Sunday 26 August 2012

The Not-so-Social Gospel

1. The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve apostles came to Jesus and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” 2 But Jesus said to them, “Why not give them something to eat?” They said, "We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people."  3 For there were about five thousand men. And Jesus said to his disciples, “You know what?  You’re right.  Don’t waste your time and shekels.  It would be positively immoral for you to spend any of your hard-earned money for these people.  They knew full well that they were coming to a deserted place, and should have relied on themselves and brought more food.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s every five thousand men for themselves.”
Read the whole thing.  Brilliant!

Saturday 25 August 2012

The Jephthah Dilemma

A nice posting appears on the Auckland Theology blog by Caroline Blyth, called "Before you say a word..."  it's a shortlist of the stupider examples of 'verbal folly' (foot in mouth disease) recorded in the Good Book.  There's the story of Jephthah, the genius who vowed to make a burnt offering of the first thing to meet him on his return home - only to be met by his daughter (who was he expecting, his mother-in-law?)  Adam, the excuse-maker (it was the little woman who did it!), and Yahweh himself, enjoying a gentlemen's wager, and in doing so agreeing to the ruin of Job and the murder of his kids just so the Adversary could prove - or not prove - a point.

What do we do with stories like these, apart from grimace?  Even allowing for the characteristics of the various genre - what edifying lessons are there to be learned?  Preachers strain mightily in such tasks but, as it says in Ecclesiastes, usually bring forth little more than wind.  Is the very best possible something like "look before you leap"? 

In the case of Job it's generally agreed that the author has an intentionally subversive agenda, so perhaps we can cut some slack there.  Even then, literary subtlety in a largely preliterate society would, you have to suspect, have been an underdeveloped skill, and dangerously easy to misinterpret.  Do we risk imputing shades of meaning and depth where none were intended?  Obviously. The finger pointing in Eden is more a cause for hilarity than reflection, and a wonderful resource for cartoonists.  The Jephthah incident simply horrifies us, moreso because there's absolutely no indication in the text (Judges 11) that he did anything wrong by following through on the vow; the poor chap had no choice! 

So what  do those of us who love the Bible, warts and all, do with stories like these, apart from avoid shallow homilies?  Yes, you can "preach against the grain", but why bother with something so counterintuitive when we could all be enjoying a nice selection from Tolstoy instead?

I doubt there's a short answer.  Therein lies the problem.

Thursday 23 August 2012

From Vic to Slick

In 1980 or thereabouts I acquired my first computer, the simply amazing Commodore Vic-20. This was the age of the Atari, the Sinclair ZX81 and magazines that provided directions for Basic code that you could self-program by typing it out for yourself.  Data was stored on a tape drive! Yet the sheer magic of plugging in to a new world of possibilities, as it existed then, is hard to describe. And that was before the Internet!

Time trashes all technology. From the Vic-20 to its gruntier big brother the Amiga, then a forced migration to the dark side... l've been a loyal PC user ever since. Desk tops, laptops. Not for one minute was I seriously seduced by the now forgotten Acorn or the alternate Apple platform. Mixed fruit and nuts.

Now the game has changed.  I've only just clued into the advantages of the tablet. Mobile phones have morphed into Android devices, and now, with a Jelly Bean powered Nexus 7 in hand - well, it's like 1980 all over again.  Oh (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) the things you can do!

New Zealanders have been slower to make the move to tablets than most comparable societies, according to a NZ Herald report.  Part of this may reflect the delay in getting new models into the country, as the article suggests, but overpricing may be a bigger factor.  Another reason to be pleased that the Apple hegenomy has been breached.

Whether it's apparent at the moment, the desktop monitor, box and keyboard combo has effectively been reduced to retro furniture status, and the laptop's days are probably numbered.  Even the Kindle Touch that seemed so cool a few months ago now has an Edsel feel to it.

Scary!   What could possibly be next?

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Son of David

It's true.  Jesus was the Son of David.  The proof isn't just textual, or a matter of faith.  The matter is beyond reasonable doubt.

But there's a small qualification.  So was Judas.

And Peter, and John...

And Caiaphas, Mary Magdalene, the demonaics, old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

"... everyone alive in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus would have been able to claim David for an ancestor."

Check out the fascinating article in the BBC News Magazine.

Monday 20 August 2012

John Banks does it again

He has a glowing resume in the world of Kiwi politics.  Well, glowing may overstate it; his reputation has been well and truly tarnished by controversy over the years.  John Banks was a minister in a previous National government and then, for a time, mayor of Auckland.  These days he's the sole representative in New Zealand's parliament for the far right Act Party, and in a formal coalition with his former National Party buddies.

Life just keeps turning up roses for John.  The man who was turfed out of parliament once before by voters, then lost the mayoralty, was thrown a sop for his single one-man-band vote, a juicy cabinet position.  Described (jokingly?) as "barely literate" by a radio commentator, Mr Banks once again pulls in a handsome salary, this time not as a fringe radio talk-back host, but as associate Education Minister.


Now Mr Banks has come out in favour of the dumbest form of creationism on offer.  Being a politician, an expert on weasel words, he doesn't quite give his explicit endorsement to the YEC (Young Earth Creationism) fantasies... a point made on the Dunedin School blog (which has a transcript)... but it's pretty much implied.

Not for him the subtleties of ID (Intelligent Design).  It's doubtful he'd even know what that was.  Banks is reported in the NZ Herald as declaring "he believes the Genesis account of the start of life on Earth," telling Radio Rhema he has "no doubts the first chapters of Genesis are true."  "God made the world in six days, with Adam and Eve his last act of creation."

Evidence?  Oh come, why bother one's silly little head with evidence.  'True' for John presumably means as factual scientific accounts.  No messing around with namby-pamby ideas of metaphorical truth here!

Which is fine, I suppose.  It's a free country and you can believe any thing you please, and the facts - let alone the scientific method - can go hang.

But for heaven's sake:  this man is associate Minister of Education!

And in secular New Zealand, not Uganda.

The political cartoonists should have a field day.

One particularly shallow press report states:  "Bible scholars are divided over whether this is a literal description or an allegory to help people understand how the world came into being."

I guess it depends what you mean by "Bible scholars," but the overwhelming majority of those qualified in the field of biblical studies know full well what the Genesis stories are - and aren't.

The well-heeled voters of Epsom, one of Auckland's wealthiest and most highly educated electorates, must be having palpitations.  They actually voted for this man because it seemed expedient, even if they had to hold their noses in the process.

My helpful suggestion is that they now settle back with a nice cup of Earl Grey and peruse the latest issue of New Scientist.  With a bit of luck, come the next election, they'll think twice before making the same mistake again.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Jesus and the Centurion's boy

There's been a great deal of huff and puff over a story in the Huffington Post about the healing of the centurion's servant by Jesus.
The story of the faithful centurion, told in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, is about a Roman centurion who comes to Jesus and begs that Jesus heal his pais, a word sometimes translated as "servant." Jesus agrees and says he will come to the centurion's home, but the centurion says that he does not deserve to have Jesus under his roof, and he has faith that if Jesus even utters a word of healing, the healing will be accomplished. Jesus praises the faith of the centurion, and the pais is healed. This tale illustrates the power and importance of faith, and how anyone can possess it. The centurion is not a Jew, yet he has faith in Jesus and is rewarded. But pais does not mean "servant." It means "lover."
In Thucydides, in Plutarch, in countless Greek sources, and according to leading Greek scholar Kenneth Dover, pais refers to the junior partner in a same-sex relationship. Now, this is not exactly a marriage of equals. An erastes-pais relationship generally consisted of a somewhat older man, usually a soldier between the ages of 18 and 30, and a younger adolescent, usually between the ages of 13 and 18. Sometimes that adolescent was a slave, as seems to be the case here.
The article continues: "And what is Jesus's response? Does he spit in the centurion's face for daring to suggest that he heal the soldier's lover? Hardly. He recognizes the relationship and performs an act of grace."

After the predictable gasps of disbelief, it seems that even some more conservative academic bibliobloggers have agreed that this is indeed the most likely meaning.  Who'd have thought this old Sunday School stand-by could be so controversial?

But then, the Bible comes to us from a "far country," both in terms of time and culture.  Mores vary from society to society, and we are fools to project our own assumptions onto an ancient text in an unthinking way (which is, of course, exactly what most Christians delight in doing!)  What should outrage us more; that the centurion's servant was his bed warmer, or that he was forced into that role through the institution of slavery?

What is just as surprising is that this explanation of the passage has apparently come as a blast out of the blue to some working in the field of biblical studies.  Feeling somewhat smug, I dusted off a copy of The Bible Tells Me So (Hill and Cheadle, Anchor Books, 1996) and found this quote which left me stunned a full decade ago.
Matthew 8:5, in which Jesus healed the centurion's "servant" (the original Greek reads "beloved boy"), suggests a homosexual relationship... (p.74)
And that's in the Bible?

Yup.  No wonder the standard translations and commentaries massage it into something safe and innocuous for the folk in the pews. 

I'm not sure the story actually has much value in terms of current debates on homosexuality.  The Hellenistic world is obviously (and thankfully!) not ours, slavery has disappeared from Western consciousness, and youngsters are protected from abuse and exploitation by the laws of our lands.  In that sense our post-modern societies are better places than anything the Bible writers envisioned as remotely possible, short of the magical millennium.

The point here is that the Bible can still surprise us, once the devotional veneer is peeled away, even when the surprise comes in less than edifying form. 

Friday 17 August 2012

The sound of distant canons

Donna's 1st Ark Search... no sign here!
The nature of the biblical canon has been a matter of debate in some Christian circles lately.  Last night I picked up my copy of volume 2 of Nicholas King's LXX translation, so the subject was freshly in mind when I then came across a posting on the subject by James McGrath.

McGrath makes some good points.  There is no one canon of Christian scripture.  The core is pretty solid, but there's a great deal of fuzziness around the edges.
"Canons of Scripture, which bring together diverse works from diverse authors in a wide range of time periods inevitably – as well as by intention – reflect the diversity within a tradition and not a monolithic unity. And so to treat a canonical text dogmatically is in essence to undermine and/or deny their canonical status, by pretending that what that one text says is what they all say, and thus flattening – indeed, riding roughshod with a steamroller over – the plurality of voices contained in that collection."
Link that with former Buttwatch... (or was it Baywatch?) star Donna D'Errico's accident-prone hunt for Noah's Ark on Mt Ararat, and it's a posting well worth the energy of a click across to.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Human Bible XII

The twelfth episode of The Human Bible is available, hosted by that nemesis of historicists, Dr. Bob Price.
This week we first get up to speed on something very fundamental: Who was Jesus, according to orthodox belief?  We delve into the multiple—and conflicting—genealogies of Jesus in this episode's "Apologetics is Never Having to Say You're Sorry."  We answer some great listener questions, including: What does the Bible say about marriage? Does it really make a big deal about it being between one man and one woman? While we're at it, what does it have to say about polygamy? Unsurprisingly, the answers may surprise you.  Finally, what did Jesus himself have to say about being the messiah? Did he ever actually make that claim? Is that really in the Bible?!
 Now really, how could you resist?

Saturday 11 August 2012

Tom Brodie - Jesus Undiscovered?

Soon to be unleashed from Sheffield Phoenix Press

Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus
A Memoir of a Discovery
Thomas L. Brodie

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.

Thomas L. Brodie is Director, Dominican Biblical Centre, Limerick, Ireland.

978-1-907534-58-4 paperback
Publication September 2012 (not yet published)

At last! A Bible everyone can (ab)use.

Okay, I know it's a spoof, but just think of all the evangelists, televangelists, backwoods preachers, frontwoods preachers and "Bible student" hobbyists who'd love to get their greasy mitts on one of these.  Bible colleges would order them in bulk and they'd be number one best sellers at your local Christian bookshop (the one that features Joel Osteen books in the window display). 

The image surfaced on Facebook, but arrives here via James McGrath's blog.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Mike in Narnia?

"MAX FLETCHER, a gangly, asthmatic teenager, is sure the gray van following him is involved in his dad’s disappearance. His concerns soon lead him into an inter-dimensional battle of wits and courage when a strange boy gives Max and the McKenzie twins, VIC and MEREDITH, a puzzling poem. Enlisted as Irregular Ones in the service of the Arkalos immortals, Max, Vic, and Meredith use their extraordinary powers to save Max’s dad from kidnappers, then set out to prevent KOS EIVAL of the planet Gentor from acquiring unspeakable powers and enslaving Earth."
That's the blurb to Mike Feazell's book for younger readers, The Irregular Ones of Luemenor.  It's the first of a series featuring lead character Max. Mike apparently has had a longstanding interest in children's literature, though any book that features unicorns on the cover has to be ten points down in youth cred. to start with. 

I'm not sure there's a Christian subtext, but knowing Mike's background I suspect there has to be.  But this much one can confidently say, it's gotta be better than his serious stuff for adults!

In any case, here's the Amazon Kindle link: The Irregular Ones of Luemenor: A Max Fletcher Adventure.

About Face on FB

I give up!

It's been months since I deactivated my Facebook account.  I even briefly flirted with Google+.  But it seems you can't fully engage with life in the second decade of the twenty-first century without it.

From petrol station promotions to the bar on the main street, Facebook is all over the place.  Even if their share price isn't what they hoped, it ain't goin' away any time soon.  Personally, I'm not much into social media, but tonight - in a moment of weakness - I reactivated FB.  Peter had photographs of his Kerikeri garden, Tony was up for a chat, and Pam linked to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain!

I also reactivated my long neglected AW gmail account.  Apologies to anyone who has been beaming me stuff on it over the last quarter - and yes Reg, that certainly includes you, hence I only just caught up with the news that Mike Feazell has retired from GCI.  Oh dear, what a loss...

You've got to wonder how many not-quite-dead email accounts are cluttering the ether?  How many websites are frozen in cyberspace because their creators changed both their email accounts and lost the all important password?

I feel a panic attack coming on just thinking about it.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

A Voice for Liberal Christianity

Marcus Borg is a leading voice for progressive Christianity.  What we used to call liberal Christianity before the evangelical fringe decided to use that term as a label of contemptuous abuse.  His books are a mixed bag, and I've cooled on him in recent times.  A refugee from Missouri Synod Lutheranism, that I understand, but what could have possessed the man to apostatise to Anglicanism of all things? 

Be that as it may, his most recent endeavour, Speaking Christian, is an important contribution in defence of progressive Christianity.  These poor progressives live in the crossfire between their conservative brethren, who regard them as barely Christian at all, and many less than subtle atheists who gleefully fire spitballs and taunt them with loud cries of "rhubarb!"

Borg attempts to make a case that the progressive view is not only as legitimate as the Bible-toting evangelical mainstream (at least mainstream in America) but more faithful to the original.  A hard task that, I hear you say.  Borg however is undaunted in his quest to set the record straight, and for the most part this is a highly readable attempt.  The chapter on "The Creeds and the Trinity" is, for example, not only mercifully brief but even somewhat convincing if one is of a mind to prattle off the Nicene Creed without feeling that it's all complete nonsense.

Borg also takes a sideswipe at the ridiculous rapture doctrine (have at it brother!), and radically reinterprets a number of key concepts in the old 'heaven-hell' model. It's a noble cause in its own way, even if a bit Don Quixote-ish.

Despite some reservations, I'm of the view that he deserves a hearing.  A critical hearing to be sure, but much more than a casual dismissal from the trenches on either side or, even worse, those more thoughtful believers who are willing to give these views credence on a personal level, but are afraid to say so openly for fear of 'scaring the horses'.  The kind of Christianity Borg advocates is a very different beast from the stereotypes that bray so loudly and aggressively in the public arena.

And that in itself is refreshing.

Monday 6 August 2012


O look, a new country at #9
It's sad really, and in the spirit of Trans-Tasman amity I hesitate to point it out.  And yes, Australia, population 22.6 million, has really done very, very well to currently stand at twenty fourth (that's 24th) on the Olympic medals table.  I think we should all congratulate our dear Australian cousins.

(Pause for polite applause).

Of course, those of us in New Zealand have a mere 4.4 million fellow citizens to correctly pronounce the ancient shibboleth "fish and chips" as fush und chups - in contrast to the Strine version (Feesh een cheeps).  But we don't mind, not really.  I mean, I'm sure cane toads are very pleasant creatures once you get to know them, and that nice Tony Abbott is such an open minded and sensitive man you just know he'd make a wonderful Prime Minister.  Yes, we are very fond of our Australian neighbours. 

So it's with some hesitation I note that New Zealand's current standing on the medals table is 14th (that's fourteenth) - even though our entire population base is less than that of Sydney.

But we're being humble about it, even when a leading Aussie paper - bless 'em - tries to claim our successes by forging a new united national identity  - AUS ZEALAND - especially to save face.  Sydney's Daily Telegraph is welcome to create this new trans-national entity, tongue in cheek or otherwise, but - and I think we have to politely insist - it should be correctly known as ZEALANDOZ instead.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Sanity incompatible with Reformed confessions

Jim West lards on the praise over these comments by Brian Mattson.
Since his dismissal, [Peter] Enns has so quickly evolved in his views that he now denies the historicity of Adam and Eve, denies that the Bible says anything about human origins, embraces theistic evolution, and denies the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.​ What happened to the "Enns is perfectly Reformed and orthodox" defense? One can still argue (wrongly, in my view) than he was right; one cannot argue that his views are compatible with the Reformed confessions.
Peter Enns, a Reformed academic who has been mentioned here before, is the author of The Evolution of Adam, a book which Mattson slates as "extremely provocative (and theologically poor)".  Those who sympathise with Enns are described as "acolytes".

Mattson, like anyone else, is entitled to a bit of polemical venting; fair enough, I've done a bit of that myself.  But what is pushing his buttons?  The poor guy is apparently herniating over the silly "Chik-Fil-A flap" and his eyes are, one suspects, blood red with holy homophobic indignation.  How he ties that into Peter Enns' views on the Bible is beyond me.

But putting aside that particular red herring, let's just pause for a moment.  Enns is charged with:
  • denying the historicity of Adam and Eve.  
  • denying that the Bible is clued up about the scientific origins of our species.
  • seeing evolution as a process compatible with Christian faith.
  • denying the inerrancy and infallibility of the biblical documents.
And because of this his views are incompatible with the Reformed confessions?

If that's the case, then there is either something horribly wrong with the Reformed confessions, or at least Mattson's wooden approach to them.  To put it plainly, Adam and Eve are mythical characters, the Bible writers lived in a pre-scientific era and were therefore incapable of conveying information about human origins (though that's not to say that some of them didn't have deep insights into human nature), and the idiotic concepts of inerrancy and infallibility are relatively recent theological aberrations.

Facts however can't be allowed to compete with dogma; what Mattson calls "God's transcendent and utterly reliable revelation to us."  Now there's a fine example - it's tempting to say a revelatory example - of Reformed bull-roaring.   

Maybe I'm missing something here, but it seems to me that Mattson has just succeeded in shooting himself in the foot.

Rewiring the brain

The front page of this morning's Dominion Post features an article about the effect our information-rich, technology-soaked society is having on our kids.  A follow-up feature on page 4 expands on the theme.
Anyone who has seen a two-year old playing around with an iPad knows what I am talking about.  The digital world is leading to different ways in which the brain develops... (Sir Peter Gluckman)
I suspect he may be right.  And who knows, it might not be a bad thing.  Unlike some though, I'm not so sure our schools should undergo an immediate radical reboot as a result.  Bandwagoning invariably leads to distorted outcomes, and no field demonstrates that better than education.   Despite that, there's no doubt in my mind that the classrooms of the 2020s will be, as they say, "something else."  The last thing we should be doing is hoping it'll all go away.

The Christian brain has been undergoing a process of rewiring over several generations too.  The appeal of the old denominations with their predictable weekly services, grovelling hymns, platitudinous sermons and earnest (and invariably humorless) attempts at interfacing with the broader society, has largely evaporated.  Those with get-up-and-go have got up and gone, some into New Age fads, others into the kind of motivational fundamentalism the prosperity preachers sell, while most have simply been reabsorbed into an increasingly secular society.

And who knows, that might not be a bad thing either.

It isn't just today's kids who are being rewired.  Past generations attended church because it filled a need.  Women in particular, often shackled to home and hearth for six days of the week, could freely network after the compulsory pew warming hour.  That, not the preacher's sermon, was what most often brought the faithful coming back week after week.  But the era of Kinder, Kuche und Kirche is long gone, a disappearing memory of a disturbing dream, blown out of the baptismal waters with two income families, childcare, a global communications technology that gives us all 24/7 networks of choice.  Who would have predicted this kind of systemic change back when the first baby boomers were born. 

How have the churches responded?  Bandwagoning in the more fervent sectors, slowly or not at all in others.  If somebody actually has a workable plan, I haven't heard about it.

Lets hope our schools manage the trick.

Thursday 2 August 2012

A word fitly spoken

From Lester Grabbe.

... critical scholars will disagree with one another, which is fine–that’s part of scholarship.  But they should present evidence and careful argument for their positions:  chest-thumping and penis-waving will not substitute.