Saturday 30 March 2013

Radio Log: Symphony 92.4 FM

(The first in an occasional series highlighting radio stations that have caught my ear, accessible by Internet radio.)

Something that's just a little different; classical programming with a mix of related genres from Singapore: "the only 24-hour on-air radio station in Southeast Asia devoted to classical music and the arts." 

The station is available on Tune In and elsewhere. Talk seems pretty minimal. Features mellow jazz at night.

Friday 29 March 2013

The Plain Truth about the Easter Bunny

Why bunnies at Easter?

The conventional wisdom in certain fundamentalist sects, usually those steeped in a contempt for mainline denominations, is that it's all about pagan fertility rites. Rabbits are, after all, famously prolific.

I have to admit that such associations have never particularly weighed on my conscience as I've munched on an occasional milk chocolate bunny at this time of year. And now I'm feeling thoroughly vindicated. A story on the Australian SBS site reveals the origins of the tradition in a seasonal piece by Brian Cooke from the University of Canberra. Perhaps not surprisingly the most fertile part of the paganism link lies in the imaginations of those who pontificate on the subject.

It seems the monks of old weren't too keen on giving up meat during Lent. Popular belief at the time regarded rabbit meat as more akin to fish, and it was therefore an approved item on the Lenten diet. Hence the association with rabbits and Easter.

While there's little doubt Easter has certain pre-Christian antecedents, the bunny apparently isn't one of them. Okay, who'll be the first to tell Bob Thiel?

And now, if you'll forgive me, I have an assignation planned with a certain foil-wrapped confection...

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Cult television in NZ - the wrong sort

New Zealanders are apparently about to be subjected to the inane rantings of one of America's most hard line Church of God sects. David Pack has thrown money at two major Kiwi broadcasters to gain local television exposure. Gary Leonard quotes the following from a Pack missive.

More millions in Australia and New Zealand will be reached through satellite coverage via The Word Network! Also, both TV ONE and Prime TV networks in New Zealand will launch on Sunday, April 7 to a combined 3.1 million households—effectively blanketing that nation three times. These new stations will be available via Freeview, Sky satellite and cable providers across the country. 
I shudder to think that this high demand cult leader (in both the sociological and popular senses of that word) will now be free to vomit his apocalyptic fear-based filth into this corner of the Pacific, preying on the gullible, poorly educated and vulnerable. It was bad enough with Meredith, but Pack? God help us!

It is of some small consolation that Pack will have minimal impact in a country that is increasingly post-Christian, but of course there will be a few sincere but clueless people who are lured by his text-twisting fantasies to part with both their tithes and their personal autonomy. It seems TV One, which is a public broadcaster, will now do almost anything to garner a few more dollars. Who's next on their list? The Church of Scientology?

If you're a New Zealander, maybe you'd like to contact TV One and/or Prime, or consider making a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority once the Pack series, titled The World to Come, begins airing. Australia be warned, you're next.

Postscript: The US-based Word Network is a very, very minor player locally, only available on the Optus D2 satellite, so it's highly doubtful "millions" of Kiwis will be viewing that way. 'Thousands' would still be stretching it. And what is "the largest African American religious network in the world"  doing broadcasting British-Israelism anyway?  Do they know just how race-based BI theology is? They already broadcast Meredith's Tomorrow's World, however, so no surprise really. With a name like theirs you'd imagine it would be a Christian enterprise with a few basic quality control criteria, but apparently they're not at all particular about snatching thirty pieces of silver, no questions asked, from whoever is willing to hire their services.

I think there's a word for that...

Tuesday 26 March 2013

The Irreplaceable Mr Meredith

What happens when Rod Meredith, against all his vaunted hopes, expectations and prior speculation, goes the way of all flesh? We can only speculate, but there is still a degree of predictabilty involved.

There will be consequences for his Living Church of God of course. But there will also be a flow on effect for the wider COG movement.

Rod is the last of the significant Armstrong-era evangelists, an enduring tie to the life and ministry of Herbert W. Armstrong. When Meredith passes from the scene the last anchor is raised and a formidable link to the past is lost. Just as the Apostle John, according to pious legend, long outlived his peers, so has Rod. Once he is gone the so-called Churches of God are truly in a post-Armstrong age.

Meredith has inspired his imitators, men like Gerald Flurry and David Pack, but none, despite much huffing, puffing, preening and posturing, has been his equal. However many flaws Meredith displays, it is telling that he has, in his own way, gradually achieved a more balanced perspective than his emulators. Age has, mercifully, somewhat moderated his pretensions, even as his message has remained myopically constant.

And that is probably the key; the man who was once Herbert Armstrong's top lieutenant has relentlessly stayed "on message." Meredith's continued presence has served to keep the "old paths" weeded. He has been the "gold standard" in traditional Armstrongism, the unacknowledged reference point for other splinter groups. Competing iterations of Armstrongism have tended to define themselves, even if unconsciously, against the Meredith model.

When he is gone the game changes, and the broad doctrinal consensus that has till now reached across most of the varied sects of Armstrongism, the "Worldwide family", will likely buckle.

As for the Living Church of God, who is there in that body that could possibly replace him? No one waiting in the wings seems to have either his unquenchable drive or his overbearing ego. Certainly not Richard Ames. Meredith is irreplaceable.

This will force change, at the very least in style, and almost certainly in organisation. With the throne vacant LCG will, one suspects, quite quickly find it necessary to adopt a more collegial structure. That will be problematic given the constant emphasis placed by Rod himself on top down authority and "the government of God."

It's got to be a recipe for division. Despite the travail of recent years it might yet be the United Church of God, or perhaps the departed COGWA malcontents, which will be best placed to scavenge the benefits. The departure of Bob Thiel throws another factor into the equation. As a shaper of opinion while within LCG, Bob was in a unique position to influence the transition by throwing his weight behind one of the emerging factions as he did in the Global Church of God crisis. But Bob has lost that ability now he has effectively sidelined himself as a bit player on the farthest fringes.

Après Rod, le déluge

Fragments in Focus - 10

[This is the final in a series on David Barrett's book Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God.]

Chapter 9 is in many ways the most fascinating chapter of Fragmentation. Largely drawn from the results of a questionnaire designed by the author and completed by more than 300 members of the various offshoot bodies.

In the questionnaire Barrett asked, among other things, what doctrinal issue first raised a red flag about the direction the church (WCG) was taking. A further question asked what was the 'final straw' that led to separation.

The largest number identified the move toward trinitarianism as the first issue to cause doubts. The second factor was the cutting loose from Sabbath observance, followed by a more general worry about the church's position on the Law issue.

These same three factors appear again as the final straw, but with a different weighting. First, the Sabbath, 2nd the Law, 3rd the trinity. An outright majority agreed with the statement that "individual church members should be able to disagree with their church leaders and local minister and still say in the church."

Turning the focus further on to church governance, respondents strongly supported the idea that leaders were unfit for office if they displayed pride, arrogance and authoritarianism. Personal morality issues scraped in at number 5 on the list. It would be interesting to know if these results would have also held true for those who departed in the 1970s when the Armstrongs' moral failings began to surface in the public arena.

As for decisions on which of the various alternate schismatic groups were chosen as bolt holes, leadership and doctrine issues had priority, and personal ties of friendship and family ranked much lower. The result is a diaspora that shows little regard for relationship solidarity. I suspect this is because breaking free from a manipulative, controlling religious group involves intensely personal decisions.

Chapter 10 provides a very brief reprise (three pages) of the book's structure, followed by a series of appendices. Of these, number four was of particular interest to this reviewer. Survey respondents were asked to identify the specific group they affiliated with after leaving WCG, and then the group they were currently involved with. Not surprisingly, many had moved on in relatively short order. 114 respondents initially went with the United Church of God, for example, but only 76 remained as of late 2008. Given subsequent events, including the COGWA bloodletting, this figure would now be perhaps halved. Of the 38 who went out after Roderick Meredith (i.e. Global or Living), less than 50% remained in 2008.

There is much in David Barrett's book to ponder for those who have journeyed on this path, and he provides a clear lens, devoid of the usual apologetic blather and self-justification that have dominated discourse on the WCG. If you want to follow a Tkach-friendly party line there are books by Joe Jr. and Mike Feazell (it is fair to say that the present leaders of GCI will have little to celebrate in this publication). If you want a hardline schismatic perspective, there is Stephen Flurry's book. This however is a book members and former members of 'the Worldwide family' will want to read for themselves simply because it does step away from the sound and fury of the battling factions and self-serving propaganda. It will also serve as a case study in the sociology of religious movements for years to come, and perhaps as something as a 'fly in the ointment' for some of the received wisdom in this field.

I highly recommend it.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Fragments in Focus - 9

Chapter 8 of Fragmentation of a Sect zeroes in on the issue of succession. The founder of a new religious movement (in this case Herbert Armstrong) dies and - then what?

There are plenty of precedents. Barrett touches on a range of leadership transitions including those of Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), L.Ron Hubbard (Scientology), Joseph Smith (Mormonism) and the founders of Jehovah's Witnesses (Charles Taze Russell and 'Judge' Rutherford). Such transitions, it seems, are no easy thing. Worldwide's, though, was worse than most.
"The successors to the founders of Mormonism and the Jehovah's Witnesses changed emphases within those religions; the Tkachs, father and son, changed their religion fundamentally. It was the extent of that change, and how the Tkachs achieved it, that created such shock, anger, and distrust..." (p.187)
So, to look ahead to the next step, what happens when the 'alpha males'  who now run most of the splinter groups pass on to their eternal (or perhaps infernal) reward? I've always thought that the most interesting and fragile transition ahead will be in Roderick Meredith's Living Church of God. Barrett quotes something I wrote in 2009 on possible disintegration. In contrast John Meakin is optimistic that all things "will carry on without [missing] a beat." We're both guessing, but if I was a betting man I'd put a $50 bill down on major eruptions.

There's more to Barrett's discussion of these matters, which lead into the penultimate chapter based on feedback from COG members and ministers (and I hasten to reassure Michael Snyder that this series will indeed reach a conclusion before too much longer, but it's also likely that the next installment will be longer than most!)

If I took away one thought from this section it would be a renewed appreciation of that old aphorism about those who ignore history being doomed to repeat it.

To continue.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Our Roots of Prediction Addiction

Some of us have learnt over the years to view "Bible Prophecy" with a jaundiced eye. The attempt to turn the complex texts of the Old and New Testaments into a coherent road map for the near future is doomed to failure from the outset. Ancient writings simply can't be read that way with any integrity. It's not just bad theology and rotten exegesis, it's a display of dull and incompetent basic reading skills.

Where did we pick up the bad habit? When did the peculiar blend of Bible-quoting, fear-saturated fantasies we are familiar with first take recognizable shape? Doomsdayers have of course been with us from the earliest days of Christianity - with deep roots in Jewish apocalyptic. If we are honest about it, we can probably trace the trail even further back to the influence of dualistic religions like Zoroastrianism.

But the version we're most familiar with owes a great deal to the Adventist "Midnight Cry." Stepping back into the nineteenth century we find the seeds of our particular prediction addiction. The various churches that have historic ties to William Miller (and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the equally disturbed John Nelson Darby) are still largely in thrall to bizarre and naive biblical misinterpretations, and the delusion that they have some kind of special "inside knowledge" about the future.

This was brought forcibly home recently when I stumbled across a copy of the magazine Adventist World.
Although we see many natural and human atrocities, life continues to move on, giving the illusion that "all things continue as they were from the beginning" (2 Peter 3:4).
But we Seventh-day Adventists know better. Prophecy opens our eyes and tells us the truth, with the books of Daniel and Revelation pulling back the curtain, revealing what has happened in the past and what is soon to happen in the future. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deut. 29:29).
We have to know who we are, and where we are in the spectrum of end-time events... I encourage you, if you haven't already done so, to return to biblical prophetic belief and understanding. The freedoms we now enjoy will not last indefinitely: the devil and those who do his bidding will see to that.
Is there a single sentence here that isn't flawed and, to put no too fine a point on it, a display of wanton biblical and theological ignorance? Amazingly, the writer isn't a backwater SDA missionary expressing a personal view, but the president of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, Ted Wilson.

There's a lot worthy of respect in the SDA tradition. Adventists have been pioneers, for example, in the field of health awareness and, unlike some kindred groups, have a lively sense of social responsibility and community engagement. But can any denomination, no matter how well intentioned, holding uncompromising stands on six-day creationism and Chicken Little eschatology, really be taken seriously in the twenty-first century?

All of which, if nothing else, puts the prattle of Church of God prognosticators, fellow travellers in the same tradition, in perspective. They may be nuts, but they're far from alone.

Quotation from Ted N.C. Wilson, "Frog Syndrome: Basking in the Warmth", Adventist World (South Pacific Edition), March 9 2013.

Saturday 16 March 2013

The Melbourne Age on Jehovah's Witnesses

Is God Cruel? is the question on the cover of the latest edition of The Watchtower. The expected answer is no, but many Australians are asking whether the question is better directed at the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves, and there's some compelling evidence that there is a real problem.

Australia's federal government is currently making noises about removing tax exempt status from controversial religious groups, and the fingers are pointing at the inveterate door-knockers.

The Melbourne Age is running two stories sure to turn up the heat on the Kingdom Halls and the culture of the movement.

In one, in Friday's edition, senior writer Chris Johnston airs concerns from local "cultbuster" Raphael Aron. Whether or not Mr Aron can be relied on for professional distance from his subject is open to some question, but the JW policy of shunning, and allegations of sexual abuse against children, certainly raise legitimate questions.

In the Saturday edition Johnston takes a deeper look, focusing on the stories of ex-members like Bec Taylor. Together the articles do much to shatter the image of Jehovah's Witnesses as a bizarre but reasonably benign variation on a Christian theme. Former members of other minority Christian sects may find disturbing parallels with their own experiences.

Are movements like Jehovah's Witnesses, the Exclusive Brethren, the "Worldwide family" (to use David Barrett's term for the Armstrong sects), or even high-powered charismatic groups like Hillsong, inherently abusive to a greater extent than mainline churches, which tend to be less at odds with the wider society?

It seems that some of the unwanted visitors who knock at our doors clutching copies of Watchtower may be themselves struggling in a web of authoritarian abuse and suppressed doubt. Those of us who have walked a mile in similar moccasins might want to bear that in mind next time they come calling.

Friday 15 March 2013

Plonkers on the Papacy

It's begun, as predicted here just a day ago. The bull-roaring prophets and schismatic blowhards are in operatic overdrive over the election of Pope Francis.

Leading COG observer Gary Leonard, who obviously has a stronger stomach for this sort of thing than me, has documented the first expostulations from the fruitcake fringe. These guys just can't help themselves...

The Journal interviews Bob the Prophet

The latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God has been released, dated March 13. Included in this issue is an interview with Bob Thiel, a brief review of David Barrett's Fragmentation of a Sect, an announcement of the death of Dennis Luker, and a variety of festival reports from last year's Feast of Tabernacles.

If there were any doubts that self-designated prophet Bob Thiel had "jumped the shark" while jumping ship from the Living Church of God, they were swept away on reading a substantial interview with Journal editor Dixon Cartwright. Thiel poses little danger to competing sects, and at times he comes across as delusional and out of touch with reality. Thiel apparently now describes his profession as a "clinical scientist," which is a nice way of avoiding using the term "naturopath."

Dennis Luker, president of the United Church of God, has died only days after stepping down after diagnosis with an aggressive form of cancer. Robin Webber is now acting church president.

A small item on the back page confirms that COG-PKG cult leader Ronald ("the sky is falling, the sky is falling!") Weinland is now serving a three and a half year sentence for tax evasion. Weinland is still touting May 19 this year as his latest touchdown date for the return of Christ. The advertising section maintains the usual standard of mind numbing theological inanity, but I guess they pay the bills.

You can, if you're feeling like sampling the alternate universe of COGdom, download the complete issue for free.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Pope Francis and the kooky commentaries to come

A new pope. A Jesuit. An Argentinian. Even now the fruit loops who write for certain non-Catholic fringe sectarian publications, and the suited pundits who preen and strut in their pulpits, are preparing weighty prophetic commentaries to dazzle and impress their readers and/or dutiful pew potatoes with their deep understanding of what it all means.

It happens every time a new pontiff is elected. Is this the last pope, or maybe the last bar one? Is he the one mentioned in Revelation, or perhaps Third Calathumpians? Watch world news brethren, time is short, prophecy is being fulfilled before your eyes, we may just have three to five years before the Tribulation strikes. Exclamation mark alert - we have incoming!

You just know Pope Francis I will appear on the front page of The Good News, Tomorrow's World or The Philadelphia Trumpet (my prediction is at least two of the above, but I wouldn't be surprised by a trifecta.) In-house hacks will pontificate (if you'll forgive the pun) ad nauseum.

And it's all rubbish. A mismatched confection of misread proof texts. And so very, very predictable.

Doubtless the election of Francis I is significant. Given the size and influence of the Catholic church that's hardly a surprise. But Gerald Flurry, Rod Meredith and whoever is currently churning out the prophecy-filling for The Good News have absolutely no inside knowledge or insight to share. None. They're bluffing and posturing or, to take a more charitable line, trying to convince themselves that they know things they don't.

The jackasses are about to bray. Grab your ear plugs while you can.

Fragments in Focus - 8

With chapter seven of Fragmentation of a Sect Barrett moves on, having clearly established the backstory, to his analysis, overlaying the work of a number of sociologists on the Worldwide epic. The key issue for what follows is authority and governance in the church, and he begins with a discussion of Max Weber's categories. Barrett observes that the Tkachniks used the top down structure established by Armstrong to further their own very different agenda (a strategy that this reviewer regards as blatant, bloody-minded and shameless manipulation.) John Halford provides the apologetic for this in personal correspondence with the author, maintaining that democratization is just around the corner: "Now we can become democratic."

I suggest you don't hold your breath.

What Halford means by 'democratic' falls a long way short of what most of us might mean by that term, but he maintains that - despite the pretence of 'episcopal' governance - "Joe Tkach wants to be the last autocratic pastor general. And he is taking active steps..."

There is an irony in those first three words. Joe Tkach wants... and what Joe wants is paramount. Any shuffling off the throne will be when he's good and ready, in his own sweet time, and regardless of the ongoing collatoral damage of delay. That's democratic?

There's a good deal about how authority validation is expressed in the splinters, and no discussion of this subject is complete without reference to Armstrong's 1939 article in which he railed against hierarchic structures. But it is toward the end of the chapter that Barrett takes an unexpected turn by comparing Armstrong to a guru.

A guru? There are a variety of terms, some technical, some descriptive, and a few completely unprintable, which have been applied in the past to Armstrong, but guru hardly rates. Barrett cites Anthony Storr's criteria in establishing characteristics of a guru. It is a fascinating discussion. To cite just one example from Storr, "Gurus tend to be intolerant of any kind of criticism, believing that anything less than total agreement is equivalent to hostility."

Herbert Armstrong was hardly a guru in the Wizard of Id mold - no ascetic tendencies whatsoever as he cheerfully guzzled coffee on the Day of Atonement - but if gurus can wear expensive suits and suck the dollars out of their followers' pockets to maintain an indulgent lifestyle and an ego-stroking image, then Armstrong meets the criteria well.

To continue

Saturday 9 March 2013

What does this mean?

For anyone who thinks that fundamentalist theology is nuts, or at least more nuts than the traditional variety, try this on for size. Sourced from Paul McCain's Missouri Synod blog. My question... is there any meaning in this chart? Granted, it looks profound with the Greek and the specialist Latin terms. But so does an alchemy text, or a book on homeopathy. Does complexity equal depth, or is this just plain nonsense in a clerical suit?

For the full chart you'll need to click across.

Fragments in Focus - 7

An overview of chapter 6 of Fragmentation of a Sect by David V. Barrett.

Continuing Schism in the Offshoots

What makes the 'Worldwide family' so fascinating is its instability. Not a year goes by without another bunch of disaffected insiders breaking off from one or more of the existing breakaway groups. If you have a taste for this kind of thing the resulting drama can be riveting entertainment. No matter how off-the-wall the newest variation on a theme might be, it will probably attract support - until it too crumbles. Witness Bob Thiel's micro-sect, established after Fragmentation went to the presses.

Barrett identifies three major schisms from WCG since the death of Armstrong: Gerald Flurry's Philadelphia COG, Roderick Meredith's Global COG (and later, Living COG), and the United COG. All of these groups have since calved numerous breakaways. Relative size is, as Barrett clearly demonstrates, notoriously problematic, and given the tendency by the groups themselves to huff and puff with self-inflating PR, his estimates are necessarily ball-park figures.

For newcomers to the wonderful Worldwide family feuds, Barrett explains a few things members would take for granted. The gospel, not of personal salvation, but as a news announcement of the coming millennial kingdom of God (and the nuclear tribulation that precedes it). More than one reader of UCG's Good News magazine has noted the irony of that name in a periodical that routinely delivers steaming piles of fear and pessimism.

Barrett goes on to throw the major COGs onto a 'hardline - liberal' continuum. Flurry and Pack hug the extreme hardline mark, while UCG and the various COGlets that trace their origins to Garner Ted Armstrong's departure in 1978 huddle at the liberal end. Meredith's LCG is placed somewhere in between. Liberal is a misleading term however, both because conservative American media have demonised the word, and because by any sane standards none of these groups is truly liberal (as the most recent issue of the Good News demonstrates).  Alternate terms like 'progressive' are sometimes used, but that too is relative.

There is a nice section that describes what happens in a typical COG church service. Interestingly, Barrett finds not a lot of difference with more mainstream 'evangelical' services, and compares the tone of a COG sermon with something you might hear at "any Christian tent crusade."

Worldwide has always placed great emphasis on its 'literature'. Not a lot that's original has been produced over the decades, with many sects simply rewriting the same material over and over again or, where possible, reprinting old out of copyright publications. Even during Armstrong's time recycling occured, as Gary Scott clearly showed with Mystery of the Ages.

The rest of the chapter is largely concerned with the assorted sects that have calved off from the three post-Armstrong schisms (PCG, GCG/LCG, UCG). Also getting a mention is 'Garner Ted Armstrong's Legacy' - groups that trace themselves back via the Church of God International.

No single chapter, not even one of over forty pages, can possibly provide comprehensive coverage of all the bickering factions, but Barrett has all the most important bases covered.

To continue

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Fragments in Focus - 6

Chapter five of Fragmentation of a Sect is called Revolution and Schism.

HWA & Rader
In 1981 Herbert Armstrong established a committee of top ministers - the Advisory Council of Elders.  The move was kept secret from Stan Rader.  Armstrong was playing a high stakes chess game to freeze Rader out of the succession.  That at least is the way Aaron Dean tells the story.

Successors were named - and then replaced - on a kind of 'flavor of the month' basis.  Among those so designated for a while was, apparently, Herman Hoeh.  Nine days before his death Joseph Tkach's turn came up.  The rest, as they say, is history.

David Barrett identifies Trinitarianism as the first significant doctrinal issue that the new leadership cabal confronted "in response to a Roman Catholic priest challenging an anti-Trinitarian letter in Plain Truth." (p.89)  The other major domino to fall was British-Israelism.  The process Barrett labels denominalization was to become unstoppable, and breakup inevitable.

The about face has been described as a five stage process (p.95)
  1. Change? What change?
  2. We haven't changed any doctrines; we're simply clarifying the language in which we describe them.
  3. Mr. Armstrong, on his deathbed, asked Mr. Tkach to look into precisely this area/to correct the errors in this book.  We're doing exactly what he wanted us to do.
  4. Although well-intentioned, Mr. Armstrong sometimes got a little carried away in his enthusiasm.
  5. Mr. Armstrong was wrong.
The deceit was transparent to most.  Longserving minister Dennis Diehl called Tkach out on this.
If something is wrong for you, then leave it. Don't destroy it and drive many to despair, skepticism and, in some few cases, literal suicide.
Instead you made everyone else leave.  Now that's power: stupid, self-serving and egocentric power.
Barrett maintains that, from their perspective, the Tkach leadership "had found the Truth, and had seen the error of their (and their church's) ways, and had an absolute duty to bring their church out of darkness into light."

(My personal assessment is less sunny than this. Rhetoric is one thing; underlying motives are always more complex than any justifications offered, especially with leaders who seem to take pride in being non-reflective in their practice.)

There is discussion of the extent of membership loss, and the enigma of Herman Hoeh who, contrary to his convictions, lent his name and reputation to bolster the new regime.

To continue.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Fragments in Focus - 5

The fourth chapter of David Barrett's book Fragmentation of a Sect is entitled Schism and Scandals in the Seventies. In just over 20 pages Barrett reviews WCG's decade from hell.  He discusses:

Garner Ted Armstrong
- The prophetic failure of 1972 (and 1975)
- Changes in doctrine over Pentecost and D&R (divorce and remarriage)
- What Barrett describes as "the liberal dilemma"
- The sex scandals that engulfed first Garner Ted Armstrong and later Herbert Armstrong
- The ousting of Garner Ted

If you want a potted summary of the Worldwide Church of God's tribulations at this crucial moment in its history, you would be hard pressed to find a better one than this.  I personally found this painful territory to revisit.  A few highlights (or perhaps lowlights...) that caught my attention...

- Marion McNair recalling that the move to Pasadena was a response to the fallout from the failure of Armstrong's now forgotten prophecies in the 1940s
- The final exchange between father and son that included Ted's famous outburst: "You fucked my sister!" followed by Herbert's equally famous response
- Recollections of the scapegoating over the STP (Systematic Theology Project), the madness of the 'cultural revolution' that followed Ted's expulsion, Stan Rader and Herbert's disastrous marriage to Ramona Martin

There are more comprehensive accounts, but Barrett's purpose with this chapter is to provide needed background for later developments. This he does remarkably well.

A couple of personal comments. In the opinion of this reviewer it was in the Seventies that the rot became apparent to anyone with eyes to see, and every crisis that followed hinged on the period from the 1972 fiasco to the receivership crisis.  It was, for many, the end of innocence.

To continue

Monday 4 March 2013

Fragments in Focus - 4

In chapter three David Barrett introduces Herbert W. Armstrong and provides some essential background to his early years.  His role in advertising is mentioned, and Barrett goes as far as to say (and I thoroughly agree) that "The success of the Worldwide Church of God came from its professional marketing..."  Whether in magazine publishing, television or radio, WCG's PR was a class act.

Armstrong's predilection to play fast and loose with the facts, however, is demonstrated in his claims to have separated from the parent body, the Church of God (Seventh Day), in 1933, foregoing any further salary from that organization.  The impression is also given that Armstrong took a principled decision to leave his former affiliation.  In fact Richard Nickel's research turned up evidence to the contrary: "A ledger book from the Church of God Publishing House in Salem, West Virginia, in 1937, also shows that Armstrong received pay at this time."  In reality his ministerial credentials were revoked in late 1937 for "continuing to preach contrary to Church doctrine."

Barrett also relates the embarrassing incident over the Has Time Been Lost? booklet with the Church of God (Seventh Day).  In 1965 the legal beagles at Ambassador College discovered that the mother church was also publishing a booklet with the identical title and very similar content.  They then dashed off a letter requiring them to cease and desist. It probably seemed a reasonable case of righteous outrage, as Armstrong had copyrighted the content back in 1952.  COG7 however kept excellent records, pulling a copy of their own title out of the files from the 1930s, and finding that it appeared on their literature list as early as 1925!  Apparently they were more generous than Armstrong's lawyers, not pressing WCG to withdraw the plagiarized publication.

John Halford, current editor of Christian Odyssey, published by Grace Communion International (the name WCG now operates under), explained to Barrett that yes, there were problems with Armstrong's writings that justified their withdrawl from circulation.  One of the issues was, he stated, that Armstrong "never went back and rewrote and updated."  This is a kind way of letting the apostle off the hook somewhat.  But Barrett doesn't have to look far to find examples to the contrary; for example the 1986 edition of the Autobiography in which most references to his son Garner Ted are carefully excised.  Another example would be the 1960s booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow: What It Will Be Like, co-authored by Garner Ted but republished with minor changes some twenty years later soley under Herbert Armstrong's name.  Contra Halford, WCG publications underwent regular revisions, but usually to paper over the many cracks in fact and failed prophetic chronology.

To continue

Sunday 3 March 2013

Fragments in Focus - 3

(Continuing the review of Fragmentation of a Sect by David Barrett.)

Chapter two attempts to provide an introduction to the doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God under Herbert W. Armstrong. Barrett makes the interesting comment that, unlike some other heterodox groups, WCG was upfront about its beliefs.  This is broadly true but it is also true, as this reviewer can personally attest, that new members were often surprised, after baptism, to discover some of the church's more demanding teachings.  Triple tithing, for example, was not widely advertised until people had joined the fold, nor the anti-medicine stance. Awareness of issues like these also varied depending on exactly when you joined the WCG. In the mid 1970s, for example, high demand requirements were deemphasized in church publications.

Barrett's discussion falls under four main headings:
- Sabbatarianism and Law
- Millenarianism
- Connections to Seventh-day Adventism (and possibly to Mormonism)
- British-Israelism

This material is intended to provide background information, and much of it will fall into the "general knowledge" category for readers already familiar with WCG.  Having said that, there may be some surprises. Barrett estimates, for example, that at its height in the 1920s the British-Israelite movement could claim only 5,000 or so members in the United Kingdom, and fewer still in nations beyond its borders. This would make WCG, which reached a 100,000 plus membership, the most significant BI body of all time.

In Barrett's view BI was the heart of Herbert Armstrong's message, and one he often claimed credit for through some sort of unmediated revelation. He applied Paul's words in Galatians 1:11-12 to himself, and in a 1976 sermon stated: "I came to the truth in a way I know of no other church leader. I know of no other minister who ever came to it by himself through the leading of God in that way."

Which is hardly the whole story given his prior exposure to the work of individuals like G.G. Rupert and J.H. Allen (author of Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright). Barrett quotes a 1928 letter from Armstrong to Allen's publisher, in which he floats the idea of his own book, acknowledging that it would essentially be a rewrite of Allen. Anyone who has read Armstrong's The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy alongside Allen's book will immediately recognise the substantial dependence (i.e. plagiarism) of Sceptre by Armstrong. And yet, as Barrett comments, this link "would be ignored for the next half century or more."

Also of interest are comments by John Halford in personal correspondence to Barrett about the use made of Worldwide's BI publications by Aryan supremacist groups (p.37).

The WCG's ties to William Miller's adventist revival, and through that to Seventh-day Adventism, are widely known. Barrett reminds his readers of the SDA church's early opposition to Trinitarianism, a denial that was preserved until recent times in Worldwide. He also notes the opinion expressed by this reviewer that the WCG owes a good deal to Mormonism both during its formative years alongside the Church of God (Seventh Day), and following separation from that body.

In chapter three the discussion turns to the origins and history of Worldwide.

To continue.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Fragments in Focus - 2

(This is the second part of a review of Fragmentation of a Sect. Author David Barrett is a former teacher, intelligence officer and journalist, He has been a freelance writer specialising in new religious movements for 20 years. He gained his PhD in Sociology of Religion from the London School of Economics in 2009. The present book is based on his doctoral thesis on schisms in the Worldwide Church of God, published by Oxford University Press in January this year.)

In his first chapter Barrett provides an outline of his work, its purpose, and the ground rules he followed.

Fragmentation is "an intensive case study," not of the Worldwide Church of God in general, but of the problems that arose when members (including ministers) were presented with radically conflicting demands.  On the one hand this was an extreme example of an "obey those in authority" community. Even if the Church was wrong on an issue, loyalty trumped conscience, and it was up to God to provide the necessary correction.

On the other hand, members had distinctive beliefs that had been hammered in over the decades. Few Christian communities could claim as many distinctive and uncompromising doctrinal propositions to which assent was required: the seventh-day Sabbath, the Old Testament Holy Days, a form of triple tithing, a reconceptualization of the godhead (as an expanding family), dietary restrictions, a belief that Christ was to return in their lifetimes, British Israelism, the apostleship of Herbert W. Armstrong...

So what happens when a lock-step "heterodox sect" like Worldwide becomes rapidly "denominationalized"?  One term to describe the conundrum is cognitive dissonance.

The focus of the book is, then, on what happened to "the hundreds of ministers and tens of thousands of members... who refused to 'convert' along with their movement."  This is the largely untold story of the 'reformation' that receives little examination in books written by insiders like Joe Jr. and Mike Feazell.  Those tens of thousands - including not a few readers of this blog - simply disappeared off the membership lists; where did they go and why?

But Barrett isn't writing as a journalist, but as a scholar. "I am not concerned here with the spiritual truth of the beliefs of those I am studying." In order to maintain objectivity he is studious in his terminology. WCG is described as a millennialist (or millenarian) Sabbatarian movement, rather than an Adventist body.  The prolific gaggle of fractious factions are collectively referred to as 'the Worldwide family.'

Drawing on earlier studies Barrett observes that movements like Worldwide can be placed on spectrums ranging from non-totalitarian to totalitarian, and inclusive to exclusive. Quoting one such source: "the inclusive organization retains its factions while the exclusive organization spews them forth." Barrett notes that inclusive "most certainly does not apply to the Worldwide Church of God."  A diversity of beliefs, differing perspectives and - horror of horrors - voices of dissent from "a loyal opposition" within?  Unthinkable!

A contrast is drawn to another highly schismatic form of fundamentalist Christianity, the Christadelphians. This community, unlike WCG, has had little centralization, and yet has an unenviable record for fragmenting. Perhaps there is a word of caution here for those independent bodies in the 'Worldwide family' that now imagine that they have safely sidestepped future division by adopting a local, congregational polity.

To continue.

Friday 1 March 2013

What does the Catholic Church have in common with UCG?

One College of Cardinals in Rome, the other in Cincinnati.  Ratzinger and Denny Luker both bow out.  No worries, the nuns/ladies (cross out whichever does not apply) do get to pass out the refreshments at the conclave(s)...

Oh well, at least there is a vote.

Beyond the Quest

Some weeks ago I read Thomas Brodie's surprising book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus.  Surprising because it is a very personal, autobiographical account that engages in an almost peripheral way with the author's conviction that Jesus is a fictive character.

Brodie, an Irish Dominican priest, bares his soul.  Indeed, at times I flinched at the degree of self-discosure and vulnerability contained in the book.  Whatever else you might think about Brodie's views, it can hardly be doubted that here is a man who has little concern with appearing to be other than he is.  He is upfront about his troubled journey as a scholar, and he is unguardledly frank about the role of intuition in steering him on a radical path.  But then, the title is a strong indicator of content with the word beyond.

It is, in short, a singular work.  Brodie even goes so far as to cast doubt on the existence of a 'historical Paul' (chapter 16), but without making a case that would do much more than raise the eyebrows of his peers.  He is also unconvincing (at least to me) in some of the more detailed arguments he offers (in particular chapter 7). 

And yet I put down the book with a good deal of respect, and some measure of admiration, for its author.  It is, after all, more personal statement than theological treatise.  Brodie makes it clear from the beginning that he knows the risks involved in writing a book like this.  The Ratzinger-era church has not been gentle with those of its clergy and scholars who have failed to follow the party line.  While it might not be a tightly argued book, it is certainly intense in its own way as it follows the transformation of one man's faith from the bog-standard certitudes to something much more tentative and nuanced, and something altogether deeper.  For this reason alone I would, while not endorsing everything in it, warmly recommend it. 

Amazon link: Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus