Thursday 29 August 2013

Rūtana Rumblings

It's not often I sound off about the faith community of my early years, the Lutheran Church of New Zealand, so it's not surprising that I'm a bit behind the times. Although I haven't darkened the door of a Lutheran church in years, I still have an admiration for the progressive strands within that tradition as well a residual sense of loyalty.

The church's greatest assets include the indisputable fact that it has a built-in resistance to the wackiness that afflicts so many Anglo denominations. So I was intrigued (and somewhat gobsmacked) to discover a couple of changes in the way the wind is now blowing in this small denomination.

The first is a local initiative, bearing in mind the the LCNZ is an outlying district of the much larger Aussie body. The second is obviously driven from the distant holy city of Adelaide, headquarters of the Lutheran Church of Australia.

The New Zealand church last year adopted an alternative Māori name: Te Hāhi Rūtana o Aotearoa (Rūtana is apparently a transliteration of Lutheran, it's certainly not found in any of the Māori dictionaries). Perhaps it's the last of the country's mainline denominations to do so, but it still comes as a bit of a shock. Whether current church president Mark Whitfield is responsible for the initiative, or whether there is any substantive grassroots support for the move, I'm not certain. Frankly, I'm all for it. It marks a long overdue commitment to a twenty-first century Kiwi identity.

The second change is also one of nomenclature. Until about five minutes ago (small exaggeration - more like April this year) the highest elected officials in the church were referred to as "presidents". This reflects in part the strong historic ties with the neo-fundamentalist US-based Missouri Synod. Then suddenly the various district presidents along with the overall denominational president in Adelaide were made-over into bishops. Bishops! Gott im Himmel!

Actually, I think this is kind of overdue too. Lutherans aren't Presbyterians or Methodists, praise the Lord, and they share a great deal with Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions in terms of liturgy and ethos. Which is why traditionalists are, on average, less loopy than the happy-clappy types who now dominate the increasingly dumbed-down Christian marketplace. It also brings the Antipodean church into line with most overseas Lutheran bodies.

All positive. Except.

Except, unless I've missed it, the Ocker-Loos still exclude women from the pastorate. The official statement on the matter, dated 2001, reads like something from the 1950s. 
"The rule of the apostles excludes the possibility of women acting as pastors and shepherds of congregations."
 Not so much a "priesthood of all believers" as "under half the believers." It's that kind of ingrained discrimination that's holding the LCA and it's Kiwi outpost in a sociological Stone Age.

The name changes may shuffle the deck chairs but, sadly, really meaningful change is yet to come. Without it, you just have to suspect it doesn't amount to much more than window dressing.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Of Spy Narratives and Toyota Manuals

With a title like Manufacturing Judean Myth: The Spy Narrative in Numbers 13-14 as Rewritten Tradition, you might suspect some dense argumentation akin to an untranslated Japanese car manual.

(The allusion is a painful one, having just acquired a vehicle with just such a manual. Thank heavens for the little cartoon diagrams.)

But back to Judean Myth. Deane Galbraith is a bloke I respect, both for his scholarship and his wicked sense of humour. The tome referred to above is his doctoral dissertation at the University of Otago, and the abstract is available here. Alas, I suspect it won't make easy bedtime reading, and I doubt Deane has provided helpful manga-style drawings.

But fear not, everyone's favourite Southern Baptist blogger, the inimitable Jim West, has done us all the favour of interviewing Deane about his work. One benefit of this is that it allows Deane to break free from the academic language and let rip a little.

I think that the term ‘minimalist’ is largely meaningless, a term of  polemic employed only by uptight and defensive reactionaries, providing about the same level of semantic value as a child who puts her hand over her ears and shouts ‘la la la la la la’ at the world.

You can access the text of the interview on Zwingli Redivivus.

Monday 19 August 2013

From church to shrine

On Sunday I took a drive out to Waiuku.

Now I suspect not too many readers know about Waiuku, and to be frank, there's no reason you should. It's a small town on the edge of Auckland, famous for not a lot, other than being a fairly pleasant small town, and boasting New Zealand's oldest pub, established in 1853, The Kentish.

I parked the car and took a stroll down the main street, as one does, to see the sights. In Waiuku this takes all of ten minutes at a slow clip.

Which is when I saw this.

Clearly this is a church building with a history. I forget which denomination it used to represent... something fairly staid like Anglican or Presbyterian I think.

But even in sleepy Waiuku the winds of change are blowing. The board outside the former church declares this stately old wooden house of worship to now be a Shinto shrine.

I read it twice, three times. A Shinto shrine. In Waiuku?

New Zealand is a rapidly secularising society, and the traditional Protestant churches are in terminal decline. But who'd have expected that this prominent edifice, set prominently on a hill in the main street, would be transferred to an alternative world faith.

Please don't misunderstand. I don't have anything against Shinto shrines. Or mosques, Sikh temples or whatever. All communities have a right to establish centres for fellowship, affirmation and worship. Brilliant!

But what does this say about the state of those predominantly Anglo religious bodies, the Anglican church and its various derivatives, which once dominated in the English-speaking world. It seems they're greying out of existence.

So down the gurgler of irrelevance they go, rapidly; disappearing without any great trauma before our very eyes.

And I'm reminded of the adage, variously attributed; "better a live heresy than a dead orthodoxy."

Now if they turn The Kentish into a sushi bar... then there'd be cause to get really upset.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Dragonses in Revelationses

Scott Bailey makes a basic point on his excellent blog about the last book in the Christian Bible, sometimes known as The Apocalypse.

You can always tell whether a commentator on this book has even the most basic knowledge of their subject by what they call it. The correct title is Revelation, most definitely in the singular. Drooling poseurs invariably call it Revelations, in the plural.

It might seem to be a small point, but let's face it, if some nincompoop dilettante can't even get the name right, what are the chances they've got anything else right?

Which is exactly the point Scott makes. (The particular egg he refers to believes that dragons are real, and the Bible proves it!)

Of course, just because somebody can get the title right doesn't mean they have a clue about the book itself either, but at least they're approaching base one.

There was a certain philandering televangelist of fond memory who used to contest the full name as given in the KJV: The Revelation of St. John the Divine. His point was that John would never have called himself divine, or assumed such undue honours. Poor Ted (oops, gave that away...) simply didn't understand the difference between an adjective - which he took it for - and a noun - which was the translators' intent. Back in the 1600s divine was simply a synonym for theologian - presumably reflecting the superhuman seer-like characteristics needed for torturing significance out of those recalcitrant texts!

Monday 12 August 2013

A Whale of a Tale

What do we do with the Old Testament book of Jonah? Even the mighty Luther was perplexed, saying that it was stranger than any poet's fable. "If it were not in the Bible," quoth he, "I would take it for a lie." Whales, it seems, are not famous for swallowing persons whole and then regurgitating them intact, and what could survive three days and nights in any cetacean's gullet?

But Wot ho! as Bertie Wooster was famous for saying, there has to be a faith-enhancing explanation, and to the rescue came none other than the world's most astute Bible interpreter, the inimitable Ferrar Fenton. In his turn of the last century translation, which has the distinction of being the first in modern English, he set his formidable mind to the problem and lo, came forth with the obvious solution (obvious to him anyway). Here's his footnote to Jonah 2:1.
"Great Fish" was the name of the ship mistranslated "Whale" in the version of the Greek translators whose blunder has been repeated by all subsequent translators, in all languages, to the perplexity of their readers, until I decided to go back to the original statement of the prophet in his own Hebrew.
So it seems - and which of us could doubt Mr Fenton's judgment - that Jonah was rescued by a nearby wooden tub splendidly christened The Great Fish.

As you might have guessed, Fenton was not exactly under-endowed with a belief in his own abilities, despite being an amateur in the field (he was a wealthy businessman and Bible hobbyist). I warmly recommend perusing his less than humble introduction and explanatory note to the work. Truly, a more competent scholar never walked the earth!

This is also a great example of trying to rationalise away a problem. The Jonah story is a tall tale with a message and a moral, told in an age when the open sea was a perilous but necessary method of travel, filled with little-understood dangers of the unknown. Dear old F.F. was however tin-eared when it came to subtleties of genre, so it seemed clear to him that a handy-dandy bit of clarification was needed. Didn't he do well!

These days the Fenton translation is prized by a few mad collectors of obscure English bibles (such as myself), and by the deeply racist Christian Identity movement in the US which has appropriated his jingoistic British-Israelite textual preferences to serve their own vile intents. It's a sad postscript to a pioneering version of the scriptures.

Friday 9 August 2013

A Chip off the Old Block

Block with chip?
To call someone "a chip off the old block" is usually regarded as a compliment. But according to that most astute word authority Max Cryer, it didn't exactly begin that way.

The expression can be dated all the way back to 1621 when a certain Bishop Sanderson of Lincoln included these lines in a homily:

"Am I not a child of the same Adam... A chip of the same block, with him?"

It's a rhetorical question which swiftly passed into the bloodstream of the Queen's English, mutated into the current form, and moved beyond. Who'd have thought, though, that the 'old block' was originally old father Adam?

Apart from providing the language with a colourful expression however, I wonder how many of us - Christians included - would today respond unequivocally with a "yes, indeed" to the good clergyman's question?

Tuesday 6 August 2013

A lot less than meets the eye

Prevarication is a theological art form. Canny theologians will talk and write as if things are "just so" when they're perfectly aware that they're simply manipulating metaphor. It keeps potential critics at bay by laying down a fog of obfuscation. A clever wordsmith can blandly pontificate on Adam, Eve and Original Sin, but when you confront them about misleading the folk in the pews they simply stick their highly educated snooters in the air and infer that it's you who has the problem, what with being a bit thick and unsubtle. Their slippery approach is apparently a sign of their superior insight.

Well, that is plain bulldust. Dishonest, manipulative, and ultimately self-defeating.

Did you know I have a PhD dear?
Then again, there's the rare bird who reverses the approach. They have already painted themselves into a literalist corner which they're now forced to aggressively defend, but their pride and arrogance forces them to nonetheless put on a considered and scholarly veneer in a Hyacinth Bucket sort of way. They might seek out reputable scholars so they can bask in their reflected glory, they might cherry-pick respectable sources for citations, but in the end it's all about image and not substance.

In short, there's a lot less there than meets the eye.

(It would be unkind to focus on a particular example I suppose, so instead I'll just change the subject and ask if you've seen the current issue of David Hulme's Vision magazine.)

So which do you think is preferable, to be knowledgeable and two-faced (so you don't scare the riff-raff), or wooden-minded and two-faced (so you don't scare the people whose status you aspire to)?

Sunday 4 August 2013

Shifting Sands beside the Dead Sea

Greg Doudna
Once upon a time there were a whole bunch of Essene monks, sort of proto-Augustinians, happily living an ascetic existence on the shores of the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. They were very unhappy with the temple functionaries in Jerusalem, and had moved to their current location as a kind of self-enforced exile.

Or so the story goes. Dissenting voices have been heard from time to time, but the consensus has long held its ground. Then along come David Stacey and Greg Doudna with a renewed and determined effort to upset the applecart.

Greg, is a Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) scholar and author of 4Q Pesher Nahum: A Critical Edition (and yes, he's also the author of Showdown at Big Sandy). He has recently collaborated with David Stacey (the British archaeologist, not the host of the TV series GearZ on Speed TV) on the soon to be released Qumran Revisited: A Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts [BAR International Series 2520; Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013].

Here is a brief excerpt from the introduction (available in full on the Scrollery blog).
My essay challenges the reasons claimed for supposing that the Qumran texts were opposed to the Hasmonean high priests... I show that traditional arguments for supposing an adversarial relationship between the sect of the Qumran texts and the Hasmonean high priests evaporate upon examination: there is no sign in the texts of calendar conflict between the sect and the Hasmonean high priests; no criticism for combining king and high priest; no notion of rival priestly ancestries; no opposition to Alexander Jannaeus, or to John Hyrcanus I before him. Contrary to common conceptions, none of these notions are in the Qumran texts in any way. Instead of the sect of the Qumran texts being opposed to the Hasmonean high priests, the sect of the texts was the sect of the Hasmonean high priests.
This is obviously an academic rather than a popular text, but it promises to ignite some lively debate. It also once again proves, if further demonstration was needed, that in this field of studies the consensus may well be built on shifting sands.

Friday 2 August 2013

Free magazines for the iPad

It's nice to get something for nothing, and few things as cool as an interactive magazine. Here are three free Aussie magazines designed for the iPad that I really like.

Travel. The Qantas magazine, with heaps of travel features. Very slick.
Science and technology. (1) Venture, published by the Swinburne University of Technology in Victoria. (2) e-Science, published by the University of Adelaide.

All are available in the Apple App Store. Great fun, and you learn stuff too!

Thursday 1 August 2013

Showdown at Big Sandy

For those with an interest in the rise and fall of the wacky Worldwide Church of God, good news: major excerpts from Greg Doudna's ground breaking book, Showdown at Big Sandy, are now accessible online, and the full version, originally quite expensive, has come down in price. Published in 2006, this is one of the few really essential treatments of this singular American sect, once a major player in the apocalyptic marketplace.

Greg writes: ... I have extensive excerpts of Showdown at Big Sandy newly available on my website, I have also got the book available at a more reasonable price on Amazon, Lulu, and Nook e-book. Plus most of the book is accessible for viewing on Google Books, for any who want to check a footnote.

My previous review can be found in PDF format. As before I thoroughly recommend the book, and would do so on the strength of Greg's treatment of the British-Israel nonsense alone. A unique personal account that is also, while very approachable, informed by real scholarship. Definitely worth checking out.