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!