Saturday 30 August 2014

Elmer and the Evangelicals

This e-card was posted by Allen Dexter on FB with the comment: Exactly! I didn't have the stomach for it!

While I don't apply the "A word" to myself, I absolutely know what he means. There are good, decent Christian ministers out there, individuals who live lives of amazing integrity. Then there are the parasites and Elmer Gantry clones. Sadly, the balance seems to have shifted significantly in favour of the latter group. Witness the ongoing revelations over the "abusive, coercive ministry culture" of Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll. No wonder the word 'evangelical' has increasingly become a synonym for sliminess.

Rule of thumb: if it's a happy-clappy "pastor-knows-all" kind of church - grab your brain back as you exit the building and don't walk, run!

Friday 29 August 2014

Ted says something that makes sense!

I don't often agree with Ted Johnston over at The Surprising God blog.

In fact, I don't think I've ever found anything Ted has written that I cared to take seriously.

But here's the exception that proves the rule. The dumb idea that Christians must be either Calvinist or Arminian. Ted debunks that rather stupid notion thusly:
Unfortunately, some try to force-fit Trinitarian theology into the continuum that exists between Calvinism  and Arminianism. Doing so overlooks (or at least oversimplifies) the history of Christian theology, which goes back to the Apostles and from there flows in multiple streams, including Orthodox streams in the East; and Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopal and other streams in the West.
Contrary to common misunderstandings held by some (many?) Western Protestants, Calvinism and Arminianism are not the only theological "games in town." Trying to locate Trinitarian theology within the continuum between those dueling [sic] theologies is like trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole. The result, often, is badly misinformed criticism of Trinitarian theology.
In a recent post on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) professor Douglas Sweeney showed how trying to fit Lutheran theology into the Calvinist-Arminian continuum is a similar mistake. He concludes the blog post, titled "Was Luther a Calvinist?" with these words:
The wrong thing to that Lutherans are hesitant Calvinists, or two-and-a-half-point Calvinists, or imperfect Arminians. Lutherans are Lutherans. Their theological frame of reference is not closely related to the Calvinist-Arminian continuum. Lutherans have their own theological history, one that has contributed in major ways to the evangelical movement. 
There are, of course, similarities between all Christian theologies. Trinitarian theology does have common ground with Calvinism and Arminianism. But there are important differences. We do an injustice to all theologies when we try to force them into the grid of another. Instead, we should evaluate each one on its own merits, comparing it principally to the revelation of Jesus Christ himself.

You can read the whole post here.

Of course, predictably, Ted then goes off in the direction of Barth and Torrence, but that doesn't invalidate his initial comments, despite the fact that his use of the term "Trinitarian theology" in the posting - by which he means the distinctive dogmas that Grace Communion International now champions - is mildly sectarian. Granted that, I don't know how often people have insisted on shoehorning each and every variety of Christian belief into this myopic either or Calvinist Arminian construction. It's nice to see a contrary view stated with a measure of clarity.

Thursday 28 August 2014

G'day Jim

The last time I saw Jim Bennett it was, I think, sometime in the 1980s. Jim was an Ambassador College graduate who, although not ordained, had returned to New Zealand to work in the WCG office. The trouble was that Jim was the kind of bloke who thought for himself, and he knew stuff that most members weren't aware of. That wasn't exactly a positive career move and Jim, like some of the other Kiwi members who knew too much for their own good, looked around for a more ethical option.

Back in those days we were still a bit naïve, and the gut-wrenching revelations about what lay beneath the carefully crafted PR veneer were only just emerging. David Robinson's book was released about that time, Garner Ted was busy building his Church of God International, and Ernie Martin's booklets were circulating widely. Even more importantly in those pre-Internet days, John Trechak was mailing out his Ambassador Report. AR was the only real source of credible information on the WCG, and needless to say he was demonised for it.

Then the Receivership Crisis erupted, Stan Rader rose to the top of the muck pile, Wayne Cole was shoved on the Ambassador Auditorium stage by an enraged Roderick Meredith, and Herb Armstrong declared himself an unaccountable corporation sole.

Great fun.

Jim was the leading figure in establishing the CGI in New Zealand. After visiting the Tyler HQ however, he returned a wiser man, convinced that the old leopard (Ted) wasn't about to change its spots. The Kiwi CGI then morphed into an independent group seeking affiliation with the Denver based COG7. I say with some sheepishness that while Jim was chairman of that embryonic little Auckland congregation, I was the secretary.

But the wind blew and the dissidents scattered. Armed with a degree from Auckland University (his Ambassador degree wasn't considered worth the paper it was printed on) Jim moved down country to the Bay of Plenty to pursue a career teaching high school economics and geography. One couple returned to their Seventh Day Baptist roots, others went who knows where, and I picked up a teaching position in the Taranaki. The tiny Auckland church didn't last. In retrospect I'm tempted to add "thank God."

I saw Jim again tonight. He was the first video questioner on the leaders' election debate on TV1. Jim is one of the few people I know of who moved out of the WCG ghetto to become a political activist on the left (on the right they seem to be a dime a dozen). A founding member of the now defunct Alliance, and a Labour stalwart, he famously stood for parliament for the Alliance and then ended up marrying the Labour candidate. That was a long time back, but clearly he is still fighting the good fight after all these years.

And all power to him.

"Live Update" clip from TV1 website

Monday 25 August 2014

Discern - "The Trumpet" lite

Discern is the magazine you're having without having a magazine. Subscribing means downloading what looks like yet another 30 year-old Plain Truth clone in PDF format. So, without further ado, knock yourself out on the latest issue.

Considering the fiasco that precipitated the formation of Discern's sponsoring church body, it seems somewhat amusing that there's a feature article on "Dealing With Difficult People." Dear old Paul Luecke has an article addressing the all important question of how you keep your kids safely dumb and ignorant on the subject of evolution. There's a slap-back piece on an upcoming Left Behind movie, and Neal Hogberg bemoans secularisation in Britain with a rant entitled "The Island That Forgot God."

But wait, there's more! Jim Franks has a major rehash on the Holy Days and what they mean according to the standard Church of God interpretation which, while hardly credible, can at least be described as imaginative.

The layout is good, the graphics are nice. But is anyone paying attention? Discern is The Trumpet lite.

The Philadelphia Trumpet - affectionately known by many as "The Strumpet" - is the banshee-mad monthly mag of the seriously worrisome Philadelphia Church of God.

Sunday 24 August 2014

Deep Breath

James McGrath is a Doctor Who fan as well as a perceptive biblioblogger. Well, I have a couple of minor reservations about his ongoing crusade against all forms of Jesus mythicism, but let's set that aside for a moment.

In his latest post James is gushing about the first episode in the new Whovian series. Yes, there's a new Doctor, an ill-fated dinosaur, missing body parts, spontaneous combustion and a particularly unlikeable cyborg menace. All of this set in a nineteenth century Conan-Doyle version of London. Ugh!

Despite all that, it's not very memorable. I say that because I watched the complete Deep Breath series strung together on the big screen this afternoon, and I've already blanked it out. Riveting? Not quite.

I say series, but I guess I mean the first story line - four or five episodes. There are two more beyond that, beginning with a re-emergence of the Daleks (there was a teaser at the end). Will that appear in the theatres too? Don't know and won't be losing much sleep over it.

Who first had the bright idea of bunging the episodes together and chucking them into a faux-movie format? Dunno. The 'movie' is screening here even before it hits the small screen as "series 8" on Prime. Does it translate well onto the big screen? Well, kind of, as long as you're not expecting panoramic views and zillion dollar effects; this is, after all, British television. Oh, and the interior of the Tardis has had a makeover... tempting to now call it the Retardis... but that would be churlish.

Gotta be honest, Peter Capaldi seems a flaky choice for the new doctor. Perhaps he's supposed to add a dose of gravitas. He's definitely a change from the young blokes on steroids who've featured recently. Capaldi - who has appeared before in Doctor Who, but in a supporting role - is a older, wrinklier retread of the much-morphed Time Lord. Not so much on steroids as double-shot caffeinated.

Anyway, Deep Breath at least provided some light escapist relief from the election campaign...

Saturday 23 August 2014

Who Killed the Worldwide Church of God? Part 2

Herbert Armstrong was a remarkable man. It takes a remarkable individual to found a successful new religious movement. In that same sense Ellen White was remarkable, as were Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy and Judge Rutherford.

Obviously 'remarkable' doesn't mean unique.

While he lived Armstrong ran a tight ship. He was a paranoid leader exercising sole authority. His own unyielding doctrines were enforced. But when it became inconvenient for the great man himself, however, such doctrines could be speedily flushed. Medical intervention, coffee on the Day of Atonement, D&R, interracial marriage, makeup (oh the lure of Ramona's painted toenails!)

At the end of the day it was all about Herb. He was the measure of all things. Anyone who got in the way, including family members, was expendable.

After building his empire - an empire that seemed rock solid for decades - Herb Armstrong failed to ensure its survival. He totally failed to see - perhaps refused to see - beyond his own lifetime. He built on sand. As David Barrett has clearly documented in The Fragmentation of a Sect, there was no clear line of succession.

How could there be? He was the sole apostle, the End Time apostle. As Louis XV was reputed to say; "Après moi, le déluge" (after me, the deluge).

And a deluge there was, though on a more limited scale than the anticipated Great Tribulation. This deluge merely washed away all the hard-won baubles of Herb's apostleship.

Armstrong dismally failed to ensure any enduring heritage. He surrounded himself with Yes-men. Anyone with the talent to take the movement on beyond his death was purged. They were seen as threats.

The failed prophecies of 1972 and the rebellion of '74 had shaken the organisation, but did little permanent damage. The debacle of Ted's ouster in 1978, followed by the receivership crisis - the church emerged more or less intact. In fact it then continued to grow in spite of scandals, defections and the brilliant journalistic endeavours of John Trechak. But it couldn't survive Herb's passing.

At this distance out most of us are probably grateful the Worldwide Church of God disintegrated. But the cost to many was huge, the collateral damage intolerable.

The Internet age may well have speeded up the process, but the rot was evident even before Bill Ferguson, Mark Tabladillo, The Painful Truth, the so-called Exit & Support Network (and shortly thereafter Ambassador Watch) came on the scene. The die was already cast.

Who killed the Worldwide Church of God? In my view, not Ted, not Stan, not Spanky. Not even Tkach, junior or senior. And brethren, it wasn't 'Satan' either!

It was Herb Armstrong.

Monday 18 August 2014

Who killed the Worldwide Church of God? Part 1

I've been commenting on the bizarre, faction-ridden world of 'Armstrongism' for more years than I care to remember. The reality, through all the pain and division, posturing pastoral prima donnas and autocratic imitators, has been that the movement has been in relentless demographic decline; despite the ongoing soap operas, ministerial drama queens and slick, expensive media promotions. For those of us once invested in the Churches of God the passing decades have provided a combination of entertaining farce and chronic unease. Either way, it's been hard to ignore.

But it's impossible to deny the inevitable. Armstrongism - that particular strand of Sabbatarian Christianity that looks back to Herbert Armstrong as its founder - is now little more than a minor footnote on the pages of American church history.

The front page of the latest Journal illustrates the decline. In the face of dwindling numbers, competing sects are now cooperating. The Journal even uses the term 'ecumenical' (!) to describe recent funeral services which included "speakers and moderators" from more than one COG group. It's a sure sign that the rapidly greying constituency is looking backwards, not forwards.

Meanwhile in Chicago two COG congregations are in the process of merging. Merging! Imagine that. This is, after all, a movement that famously multiplies by dividing. The fires are burning ever lower.

It is often a quiet desperation that brings feuding family members together. The Armstrong sects are fading into complete irrelevance. The game is up, and misery must seek company and comfort where it can.

What a contrast to the high profile years of the past when almost everybody in the US was exposed in some way to the Worldwide Church of God - then a rigorously monolithic single-brand - through its cutting-edge media in radio, television and print.

Of course there are still buffoons loudly prating about their own sole legitimacy. But does anyone take them seriously as they stumble from one back-down to another? These are not vibrant faith communities but side-shows in a small-town circus. How many will still be around in ten years time?

So who if anyone is to blame? Who killed the Worldwide Church of God? Tkach Senior? Tkach Junior? Rader? Garner Ted?

Some further thoughts next time...

A Nice Seventh-day Adventist Blogger

Slater and PM Key
Things have been a bit quiet around here over the last couple of weeks. The drought is about to break with a triptych of posts inspired by the latest issue of The Journal. But before that, I want to chuck one out there for my fellow Kiwi readers - this time with a (rare) political slant.

Like a lot of other folk in Godzone/Aotearoa (let the reader understandeth) I've been eagerly awaiting my copy of Dirty Politics by Nicky Hager. Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past week (or live somewhere other than New Zealand) you'll know what I'm talking about.

Given my own past background in a Sabbath-keeping church, perhaps it's not surprising that I took a double-take when I got up to page 26 of the Hager book this afternoon. It turns out that foul-mouthed blogger Cameron Slater, a major subject of the Dirty Politics exposé, is a Seventh-day Adventist.

You know, Seventh-day Adventist, the nice folk who go to church on Saturdays, take the Bible literally, believe the universe is only 6000 odd years old, advocate vegetarianism and abstain from smoking and alcohol.

I've known a few SDAs over the years and yup, they're invariably conservative politically. Good on them. They're also been people of integrity, polite, restrained and principled. Those are not qualities that describe Slater whose "Black Ops" rhetoric defies anything remotely 'Christian'.

Thinking Hager perhaps had it wrong, I hit Google and came up with this quote from a 2010 interview with Herald writer Michele Hewitson.
He is a Christian who goes to meetings at a Seventh Day Adventist church. If you accuse him of not behaving in keeping with the tenets of Christianity, you have the wrong idea of what Christians are supposed to be like. Which is "that there's a whole lot of nice people running around and hugging each other".
He's not a sissy sort of Christian then. He gave me a lesson on the disciple Paul who was a "zealot, an enforcer". He said: "I'm not comparing myself with Paul, just in case you're thinking about writing that."
Anyone who uses language like c*** and f*** as often as Slater does, who deliberately sets out to destroy those whose political views differ from his own, who vilifies them as 'scum' ... this is a Christian?

I warmly recommend Hager's book. Don't believe for a minute the spin John Key is trying to put on it. Cuddling up to someone like Slater was a dumb move from the start.

The Teflon Prime Minister may just have lost his non-stick coating. At the very least it's badly scratched.

Saturday 2 August 2014

The Wright Stuff

I downloaded my 'Statement of Accomplishment' from Coursera the other day, having completed the Emory University offering "The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future".

Taught by the very articulate (and sartorially flamboyant) Jacob Wright, this was my first encounter with MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses. It was an interesting experience, and I'd be up for it again if something similar comes along.

  • it was completely free
  • it was accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the Internet. How remarkable is that!
  • there was a generous time frame to view lecture segments and complete quizzes
  • any course at this level is usually under-girded with sound scholarship (and this one certainly was)
  • it provided a dash of intellectual ginger, coming from a perspective I might not have otherwise encountered, providing an intriguing balance between Jewish and Christian approaches, something that must have been a bit of a shock to some of the more earnest Bible-belt students
And yes, the positives definitely outweighed the negatives. I guess my chief reservation was that Dr Wright, despite his impressive scholarship and a nuanced approach, was nonetheless articulating a fairly Pollyanna-like, exceptionalist view of the Hebrew Bible. I don't really think you come to that kind of conclusion apart from a pre-existing commitment, whether cultural or religious. But then, hey, what do I know.

One thing intrigued me about some of my fellow students; an often-expressed "yes, but" reaction to the more challenging information they were encountering. Yes, the Bible might not be quite as inerrant as I thought it was, but you really need to read this particular apologetics website to get a different (i.e. more 'correct') slant on things.

One woman even posted a link to a United Church of God booklet! Gimme a break!

It's a bit like getting a concession from your brother-in-law that his political opinion might be potentially flawed based on the hard evidence. You feel good that you carried the argument, but know beyond any shadow of doubt that he'll still vote the same old way regardless. (I hasten to add that my brother-in-law is not in mind, being an eminently reasonable, enlightened and open-minded bloke.) But for others, praise be, these sorts of experiences create a wedge, ready to - at the appropriate time - crack open their thinking to new possibilities.