Sunday 28 July 2013

History of a Small Adventist Church

Everyone has heard of the Seventh-day Adventists, a religion equally famous for giving the world cornflakes as it is for bizarre interpretations of the book of Revelation.

Much less well known are it's sibling movements; Adventist bodies that went in other directions following the Great Disappointment. One such group is the Church of God (Seventh Day), a denomination that paradoxically is both more and less mainstream than the SDA church, depending on the criteria you choose.

Now, thanks to Douglas Becker, Ken Durham's 1980s Calvin College master's thesis, History of the Church of God (Seventh Day), is available online.

While obviously a bit dated, the thesis will be a helpful resource for anyone interested in the origins and development of the movement, including the defections of Andrew Dugger and Herbert Armstrong. This is however anything but a detailed history; the entire document runs to under 50 pages!

Given its brevity it's not surprising that Durham's treatment is a bit lightweight, and there are some irritating typos and flaws (for example the Worldwide Church of God is referred to as the World Wide Church of God, which is just plain sloppy), but presumably standards at Calvin College have never been particularly rigorous. Durham's work nevertheless provides a solid, broad overview. Later this year Robert Coulter's The Journey: A History of the Church of God (Seventh Day) is due to be released, hopefully with greater accuracy, detail and substance.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Hermeneutical huffery puffery

What's wrong with this statement?

My methodology is very simple; I will try to interpret Scripture the way that Jesus did. This is precisely what Christians should mean when we speak of interpreting the Old Testament in the light of Christ. Ironically, then, it is no longer old at all, but always fresh and contemporary! If Jesus himself is our interpretive key, it will allow you to take Jewish texts and history more seriously than ever before, and to appreciate the honest context from which Jesus spoke.

So writes Richard Rohr in the Huffington Post (nod to James McGrath who reposted it).

A methodology that's not so simple perhaps?

What about the integrity of the Old Testament writings? In their historical and cultural context?

What of the multitudinous problems in establishing how Jesus interpreted scripture? How does Richard know about this? Is he a gospel literalist clutching a red-letter Bible?

Or the problem of knowing exactly what constituted scripture in Second Temple Judaism? As he surely knows, the Hebrew canon was still in flux then.

How exactly does "Jesus himself is our interpretive key" unpack?

And does Richard actually mean "in light of Paul" instead of Christ (interesting that he doesn't say Jesus)?

Beats me.

Rohr continues:

To take the scriptures seriously is not to take them literally. Literalism is invariably the lowest and least level of meaning. Most Biblical authors understood this, which is why they felt totally free to take so many obvious liberties with what we would call “facts.” In many ways, we have moved backwards in our ability to read spiritual and transformative texts, especially after the enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when religious people got on the defensive and lost their own unique vantage point. Serious reading of scripture will allow you to find an ever new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history, the liberation of the soul, and the liberation of God in every generation. Then the text is true on many levels, instead of trying to prove it is true on just the one simple, factual level. Sacred texts always maximize your possibilities for life and love, which is why we call them sacred.

Uh huh... 

"Sacred texts always maximize your possibilities for life and love." Nice. But clearly untrue, unless you're prepared to completely redefine 'sacred texts'. "Always"? Our sacred texts include texts of terror in Judges and Revelation, not just the beatitudes. No amount of hermeneutical replastering and wallpapering can change that.

These ancient documents have gathered unto themselves two thousand years of hermeneutical accretions and commentary, granted. But that does not mean that their intended meaning was, in many (most?) cases, anything other than what appears on the surface. The writers and redactors of scripture were, Rohr implies, high-minded literary sophisticates, Iron Age versions of Gore Vidal. 

Sadly this reality seems to have escaped most readers before the nineteenth century. 

Back into it

Postings here in recent weeks have been few and far between. That's partly due to Winter vicissitudes, some mind-numbing work commitments, and a feeling - especially in terms of certain past religious affiliations - of "I'm just so over that!"

So, having taken an extensive blog-break, with the exception of a hiccup here and there, maybe it's time to attempt a reboot and see where things go. To be honest, I'm not sure how much fuel is left in the tank. I guess that'll become obvious in due course. But for now at least I'm not quite ready to fold up the tents and shuffle off.

Monday 15 July 2013

The Giftedness of Atheology

Tim Bulkeley has posted a response to the piece here on Lloyd Geering's new book, From the Big Bang to God. I'm not entirely sure I understand his use of a snatch of dialogue from the movie The Titanic. The giftedness of life and the grace that undergirds our every breath seems to be a bit irrelevant to the concerns Geering is trying to address. For what it's worth, I believe in this kind of grace very much, what with being raised Lutheran and since having read Don Cupitt...

(Slight clearing of the throat after mentioning Don Cupitt...)

The only bit in Tim's explanation I disagree with is the idea that "I get what I don't deserve." You could read that two ways of course, just think of child soldiers, the hapless passengers on Titanic, or patients undergoing chemo. That isn't what Tim means though, which leads me to ask: what do we deserve then, pray tell?

No, don't tell me, I can guess. It involves intense heat, existential angst and/or an angry ancient Palestinian thunder god, right? Yes, we've all been very naughty and deserve to be cuffed around the ears and sent to bed without dinner. Unpack that and it's a slippery slope into the snake-pit of human oppression, and the ranting rhetoric of right-wing nut jobs.

What did arouse my curiosity was Tim's use of the term 'Atheology'. At first I thought that it might be an original coinage, but on reflection it seemed more likely that some crab-minded Reformed dogmatician had dreamed it up first, as persons emeshed in that tradition tend to do.

So, to the dictionaries. Not in the Merriam-Webster, and not in the Oxford (perhaps it's in their unabridged editions). When all others fall by the wayside, however, there's always the Chambers, which is a joy to any word lover. And lo, there it was, with a small 'a', and defined as "opposition to theology." Hmm, shouldn't that be anti-theology?

Regardless, even though I'm unsure whether the term really describes Geering's perspective - even at a whisker's distance - I'm certainly delighted to add the word to my repertoire. Though I might be more inclined to plaster it over certain wooden-minded, tithe-farming fundamentalist preacher-types than Sir Lloyd Geering.


This is the last in a series on Progressive Christianity. 

How do you drag the Christian faith kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century?

Traditionalists may find the question offensive, but the reality is that traditional belief in demons, miracles, hell, blood atonement, angels, creeds and trinities is fading fast.

Evangelicals may also find the question uncomfortable, but the truth is surely that fewer and fewer folk find much credibility in dumbed-down, pastel-coloured devotional platitudes.

Progressive Christians, few though they be in numbers, make a variety of proposals, and that at least indicates a willingness to engage with the question.

The radical wing, I think, is worth listening to. Christians who straddle the middle ground, torn between the old and the new, tend to shy away from thinkers like Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering, stuck as they are in a kind of no-man's land. Like the muskrat in Rudyard Kipling's tale Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, they crawl around the skirting boards trying desperately to work up the courage to run into the centre of the floor. They never manage it. You can't really have a denarius both ways.

Prevarication provides no resolution. It relies on deliberate ambiguities that you could drive an ox-cart through. We talk of Adam as if he was a historical person, while secretly smiling at our own higher knowledge - let the hoi polloi in the pews assume whatever they want. We selectively quote scripture, but only after applying an acceptably modern hermeneutical spin. So what if it bears little resemblance to the intended meaning? Let's hide behind a constructivist approach, deny that there is an 'original' meaning, and hope nobody asks difficult questions.

I want to suggest that this is just plain deceitful, and completely unworthy. The way ahead, if there is to be a way ahead, requires brutal, flood-lit honesty. Honesty that includes those venerable creeds and ancient scriptures. Aromatherapy won't fix the mess, no matter if the scented candles are lit, the sweet incense wafts or (in case you're a Baptist) the cans of air freshener sprayed liberally.

You can't mask the smell of decaying dogma.

Better by far to open the windows wide and let in the fresh air and sunlight.

Saturday 13 July 2013

From the Big Bang to God

Lloyd Geering is 95 years old, but instead of passing his days snoozing in a retirement home he's out on the lecture circuit as an internationally recognized voice for radical theology. There's no doubt in my mind that he is still the most incisive voice in this field in Australasia, and he's just released his latest book, From the Big Bang to God.

For Geering, who once served as principal of the Presbyterian theological school Knox College, God - as that term is commonly understood - has faded from view. Atheism you cry? Well, not quite. This morning he was interviewed by Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand National, and it's worth a listen. The programme is just over 33 minutes long

In recent postings I've been critical of so-called "Progressive Christianity," and especially that variety that wallows in a misguided reappropriation of biblical themes and verses to serve its own high-minded agenda. Geering is something else again, and I'm a long-time fan.

From the Big Bang to God has only just been released by its New Zealand publisher, but judging from Geering's past titles it should appear in the US from Polebridge Press sometime soon.

Monday 1 July 2013

150 Years of The Bible Advocate

2013 is an important date in the history of the Sabbath-keeping Church of God sects. It was 150 years ago that a publication now known as The Bible Advocate was launched. Many imitators have arisen, each a flagship for the particular offshoot body it represents; Tomorrow's World, The Good News, The Philadelphia Trumpet and, most famously, The Plain Truth. Some are slicker, and many have surpassed the BA in circulation numbers. But one thing can't be denied: the BA has endured. It's still going strong, and shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon.

The latest issue marks the journey. Yes, it's basically a fundamentalist publication. But the BA still has a charm of its own. Published by the mother body, the Church of God (Seventh Day), it represents a more balanced, relaxed version of the Adventist gospel than either the Seventh-day Adventist Church - to which it is closely related - or it's own prolific and contentious (some might say demented) offspring.

Among the features in this issue is an article by former editor Jerry Griffin. That's pretty remarkable in itself as Griffin, who also once headed up the church's ministerial training school, left COG7 in the early 1990s over that thorny issue of legalism. Imagine the bunch of ratbags who currently churn out what's left of The Plain Truth - or perhaps Christian Odyssey - inviting former PT editor Brian Knowles to write a guest column. Not exactly likely is it. And yes, Griffin's article is well worth reading.

But COG7 culture is a bit different, and that's refreshing. This anniversary issue of the BA can be downloaded in full as a PDF. I hope the lads out in Glendora do just that. They might learn something in the process.