Tuesday 30 September 2014

Tunnel Vision

The latest issue of David Hulme's magazine, Vision, features a satellite image of my home patch, Auckland. Exactly why isn't immediately clear, but hey, does anyone care? Hulme is leader of the now somewhat downsized Church of God - an International Community, a secretive spin-off from the Worldwide Church of God that recently witnessed a significant exodus of ministers and members.

Inside Vision writer Gina Stepp focuses on the theme of bullying, and there's an interview with a developmental psychologist. It's an interesting choice given the appalling history various COG groups have over their own ministerial authoritarianism and spiritual bullying, and the 'Hulmerous' church is hardly exceptional. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the report Gary Leonard is carrying on his blog over an upcoming United Church of God seminar in which John Cafourek will be pontificating on "How to Recover from the Ravages of Abuse".

It seems to me that many Church of God groups have an issue implementing what educationalists call "reflective practice". They simply can't see how any of this stuff applies to them. They're far too busy pouting and pointing to the splinter in someone else's eye to recognise the beam that is projecting out of their own eye sockets.

Should you feel so motivated, the relevant issue of Vision is available online.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Sunday Assembly

I wouldn't exactly say my jaw dropped, but there was definitely a small southward movement when 3 News tonight covered the opening of the Sunday Assembly in Christchurch.

The Sunday Assembly is "a godless congregation". First established in the UK just last year - and by two comedians (!) - it now has a growing international presence in Britain, Europe, the US, Canada, Australia... and now New Zealand.

What is it exactly? Here's what it says on their website.
The Public Charter
The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.
We are here for everyone who wants to:
Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be
Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other
Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in.
The Sunday Assembly
Is 100% celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.
Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.
Has no deity. We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.
Is radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs – this is a place of love that is open and accepting.
Is free to attend, not-for-profit and volunteer run. We ask for donations to cover our costs and support our community work.
Has a community mission. Through our Action Heroes (you!), we will be a force for good.
Is independent. We do not accept sponsorship or promote outside businesses, organisations or services
Is here to stay. With your involvement, The Sunday Assembly will make the world a better place
We won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can
And remember point 1… The Sunday Assembly is a celebration of the one life we know we have
What should you expect from a Sunday Assembly event?
Just by being with us you should be energised, vitalised, restored, repaired, refreshed and recharged. No matter what the subject of the Assembly, it will solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a touch of transcendence into the everyday.
But life can be tough… It is. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness or life just isn’t fair. We want The Sunday Assembly to be a house of love and compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted and loved.

So what do you make of that? A flash in the pan or the way of the future?

Thirty people attended in Christchurch this morning; which is modest by any criteria. But judging from the television coverage the age demographic is younger than your typical liberal Christian or Unitarian congregation - if you can even find one of those beasts. There's an Auckland SA projected to launch in March next year.

The 3 News story is currently available to view online.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Two in the Field


Benjamin Corey on the Formerly Fundie blog has an interesting take on Matthew 24:40. Here is that verse (NRSV throughout).
Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Believers in the "secret rapture" use this as a proof text. They want to be among those taken, swept up to some kind of interim glory while those poor sods "left behind" must pass through the Great Tribulation.

Then there's Luke 17:34-35 which says something similar.
I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.
 Corey then points to verse 37:
Then they (the disciples) asked him, "Where, Lord?" [i.e. where will they be taken?] He said to them, "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather."
Corey comments: "That's right. The ones who were 'taken' were killed. Not exactly the blessed rapture."

His point is that Jesus is talking about the Roman invasion, hence the need to "flee quickly - to not even go back into their house to gather their belongings..."

And so, if you take the text literally, being "left behind" is definitely the preferred option.

I don't remember hearing this reading of the text before. It certainly seems to fit the context, and makes a lot more sense than the silly idea promoted in the Churches of God of fleeing to Petra on chartered commercial jets (a variant of the rapture) in order to avoid the Trib.

What do you think?

Monday 22 September 2014


Baptists so easily revert to wowserism. There was a time, living in the Taranaki, that I attended a Baptist church. Nice people but kinda weird. One memorable evening a guest speaker was invited to address the men's group, and I dutifully trotted along. This guy decided to stir up the spirit (so to speak) by spilling his guts about his terribly sinful life prior to recommitting to his faith.

It turns out that, on a business trip to Japan, our now repentant speaker had plumbed the depths of depravity by drinking sake! But that wasn't all, he had - horror of horrors - even been known to mow his lawns on Sundays!

It was a bit like watching a Monty Python episode with a bunch of zombies for company, none of whom seemed to see any humour in the situation. I kept looking around to see if anyone was finding these revelations as ludicrous as I was. Nope, not a soul.

Growing up Lutheran, one of the few benefits was a relatively healthy attitude to alcohol. The pastor dabbled in wine-making in the manse - not great wine I gather, but being too young myself to drink at the time I could only rely on the testimony of other congregants. I do know that the blue stocking brigade in town were greatly incredulous. A high school mate who had ties with the Adventist church breathlessly passed on the scandalous information to me. He wasn't telling me anything I didn't know, and I couldn't quite work out what the problem was. After all, Luther himself was fond of his mug of good Wittenberg ale.

So Jim West is running true to form when he raises a pious eyebrow over this church sign. Beer and hymns? Why not? I doubt the hymn context would permit overindulgence at Christ Our Savior, and the quality of singing would probably be enhanced. And if Jim had bothered to check their website he'd have found that it is all in a good cause.
We also have monthly focus of food collection for the Lutheran Social Services Food Bank and provide a monthly meal for Clare House.  We have a recycling center with the motto, “Bring Your Garbage to Church, what can’t be recycled can be forgiven.”  And a couple times a year we offer a fundraising event for Lutheran Social Services called “Beer & Hymns” which is pretty much just what it sounds like.
I confess to having a few cold ones tucked away in the fridge, with no sense of guilt whatsoever. Enjoying a social beer, or relaxing after work with a moderate pint is no sin.

Unless, maybe, you're a Baptist.

Sunday 14 September 2014

New Blog: Gully Heights

Otagosh has been around a while now, and its focus has primarily been on biblicist Christianity, with a perspective shaped by a failed sectarian movement. Otagosh isn't about to disappear, but as time has gone by my own concerns and interests have broadened out, and for a while now I've been tossing around the idea of a separate blog to reflect that.

The result is Gully Heights. The title is an intentional oxymoron indicating, hopefully, that it won't be taking itself too seriously. Occasionally there might be a cross-posting, but the intention is to keep the two fenced off. Items with a religious bent will continue to appear here as usual. Most New Zealand content, including perhaps a certain political twist, non-religious reviews, science and assorted musings, will now appear on the new blog.

While some of the new content will have very limited interest to many Otagosh regulars, you might make an exception for this short video in which Michelle Thaller, a NASA astronomer, explains the role of stars in the creation of our world - and you and me.

Saturday 13 September 2014

The Spirit Speaketh

If you're a Christian, are you a teetotaller, or do you enjoy a drink now and then?

And if you're in the latter category, how does a tipple affect your sense of well-being?

Research out of America seems to suggest that the more religious you are, the more you're likely to turn nasty after a few wines or beers.

American Christians are admittedly a strange lot, with loopy evangelical sects parading as mainline, and huge numbers of true believers convinced that evolution is a Satanic lie. So maybe things are a bit different in more secular parts such as New Zealand and, well, almost everywhere else.

Or maybe not. Judge for yourself.

Thursday 11 September 2014

A Kiwi Ecclesiastes

Behold, a sparkling new rendition of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Egad, it may even be better than Lloyd Geering's translation. The Word of Lord, just in time for the New Zealand elections on the 20th.
2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Satirist, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
3 What profit hath a man of all his efforts to decide who to vote for?
4 One leader passeth away, and another leader cometh: but the attempted superficial charm abideth for ever.
5 The poll riseth, and the poll goeth down, and hasteth to his place whence it arose.  
I'm not sure a lot - or maybe any - of the specifics will make much sense for our American brethren (and frankly, not much of theirs makes much sense here either), but the general thrust should be clear enough.
6 And I considered what I had thought was the result of skilful but short-sighted politics might also be partly due to actual corruption, and I threw up in my mouth a little.
Amen brother.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Waco Remembered

A correspondent writes:

I thought you might be interested in this, from the Houston Chronicle yesterday: "The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is unveiling a detailed wooden re-creation of the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993, the start of a standoff in Waco that proved to be one of the agency’s defining moments."

The writer goes on to note that Phil Arnold and James Tabor "(both with a WCG background, and an understanding of where David Koresh was coming from) tried to mediate at Waco, and the FBI ignored them with the consequences we know."

Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but it was ex-WCG consultants who were called on rather than SDAs (who were more directly related to Koresh and the Branch Davidians). Was it because the SDA mullahs were too busy calling for a bowl of water so they could wash their hands of any embarrassing connection?

The World as it Seems in Texas

The latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is out.

And if I had no other good reason to be thankful for living a very long way from Texas, this would be sufficient.

Take the page 3 cartoon for Exhibit A.

Yes, I know Texas is famously Republican, and that WCG founder, Apostle and Pastor General Herbert W. Armstrong was a big fan of the GOP and luminaries like Nixon.

But is it appropriate to splash something as blatantly political as this across what is essentially a Christian publication?

Are there no Democrat supporters in the COGs?

Okay, about the same proportion as in the NRA. But there's nothing to recommend this kind of Fox News arrogance. The word that springs to mind is inappropriate.

Mr Clayton might consider selling this kind of thing to Willie Dankenbring, but I'd like to think The Journal had more credibility than Prophecy News Flash.

Monday 8 September 2014

Pick and Mix

One of the more amusing characteristics of many conservative proof-texting books, booklets and articles is the wide range of Bible translations quoted. As a callow youth I found this highly impressive; a demonstration of the writer's depth and expertise. One moment we were in the King James Version, next in Moffatt, Rotherham, the ASV, Young's Literal or Ferrar Fenton. Each was cited when it provided the "best" translation of a verse. Best, of course, was the writer's preferred position. Very convenient.

These days you'd be hard pressed to find a copy of any of those translations. They've been replaced - for better or worse - by a new generation of versions: the NIV, NLT, NASB, ESV and (the Eternal preserve us all!) The Message. Yet the same strategy endures. The wide-eyed neophyte may well be dazzled by this apparent mastery of diverse translations, but the truth is far less profound. More often than not it's simply - to use a term that has had a good airing here recently - cherry picking. Pick the translation that best fits the point you want to make and ignore the rest (which are clearly inaccurate). Shuffle according to taste. Forget hermeneutics, this is simply apologetic sleight of hand. It's a sure sign that the writer is, far from an expert, an amateur and a dilettante.

In other words it's a bit of a con.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Cherry Picking - Can it be Contained?

Cherry picking
Miller Jones has continued his series on fallacious arguments used by atheists and fundamentalists. I've already linked to part one, so here are part 2 and part 3.

My reaction to part one provoked some robust discussion here in the comments section, but while not wanting the flow to stop, I wonder if some considered response from Otagosh readers might not be welcome too over on  the GCBC blog. I also want to thank Miller (I'm not sure that's a real name or pseudonym, not that it matters) for raising the subject, and responding quite graciously to my initial comments. This is definitely a discussion worth having.

In the second of his postings Miller provides a number of excellent examples where atheist writers do indeed "bag the Bible." He goes on to list a number of citations from the Good Book, used as evidence by Atheists, where Yahweh is portrayed as a moral monster. Miller then seeks to redress the balance by identifying another set of scriptures in which this same God is portrayed in positive, moral and thoroughly ethical ways. He concludes:
Thus, if we accept all [of the] scriptural examples of God's murderous and cold-blooded nature, we must also acknowledge the over 200 references that I have cited describing a God of mercy, compassion, patience, kindness, forgiveness and unfailing love. Yes, this represents one of those glaring contradictions that atheists are fond of pointing out relative to Scripture; but it also demonstrates that there is an alternate view of God presented in the pages of the Bible...
Well, as they say, yes... but.

Yes, but you'd have to make that same concession regarding the Quran, for example. That's fine by me, but I doubt many conservative Christians will be shouting out loud hosannas and amens at that suggestion.

I guess my question to Miller is this: what is the alternative to cherry-picking the texts we like? I suspect he has a good answer, but I'm not sure he has yet articulated it clearly.

We all approach the Bible with a world of assumptions and, sadly, (despite loud assurances to the contrary in certain quarters) the Bible does not "interpret itself". Two contradictory sets of texts do not cancel each other out; they just create a mess - and a breeding ground for half-baked apologetics. Come back Marcion, all is forgiven!

Part 3 is a nicely worded slap-down to the frequent practice of "appealing to authority" to back up opinions. According to Miller, both fundamentalists and atheists do this, but he concedes that fundamentalists do this more directly (and he won't get any grief from me on that).

But will the "argument from authority" critique wash when it comes to atheism.
... the greater irony vis-à-vis the Atheist position is that they turn around and use the source/authority that they have just discredited to discredit the Judeo-Christian conception of God! They are quick to appeal to those same Scriptures to demonstrate that the God of the Bible is a homophobic, homicidal, immoral, tyrannical, vindictive and slavery affirming monster.
Bart Ehrman - atheist and biblical scholar
Again, yes - but. Only insofar as atheists aim their guns at the Bible. Okay, there are some who obsess about the Bible. Ex-members of high- demand biblicist sects (hmm, maybe we could even think of an example) might be particularly prone to this - and that would be both appropriate for them in their circumstances and understandable. But consider two prominent atheists who engage the field of biblical studies professionally, Bart Ehrman and Bob Price. Neither man fits the pattern.

Second point: obviously any good atheist doesn't believe in the existence of "the God of the Bible" any more than Jupiter Olympus. The point being made is about the portrayal of "the God of the Bible" in the Bible, and that seems to be something evidential, and not an appeal to authority.

Miller finishes by writing:
Neither side seems to be able to recognize their use of fallacious reasoning. They see it in each other, but not in themselves.

Yes, Fundamentalists and Atheists are very different from each other - it is legitimate to characterize them as being polar opposites philosophically. However, it is very clear to this blogger that both sides employ fallacious arguments to advance their viewpoints/agendas. What do you think?
 I'm interested in your perspective too. But if you've got a few minutes to spare, why not click across to GCBC and read the three posts in full, and drop a comment on Miller's blog as well.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Atheists and Fundamentalists - Kinfolk?

Over at the GCBC (God Cannot Be Contained) blog there's the first of two postings attempting to show that atheists and fundamentalists pose a false dilemma vis-à-vis the Bible. It'll be interesting to see how Miller Jones develops this theme in part two. But for the present, here's a couple of excerpts, followed by some observations of my own. First a disclaimer. I'm neither a fundamentalist (though I once was) nor an atheist.
"...both groups start out with a False Dilemma about the Bible that impinges on most of their subsequent arguments about these topics."
Okay, that certainly applies to fundamentalists (and their evangelical brethren) where bibliolatry is endemic, but it's incidental to any thoughtful atheist critique I've come across. Most aren't overly worried about the Good Book. They come at it from a broader perspective, and the Bible is simply "collateral damage". Atheism stands apart from any narrowly focused argument about the Bible. Or Science and Health, the Quran or any other specific scriptural tradition. Their focus is not so much on the Bible, but on the what they see as the problematic concept of God or gods. Christian fundamentalism? Not so. There God is assumed and the Bible, read with a wooden literalism, becomes an ultimate authority. An atheist can most certainly appreciate the Bible as literature, and its historical and social significance, just as they can enjoy the Iliad and the Odyssey (or reruns of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys).

In other words, whereas debate about the Bible is absolutely central for conservative Christians, that's not necessarily so for atheists (or progressive Christians for that matter).
"It seems incomprehensible to both sides that the Bible could be a mixture of truth and error. Nevertheless, to an objective observer it is apparent that a single piece of literature is easily able to accommodate both. In other words, both sides in the debate have engaged in Fallacious Reasoning relative to the Bible. Since both claims about Scripture can be characterized as false, it is illogical for either side to assert that their claim about Scripture is true based on the falsity of the other side."
No, no, no. It's thoroughly comprehensible to many atheistically inclined people that the Bible does indeed contain a mixture of truth and error. They reject the objectionable (and there's plenty of that) but simply insist that there is nothing supernatural behind such benign teachings as the Sermon on the Mount. There are plenty of non-Christian readers who appreciate the mythic elements in the New Testament narrative (as you would in Greek mythology) as long as you understand something about metaphor - as in the Resurrection for example.

Sticking with the Greek mythology analogy, there are some pretty hairy stories about the Greek gods, every bit as horrible as the accounts of Yahweh. But you'd have to be both tone deaf and colour blind not to find something thought provoking in the tales of Persephone or Icarus. I confess to be being totally atheistic when it comes to the alleged inhabitants of Mount Olympus - and I expect Miller is willing to risk the thunderbolts of Zeus too. Is this because we find it incomprehensible that there might be a mixture of truth (albeit non-propositional) and error therein? Don't think so.

So it seems to me that Mr Jones has himself posed a false correspondence between two quite different things. But I'll keep an open mind till the next instalment.