Thursday 28 February 2013

Fragments in Focus - 1

A Review of:

David V. Barrett
Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God
Hardback, 280 pages.
Oxford University Press, 2013

British scholar David V. Barrett's earlier work includes The New Believers (Cassell, 2001), which devoted its final chapter to discussion of the WCG. Fragmentation of a Sect is based on his recent doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics.

Part 1.
"This... is an academic book which I hope will contribute to social science and religious scholarship, I also hope it will be read by members of the religious groups of which it is a study: the many Churches of God which are offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God. It is, after all, their story... I hope that all readers will find this account of a group of heterodox, millenarian, Sabbatarian, British-Israelite Churches, which splintered in hundreds of directions after their founder died, even a fraction as absorbing as I have for all these years I have been observing them."
From the Author's Note
And so the tone is set for what might be the most significant study ever published on the movement founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. Up till now there has been a great deal of heat, but not much light shed, when it has come to discussing the collapse and disintegration of the Worldwide Church of God. Partisans for the various factions are rarely able to achieve the degree of detachment necessary to rise above the battlefield and take in the wider perspective. The problem has been compounded by dilettantes outside the movement who have rushed in to support church leaders who they see as taking an agreeable position. There has been much talk about doctrine and teachings, but little about the human cost of a church - and a high-demand church at that - in freefall. Precious little talk, also, of leadership accountability.

Fragmentation of a Sect goes a long way toward redressing the balance. Stepping back from the polemic and apologetics, Barrett maintains a rare critical distance. His interest is not in theology but sociology, the people part of the equation, and provides what UCG reviewer Michael Snyder deems a "secular analysis" (which sounds suspect, but simply means the theological spin and posturing has been, for once, set aside.)

It is, after all, a fascinating story in its own right, with all the tragedy and pathos of a long-running soap opera. Some of us have had bit parts over one or more seasons, others have identified closely with certain of the lead characters. But the lessons to be learned are not only for those whose lives have been caught up in the ongoing drama, but for everyone who wants to understand how a seemingly successful religious movement can crash and burn, taking down with it the dreams and even part of the very identities of its followers.

The book has had a lengthy gestation period, and included a rigorous process of consultation and fact checking. This review, as it progresses, will seek to do justice to Fragmentation by working its way through the various sections of the book, some in greater detail than others.

To continue...

Wednesday 27 February 2013


The Sabbath isn't something we hear about in the news too often.  Despite an awful lot of misinformation about the subject, at its core is a message about stepping outside the everyday routines and obligations that so tightly bind us and, hopefully, centring ourselves for a space of time each week on those realities and experiences that lie outside the mundane. There's many a slip however, as the saying goes, between the cup and the lip, and the Sabbath can end up as merely another burden that restricts rather than liberates.  On this matter I have some small experience as a former member of a Sabbath-keeping Christian community from back in my salad days.

Which is a long-winded preamble to talk about the National Day of Unplugging, which I first heard about just this week, and begins Friday evening 1 March and runs through the following twenty-four hours (corresponding to the Sabbath hours).  The idea, originally an initiative in the New York Jewish community, is to turn off the tech - the cell phones, laptops, tablets, PlayStations and assorted iThings, and reconnect with non-virtual reality.

Gotta say, I think the idea has it's merits.  Those people who have gotten involved - and it's an idea that seems to have seeded well beyond its original roots - seem to have been (to use a word I don't use lightly) blessed. Blessed by opting out from Twitter, Facebook, email, texts and needless phone calls. Blessed to interact with real people, family and friends. You've also got to suspect that their stress levels dropped a couple of notches too.

So I've added it to my calendar this year. It's one "Jewish Holy Day" I don't mind adopting! Friday the 1st from sundown through till the same time on Saturday. If the idea appeals to you too, regardless of your religious tradition (or lack thereof) check out the links below.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

This Shadowed Beauty

The Jesus stories: virgin birth, water to wine, decomposing corpses revived, walking across a lake, replicating seafood without a Star Trek replicator, stepping through closed doors... Fact or fiction?

It's not a very subtle question.  How about legend or myth, and what's the difference?

Max Cryer comes to the rescue.  Although not a crusty academic, Cryer is much admired as a word expert in New Zealand; the sort who delves into the peculiarities of the English language and its many puzzling expressions.  He has been widely heard on public radio, and has authored several popular books, one of which I'm working my way through at the moment, Curious English Words and Phrases.  I confess to having cracked up completely at his deadpan and studiously understated explanation of the potentially R18 rated "donkey deep."

In an entry on the distinction between the terms legend and myth Cryer writes:
"A good way of remembering the two definitions is to think of Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a myth based on a legend, because Saint Nicholas was a real Turkish person. He was much admired... and he became a legend. But he had never been to the North Pole and he didn't ride reindeer through the sky at night. All that extra detail is mythical."
Now Cryer is certainly no theologian, which probably explains why his books actually make sense. In any event, what if we were to take his Santa Claus exemplar and morph it into one about Jesus?
Jesus is a myth based on a legend, because Yeshua was in all likelihood a real Galilean person. He was much admired... and he became a legend. But he had never raised rotting corpses and he didn't walk on water. All that extra detail is mythical.
So, whether you're on the Bart Ehrman side of the debate, or rooting for someone like Tom Brodie, the outcome is essentially the same. Jesus, the literary character of the New Testament, is a myth. And, to put it bluntly, the literary character is the only Jesus we really have. The "historical Jesus" can only be a constantly shifting reconstruction, a best guess based on almost no hard data. The only real difference of substance between the feuding parties is whether the myth is based on a legend (and therefore probably resting on some sort of slippery historical bedrock) or was at some early stage crafted out of the whole cloth.

But if Jesus, the essential Jesus, the biblical, canonical Jesus is a myth, is faith still possible? These measured words are those of Tom Brodie, Dominican priest and self-outed mythicist.
This shadowed living beauty that we call Jesus Christ is not a specific human being. It is visualized as a Jewish-born carpenter, and at one level it is personal and history-related. Jesus Christ is historical insofar as he symbolizes the aspect of a personal God that is interwoven with the fierce particularity of history and with the bloodied beauty of individual lives.
Tom Brodie OP
... but it is the same Jesus Christ who underlies all formulations, no matter what name we use.
What is important is that, while the loss of Jesus as a specific individual human may bring sadness, union with the living Jesus - the universal living figure of truth and goodness and shadowed beauty, the Gospel figure who touches the leper, embraces the children, and lays down his life for our sins - union with this Jesus brings new life.
And that is hard to gainsay.

Yes, I know that adapting Cryer's comments is a gross oversimplification, and that it pays scant respect to the Gordian Knot in which scholars tend to gleefully emesh themselves in order to write dense and unreadable tomes. But really, at the end of the day, do we really need another pointless and overpriced book by Maurice Casey or N.T. Wright to further muddy the waters and help us ignore the obvious?

(Curious English Words and Phrases is available on Kindle. The Brodie quotes are from chapter 21 of  Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, 2012.)

Monday 25 February 2013

A liberal faith

From James McGrath's blog...

If “liberal Christianity” means Christianity that reflects the cosmology and worldview of a particular era, then the earliest Christianity is liberal Christianity. It is only later, as cosmologies and worldviews changed, that some insisted on clinging to the views of an earlier era, because those happened to be part of the worldview of previous generations of Christians, including the Bible’s authors. That is why “conservative” Christianity ends up being a very radical departure from earliest Christianity, even in the process of fighting to try to keep the same worldview as they had to the minimal extent that that is even possible. By making the assumptions of prior generations into articles of faith, they stand against and not with the approach of the earliest Christians, even while claiming to defend their specific beliefs.

Preach it brother!

Sunday 24 February 2013

The Missing Links

As a mere strip of a lad, I remember asking our family pastor, Byron Klein of Hamilton's St Matthew Lutheran, what to make of this evolution thing.  Byron, who was a thoroughly decent and sincere bloke, paused for a moment then responded: "well, I take some comfort from knowing that so far science hasn't been able to track down any 'missing link'."

Or words to that effect.

It was perhaps an acceptable evasion back then, especially to an irritating know-nothing kid.  But today it'd be a bit threadbare. The February 16 issue of New Scientist has a cover feature entitled Missing Links: Evolution's Biggest Gaps and How We're Closing Them.

Not that the staff writers at The Good News are likely to pay much attention.  But intelligent lay people - both in the worlds of science and religion - definitely should.  The world is far too interesting a place to wallow, eyes tightly shut, in the slime pits of creationism.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Summer and upcoming book reviews

Spot the traffic cone
It's been a pretty darn good Summer in my neck of the woods.  The weather has been great, and a long break from the chalk face was brilliant.  Blogging mercifully took a back seat, apart from a sporadic rant.

But while the weather is still holding, the realities of having to get back into routine have landed with a thud.  Another year in servitude to Hekia Pro Rata (let the reader understandeth). Sigh. And another year of pounding the keyboard?  Well, yes.

I had hoped to complete a couple of fairly extensive book reviews over the Summer, but have been thwarted at every turn.  Bob Price's The Amazing Colossal Apostle is a work that many of his fans have been hanging out for for a very long time.  Unfortunately Bob chose Signature Books of Salt Lake City as publisher, and it has been one long delay after another.  When the book finally launched, another Signature pratfall meant they were unable to sell for several more long weeks on Amazon.  Hardly had it appeared there - finally - than it was out of stock.  As best as I can tell, a copy is dog-paddling across the Pacific toward Auckland at this very moment, and when it arrives I'll be posting a review, possibly in several parts, and probably in early March.

The other major review, one which I'd hoped to have well and truly out of the way by now, is of David V. Barrett's The Fragmentation of a Sect.  Securing a copy has, however, been a source of ongoing frustration, and we're now probably talking about the end of March (hopefully 2013, but who knows?)  This is an important work for anyone interested in the way autocratic sects grow and divide, and of special interest to those who remember the heyday of The Plain Truth magazine and Garner Ted Armstrong's World Tomorrow radio and television ministry.  Again, based on what I know about it second-hand, it will definitely be worth detailed examination over several postings.  When this will be possible is, sadly, anyone's guess, but hopefully some time before it's out of print!

On a lighter note, the photograph is one I took at Port Waikato over the break on the mobile phone.  Atop the tree is a large size traffic cone, proving, as a friend who spotted it first remarked, that today's teenagers aren't all that different from those in times past.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Babble On

If you come across someone citing Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons as a credible source, run like the wind.

Moreso when a writer - particularly one living alongside the rest of us in the twenty-first century - calls it "densely researched and thoroughly documented," as James McBride, a Church of God minister in the United Kingdom, does in this article.

The Two Babylons was a piece of creative anti-Catholic invective written in an age when certain sects of Protestantism could hardly bring themselves to regard Catholicism as Christian.  The final edition appeared in 1919, though it first appeared as a pamphlet as far back as 1853.

Fifty or so years ago an American evangelist named Ralph Woodrow vigorously promoted Hislop's arguments through his own 'evangelistic association'. Then the unthinkable happened. Someone confronted his dogma with a few pertinent facts. Woodrow, to his everlasting credit, did a 180 degree turn, withdrawing his popular 1966 book, Babylon Mystery Religion. He wrote:
"As a young evangelist, I began to preach on the mixture of paganism with Christianity, and eventually I wrote a book based on Hislop, titled Babylon Mystery Religion (Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Assn., 1966). In time, my book became quite popular, went through many printings, and was translated into Korean, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and several other languages. Hundreds quoted from it. Some regarded me as an authority on the subject of "pagan mixture." Evan the noted Roman Catholic writer Karl Keating said, "Its best-known proponent is Ralph Woodrow, author of Babylon Mystery Religion".

"Many preferred my book over The Two Babylons because it was easier to read and understand. Sometimes the two books were confused with each other, and once I even had the experience of being greeted as "Reverend Hislop"! As time went on, however, I began to hear rumblings that Hislop was not a reliable historian, I heard this from a history teacher and in letters from people who heard this perspective expressed on the Bible Answer Man radio program. Even the Worldwide Church of God began to take a second look at the subject.  As a result, I realized I needed to go back through Hislop’s work, my basic source, and prayerfully check it out.  As I did this, it became clear: Hislop’s "history" was often only an arbitrary piecing together of ancient myths."
It seems some modern writers have still to catch up with Ralph Woodrow.

Wikipedia even has an entry on The Two Babylons, and while Wikipedia may not always be the best place to go for a serious discussion of theological issues, it has a very fair summary in this case.
"It has been generally regarded by scholars as discredited, with one calling it a "tribute to historical inaccuracy and know-nothing religious bigotry" with "shoddy scholarship, blatant dishonesty" and a "nonsensical thesis"...

"Although scholarship has shown the picture presented by Hislop to be based on a misunderstanding of historical Babylon and its religion, his book remains popular among some fundamentalist Protestant Christians. The book's thesis has also featured prominently in the conspiracy theories of racist groups..."
It speaks for itself that an organisation like Chick Publications continues to sell this discredited material, even labelling it "a classic." In other words, Hislop is the refuge of dilettantes, and there is zero excuse for anyone, conservative Bible believers included, lending credence to nonsense of this sort.

Friday 15 February 2013

Dissing Dawkins

Hardly a week goes by without a self-appointed defender of the Faith whinging about critics who call Christianity to account based on the public profile Christians both tolerate and create out in the public arena.

These geniuses' stock response to skeptics like Richard Dawkins is to loudly complain that their critique is both shallow and unfair.  Skeptics clearly haven't done the hard yards by researching the leading thinkers.  The wicked critics, they charge, have taken aim at a straw man, a laughable caricature of Christian truth.


To clarify from the outset, this is neither a pro-atheistic rant, nor any kind of endorsement of the so-called New Atheists.  Rather it's a protest at the duplicity of those who regard writers like Dawkins and others as beneath them, and who have built a flattering image - an idol if you will - of what they think legitimate Christianity is like.

Christianity in the abstract is notoriously hard to pin down.  Christians can usually, however, be easily spotted.  They attend churches, buy (and occasionally read) bibles, get themselves or their kids baptised, find prayer helpful and hold an awful lot of propositions to be true regardless of the lack or otherwise of evidence.  Evidence is apparently irrelevant when truth is imparted by something called revelation.  While there are many exceptions, Christians of whatever flavour tend to be earnest, sincere folk who hold solid traditional values.  Even those who consider ourselves to be outside their fold still have friends, colleagues and relatives who inhabit that space and are, by and large, better persons for it.

Christians are the inheritors of a religion that began among fisher folk, craftspeople, slaves and illiterates.  Jesus was not a university-educated intellectual.  Nor was Peter, James or John.  While Paul wrote cryptically, he too would be hard to pigeon-hole as an academic by today's standards.  No one ever accused him of dispassionate objectivity!  Boastful and opinionated, yes; convoluted in his thinking and hugely egotistical (especially when he was claiming not to be), and a gifted, driven communicator; yes.  But he was neither an Einstein or even (thank God!) a Karl Barth.

And the people who attend Christian worship services are overwhelmingly ordinary, everyday folk.  The alleged excellencies of the theological elite tend to leave them cold.  They're there because, regardless of the theology, they're making a statement about values, community, personal and family identity, cultural inheritance... Take your pick.

Nor is it rocket science to "take the temperature" of contemporary Christianity.  Tune in to the Sunday morning TV evangelists, browse the shelves at your local Christian bookstore, have a conversation with your 'born again' brother-in-law.  Chances are pretty remote that you'll run over a reference to Bultmann or Tillich.

So why would a skeptic bother to swot up on the works of such rarified and justifiably obscure writers as Gunton, Torrance and company, when Christians themselves either can't be bothered, or, if they're not easily intimidated, find their work debatable and dubious? Reformed apologists are particularly obnoxious when it comes to trotting out their preferred authorities, invariably fellow-travellers in the Reformed tradition (J.I. Packer anyone?) that have near zero credibility outside that particular communion. These braying apologists would, I'm sure, love to provide the critics with a compulsory reading list - one that no one outside the ivory towers of their seminaries cares a whit for.  They would have a hard time giving away those books at the local Christian bookshop.  There it's all Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince and Joel Osteen.

No wonder then that the skeptics focus their aim at the forms of Christianity that they see out in the real world rather dive down intellectual rat holes.  Not that coming to grips with some of these thinkers isn't potentially rewarding.  But let's be honest, when it comes to a choice between Eberhard Jüngel and Franklin Graham, crotchety old Franklin will win hands down every time (and frankly, if you've ever tried to read Jüngel, you'll understand why.)

And while that happens, you can hardly blame Christianity's critics for directing their firepower in the direction where all the fuss is.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Tithing - from Purse to Persia

As we all know, good Christians tithe.

And really good Christians tithe on their gross.

Which is interesting, in that tithing was prescribed for an agrarian society where they primarily tithed on animals and crops.

Of course, you had to tithe to the Lord's accredited representatives, which meant the priesthood and the temple.

How all this translates across to cheques, automatic bank deductions and non-levitical preachers with their hands stretched out to garner the Lord's increase is a bit of a mystery.

Could somebody please explain to me why Jews today - in the absence of a temple and priesthood - don't tithe?  Oh, hang on, no temple or priesthood... yeah, I get it.

Then, there's also the uncomfortable fact that, even when the temple was standing, Jews in the diaspora didn't tithe.  There was no point.  How were they supposed to get all that perishable produce back to Jerusalem?

Somehow this simple logic seems to have escaped the prosperity preachers who happily get prosperous by laying a non-biblical tithing burden on their credulous flocks.  They, naturally, don't want ten percent of the potatoes in your back yard garden.  They want currency!

I have Ernest L. Martin to thank for first exploding the tithing myth for me.  Martin was a former professor of theology at Ambassador College in Pasadena.  He walked from there in the 1970s, setting up his own ministry and publishing, among other things, an influential rebuttal of tithing as a Christian practice.  A version of his booklet is still available online.

The problem was that Martin was still at heart an apologist with a pre-critical understanding of the Bible.  That was no bad thing when communicating with like-minded folk, like myself, who shared that approach.  But the years have rolled by, and hopefully those of us who were alive and kicking back then have all grown and matured a bit.  The old biblicist assumptions no longer hold sway over many of us.  So, what about the tithing question once we've stripped away the fundamentalist mind set?

All of which is a lead-in to a brilliant posting by Scott Bailey on his Scotteriology blog.  It sets the scene in the province of Yehud in the days Malachi, and of Persian imperial policy.  Here is, dare one say it, "the plain truth" (or part of it) about tithing.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

The Bible as non-History

There's precious little history in the Bible.

That's comforting.  It means we - those of us raised to regard the Bible as holy writ - can relax somewhat.  Whatever we might mean by 'inspired', it sure as heck doesn't mean factual.  How did we ever imagine otherwise?

The first part of Genesis is the obvious (and overused) example.  It didn't happen.  No Adam, no Eve, no talking snake, no fall, no global deluge.

But there's more.  There was no exodus from Egypt.  Millions of refugees wandering about on the Sinai peninsula for all those years?  No evidence whatsoever, and evidence would still be there for any diligent researcher if such an event had really happened.

The entire history of Israel prior to the Second Temple period seems dubious.  It was at this late stage that the national narrative of Israel was probably created as part of a religio-political agenda.  It seems they cooked the books!  No evidence for a powerful United Kingdom under David and Solomon.  A truckload of evidence to the contrary.

These are some of the conclusions reached by minimalist scholars.  They're hard to disregard simply because the evidence from a variety of disciplines converges here.

Yet great literature transcends bare facts simply because it speaks to the human condition.  Does anyone care that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey is something other than objective reporting?  Is the value of Herodotus diminished by the improbabilities salted throughout the text (and Herodotus does at least contain some solid history).  We think of these ancient texts as examples both of literary art, and ripping good yarns.  We accept that ancient literature had norms and standards very different from today's.  Knowing that wily Odysseus is more of a character in a novel than a historical figure doesn't detract from the power of the storyline.  Troy endures as a city of the imagination (Schliemann's misidentification notwithstanding), and we too are caught up in Priam's pain at the death of Hector. Surely Homer's one-eyed Cyclops will also exist in legend till the end of human civilisation.  And if, along the way, we're led to think about the fruits of lust, pride and obsession, that can't be a bad thing.

While there's no way back to a naive understanding of the Bible, if we can extend these courtesies to Homer, is it any great stretch to do the same for the authors of Samuel and Kings? Could it be that the problem isn't - and never has been - the Bible itself, but the lying delusion that lifts it beyond criticism, that fashions it into an instrument of oppression, and that wilfully ignores its very human origins.