noah story is anything other than a tall tale, an elaborate fiction, crafted in a pre-modern age to explain the origin of - among other things - rainbows. Nor is there any indication that this high-ranking clergyperson is aware that it's used goods from start to finish, a retelling of even more ancient Near Eastern tales, the best known variant being the Epic of Gilgamesh. How exactly do you get away with living in the twenty-first century, and still read this stuff as literal history?

But here's the weird thing. Whereas this guy, a dyed in the wool literalist, seems to believe what he writes - or cut 'n pastes - there are clergy of a more progressive stripe and more refined literary sensibilities who also wouldn't blush to write this same drivel. Among such enlightened types it's perfectly okay to parrot these claims (and yup, claims they are) as long as - nod, nod, wink, wink - those in the loop know that it's not what it seems. Shall we tell the dumb sheep? Not directly; gently does it, we wouldn't want to offend anyone. Let 'em live with their treasure trove of beddy bye stories undisturbed. Let's sing them a liturgical lullaby while sharing knowing adult glances with "our kind" of Christians.

It's a strategy for people - however progressive and metaphorically-minded they might be when in the privacy of their own studies - who have clearly mistaken deceitfulness for subtlety, patronising behaviour for sensitivity, duplicity for depth. If you truly love and honour the scriptures, you're not going to lie about them, not even via the time honoured method of conveniently omitting full disclosure lest the troublesome truth rise up and bite you back. To hide behind sophisticated 'theologising' is just contemptible. Some of these individuals could wrestle theological profundities out of the telephone directory!

Even the Missouri Synod blogger, who I'm sure knows all about "sins of omission", has more integrity than that.

Behold these walls

Jerusalem's Western Wall may not be what everyone thought. Those pesky archaeologists have been digging up the dirt at "Herod's Temple", so to speak, or more specifically the coins in the dirt. Here's the report on Yahoo! and one bloggers take.

This is one of the planet's most revered sacred sites. So, if the latest findings are borne out, does it make a difference?
"[The coins] show that construction of the Western Wall had not even begun at the time of Herod's death. Instead, it was likely completed only generations later by one of his descendants."

Saturday 26 November 2011

Mile High Herb?

I've been slowly working my way through Ben Mitchell's The Last Great Day. It's a novel, "based on a true story." Mitchell grew up as a PK (pastor's kid) in the Worldwide Church of God. Despite some tinkering with names (Armstrong morphs to Abraham etc.) it's recognizably the movement many of us once knew and loved - even if the verb has now changed to loathe.

Chapter 23 tells the tale of a trip on board the Apostle's Gulf Stream II. The time setting is shortly after the release of David Robinson's book Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web, and rumours are spreading like wildfire. It's a time I remember particularly well, having acquired one of the few early copies - and a signed one at that - to reach the shores of New Zealand. In the story, Abraham (Armstrong) while visiting his Australian operation, has invited the none-too-bright minister Henry Conroy, along with his wife Elizabeth, for a joy ride over Perth in the GII. Henry is invited to sit in the cockpit with the pilot - a great privilege - leaving Elizabeth alone with the old goat.

What happen's next? The Apostle lays hands on the hapless Elizabeth.

"Why did you lock the cockpit door?" asked Elizabeth. "Isn't it dangerous? What if they need to tell us something or ask you about our destination?" Abraham sat next to Elizabeth, putting his hand on her knee.
"We are all going to the same place, my child." He skulled his Scotch, running his eyes over Elizabeth's legs as he did... Abraham looked in her eyes, with his ferocious and full of single-minded intent.
"There is no need to be alarmed, my child. In the coming Kingdom of God, all our fears and sins will be forgiven. We are what we are, as God made us, Elizabeth."
"And as God told us through Paul, wives should submit to their husbands only," said Elizabeth, holding the full glass of Scotch with both hands - some kind of pathetic barrier between them...
Abraham thrust his hand up Elizabeth's knee-length skirt, fingering at...
Well, you get the idea. Slimeball Abraham's ardour is doused when Elizabeth drops the glass, which breaks, and Henry rattles the locked door. The saddest line in the chapter is Elizabeth's, and appears toward the end.
In her mind she repeatedly asked herself the same question: How did I lead him on?
Now, okay, this is fiction. But there's a clear autobiographical and family history element in the text; Henry and Elizabeth are closely modelled on Ben's parents. So, one has to wonder whether the incident isn't as far fetched as it sounds. In many ways Herb Armstrong profited from his son's hugely profligate reputation, a barrier that deflected concerns away from himself. In the real world, at this time, there were indeed dark rumours about Herb's own moral choices, particularly when the Apostle was away on his boozy globetrotting sprees with Stan Rader and Osamu Gotoh. Those old enough to have followed the scandal at the time will remember stories about the 'flog log', the dildo in the Hermes pouch, the lusty junior members of the Japanese diet (Herb's 'Japanese sons') who 'partied hearty' on the GII, the stay-over at the Romanian sex clinic... and on it goes.

Maybe Mitchell has conflated Herb and Ted (Garner Ted Armstrong). After all, none of this would surprise us if it was Ted who was portrayed as trying his luck - the evidence about his 'mile high' behaviour is undeniable. But perhaps, like father like son... The man is no longer available to defend himself of course, but then when he was available to defend himself against the allegations in Robinson's book - and from his son - he said nothing. Not even when the allegations turned to incest.

It was Phillip Adams who may have provided the most apt epitaph for Armstrong, writing in the Weekend Australian Magazine in February 1986.
It must come as a great shock to both of them, but Herbert W. Armstrong and L. Ron Hubbard are dead. These god-like gurus, who dominated the lives of countless disciples, have carked it, snuffed it and kicked the bucket. And the world is a better place for their passing.
Mitchell's book brings back none-too-pleasant memories. But then, those who ignore the past are most certainly condemned to repeat it.

(Outside Australia Mitchell's book is available from Amazon in a Kindle edition.)

Thursday 24 November 2011

Does Bart Ehrman's Mythic Book Exist?

Bart Ehrman is writing a book on the Christ Myth theory - or, better said, theories. He's a skeptic. Not a skeptic about the Historical Jesus, but a skeptic about the mythicist position.

I've heard Ehrman rant about this on a couple of podcasts and, with no exaggeration, he went feral on both occasions.

So the chance to get his views in a coherent, non-confrontationalist form should prove interesting. Equally interesting is the publisher's strategy of launching the volume only as an e-book. HarperCollins, which is still producing hard-copy-only versions of some of its titles, is seemingly testing the e-waters. Here's the skinny:
For years Bart Ehrman has been routinely bombarded with one question: Did Jesus exist? As a leading Bible expert, fans and critics alike have sent letters, emails, posted blogs, and questioned Ehrman during interviews wanting his opinion about this nagging question that has become a conspiracy theorist cottage industry the world over. The idea that the character of Jesus was an invention of the early church -- and later a tool of control employed by the Roman Catholic Church -- is a widely held belief and Ehrman has decided it’s time to put the issue to rest. Yes, the historical Jesus of Nazareth did exist.

Known as a master explainer with deep knowledge of the field, Ehrman methodically demolishes both the scholarly and popular arguments against the existence of Jesus. Marshalling evidence from within the Bible and the wider historical record of the ancient world, Ehrman tackles the key issues that surround the popular mythologies associated with Jesus and the early Christian movement.

Those committed to the “non-existence” theory will need to read this formidable scholar’s counter argument while the more traditionally minded will enthusiastically support Ehrman’s definitive answer to the question. Perfect for the vigorous online debating community, this eBook original will be a must read for anyone interested in Jesus, the Bible, and the birth of Christianity.
To be released in March next year.

Church Shopping With Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann wants to be President of the United States.

Well, Americans can choose whoever they like. This weekend Kiwis go to the polls to elect a new government of their own, and that's tribulation enough for me.

But Bachmann's latest flip flop on religious affiliation is just bizarre. It's all documented here.

Sunday 20 November 2011

The Big Ten

The third in the Channel 4 series The Bible: A History screened tonight on SBS1. I missed the first fifteen minutes, tuning in just before this week's presenter, Ann Widdecombe, arrived at St Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Tonight's topic, the Ten Commandments. Widdecombe, a Tory MP and convert to Catholicism, reminds me a lot of one of those formidable childhood aunts that were common in the 1960s, committed to common decency to the core, and quite unable to imagine any society that wasn't wedded to mainline Christianity being able to avoid anarchy and rampant wickedness in low places.

Highlights? A brief chat with Henry Wansbrough, a testy face-off with Francesca Stavrakopoulou, an acid reference to 'trendy skeptics' immediately prior to a heated encounter with first Christopher Hitchens (a fellow fan of Marcion, much to my surprise), then Stephen Fry.

Low points? The naive treatment of the 'Books of Moses', which Widdecombe clearly prefers to think of as written by Moses himself, despite a ton of evidence to the contrary, and the whole world-denying mindset. Was there any advance here, I wondered, over the poisonous tract I read as a teenager called The Ten Commandments promoting the near-fascist fundamentalism of its author, Roderick Meredith?

Quote of the evening: "Perhaps we could do with a touch of Puritanism today."

Next week promises to be a bit of a contrast as Bettany Hughes sets out, flaming sword in hand, to discover "that far from being a 'sexist' book, [the Bible] is packed full of brave, heroic and ruthless women who still have a lot to say to the women of today."

Saturday 19 November 2011

Wright or Wrong?

It's one of those key texts that everyone knows, the first verses of John: In the beginning was the Word.

But what does one make of N. T. Wright's new translation in The Kingdom New Testament, released last month?

The Word "was close beside God"?  And yet "was God"?  How does that work? To be "close beside" still implies distance (just not a lot) and separation.

The variation between "was with" and "was" doesn't seem quite so striking in other translations, but here it hits you - or at least it does me - full on.

The more common translations seem to slide the emphasis in verse 2 to the time frame: He was in the beginning with God (NAB). Wright's choice puts the stress on the second part: In the beginning, he was close to God.

Wright also translates this whole section as prose, whereas many would regard it as a hymn, better rendered in verse (and so less open to dogmatic speculation.)

You do have to wonder what the Johannine author was trying to communicate, though of course we're never likely to know. Strip away the anachronistic Trinitarian bias though, and I wonder if Hugh Schonfield didn't come close.

In the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God.
So the Word was divine.
It was in the beginning with God.

Hour of Vanity and Loss

Even in the Antipodes we know about the Crystal Cathedral and the Hour of Power, courtesy of weekly telecasts on Prime and Shine. News that the good folk who have stood by Robert Schuller through thick and thin will now have to walk away from their extravagant facility brings back memories of the sell-down of another architectural masterpiece in Pasadena some years ago. Then the transfer was from a dying apocalyptic sect to a clap 'n stomp Pentecostalist cult. This time the beneficiary is the Roman Catholic Church. In three years time the Crystal Cathedral is to become, it seems, a real cathedral, complete with missals and incense to incense the 'marshmallow evangelicals' who currently attend there.

Monuments. Mad religious empire builders. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. And the 'little people', the grassroots followers, the people who sacrifice for a Great Cause - giving their time and talents, embracing the vision? Tough luck!

A few days ago we learned that another monument-making lemming drive is on the drawing boards - the subject of the last posting. You'd think we'd all learn from past lessons, but apparently not.

Vanity, vanity, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says. Too bad Schuller, Armstrong, Flurry, Pack and a thousand others didn't spend more time in that book.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Pack's Pipedream

At an age when he should have long since retired gracefully, and donned sackcloth and ashes in an act of repentance for being an arrogant ass, David C. Pack is still living an Armstrongist wet-dream. The supreme leader of his very own high demand micro-sect, the Restored Church of God, the Packatollah has announced big plans to erect a glittering World Headquarters for himself in Wadsworth, Ohio. You'd think a man of his mediocre talent would settle for a nice set of business cards. Though he is apparently a highly driven character, Pack seems incapable of originality, so it's no surprise that his Great Erection is a blatant clone of the now defunct Worldwide Church of God HQ in Pasadena, complete with ersatz auditorium. Anything Gerry Flurry can copy, Pack can do too.

Mind you, it's all ostentatious intentions at the moment. Where will the moolah come from with such a modest tithe-base? Details, details. Construction is to begin in April next year, and the doors will open for gloating just twelve months later. Uh, okay.

Aging egomaniacs obviously have this thing about building monuments to themselves. But will the Packatollah even get that far? The PR blather indicates that it's a done deal, but the only certainty may be that the demands for special offerings will now flood out to the RCG's long-suffering membership.

Dig deep brethren.

(Thanks to Gary who, as usual, has the blog scoop on this latest story from the farthest fringe.)

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Pseudolph has a Shinar

From the Seer of Gibraltar, the Bard of the East, cometh this pre-Xmas offering in the spirit of Hislop's Two Babylons. Filled it is with cryptic references, and disturbing they be. In fact, I think a commentary might need to be written to explain such hidden depths as Old Dark Beer (the Pride of the South), the capitalised SIX-PACK (the Holy One of Edmond), and Koha (a word in te reo).

Yeah, okay, now we need a commentary to explain the explanations. Thus was it ever so Dunn.

Anyway, thankee koindly to the poet (lyricist, composer?) Appearing below is a somewhat redacted version of the original, one verse omitted, another two relocated under the influence of the Holy Spirit... something all biblical scholars know only adds to the sanctity of sacred psalmody, even if it makes a complete botch of it in the process. In compensation for such churlish butchery an equally cryptic picture has been chosen to accompany the text.

Pseudolph the Rude-Nosed Reindeer
Is coming along your way,
So leave him Old Dark Beer
On a thirsty Mythmas day.

High up on the ziggurat
A reddish light they mount
In honour of Pseudolph's nose
Whose lumens they cannot count.

They celebrate Semiramis
In the dead of Chaldea night,
Arrayed in their pyjamas
They look a sorry sight.


Mythmas is a Koha season,
A time for you to spend,
And so you need no reason
To give SIX-PACK a lend.

Or better still a freewill sum,
Given from the heart,
You needn't feel glum
As with that lot you part.

Pseudolph has a Shinar,
To his nose I do refer,
For nothing is seen finer
In the adobe houses of Ur.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Abraham's legacy

The second episode of the Channel 4 series The Bible: A History screened tonight on SBS1.  Hosted by Al-Jazeera's Rageh Omaar, it was less about Abraham, as claimed, as about the current parlous state of relations between the so-called 'children of Abraham' in Palestine.

The ruins of Abram's 'Ur of the Chaldees' provided one of the memorable images of the programme, sited next to an American military base in occupied Iraq.  Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou provided the bare bones of a critical commentary.
All scholars agree that the biblical stories about Abraham were written several centuries after the period they seek to describe, and many scholars now pinpoint the time of composition to the period of the exile in the sixth century BC, when the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians, and their elites and religious leaders were taken captive to Babylon in Mesopotamia.
It's worth remembering that Abraham is thought to have lived around 1850 BCE. So how much reliable historical information about him can the Bible convey, bearing in mind that it took another forty five generations or so before the stories we now have about Abraham were first written down? That's a question Omaar didn't broach.

click for larger image
According to those stories Abraham was willing to kill both his sons, Ishmael (by sending him along with his mother out into the desert to die) and Isaac (as a human sacrifice to Yahweh).  This willingness was counted as a virtue!  It's a single-minded fanaticism that resonates to this day with extremists on both sides of the Jewish Palestinian divide.

Next week that old bat, British Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, sets out to sing the praises of the Ten Commandments. But, judging from the promo, she gets a well-deserved earful from Stephen Fry.  That I'm looking forward to!

Saturday 12 November 2011

Re-claiming the Bible

Fundamentalists are no fans of Jack Spong. No surprise there. But nor are many professionals in the field of biblical studies. It's an interesting phenomenon. Spong writes books that (grind teeth) make sense to ordinary, educated folk. He doesn't use too much jargon and - the unforgivable sin - he sells!

Here in New Zealand Lloyd Geering, undoubtedly the most honest theologian of note the country has ever produced, is treated with similar ambivalence. A prophet without honour in certain academic ghettos within easy driving distance of Dunedin's octagon.

But back to Spong. His latest book is out: Re-claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. It's a Bible 101 survey for those who are curious. It's not a dry textbook, and there's nothing particularly original in it for those who are well read in the field. But for laypeople, starved of real information in their churches (whether evangelical or mainstream) it could well be revelatory. "Why" asks Spong "is this scholarship not communicated to the Sunday worshipers of the world?"

It's a great question.
"Moses did not write the documents we call the 'books of Moses,' or the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy)! Indeed, Moses had been dead some three hundred years before the first word of the Torah was put into written form. David did not write the book of Psalms! Solomon did not write Proverbs! The gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, but by at least the second and, in the case of the Fourth Gospel (as the book of John is often called), perhaps even the third generation of believers. The book of Revelation does not predict the end of the world or convey any hidden messages about modern-day history! Why do we still allow ourselves to be tyrannized by this kind of uninformed biblical non-sense, regardless of the 'authority' claimed for that book by the mouths that still utter these claims?"
Beats me. But again, great questions.
"Religious leaders seem to believe that if they allow one crack in their carefully constructed religious or biblical defense system, then the whole thing will collapse in ruins. That is the stance of hysteria, not the stance of either faith or hope, though it masquerades as both."
The real scandal, I sometimes think, is that the seminaries and university theology faculties so often serve as enablers to this policy of avoidance. Many (most?) of those recruited into the hallowed halls of the enlightened clutch their knowledge to their own breasts, wallowing almost altruistically in their own doubts, content to themselves know in an almost gnostic fashion what the great unwashed must not.

I hope Re-claiming is widely read.

Especially in Dunedin.

Birds of a feather?

The world has moved on from the days when 'biblical archaeologists', "Bible in one hand, spade in the other", went forth to prove that the Good Book told it just as it was. Oh but the temptation is still there, especially when American evangelists with deep pockets want to throw money at a cause they can profit from.

Which is why Gerry 'Six Pack' Flurry, 'Pastor Generalissimo' and self-proclaimed Prophet of the bizarre high-demand sect the Philadelphia Church of God is such a big fan of Eilat Mazar and other suitably cooperative figures in the Israeli archaeological establishment, sending students from his unaccredited college to dig the dirt for her in Israel.

And why she is praised by Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, and gets positive press from conservative evangelical magazine Christianity Today in a current feature.

But there's a chill wind blowing out of Petros, Tennessee. Jim West's comments on Mazar's work are a valuable corrective for anyone tempted to take the gushy PR at face value. Do check it out.

To redact a comment of Jim's: That Flurry is among Mazar’s supporters says everything that needs to be said.

Friday 11 November 2011

Elmer Gantry, meet Ronnie Weinland

A nod to Gary who has linked to a Cincinnati news source reporting the great tribulations of Ronnie Weinland who, along with his lovely wife Laura, are - in case you didn't know it - the Two Witnesses of the Book of Revelation.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, and Ronnie, a entrepreneurial (tithe farming) disciple of the late Herb Armstrong, has had more than his fair share. You might find this hard to believe, but Ron - author of 2008: God's Final Witness - has had a teeny credibility problem after repeatedly getting his End Times predictions wrong. Harold Camping has company!

And now he faces five years of incarceration - being thrown in the slammer - for tax evasion. It seems God's special little bloke has an undeclared Swiss bank account. Here's the item.
COVINGTON – A Northern Kentucky man who prophesies about the end of the time through an Internet-based ministry was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday on five counts of tax evasion.

Ronald Weinland, 62, of Union evaded $357,065 in taxes from 2004 through 2008, according to a federal indictment.

The minister understated his income, used church money for personal expenses and tried to hide the existence of a Swiss bank account, said a spokesman for Kerry B. Harvey, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Weinland also allegedly failed to report any interest made on that Swiss account as income.

Weinland, who couldn’t be reached Thursday evening for comment, faces up to five years in prison if found guilty. The date of his arraignment at the federal courthouse in Covington was not immediately available.

He is the minister for Church of God – Preparing for the Kingdom of God, according to the indictment. The church’s website lists a Cincinnati post office box and an AOL email address. There is no phone number listed for the church in the Boone County phone book.

The church’s website predicts the return of Jesus Christ on May 27, 2012. Weinland’s weekly audiocast can be heard on the website every Saturday afternoon. The website states Weinland speaks to his congregation from different locations across the nation via the audiocasts.

In addition to visiting various scattered congregations in the United States, Weinland and his wife, Laura, also travel to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Europe, according to the website.

“He does this to warn and prepare people for what lies ahead in the traumatic events that will unfold over the few remaining years of this prophetic end-time,” the website states.
But not to worry, time is on Witless Witness Weinland's side. Here's a recent quote from the prophet (another nod to Gary, who follows these things far more closely than I do these days).
In two short months, the world will be thrust into the seventh and final phase of this end-time. This period will be marked by well over fifty percent of all Bible prophecy being fulfilled.

God first revealed to His two end-time witnesses [Ronnie and Laura], His final two prophets that His Son would return to this earth in a second-coming as King of kings on May 27, 2012. That revelation gave way to numerous other revelations concerning end-time prophetic events. But anyone who hears of this, in the world or in the Church that was scattered, considers this to be absurd, presumptuous, arrogant, and filled with self- aggrandizement.
 Oh surely not! Not Ronnie! Absurd, presumptious, arrogant, filled with cr*p?  Unimaginable!  Nor that Ron is a lover of mammon and a tax cheat.  It just ain't so!  Just you wait, all you doubters, till May 27 next year, so there!

Tuesday 8 November 2011

McGrath blasts the fringe

Did Jesus really exist?

The clash between mythicists and historicists has all the drama of a WWF bout: current contenders include Mangler McGrath vs. Grappler Godfrey, step right up!

It may just be a case of weakened brain cells on my part, but I really don't see what the big issue is. The only question that ultimately counts to most folk is... did the Jesus of the New Testament narrative exist? That doesn't seem a particularly tough one to adjudicate on.

James McGrath has recently weighed in on the side of consensus historicism in The Christian Century. According to James the mythicist position, out on the fringe, is that Jesus "is not just a heavily mythologized historical figure, but pure or nearly pure fabrication from start to finish."

But how heavily is heavily? On the continuum from 0 through 100 where does 'heavily mythologized' cross over into 'nearly pure fabrication'? Exactly what historical content forms the essential kernel of the historical Jesus? Where should you put the stress: a heavily mythologized historical figure, or a heavily mythologized historical figure?

McGrath pulls out three fringe exemplars, D. M. Murdock (a.k.a. Acharya S.), those (unidentified) commentators who view "Jesus as a fictional creation based on Jewish scriptures", and Earl Doherty.

Personally, I don't give 'Acharya S.' the slightest credence. James' criticism is right on the money. Sorry lady, no cred., even discounting the stupid made-up pen name. But what about position two.
"Another strain of mythicism views Jesus as a fictional creation based on Jewish scriptures. Noting the common Christian belief that Jesus was predicted in the Jewish scriptures, they reverse the relation and say that Jesus was invented on the basis of those earlier texts. Historical scholars see things very differently, pointing out the differences between the content of the supposed Messianic prophecies and the life of Jesus—thereby creating difficulties for conservative Christian apologists and mythicists alike."
Again, my poor brain may just be inadequate, but the fact that early Christian writers pulled texts from the Hebrew scriptures to create flesh on a very bare biographical skeleton seems to be pretty indisputable. The issue is whether they created the skeleton as well. That the New Testament writers tore texts out of context, with complete disregard for our current standards of textual criticism, seems a complete no-brainer. Exegesis ain't what it used to be, thankfully. But how exactly does that create difficulties for the mythicist position? The birth narratives, the passion narratives, the miracle stories... which parts are immune from a little (or a lot) of Hebrew Bible oil pastel overlay? If we scraped away the pastel work would we find a beautiful original sketch underneath, some childish scribble, or just a blank canvas?

Less compelling (at least to me) is Doherty's argument that (again quoting James) "Jesus was initially understood as a purely celestial figure believed to have done battle with heavenly powers—and to have been crucified and buried somewhere other than on Earth." But, to give the man his due, he does make an interesting case, 'selectively critical' or not.

The whole question of historicity turns on a judgment about probability, and the hard data at hand is woeful. Is Jesus a fictive character in the same sense as Sherlock Holmes, cut from whole cloth? Not so elementary! Or is he a pastiche made up of characters both real and imagined that have been chucked in the Bible blender? Bultmann would presumably shrug his shoulders and find the whole discussion beside the point. Most of us would find it very much to the point. Think of Jesus and it's almost impossible to distance the name from the vivid oil pastel claims embedded in the Gospels. Jesus: virgin birth, tempted by the devil, water into wine, raiser of the dead, predictive prophet of the Little Apocalypse, multiplier of loaves and fishes, walker on water, crucified, dead, buried, raised, materialising through closed doors, ascended on clouds.

So which of James' joint descriptors - heavily mythologized and historical figure - carries the greatest weight of evidence?

Of course, I really have no idea who's right (though I'm reasonably convinced it isn't anyone called Acharya), but isn't there the feeling that 'whistling Dixie' is an essential strategy on both sides of the debate?

Did Jesus really exist? Maybe it depends on which Jesus are we talking about. Jesus may have been an apocalyptic prophet, or a Cynic sage, or whatever; but first we've got to get past the default Gospel portrait that is still the reigning paradigm in the churches, their preaching and their liturgy.

On the count of three let's all hold our breath...

Sunday 6 November 2011

Creation - steering between the absolutists

Some time back Britain's Channel 4 screened a series called Christianity: A History. It seems they have brought most of the old team back to produce a sequel, The Bible: A History. The first episode screened tonight on Australia's SBS.

This initial programme featured Howard Jacobson, retreaded from the first series, investigating the profound significance of the Genesis creation story. I say 'profound', because that's the lens Jacobson, a secular Jew, views it through. His self-appointed task; to steer a path between fundamentalism and atheism, to confront the absolutists on both sides of the divide. We need, pleads Jacobson, a more sophisticated approach to embrace the enchantment of the creation story.

A string of talking heads are trotted out, as they usually are in this sort of doco, to illustrate the script. Britain's chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, is among them, along with A. C. Grayling, John Polkinghorne and Mary Midgley (among others). We learn that Genesis wasn't written by Moses (shock, horror!) but first surfaced in the wake of Israel's return from exile in the eighth century BCE. We sit in on a mock Sabbath celebration with Howard Jacobson's orthodox relatives for whom the creation account is far beyond the slings and arrows of outrageous reason, and sit through an interview with a English creationist pastor who claims science is on his side.

Jacobson is buying none of the literalism, but neither is he giving ground to the rationalism of thinkers like Richard Dawkins. The first chapters of Genesis have engendered beautiful literature and music. They are to be appreciated, like Shakespeare, on the level of poetry and the power of myth.

I'd agree. In fact I do agree. But. But isn't this also a particularly vapid bit of elitist waffle? Isn't its appeal limited to a small, privileged minority? A small minority already comfortably predisposed to such things? Would it have impressed the fishers of Galilee or the sometimes fanatical Christians of the second generation, many of whom were slaves and few of which were literate? What indeed does make Genesis qualitatively different, on this account, from Shakespeare or Gilgamesh, the Brothers Grimm or Homer? No surprise that intellectuals are the ones to embrace this nuanced approach to creation, but that it has little appeal in the real world.

Is this the best we can all agree on now? And if it is, hasn't Dawkins actually got a stronger case to make?

Dunno. Next week Rageh Omar (also back from series one) goes hunting for Abraham. I hope he has better luck than Howard.

(An interview with Howard Jacobson can be found on the Channel 4 website.)

Not bipolar, bippola!

I've always been in awe of Jason Goroncy's monthly reading list. How could one not be impressed both in quantity and quality?  Jason is a renaissance man, with wide tastes in film, fiction, theology and so much more.

But I confess that there's nothing, absolutely nothing, in his October selections that I've read, and a goodly number that I'd run a mile to avoid reading: Eberhard Jüngel, Stanley Hauerwas, Lesslie Newbigin and, wouldn't you know it, Karl Barth. Yes, I have sampled each and every one of these luminaries, but only out of unavoidable academic need, and in the way one must swallow foul medicine to achieve a greater good.

All of these blokes are, of course, Reformed thinkers, which goes a long way to explaining the aversion. This includes Jüngel, who is a Geneva wolf in Wittenberg clothing. I grant that, seeing Jason is teaching at a Presbyterian theological institution, this is understandable, if unfortunate.

My October list is much more plebeian, and briefer to boot. No Barth of course, but who needs him when there's a new Dr. Seuss!


Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Timothy Wilson. [Brilliant!]
Planet Word, J. P. Davidson. [If you love language, this is a must read]
Turns of Phrase: Radical Theology from A - Z. Don Cupitt.
The End of Christianity. John Loftus (ed.) [A curate's egg, brilliant in parts]
From the Garden to the City. John Dyer. [Surprisingly engaging, despite the author's atrophied fundagelical mindset]
Rediscovering the Apostle Paul. Bernard Brandon Scott (ed.)
The Last Great Day. Benjamin Grant Mitchell.
Visions of Distant Shores. Andre Norton (anthology).
A Princess of Mars. Edgar Rice Burroughs. [Great fun, though the stereotypes now make it as much a humour as a sci-fi classic]
Bloody Horowitz. Anthony Horowitz. [An anthology from the British children's writer. For those around 12 years of age, and those 12 at heart).
The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. Dr. Seuss.


Fringe, season 3.
Torchwood: Miracle Day.
Letters and Numbers (SBS1) [I'm addicted!]

Saturday 5 November 2011

In Christ's Name

This thing is going viral at the moment. The hilarious thing is that Pastor Shade (first name 'Burke') is himself a defrocked Presbyterian minister - who then jumped ship from one schismastic body to another. In fact, among those of the Reformed persuasion there seem to be as many schisms as you'll find almost anywhere - acronyms included!

Pastor 'BS'
Now, for those of you who are more familiar with the term 'disfellowship' than 'excommunicate', and have a similar letter tucked away somewhere (or perhaps framed!)... don't you feel so much more 'mainline' knowing that Presbyterian clergy, using almost identical language, can equal the jerk factor along with the very best that the fringe can offer?

Thanks to Bill for the heads up.

Friday 4 November 2011

Reason vs. Ideology

The words of the prophets are written, not just on the subway walls, but in the pages of the October 29 New Scientist. In a keynote piece Shaun Lawrence Otto laments the intellectual rot that underlies the anti-science discourse popularised by blowhards like Michele Bachman (a woman raised in the highly anti-intellectual tradition of Wisconsin Synod Lutheranism.) Why does the anti-science lobby have so much undeserved influence?
"Relieved [after WW2] of the burden of selling the value of their research to philanthropists, scientists turned inward and in many ways withdrew from public engagement. University tenure programmes were developed that rewarded research and publication but not public outreach. Scientists who did reach out to the public were often viewed poorly by their peers."
But his observations ring true in other fields as well. Replace the word 'scientists' with 'theologians' and behold, the ring of truth. Think of the snotty reception given to Karen Armstrong, Jack Spong, Bart Ehrman and other superb communicators by their disdainful critics cossetted within the academy.
"Withdrawing from the [public] conversation cedes these discussions to opponents, which is exactly what happened."
Think of creationism, prosperity gospel televangelists and a resurgent, world-hating fundamentalism.
"Postmodernism emerged, drawing on cultural anthropology and relativity to argue that there was no such thing as objective truth. Science was simply the cultural expression of western white men and had no greater claim to the truth than the 'truths' of women and minorities... Many positive things came out of postmodernism but the idea that there is no objective truth is just plain wrong... Without objective truth, all arguments become rhetorical. We are either paralysed in endless debate or we must resort to brute authority."
Again, Otto is talking about science and the challenge of pestiferous delusions - homeopathy springs to mind, though it isn't mentioned - that petulantly demand equal treatment. One of the last theology papers I took was laced with this nonsense. A Bible passage can mean many things, nobody needs to be wrong, we can take what we like from the text and, even if it's completely unrelated to the author's (or redactor's) intentions, that's perfectly okay, the historical-critical approach is so yesterday, blather, blather, blather. Back to Otto:
"A generation of journalists with a postmodern education decided that 'objective' reporting was simply getting varying views of the story, but not taking a position on which represented reality... This [gave] undue exposure to extreme views - a situation that has been compounded by the elimination of most science and investigative reporters from cash-strapped newsrooms."
Creationism has no more legitimate place debating science in the fields of biology and anthropology than any of the origin myths of indigenous cultures. The uninformed, undereducated, lazily anti-intellectual 'pastor' of a 'Bible Church' has no more credibility is expounding scripture than an enthusiastic plumber who has been reading too many copies of Watchtower in his down time, no matter how impressively he struts on stage.
"With every step away from reason and into ideology, the country moves toward a state of tyranny in which public policy comes to be based not on knowledge, but on the most loudly voiced opinions."
Add a 'verily, verily' for extra impact.

Animal Theology or Balaam's Ass?

Can't you just hear the sainted worthies of times past rolling over in their graves?

Now, Holy Saint Francis Batperson!, there's something called "animal theology."

I suppose it could have been bouncing around for a while, but I confess to have only caught up with the fact.

Maybe someone could design a nice logo... one of those cute renditions of Noah's Ark? Or even better, Balaam's Ass?

Does animal theology include cockroaches and intestinal worms?  There is the delightful story of 'Saint' Simeon Stylites the pillar-squatter who, having maggots feeding on his open sores, noticed one of the little fellows fall from his body. Gently the holy man picked it up, so the story goes, and replaced it with the words, "eat what God has given thee."

All very edifying - if you're a maggot. But how come no one is thinking about plant theology?  Or are they?

Anyhoo... from Independent Catholic News:
Oxford animal theologian Professor Andrew Linzey has been awarded a top university honour for his pioneering work.

The University of Winchester is to recognise Professor Linzey with an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in recognition of his work in animal theology in a graduation ceremony on 9 November.

Professor Linzey, who is Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, said: "I am delighted to accept this award on behalf of my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, who are in the forefront of pioneering this subject internationally.”

“Animal ethics is now an emerging discipline with scores of university courses world-wide, and this is a tremendous boost to those working in this field.”

“Animal ethics explores the challenges that new thinking poses, both conceptually and practically, to traditional understandings of human-animal relations.”

Professor Elizabeth Stuart, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor commented: “At Winchester we value and celebrate those who champion the voiceless and challenge the dominant paradigms. We shall honour one of the animals’ most thoughtful and passionate champions, someone who I believe will be remembered as one of the most pioneering and influential theologians of his day.”

Professor Linzey was made an Honorary Professor of the University of Winchester in 2007, and in the same year his book Creatures of the Same God was the first to be published by Winchester University Press. He is also co-editor of the Journal of Animal Ethics published by the University of Illinois Press.

“Winchester has one of the most progressive departments of theology in the country, and I am delighted to be associated with it,” said Professor Linzey.
Okay, so I get the animal ethics thing.  Yes, it's important.  But "animal theology"?  How does that work?  Isn't the very term itself an oxymoron? What the heck have legitimate issues of animal rights and ethics got to do with some meddling theologian muddying the waters?  Yeah, I know, I sound like one of those reactionary old cusses on Grumpy Old Men, but, well, isn't this due cause?

"Winchester has one of the most progressive departments of theology" in Britain?  I wouldn't want to argue with that.  But maybe also one of the most irrelevant... Is 'animal theology' publicly funded? Will Prof. Linzey's next book be titled, Of Maggots, Mice and Men?

Then again, maybe this is horribly misrespresenting 'animal theology'.  Is there anyone who can provide some enlightenment on this 'progressive' branch of theology?

Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Great Christian Beer Divide

There are two types of Christian and, as any good Greek Orthodox communicant can tell you, they ain't Protestant and Catholic.

Simply put, brethren, there are the beer drinkers and the wowsers.

I grew up Lutheran, and the wowsers of my home city were appalled to discover that the gentle, compassionate "we preach Christ crucified" pastor at St. Matthew made wine in his garage. I remember it particularly as the 'scandal' was shared with me, somewhat breathlessly, by a teenage friend with Adventist connections who had made this horrific 'discovery'. Nothing like that in Steps to Christ! I found his consternation quite humorous.

As I morphed into a self-important, intolerant, Bible quoting twenty-something plonker, my allegience shifted to a fundamentalist sect about as far removed from Lutheran orthodoxy as you can get. But one feature remained constant, 'real Christians' could enjoy a beer. And behold, I could even proof text it with a semi-scholarly reference to that marvellous koine word oinos (as in "take a little oinos for thy stomach's sake.") Grape juice? Considering the use of the same term in Revelation, I think not.

Parenthetical qualifier: I've never been drunk in my life, and never failed a breath test. My personal limit is fairly low and as I'm one of those boring people who doesn't like to lose control, there isn't much temptation to excess. To be clear though, people who have a drinking problem should stop and seek help. In my fundamentalist years I became aware that drinking could indeed be a big problem for "Bible-believin'" folk, and especially morally compromised pastors under pressure (which was essentially the entire ordained ministry of that particular sect!) Just like people with religious delusions should swear off their red letter King James Bible, Eddie Long should stay well clear of teenage boys, and those of us a tad heavy on the scales should avoid buckets of KFC, so too with the demon drink. But for most of us that isn't a concern, and I guiltlessly relish a good dark brew with a pub meal and occasionally, in the company of more refined tastes, a glass of red wine.

I know the wowsers have a few choice proof texts of their own, but they've never impressed me. I once attended a men's function organised by the local Baptist church where the guest speaker gave his testimony. He had been a very bad boy before the Lord had come into his life. He had been to Japan on business and imbibed a little saki! Worse, he had moved his lawns on Sunday a couple of times before the light shone down from above. Depravity unparalleled! I couldn't quite work out what he was repenting for...

I mention this in light of a posting by John Petty (reacting to a posting by Timothy Dalrymple.)  Why is it that the 'dry evangelicals' find a glass of beer - even a low alcohol  brew - such an issue, wouldn't be caught dead with a lawnmower on Sunday, and yet seem so totally blind to the big issues that move out from morbid personal piety into the real world?

Petty concludes his piece thusly:
In taking mainliners to task, Dalrymple makes no reference to any particular Biblical teaching. It appears he believes that his evangelical childhood was, without question, Biblical. He seems to assume that the mores and customs he was taught growing up in an evangelical household pretty much are the Christian faith.
That being the case, it's not surprising that he thinks evangelicals understand the Bible better without seminary training than mainliners do with it:
For instance, students (like myself) who had attended Bible churches or belonged to evangelical fellowships knew the Bible on the first day of the year-long survey course as well as the rest of the students knew the Bible on the final day of that course.
Even allowing for rhetorical license, I doubt that very much.
And that about says it all.