Sunday 30 December 2012

Lord Percy and a Strange Tale with a WCG Twist

Thanks to John Morgan who pointed out an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that will interest some readers.  A snippet:
Andrew Martin
Religious fundamentalism and isolated, self-sufficient communities often go hand-in-hand, and Martin increasingly saw Middle Percy as a lifeboat in a world "drowning in sin". But how did an educated, carefree adventurer come to embrace such grim notions? Jon Hickling - who, with his wife, Liz, and their two young sons, lived on Middle Percy for 12 years - solves that abiding mystery with two words: egg cartons.
"The story Andy told us," he explains, "was that sometime in the late '60s, the Whites [former leaseholders] sent him over some egg cartons he needed on the stores boat. They were wrapped in a magazine from the Worldwide Church of God, led by someone called [Garner Ted] Armstrong. Andy wasn't religious up to that point, although he grew up in the Church of England, but when he unwrapped that magazine, and read it from cover to cover, he just went, 'Wow!' He felt like he'd been hit on the head by a thunderbolt and had seen the light."
Martin subscribed to the magazine, and became a convert to the church's theory, known as British Israelism, which holds that white races (especially the British) are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and are God's "chosen people". Before falling from favour for his philandering, Armstrong - described by one US writer as preaching to a "subculture of lonely, frightened, disoriented Americans" - also had a worldwide radio audience of millions, including Andy Martin.
A subculture of lonely, frightened, disoriented Americans.  I'm not sure who the writer was but, by the Lord Harry, it's quotable!

But wait, there's more!

An idyllic island off the coast of Oz, Princess Diana arising from her grave on the Feast of Trumpets in 2000... 

You've got to wonder whether Andrew Martin would have come to such a sad end if those egg cartons had been wrapped in a back issue of Mad magazine, and not The Plain Truth.

But... whatever.  Maybe Bob Thiel could establish the world headquarters of his new splinter sect out there on Middle Percy?

Watching World News

A few days ago I mentioned a few good dictionary apps for your Android tablet or smart phone.  Today the category is television news apps - all tried and true and ready to download from Google Play.

For a global perspective the France 24 app is pretty good.  Who'd have thought the French could run a very decent English-language streaming news channel.  While the app doesn't give you a live stream (but see below) it does stream the latest news, business, sports and weather bulletins.

If you need to watch the live feed from France24, the BBC, CNN, DW, NHK or Sky News, try doing a search for World News Live24.  There are other channel options there too, but some are not always available or reliable.

But don't look past Al Jazeera English.  Live TV coverage is included in their app.  The journos who front the channel are in the BBC mold - in fact many are past BBC staff.  If you've avoided Al Jazeera because you're afraid of some kind of radical bias... relax; you're obviously getting them confused with Fox News

I went into serious mourning when Aussie channel SBS1 pulled its Tasmanian satellite coverage which until mid-2012 also beamed down over much of New Zealand.  In fact I'm still in mourning because I can no longer get my regular fix of Letters and Numbers.  But SBS's World News Australia is still accessible by app.  TVNZ's motley crew could learn so much from these guys...

And finally there's New Zealand's own 3 News app.  Well worth downloading for the Kiwi perspective.  Mostly news clips from the most recent bulletin, hopefully this app will develop much further.

Continuing COG Cannibalism

Dr Bob Thiel, noted naturopath, blogger and author of several self-published books, has now joined such self-anointed luminaries as Gerald Flurry, Ronald Weinland and Dave Pack who preside over the various feuding fragments remaining from Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God.

Dr. Thiel, who has an earned PhD and claims a further ThD from a dubious source in India, has operated the site for many years.  Until a few days ago he was still technically a member of Roderick C. Meredith's splinter group, the Living Church of God.

In a post dated December 28 Thiel announced that he had incorporated as the Continuing Church of God, choosing the all-important acronym CCOG.

Dr. Thiel has had strained relations with Meredith's LCG since he published material on the Mayan calendar and President Obama which contained controversial, some might say ludicrous, statements.  In September LCG moved to distance itself from any fallout.

Dr. Thiel has been one of the most widely read sources of online information about developments in the Armstrong diaspora, but has never been ordained as a minister.  How he can now operate in this capacity, claiming authority to collect tithes from any followers who leave with him, is not yet clear.

I've corresponded with Bob several times over content on my former blog Ambassador Watch.  I can't say I wish him well in his new venture; in fact I fervently pray it will crash and burn without delay.  But I do wish him well, and his family.  Family members are invariably caught up in this kind of madness through no real choice of their own.

The Continuing Church of God may indeed continue for a while, but it's doubtful this particular sprat will pose any significant challenge to the sharks it desires to compete with. 

Saturday 29 December 2012

A Spot of Minimal Mything

Just to clear things up right at the start, I'm not a Jesus Mythicist.  It's a term that defies an elegant definition anyway, covering a very diverse bunch of individuals indeed.

And no, I've never read anything by "Acharya S." and, as long as I retain even a tenuous grip on sanity, never will.

But if you're asking about "Jesus Minimalism", the conviction that we actually know next to nothing with certainty about the historical person(s) on which the literary Jesus has been largely fabricated... well, I'll put my hand up on that charge and plead guilty.  Bring out the thumb screws if you must!

Now to confess specifics.  I have two such mythicist minimalist books on order.  Books I hear you ask, haven't you long since gone over to the Dark Side with Kindle e-readers and apps?  Yes, but neither of these tomes has yet made it into e-format, and as hell will probably have frozen over long before either reaches my nearest Paper Plus, I've been forced once again into the arms of Amazon and The Book Depository.

Thomas Brodie and Bob Price have, one suspects, not a lot in common.
Thomas L. Brodie is Director, Dominican Biblical Centre, Limerick, Ireland. After studies in Dublin, Rome, and Jerusalem, he spent thirty years teaching and researching at diverse seminaries and universities in the West Indies, the United States, and South Africa. He is the author of The Quest for the Origin of John's Gospel: A Source-Oriented Approach (OUP, 1992), The Gospel according to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary (OUP, 1993), and, as a forerunner to the present work, The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah–Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis–Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels (Liturgical Press, 2000).
And Bob, a.k.a. the Bible Geek, is... Bob.  A prolific author and speaker, he has a PhD in Systematic Theology, and a second in New Testament, both from Drew University.

Both have new books out, the very ones referred to above.  Brodie's is entitled Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.  Price's is The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul.

I'm not sure how Holy Mother Church will feel about the first one.
In the past forty years, while historical-critical studies were seeking with renewed intensity to reconstruct events behind the biblical texts, not least the life of Jesus, two branches of literary studies were finally reaching maturity. First, researchers were recognizing that many biblical texts are rewritings or transformations of older texts that still exist, thus giving a clearer sense of where the biblical texts came from; and second, studies in the ancient art of composition clarified the biblical texts' unity and purpose, that is to say, where biblical texts were headed. The primary literary model behind the gospels, Brodie argues, is the biblical account of Elijah and Elisha, as R.E. Brown already saw in 1971. In this fascinating memoir of his life journey, Tom Brodie, Irishman, Dominican priest, and biblical scholar, recounts the steps he has taken, in an eventful life in many countries, to his conclusion that the New Testament account of Jesus is essentially a rewriting of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, or, in some cases, of earlier New Testament texts. Jesus' challenge to would-be disciples (Luke 9.57-62), for example, is a transformation of the challenge to Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19), while his journey from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and beyond (John 2.23-4.54) is deeply indebted to the account of the journey of God's Word in Acts 1-8. The work of tracing literary indebtedness and art is far from finished but it is already possible and necessary to draw a conclusion: it is that, bluntly, Jesus did not exist as a historical individual. This is not as negative as may at first appear. In a deeply personal coda, Brodie begins to develop a new vision of Jesus as an icon of God's presence in the world and in human history.
When I mentioned Brodie's book in an earlier posting it provoked dismissive snorts from certain quarters, but I for one am eager to see how a priest can embrace such a non-historicist position.

As for Amazing Colossal Apostle, this is the one many of us have been waiting for.  Price has reached some radical (and largely unpalatable) conclusions on the Pauline literature, but has never yet - to my knowledge - drawn it all together in one place.  You can almost hear the wailing and gibbering from saintly scholars as they gather their wagons around the sacred consensus.  Price has fronted at last, but has he carried it off?

Time will tell.

Friday 28 December 2012

The Reductionist's Paul

James Tabor makes some interesting comments in his latest book about "four Pauls."  To wit:
  1. The authentic or early Paul who wrote the 'undisputed' epistles.
  2. The disputed (or deutero-Pauline) Paul who wrote Ephesians and Colossians.
  3. Pseudo-Paul who wrote the Pastoral letters.
  4. Legendary Paul who appears in Petrine drag in the book of Acts.
 I'm glad James spells it out as clearly and unequivocally as he does.  Despite everything you might have assumed from a thousand sermons, there is a lot about the Apostle that we only think we know. 

James goes on: there is almost universal agreement that a proper historical study of Paul should begin with the seven genuine letters, restricting one's analysis to what is most certainly coming from Paul's own hand.

And of those other sources: In modern parlance we call such writings forgeries, but a more polite academic term is pseudonymous, meaning "falsely named."

James' old mentor, Rod Meredith, would surely have a hernia reading this, so it's just as well he restricts his reading to in-house pabulum.

The book goes on to list those things we most assuredly know about Paul drawing on autobiographical details gleaned in those 'undisputed' writings.  It's certainly a safer procedure than most flap-jawed preachers use - with more eagerness than erudition.  But I wonder even then if we're getting anything like an accurate picture of the man behind the mask.

Imagine if you tried to gain an impression of some modern figure just based on the material they themselves provided.  Pope Benedict perhaps, or Mitt Romney; Margaret Thatcher or Fidel Castro; Benny Hinn or Muammar Gaddafi. 

There's another more recent Apostle-type figure that both James and I know something about, him much more so than me; a man who wrote a great deal about himself both incidentally and deliberately, including a weighty autobiography.  Imagine, if you will, that the only information we had about Herbert W. Armstrong was what he himself supplied.  On the basis of that we'd all be holding hands with Bob Thiel and singing Dwight Armstrong hymns unto this very day.

So when Paul said that he advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, being extremely zealous for his ancestral traditions, or that he had visionary experiences where he saw Jesus and was commissioned by him, I can't help but think of Herb bragging about his time at the Eugene public library acquiring the equivalent of a top-level degree, or getting his own unique end-time commission.  Just because someone makes an over-the-top claim doesn't mean its worth the paper it's written on.

You won't learn much about someone just by trawling through their press releases.

And the one thing we do know about Paul - it seeps out from all his writings - is that he had a towering ego, and a tendency to slap down anyone who got in his way, even when he was trying to demonstrate just what a reasonable, tolerant and thoroughly humble bloke he was!  Poor old Barnabas, John Mark, Apollos, James et al.  Paul, whatever else he might or might not be, is a passionate, no holds barred master rhetorician, so anyone wanting to make some sense of what he writes has got to factor in the deliberate exaggeration, self delusion and embellishment that go with that art. 

I recommend Paul and Jesus, despite some mainly minor quibbles.  Whatever Dr. Tabor's agenda might be - and we all have one of those - he brings an considerable degree of scholarly nous to a popular audience. 

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Just when you think you've got it sussed

Biblical Studies has reached more than a few assuredly doubtful assured conclusions, enough to keep everyone justifiably humble.

For example, that old chestnut that Jesus could never have been regarded as part of the godhead in the days of the 'early church'.  Why not?  Well, Jews were strict monotheists... and such flights of fancy were necessarily imported from Greek thought... right?

You hear this all the time.  The idea is that Jesus got gradually promoted over the years from a "low christology" to a stratospherically "high christology."  If we were to pare away, in Jesus Seminar fashion, all those dubious accretions we'd simply find a human prophet figure, or perhaps a cynic sage, who made no outrageous personal claims.

But wouldn't you know it, there's always someone ready to stir the pot, and Margaret Barker is more than happy to take up the ladle.  Barker is a former president of the Society for Old Testament Study, has taught theology at Cambridge, and written sixteen books (at last count).  In other words, this is no dilettante or kook.

Barker isn't taken in by the accepted narrative of Moses and monotheism;  Early Israelite religion was anything but.  Yahweh shared the first temple with his lady wife, Asherah, the Great Lady, until the heretics came along and doctored the national epic, declaring Yahweh to be a solitary deity.  The Deuteronomists, in other words, cooked the books.

So what?  Well, the old religion didn't die.  Cast out of the temple, it continued on the "old paths", a reality expressed by the exiles in Jeremiah 44:15-19.
[W]e will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out our libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem... Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her.
Again, so what?  Well, Judaism ultimately went the way of the Deuteronomic reformers, complete with fictive epics centred around Moses, but (according to the reconstruction) Christianity drew an inheritance from the older Abrahamic faith.  Here's where you can start to connect the dots with "Enochic Judaism" (Boccaccini) and Alan Segal's "Two Powers" binitarian monotheism.

So is Barker right?  Quite possibly.  If nothing else it makes a fascinating detective story that reaches back through the millennia to connect the first Jerusalem temple to Mrs O'Malley's rosary beads.  Fascinating stuff!

Barker has set out the terms for this discussion a number of times, most recently in The Mother of the Lord, the first volume in a series entitled "The Lady of the Temple." The hardback edition is, like most books of this kind, horrendously expensive.  Luckily the Kindle edition is more realistically priced.  

Tidings of glogg with a sprig of white clover

If you own an Android smart phone or tablet, and you're of a sensible age, you're going to need a good dictionary app sooner or later.  After all, nothing quite proclaims your doofus status as loudly as frequent misspellings or malapropisms in those emails, tweets or blog entries.

Thankfully there are some great free options ready and eager to be downloaded from Google Play.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  Virtually unknown here in Her Majesty's Dominions, but a heavyweight contender in the US, Merriam-Webster has some cool features, such as providing a date for the entry of words into the language.  Today's Word of the Day: glogg - and very appropriate for the season it is too!  I was cynical about just how useful this 'unbranded' app could be, but was pleasantly surprised.  Today's Word of the Day:  tidings  (a fairly predictable choice really.)

Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus.  Based on the WordNet database developed at Princeton University.  Quite different in some ways from the other offerings, but once you get used to it, very useful.  Today's Word of the Day - I kid you not:  melilotus alba, white melilot, white sweet clover.  Not quite so predictable I'd think.

Friday 21 December 2012

The Christmas Story

The malls are buzzing, and in terms of shopping, the earlier in the day you get out and about the more likely you are to get a parking spot.  Yup, must be Xmas.

But putting aside the crass commercialism, what about the biblical and other traditional stories surrounding Jesus' birth, you know, the true meaning of Christmas?   Is it grounded in real history - or something else?  Bart Ehrman is up to the bat at Newsweek with an incisive piece (What Do We Really Know About Jesus?) that treats the issues both sensitively and honestly, and is well worth taking the time to read. 

Thursday 20 December 2012

The Five Books of Moses

The first books of scripture to be written almost certainly weren't the "big five" of the Pentateuch.  Nevertheless they reign supreme in Judaism, the weightiest element in the Tanakh, and take pride of place in the Christian Old Testament.  Are they unparalleled works of literature or simply more trouble than they're worth?  Whatever you think, there's no denying that they're among the most influential compositions in human history.

Christians are arrogant sods, and I apply that as much to myself as anyone else.  When we cite Genesis, or quote the Ten Commandmants from Exodus, we invariably lean on our own pet translations and interpretations.  If you're an 'Evangelical', chances are that you'll trot out the NIV.  If you're Catholic it could well be the NABRE or New Jerusalem Bible.  Or if, like me, you're a wickedly depraved liberal, you'll be reaching for the NRSV or even, if you're up with the play, the new Common English Bible.

But Jewish scholars have been making up for lost time.  After all, the Torah is their scripture first and foremost, with a long history of commentary quite distinct from that of the church fathers.  How telling is it that, when the average Christian wants a Jewish insight into the Hebrew Bible they opt for a bastardized Messianic text such as David Stern's Complete Jewish Bible.

Putting aside the excellent JPS translation of the complete Tanakh (available as a fully featured Study Bible from Oxford), there are three contemporary versions of the five books of Moses from Jewish scholars which are well worth considering.

The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox, 1995.
Commentary on the Torah, Richard Elliot Friedman, 2001.
The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter, 2004.

All include a fresh English translation and a wealth of notes, and both Friedman and Alter are available on Kindle.  Friedman also includes the Hebrew text, and the book design follows the "back to front" Hebrew convention (though I'm not sure how this appears in the ebook format.)  Friedman renders the tetragrammaton as YHWH, and the usual English naming conventions are largely followed (e.g. Abraham and Moses.)

Fox's version is the most 'Hebraicized' and literal, though it is set out in the standard format.  Here the name of God is also rendered as YHWH, but names are adjusted (e.g. Avraham and Moshe.)

Alter has a truly distinctive style; Genesis 1:2a reads, for example, "and the earth then was welter and waste..."  (and yes, I rushed to the dictionary for welter). Names appear as they do in most translations (Abraham, Moses etc.), and Yahweh reverts to the LORD.

But it's the supporting features of all three that put the curry into the stew.  There's definitely nothing like this available in your NIV Study Bible!  If we're going to regard the Hebrew text of the Old Testament as normative (rather than follow the earliest church's practice of using the Greek LXX) then, like it or not, these are shared scriptures, and the myopic practice of reading the Torah backward from Revelation according to a fictive and highly problematic 'metanarrative' does no justice to that reality. That's where Fox, Alter and Friedman shine.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Tabor's latest book

Browsing through a North Shore branch of Whitcoulls today I was amazed to find James Tabor's new opus, Paul and Jesus, staring back at me from a bottom shelf. It's not that I didn't know that it had been published - in fact I'd downloaded a copy from Amazon soon after it was released. But I had no idea it would reach these distant shores so quickly in hard copy form.

To be honest, my previous impressions of Dr. Tabor's work have been a bit jaundiced. He has seemed to me to be a scholar often driven by his own agendas, especially on the Jewish nature of Christian faith.  But this latest book is, in my opinion, a cut above his previous efforts - at least that's the impression so far, having not yet quite reached the final page.  Indeed, I feel a warm recommendation coming on, and perhaps some more disciplined remarks to follow than these.

In any case James, if you see this, as a peace offering for the rather unappreciative (some might say churlish) review I gave to Restoring Abrahamic Faith, I hauled the two hardback copies off the bottom shelf and placed them prominently, covers facing out, onto the top shelf. At nearly NZ$50 a copy I figured any small boost would help.  May they sell swiftly.

Saturday 8 December 2012

The Remarkable Margaret Barker

A very recent interview from the nice people at Nottingham University, Why Study the Old Testament alongside the New.  Lots of provocative nuggets here.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Rotten Manna - Evolution vs. Idiocy

I've just finished Karl Giberson's excellent book, Saving Darwin.

Giberson is a Christian who knows about evolution.  He understands how it works, and is smart enough (way smarter than me) to be able to make the case that the universe in general, and life on this planet in particular, has developed over long ages.

He gives both the Young Earth Creationists and the Intelligent Design theorists a thorough trouncing.

He fills in the history of this dumb debate, from Ellen G. White and George McCready Price through to Henry Morris and down to Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe.

Being a believer he also lands some punches on the so-called New Atheists, Daniel Dennett, Richards Dawkins and the gang.

And he's readable as well.

So here's my question.  How come, when you walk into a "Christian bookstore," you're unlikely to find a copy of Saving Darwin on the shelves?

No, what you'll almost certainly find is a lineup of Creationist drivel by an assortment of dilettantes.  Not John Haught, not Ron Numbers and not Karl Giberson.

How can these guys at Manna and Sonshine (or whatever your local Christian bookshop is called) possibly justify that?

How do they sleep at night knowing they're promoting utter nonsense?

Or maybe they don't know.  But then, if you wander into one of those establishments which carries a better range of theological and Biblical Studies texts, chances are you're still going to find unscientific rubbish sitting cheerfully on the shelves, burping and winking at you, opposite weighty tomes by N. T. Wright.

Come back Bernard Ramm, all is forgiven!

All right, enough moaning.  To finish on a positive note, I highly recommend Saving Darwin  (and if you're of the opinion that the gap theory solves all the problems, then you definitely should track down a copy and finally enter the twenty first century.)  Giberson is a living example of how you can still be a convinced Christian and have a scientific view on origins.  A real alternative to the stinking manna (Exodus 16:20) still on offer, despite having passed its use by date a very long time ago.

Monday 26 November 2012

Princess Diana and the Paris Crash

I'm not much into conspiracy theories, but you have to admire the dogged determination and relentless research that John Morgan has put in over the years into the anomalies that surround the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.  His new book, released in September this year, has been billed as "explosively factual" and "the result of six years of research."  The proof of those claims can be tested in the 160 pages of text.  The book, Paris-London Connection: The Assassination of Princess Diana, even carries an endorsement from Mohamed Al Fayed, father of Dodi who died alongside Diana.  Essentially it's a condensation of six earlier volumes that went into the circumstances in meticulous detail.  As the author states: "This is a short work, but don't be deceived!"

I'm sure I'm not the only one who can remember vividly the moment they first heard the news of Diana's death.  And as the title indicates, John Morgan is convinced that the "accident" was in fact an act of assassination. 

I'd like to thank John for the unexpected arrival of a review copy in the post.  To be honest, it's a bit outside the normal (and rather boring) genre that I usually lumber myself with, so I'm looking forward to digging in.  I hope to offer some more substantial comments next month, when I have the leisure to do it justice.  Paperback copies are currently available on Amazon for under $12, while you can pick up the Kindle edition for a modest $5.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Ghetto Radio

Internet radio is an under appreciated wonder of the twenty first century.  You can do breakfast in Brisbane, lunch in London and Dinner in Dublin.  But not everything that streams on the web is up to the quality of Australia's ABC, the BBC or RTE. 

Any number of slightly strange Christian groups have leaped on the technology to launch their particular variety of "good news" into the ether.  Programming tends to be prerecorded and put on a spin cycle.  So in order of weirdness, smallest to greatest, here are three nominations for pointless ghetto-hugging radio.

Lutheran Radio UK.  There are two Lutheran bodies in the UK, the Lutheran Church in Great Britain (LCiGB), which represents the mainstream, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England (ELCE) which is connected to the fundamentalist Missouri Synod.  No prizes for guessing which runs this radio station.  Definitely an acquired taste. Available on Tune In.

Radio 4 Living.  The "24/7 radio station on the Internet serving the Church of God."  John Jewell, a former member of the United Church of God's Council of Elders, is the moving force behind this ministry.  Presenters manage to occasionally sound as if they actually know what they're talkin about - but don't bet on it!  Available on Live 365.

COG-FFHerbert W Armstrong. Cool name, huh?!  Wall to wall Herb from Don Billingsley's miniscule Church of God - Faithful Flock, also on Live 365.  The voice of Herbert W. Armstrong from old World Tomorrow broadcasts.  It just never stops.  Don't try sending for those long out-of-print booklets though.  Otherwise - well, fill your boots... but stay away from sharp objects!

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Women Bishops? Yes, but...

The Church of England is due to decide later today whether women will be permitted to ascend to the high office of bishop within its British jurisdiction.

Of course, many Anglican franchises outside the UK have already decided in the affirmative.  The welcome result has, as a kind of collateral joke, meant the garish sight of highly intelligent women who should know better, togging up in ridiculous ecclesiastic garb, including the traditional mitre and crozier.  The irony is that while men dressed in clerical drag look completely bizarre, women tend to look even worse.

But that's a minor matter.  If, for whatever twisted reason, you decide a church should be run on the imperial model of a dying Roman Empire, then it seems only fair that women should now have a crack at it.  We can only hope the C of E finally does the right thing.

But the bigger question is, what the heck is anyone still doing keeping the hierarchic episcopal model alive in the twenty-first century.  Just look at the result in Sydney, or even Christchurch.  Should any Christian be prepared to surrender power to a preening purple pyramid scheme promoting privilege?  The age of kings, barons and lords of the realm is long gone, and yet it endures in certain churches.  And why would any self respecting man - let alone woman - want to embrace that anachronistic and toxic style of leadership?

Yes, Anglicanism has given us many good and worthy things over the centuries, including a rich tradition of church music and a handful of brilliant theologians (none of whom, naturally, became bishops).  And there are variants in other nations, such as the Episcopal Church in the US, which have pulled back on the more gratuitous pretences of Mother England's Grand Dame.  Yet even an Archbishop of Canterbury with the undisputed brilliance of a Rowan Williams could do little more than shuffle the deck chairs on the stately old barge as it sprung leak after leak.

Bring on the women bishops by all means, and as soon as possible; it's got to be an improvement.  But to see good people, whether women or men, co-opted and compromised by an antiquated power structure seems to be by no means an unalloyed blessing.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Fragmentation of a Sect

The Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God

It's been years in the making, and finally it's on schedule for release.  The Fragmentation of a Sect by David V. Barrett began as a PhD dissertation; its subject, a minor Adventist sect then known as the Worldwide Church of God.

Barrett has been a relentless researcher, as I can personally attest, meeting not only many leaders of the movement - both those who stayed and those who left - but contacting others like myself who watched (and continue to watch) from a safe distance the rolling disaster play out in slow motion.  This is a work of scholarship, not polemic, the only sociological study of WCG offshoots to appear, so you can expect all concerned to get fair, impartial, but critical treatment.  Here's the description from Oxford University Press.
In the mid-1930s Herbert W. Armstrong, an unsuccessful American advertising executive, founded a millennialist Sabbatarian Christian sect with a heterodox theology. Over the next half century, despite a number of setbacks, scandals, criticisms, and attacks from former members and anti-cultists, Armstrong's organization, the Worldwide Church of God, grew to around 100,000 baptized members with a world circulation of over six million for its flagship monthly magazine Plain Truth. In January 1986, Armstrong died. His successor changed most of the church's distinctive doctrines, leading it towards an increasing convergence with mainstream Evangelical Christianity. This created a massive cognitive dissonance in ministers and members: should they accept or reject the authority of the church leadership which had abandoned the authority of the founder's teachings? Groups of ministers left the religion to form new churches, taking tens of thousands of members with them. These schismatic churches in turn faced continuing schism, resulting in over 400 offshoot churches within little more than a decade.

In this major study David V. Barrett tells the story of the Worldwide Church of God. He examines the processes involved in schism and the varying forms of legitimation of authority within both the original church and its range of offshoots, from hardline to comparatively liberal. His book extends the concepts of rational choice theory when applied to complex religious choices. He also offers a new typological model for categorizing how movements can change after their founder's death, and explores the usefulness of this model by applying it not only to the Worldwide Church of God but also to a wide variety of other religions.
It's an expensive book, but for those with an interest - personal or academic - in this unique movement, its rise and then dramatic collapse, this will be a milestone in coming to terms with - and perhaps understanding more fully - what has always seemed more soap opera than sober ecclesiastical history. 
Table of Contents

Author's Note
Lists of photographs, tables and figures
List of abbreviations

1. The Fragmentation of a Sect: an Introduction

2. Doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God

3 Origins and History of the Worldwide Church of God

4. Schism and scandals in the Seventies

5. Revolution and Schism

6. Continuing Schism in the offshoots

7. Authority in the Churches of God

8. After the Founder Dies - How movements change

9. Who went Where and Why

10. Fragmentation in a Sect - a Conclusion

1 Sect, cult, new religious movement
2 Theoretical basis and methodology
3 Literature and other sources
4 Church affiliation of respondents
5 Demographics of respondents
6 The future state of schism


Look for a review to appear here early in the new year.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Tolle, lege

Today, November 13, is the birthday of Saint Augustine, 354-430 CE, a man who Pope Benedict has (in the words of US News and World Report) "long claimed St. Augustine as his theological lodestar," and the guy who wrote the Confessions and City of God.  He's rightly regarded as a pivotal figure in Western Christian history; but for good or ill?  To read the hagiographies you'd think it was all children singing in the garden (tolle, lege: "take up and read") deep thoughts and pious introspection.  Perhaps that's why he is designated in Catholic tradition as the patron saint of theologians

However Augustine, as James O'Donnell shows in his warts and all biography, was a relentless self-promoter and social climber.  Among his gifts to humanity was the "Just War Theory."  Hey, thanks for that.  Not content with resting on that dubious accomplishment, he also concocted the doctrine of original sin, "his most original and nearly single-handed creation."  The great man was also big on predestination.  As Paula Fredriksen puts it:
It is hard to love Augustine. He stands as the source of some of the most baleful traditions of thought in Western culture. All humans, he held, are born indelibly marked, indelibly marred, by original sin. Human desire, especially sexual desire, is a premier sign and effect of Adam’s fall. Unbaptized babies go to hell. Salvation is a question not of human effort, but of divine predestination. The church, to propound spiritual truth and to protect it, should avail itself of the coercive power of the state. These are all Augustinian teachings.
If you need to know something about Augustine to understand Ratzinger, the same is true of Luther (who suffered from his jaundiced view of good deeds) and Calvin (who took his understanding of predestination in even more bizarre directions).

It's enough to make you almost wish that, in the theological battle with Pelagius,  Augustine had lost the debate and that Augustinianism, not Pelagianism, had been left behind as a forgotten footnote in Christian history.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Ex Mormons

How many times have you tripped over the "I am a Mormon" ad campaign while surfing the web.  How effective this charm offensive by the LDS church has been is difficult to gauge, but you have to wonder whether its launch in the middle of last year had just a little something to do with the presidential aspirations of Governor Romney.

No good idea should go unchallenged however, and so along comes a parallel campaign - a different type of "testimony" - which probably won't please the church officials in Utah.  Freedom of speech. Brilliant!

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Franklin Graham's Gratuitous Advice

"This could be America's last call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, who is coming again one day very soon to save His own and to judge those who don't know and worship Him."
Franklin Graham in Charisma News

Thus speaketh Franklin, son of Billy.  The "last call" he's referring to is an evangelistic campaign scheduled for next year featuring the old man, who will then be ninety five.  Talk about an inflated sense of his own significance.

Franklin is one of a long line of ne'er do well offspring of evangelists who, after making an energetic and colourful break from the restrictions imposed in their youth, suddenly wise up to the fact that there's money in the religion business, and with a bit of crawling back to dear old dad, they're in line to be the next guy who gets to sign the cheques.  Can we all say nepotism together...

Franklin has always had a problem when it comes to running off at the mouth while the brain is in neutral, and the current US election is no exception.  Father and son have implicitly endorsed their favoured candidate, and then built political rhetoric into their religious message... a nice tax exempt perk.

Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion and a vote to go with it.  But to wrap that up in a cloak of self-righteous sanctity, and entwine it in self important End Times blather; well, that's ratcheting it up to a whole new level.

"My father watches the news every day, and he is deeply concerned about the enormous moral issues facing our country.  That's why your vote on Nov. 6 is so critical."

Big deal.  Since when did watching TV news (let me guess... Fox?) make someone an expert? 

And what does Franklin consider the big moral issues - informed by "biblical values"?  Poverty?  Justice?  Peace?  Not so likely.  These guys would do well to consider the moral issues around Bible thumping in the name of God, and those con artists who extract bucks from wallets and purses by pretending to hold some kind of divine commission.  That kind of moral issue seems never to have disturbed them.  They're usually too busy playing "ain't it awful" by contemplating what's happening below other people's belt lines.

"So pray and then vote on Nov. 6, asking God for His mercy and grace upon our land. There’s still time to turn from our wicked ways so that He might spare us from His wrath against sin."

Billy Graham created his substantial reputation and undeserved credibility by manipulating the fears and insecurities of millions over his long career.  Even as a kid I remember the effect his tawdry little hellfire book World Aflame had on people I knew.  Some would say that he has moved on from his earlier fundamentalism.  Maybe so, but the news doesn't seem to have reached Franklin yet.  Clearly for him, that old World Aflame fear religion is alive and well.

Why is it that we condemn as sectarian this kind of exploitation when it's done by fringe groups, but mutter 'amens' when someone clothed in 'respectability' does the exact same thing.

You're welcome to consider Franklin Graham a saintly soul if you like, but he sounds an awful lot like some of the less glorious religious hucksters in the business.  And somehow that makes this latest round of Bible-clutching, wallet-stroking political posturing even more loathsome.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Halloween horrors

Halloween is the event that some Christians embrace as All Hallows Eve, and yet is demonised (quite literally) by others.  Keith Stump, a former staff writer for The Plain Truth, attempts to dispel the haze over on Gary Leonard's blog in an article called Halloween Hysteria.  While it's aimed at the ex-Church of God demographic, anyone who has wondered whether it's a bad thing to be involved in may find it quite relevant.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Catholic Mass vs. Presbyterian Revisionism

On Sunday I chanced across two church services broadcast by RTE, the Irish equivalent of the BBC (oh the wonders of Internet radio!)  In New Zealand the era of church broadcasts on public radio is but a distant memory, but Ireland apparently moves at its own pace.

First up was a 45 minute Roman Catholic mass.  It was obviously liturgical (though reasonably contemporary) with a brief sermon that stressed positive values.  Putting aside distinctives of dogma (references to the concept of sacrifice in the eucharist for example) it strongly reminded me of the Lutheran services of my youth.  Whatever else might or might not be said, it exuded a sense of worship, with dignity and an aesthetic balance that verged at times on beauty.

Immediately following was a second 45 minute service from a Presbyterian church.  Whereas the mass featured a gospel reading (surely an irreducible core to scripture reading), this service featured a psalm and a section of the story of Samson in Judges - nothing from the New Testament.  The whole thing began with a sultry poetic improvisation on the Samson and Delilah tale, and an awful lot of talking around the obvious was broken up with canned music - modern upbeat rehashes of traditional hymns.

Could it get worse?  Absolutely.  Then cometh the sermon.  While the minister conceded that, on the surface, the Samson narrative is anything but an inspiration to the advancement of peace, justice and apple pie, it nonetheless serves to advance human goodness and progress.  How so?  Well, it was a negative example to ancient Israel.  When the tribal groups gathered around their respective campfires they were led to contemplate not Samson's macho strength and prowess, but his naughtiness in killing a thousand unfortunate Philistines with that jawbone of an ass and tormenting those poor foxes by setting their tails alight.  They doubtless huddled together in horror to hear how he pulled down the temple of Dagon in an act of suicide terrorism.  "My goodness me," quoth they, "we can certainly meditate meaningfully on this at our mid-week Book Club meeting."

Okay, so I'm taking some liberties with the sermon, but that was certainly the gist of it, as I heard it.  And it is all, naturally, complete rubbish.  Samson was a folk hero precisely because he disposed of so many of the enemy.  Around those long ago campfires it stretches credibility to imagine the people holding sober discussions ("what does this passage mean to you Abijah?") while they knitted scarves for Greenpeace and tut-tutted over the abuse of foxes and their God-given animal rights.  Nope, the Samson stories would have been retold with relish just as they appear at surface level.

This kind of revisionism is theological hocus pocus, even if it is the glory of preachers.  It amounts to rewriting the scriptures to suit our modern sensibilities.  Try as you might, no sow's ear will ever a silk purse make.  Fundamentally the attempt is both delusional and, let's not mince words, dishonest.

No doubt about it, for my money the Catholic mass was the superior option that day, winning hands down over the dubious yakkity yak and strained effort at wordy meaningfulness from the so-called Protestant corner.  Too much talk, too much low-quality rationalisation, too much creative but desperate avoidance of the bleedingly obvious.  This isn't so much theology as apologetics in upmarket drag.  Much safer to stick to a liturgy and keep the sermon down to 5 minutes.

Protestants are, of course, a diverse lot.  Most Anglicans and Lutherans would, I suspect, have felt more at home, at least on this one night on RTE, with the tone of the mass rather than the swinging of a Presbyterian jawbone. 

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Sunday 21 October 2012

Petra - Atlantis of the Desert

Hedgehog artifact from Petra... or clay idol of Rod Meredith?
It was described by Lawrence of Arabia as the "most beautiful place on earth," and in its heyday boasted "irrigated gardens, and streets lined with temples and luxurious homes."  The royal palace featured heated rooms and a flushing loo, an "almost obscene display of money and power."

Thus it was in Petra, the rose red city of the Nabataeans, and even now a predicted bolt hole for those apocalyptically-minded folk hoping to flee an upcoming Great Tribulation.

German website Spiegel Online, reporting on an exhibition at the Basel Museum of Ancient Art, brings us up to date with what is now known about the ancient city and its inhabitants, even including a reference to their fish god, Dushara.

A fishy god and a penchant for obscene displays of wealth?  No wonder religious con artists like Herbert W. Armstrong built Petra into their twisted End Time mythology.

A nod in the direction of Jim West for the link on his blog.

Friday 19 October 2012

Surface - the Anointed Tablet

Bleatings brethren, er, I mean greetings brethren.  Yes, I know many of you have been wondering - even losing sleep - over the battle of the tablets.  Should you dig down into the Apple barrel, or take the Android approach.

But wait, here comes Microsoft, and oh my, just take a gawk at the following bit of PR fluff.

No, no, eyes off the tablet!  Look at the Holy Backdrop!

Now brethren, just where was this promo filmed?  And did you help pay for it through your generous tithes and offerings in a past lifetime?

For the uninitiated, the ad was filmed on the grounds of the former world headquarters of the Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, CA.  Is it my imagination, or have they slapped a coat of paint on those egrets in the paddling pool? 

Nod of the noggin to Gary Leonard.

Saturday 13 October 2012

The Bad News Gospel

I've met Craig White.  Like Craig I share a background in a certain American-based fundamentalist sect.  We met for a coffee at the Chartwell foodcourt in Hamilton one afternoon a couple of years ago when he was visiting New Zealand.  The initiative was his and, truth to tell, I was initially a bit reluctant and not sure what to expect, having read some of his articles.

Craig was however a very personable guy, easy to talk with, and we found we actually agreed on at least a few matters.  It was hard to match up this thoroughly pleasant bloke with the image formed through his advocacy of that peculiar variety of apocalyptic British Israelism associated with the late Herbert W. Armstrong.

I mention this because Gary Leonard has some comments on Craig and some of the statements in his article "When the Bad News Finally Reaches YOU!"  Statements like this:
Yes, the Anglo-Saxon peoples will be destroyed and enslaved by her "lovers", principally a German-led Europe. Do we dare ignore this warning by God? Meanwhile in the Orient, Europe’s global allies will be given the nod to invade Australia and New Zealand.
The nations to Australia’s north will invade the continent and bring Australians to their knees. One third of White Australians will die from disease and famine; one third will die directly because of war; and the remaining one third will go into captivity: "and a third part ... shall scatter in the wind; and I will draw out a sword after them" (Ezek 5:2). Massacre and butchery unimaginable will be wreaked upon Australia.

Which are the gentile nations which will be involved with the coming terrible invasion of Australia (and probably New Zealand)? Prophecy indicates the strong probability that the various invading nations will partition the spoils of Israel among themselves. One in Joel 3:2b speaks of the scattering of Israel and the parting or dividing of Israel amongst her enemies (Amos 7:17b; Micah 2:4; Dan 11:39 seem to tell a similar tale). So every indication is that several nations will be involved in this bloody and bitter exercise.
Australia itself may be divided up by secret agreement between India, Japan, China and Indonesia. For instance, Japan may take the Eastern States; Indonesia and China the Northern Territory and South Australia; and India Western Australia.
Now, just in case you Americans are feeling a bit complacent:
You and your family in Australia are aware that America is in the process of being subsumed. Internally there is race war and massacres. One race of men is tearing around killing and raping. Others are claiming properties and forcing your peoples to work in the fields. Caribbeans are pouring into Florida by the boatload. Japan has taken over Hawaii and other outlying islands before China can get to them.

German-led European forces representing the new fascist National European Social Empire are invading via their ally, Quebec. The effects are devastating and final. Carnage, confusion and slaughter are everywhere! Nothing in world history has ever occurred like this before.
It's a bitter vision.  And here's the incredible thing; this "warning" is an essential component of the Armstrong 'gospel.'  Making proclamations like this are regarded as the "work of the watchman" (Ezekiel 33). 

This message, born out of long-debunked racist British Israel beliefs, leads to a contempt for ethnic diversity, and individuals are reduced to stereotypes.  Fueling this is raw race-based fear. 

Like Gary I react to this kind of ugly rhetoric with loathing.  It's an appropriation of the Bible, through the shuffling of proof texts, to some of the basest human instincts, comparable to some extent with the twisted theology of the "German Christians" in the Nazi era.  The difference (thank God!) is that such views, expressed in the twenty-first century, just seem bizarre.

Any church or ministry that is infected with British Israelism, and particularly the virulent Armstrong strain, should be confronted.  BI should have been relegated long ago to the dustbin of discredited fanaticisms.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Two authors on the future church

As is probably apparent from a couple of recent posts, I've been reading Mike Riddell's 1998 book Threshold of the Future.  Riddell is a New Zealander, and (if dim memory serves me right) spent some time teaching at my old school, Hamilton Boys High, during my time there, before moving on to become a Baptist minister, then a theologian of some note, holding positions at both Auckland and Otago universities, and providing intellectual grunt to the so-called "emerging church" movement both in this country and internationally.  At the time he wrote he was still teaching theology at Otago, and still identified with the progressive element within the Baptist communion.

There's a lot to admire about Riddell's honesty in Threshold.  He saw clearly the impending end of Christianity as we know it, and the need to find a radical solution before we reach the point of no return.  In the end however he was able to provide no satisfactory strategies or suggestions, other than a variation on self-indulgent house churches - a very Baptist thing to propose - along with (at least this is my impression) a retreat from intellectual rigour.  It is always easier to identify a problem than resolve the issues, and the issues that are undermining the Christian world view are Herculean.

Given that Riddell wrote well over a decade ago, I was amazed to find that not long after writing the book he had resigned from his position at Otago, walking off the battlefield to reinvent himself as a Catholic layperson.

At the same time I've been reading Gerald Kieschnick's Waking the Sleeping Giant.  Kieschnick was at the time (2009) president of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.  He too writes about taking the church (specifically the LCMS) into the future, though unlike Riddell he was quite happy to rearrange the deck chairs rather than countenance anything even remotely radical.

Kieschnick was a victim of 9/11 in an indirect way.  Despite impeccable credentials as a rather naive conservative himself, the even more wooden-headed fundamentalists and myopic legalists in the Synod found him wanting because he authorised a representative of the Synod to participate in an inter-faith gathering at Yankee Stadium to - horror of horrors - offer prayers for the those who died.  This, according to the hard-liners, was "unionism" (a term with a specific meaning in the LCMS relating to doctrinal compromise) and "syncretism".

Though Kieschnick was scarcely 'liberal' or 'progressive', he was brought down by reactionaries in the Synod, and replaced by the mustachioed 'Darth Vader' of the sect, Matthew Harrison.

Facing up to the need for change can be a dangerous thing.  The church is undeniably change resistant.  It may suffer a little tinkering about with its worship patterns, but you get anywhere near a nerve - even when it's necessary to save its life - and the beast will bellow and likely trample you.

The Missouri Synod is, thank God, atypical, and arguably now has the leadership it deserves.  But the 'emerging church', quite a different kettle of fish, has also been largely unsuccessful in bringing about substantive or systemic change.  What do they both have in common?

Perhaps "too little, too late."

An Untamed God

When one considers that Jesus had very little to say about sexuality, and a great deal to say about money and possessions, it may be argued with some validity that the contemporary church has lost sight of Jesus and is following some other agenda.  The man from Nazareth had strong opinions about family and the place of it in the scheme of things; most of this teaching being antithetical to current Christian viewpoints...  Present-day followers are like a man who found a treasure in a field, and went home to sit in comfort and talk about it...

The God who is represented as winking at materialism and promoting middle-class values is not the God of Jesus Christ.

Mike Riddell, Threshold of the Future, SPCK, 1998, p. 154.

A World in Your Ear (2)

Continuing a list of favourite Internet radio stations.

Manx Radio.  AM and FM feeds from the Isle of Man.

RTE Lyric FM.  Ireland's classical music station.  Even better IMHO than BBC Radio 3.

RTE Radio One.  Irish public radio, with RTE Choice with a great range of docos.

BBC Radio 4.  News and intelligent features. 

Cruise 1323 AM.  Oldies style music from Adelaide, Australia.

World FM.  Well, I had to include at least one Kiwi station.  This one is in Wellington, and though it's a tiddler in the pond it has a pretty unique international programming mix.

Monday 1 October 2012

It is abusive when...

It is abusive when people are taught to accept the word of those in authority, and that questioning of that authority is an affront to God.  It is abusive when any person or group of persons claims to speak the word of God, and that claim is not subject to discernment by the wider community of believers.  It is abusive when decisions are made in secret by a small group of powerholders, and such hierarchical rule is interpreted as being Christian.

Mike Riddell, Threshold of the Future, SPCK, 1998, p. 67

Sunday 30 September 2012

A World in Your Ear (1)

Internet radio; gotta love it!

I'm of the generation that fiddled with the shortwave dial in its callow youth, tuning in to faraway stations that faded in and out and changed frequencies frequently.  Despite the whining background noise, there was a feeling of connectivity, the wonder of listening in to something beyond the mundane offerings of local AM radio.

Well, that's well and truly history now.  Internet radio has been around for years, but the magic is somehow watered down when its pumped through a tinny laptop speaker, a pair of ear-buds on a tablet, or even a couple of plug-in speakers.

So I finally relented, well crumbled is more like it, at the sight of a reasonably priced combination Internet, DAB and FM radio.  It looks like a radio, and it sounds like a radio, sitting proudly on the bench-top, ushering in each new day with music, news and drama from whichever point on the planet currently takes my fancy.

And the truly weird thing is that even some local stations sound better via the Internet.  A lot of Auckland stations, for example, offer poor reception South of the Pukekohe hill, but now... no problem.

But the romance is still in those offshore stations.  On my favourites list:
  • BBC Radio 4 Extra.  The genres on offer here are comedy, drama and factual.  Here The Goon Show still plays, Dad's Army continues to defend the coasts of Britain and James Bond's Casino Royale features in a 21-part serialisation.  It doesn't get much better.
To be continued.

Friday 28 September 2012

The Revenge of Good King George

In the 1770s the American colonies revolted, thereby defying God, King and Country, changing the timeline of history forever and opening up a trajectory that would ultimately lead to hamburger franchises, conservative talk radio and reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies.  True patriots of the time, loyal to the Crown, were subsequently forced to flee across the border to His Majesty's Dominion of Canada, where they reestablished themselves in villages like Pugwash, Nova Scotia.

Since then the story has been a dismal one, particularly from the perspective of the Queen's English.  Spelling terrorist Noah Webster willfully attempted to turn the language upside down with devilish perversities and infelicities which were then exported back to bastardise the Mother Tongue.  Even the Australians, ever a nation of star spangled suck-ups, were carried away with the dastardly plot, and dropped the anointed letter 'u' from colour and labour, as even a cursory check of the Macquarie Dictionary clearly demonstrates.

But now there's a reverse trend underway, according to a reserved but cautiously gleeful report from the BBC.  It seems Americans are warming - and not before time - to "Britishisms."  Metrosexuals and gingers are meeting on weekends in trendy gastropubs for a bit of a chat up and even perhaps indulge in an occasional spot of snoggingSpot on!

Resistance would be gormless.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Jesus' Trouble & Strife

Honey, I'm home!
Jesus was, according to some with vivid imaginations, joined at the hip to Mary Magdalene.  I believe something like has long been taught (unofficially?) in the Mormon church (though presumably Mary-Maggie was only one of the fortunate floozies in his polygamist harem), and then more recently there's been Dan Brown's thoroughly fictional and hugely over-hyped pot boiler The Da Vinci Code.

Traditionally Jesus has been considered too drenched in the Holy Spirit, what with being interpenetrated by the other members of the Holy Trinity, to have had any bother whatsoever with rising testosterone.  Not exactly the bachelor-messiah, according to the church of my early adulthood...  No he was already spoken for: he married the Church.  Holy mangled metaphor!

Now along comes Karen King with an unprovenanced swatch of Coptic text to stir it all up again.  The biblioblogs have been full of it, but two stand out for me.  Leading the charge among those who find all this deeply unconvincing is the inimitable Jim West.  And it certainly seems the vein of sceptisism (as we spell skepticism in Her Majesty's dominions) dominates among those in-the-know.

But just to keep us all on our toes, James McGrath throws a pitcher of slightly chilled water over all those jerking knees with a thoughtful post of his own.

What fun.

Friday 21 September 2012

Battling Mythicism BB (Before Bart)

There isn't much that's new under the sun, to echo Ecclesiastes, and the mythicist debate is no exception.

1949 was, as they say, "a powerful long time back."  In that year Harry Emerson Fosdick published his The Man From Nazareth.  It appears that the peril of Jesus mythicism was weighing on his mind at the time, and the very first chapter, A Real Man, not a Myth, takes up the cudgels.

I doubt Bart Ehrman bothered to consult this classic text before producing his own book earlier this year; it gets no mention in his bibliography.  Yet Fosdick's goal was remarkably similar to his own, to present a lucid, comprehensive case against mythicism aimed at the general reader.  This he accomplished in this single, passionately written chapter.  Granted, in 1949 scholarship lacked many of the insights it has today in addressing issues like these, but Ehrman could have done a lot worse than simply updating that text.  As it was he did do a lot worse.

So if you want to read a decent argument against mythicism, Fosdick is in the public domain and free to download (the Kobo store is one source).  Cut him some slack for having written over sixty years ago - there are weaknesses as a result, but in large part the case made then is much the same today.

Monday 17 September 2012

Judging Judges

Tim Bulkeley was called "a politically correct idiot" after making a few germane points about the book of Judges in his excellent podcast.  (I suspect the accuser was one of those demented Calvinofascist types, but I'm only guessing.)  Anyway, Tim introduces the podcast thusly:
Judges is definitely not suitable for Sunday School reading, the bits that are told are firmly censored, and few of us go back to notice what we are missing. But, if we do, what we find is a book chock full of horrid twisted tales, brutal, brutish and sadly not short. Why? Can such a nasty collection of stories be justified, or should it simply be banned?
 "Nasty, horrid tales.  Grubby," says Tim who, believe it or not, teaches Old Testament (why not "Hebrew Bible"?) at Carey Baptist College in Auckland.  But after "all those tawdry tales" comes the last verse, which possibly provides some sort of moral for the tale... I think.  Maybe.  In fact, we're going to have to wait, for Tim promises more in the next instalment.  Cynic that I am, I get the feeling that he's going to apply the baptismal waters to the grubbiness, working up a sudsy lather with the exegete's version of something that washes "whiter than white," and then we'll all be able to breathe again.  This catalogue of travesties provides (again, I'm guessing here at Tim's approach) an example to avoid, thus justifying its existence in the canon.  If that's the line (which it might not be), I for one don't buy it.

My first question, if I were one of Tim's students (I can hear Tim intoning "God forbid!"), would be about the harmful influence Judges has had down through history.  It's influence on colonial powers, for example, and genocidal freaks.  Can any amount of gentle scrubbing remove the splattered blood stains of countless indigenous people - men, women and children - in South and Central America, for example, victims of the mindset which this book - in substantial part - either created or encouraged.

Just asking.

In any case, I'll be awaiting part 2 with great interest.  Do give part one a listen and see what you think.

Ain't THAT the truth!

The above graphic appeared on Jim West's blog.  His title: those who can't teach, write policy for those who can.  Boy, ain't that the truth!

Saturday 15 September 2012

I've been reading...

Three brief overviews of  books that've been on my reading list over the past couple of weeks.

Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ.
Boyarin is a Jewish scholar, and if there's one thing I've learned over the years it's that Jewish scholars of the New Testament - Alan Segal, Amy-Jill Levine, Mark Nanos, Pamela Eisenbaum - to name just four - tend to have a clearer view on their subject, and often a whole lot more savvy, than their compromised Christian colleagues. 

Here Boyarin tackles the old 'Son of Man' chestnut.  What does the title (assuming it is a title) mean when applied to Jesus.  There are those, like the translators of the Common English Bible, who believe it just means a human, any human, or perhaps one - like Jesus - who is supremely human.  Boyarin is having none of this.  Nor does he seem to have much time for the fence-sitters who see it both referring to Jesus' humanity and, in other contexts, to the mysterious Son of Man figure in Daniel's late apocalyptic pot-boiler.  It's the Danielic feed that Boyarin subscribes to, and he traces it back to the Two Powers theology that predated Judaism as we now know it. 

And you can certainly start to join the dots.  Not just Segal (Two Powers in Heaven), but Gabriele Boccaccini (Beyond the Essene Hypothesis), and Margaret Barker (The Great Angel).  Boyarin maintains that it is here, not in Greek philosophical speculation, that the roots lie of what later became binitarianism and trinitarianism. 

John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age. (Second edition)
If you ever needed convincing that the orthodox Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus as both God and man is incoherent, this is the place to begin.  For Hick it's long past time to dump the old, literal, dog-collared dogmas and view them through the lens of metaphor.  Hick doesn't tackle full-blown trinitarianism head-on, but launches out into the peculiar Christology that has Jesus neither fish nor fowl from the moment 'baby Jesus' drew breath.  But, of course, it's not enough to just stand up on a soap box and shout your conclusions, as some of us are wont to do.  Hick is meticulous in his approach, engaging with the 'thinkers' who still want to maintain the old views, relentlessly deconstructing as he goes.

And of course he's no doubt right.

Harry Emerson Fosdick. Christianity and Progress.
Based on a series of lectures Fosdick gave in 1922, addressing an audience very different from today's, this is still a book well worth reading.  And Fosdick himself, a wise man in the best sense of that term, is well worth rediscovering.  He was an articulate advocate of human progress, a concept beyond the grasp of human beings before the Enlightenment when everything harked back to a past golden age, foresaw a cataclysmic end to history, or relegated change to the endless loop of cycles which we are doomed to repeat.

But Fosdick was no starry-eyed liberal, seeing a steady progression toward human perfection.  The Great War was still too fresh in memory for that.
[H]uman history is not a smooth and well-rolled lawn of soft ascents; ... it is mountainous, precipitous... a country where all progress must be won by dint of intelligence and toil, and where it is as easy to lose the gains of civilization as it is to fall over a cliff or to surrender a wheat field to the weeds.
Fosdick is essentially a thinking person's pastor, and something of a sage in the first half of the twentieth century.  I'm not sure we have yet seen his like a hundred years on.  Liberal he might have been, but he also saw a burning need for people in the brave new world of science and progress to be deeply grounded in religion.  What did he mean by that?
Religion is the human spirit, by the grace of God, seeking and finding an interpretation of experience that puts sense and worth, dignity, elevation, joy, and hope into life.
To which one can only say amen.

If you have the Kobo software on your computer, tablet or smart phone (or, less likely, an actual Kobo reader), then you can download the Gutenberg edition of this book for free.  Frankly, you could do a lot worse and pay good money in the process. 

Amazon links:
The Jewish Gospels
The Metaphor of God Incarnate