Friday 23 December 2011

The long, slow crucifixion of Christchurch

Another series of earthquakes struck Christchurch today, just a couple of days out from Christmas. The strongest measured 6.0. A city only slowly recovering its composure is traumatised again. Thankfully there are no reports of collapsed buildings or loss of life, but the sense of unreality is still acute, even for those of us at the other end of the country.

The nightmare began back in September 2010. Before then the city was regarded as relatively safe from seismic activity, unlike Wellington which sits along known fault lines. There were no deaths then either, despite fairly massive damage. That all changed in February this year when a killer quake struck snuffing out over one hundred and eighty lives and levelling much of the city centre.

The aftershocks have continued ever since. They take their toll, simply by wearing people down. Today's events will be the straw that broke the camel's back for many more Cantabrians. You can only stay staunch so long.

Hearken unto Jim

"Would to God that feckless dilettantes practicing theology and biblical studies were arrested the same way that imbeciles pretending to be medical doctors were.  The world would be an authentically better place."

Jim West.

Amen and verily verily. Though I'd sooner make an example of televangelists and apologists rather than Ricky Gervais.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Courting Canon-fire

The Journal: News of the Churches of God isn't much known for credible biblical commentary. The newspaper published in Big Sandy, Texas, loosely links together the increasingly diverse strands that emerged - yea, exploded - from the 'Big Bang' following the death of Herbert Armstrong. All too often the opinion pieces published in it are barely coherent and, frankly, ignorant. Ignorant of theology, ignorant of biblical studies and generally ignorant of the kind of world we're emerging in to. This largely reflects the demographic of knee-jerk, hyper-conservative, world-hating fundamentalism from which Armstrong's followers were recruited (or were recruited into.)

There's an important distinction to be made, though, between the often undeniably crazy essays and ads, reflecting little more than the bizarre obsessions of the individuals who submit them, and the excellent standard of news reporting that editor Dixon Cartwright brings together for each issue. Of course there are genuinely worthwhile religiously-oriented contributions that appear from time to time, but they tend to be buried under the avalanche of slack-jawed dilettantism that strings together nonsense parading as insight. Mercifully the restrained and accurate reporting on actual events within the movement is unsurpassed. For that reason alone I remain a dedicated reader.

The latest issue however is bound to attract a lot of comment, and perhaps a few cancelled subscriptions. Editor Cartwright, who usually stays well out of the doctrinal fray, has written a keynote article on the problem of the canon.

I think he's hit the nail directly on the head. Here we all are - or have been - idolizing the sixty-six book canon, barely aware that it is a product of early Catholicism, mediated through emerging Rabbinical Judaism (in the creation of the current Old Testament canon) and the Reformers. That's why, despite differing translation preferences, the various Churches of God share the same collection of documents with the Presbyterians, Methodists, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Southern Baptists.

The early church however regarded the Septuagint (LXX) as scripture. Paul and other New Testament writers quote Greek renditions of the First Covenant, not Hebrew. Most modern Christians regard the LXX as inferior, with illegitimate apocryphal additions, but hey, if it was good enough for Paul...

And then there are those squawking cuckoos in the New Testament nest. Despite attributions to the contrary Paul didn't write 1 or 2 Timothy. He didn't write Titus. He probably didn't write Ephesians, Colossians or 2 Thessalonians either. Peter most certainly didn't write 2 Peter. And that's only to mention the most obvious frauds.

Dixon comes at this from his own angle, but he's asking some very pertinent questions.

"Although the Bible depicts God as Deity who loves and blesses us as His offspring, it also depicts Him as capricious, irritable and even tyrannical. Can God really be that way? ... There are ways to be a Bible-reading Christian that accept the canon for what it is: a list of recommended writings compiled and edited by humans for not only religious reasons but political reasons... The canon—which didn’t exist in its present form until A.D. 376—ultimately was conceived and built as a system of control."

I can't think of any other writer still within the COG tradition who has had the intestinal fortitude to address this issue without falling all over their apologetic shoe laces. Hopefully the full article will appear on the Journal website before too much longer.

Update: As you can read at the top of the comments section, Dixon has provided online access to the entire issue as a PDF file, including his article.

When archers string their bows

Putting the mythology aside, and the crass commercialism, I love this time of year. It's the long summer break. The kids are out of school, as are their teachers, and those who can pack up the family car and head to the beach. Oh, alright, I realise that you Northern Hemisphere types are wrapping up against the cold and mega-dosing on Vitamin C, but that's half a world away from where I sit.

Of course there are those who seem to feel they have to work every hour God gives them. To them comes this sage advice from the ancient scrolls. No, not the Bible, Herodotus. And not Herodotus himself, but Pharaoh Amasis II of Egypt who, according to Herodotus, was advised thusly by his counsellors:

"Sire, you are not conducting yourself properly by pursuing worthless pastimes. You ought to be seated solemnly upon your stately throne, transacting affairs of state throughout the day; that way, the Egyptians would know that they were being governed by a competent man, and your reputation would improve. But as it is, you are not acting at all like a king."

To which the pharaoh replied: "When archers need to use their bows, they string them tightly, but when they have finished using them, they relax them. For if a bow remained tightly strung all the time, it would snap and be of no use when someone needed it. The same principle applies to the daily routine of a human being: if someone wants to work seriously all the time and not let himself ease off for his share of play, he will go insane without even knowing it, or at the least suffer a stroke. And it is because I recognize this maxim that I allot a share of my time to each aspect of life."

Wise pharaoh! Happy holidays.

Monday 19 December 2011

Mere McGrath

Apologetics is another name for self delusion. What can be sadder than to see an otherwise intelligent adult 'cooking the books' to suit their comfort zone? But what do we make of Alister McGrath's upcoming effort, to be released at the end of this month?

McGrath is no intellectual slouch. He has an impressive CV and a string of well-regarded publications to his name. And yet, here he comes, skipping down the apologetics aisle with an about-to-be-released book entitled Mere Apologetics (punning on C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity).

C. S. Lewis may have been a tad strange, but he was, at least by all reports, a decent and compassionate kind of bloke. This is not true of too many other apologists, whether ancient or modern. The publicity blurb mentions other "great and articulate defenders of the faith" throughout history, from Augustine and Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Schaeffer... Talk about a rogue's gallery! Who in their right mind would count someone like Schaeffer among the 'great'? Certainly not his son who has lucidly portrayed his father's feet of clay, mired as they were in a near-fundamentalist form of bog-Calvinism, despite pretensions to the contrary. Augustine? Anyone who has read James O'Donnell's biography of the bishop of Hippo will likewise realise what a thoroughly toxic dead end his legacy has been down the centuries - craven hagiographies not withstanding.

Nor is the publicity made any more convincing when it carries an endorsement by Paul Copan, whose weak (and arguably misleading) attempts to rescue Yahweh from charges of genocide have been so thoroughly savaged by Thom Stark.

But back to the blurb. Mere Apologetics "seeks to equip readers to engage gracefully and intelligently with the challenges facing the faith today while drawing appropriately [selectively?] on the wisdom of the past. Rather than supplying the fine detail of every apologetic issue in order to win arguments [because he can't?], Mere Apologetics teaches a method that appeals not only to the mind but also to the heart and the imagination [intellectual pablum?]. This highly accessible, easy-to-read book is perfect for [those who just want easy reassurance?] pastors, teachers, students, and lay people who want to speak clearly and lovingly [with no intellectual rigour?] to the issues that confront people of faith today."

So these are the folk in the target market. Speak unto us smooth things Alister, prophesy porkies...

And yet, this may all be highly uncharitable. McGrath does have a reputation for honest, credible writing, despite an on-the-sleeve evangelical slant. Whatever the identified demographic above seems to be, the subtitle boldly proclaims "How to Help Seekers and Skeptics find Faith."

Skeptics? Really? Well if McGrath can pull that rabbit from his hat, we should all be impressed. That'll be the acid test, determining whether this is just another crooning lullaby to keep the peasants dosed and dozing ("there, there, never you mind your silly little head about those nasty questions") or something more. Against my better judgment, I'll be giving McGrath's new book a go, though I'm not getting my hopes up.

Friday 9 December 2011

A Cheeky Bugg... Blogger

After reading a blog entry by James McGrath today, I had an almost irresistible impulse to apply an expression widely used in Her Majesty's Dominions that may be less familiar to those who speak alternate versions of English: it involves calling someone "a cheeky bugger."

The term is famously associated in New Zealand with TV3 journalist and presenter John Campbell. When John calls someone "a cheeky bugger" it's almost an expression of warm regard!

But there are always the sallow-faced, thin-lipped Puritans among us. I've served time in those salt mines where even the expression "golly" is regarded as a breach of the Big Ten. Why? It's a euphemism, and it's likely to send the careless speaker straight to the Very Hot Place. Equally dastardly are terms like "gee whizz" (or "gee willikers") and "jeepers."

How can anyone who has ever been ten years old reach such a stupid conclusion? Heaven knows what they'd make of the expression "flip!"

I'm of a generation which grew up without exposure to the "F word". It was simply too horrible to utter in the presence of women and children, but in the church-attending working class home I was raised in there was "buggering" aplenty. I was well into my teenage years before it even dawned on me that it had a less than salubrious, and far more colourful dictionary derivation. But wait, the etymology goes deeper. The offensive element is a vicious secondary derivation, reflecting a thoroughly vile bit of religious and ethnic bigotry directed against non-Catholic ('heretical') Bulgarians. What greater defamation could there be than to take their very name and identity, and abuse it by cruel association. Bugger!

These days kids are exposed to some really objectionable vocabulary, and that "F word" has been almost mainstreamed. The word we're discussing has seven definitions in the Collins English Dictionary, only two of which are capable of causing offence, while the 'F word' is clearly an expletive however you use it. Stand up comedy illustrates the trend, wallowing in cheap shock value at the expense of the genuine delights of word play and the pleasures of a more subtle manipulation of "the Queen's English." I'm not arguing therefore for wholesale capitulation to "bad language", but good grief (another wicked euphemism!) Charlie Brown, let's keep things in perspective.

What puzzles me is that the people who most object to euphemisms and informal exclamations seem to almost always be tone deaf to the "weightier matters of the law." You don't often find them passionately defending civil liberties, or standing in solidarity with those shafted by monied interests. They find little or no relationship between justification and justice, and see little corporate, community relevance to ethical behaviour. I'm among those, for example, who find slick, sports celebrity-endorsed television ads for loan sharks extremely offensive, or some Ten Commandment-quoting idiot who nevertheless feels free to speak "in the name of the Lord" - truly taking it in vain. A word simply means what we intend it to mean, rather than being bound to distant etymologies almost nobody thinks about. There are no sacred, canonical dictionaries - not even the Oxford - which can provide anything more than usage. Words morph down the generations, sometimes into the very opposite of what they originally meant, as anyone familiar with King James English should know.

So, to get back to where we started, is it okay to call someone a cheeky bugger on a biblioblog? Obviously there's no insult intended - and about the same percentage of vulgarity as you'd find of active ingredients in a quack homeopathic remedy. But should delicate sensibilities be considered? Maybe. So perhaps it might be best to simply say, in this case, that a cheekier bit of bloggery would be hard to find...

Monday 5 December 2011

Wind blown Pasadena

Gary reports on his blog that the big winds have taken their toll on the former Ambassador College campus in Pasadena. Someone upstairs not happy, hmm?

 Gary, who knows the Pasadena property better than most, also comments: "It was already run down and the windstorm took it's toll big time!" And he's uploaded the photos to prove it. Here are just two.

Well, considering what a blowhard Herb was, maybe there's a certain synchronicity...

Thursday 1 December 2011

Of Crucibles and Landfalls

Darkover Landfall
November has seen an overindugence in classic Science Fiction on my part. I blame the Kindle. Who could resist, for example, revisiting MZB's Darkover for the first time in twenty years, now delivered in a crisp liquid ink format?


The Crucible of Christianity. Jonathan Hill.
The Magic of Reality. Richard Dawkins.
A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle. Obie Holmann.
Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. John Shelby Spong.
Darkover Landfall. Marion Zimmer Bradley.
The Masks of Time. Robert Silverberg.
The Web of Worlds. Harry Harrison & Katherine MacLean
Non-Stop. Brian Aldiss.


Super 8
Downton Abbey, series 2
Earth 2 (the 1990s sci-fi series)
Christianity: A History. Channel 4 series.

Not included, as it's a reference book, is the newly released Chambers Dictionary. The 12th edition was launched this year, and its a brilliant contrast to the often stodgy offerings from Collins and Oxford that dominate the market in Her Majesty's Dominions. This is the dictionary for word lovers and word game afficionados. Philip Pullman and Melvyn Bragg both recommend it - what more could one say?