Thursday 30 January 2014

Genesis - Racy Soap Opera?

When somebody mentions the book of Genesis, what do you think of first, and is your initial reaction positive or negative?

I'm probably like most ex-fundamentalists, thinking of the pre-scientific myths - Eden and the flood - and all the idiots who still imagine they're literally true. My knee-jerk reaction is definitely negative.

So it's a bit of a jolt to read a positive assessment of the old pot-boiler by someone who has never suffered "Answers in Genesis" syndrome. I'm referring to a posting by Caroline Blyth on the Auckland Theology blog.
Genesis is a fantastic biblical book to look at in depth with students and one of my favourite to teach – using the tools of literary criticism... The students are never bored, in my experience, and thoroughly enjoy probing and pondering what’s going on in this rollercoaster of a narrative. There’s more sex, action and drama than even the raciest soap opera; we read about the miraculous, the unbelievable, the cataclysmic, and the plain old bizarre... Genesis is a book that I think explores the human condition in all its fullness and frailty; in particular, its ancient authors seem at pains to articulate the complex and at times incomprehensible relationship that exists  between humanity and the divine. In my opinion, they do this incredibly well.
Genesis as literature is quite a different thing to Genesis as fuel for text-quoting literalists who advocate for creationism. Clearly the winds of enlightenment are blowing strongly through Theology 210/310 Genesis, and it's delightful to see Robert Alter's translation being used (one can only hope someone turns up with Robert Crumb's illustrated adaptation).

But, would somebody in the class please pass on this approach to the folk who run the Christian bookshops, stocking their shelves with moronic rubbish that perpetuates the reigning anti-scientific world view among those neither privileged nor predisposed to attend varsity classes? Once out of the academic environment, how many of these "never bored... probing and pondering" students will end up soft pedalling on their progressive understanding back in their churches, lest apple carts be upset?

Laying down that reservation, what do you think of the points Caroline Blyth makes? Can Genesis be prised from the clammy hands of Ken Ham, Ray Comfort and their ilk, or has the battle already been well and truly lost?

Wednesday 29 January 2014

The Oxford Comma

I loathe the Oxford Comma. Its presence in written texts is highly irritating, inept, inapt and unnecessary (note the absence of one of the little blighters after "inapt"). But then, I suppose I'm one of only a very few who gives the proverbial "continental" about such arcane matters.

What, you may ask, is the Oxford Comma?

The graphic explains all. It concludes that if you live in the United States, then you can use it with a clear conscience. This is wrong. You should never use it: period. Not even in Texas.

Monday 27 January 2014

Marijuana - the Herbal dissertation

A posting on Gary Leonard's excellent ex-WCG blog reminded me - for the first time in years - of this nifty little publication produced way back in 1970 by the "Ambassador College Research Department."

Yup, a copy of this fine title sat on my bookshelf at home when I was fifteen years old. It was the definitive statement on the issue, as far as I was concerned back then.

Not that I think smoking weed is a good idea even now. It's a dumb habit right up there with a host of others. But should it remain criminalised? I'm not so sure.

But regardless, inspired by Gary I went hunting for an online copy, given that my paper copy long ago disappeared. At least I think so. Tucked away at the bottom of a cupboard I have a morgue of ancient booklets, but digging it out is always a depressing prospect.

So here it is: a link to the text and, if you're so motivated, access to a PDF copy. Think of it as a period piece - a sectarian cultural artefact if you prefer - rather than a source of any kind of reliable information.

Ain't the Interweb wonderful!

Too bad if you live in India

Take a look at this smirking, be-suited reprobate.

The resemblance to Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars is striking. He is Marijn Dekkers, CEO of Bayer, and if there is a hell, he should get a front row seat.

Jim West points out coverage of this man's odious comments.
In 2005, the FDA granted approval for a promising new cancer-fighting drug called Nexavar. Bayer took it to market shortly thereafter, and it is currently an approved treatment for late-stage kidney and liver cancer.
That is, so long as you live in the developed world. In a recently published interview in Bloomberg Businessweek, Bayer CEO Marijn Dekkers said that his company’s drug isn’t for poor people.
“We did not develop this medicine for Indians…we developed it for western patients who can afford it,” he said back in December. The quote is quickly making its way across Indian news outlets.
The comment was in response to a decision by an Indian patent court that granted a compulsory license to a local company to reproduce Bayer’s drug. Under Indian patent laws, if a product is not available locally at a reasonable cost, other companies may apply for licenses to reproduce those products at a more affordable price. Nexavar costs an estimated $69,000 for a full year of treatment in India, 41 times the country’s annual per capita income.
In 2012, Indian pharmaceutical company Natco Pharma Ltd. applied for just such a license, and it was granted. The company began reproducing the drug at a 97 percent discount, offering it for just $177. Bayer has been appealing the ruling ever since, and in December Dekkers told Businessweek that he viewed the compulsory license as “essentially theft” before dismissing poor Indian cancer patients.
Pharmaceutical companies have long been accused of ignoring the plight of those who cannot afford their astronomical prices. In the United States, where insurance companies often pick up most of the tab, consumers are often shielded from the true cost of drugs they are prescribed (Nexavar, for example, costs as much as $96,000 in the United States, but Bayer ensures that eligible US patients only see a $100 copay).
Dekkers’ quote brings into sharp relief the industry’s general ambivalence towards the developing world. A 2012 report from Doctors Without Borders found that most pharmaceutical companies devote only a small fraction of their operating budgets to fighting diseases that disproportionally affect — and kill — millions of the world’s poorest people.
Good on India for promoting legislation to protect its people from predatory leeches. Pharmaceutical companies certainly have a right to recover development costs and turn a profit. They don't have a right to print their own money at the cost of misery for people who live in places Dekkers, in his smug ignorance, deigns merely to sniff at.

Friday 24 January 2014

Why it's hard to have a reasonable discussion with a fundamentalist

An interesting post on the self-reinforcing pocket universe of fundamentalism.

[The page URL was changed a few days after posting, meaning an error message came up when the link was clicked. This has now been fixed.]

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Anger of the Betrayed

One of the enduring themes in the comments sent to this blog is anger. Anger at a failed faith tradition. Anger at sectarian roots. Anger at the Bible. Anger at Christianity as a whole. Anger at religion in all its forms.

I sympathise. I too was duped by a manipulative Christian group run by - as I see it now - charlatans. But to be fair, in my naivete (I was a teenager when I was drawn in) it was my own, dumb choice. And the long period of disillusionment and then abandonment of that identity was (and still is) a massive learning experience that has helped shape me into the person I now am - hopefully for the better rather than worse. No, I'm definitely not grateful for the ride; I wonder what life would have been like if I hadn't "bought the ticket." These days though I prefer humour, reflection and a dash of reasoning, minus the polemic humbug... at least most of time, but I definitely know where people are coming from when they vent.

Where does that anger come from?

Elizabeth Drescher
Enter Dr Elizabeth Drescher from Santa Clara University. She's been researching that interesting group of people who, when asked what their religious affiliation is, reply "none".

Interestingly, about 70% of the 'Nones' come from a Christian background.

Drescher looked at the attitudes of Nones who came from various places in the Christian spectrum: Catholics, Evangelicals and Mainliners.

Former Catholics felt hurt and wounded by their church. Dr Drescher comments, "What they often told me was that they left the Catholic Church not so much due to a theological shift, but because 'something happened to me. My identity was not affirmed and that was painful.'"

'For Mainline Protestants, the theme is neither hurt nor anger, but a sense of ennui. They got it. They get that they’re supposed to be good to people, share what they have, do good in the world... One young woman told me, “I learned everything I needed to know there, I get it. I don’t need this in order to be a good person or in order to make sense of everyday life.” I hear this when I interview parents as well: “Our children will learn good values. Check. They've learned this, we can move on.”'

And then there are the Evangelicals, a term that more closely approaches the experiences of many readers of this blog.

"For Evangelicals, the theme that emerges consistently is anger. Many have felt that conservative evangelical teaching in regards to science, Darwinism, and the environment set them up to look foolish. They feel they were tricked. Some reason brings them to a place where they get more information and understanding about the world, and they feel like they were duped by the teachings in their traditions. They didn't need to be, but they feel they were set up to look like idiots and it makes them really angry."

Can you identify?

Of course, if you were involved in the lunatic fringe of evangelicalism, the full-on world-denying fundamentalist version which some of us know only too well, your reaction could well be even stronger.

Which brings us back to the anger expressed here. What do you think?

(In case you missed the link above to an interview with Elizabeth Drescher, here it is again.)

Monday 20 January 2014

Moving the Goalposts

John Loftus is an insightful individual and a fierce critic of Christianity in general and the Bible in particular. In a recent post he cries foul over conservative Christians "shifting the goalposts." It's a short piece which is worth reading in full.
Fundamentalist Christianity represents yesterday's conservative faith whereas Evangelical Christianity represents today's conservative faith...and the goal posts keep being moved. Evangelical Christianity therefore is the liberal faith that conservatives of yesterday rejected, while the Evangelical Christianity of the future will reject the theology of today's Evangelicals. Liberalism is the trend into the future. It's palpably obvious too.
Evangelicals in the eighties rejected Karl Barth, inclusivism, Hell as annihilation, the mythical interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, the late dating of 2nd Isaiah and Daniel, and they especially rejected evolution. These former Evangelical views are now being rejected by today's Evangelicals. The goal posts have simply been moved!
And of course he's right. But is this a problem?

Switch tracks to politics for a moment and think of the party you generally support. Are its specific policies different now from what they were a decade ago. Hopefully so! The world changes... and the pace of change is escalating. Keep up or become irrelevant.

What has probably stayed the same though is the general direction and values of your party of choice. If it stressed individualism and the work ethic as top priorities in 2004, it probably still does. If it stressed social harmony and equity in 2004... you get the idea.

Conservatism in particular is a moveable feast. Conservative in relation to what? If society's consensus moves, we pull up the tent pegs and move just a little further upstream... or downstream, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

Even in its monolithic days, Christianity was quick to change. If it hadn't it would have stayed as an obscure (and by now extinct) Jewish sect. No movement can 'freeze' in one position for all time. That's even more true today when a countless variety of sects compete for legitimate use of the title 'Christian'.

If there is a problem, it's in the cacophony of competing voices trying to assert what is essential in any definition of Christian. Being baptised with water? That cuts out all the nice people in the Salvation Army. Reciting the Nicene Creed? That excludes a thousand Pentecostal groups. Having a 'born again' experience? That leaves behind all those folk who know the limits of a metaphor.

To make one further small observation, it's also inaccurate to judge Christianity based on the forms you find dominant in your own culture. John Loftus is writing about the Evangelical/Fundamentalist phenomena in America. The view from Europe, for example, is somewhat different. The perspective he offers here, while true in as far as it goes, is a provincial one. The very word 'evangelical' means something quite different to millions of Christians - including not a few in the United States (which explains why the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America isn't 'evangelical' in anything like the sense he uses it).

Christianity is morphing, as it always has. No big surprise. What's the problem? The issue is whether it's changing quickly enough to survive.

To paraphrase John Shelby Spong, Christianity must change... or die.

Saturday 18 January 2014

A critical question from the UCG

Browsing through the postings on a totally non-COG blog, I found this ad from the nice people in the Aussie office of UCG (the United Church of God).

Click through and there's a promo for the free booklet Jesus Christ, The Real Story. No mention of the critical question that the ad poses though, which seems a bit of a cheat.

But look at the juxtaposition: married or... divine? Shouldn't that more logically be single? If this was written by a German theologian we'd expect a long, complex series of textual deliberations around the relationship between divinity and matrimony, with lengthy exegesis.

But this is UCG, so it just means their ad writer was out of the zone when he threw this one together.

"It does matter..."


"& there is proof!"

Proof of what? That Jesus was married? That he was unmarried? That he was divine?

Define "divine"?

Or more to the point, just what do you mean - proof? In this case it probably means the lads can chuck a few New King James "proof texts" together and run them up the flagpole.

See, it's all quite simple after all.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

What was "Pastor Tim" thinking... (updated)

I don't want to sound like a humourless old git.

But this guy has pushed the boundaries way too far, even if it was just a prank - which is what is now being claimed.

The congregation was "in on it." And the regular service did indeed follow immediately.

But that is hardly enough to undo the damage of a clip that went viral with no explanation.

Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.

More than that, ammunition has been given to the troglodytes who believe that mainline Christianity is a farce, and only Bible-believin' fundamentalism is gonna cut the mustard. The sneering contempt has in fact already begun. How do you fight an urban legend of your own creation? To continue with the metaphors, "Pastor Tim" shot himself in the foot, scored an "own goal"... How long before "Mugger" McCain of the Missouri Synod starts howling about this?

And all this kerfuffle over what? American Football! Dear lord, it would still be unacceptable even if it was a Rugby test match!

This dude needs to get his priorities sorted. Maybe he could start with a 10,000 word essay on 'professionalism', and then a multiple choice test on engaging one's brain before acting on a whim.

And his congregation thought this was okay? A laugh? Something that everyone would get a yuk from on YouTube? Gold Hill Lutheran may wish to consider changing their name to Laughing Stock Lutheran.

I'd be willing to bet that both they and their pastor have had time since to reconsider this "prank" in light of the publicity. I daresay the bishop has phoned in and the email feedback has been mountainous.

Of course Tim might find an alternate career path on the stand-up comedy circuit.

Monday 13 January 2014

Biblical Studies Online

Studying the Bible with someone who knew more than your pastor used to be an almost impossible ask for most folk. Deane Galbraith (Otago) and James Crossley (Sheffield) have risen to the challenge, creating an online resource where anyone can access some top quality material.
The goal of Biblical Studies Online is to provide both biblical scholars and the interested wider public with ease of access to quality biblical scholarship, as it comes available online.
More and more biblical scholarship is being published open-access and online – not only in traditional book form, but in a variety of media, including videos and sound recordings.
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to locate these resources on the internet, and sometimes difficult for those less experienced with biblical scholarship to distinguish worthwhile material from that which is inaccurate or even grossly misleading. And when it comes to the Bible, there is no shortage of the latter to be found. For this reason, Biblical Studies Online offers a gateway for the dissemination and publicizing of worthwhile open-access, online biblical scholarship.
It's only been up a day, but there's some good stuff there already. Avail yourself of some of these offerings (my recommendation: start with the very approachable BBC series hosted by Francesca Stavrakopoulou) and you could soon well know more than your pastor!

[The missing link has now been added above, and you'll also find it in the blogroll]

Pick and chew

Do we need one of these for bad Bible bits?
"The conservative Christian approach to Scripture has consistently led to conclusions and stances of which later conservative Christians are ashamed. When will there be an acknowledgment that it is the approach (the root) and not only the conclusions (the fruit) that are the problem?"

Thus asks James McGrath in a post well worth reading. He goes on to talk briefly about the problem with "picking and choosing" what we like out of the Biblical smorgasbord. And let's be honest, everyone does it, including the most wooden-headed biblical literalist. His alternative?

"Let's toss out picking and choosing, and substitute “picking and chewing.” We should take things in the Bible, and chew them over, but should feel under no obligation to swallow them rather than spit them out. And again, we should be ready to explain why we have done so."

The cartoon that accompanies his post illustrates the point beautifully.

Sunday 12 January 2014

The chaff flies in Livermore

Things got off to a shaky start for the BIsectual Church of God as it attempted to use ZOOM software to broadcast it's very important inaugural service live on the Internet. The sight of dark-suited old fellows looking puzzled. The sound of an un-muted dog yowling and some woman yelling "shut up" at someone in the background (hopefully not at her lord and husband!), pictures appearing sporadically on screen and then, the whole show closed down before it even began. Oh bother!

You'd think they'd have a teenager, or at least someone under 65, on hand to show them what to do, but alas not. They attempted to reboot the software and try again. Services were now twenty minutes behind schedule and counting. Perhaps David Hulme (PhD) had been praying mightily on this matter throughout the small hours of the night, and the Lord had indeed heard him.

"Is anyone there, hello?" A woman's voice (the "shut up" lady?) from the un-muted, unconnected virtual pews. "Hello?" No response. Twenty-five minutes in and still counting. Then ta-da, suddenly there we were at the end of the second hymn, with the chaff being "driven to and fro".

The number of brethren physically present in the room must have been few in number, judging from the singing, but we did now have both pictures and sound. Once again I was led to wonder about the technique song leaders in the COGs use in flapping their arms around.

The opening prayer called on God to help out with the media troubles. Apparently He was off duty up to that point. Ninety people were connected from afar as the sermonette began, the inspiring topic: what would you ask God if you could ask Him one question directly? I didn't get the name of the presenter, but he was clearly someone's grandpa. Just as we were getting a tribute to one of Herb Armstrong's books (I think it was The Incredible Human Potential) the sound went down. Another prayer answered?

The outage was temporary, and the sermonette continued, the bottom line being "we have the answers, keep calm and carry on."

Another hymn. In Thy Loving Kindness Lord. These song leaders really need to turn off their mics once the hymn begins.

Now the Strine voice of Brian Orchard. Announcements. Peter Nathan was blowing the trumpets over BI (British Israel) in the Friday night Bible Study. A church wide fast on February 1st.

Straight into the sermon. Orchard is no great shakes as a speaker, with a plodding, deliberate style. Lot's of proof-texting and page turning are required of those present before getting to any particular point, but it seemed it would be something on just rulership. Were Il Duce's ears already burning? If you don't know how a COG sermon works, the ground has to be laid in mind-numbing detail by dragging in as many isolated Bible verses as humanly possible.

It has now been an hour since the feed from the Hilton Garden Inn finally came through, so there's still a long way to go. Let's not kid ourselves, the reason everyone is listening to Brian is to hear the "big news", and the man will not be rushed. He's all over the place at the moment, and obviously doesn't have any idea what the word 'concise' means. At least those on ZOOM can take a break for coffee or a chocolate fix. There are now 93 on the feed.

One hour ten minutes in from the flying chaff and Brian seems to be getting to the point again. Organisation, governance. Hierarchical structure, submitting to one another. The example of marriage. Satan. "The husband is the connector between Christ and his wife." 

More diving off on tangents with not-so relevant texts turned up and read aloud. Small ZOOM dip to 90, at least some of whom must still be awake.

One and a half hours and Brian is still beating around the bush (and I'm considering a second coffee). Oh wait, he's starting to quote Mystery of the Ages. Yup, definitely another coffee.

"We have an enormous challenge in front of us." Brian feels a bit like Winston Churchill. God-family governance - a work in progress. They've been more authoritarian than shepherding. There's delegated authority. Hmm. Brian sounds a tad confused. More Bible quotes.

Hard yards. Hand to the plough. It's going to take a while (I think that means the ministers can't agree yet!) A mother-in-law joke. "There's a lot of work to be done."

Oh surely that's not it. No big announcement? Not even a new name? Classic fail. Closing hymn: I'll Sing of Mercy and not Justice. Only 84 endured unto the end - the closing prayer - on ZOOM.

It seems the departing BIsectual ministers are having trouble squeezing their oversize egos into a coherent programme. Could the shiny new vehicle have stalled at ignition. Oh dear, oh dear...

Saturday 11 January 2014

Ten reasons why the Bible is not inerrant

There's a lot of nonsense taught and believed about the Bible. John Petty has a nice article up on his blog entitled Top Ten Reasons Inerrancy Makes No Sense. Relevant to recent events reported here, these are John's concluding comments.
[O]ne of the biggest problems with inerrancy is that it gives too much support to hierarchical authority. The Bible is a complex book. Sometimes it seems contradictory. Sometimes it seems abstruse and esoteric. Sometimes it seems conflicted. Fundamentalist interpreters claim to understand it all, which gives the interpreters themselves an aura of inerrancy.
They are not.
John is a Lutheran pastor, so he isn't indulging in some kind of anti-Christian bluster, just making us all do some necessary thinking. It's a well written, well reasoned piece dealing with an issue that every "Bible believer" needs to come to grips with. If you find it helpful, pass on the link.

Journal details Hulmerless Drama

Dave Havir, in a major article in the latest issue of The Journal, provides details of events leading to the crumbling of David Hulme's splinter group, CoGaic (or CGIC, the acronym Havir prefers). The role of Steven Andrews, former general counsel and chief financial officer to the group is emphasised. Andrews appears to have precipitated the crisis with a letter to Il Duce in November in which he challenged Hulme's autocratic leadership style and openly questioned whether it complied with the sect's legal obligations: "under California law, the board of a Nonprofit Religious Corporation is the highest authority for the organization. No particular board member, including its Chairman, enjoys sole authority, and the authority of the officers of the corporation is subordinate to that of the board acting as a body."

Within ten days Andrews had been disfellowshipped, and (my interpretation of what followed) emboldened by the incident, the drooling ministerial pit-bulls began to bare their teeth at the hand that fed them.

The article includes a photograph of Hulme's house on Marengo Avenue in Pasadena, which also serves as church HQ. How convenient.

Il Duce was unwilling to respond to editor Dixon Cartwright's requests for comment.

Yes folks, if you ever wondered why The Journal remains a significant publication for the COG/ex-COG community... well, here's your proof.

Also in this issue:

  • a letter from former CoGaic member Sasha Veljic.
  • a weird opinion piece by John Sash on the canon.
  • more wrist flapping over the Lonnie Hendrix article (two issues back) on homosexuality. Included in the 'debate' is a reprint of Herb Armstrong's rant in a 1975 issue of The Plain Truth.
  • another piece by Dave Havir, this time on the subject of disfellowshipment. Good stuff. My only question, Dave, is what you mean by "God’s government on earth is found within the family: 1 Corinthians 11."
  • an extensive and respectful piece on Nelson Mandela drawing on the views of Daniel Botha.
  • mention of Gary Petty's new book, Plato's Shadow. Great title, too bad it's already been used. Anyway, this one's all about the Hellenisation of Christianity from a COG perspective. I'm curious, though, exactly what qualifications - other than being a UCG apologist - Gary has for writing a book like this.
  • the passing is noted of prolific Connections writer/advertiser Henk Jens.
  • a little extra detail on the Flurrydian fainting fit: Mr.Flurry’s fainting spell interrupted his sermon about a "new revelation from Ezekiel." Talk about divine intervention - how did I miss that! 
And of course, this issue is downloadable. The editorial content is priceless. The advertising section is, well, I guess it pays the bills. You can subscribe to the print edition for a modest price - details here.

Friday 10 January 2014

The Fantail

I've been spending some time in the back yard. It's a temporary dalliance that usually occurs at this time of year with the Summer weather and time on my hands. I get to pretend that I have some minor competence with a pair of secateurs, and resolve to take much better care of the section in the months ahead. Not that I'll ever be a gardener, and resolutions have never been my forte. The green thumb genes all went to my dear sister who has, with no exaggeration, a garden to die for... if you care to die for such things. I'm happy to settle for occasionally semi-tidy.

In the process of stomping around and alarming the vegetation, I've picked up a fan. A friendly fantail to be precise. Well, I know it's anthropomorphising (that's got to be someone's word of the week) but the adjective fits. Friendly, inquisitive, bold, curious, full of pep. Intriguing qualities in a little bird that's a good deal smaller than a sparrow. It swoops and flits around, alighting on nearby branches, gives me a good look over, and follows as I move from what I have pretentiously started calling "the breakfast patio" to the Congolese jungle that's been running riot out the back. It's almost impossible not to like the little fellow as it darts about, and the temptation is to engage it in a spot of light conversation. It seems only polite. More on that below.

Reality is a little less romantic. These tiny birds are short-lived - three years is thoroughly geriatric - and in summer they're busy raising one of up to four families, one after another, each with three or four chicks. The mission is to feed all those hungry mouths, which means flying around after bumbling humans like me in the very realistic hope that we'll disturb the insect life, thus pointing the way to the next meal. They also follow larger birds around for the same reason. Shy they are not.

For their size, they're pretty smart too. If a predator comes near the nest, the mother bird will feign injury in order to draw the attacker away from the chicks while Dad does the macho thing, aerial attack. They tend to be fascinated by windows. My little mate likes to get up-close and personal with the ranch-slider. Curiosity means they've been known to make 'flying visits' inside, so when it's around I've been keeping them closed for both our sakes.

New Zealand fantails (Piwakawaka) are a sub-species in the greater family of fantails, members of which are found in Australia, Samoa, Indonesia and, more surprisingly, Pakistan. But why bore you with dry facts. Would you believe that cross-species communication - of a sort - is indeed possible?
You can whistle your way into a friendship with a fantail by learning to talk like them. Fantails speak using a high-pitched sound. It is sort of like a kissing sound. You can create this sound by puckering your lips together, putting your finger in-between your lips and sucking in lightly. 
So now you know what I'll be trying tomorrow.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Biff! BAM! Bop! Pete comes out swingin'

A little insider perspective on the current conniptions rocking the Church of God, an International Community.
Our current debate is focused on government, and the government of the church has been misused to change doctrine to suit the whim of one man. Are we alert to the way in which our understanding of the teaching of God’s Word has been polluted and undermined? Almost every aspect has been undermined to suit the ‘look good’ approach of public relations. Is the Word of God intended to suit the whim of human beings? (source)
BI promoted in 1920, click for full text
Thus writes Peter Nathan. Doesn't sound a happy chappy, does he? And on BI?
Of recent date, we have seen an assault on our understanding of the role and identity of Israel in the end times as set out in prophecy. Doing some more research on this subject has reignited in me an apprecation [sic] of just how central this idea is to the role of the church in today’s world
Meanwhile, on the subject of BI, this clipping from the Auckland Star has been kindly forwarded. Published way, way back on May 29 1920, it outlines what BI enthusiasts, mostly dotty Anglicans, believed in pre-Herbal times (i.e. before Herb Armstrong appropriated it.)

I guess this stuff still passes for scholarship in the circles Peter Nathan moves in.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

The Gerry and Dave Show

It could be a rivetting year in the long-running soap The COGs Turn. Two new plot lines seem to be emerging, one around David Hulme PhD., and the other around Gerry "That Prophet" Flurry.

Dave is Il Duce of the Church of God, an International Community. Word on the grapevine is that there have been some high-level defections from this publicity-shy sect in recent days. Among those apparently to have fallen from grace, Brian Orchard and - say it ain't so! - Peter Nathan.

But why? Apart from his less than collegial style, one suggestion has been that Il Duce was preparing to dump the British-Israel doctrine. On the one hand this would be a smart move as BI is, let's face it, completely bankrupt of either biblical or historical credibility. On the other hand, as we all know, it's the "lost key to prophecy" in traditional COG circles. To abandon BI smacks of "liberalism" and, as we all should know dear brethren, liberalism in any form is Satan's leading strategy to destroy the Truth.

Oh my, where will it all lead for Vision, Dave and his former band of not-so Merry Men? What will Peter and Brian do? Could the new splinter, if there is one, really clone a dumb name like Church of God - A Family Community? C'mon guys, you can do so much better than this - how 'bout the BI-sectual Church of God?

Well, maybe not. In any case, stay tuned.

Meanwhile, back at the Oklahoma PCG compound, Super-Mega Prophet Gerry has had a nasty shock.
At approximately 2:35 p.m. CST (Jan. 4), Philadelphia Church of God Pastor General Gerald Flurry fainted briefly while giving a sermon to the headquarters congregation at Armstrong Auditorium. After awakening from the short fainting spell and being helped from the stage, the pastor general was anointed by his son, Evangelist Stephen Flurry. As he relaxed backstage, his color returned and he was able to catch his breath more easily. Approximately five minutes later, services were concluded with a hymn and closing prayer by Stephen Flurry. (source)
Just imagine what Packatollah Dave of the RCG will be making of all this. Then again, the Packatollah has his own problems...

Yes, it could be another fascinating season for fans of this iconic series. Stock up on the popcorn!

Monday 6 January 2014

Matariki FM

Another Summer listening station, Matariki FM in Rarotonga (the Cook Islands). This is a bilingual broadcaster - English and Cook Island Maori. Rarotonga has strong ties to New Zealand, and boasts a population of only about 11,000. The music mix includes Tahitian and other Pacifica material, as well as more standard fare. (Matariki refers to the Pelaides, hence the stars in the logo.) There's a live stream on the website, and of course it's available on Tune In.

So for those of you in the Northern Winter, sodden in Europe or shivering in North America, here's a free ticket to a slice of Pacific sunshine. Do click across,, if only to log your first website.

Saturday 4 January 2014

A Frit Suffolk Punch

Well, after all it's a new year, and it's nice to step aside from the usual blather for a moment and talk about a wonderful book. Nothing academic, and nothing to stoke your depression about matters deep or intellectually dubious. This is a children's book.

I like to think I recognise a good kids' book when I come across one, being of the "old school" that believes teachers of pre-teens should be sharing great stories with their charges on a daily basis. Over the years I've gathered a collection of tried and true tales which youngsters love, some of which have literally worn out with use. But it's always a delight to find something new to share. The essential key is that you, the adult who reads the book, have to have read and loved it first. Your enthusiasm is likely to be contagious. Even in this age of sophisticated entertainment, iPads and smartphones, it is still entirely possible to enthral a whole class of youngsters - up to eleven years and beyond - by catching them up in an imaginative narrative.

And if teachers can manage that, how much more parents and grandparents.

Which leads me to Michael Morpurgo's Not Bad For A Bad Lad. When a young fellow in post-World War II London gets a reputation for bad behaviour at school, he reacts by doing what many boys still do, living down to those expectations and getting himself in a great deal of strife. Leaving school at 14, he falls afoul of the law, and ends up detained in Borstal at Her Majesty's pleasure. But the Borstal stable manager decides to take a risk with the young troublemaker, and that's where the Suffolk Punch horses come in.

The story has a sound historical basis. Hollesley Bay Borstal did exist, and so did the stables and their Suffolk Punch horses. And the tale is told from the perspective of a grandfather (the 'bad lad' himself) writing to his grandson.
"This is the story of my life. I've written it so you'll know all the things about your grandpa that you've a right to know and that I never told you. There's no two ways about it: when I was young I was a bad lad. I'm not proud of it, not one bit. Grandma has been saying for quite a while now that it's about time I told you everything, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - before it's too late, she says. So here goes."
The illustrations by Michael Foreman are period pieces that add to the feel of a story set in decades past. Brilliant! Well under a hundred pages, so it's not likely to drag. As for 'frit', it's a colloquial term for frightened, and yes, I had to look it up.

(The American edition has a different cover from the one shown above, but is otherwise the same. Sadly it's not currently in print, but there's a Kindle edition available.

Highly recommended, and well worth the time - even if you haven't got a kid readily on hand to share it with.

You'll only encourage them...

One of the issues I never quite resolved in my days of doing the Ambassador Watch website and blog was whether writing about the weird and wonderful world of Armstrongism was simply giving some very unpleasant groups and their autocratic leaders unintended publicity. In particular, the really lunatic fringe ministries led by tithe-farming tyrants appeared to derive 'oxygen' from any kind of exposure to the limelight. Any publicity, they say, is good publicity.

Paranoia also seems to enjoy an airing. A negative article sometimes just feeds the delusion, not to mention the martyr complex. Arguing the point, or attempting to fight proof text with proof text, is invariably futile. Thus it ever was. Let's face it, people attach themselves to ministries like these out of more primal needs than reason and good sense.

The robber barons of "cogdom" continue to see their franchises crumble, and realistically there's no hope of coming back from this slow slide into oblivion. Some simply succumb to the effects of self-inflicted foot-in-mouth disease, setting dates, predicting events, and then losing credibility. In fact, these guys just can't seem to help themselves as they relentlessly follow the policy of "if at first you don't succeed..." Amazingly, a downsized core of ageing supporters always seems to remain, putting up the bucks to postpone the inevitable.

Then there's the mathematics of multiplication by division. A small sect is riven by discord and somebody goes stomping off to launch their own mini-me group. In the process some lucky few finally wise up and leave, while those remaining gather under competing flags. Add both memberships together and you still have less than you started out with.

For those members cemented into place the prognosis is not as good. The best strategy has always been to encourage such folk to read, to reflect, and expand their horizons beyond the group's propaganda. Not so easy, especially when the temptation is to follow the path of least resistance and simply move sideways into a kindred camp. At the end of the day though, they have the right to stay put and to have that decision respected.

So is it best to just ignore spiritual buffoons? In some cases I think so, particularly the one-man-band variety, micro-sects which most people, even those with family ties to the Empire, might otherwise never hear of. Larger groups - and again we're talking about those with abusive top-down structures - are acutely vulnerable to satire and humour. Pretentious dictator-types don't like being made fun of; they desperately want to be taken seriously. To play the role of the little kid in The Emperor's New Clothes often does more to deflate these pompous blow-hards than any amount of reasoning.

In 2014 we will - no doubt about it - see the sects of Armstrongism continue to score own-goals, to split, to make ridiculous claims, to play the fear card, to issue edicts to their much put-upon members; but the soap opera long ago was reduced to a farce. By the end of this year the decline will be further advanced, despite arrogant claims, posturing and preening by the various authoritarian leaders and their enablers. The more benign, collaborate groups - and there are a precious few - are unlikely to ultimately escape the demographic dementia, but can perhaps continue to provide some kind of acceptable safe harbour in the short term.

A Potted History of WCG

Virginia Commonwealth University sponsors a World Religions and Spirituality Project (WRSP) - an online resource on religious movements ranging from Adidam to Zoroastrianism, directed by David Bromley. Each section is authored by an academic who is qualified to comment. This makes it refreshingly different from the usual agenda-driven apologetic drivel that is common on the Web.

Given the readership of this blog, there is one particular entry that may be of interest.

Of course there's more available, but the only other COG currently covered appears to be a somewhat dated and formulaic piece on the PCG (April Seabrook, revised 2001). The project has its flaws - WCG isn't yet listed in the index for example - and coverage can hardly be called comprehensive (mainline churches seem completely absent thus far). Barrett's treatment of WCG is, however, as accurate and up to date as anything else you could find about WCG in such a concise form.

Friday 3 January 2014

The trouble with Romans 13

(This is a edited version of two posts from May 2012.)

The Bible has a lot to commend it, even if we can no longer regard it as infallible and inerrant, and beyond the impious questioning of mere mortals.  A favourite Gospel?  An inspirational voice of prophecy?  A storehouse of wisdom?  A charming novella? Yes!  I could easily make a case for Mark, First Isaiah, Sirach and Tobit (the last two among the deuterocanonical works).  There is indeed a place beyond naive biblicism where the power of these ancient books still works magic on cynical readers in a post-Enlightenment world.  As a cultural artefact, as literature, and as a witness to the faith struggle of those who went before us, this is a corpus that demands not obsequious worship, but simple respect, and I for one resist the call to join in the jabbering chorus of bah, humbug.

But, let's be honest, Mark Twain had a point.
It [the Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.  (Letters from the Earth)
Despite the desire of many well-intentioned scholars to rehabilitate the book of Revelation, for example, sane people find it a noisome bog, a place where many have succumbed to the basest, crudest and frankly stupidest speculations.  Call it the voice of the oppressed as much as you like, it still counts more as 'obscenity' than 'noble poetry'.  D. H. Lawrence summed up it's aberrant virtues better than most.
We can understand that the Fathers of the Church in the East wanted Apocalypse left out of the New Testament. But like Judas among the disciples, it was inevitable that it should be included. The Apocalypse is the feet of clay to the grand Christian image. And down crashes the image, on the weakness of these very feet. There is Jesus--but there is also John the Divine. There is Christian love--and there is Christian envy. The former would "save" the world--the latter will never be satisfied till it has destroyed the world. They are two sides of the same medal.
But what if you were asked to nominate the most disturbing chapter or section in the Bible?  The passage that has been the greatest force for evil, not good.  What would it be, and why?

Most of the passages that spring to mind tend to come from the Old Testament,  and there's certainly an awful lot to object to in the Hebrew canon, not least the famous 'waters of Babylon' psalm, Ps. 137.
O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!
Perhaps the concentration camp staff at Auschwitz comforted themselves with such verses.  Yet, in the context of other ancient literature, this is hardly uncommon.  Brutal times draw forth brutal literature, and that includes scripture with its vile "imprecatory psalms".  But not just the Bible. I recollect being scandalised by a passage in the Bhagavad-Gita many years ago, every bit as contemptuous of human life as anything you'd find in the Hebrew Bible.  Viewed as god-breathed holy writ such passages are an abomination, but seen as examples of national literature at a time of robber-baron royalty... not so much of a surprise. 

My own nomination, seemingly far more benign, comes from the pen of Paul the apostle:  Romans 13:1-5.
13 Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established. People who take this kind of stand will get punished. The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. Would you rather not be afraid of authority? Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval. It is God’s servant given for your benefit. But if you do what’s wrong, be afraid because it doesn’t have weapons to enforce the law for nothing. It is God’s servant put in place to carry out his punishment on those who do what is wrong. That is why it is necessary to place yourself under the government’s authority, not only to avoid God’s punishment but also for the sake of your conscience.

So what's the problem? This is a licence to do nothing in the face of injustice.  More than that, it is a churchly sanction not only to do nothing, but at minimum to give tacit support to evil.  If it had been taken seriously there would have been no American Revolution, no civil rights movement, no overthrow of dictatorships, no emancipation from slavery, no democracies.  In short, no progress.  Adhere strictly to Paul's advice and we'd all still live in feuding totalitarian states, sanctified societies where the church counsels its members to quietism; sit down, shut up and do whatever you're told

The ideal society of Romans 13 would look a lot like Nazi Germany, or, given its provenance, the Roman Empire. 

And yes, it was indeed a popular passage in Nazi Germany.  Did you have qualms of conscience about disappearing Jewish neighbours, conscription into the Wehrmacht, the euthanizing of the mentally unfit?  Go read Romans 13!

From here we move out into the nightmare nonsense of Augustine's two cities and Luther's two kingdoms, the lethal concept of "left hand of God."  Truly this is a very, very long way from the teachings of Jesus.  

And we have Paul to thank for it.

The theological games played in much of English-speaking Protestantism have never impressed me greatly, and as regular readers know, I have a deep and irrational loathing of the Reformed variety.  And yet it has been primarily in the grey murk of Anglo Protestantism that slavish obsequiousness to the demands of the state - the Pauline imperative in Romans 13 - has been de-emphasised.  It has been here that non-conformism found a voice, and a prophetic stance against the state made not only possible but acceptable and valued.  If for nothing else one is moved to say, thank God for the Methodists.

Yes, Romans 13 seems patriotically inocuous at first, but read with the standard set of assumptions (sadly, the most natural reading) it brims with the potential for the bitterest fruit of human oppression - authorised and enforced by God.  Paul is not talking about a liberal democracy like Sweden or New Zealand;  his point of reference is the iron grip of Rome.  What was Paul thinking when he wrote "The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing... Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval."  Did he not know that the Empire had executed Jesus?  The irony is that, according to legend at least, he too was soon to be crushed under the boot of "God's servant."

Surely no thinking person today could accept the implications of this passage.  

There may be other ways of reading the five verses.  But even if Paul (assuming Paul did write them, and it's not an interpolation) was talking about something other than the obvious, that would not erase two thousand years of damnable precedent. 

Two thousand years and counting.