Saturday 31 May 2014

Believing Atheist

Frank Schaeffer's book, Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God, is available right now free on Kindle. But be quick, it's a special offer that expires tomorrow.
Caught between the beauty of his grandchildren and grief over a friend’s death, Frank Schaeffer finds himself simultaneously believing and not believing in God—an atheist who prays. Schaeffer wrestles with faith and disbelief, sharing his innermost thoughts with a lyricism that only great writers of literary nonfiction achieve. Schaeffer writes as an imperfect son, husband and grandfather whose love for his family, art and life trumps the ugly theologies of an angry God and the atheist vision of a cold, meaningless universe. Schaeffer writes that only when we abandon our hunt for certainty do we become free to create beauty, give love and find peace.
Schaeffer is the son of the late Calvinist guru Francis Schaeffer, much hyped author of the awful How Should We Then Live, which did the rounds when I was still in short pants. He initially followed in his dad's footsteps... until he wised up. You can find an interview with Schaeffer over on the Sojourners site.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Now this looks interesting...

Emory University is offering an on-line seven-week course on "The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future" taught by Prof. Jacob Wright. You can either participate for free, or pay a little to gain a certificate. It looks worthwhile, and apparently doesn't demand any particular prior knowledge. I haven't even considered any MOOCs up till now, but am considering this one. Thanks to The Biblical Studies Online blog for drawing attention to this offering.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Clouds of Bulldust Over Dunedin

Kevin Clements
Not so long ago a forum - it certainly wasn't a debate - was held at the University of Otago in Dunedin, with the "fair and balanced" title "Holy Wars and Holy Peacemaking: The Dangerous Myth of Religious Violence." It's available to view online, and I decided to give it a go, partly because one of the contributors was Murray Rae, who I remember vividly - if not appreciatively - through a couple of his ethics papers which I took while pursuing my degree there.

The title was a fair indication of much of the content. A very nice Muslim Palestinian woman, Mai Tamimi, who made some valid points, but often seemed to be in the wrong discussion; another guy who had nothing particularly worthwhile to say; Rae, and Kevin Clements all performing under the benevolent Buddha-like smile of moderator Andrew Bradstock. Each of these worthies is a bearer of the professorial office at Otago.

Thank You-Know-Who that Clements was there to rescue the whole enterprise from becoming a waffle-laden celebration of denial. The task seemed to be to muddy the waters sufficiently so that the whole nasty issue could be set aside as a delusion of those wicked New Atheists. A couple of very brief quotes:
"Christianity is defined by the life and teaching of Jesus." (Murray Rae)
[My comment: since when? Which of the teachings of Jesus are referred to in the Nicene Creed, for example?]
"Given the clarity of Jesus' teachings..." (Andrew Bradstock)
[My comment: clarity? The only clarity is that which is imposed from the outside, which is why different people stress different texts, most of which most certainly do not come from the historical Jesus to begin with.]
In my view Clements, who hails from a Quaker background, was the only one to make much sense (too bad he wasn't the one teaching those ethics papers). Rae however came close to descending into apologetics, proof-texting, and cherry-picking his way through Christian history, even stooping to use the perverse Psalm 137 defence (you know, the passage about smashing babies' heads against rocks) which attempts to re-contextualise it into an enlightened initiative!

Recommended only for the hardy few.

Tuesday 20 May 2014


It's defined as "the quality of destroying the meaning of a word" (Chambers Dictionary). Someone who commits this travesty can also be described as 'a verbicide'. It's not included in every dictionary, but it is listed with Chambers, and constitutes a nifty valid choice for Scrabble players. Merriam-Webster notes that it made it's debut way back in 1858.

I'm not sure why you'd want to use it though, when there's an excellent word already out there that covers the meaning perfectly, and has graced the English language since at least the 14th century.


Theology, of whatever variety, is all about semantics, in this case the art of reinterpreting words to mean something that lay well beyond the worldview or intention of the authors. This is supposed to be a profoundly insightful process.

Alternately you could call it a nonsense. 

Of course there are classy new terms that have been invented to explain and justify verbicide. Okay, words do shift in meaning over the years, and dictionaries convey the current consensus rather than any eternal iron-clad exactitudes, but deliberate deconstruction is something else again, palatable only over a second glass of Chardonnay while lying back in a hot tub and smoking something that may or may not be legal in your jurisdiction. 

My problem is that I prefer black beer to white wine. 

Theological systems are castles built on very thin cloud. The logic is self-referential, enabling Tarzan-like leaps from assumption to improbability on vines of dogma. There's less spiritual insight than self-delusion in that enterprise.

Theology was once known as the queen of the sciences, but the old bird has seen better days. If it is a science, it's unlike any other, beyond any testable hypothesis, and without any agreed meaning to much of the technical verbiage that accompanies it. 

So next time you come across a worthy theologian torturing a word like 'resurrection' into metaphorical bumpf, think verbicide. It may not be in your Oxford or Collins. But it should be.

Saturday 17 May 2014

Of Priesthood and Princes

'The priesthood of all believers' is one of the most radical of Reformation doctrines. Surprisingly, it is that old conservative Luther who usually gets the credit. The idea is that, whereas in the Old Testament there was a distinct class of hereditary priests - a distinction adopted and adapted in pre-Reformation Christianity - under the New Covenant (1 Peter 2:9) all baptised Christians properly hold priestly responsibility.

The implications were - and are - stunning, and completely lost on many hierarchical pseudo-Protestant sects. Who decides what counts as a tithe? Who determines whether it's okay to watch TV after church? Who decides on such weighty matters as fish on Friday, or matzo in the Eucharist? Ultimately it devolves down to the believer (or more properly the specific gathered community to which he or she belongs). There is no elite class, no pope or apostle, to which all such matters must be referred to for an iron-clad ruling.

This was intended as a body blow to the Roman church. But I hadn't thought any further about Brother Martin's intentions beyond this. And in the raw it's an excellent principle, especially when applied to megalomaniacal Bible bashers. Think Flurry and Meredith (or Houston and Tamaki for that matter).

But alas, such far-sighted idealism was far from Luther's intent. Recently Bob Price pointed out that the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was intended to empower the German princes who were backing the Reformation. Most certainly not the garden-variety believers, and not primarily the pastors and teachers, let alone the great unwashed peasantry ("murderous thieving hordes" said Luther) who were merely trusted to memorise the pabulum of the Small Catechism. No, it was all about political realities. A dire situation required that the Electors and princes of the Empire 'man-up' and tear free of Rome. For the nobility this would have been a frightening prospect, an extreme risk to their souls and an usurping of rightful religious authority. Luther's message was basically, "no worries!" Anything the purple-clad princelings of the church could do could equally be done with good conscience by the German nobility who constituted the 'left hand of God'.

What the Great Reformer didn't realise was that the concept would grow legs and be applied beyond it's intended audience, feeding out into the general process of democratisation. The petty tyrants of the European principalities have long since turned to dust, Gott sei dank. It was a prospect that sent Luther into conniptions.

The implications continue to echo down the centuries, as sweet as any rendition of Ein feste Burg.

Friday 9 May 2014

Why do people leave the church?

What a lot of arrant bulldust some people write on this question.

Especially ministers "in the trade".

The latest to loudly sound forth with pious expectorations on this matter is Baptist Über-blogger Jim West.

Now Jim is no fundamentalist-biblicist dilettante, and I freely confess to being a regular and mostly appreciative reader. But when it comes to social issues, in this case the decline in church attendance, Brother West is anything but reflective.
"First, people leave the Church because – as Jesus explained in his parable of the seed – they have no spiritual depth and let other concerns dominate their lives..."
He goes on to quote the parable about seed on rocky ground.
"And second, more tragically, some folk leave the Church because in their hearts they were never really there in the first place, never really committed to God but simply appearing to be in order to profit from their appearance in the congregation."
I feel like throwing up.

It's got nothing at all to do with the church and it's irrelevancy issues in a post-modern world. Nothing to to do with the horrendous track record of the various Christian denominations, or the slimy high-profile evangelists who are increasingly the public face of the church. 

Jim might rub his noggin ever so many times without coming anywhere near the conclusion that many good folk transition to ex-Christians because it has become an unavoidable ethical imperative; an integrity issue. They do it - often with deep regret - because, in a sense, it's the Christian thing to do.

But nope, if you leave it's obvious you had a "factory second" faith from the get-go. Y'all didn't pray hard 'nuff. Chances are you were just plain lazy. Your motives were, at best, mixed to begin with. You can almost sense the shadowy figure of Calvin, grinding his teeth and gloating in the background. 

And while the mullahs of the Bible Belt maintain this self-justifying, sanctimonious feel-good fiction, there's absolutely no chance that the church will come to terms with the underlying realities that are rapidly pushing it to the fringes of the modern world.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Winging it with Paul the Apostle

The letter [Romans] has spawned an immense corpus of scholarship, largely because Paul is not entirely clear... he seems to be working it out as he goes along.
When Paul uses scripture in his letters, only in part can it be seen as an abstract theological reflection. Primarily its use must be seen as rhetorical; he cites scripture because he thinks that it will prove his point to his audience.
... some of his interpretations are so strained that he seems to be counting on the fact that his audience gives authority to scripture but does not actually know it well enough to take apart his arguments.
Few listeners would have heard a verse [cited by Paul], thought that it conflicted with a version of the verse that they knew, and then gone to consult the appropriate written text to check. "Scripture" primarily circulated in oral form.
We do not know if Paul's audiences would have understood or been swayed by what would have seemed to them his odd use of scripture. It may well have been Paul's charisma that gave him authority in these communities rather than his intellectual virtuosity.

Michael Satlow's book on How the Bible Became Holy deserves a detailed review, and I want to focus in a later posting on his intriguing account of the separate development of normative scripture in both Hasmonean Judea and the Diaspora. I've been chugging my way through, a chapter at a time, and become riveted by his reconstruction. As an appetiser, and somewhat peripheral to his main thrust, these "don't hold back" statements all come from chapter 12, "Paul: Jerusalem and Abroad, 37-66 CE".

Thursday 1 May 2014

Weighting on the Lord

What is it about this painting by Colombian artist Fernando Botero (title: Crucifixion with Soldier) that jars so? There have been a zillion icky icons and portrayals of Jesus on the cross, most of which are meant to convey a devotional response. But this?

Artist: Sofia Minson
You can picture the man from Galilee as Nordic, Black, Asian or Māori and nobody much cares. Occasionally someone gets really radical and gives him Jewish features! Today's iterations of Jesus are above all inclusive, and we can all feel warm, cuddly and affirmed. Yet in our overweight age, when do you ever see a podgy Prince of Peace? He is said to have been tempted in all the ways we are but, let's face it, there were no super-size burger, fries and cola deals back then to lure him and the lads into Nazareth's Carl's Jr. Inclusiveness only goes so far.

An article in the May issue of White Paper (from whence cometh the photograph) asks about the relationship between body image and Christianity. It's something most of us have probably never thought about. Maybe we should.

Botero is probably aiming a dig at the Catholic art of his native land, but he undoubtedly raises eyebrows equally on folks of other Christian backgrounds. So what do you think?