Monday 30 December 2013

Reading list for 2014

As 2013 draws to its inevitable close bookish bloggers are listing their literary conquests and "best of" for the past twelve months. As an alternative, here's my lists of books to read in 2014.

General Fiction
  1. The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. Winner of this year's Man Booker Prize and set in 1860s New Zealand.
  2. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Sebastian Faulks. A new addition to the P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves canon.
  3. The Tournament. Matthew Reilly. A tale told through the eyes of the future Queen Elizabeth I. Happily, a short prequel (Roger Ascham and the King's Lost Girl) is available as a free Kindle download for those who might like to sample the writer's style first. I was an instant convert after the first couple of pages.
Theology and Biblical Studies
  1. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report. Edited by Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson. A series of essays to accompany the text of Acts, following the Jesus Seminar methodology, examining the historical probabilities of the narrative. 
  2. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented the Story of Martyrdom. Candida Moss. With positive reviews from quarters as varied as Desmond Tutu, Diarmaid MacCulloch, and James Carroll.
  3. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Bart Ehrman. To be released in March.
  1. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. John Hattie. A leading educator who is widely cited by those advocating change in schools. As a teacher I know that while you might not always agree with him, you can't ignore his work. This is his most recent book aimed at a wide readership.
  2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Susan Cain. At last, someone who understands!
  3. How to Hear Classical Music. Davinia Caddy. Because great music doesn't have to be surrounded by pretentiousness.
Science Fiction/Fantasy
  1. The Many Coloured Land. Julian May. Reissued in Kindle format after being long out of print. Part of a series I devoured years ago, and can't wait to revisit and find out whether it was really as good as I remember.
  2. Lord Foul's Bane. Stephen Donaldson. Another reissue from days gone by. Donaldson has written recent follow-ups to the original Thomas Covenant series (of which this is the first).
All of the above are available on Kindle, and I have to admit that I have several of them already downloaded and ready for action. Depending on life, work, and the way the wind bloweth, some might end up with reviews here in due course. 

Sunday 29 December 2013

Wrights and Wrongs

A possibly rhetorical question from James McGrath on the apologetic thrust of Evangelical guru/scholar/bishop N. T. Wright in his War & Peace-length Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
Is Wright trying to get as close as he can to traditional Christological language without being thoroughly anachronistic?
I doubt one has to fight one's way through all 1700 pages to reach a simple answer to that question, based on Wright's track record. James, who blogs at Exploring Our Matrix on Patheos, indicates that he will blog his impressions of this two-tome treatise as time permits.

Berliner Rundfunk 91.4

Something a bit different. This German station makes no. 3 on my Summer listening list. The spoken component on this 70s/80s FM broadcaster is, as you'd expect, Deutsch. But that's no great worry - even to someone with only a smattering of Hogan's Heroes German - because close to 100% of the music played is in English. Go figure.

To sample the fare, you can access the website direct (click on livestream at the top right), through Tune In, or through an Apple or Android app.

Saturday 28 December 2013

After Ellen - Women SDA pastors emerge

Sandra Roberts - Southeastern Conference president
Women's ordination is becoming the norm in many churches. Holdouts include the Seventh-day Adventist church, despite the fact that they boast a female "prophetess" as founder of the movement.

That may be soon to change, with a groundswell of support for women preachers.

Christian Century has a recent update on the way the wind is now blowing.
First, three U.S. regional groups of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted in 2012 for women to be ordained.
Then, the church’s Southeastern California Conference elected its first female president, a historic move for the global church.
Now, four of the church’s 13 worldwide divisions have approved theological reviews suggesting that women’s ordination should be widely accepted; one has said it should not.
Progress of this kind is hard to imagine in a denomination that still vigorously upholds an antediluvian position on creationism and bizarre, anti-Catholic readings of apocalyptic scriptures in Daniel and Revelation. Current president Ted Wilson intervened unsuccessfully to in an attempt to derail Sandra Roberts' election to the Southeastern leadership (her position is not recognised by the world church.) But it may be too late to hold back the tide.
In the U.S., 19 female pastors have been ordained or had their credentials updated in the SDA’s mid-Atlantic Columbia Union Conference since that regional group approved women’s ordination in July 2012. The Pacific Union Conference estimates it has 25 to 30 ordained women.
The SDA’s Nebraska-based Mid-America Union Conference also approved women’s ordination in 2012, but no women in its nine-state territory have been recommended for ordination.
And so it seems they could well get there before such troglodyte mainline poseurs as the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Good on 'em. As the CC article notes, there could be a flow-on effect on other fundamentalist sects.

However, if those new women pastors are just going to parrot the same old, tired fundamentalist bumf, you've got to wonder why they'd bother.

Karl Barth, the Monty Python of Theologians

Karl Barth had a sense of humour. No, really.
Karl Barth has an undeserved reputation in some circles as a misanthropic stick-in-the-mud, based on an equally undeserved caricature of Barth as the anachronistic opponent of all things good and beautiful. References to his sly sense of humor are therefore often met with puzzled stutters. His work is read “with a Teutonic lack of humour,” T. F. Torrance observes, in spite of “the silver thread of sheer fun that runs throughout his account of the theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” While Barth once complained about Calvin’s seeming inability to laugh, this is certainly not a problem one encounters with Barth himself, who devoted eight full pages of the Church Dogmatics to a facetious book review of the 1740 Insecto-Theologia and an analysis of eighteenth-century hymns that portray God as, in Barth’s words, “the supreme Giver of so much cheese.”
This surprising quote comes from the introduction to an article by Jessica DeCou in the Spring 2012 issue of Word and World (downloadable here).

I'm not sure this makes me feel any more kindly about Barth, but I suppose it does provide possible evidence that he had his redeeming features. Then again, one might suspect that his entire Church Dogmatics was designed as a sophisticated joke...

Thursday 26 December 2013

Discern - another online COG flagship

The Good News, Tomorrow's World, Vision, The Philadelphia Trumpet... flagships of their respective Church of God (COG) bodies. If it's one thing the splintered sects of Armstrongism have traditionally done well, it's publish nice looking magazines. Content? Well, that's not so hot, but layout and design are invariably impressive.

But magazine evangelism isn't what it used to be back in the days of The Plain Truth. Glossy publications of all sorts now saturate the marketplace, and the cost effectiveness of churning out and posting them - especially without charging a subscription - is increasingly prohibitive. Even subscription-based periodicals in mainline churches are having a hard time.

Grace Communion International has ceased cutting down trees to produce its PT replacement, Christian Odyssey. CO is now a download-only publication. This could be a brilliant, forward thinking strategy, or it could just be cheap. Now the schismatic UCG breakaway, CoGWA (love those acronyms!) has launched its own online-only faux-glossy: Discern. Forgive me if I'm somewhat restrained in my excitement.

Clyde attempts a disarming smile
The CoGWA lads aren't keen to make access to Discern open slather though. If you want to look at a copy on your laptop or tablet you're going to have to "subscribe", which means hand over your email address first. Considering the level of paranoia in the COG diaspora, this probably isn't the smartest strategy possible.

A friendly reader forwarded their first PDF issue of Discern. It's a nice looking little number, as expected. Clyde Kilough gets credit as editor but, and I mean this kindly Clyde, your page 3 photograph is more Lex Luthor than Clark Kent.

If you're feeling bold enough to try subscribing you can sign up here. Who knows, there has to be somebody out there suffering deprivation from David Treybig and Ralph Levy's journalistic genius...

For anyone who really wants to know, CoGWA stands for Church of God, a Worldwide Association. Now, take an aspirin and lie down till similar urges go away completely.

James Tabor on Paul

James Tabor has some interesting views on Paul, and he now appears in a 30 minute interview on John Shuck's Religion for Life podcast. Dr. Tabor, who began his academic journey at Herbert Armstrong's Ambassador College in Pasadena, opines that Paul is the most influential human being in history.

The Shuck/Tabor pairing is interesting too. While Tabor blends a certain unique kind of quasi-Noahide literalism with his scholarship, Shuck is a liberal, progressive Presbyterian pastor. Both agree that Paul is a dubious character, but they're coming from very different places.

Tabor took on the mantle of Ernest Martin's Bible translation project some years ago, but that seems to have been quietly dropped. Readers of his books, including Paul and Jesus, may yet detect an occasional whiff of Armstrongism in his writing style.

This is one of a series John Shuck is doing on Paul. Earlier he featured that celebrated writer of long, evangelical tomes, N. T. Wright. A list of downloadable Religion for Life podcasts - and there's some great stuff available - is available at

How to Spell in Strine

Spelling isn't usually a political concern for Prime Ministers.

Unless, of course, there's political capital in a spot of teacher-bashing to stir up the hoi polloi in an election year. Bring back the 'three R's!'

But then, there's this story out of Oz.

No, not Frank Baum's Oz: Australia.

"PM comes out fighting over linguistic carnage." Dear lord, what can it all mean?

It's all over how the Ockers should spell programme. Not as in computer program, where we all agree to drop the -me, but as in "get with the programme".

The Macquarie Complete Australian Dictionary, published earlier this year, doesn't even have a separate entry for programme, providing only program. Not as complete as they thought! There is this smug little note at the end though.
Usage: until recently, programme was widely considered the British spelling, and program the American. There are those who like to retain the former spelling, particularly in relation to a list of musical items at a concert, but many people have adopted the spelling program in all cases.
Apparently they haven't convinced Tony Abbott, and another great reason to use the Oxford.

I knew there had to be some valid reason he was elected over Kevin Rudd.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Three not-so-wise Magi?

Magi appear in Matthew's birth narrative of Jesus (Mt. 2: 1-12), but they're not the only example of that caste in the New Testament: think Simon Magus. One magus, plural magi. "Kings of Orient"? Nope. The implication is that these guys, from "the East", were among other things astrologers.

Astrologers? Holy horoscopes!

Actually, everywhere else magi are mentioned in the NT they're not exactly flavour of the month. There's Simon of course (Acts 8), but also the Cypriot magus of Acts 13. There are hefty hints that these characters, rather than being "wise men", were practitioners of the dark arts. And in an early Christian document known as the Didache (early enough to be contemporary with some of the later NT writings) believers are exhorted: "do not practice magic, do not use enchanted potions..." (2:2)

Enchanted potions? Incense and myrrh were used, according to Greek magical papyri, as aids in incantations. No I'm not making this stuff up or cribbing from some pulp atheist text. One of the best sources to untangle the Christmas stories is none other than Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah).

But maybe the Xmas Magi were the exception, repentant magicians, more like Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione than disciples of Voldemort, tearfully turning from their wicked Babylonian hocus pocus to worship the true saviour? A nice bit of revisionism, but that doesn't seem particularly likely given that the text itself indicates no such thing (but then again, when needs must the apologists can wax creative regardless of lack of any evidence.)

So, what are we to do with the magi? Were there even three of them? (Matthew says nothing about the number. In Eastern tradition there were supposed to have been twelve!) Who were they? (Again, no information, though later western tradition helpfully invented names for them: Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar; though Larry, Curly and Moe, would do just as well.)

And what are these dubious foreigners doing in the Nativity narrative anyway? Perhaps just adding a bit of exotic imaginative colour to Matthew's tale in those few years before humourless, wooden-minded theological types could purge out the material that didn't measure up to their thin-lipped standard of earnestness. And, truth to tell, I'm kind of glad the magical magi squeaked through to make the final cut, or we wouldn't have Menotti's marvellous one-act opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Menotti, of course, took liberties with the Matthean text. But then it seems Matthew was no stranger to embellishment either.

And on that note, on this Christmas Eve of 2013, a very Merry Xmas.

Deborah Armstrong interview - Dwight's Daughter

An amazing hour-long interview with Herbert Armstrong's niece, Deborah, conducted by Troy Fitzgerald, author of Cults and Closets. Here's an excerpt from the blurb.
Hymn composer Dwight Armstrong
Deborah is the niece of the founder of the cult the Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong; and her father, Dwight, was the composer of the church’s hymnal...
Deborah shares about her abusive childhood, troubled relationship with her parents, impressions of her uncle Herbert, and her non-typical experience growing up in the church under the shadow of Armstrong. She also shares about her time attending the church’s Ambassador College, employment as a writer for the church’s The World Tomorrow telecast, and time spent in Russia on behalf of the church’s educational and cultural foundation working in television, which is where her doubts about the church and religion were solidified.
Upon her return from Russia, she left the church, and after further exploration and research, became an atheist and secular humanist. She shares her opinions — and the views of several in her family — about Herbert and allegations that he committed incest with his own daughter, her views on religion and society in general, as well as her recommendations for those who are having doubts about their own faith.
This is an absolutely fascinating conversation for those who "did time" in the old WCG. Riveting listening.

Troy has a number of other interviews with refugees from various high demand religious movements - LDS, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a former Gay member of PCG, all at

Monday 23 December 2013

While Santa Watched His Sacks By Night...

According to a report in The Telegraph, one in ten Britons aged 25 to 34 think that Father Christmas is a character in the Gospel nativity stories.

All those crusty Puritan worthies, along with the Wesley brothers and assorted purple-clad archbishops of Canterbury, must be turning in their graves.

Kind of makes all those discussions about deep theological subtleties seem somehow irrelevant really.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Radio from the Valleys

Some time in the late 19th century one of my forebears escaped from the valleys of Wales and made his way across half a world to New Zealand. That's where I get my surname from, and why I back Wales in every international rugby game they play - except, of course, those against the All Blacks.

So the second radio station on my list for Summer is not exactly summery. In Cardiff its Winter, but what the heck. BBC Radio Wales is a great listen with intelligent programming, and you've got to love the accent.

Currently available for your delectation, Terry Jones' (of Monty Python fame) Fairy Tales for Christmas.

Adam and Eve were REAL, dammit!

There are times you've got to shake your head in amazement at what some more wooden-minded folk believe. And we're not necessarily talking about uneducated, backwoods types either. Simply place a reasonably intelligent, sincere and likeable person in a narrow and oppressive sect, and then give them a job and a salary to defend. Lo, wine is turned into hogwash, and impossibly silly things are exalted as dogma.

The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod is, in my view anyway, a sect, despite looking a lot like a legitimate Lutheran body (like the ELCA).

And here's exhibit A. Paul McCain writing on the necessity of believing that Adam and Eve were literal people.
"I've been following debates/arguments/discussions/conversations about the historicity of Adam and Eve. For our Lord Christ, the fact of the creation of Adam and Eve by God, and their union to one another, ordained by God, is the very foundation of marriage and all human sexuality. Precisely because the Lord taught this, this has an enormous impact on how the Church and the faithful, should—no not should, that’s way too soft a word—absolutely must—affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve."
Absolutely must. So there! And just look at the nice artwork Pastor McCain provides. What a fine Nordic Eve. In fact neither of these progenitors seems to have come "out of Africa". Fancy that.

In the event of inconsiderate facts clashing with received dogma - no matter how dopey - guess which wins hands down.

A UCG Xmas Testimony - with a difference

There are some Christian folk who don't observe Christmas. What's that like for a kid growing up in such a faith? 
For many kids growing up in New York City, it's not uncommon to have a kid in your class who goes to church on Saturday and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. That kid is usually Jewish. Unless, of course, you were in my class, in which case that kid would actually be Christian -- and that child would be me.
I grew up with parents who were members of the Worldwide Church of God... which more resembles Judaism in its holy days and practices.
The foundation of the church’s doctrine rests on British Israelism, the idea that people of Western European descent are the direct ancestors of the ancient Israelites to whom God gave His law. Under this belief, the church concluded that the modern British Royal Family are direct descendants of King David. This theory has since been disproved with the help of genetics and common sense, but that didn’t stop [the WCG] from teaching it.
Worldwide broke up into smaller splinter groups back in the ‘90s after church officials decided on a series of doctrinal changes which were more in line with modern evangelical Christianity. My parents left Worldwide for one of these smaller groups, the United Church of God, who continued to teach what they believe to be the truth.

You can read the whole thing here.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Two Men on the Mount of Olives

(An earlier version of this post appeared back in 2010.)

Matthew tells the story of the night Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (Mt. 26: 36-46). The Master talks to his companions about the coming betrayal before inviting his closest disciples to share the moment with him. They, of course, famously fall asleep instead. Jesus prays fervently alone, pleading with the Father. Finally, resolved to go through with whatever must come to pass, he rises only to be confronted with arrest.

Was this the way it all happened, or is Matthew indulging in a spot of "creative writing"? After all, he wasn't there, and more to the point nor were Peter or John. So how did he - or anyone - know what happened and what Jesus said in private prayer?

"Now brethren," as certain preachers of my past acquaintance were wont to say, "if you'd keep your finger in Matthew, turn back to 2 Samuel 15."

Here we find a despairing, weeping David on the Mount of Olives, fleeing for his life from Absalom (2 Sam. 15: 30). Here David prayed, according to tradition, the words of Psalm 3:2-3. It appears that Matthew was very familiar with both the psalm and 2 Samuel when he composed the arrest account. Skip ahead to 2 Sam. 15:26 which expresses David's acceptance of whatever might follow: "let him do to me what seems good to him."

The parallels are fascinating, and it would be difficult to deny that, while there are also obvious differences, one does not foreshadow the other. An ancient tradition is retreaded for a new audience

I'm indebted for these insights to Thomas L. Thompson's The Bible in History (1999):
On the night before [Jesus] dies, he fills David's role as pietism's everyman on the Mount of Olives... Like David, Jesus is abandoned by his followers. He suffers despair, and is without hope. He goes to his mountain to pray, paraphrasing David's words in the voice of tradition: 'not my will but yours be done.' ... This is reiterated history...
Reiteration is a theme Thompson returns to again and again. There is, he states, not a lot of originality in the scriptures. Their purpose is theological, not historical.

It's a point that seems hard to argue with, except we all tend to "take it as read" anyway, even when we know better. Naïvely citing texts as "Jesus' words" is as common among progressive Christians as fundagelicals, the only difference usually being the texts selected. Yet stories are often recycled, like episodes in various series of the Star Trek corpus. Klingons morph into Cardassians, but the storyline is the recognizably the same.

What this actually means for the contemporary reader is left up in the air. If the Gethsemane account is in fact "historical fiction", does it matter? What about the Christmas narratives? The miracle stories? The Resurrection account? How far down does this onion peel?

There are wonderful progressively minded believers who are more than happy to find the "facts" irrelevant, and thus liberated cut their faith free from such historical embarrassment. A decaffeinated - dehistoricized - faith that looks like the original product but lacks the pungency and kick.

But, to follow the analogy, real coffee drinkers might well ask, what's the point?

Friday 20 December 2013

Radio Dunny Din

With a little time on my hands over the Summer Break I thought I'd share some of the radio stations that help create my Summer experience. Yep, I realise this has all the appeal of train spotting for those poor, pallid creatures who have been seduced by their ipods, pads, phones and paraphernalia to thinking radio is totally past it. I beg to differ, with countless stations from all over the planet available on high quality Internet digital radios.

Or even via Tune In, on those self same i-devices and streamed to a decent bluetooth speaker.

First stop, Dunedin, New Zealand and the oldest radio station in the Commonwealth. Formerly known as 4XD, Radio Dunedin hit the airwaves ahead of the BBC in 1922. For many years it was the only privately owned station in the country. These days the format is - gotta admit it - Oldies, but hey, if the cap fits...

I haven't spent a lot of time in Dunedin, mainly passing through on my way to and from Invercargill in a past life, but the city has it's charms including the world's steepest street and a fine university. Not quite as far South as Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, nor quite as chilly, but you'd have to concede nonetheless that the climate is fairly 'bracing'.

The Historical Jesus - a discussion

Spotted on Jim West's blog. It's almost two hours long... but if you're interested in who the historical Jesus might really have been - or whether there even was such a guy - this might be of interest. Four speakers on stage at the University of Michigan - Dearborn include Gabriele Boccaccini (with cool Italian accent), Saeed Ahmed Khan (with an Islamic perspective), Charles Mabee (with a more traditional faith-based view) and Bob Price... Of course the speakers are scholars and not carefully coiffed, air-headed motivational apologists, so don't expect things to be dummied down.

I found Mabee to be of least value as he politely rambled on, but maybe that's my subjective bias showing through. Even though Boccaccini whacks Bob Price around his whiskery chops (metaphorically!), Bob is the most interesting and provocative on the panel.

If you want to avoid the moderator's intro, begin around 8.30.

Listzen Up

"Truth is a great flirt."

Franz Liszt

Thursday 19 December 2013

Scoffers score again

A Camping billboard: "The Bible Guarantees It"
Harold Camping has gone to meet his Maker. Proof (if we needed any) that conviction and sincerity are not necessarily the handmaidens of truth.

Camping, lest we forget, predicted the End of World not once, but twice in 2011. Predicted it with unassailable certainty on billboards from Oakland to Auckland.

You and I are living proof that he got it terribly, horribly wrong.

First of all, note this: in the last days there will come scoffers who live self-indulgent lives; they will mock you and say: 'What has happened to his promised coming? Our fathers have been laid to rest, but still everything goes on exactly as it always has done since the world began.' (2 Peter 3:3-4)

You can bet Camping had that verse well memorised. But alas, it's the scoffers who keep getting it right!

Eschatology is a minefield for the uninformed. You can't just add up numbers in various passages of Daniel and Revelation, regardless of what Uriah Smith thought. The track record of ten thousand 'prophets' has been a massive fail, with not a single exception. Hal Lindsey, Herbert Armstrong, Judge Rutherford, William Miller and a numberless legion of lesser lights.

Did Camping go to his grave a broken man? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But he was surely a disappointed one, with all his meticulously crafted chronologies shattered. How many of his followers now rue the day they first heard his message?

Whether he can be accused of being among those he himself would have accused as having "self-indulgent lives", as in the passage above, I don't know. Self-indulgent lies might be more to the point.

Thank God for the scoffers.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Just What Do You Mean - Boyne Again?

The latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is out and available for download.

Norm Edwards is still battling on at Port Austin. Give the guy points for tenacity. In this issue he's rattling his keyboard about church organisations - presumably like the ones he's led - placing themselves "directly under God." Norm, Norm; someone really needs to explain this stuff to you...

Ian Boyne - posing for the cover of an earlier book
Meanwhile Ian Boyne is once again preening on the front page. Boyne is, without doubt, a remarkable fellow and a thoughtful journalist, as I can testify from previous correspondence with the man. Never slow to stir up a bit of PR, he is well known in Jamaica (the article calls him a celebrity) for his media profile in print, radio and television. When not hobnobbing with the Governor General at the launch of his new book (the GG contributed the foreword to an earlier volume!), he's pastor of the original Garner Ted Armstrong breakaway, the Church of God International, in that country. Last I heard, CGI was the biggest of the Sabbath-keeping COGs in that part of the Caribbean. However, whether it could survive his loss - if for example Ian suddenly followed in Wade Fransson's wake and converted to the Baha'i Faith - is a moot point.

(Speaking of which, I still intend to get around to some further comments on Fransson's The People of the Sign.)

There's apparently been a big reaction to an article in the previous Journal issue that dealt with homosexuality. It seems fire and brimstone has been raining down, along with KJV proof texts, ever since. Reg Killingley attempts to bring some sanity to the discussion.

As always, if you feel the need to keep abreast with developments in the fiefdoms and gulags of what some still call "Armstrongism", then The Journal remains your indispensable guide. Dixon Cartwright does a great job - in fact he deserves a medal for perseverance. The Connections ad section pays the bills, but be warned, unlike most of the editorial content, that stuff should - with the exception of the word search - carry a mental health warning.