Tuesday 29 May 2012

Ehrman and Fredriksen

Bartman vs. Price?
John Shuck has posted the second in his series of interviews - Will the Real Jesus Please Rise?  The first was with Jack Spong.  This time it's with Bart Ehrman, the Second Horseperson of the Post-Enlightenocalypse, and author of that grate little book (grate being my preferred spelling in this case) Did Jesus Exist?  John is a great (as opposed to grate) interviewer, and asks a lot of the questions some of us would likely have asked ourselves given the chance.

Next horseperson off the blocks is Bob Price, with the podcast due to hit the Web around June 5.  As we all know the third horseperson is mounted on a dark horse, and that seems entirely appropriate for Bob.

And a heads up about Paula Fredriksen's new book Sin: The Early History of an Idea.  It's already out on Kindle, and due soon in hard copy.  How on earth did we end up with the demented self-fulfilling prophecy of total human depravity and original sin?  Fredriksen hauls the culprits into the dock.  Praise the lord, and let's hope they all - and especially that Augustine guy from Hippo - get consecutive eternal lifetime convictions!

Sunday 27 May 2012

The End just got postponed

Ten minutes of nuclear Armageddon and lo, the return of Christ.  By today - yes, right now, if not hours past - we should all we witlessing witnessing the Second Coming - at least according to super-prophet Ronald Weinland.  But, oops, it seems the Weinland Messiah was double-booked.

Hence our text for the day (1 Kings 18: 26-29):
26 So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, "O Baal, answer us!" But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response. (NRSV)

No voice, no answer, and no response.  Not so much as a stray trumpet blast.  Luckily for Ron, he won't have to face the same fate as the prophets of Baal, other than a little biblically-sanctioned mocking.

So how, after predicting the big date and failing, then re-predicting and falling flat on your face yet again, can you recover your dignity and keep on with gathering the Lord's greenbacks?

Ronnie lays his heart open before the brethren.  No sign though that he's going to retire from the prediction business.  Nope, he's already hard at work on that next rambling sermon.  Oh dear, and all that nasty IRS stuff will have to be dealt with after all.

The New Believers

With David Barrett's new book on the WCG, The Fragmentation of a Sect, due for release at the end of the year, perhaps it's a good time to note his previous work in 2001, The New Believers.  Unfortunately you might now find it hard to track down, but here is a short review - which appeared on the original Ambassador Watch.  (The website for the book is still available at www.thenewbelievers.com.)
After reading The New Believers I'm relieved I wasn't suckered into a really weird cult. Worldwide was bad enough, but compared to some of the groups David Barrett discusses, WCG was downright well-balanced.
Barrett is English, and this large book (500 plus pages) is written with a British audience in mind. But don't let that put you off. Barrett's strength is as a sociologist, someone who is working in the field of alternate religions: as a result he is scrupulously fair to all concerned and generous-spirited. Unlike the more common material on sects, this isn't an "anti-cult" book, and Barrett isn't out to rally the troops to his own version of "the truth". The result is a thinking person's romp through an extensive list of bizarre and colorful "new religious movements". Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are there, along with Christadelphians and Exclusive Brethren, Bahai and the International Church of Christ. Those movements I can deal with, but when Barrett moves to Eckankar, Theosophy and the Aetherius Society: well, give me Herb's shaking jowls any day.
For those of us with a WCG background, the main interest in this book will be Barrett's keen observations of Worldwide and its daughter churches. In fact he devotes the final section of his book to the WCG as a case study, as well as referring to it throughout the book. In doing so he gifts us with the rare ability to "see ourselves as others see us". In the concluding chapter, "Schism of a Sect", he tackles the phenomenon of a church disintegrating following the death of its leader. As an outsider you might expect him to get some of the detail wrong, but no, this is a meticulous piece of research. And, wonder of wonders, it is also highly readable. A small sampling:
Armstrong was often photographed in Plain Truth and elsewhere with great world leaders - kings, princes, politicians, prime ministers, presidents - which gave him kudos and credibility. According to some former senior members, these photographs were intended to show Armstrong's importance by the circles in which he regularly moved; but very often, it seems, the great world leaders had no idea who this short, elderly man was, who asked to be photographed shaking hands. Garner Ted Armstrong disapproved of his father's many trips, calling them "the world's most expensive autograph hunt".
On many occasions Armstrong, as Chancellor of the Ambassador Colleges, is alleged to have effectively "bought" meetings and photographs by making donations to charitable causes supported by a world leader.
The Worldwide Church of God has always been very authoritarian, very "top-down", a classic case of establishing and maintaining "the purity of the truth." In sociologist Roy Wallis' words, "its protection... requires extensive control over those to whom access [to the truth] is permitted" - i.e. church membership... As senior leaders, powerful, ambitious men, constantly jockeyed for position in the hierarchy, they would suddenly find themselves demoted or even disfellowshipped  for what often seemed trivial reasons. Six months or a year later they might be back in favor, and the person who had fired them might himself be in the wilderness. One reason for all the many variant offshoots today is the unresolved grievances and lack of trust between people who had worked together for decades.
Joesph W. Tkach died in September 1995, and his son, Joe Jnr (now known as Joseph Tkach) became Pastor General. According to a leading member of one offshoot church, Joe Jnr had effectively been running WCG for some years, under the figurehead of his sick father - a close parallel to the Armstrongs in the 1960s and early 1970s. But where Garner Ted Armstrong had been ousted from the Church, Joe Jnr, according to many internal sources, had been the one to push through all the changes in the Church.
Although Joseph Tkach had been appointed the successor by Armstrong, the continuing power of the leadership in WCG did not rest on the succession of personal loyalty alone. Armstrong had also enforced a strict top-down form of Church government, and this continued after his death. The Church leadership had its authority directly from God, and must be obeyed even if it was wrong (1 Peter 2:18). This was why so many loyal ministers struggled with their consciences so long to teach what they were told they must now teach, even if they personally still believed the old teachings. Some members... believe... they must remain in that Church even if it is now teaching what to them is outright heresy.
The majority still held to the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong. The Tkaches rejected his teachings, but because of their position were able effectively to hijack his Church... If the Tkaches had left the Church Armstrong founded, they could have left the majority of members to remain true to those teachings within the organization founded on those teachings. That would, some feel, have been a more satisfactory, even a more honest, resolution.
Others have set out to chronicle the fortunes of the Worldwide Church of God, but each has had a very clear personal agenda. Joe Tkach and Mike Feazell are, for example, apologists for their reforms. David Barrett has no such constraints. Indeed, the current Pastor General will take little joy from Barrett's analysis. The 18 000 word WCG section of The New Believers is something special. It is an insightful and compassionate overview of the travail the church has gone through.   
And, if Barrett is right, the soap opera is destined to continue well into the foreseeable future and beyond.

Saturday 26 May 2012

AW back up

The archives of the Ambassador Watch blog, which ran from mid 2006 through January 2010, are now back online.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Defragging the WCG

The Worldwide Church of God "experience" has garnered little attention from sociologists up till now, despite offering a rich and diverting history.  In fact for years the WCG, founded by high school dropout and ad man Herbert W. Armstrong, provided unintentional 'soap opera'-style entertainment quite unparalleled in any other similar-sized sect.  Amusing to those on the outside, deeply distressing to those on the inside, and life-altering to those painfully working their way from the centre to the margins and beyond.

Those who have written in any depth on the WCG have largely been caught up in apologetics of one sort or another, pleading for the defence, or throwing stones from inside other glass houses. Ex-members have had a tendency to (ahem, small clearing of throat) gloat over the ongoing pratfalls that have seen a once dynamic, thrusting religious movement reduced to a bare shadow of its former presence.

Where would you find a serious study of the WCG, its leaders and its leadership dilemmas?  Dilemas that have spawned an uncountable number of sub-sects, each aping the original movement in different ways?  Sadly, nowhere.

But that's about to change with the impending release of The Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God.  Authored by David V. Barrett, a meticulous and fair-minded observer who has been 'on the case' for many years, this 350 page study is due for release from Oxford University Press in December.

The author has either met or corresponded with many of the big names in the movement, whether in the Tkach-led rump remnant or some of the flakier one-man breakaways.  He wrote The New Believers back in 2001, which focused in its final chapter on WCG as a case study.  That was clearly just the appetiser.  Here's the publisher's description of the new volume.
In the mid-1930s an unsuccessful American advertising executive, Herbert W. Armstrong, founded a millenialist, 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 revision 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 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. More important, he offers a new typological model for categorizing how movements can change after their founders' death, including schism, 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.

  • The first sociological study of Worldwide Church of God offshoots
  • Proposes a new typological model for categorizing various outcomes to new churches on the death of their founder
Now I don't know about you, but I'm excited by this project, which began as a PhD dissertation (in Sociology of Religion at the London School of Economics.)  It's a chance for some of us to take a disciplined look, adding insight to hindsight, at where we've come from, and perhaps learn some new things about ourselves - as well as "our former association" - at the same time.

If you've been crazy enough to follow my blog posts since Ambassador Watch days, or have kept up to date through The Journal, you'll know that David's book has been years in the making.  This is one publication every thinking member and ex-member will want - I'm tempted to say need - to have.

More information to follow as it becomes available.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

The First Horseperson rides forth from Elizabethton

Hark!  The drum of hoofbeats at dusk.  'Ware, 'ware, 'ware, pilgrim; hide yourself quickly, the horsepersons are four, and the first is even now upon us, clad in purple.

John Shuck has posted the first of four radio shows in podcast form, each featuring a different revelatory rider.  And lo, wearing faded purple, mounted on a princely steed, is none other than John Shelby Spong.

Spong may have retired years ago from the office of Episcopal bishop, but the fire still burns.  Begone ye cloistered academic critics, peering down your delicate snooters at one you do not deem your peer, this sage's words are worth a thousand dry, self-promoting monographs.

No, seriously, this is a great bit of audio.  Do give it a listen.

But quick!  For the second rider soon approaches, thin-lipped and intense, splattered in muck to the bridle with the severed heads of his enemies bouncing from his buckled belt.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Bart Ehrman under friendly fire

Bart Ehrman must be regretting his decision to take on the subject of Jesus mythicism.  It's not that he's done so, but how he's done it.  His book Did Jesus Exist? was a sloppy bit of work that did him scant justice.  I'm still not convinced Ehrman has done much more than skim-read much of the material he critiques - particularly Doherty's Jesus: Neither God Nor Man.

It's not that the mythicists shouldn't be challenged; they clearly should.  And if they're genuine scholars (as many of them are) they would surely welcome the engagement.  But Did Jesus Exist? has turned out to be a disappointment all round, doing little more than stirring up a hornet's nest of largely justified indignation.

Now it seems he's also getting walloped from the historicist centre-ground.  Both Stephanie Fisher and Maurice Casey (author of the somewhat stroppy and high-handed Jesus of Nazareth) have levelled some pertinent criticism at Ehrman's assunptions and insinuations.  Jim West has the details.  Interesting to note that Ehrman refused to allow this criticism to appear on his blog, calling it "mean spirited."

Which seems a bit rich given the approach he takes in his own book.

Jesus of Nazareth

Saturday 19 May 2012

Ambassador Watch - the Second Coming

With the 'Ronpocalypse' - the moronic speculations of Ronald Weinland ramped up as Bible-based certitude - looming later this month, it's fascinating to read how the followers of Harold Camping are coping in the wake of his failure a year ago.  A Year After the Non-Apocalypse is compulsory reading for anyone who wants to move beyond the surface weirdness and understand what's going on in the minds of these true believers.  Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, Otagosh is pleased to announce that, to mark the latest Ronpocalypse, there will indeed be a Second Coming.  The Ambassador Watch blog will reappear (no new content, just the archive) "for a limited time."  The old link (ambassadorwatch.blogspot.com) will be active from around midnight May 26 NZST.  More details to follow.

Friday 18 May 2012

Ronald Weinland's Groundhog Day

This is a re-posting - slightly condensed - from 2007 when Ronnie Weinland was looking down the barrel of his own prediction stupidity at that time.  Dopey Ron clearly learned nothing out of this experience, and nor did the folk who have continued to follow him.

But take a look at the suggested off-ramps I suggested five years ago.  Which, if any, do you think Ron will use on Monday 28th?  Is anyone stupid enough to continue bankrolling this turkey after the same old failure scenario plays out yet again?

Anyhoo... here's what appeared then on Ambassador Watch.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Weinland's Year of Doom (Pt. 2)

Ronald Weinland ... reveals that April is the page to mark on your calendar... which means there's not even six months left. Maybe we should all take the opportunity to max out our credit cards before the balloon goes up.

Interesting that Ron, when asked directly if he's going to flee anywhere, explicitly denies it! Do we take it that Weinland isn't going to the "Place of Safety"? And if there's no place of safety, well, what's the point? Or is he just being coy to ensure only the right type of people make it to Petra?

But then, heaven forbid, what if Ron has simply screwed up this whole date-setting thing big time?

No worries, there's plenty of precedent. Here are six strategies Ron can adapt to haul his chestnuts out of the fire.

1. It happened - but not visibly. This is what the SDAs did after 1844, and the Jehovah's Witnesses after 1914. A bit disingenuous, but whatever works, right?

2. It happened - but in an understated way. Remember (if you're an oldie) when Herb proclaimed that 1972's terminus to the 19 year time cycle was marked not by falling H-bombs but a new series of Plain Truth ads in the Reader's Digest? This strategy has the advantage that it was used by the not-so End Time Apostle himself, so already has a kind of imprimatur.

3. Fire Drill. The Eternal was just testing, like the almost-sacrifice of Isaac. At the last moment Yahweh can reveal to Ron that he's decided to press the pause button... everyone "as you were."

4. Oops, the numbers got scrambled. Just let me recalculate... which is what the Millerites did back in the 1840s, providing a further opportunity to get it wrong all over again.

5. I never actually said that, or, I'm not technically a prophet. Not really an option, even though there's Herbal precedent, as Ron did say it and does claim to be a prophet, but hey, folks have short memories (especially if they avoid the Internet.)

6. Playing it safe. It was Ron's commission to preach this even if it didn't happen. This is the Jonah defense (after being fish food he preached Nineveh's destruction and then had the Eternal pull out "plan B" without so much as a beg pardon). This may be Ron's best option. Give it a bit of a twist and you can even make it "prove" that Ron is God's prophet (would a false prophet risk saying nutty stuff like this?)

Yes, Judge Rutherford, Herb, the Two Willies (Miller & Dankenbring) and a whole bunch of others have offered up dates that were disconfirmed, but did that stop them? Heck no! So Ron, don't sweat it; hang tight dude.

How many followers/members/happy tithe-payers Weinland has is impossible to gauge from his website, but it's likely to be minuscule. Nevertheless the 2008 prediction seems to have attracted quite a lot of attention, certainly more than he got ministering in either WCG or UCG, and let's face it, there have to be more than a few feeble-minded suckers paying his bills.


An interesting new blog that presents the perspective of ex-members of the Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International) is Silenced.  A quick look and I'm duly impressed.  Those responsible remain anonymous, and I hope that can change.  At least one of the writers needs to stick his or her head above the parapet if this is to grow as a credible source.  Also interesting is this statement on the 'About' page.
Silenced is run by a collection of former members from a variety of backgrounds and splinter groups across the COG. For the most part, we are demographically younger than many other COG-focused blogs and websites, and generally don’t remember the “glory days” of WCG’s time as a powerful megacult. For us, the painful memories, oppression and tales of woe are very fresh.
Which is both tragic and heartening!  If you've done time in the Empire, you might want to check it out.  There's even a cool little counter to mark the remaining days and minutes to the Weinland Apocalypse.

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Law Chore

Tim Bulkeley says what I would have (if I'd had the energy) on the subject of Law vs. Law (kinda like Mad magazine's classic Spy vs. Spy), following a very Baptist posting on that subject by Jim West.
Those unable to or unwilling to recognize that moral law is one thing and ritual law another will never, in 100 lifetimes, grasp the biblical text.
As they say on the Tui billboards - Yeah, right! Methinks you'd need to borrow Joseph Smith's lost magic glasses to distinguish the two.  They're absolutely fused together in the Hebrew Bible (even within the Ten Commandments), if indeed they are even capable of being distinguished.  My former tradition has battled with this issue, often with far more heat than light produced.  Simply put, the distinction is anything but clear.  Not clear in the Old Testament, not clear in Paul's writings.  Especially not clear in Paul's writings, which is why Seventh-day Adventists can come up with such an interesting reading of Romans.

Enter Tim who is, I believe, also of the Baptist persuasion.
...what makes the treatment of disorderly conduct, or slaves civil law and something else moral law? It’s quite simple really. Moral law is about sex and civil law isn’t.
Uh... now I think Tim has his tongue somewhat wodged in his cheek with that comment, though I could be wrong.   I'm one of those weird types who believes morality has very little to do with sex as such.  (Faithfulness, compassion, integrity; yes.)  In any case, his overall point is well made.

Not to say a Christian position on ethics must be incoherent, but oh boy, is it necessarily nuanced!  So I respectfully disagree with Jim and, possibly, agree with Tim... which I'm sure will come as a surprise to him.

This whole oxymoronic issue of "Christian ethics" drives me nuts.  Blessed art thou if you've never so much as heard of Newbigin or Gunton!  Behaviour is either ethical or not, which should be totally clear to anyone who either (a) lives in a pluralistic Western nation or (b) deals with kids on a regular basis.  The Bible is of very limited help in teasing out the complexities of what is and isn't moral. 

Some of the most moral people I know have eschewed traditional marriage vows.  

Checklists are for supermarket shopping.

Monday 14 May 2012

What are you doing on the 27th?

First pizza, now this!  What a night!
May 27, as most of us know, is the day everything changes, for lo, we will lift up our eyes and see the dramatic return of Jesus Christ to this planet, as King, Kaiser, Caesar and Beloved Leader - no voting required.

At least that's what Ron Weinland, the last apostle and end-time prophet is saying.  And it's not like Ronnie has led anyone up this particular garden path before, is it?

Just think, all that money Mitt Romney has spent campaigning, and he'll never be president.

The Hobbit movie will never be finished.

The bank will never bleed another mortgage payment off you.


So brethren, what will you be doing on Sunday the 27th as you await the Lord's return?

Let's face it, loose white garments - choir robes and suchlike - are kind of tacky and, well, it's been done before.

Those of us, true believers one and all, who admire Ronnie's selfless ministry and gladly accept that he is one of the two witlesses, er, witnesses, can lend our support on this unprecedented day, the day human history effectively ends, by celebrating.

Assuming of course that the wicked Laodiceans in our midst (and you know who you are) aren't wiped out first in Ron's Reader's Digest Condensed Tribulation.

Using the sterling example set by The Journal with its 'festival reports', let's compile some 'end of the age reports' as we mark, in our various ways, the end of time as we know it.

Some suggestions:
Pizza and the Parousia.  Take the family out to the local pizza joint, but be sure to avoid ham toppings.  Stay late, remember, Monday is cancelled.

Bar bar Black Sheep.  No, not a typo, and especially designed for the backsliders in our midst.  Get thee down to one of the more salubrious local bars or pubs and order a meal.  Time it right and you'll never have to pay!

Fermented Grapes of Wrath.  Stay in for a home cooked meal, but pick up an especially nice bottle of wine to toast Ron, Laura and their Lord.

Geekery.  Live-blog the big event, or set yourself up for a tweeting marathon as news comes through of the Armies of Heaven on their broken kneecaps crusade ("every knee shall bow!")

Signs of the Times.  Put up a sign on your fence as a cryptic witness to the day's true significance.  "Ron told us so!", "Bob Thiel will be really hosed off"  or "Ron and Laura WHO?"

That's only a few of the possibilities.  More suggestions welcome.  I think I'll go for Bar Bar Black Sheep - who knows the next time I'll be able to order a pint of Murphy's with the $10 Chicken Parmigiana!  Whatever you do though, don't let the occasion pass unnoted.  And yes, as we all enter the thousand year millenium, Ron's Wonderful World Tomorrow, don't forget to send in your 'best apocalyse ever' reports.  We'll be pleased to receive them...

...regardless of the state our kneecaps are in.

Saturday 12 May 2012

The Most Disturbing Chapter

A few days ago there was a posting here that asked which passage in the Bible was most disturbing.  Most of the nominations involved horrendous Old Testament passages.  There's certainly a lot to object to in the Hebrew canon, not least the famous 'waters of Babylon' psalm, Ps. 137.
O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!
Perhaps the concentration camp staff at Auschwitz comforted themselves with such verses, but they would be the vilest exception.  Yet, in the context of other ancient literature, this is hardly uncommon.  Brutal times draw forth brutal literature, and that includes scripture.  I recollect being scandalised by a passage in the Bhagavad-Gita some years ago, every bit as contemptuous of human life as anything you'd find in the Pentateuch.  Viewed as god-breathed holy writ such passages are an abomination, but seen as examples of national literature at a time of robber-baron royalty... not so much of a surprise.

My nomination, seemingly far more benign, comes from the pen of Paul the apostle:  Romans 13:1-5.
13 Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established. People who take this kind of stand will get punished. The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. Would you rather not be afraid of authority? Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval. It is God’s servant given for your benefit. But if you do what’s wrong, be afraid because it doesn’t have weapons to enforce the law for nothing. It is God’s servant put in place to carry out his punishment on those who do what is wrong. That is why it is necessary to place yourself under the government’s authority, not only to avoid God’s punishment but also for the sake of your conscience.
This is a licence to do nothing in the face of injustice.  More than that, it is a churchly sanction not only to do nothing, but at minimum to give tacit support to evil.  If it had been taken seriously there would have been no American Revolution, no civil rights movement, no overthrow of dictatorships, no emancipation from slavery, no democracies.  In short, no progress.  Adhere strictly to Paul's advice and we'd all still live in totalitarian states, sanctified societies where the church counsels its members to quietism; sit down, shut up and do whatever you're told.

The ideal society of Romans 13 would look a lot like Nazi Germany, or, given its provenance, the Roman Empire.

And yes, it was indeed a popular passage in Nazi Germany.  Did you have qualms of conscience about disappearing Jewish neighbours, conscription into the Wehrmacht, the euthanizing of the mentally unfit?  Go read Romans 13!

From here we move out into the nightmare nonsense of Augustine's two cities and Luther's two kingdoms, the lethal concept of "left hand of God."  Truly this is a very, very long way from the teachings of Jesus. 

And we have Paul to thank for it.

Anglo theologising has - to briskly stir the bucket - always been rubbish, especially as influenced by that deviant variety of Reformation thought known as Calvinism.  And yet it has been in the grey murk of Anglo Protestantism that slavish obsequiousness to the demands of the state - the Pauline imperative in Romans 13 - has been deemphasised.  It has been here that non-conformism found a voice, and a prophetic stance against the state made not only possible but acceptable and valued.  If for nothing else one is moved to say, thank God for the Methodists.

Go figure.

Romans 13 seems uncontroversial at first but, read with the standard set of assumptions (sadly, the most natural reading) it brims with the potential for the bitterest fruit of human oppression - authorised and enforced by God.  Paul is not talking about a liberal democracy like Sweden or New Zealand;  his point of reference is the iron grip of Rome.  What was Paul thinking when he wrote "The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing... Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval."  Did he not know that the Empire had executed Jesus?  The irony is that, according to legend at least, he too was soon to be crushed under the boot of "God's servant."

No thinking person today could accept the implications of this passage. 

There are other ways of reading the five verses.  Two I'll expand on in later posts.  But even if Paul (assuming Paul did write them, and its not an interpolation) was talking about something other than the obvious, that would not erase two thousand years of damnable precedent.

Two thousand years and counting.

The End Draweth Nigh - Again

(With a nod of thanks to DVB who drew my attention to "nigh-ness" of the Big Event).

There are just days to go before Christ returns.  I know that's true because His return has been announced by God's little friend, Ronald Weinland, one of the Two Witnesses of Revelation.  And the date, for any of you slackers who haven't already bestirred yourselves, is May 27.

Weinland also modestly bears the offices of "the last apostle of this age" and "God's end-time prophet", so we'd all better listen up!  Unsurprisingly, Ron has been down this path before, just like Harold Camping.  However unlike Harold, Ronnie is anything but a broken man, and loudly and proudly rattles his tonsils for the faithful few who continue to fund him in the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed.

In fact, the only previous Otagosh posting that features Ronnie continues to be one of the most googled.  Ron, who began his career as a minister in the service of Herbert W. Armstrong, originally gained profile with a couple of giveaway books that identified 2008 as the year of the Great Tribulation.  More recently he and his dutiful wife Laura (a.k.a. the Second Witness) have fallen afoul of the IRS.

But that's all going to be beside the point in a couple a weeks.  The Trib is going to be short, very short.  In fact it may have already begun, though I can't see any signs of mushroom clouds over the Pukekohe hill as yet.  You can read for yourself the witness/apostle/prophet's inspired last-minute explanation of how all this fits in over on his website.  My advice for those so convinced: send Ronnie a generous back-dated tithe cheque quick!

Wednesday 9 May 2012

A Paradoxical Prayer

Every so often an ancient, forgotten document crosses my path or, to be more precise, is downloaded onto my Kindle.  Rooting around in the byways of obscurity, I came across this little gem.
O Father of confusions and sorrows, give us aid.
O Thou whose existence we doubt, doubt us not at such a time.
O ruler of the unrulable, O creator of the uncreated, O speaker of truths that lie, let our minds be clear and our aim accurate.
O mystery in clarity, O foulness in purity, O darkness in light, comfort us and guide and lead us.
Bring us not into error.
Cause us not to feel regret.
Remain with us now as on the first and last of all days.
Thou concealer of destinies and shatterer of patterns, be merciful, for in hatred lies love, in blindness lies sight, in falsehood lies righteousness.
Amen. Amen. Amen.
Profound, huh?

This little beauty would lend itself to a responsive reading in many a church.

Where does it hail from?

(1) A recent retranslation of one of the Nag Hammadi texts.
(2) A 19th century theosophical text by Charles Leadbeater
(3) A famous science fiction writer
(4) The unpublished letters of Joseph Smith, archived in Salt Lake City
(5) A 2nd century book of Marcionite prayers
(6) The young Charles Darwin, when studying theology prior to Voyage of the Beagle.

The answer tomorrow.  Meanwhile feel free to memorise, chant and recite at your personal discretion.

Yes, the prayer comes from the pen of sci-fi master Robert Silverberg in his novel Across a Billion Years, published in 1969.  Maybe not his finest work, but still an amusing tale.

Friday 4 May 2012

The Most Disturbing Book or Chapter in the Bible

The Bible has a lot to commend it, even if we can no longer regard it as infallible and inerrant, and beyond the impious questioning of mere mortals.  A favourite Gospel?  An inspirational voice of prophecy?  A storehouse of wisdom?  A charming novella? Yes!  I'd pluck for Mark, First Isaiah, Sirach and Tobit (the last two among the deuterocanonical works).  There is a place beyond naive biblicism where the power of these ancient books still works magic on cynical readers in a post-Enlightenment world.  As a cultural artifact, as literature, and as a witness to the faith struggle of those who went before us, this is a corpus that demands not obsequious worship, but simple respect, and I for one resist the call to join in the jabbering chorus of bah, humbug.

But, let's be honest, Mark Twain had a point.
It [the Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.  Letters from the Earth
Despite the desire of many well-intentioned scholars to rehabilitate the book of Revelation, for example, sane people find it a noisome bog, a place where many have succumbed to the basest, crudest and frankly stupidest speculations.  Call it the voice of the oppressed as much as you like, it still counts more as 'obscenity' than 'noble poetry'.  D. H. Lawrence summed up it's aberrant virtues better than most.
We can understand that the Fathers of the Church in the East wanted Apocalypse left out of the New Testament. But like Judas among the disciples, it was inevitable that it should be included. The Apocalypse is the feet of clay to the grand Christian image. And down crashes the image, on the weakness of these very feet. There is Jesus--but there is also John the Divine. There is Christian love--and there is Christian envy. The former would "save" the world--the latter will never be satisfied till it has destroyed the world. They are two sides of the same medal.
But what if you were asked to nominate the most disturbing chapter or section in the Bible?  The passage that has been the greatest force for evil, not good.  What would it be, and why?  (My nomination follows in a day or two.)  Thoughts?