Tuesday 30 April 2013

Not quite Universalism

The latest edition of the 16 page quarterly Tkachite magazine Christian Odyssey is an interesting one for anyone following the fortunes of the rump sect once known as the Worldwide Church of God.

Editor John Halford trills a brief swan song - he is unexpectedly shuffling off. Despite fiercely championing the excellencies of moving away from paper to an all digital format, it seems he now feels inadequate to the task. Halford always seemed a more reasonable member of Tkach's hand-picked circle, and even those who are now beyond the influence of the shattered Empire will now, in most cases, want to wish him well.

Franchise CEO-for-life Joe Tkach (pronounced T'cotch) has a feature article in which he denies that GCI (Grace Communion International) is now teaching a form of universalism. Oh goodness me no, nor did Uncle Karl Barth, the Troublesome Torrances, the dude who wrote The Shack or Baxter "Perichoresis" Kruger. Of course, GCI does teach something nearly indistinguishable from universalism, but it isn't universalism 'cos that would be heretical, kind of.

For the life of me I can't see why Tkach is wringing his hands over what seems a no-brainier, that the Universe doesn't play favourites based on obscure doctrines. If Tkach wants to have a hernia, he'd be better off pondering issues of accountability to members, the dubious ethics of drawing a substantial salary from a sinecure, and the nepotism that placed him where he is.

You can find Christian Odyssey at http://www.gci.org/publications/odyssey

The Eternal One

What to do with the Tetragrammaton (YHWH)?

Is it the LORD, Yahweh, Adonai, HaShem, Jehovah?

This sort of thing keeps some translators awake at night I expect.

The LORD is, depending on how you say it, either sickly and sanctimonious (American usage) or chock full of sexism and Jeeves and Wooster hierarchical genuflections (British usage).

Yahweh has been declared off limits by former pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) and purged from missals; something of an irony given that the Catholic Jerusalem Bible and New Jerusalem Bible were key influences in its previous popularity.

Adonai? Maybe if you're Greek...

HaShem? Meaning "the name" and popular in older conservative Jewish translations of the Tanakh, but let's face it, your average Presbyterian has never heard of it.

Jehovah? Now exclusive possession of the door-knocking Watchtower folk and Welsh male choirs (Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.)

However one of the latest translations, The Voice Bible, picks up on "the Moffatt option" and renders the name as "the Eternal" or "the Eternal One."

Not that James Moffatt gets any credit, which hardly seems just. Moffatt's Bible, a true work of scholarship with literary qualities, first came out in 1926 and was revised in 1935. He followed the French preference for rendering the Tetragrammaton as "the Eternal." Perhaps he was emboldened by the even earlier translation produced by English businessman and amateur Bible enthusiast Ferrar Fenton who opted for "the Everliving."

In any case the effect, especially when reading Old Testament passages aloud in lectionary style, is quite pleasing to the ear.

The Eternal is my shepherd, He cares for me always. (Ps. 23:1)

As for the translation as a whole, I'm reserving judgment. The Voice Bible carries more than a whiff of "Emergent Church" brimstone, with credits going to people like Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle. The prefaces to the various biblical books are quite insipid and also tend to play dumb with significant issues (such as authorship.) On the positive side, the "screenplay" layout with blocks of text ascribed to speakers within the narrative, is at the very least a refreshing approach.

The Rhetorical Gospel

As many of us know, certain churches relish wielding the rhetorical question when it comes to presenting their distinctive beliefs. The place to find a few choice examples is in church publications that are focused on building their credibility among members and prospective members by pandering to ignorance and prejudice. One such publication is the United Church of God magazine The Good News.

Here are a few of the article titles from the March-April edition of that fine periodical, with a response that is, in each case, somewhat different from that intended.

Will the World see a New Caliphate?
No time soon.

Where are the "Lost 10 Tribes" Today?
Lost. Dispersed. Absorbed. Gone.

Who Really Killed Jesus?
Some white guys who lived around 30 CE.

Did Jesus Fulfill His Prophecy of How Long He Would be Entombed?
Um, did Jesus actually make a prediction in the first place? (That's also a rhetorical question by the way.)

How Much do You Know About the Biblical Feast of Unleavened Bread?
More than enough to know the the UCG's version of it isn't all that biblical.

God, Science & the Bible: Hummingbirds - How Do They Do That?

Current Events & Trends: Is World War III Becoming More Plausible?
No more than in the 1960s when Herb Armstrong was predicting the Tribulation for 1972.

Current Events & Trends: If U.S. Fades economically, will Europe Rise?
China more likely.

Current Events & Trends: Is it wise for Israel to strike Syria now?
Holy crap no! Is this really a Christian publication? (Another rhetorical response.)

Yes, The Good News. Neither good nor news. Can't wait for the May-June number!

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Bonhoeffer and Williamson

I've been trying to ignore the issue of gay marriage legislation, which recently passed (easily) through New Zealand's parliament. New Zealand is the 13th country to legalise same gender marriage and the first in this part of the world.

But now it's likely to garner a bit of attention even in that part of the blogosphere  Otagosh inhabits. Over in the States biblioblogger Jim West, never a limp-wristed wilting flower when it comes to expressing an opinion on other people's bedroom behaviour, has leapt into the fray after a press report today that most churches are shying away from change. Apparently Jason Goroncy, a Dunedin Presbyterian blogger and scholar of note, is about to weigh in too.

Marriage is a funny thing, and of course, as Bonhoeffer memorably pointed out (I believe in his Ethics, it's been a long time since I cracked open that tome) predates the churches' takeover of the nuptial niceties by... well, forever. 

While some Christians supported the legislation, what was noticeable in the lead up was the fury, indeed the hatred of many within the so-called Christian lobby, directed toward those suspected of offering it support. Do they, I wonder, not have any gay and/or lesbian siblings, work colleagues, children or grandchildren? For most of us it might be a case of better to marry than to burn, citing the bachelor Apostle Paul, but for non-heterosexuals the options are all in the burning.

For most citizens the churches' views are largely irrelevant, as they are on most other social issues. Homophobia has been gradually crumbling for many years, and that's a good thing. It was only in the 1980s that homosexuality was decriminalised in this country, and I well remember a petition being placed in the foyer of St Michael's Lutheran Church in Lower Hutt that opposed even that. Lutherans in this country have, it seems to me, always been on the wrong side of social change, and that probably goes double in Australia. Perhaps that in part explains why their congregations, including St Michael's, have continued to downsize and disappear. But of course they are far from alone. Fundamentalists - whether they acknowledge themselves under that label or not - seem incapable of thinking beyond their pre-packaged proof texts, and to hell with the ethics.

Those who know me also know that I'm no fan of Maurice Williamson, a minister in the current National-led government. But to give the guy credit his speech (see the attached clip) during the parliamentary debate was simple brilliant. 

Sunday 21 April 2013

The Problem with Original Sin

Even on its face, Original Sin is a pathological and offensive doctrine. It is an oddity of religious cultural evolution that first mutated into existence with Paul, then into several competing forms. One of those, Augustine's, was culturally selected over centuries to provide a rationale for an atoning Jesus. Most of the Christian creeds that are being propagated in churches today include versions of it, with elaborate camouflage further evolved to conceal the underlying absurdity: Limbo for unbaptized infants (a doctrine recently gone extinct), an ill-defined "age of accountability," even universalism. But now, with the certain knowledge that there was never any Original Sinner, the doctrine of Original Sin stands fully exposed, unable to hide any longer.

From Evolving Out of Eden, Price & Suominem, 2013.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Selling stupidity in New Zealand

Gary Leonard is reporting that Bob Thiel's mini-me sect, the Continuing Church of God, will be holding its first Feast of Tabernacles at three locations; one in Kenya, one in the US, and one - wait for it - in New Zealand.  The blessed venue will be Whangarei where, presumably, he has a devotee willing to hire a phone box and a portaloo for the duration. Imagine, an entire week listening to recordings of Bob's inane, brain dead speculations interspersed with music from the 1974 purple hymnal... how desperate would you have to be?

It never ceases to amaze that some of the dippiest versions of Armstrongism manage to gain a toehold in this country. Earlier this month Dave Pack's Restored Church of God even managed to gain an early morning slot each Sunday on TV1 (arguably the country's leading network) for his television programme. 

Friday 19 April 2013

An Honest New Testament

There are two new books focusing on the New Testament canon that are worth checking out. Yes, I know, it sounds a crashing bore, but it's actually a key critical issue for those of us who still take the New Testament seriously. After all, the origins of these documents is a pretty basic concern, as is the process whereby they they got selected in the first place.

First up, their origins, and that ol' Missouri Synod sinner turned Episcopalian, Marcus Borg, has released Evolution of the Word. This is an edition of the New Testament with a difference; Borg has reshuffled the current canonical documents into a chronological order, from earliest to latest.

That's not unprecedented. Jim Veitch from Victoria University (and more recently Massey) attempted a similar undertaking some decades back, even providing his own translation. Sadly it was, from necessity, a self published affair due to a total lack of interest from local publishers who were more interested in the usual range of cookbooks and autobiographies of rugby players (ghost written, naturally, by sports journos). Somewhere I still have a copy of the first instalment on file. I believe they lay in unsold piles gathering dust, and the project was never completed. This says more about the apathetic nature of Kiwi Christianity than in any way reflecting Veitch's abilities (he is still active in the Presbyterian ministry).

Borg hasn't even bothered to offer a fresh translation, but tosses the NRSV up in the air and then bungs its various parts back in place according to the standard academic consensus (with the exception of Acts, which he places later than most.) 

What does make the Borg New Testament worthwhile, however, is his straightforward no-nonsense commentaries - introductory articles really - to each of the documents. This is essential information that all literate Christians should have ready access to but, by and large, don't. The amount of disinformation out there is mountainous, and you can almost be guaranteed that anything you find in a so-called 'Christian bookstore' is going to be built on deceitful apologetics and self-delusion. Borg skips the usual Zondervanistic blather and sanctimonious IVP face-saving qualifications and cuts straight to the issues. For that reason alone I'm a fan. This is an honest New Testament, and an easy introduction to the field of New Testament study that is sure to be an eye-opener for many, even if the translation provided is a stodgy warmed-over one.

The second book of note is Hal Taussig's New New Testament... But that's probably best held over till next time.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

An Expected Reaction from Dallas

I confess to gross intolerance of anything pretending to be scholarly opinion that comes out of Dallas Theological Seminary. Granted that idealistic young men and women enter places like these with the best of intentions, but they usually come out twice the spawn of hell, narrow, intolerant and only marginally Christian at best - in any meaningful sense of that word.

Fall afoul of the Dallas-style thought police and expect to be excoriated. In the Middle Ages the heretics were subject to the not-so-gentle ministrations of the Holy Office. These days there's an assembly of clowns at the ready to bray, shriek and gibber at any suggestion that their myopic understanding of the Christian faith - an understanding often completely at odds with established church tradition - is anything other than perfect.

Take Daniel B. Wallace's rant about Hal Taussig's A New New Testament. Wallace is a Dallasite, keen to unleash the hounds on any unfortunate person holding a contrary view that forces him to think disturbing thoughts. And make no mistake, questions about the canon, the Achilles Heel of any form of biblicism, is enough to set the Dallas crowd into a hissy fit of impressive proportions.

I want to offer a few thoughts both pro and con on A New New Testament in a later posting. But for the moment I'm still breathless after reading Wallace's diatribe. Did the man actually read the introduction to the book? Did he even bother to read the supplementary material at the end? It's hard to find much evidence that he did. More likely, after a quick skim, he flew immediately into a red-eared, full-blown apoplectic apologetic outrage.

A New New Testament is a far from perfect work, as I'm sure Taussig would agree, and I concur with Wallace that it would have been nice to include the Didache, for example. But he has to be joking when he also throws out the Shepherd of Hermas as a further red herring. I mean, does he know how long that thing is? Mark Twain called The Book of Mormon chloroform in print, but the Shepherd exceeds that description by a country mile.

But no, of course Wallace doesn't want to see either the Didache or the Shepherd included any New Testament, oh mercy no! He views the canon as inviolate just as it is, so he's just being contrary pretending to suggest a different selection. Trouble is that it's no easy thing to demonstrate just how the current canon could conceivably have a heavenly imprimatur.  In fact, it's a pretty-much impossible task. Which is why, I suspect, he adopts the old preacher's strategy of shouting extra loud when he gets to the weak points in his argument.

At the very minimum A New New Testament contributes to a long overdue public conversation about scripture, what it is and what it means today. Hal Taussig and his colleagues are to be congratulated for putting their perspective, and their expanded canonical selection, out in the public arena for consideration. Critiques are to be expected, but let them at least be fair minded.

But then fair mindedness is probably not considered much of a virtue at DTS.