Friday 31 October 2014

The Grinch puts his case

As all Dr Seuss fans, past and present, know; it was the Grinch who stole Christmas.

But there have always been oddball Christians, usually inheritors of thin-lipped, bloodless Puritanism, who have condemned the seasonal frivolities. Then there are literal-minded folk for whom Christmas is not so much frivolous in the Scrooge sense, but just plain pagan to the core.

Amongst these sects, the various Sabbath-keeping Churches of God stand out. Unlike Jehovah's Witnesses these bodies (there are a plethora of feuding variations) have substituted faux Old Testament Holy Days - radically re-engineered from their Hebrew roots - for the traditional liturgical calendar that includes Easter (pagan!), Lent (pagan!) and, of course, Christmas.

Selling an anti-Xmas message is no easy thing. It's a bit like making nasty comments about "Mom and apple pie". But it does serve a very real social function in putting real kinship ties under pressure (yup, that's 'Mom' and the extended family outside the faith community) and shoring up the fictive kinship bonds among insiders -  'the brethren'. No more exchanging gifts or taking the kids around to the grandparent's place on Xmas Day. No special Christmas meals, coloured lights, Secret Santa, decorations or greeting cards. Pagan!

(And considering today is October 31, let's not even get started on what these folk make of Halloween!)

So how do you put a positive spin on something like that? The current issue of Discern - published by one of the more hardline COG sects - tackles the task manfully.

Other competing COG ministries will very soon be joining in the yowling Grinch-like chorus if past years are anything to go by.

Of course much of the commercial Christmas experience is kitschy, and there's no doubt that a lot of people get sucked into a debt vortex by unnecessary seasonal expenses. And, at the risk of sounding like a Discern article, a lot of the religious trappings aren't much better. 

Kilough and Jones will make those same points, but that's not their chief beef with Xmas. They're against it in principle because they read the Bible like Auntie Ruby reads the assembly instructions for Ikea furniture. 

The thing is, those so-called 'biblical festivals' which Clyde and Erik champion have their roots in Near Eastern agricultural fertility festivals that pre-date the oldest parts of the Bible. They were adapted into Second Temple Judaism in the same way similarly colourful European customs were later reinvented as Christian celebrations.

And so, you've got to ask, why not eggnog? What's the difference?

Thursday 30 October 2014

Marcion and the gnotty problem of Gnosticism

Marcion is one of the truly under appreciated (and I would argue most misrepresented) characters in early Christian history. Good news, Daniel Gullotta (Australian Catholic University) has just posted his Masters' project - Marcion, a Gnostic without Gnosis - on

If that sounds daunting, it's just 37 pages long, and written without an oversupply of technical verbiage, which definitely makes it worth a look despite an occasional typo.

There's more available from the writer's WordPress page.

Trotter on the Noah movie

Did you see the movie Noah? I for one found it a let down. I mean, oh brother, get a load of those bizarro 'watchers'! And I'm still confused about the exact nature of Ham's unforgivable indiscretion after the ark grounded on Ararat. As for the acting, well, Russell Crowe has been more convincing.

But I didn't expect a leading political commentator to take aim at the not-so Epic. Chris Trotter is a chap of considerable insight who usually concerns himself with what is happening on the left of New Zealand politics. But this week he's moved his beady focus to Noah instead. I was prepared to be let down. Political pundits of whatever stripe should, as a rule of thumb, steer well clear of religious posturing. Invariably they end up saying really dumb things.

But, hallelujah, Trotter indeed proves to know something about his subject. His focus is on why the Bible-belt Right failed to endorse the movie.
As it is, the screenplay of Noah is neither fish nor fowl. It’s certainly not a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but neither is it a work of science fiction like Stargate. Instead, Noah is that rarest of things in this irreligious age, a heretical work. 
Sensing that the biblical version of the Great Flood is but a fragment of a much older and more finely textured myth, Aronofsky and Handel have attempted to construct from its ill-fitting remnants a story about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That they failed, producing a film so filled with gross failures of logic, motivation, and theology that not even the participation of Russell Crowe, Emma Watson and Sir Anthony Hopkins could save it, is not to be wondered at. Myths are the work of many literary hands, constructed over centuries. It’s takes a scholar of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stature to make a believable myth from the contents of a single mind.
I vote it the best review of Noah I've seen yet! You can read it in full over at The Daily Blog.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Turin Shroud Under a Cloud

You'd have to be a couple of communion wafers short of a requiem mass to think the famous shroud of Turin was anything other than a fake, but plenty of folk with a desperate need to believe unlikely things do in fact assert it's legitimacy. Of course it helps to be Catholic. Not too many Baptists or Mormons seem overly convinced.

Now there's a claim from Charles Freeman, reported in The Guardian, that the shroud originated as a stage prop for medieval Easter pageants.

It has the ring of truth.

Monday 20 October 2014

Understanding Fundamentalism

There is a lot of heated rhetoric about fundamentalism. We know we're against it, and we may even have been 'burned' by it in the past... but do we understand it?

Then there's the sick irony of Christian fundamentalists engaging in a frenzy of verbal lapidation when it comes to Islam.

If you want to move beyond the usual game of "ain't it awful" and understand some of the issues involved in the various forms of fundamentalism, you could do worse than track down a copy of the eminently readable Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven, just one of many titles in Oxford's simply brilliant 'Short Introduction' series.

If you just want a spleen-venting 'feel good' tirade, Ruthven isn't your man. In this slim volume he pushes us well up the learning curve. At the end you might not feel any more kindly toward the phenomena - I know I didn't - but you will have a deeper grasp of what motivates otherwise rational people to embrace these dire views.

You might think recommending a book on fundamentalism to a group of largely ex-fundamentalist readers is a bit like teaching your Granny to suck eggs; after all, many of us have seen the beast from the inside. But sometimes folk can be too close to something like this, or too emotionally involved, to see what would otherwise be blindingly obvious.

Ruthven covers Protestant fundamentalism well, but takes a broader brush, including related tendencies in other religions. I picked up a lot of incidental information, for example, on Islam.

And, wouldn't you know it, Fundamentalism is available free on ISSUU. If you've got an iPad or tablet, the app is well worth downloading.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Bob Brinsmead in the NYT

Bob Brinsmead was a huge influence in my own journey from sectarian Christianity to the place I am today. Bob, a former hardline Adventist, came to be a thorn in the side of his former denomination, advocating a radical "gospel plus nothing" theology and publishing an influential magazine, Verdict, that led many - including many outside Adventism - to abandon Sabbatarianism and rethink their concept of God.

That was a long time ago; Verdict ceased publication in the 1980s, and Bob moved on to other things. So it comes as a surprise to see his name appearing in the October 10 New York Times in a feature on Edward Fudge and "conditional immortality". Somewhere I still have a copy of the first edition of The Fire That Consumes, mentioned in the article.

The following statement currently appears on Bob's website.
Robert D. Brinsmead’s theological interest has inspired most of his books and papers. Bob will tell you that being a theologian doesn’t mean that one can pretend to have an extensive knowledge of God. After a lifetime of thinking in this field, he readily admits, “All that I know about God could be written on a postage stamp with a large piece of chalk.” He concurs with Alexander Pope’s poetic line, “Cease from God to scan / the proper study of mankind is man.” So Bob says that good theology is thinking about the mystery of human consciousness, the mystery of love, the nature of the human spirit, the ground of being, the quest for meaning, and the great story of the human exodus to freedom, to an ever improving human condition and a human potential that in the words of Freeman Dyson “is infinite in all directions.” His scholarly interest has covered history, apocalyptic, myth, and literary criticism in the age of science. He describes his thought as being spiritual rather than religious. Unlike some ideologues who start out with a paradigm (system of thought or worldview) and then spend the rest of their lives defending it like a patch of turf, Bob’s ideas have always been evolving and developing. He is more like a man on a journey who doesn’t have to defend any patch of turf.
Definitely quotable!

Feast of Tabernacles 2014

Merry Tabernacles brethren!

Yup, it's that time of year when devotees of what is often called 'Armstrongism' pack up their bags, the kids and their hard-earned "second tithe" and head off to a designated festival site for the Feast of Tabernacles.

A week of sermons, hymns, social events and those all-important special offerings.

For some reason - hard to imagine what it is - Mormons tend to be curious about other fringe Christian groups. No wonder then that the Deseret News is covering the phenomena.

But, digging slightly deeper, isn't that a familiar by-line? Mark Kellner. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Mark a former AC graduate? Last time I heard, Mark had decamped to the Seventh-day Adventist Church where he has a position in church media.

Kellner mainly focuses on spokesperson Paul Eddington and the UCG (United Church of God) splinter, but also mentions Rod Meredith and the LCG (Living Church of God) along with a couple of more mainstream groups.

It's a positive, respectful piece, so there's no real critique. Gary Leonard, however, reminds us of the tribalism of the various FOT-observing sects.
Two of the COG's most loyal and faithful churches claim to be the final repository of all things correctly biblical and believe they alone are God's most beloved church organization in this dispensation, are showing to the rest of the COG's how much they are NOT brotherly in their deeds and actions.  Two different Church of God's are meeting in the same location in the Philippines. Then add to that mess a third non-COG group that is also meeting there for their version of the Feast of Tabernacles.   It could get any more messy than this! Both of these splinter personality cults are meeting in the Philippines in the SAME complex, but in different rooms.  They have been encouraging to NOT attend with the other group...
Several other cities around the world will be hosting simultaneous COG Feast sites. None of these will gather in fellowship or even picnic together because of their shared heritage.  Bitterness, intrigue and a false facade of superiority is the preferred route of presenting their public face.  When truth only resides in the particular group it would be spiritual damaging and dangerous to let members make up their own minds as to whom they fellowship with.
I have some fond memories of the FOT in days gone by, and wish those observing the 2014 festival an enjoyable time. Just remember not to check in your brain as you enter services.

Friday 10 October 2014

Calvin's Ghetto

Spotted today in the suburbs. The local Reformed Church proudly proclaims its ignorance of science.

Reformed Christians come in two main varieties. Presbyterians  are the most common in these parts, their Calvinism being strained through a Scottish sieve. Generally these folk are relatively innocuous, though the New Zealand church is increasingly taking on a more conservative position as those with 'get up and go' get up and go. Recent reversals on social issues indicate an ageing membership corralled by Rotarians and National Party electorate committee members.

The Reformed Churches of NZ seem to provide a safe haven for strict Calvinists, home-schoolers, and members of the white South African diaspora.

Though the word 'debate' is used on the sign, I doubt whether there'll be anyone there to defend a non-creationist perspective. Notable too is that there is no speaker's name provided. I guess they'll dredge up one of the regular guys on the apologetics circuit. Whoever it is will be preaching to the choir; it's hard to imagine anyone other than the already convinced turning up. This is one battle that is well and truly lost.

Except in intellectual ghettoes like this.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Fear Religion

Following up from an earlier post, it's no surprise that the second part of Creationist or Evolutionist appears in this week's Waiuku Post. It's a rambling affair that concludes with one of those dark threats fanatics make when their arguments are weak.
"Every man and woman in the world is either a creationist or an evolutionist."
Oh really?
"Evolution is infidelity; it is death. Creation; is fidelity, Christianity; this is real life. Choose Creation, Christianity, and Life, that you may live."
No pressure...

Sophisticated readers (anyone capable of seeing shades of grey) who find this way over the top may object but, alas, this caricature is what is too often promoted - and accepted - as the Christian consensus. And it's not as though anyone with a more balanced perspective is speaking out. No wonder the churches are dying. Recently Waiuku's only Anglican church closed its doors, selling off the fixtures (I watched as pews were loaded onto the back of a truck). On the opposite side of the road a historic Methodist church has been rebranded as a Shinto shrine. I doubt too many of those congregants would have agreed with dogmatic fundamentalist statements like those quoted, but stupidity sticks by association.

The problem is that nobody speaks for Christianity. No pope or bishop, evangelist, elder or moderator represents any agreed position. So, in effect, everybody speaks for Christianity, and the result is a confused cacophony where the loudest, dopiest voices attract the most attention.

This same issue of the Post features a letter from a local atheist taking the earlier Maranatha ad to task. Fair enough I guess. But what would be really helpful - a letter from a Christian strongly expressing a dissenting view from the Maranatha one - is of course absent. 

And therein lies half the problem.

Waiuku is of course a small town that most people have never heard of, but the issues there are a microcosm of those being fought over in many places in many nations. In the Christian camp the idiots are winning, and the consequent slide into irrelevance now seems unstoppable.

Monday 6 October 2014

A Bible for all Seasons and Reasons

I wandered through the local Christian book store this morning and paused - as I usually do in that establishment - to see what Bible translations and editions they had in stock. One caught my eye called the "Poverty and Justice Bible." It uses they dubious CEB translation but, thought I to myself, at least it seems to be have a more worthwhile focus than the usual gaggle of self-indulgently themed Bibles.

A quick flick through revealed that someone - presumably several someones - had gone through the text with a red highlighter in the pre-publishing stage. If it said something commendable it got the treatment.

I respect the intent of the editors who, to give them the benefit of the doubt, surely see this as more than another cynical marketing ploy to get a bigger slice of the lucrative Bible-buying market. If you are going to buy a Bible, why not get one pre-marked with meritorious admonitions to do good unto others. You could certainly do far worse.

Then again, you could go through the Good Book armed with a highlighter and far less praiseworthy intentions. Is a "Genocide and Violence Bible" conceivable? Sadly, yes. In fact it would be no great effort to do so. In this vast collection of ancient texts you can always cherry pick your way to show almost anything. For too many preachers the Bible functions as a smorgasbord of potential proof texts. The effect is that the scriptures merely function as a kind of sophisticated sock puppet.

So I left the book on the shelf. I hope whoever ends up buying it will indeed be inspired in the pursuit for justice and compassion. But the quest for a fairer, better world for all needs little validation from the Bible. As history shows us in distressing detail, it is Bible-readers who all too often simply get in the way.

Friday 3 October 2014

Shuck and Jive

John Shuck is again blogging on Shuck and Jive. That's great. Moreover his Religion for Life podcast - available free on iTunes - has some stimulating recent interviews: Joseph Tyson and Dennis Smith both appeared in July, for example, on their paradigm challenging book Acts and Christian Beginnings.

John is a progressive Presbyterian minister in Tennessee. Back in July he posted a brief teaser on Sir Lloyd Geering's new book Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic, which is due out shortly. This promises to be a great read, and there's a free PDF sample available here. I confess to being a huge fan of Geering, a sentiment not much shared by conservative Christians. Read his books and you'll understand why!

Available on Amazon: Reimagining God

Thursday 2 October 2014

Paul: The Measure of the Man

There has been an awful lot of rubbish written about Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Apologists wax eloquent about his theological genius and depth of insight into the human condition. Augustine, Luther and other worthies have cast their own mantle over his shoulders in order to convince lesser mortals that it is in fact Paul's mantle that covers theirs. Countless tomes have been written, gallons of ink spilled, in a thousand attempts to make sense of the great man's letters.

Spiritual depth and genius, however, are perhaps not the most obvious explanations for Paul's "impenetrability". After all, as it's clear from his own writings, the apostle was a cantankerous old coot. Perhaps he was just incoherent, much like a fickle politician on the hustings, making up policy according to whim. It certainly has been suggested.

Or perhaps there was method in his madness, though not of a particularly flattering variety. Enter Gerd Lüdemann.

Gerd Lüdemann
Lüdemann has, I think, got the measure of Paul, and he's not at all intimidated. Being a German professor, he's written some typically dense studies on the apostle that don't exactly make for light reading, especially for the non-specialist. But in his latest slim volume for Polebridge Press, The Earliest Christian Text, he gets straight to the point.
We encounter in Paul a tremendous degree of self-consciousness and self-importance; his emphatic statement that he was superior to many of his contemporaries in observing the law is not only a reflection of his Pharisaic sense of superiority, but also has a basis in his character...
It comes as no surprise that Paul dominated his communities by insisting on his wishes and authority and requiring the compliance of others. His claims of apostolic authority reinforced his sense of infallibility and often led him to bully any who disagreed. As one would expect, he thus gained devoted followers among docile members but also repelled many who were not easily swayed.

More comments on The Earliest Christian Text later.

Available on Amazon: The Earliest Christian Text

Concentrated Ignorance in Print

Each week the Waiuku Post arrives in the mailbox. It's a free community newspaper with the usual features you'd expect in a give-away tabloid. And every week there's a large ad from a group promoting the website.

This week there's a tiresomely long article called "Creationist or Evolutionist, Part 1." Even a quick skim through would raise the hackles of many. Concentrated ignorance in print. Just look at the first paragraph.

We are going to cover the subject of evolution. First of all, I will read to you what evolution is; then as we follow along, you can see whether or not you are an evolutionist. These statements are all copied from a treatise on evolution written by one of the chief evolutionists; therefore, they are all correct, so far as they go, as definitions.
First, I don't know anyone who actually calls themselves an "evolutionist." It's usually just a pejorative label used by fundamentalists. There are lots of people who accept the concept of evolution, just like there are lots of people who accept the idea that the earth goes around the sun, but nobody goes around proclaiming themselves a "heliocentrist."

Second, what the heck is a "chief evolutionist"? Is there some kind of masonic hierarchy?

Third, who is this "chief evolutionist" being quoted? No name, no bibliography, just an anonymous quote. Sloppy.

Finally, just what kind of qualifications does the writer hold in order to lecture readers of the Post? None are provided. In other words... a dilettante.

Anyway, I decided to check out their website to see who exactly these turkeys are. All you find there is two paragraphs of blather. The links page however has lots of Seventh-day Adventist referrals (,, and more), a messianic link and - number 4 on the list... wait for it...

It figures.