Sunday 22 February 2015

Modigliani, Meeham and Mouskouri

I'm an obsessive collector of classical music, but I'm also into sixties folk. Others may groan at the thought of Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger or The Seekers, but I'm in my element. Ja, I know it dates me but I'll happily extend to Nana Mouskouri, The Kingston Trio and Joan Baez. My folk CD collection is extremely modest, but hey, this is the age of Pandora, so that's no issue - and no expenses incurred.

But Jazz? Not so much.

But then along comes an album that captivates you. You'd think New Zealand would be a jazz backwater - and perhaps it is - but it nonetheless has a surprising pool of talent. In January I wrote about Brian Smith's album Taupo. This month it's Norman Meeham and his 2007 album Modigliani.

I confess to buying it on spec because (a) it was way, way cheaper than the horrendous list price of $25 and (b) because in my alternate non-Otagosh life I occasionally teach art to kids, and Modigliani is one artist I draw on to inspire the little ratbags to try their hand at portraiture. Modigliani was a master of the stretched technique - taking the proportions of the human face and working wonders. That his visual art has inspired musical art... who could resist?

I'm not a jazz aficionado, but as with other forms of art I know what I like, and I enjoyed this album immensely.

(Too bad Modigliani didn't get around to creating a portrait of Nana Mouskoui...)

Progressive Redneck Preacher

Back in 2005 I was running a website called Ambassador Watch when I was contacted by a recent AC graduate named Micah Royal. To cut a long story short, I ended up publishing an article he wrote. As I recollect it, Confronting Bible Abuse was meant to be the first in a series, but life being what it is, Micah moved on and I forgot all about it (the text follows on from this post.)

With Miller Jones' recent articles raising some sensitive issues on sexuality I decided to find out what had happened to Micah and Katharine who, I think it's fair to say, both veered off the expected path for Ambassador alumni in a radical direction. These days Micah is blogging at (last updated December 31 last year) and seems to be continuing his advocacy on GLBT issues. There are sermon transcripts, some of which are quite thought provoking. I think it's reasonable to say you won't hear anything like them at UCG or LCG services!

Here's what Micah wrote nearly a decade ago.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Sexuality Questions

CGI's Bronson James on Armor of God
Miller Jones is a blogger who I'd characterize as a thoughtful Christian. His postings at God Cannot Be Contained have provided a considered defence of non-fundamentalist beliefs. That he, like myself, has a back-story in a particular sectarian community has helped me identify with some of the points he makes. And I really wish all past pilgrims in that tradition could exercise the same degree of civility as he does when engaging in discussion.

In two recent posts Miller has gone where few (at least in the ex-Church of God fold) have dared tread. He has asked some challenging questions about gay Christians.

Of course if you're a flamboyant homophobe like Roderick Meredith (author of that 1961 classic The Shocking TRUTH about "QUEER" Men!"), or any of the usual gang of commentators with an Ambassador College non-qualification, the very term "gay Christian" might well be an oxymoron. The reality is that a number of gay individuals have played prominent roles in the Church of God over the years. More often than not, though, their experiences have paralleled Troy Fitzgerald's as he documents it in Cults and Closets.

In the first post Miller simply poses a series of questions. The cumulative effect however is telling. There's enough here to fuel an ongoing discussion for months on end. See A Few Questions about God and Homosexual Behavior.

Now, in a follow-up post, he addresses a recent "Armor of God" telecast on the subject from the Church of God, International (no, despite appearances to the contrary they're not extinct, just endangered). Miller makes an interesting distinction between lifestyle choices and the characteristics that are part of who we are.
Your attraction to the opposite gender is a natural part of who you are - it is a characteristic of you. Think about it for a moment. Do you remember ever making a decision to be a heterosexual? When you started into puberty, were you torn between same sex attraction and an attraction to the opposite sex? OR Did an awareness of and attraction to the opposite gender come naturally to you? Do you remember a time when you decided that Jill was desirable and Jack wasn't? Do you remember deciding that breasts were more attractive than pecs?
To be sure, one does have lifestyle choices to make in the realm of sexuality. One can choose to be celibate, monogamous, polygamous, promiscuous or faithful. We all make choices in this regard. One can choose to associate or disassociate sex and love. You can decide to live the lifestyle of a playboy or to be the faithful husband of one wife. These are choices... I think that it is safe to say that you never made a decision to be a heterosexual. You didn't wake up in college one day and decide "I think I'll like girls." Isn't sexual attraction a natural part of who you are?
The full post is available here.

It's a subject that deserves an airing, and while it has become an obsession in more mainline churches, there has been little in the way of reasoned debate in either the Armstrong churches or ex-member forums - other than the expected rants. The place to join this discussion is over on God Cannot Be Contained rather than here, so for this once comments have been disabled. Click across to have a say.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Scholarship and Apologetics

James McGrath asks whether you can be both an apologist and a scholar. As usual any discussion of this sort must contend with the slippery nature of words, and in this case the floor is littered with banana skins, so please forgive the over-simplifications in what follows.

For me the notion of scholarship is tied up with the conviction that you follow the evidence. If the evidence (let's say for the authorship of 2 Peter, or the effectiveness of homoeopathy) points in a particular direction - and it does - you acknowledge that. If the evidence runs contrary to your own views, you acknowledge that too. You don't fudge the issues.

Raymond E. Brown
Can that be done by a scholar with a strong existing faith commitment? Sure. Case in point, Raymond Brown. Brown was a leading Catholic scholar of his generation (died 1998). Many of us were slapped around the chops by his brilliant treatment of the birth narratives in the New Testament. For a younger version of myself reading The Birth of the Messiah was a jaw-dropping experience. Brown laid out the case, left his readers to reach their own conclusions, but nonetheless maintained his personal allegiance to the church's teaching.

It bears restating. Fr. Brown remained loyal to his church's dogma, yet he didn't let that affect his commitment to laying out the clear evidence which led in a different direction.

Was he a scholar? Absolutely. Was he an apologist? Not in my book.

An apologist selects, shapes and massages the evidence to support an existing view. Like Calvinists who read the Bible backwards (the Old Testament in the light of the New) they begin with a conviction then engage in a cherry-picking exercise to lend it credibility. An apologist can certainly use scholarly tools, but are they truly free to follow where the evidence leads? How can they when they've already reached the conclusion in advance?

Then cometh the chorus: but we've all got a bias. No argument. But the point is largely irrelevant. Most of us can distinguish between what we'd like to believe and the uncomfortable facts. When the two clash we either draw the wagons into a circle or we are forced to grow a little by accommodating the new information.

The apologist does the former, the scholar the latter.

Monday 16 February 2015

David C. Pack - a new low point?

The Whitened Sepulchre - RCG 'Hall of Administration' in Wadsworth, Ohio
Which is the most dangerous of the Armstrong splinters? A nomination for Dave Pack's RCG (Restored Church of God) cult.

And cult it is. The cult of Dave. Here's what a long-time RCG-watcher recently wrote.
... he's really gone off the deep end. His new three-part sermon, which I'm listening to now, is INSANE. He's declared HWA was NOT Elijah but instead Moses, because he is Elijah. And then here's the kicker at the end of part one, which he claims is a truth God has restored through him: "If you were called by God, and you are to participate in his ways, you have to turn over your assets to God's church."
And I wonder what kind of people sit still for this kind of blatant manipulation. In comparison Rod Meredith looks like Mother Teresa (now there's a scary image).

In all the years I've followed the shenanigans of the various splinters, few of the pretenders have been as universally disliked as Pack. Why would anyone - other than compulsive spiritual masochists - follow this pompous, tin-plated führer-figure?

Meanwhile Gary Leonard is reporting that the RCG has spawned a new splinter of its own, the Abiding Church of God, based in Atlanta (presumably the RCG congregation there gone rogue). Notice the highly original seal design!

Saturday 14 February 2015

The Joy of Tithing - Say "Cheese"!

But do they send their money to Spanky?
It's always amused me that certain fundamentalist publications promote their "mom and apple pie" image through carefully chosen photographs in their publications. You know the sort of thing, happy, smiling families promoting the joy of tithing.

The latest issue of Tomorrow's World illustrates the point. The focus for January-February is, yup, you guessed it, tithing. Now this isn't the easiest of sells. Rod "Spanky" Meredith hits the usual proof texts hard, but how do you put a positive spin on an article of this kind? The answer seems to be to find a nice, attractive family who smile and are obviously overjoyed to shell out to the cause.

So where do you go to find a photogenic family of this sort? Good teeth, nicely dressed, one kid of each gender. You'd think there'd be lots of real life families in the Living Church of God to choose from, right? And you'd obviously expect the smiling subjects to be a member family, right?

Well, it ain't necessarily so. The nice people who appear on the cover of the current TW, and reappear as deliriously happy tithers on the inside, come to you courtesy of (see the small print at the bottom of page 33). They could be Anglicans, Adventists or Atheists, who knows? Do they tithe? Again, who knows? Are they even a family group rather than just playing the part for the camera? Quite possibly not. And it's highly unlikely any of them would want to help finance Meredith. Could all this then be just a tiny bit deceptive?

We do expect people in TV ads to be paid actors or models. But there's a difference between a high demand sect and a toothpaste brand.

Isn't there?

Tomorrow's World (along with similar publications) is all about pushing the distinctive doctrines of its publisher. It isn't an objective source of news, information and commentary; its a glorified advertising mailer. Which is fine, just as long as you know that.

English is Never What it Was

Joe Bennett is, without any doubt, my favourite columnist. Living as I do on the borders of Auckland, sole fiefdom of that old harridan Granny Herald, I don't often get to read his work in print. But anthologies of his columns exist, published by HarperCollins, with titles like Celebrity Cat Recipes and Fish Like a Drink. And of course you can always grab his latest from the Christchurch Press over on the Stuff website.

So (and I can't imagine why I haven't thought of this before) here is a link - the first of many to come no doubt - to Joe's cogitations. This one is on the English language, Latin, thunderstorms and corporotocracy. It's especially relevant to all of us over the ripe old age of fifty and given to grumbling about the sad state of English today.


Theology, hairdressing and Huns

Is that Paul Holloway's head on the spear? (Art by Ron Embleton)
A much more detailed piece on the gathering of the Huns in N. T. Wright's defence has appeared on Atheist Biblical Criticism, including some really fascinating background to the situation. It's penned by a former evangelical who goes by the wonderful pseudonym veryrarelystable.
Anyone familiar with Wright’s work would know this denunciation to be correct. Wright is a virulent homophobe who used his unjustified privilege in the British parliament's House of Lords to promote his bigoted views. He writes copiously about the New Testament, but always with a slant on trying to prove the NT correct in some way, in order to please biblical-inerrantists and assorted fundamentalists.
(My impression is that, rather than appealing to hard core fundamentalists, Wright's following consists of many thoughtful but compromised evangelicals who are looking for a hero, someone who can provide a much-needed intellectually sound defence of their faith. We all tend to adopt a like-minded scholar or other authority capable of articulating our views more cogently - or with more credibility - than we can. The writer also points out that this sort of evangelical fan-theology has a long track record. When I was in short pants the biggies were F. F. Bruce and - in New Zealand - E. M. Blaiklock. The sad reality is that real scholars tend to be less than charismatic in their writing and speaking skills - with, praise the Lord, some few blessed exceptions.)
Evangelicals have, of course, already infiltrated university theology faculties the world over, adopting a veneer of academic respectability whilst churning out their bible-is-right-as-has-been-predetermined material in ever growing quantities. Non-evangelicals look on in dismay as their discipline is reduced from research into apologetics. 
Ain't that the truth. Such victories may be pyrrhic given the increasing tendency for universities to dump theology from their course offerings. Then there was the intriguing pairing of theology and hairdressing this last week which brought a wry smile to my face. Tough times ahead for Laidlaw College?

Friday 13 February 2015

Shaking the dust off: thoughts on leaving a mainline denomination

Excerpted from a reflection by 'Hal', who wrote this (part of a longer journal entry) after finally deciding to stop attending worship services. Like myself he was raised in the Lutheran tradition, so Albrecht Durer's "praying hands" seemed an appropriate illustration. This is his perception of the 'domesticated faith' he is leaving behind.
And now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
That while He overturns the tables
I may content myself with fables
That while He throws the merchants out
I may be spared from any doubt
Christ crucified, oh that's a shame
At least I'm spared from all such pain
To snuggle down with piety
While others set the captives free

As Hal rather whimsically asks; do I hear an Amen?

Thursday 12 February 2015

What's Wrong with Wright?

Paul Holloway
There's a storm raging in the hallowed halls of academic theology. Paul Holloway, professor of New Testament at the University of the South, has openly criticised evangelical poster-boy Bishop N. T. (Tom) Wright.
My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.
Tom Wright
This of course is bad form. The backlash has been a thorough lashing - a veritable forty nine strokes. Michael Bird has had a hernia and dear old Peter Carrell has been nigh cataleptic with righteous indignation. Bad show Dr Holloway, bad show!

Of course Paul Holloway is suffering under the weighty disadvantage of being right. Wright is an apologist (and has himself admitted that apologetics was the motivation behind his entry into the field). To call him a book-a-year apologist may be unkind, but inescapably accurate. Wright is a nuanced, articulate and occasionally inspirational apologist - if you're looking for that kind of thing. But apologist is what he is.

But it seems we can't say these things out loud. Plain speaking has never been a virtue in the theological community. Offend nobody, not the sheep in the pews, not the Sunday morning idiots who whine, strut and pout on television, and not ever those perceived to be fellow members of the inner circle of the semi-enlightened. Theology is all too often about dancing around a discussion by a series of feints, subtle pirouettes, and studied ambiguities. You may think Tom Wright's apologetics is garbage, but you may merely hint at that opinion, having wrapped it carefully first in a tissue of polite deference.

And so the evangelical posse has been unleashed, dogs baying. One can only hope Paul Holloway sticks to his guns. We need more people like him.

(See the follow up entry: Theology, hairdressing and Huns)

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Garner Ted and Total Depravity

Image of GTA by Kerry Waghorn
Gary Leonard has unearthed an old quote from Garner Ted Armstrong.
"you come to really SEE yourself as you ARE--as GOD sees you--as a self-centred, hostile, shrivelled-up, rotten, vile, filthy, sinning hulk of rotting human flesh, unworthy to breathe the free air God gives you!"
Colourful! Gary is rightly critical of this kind of vicious assault on our sense of self worth, and I agree wholeheartedly. Yet Ted was only elaborating on standard Reformed (Calvinist and Puritan) dogma. There is a direct line that runs from Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to GTA. God, under this paradigm, is so holy, so pure and so unlike us in all our "creatureliness" (a ghastly word when used in this context) that we are reduced to total worthlessness. Such a god can justly consign people to an eternity of suffering. We deserve nothing better.

And on this hateful nonsense is built the 'need' for a saviour. First build a spiteful fiction about our humanity, then trot out a snake-oil panacea. I'm not sure whether Ted believed what he preached on this subject... one rather got the impression that he did indeed believe what he preached when he was preaching it (but not necessarily five minutes later). He himself was almost certainly a victim of this kind of poisonous stupidity given his upbringing... which could certainly help explain his own infamously inconsistent moral behaviour. More than once he lived up to the description.

But this kind of self-loathing, projected on humanity as a whole, is not something confined to one fringe sect. It is endemic to many streams of Christianity. As Don Cupitt remarks, your average mainline minister would probably say "we wouldn't put it quite like that now."

But beneath the well-intentioned veneer of enlightened modernity, it's usually still there.

Four Quotes from Don Cupitt

[By] the end of the eighteenth century the leading philosophers were moving outside the Christian tradition, and today it is quite clear that they are not coming back. Similarly, the old grand narrative which Reformed preachers used to call the 'Plan of Salvation' faded away and died on a timeline about fifty years later.

In the modern period, the major Protestant churches have, in varying degrees, distanced themselves from their own classical confessions of faith, which are now regarded as being expressed in the vocabulary of the period or periods when they were written. 'We wouldn't put it quite like that now', it is said, and the offending form of words is 'put on the back burner', in a place where it can quietly fade away. It is not brought to light, but nor is it openly contradicted: it is simply left under wraps, like furniture in the old family home which the old couple have no use for at present.

An old maxim ran: 'The Church to teach, and the Bible to prove', but today no careful student of the New Testament would say that it attests the truth of orthodox Christian doctrine.

In practice the churches now confine themselves to current practical issues and controversies, problems of recruitment, government, corruption and reform, and to treating the major feasts as the occasion for uplifting moral allegorizing.

Don Cupitt in Creative Faith.

Sunday 8 February 2015


February 8 is International Septuagint Day. It's a timely occasion to remind all your friends at the Sleepy Hollow congregation of the Globe-Girdling Church of God that the Old Testament they paw through at services isn't the one the early church used. Nope, the "apostolic church" used the LXX.

Do you think Rod Meredith knows this?

And if it was good enough for Paul and the evangelists (along with their redactors) who composed the four gospels, why, one wonders, isn't it good enough for true-bible-believing brethren today? That super-Pharisee Paul, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, quoted the Greek LXX instead of the Hebrew text, which has always seemed to me a remarkable thing to do. If Gamaliel was grading his epistles he'd likely be bumped down to a C minus on the strength of that alone.

The LXX isn't a "corrupt" translation, but comes from a parallel tradition to the text that ended up in the Protestant and Jewish canon. Diversity in the scriptural text? I bet they don't teach that at Ambassador Bible College. Both apparently can be traced back into the years BCE. Who's to know which is closer to the original versions of the various books?

The very useful NETS (New English Translation of the Septuagint) is available online. You can also pick up an English LXX in the form of the Orthodox Study Bible (with the unlikely publisher Thomas Nelson) as it still remains the official text of the Old Testament in the Eastern church. Chalk one up for the Orthodox! But, as I've noted before, if you really want a really great LXX translation, in my opinion you can't go past Nicholas King's version. Not easy to get, but worth the effort.

Watching Whirled Events

The latest issue of The Journal has been released. Noteworthy is an article by Reg Killingley on the misunderstood verse (Matthew 24:42) that exhorts Christians to "watch".
[W]atch in 1611 meant “stay awake,” not “look.” It didn't mean “observe.” It meant “Stay awake and don’t go to sleep!” That’s all. And that’s plenty.

If nothing else this demonstrates just how hopeless it is to rely - as most branches of the Churches of God still do - on the KJV (and NKJV). Here's that verse in the Revised English Bible (REB):
Keep awake, then, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
And in the NRSV:
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
It's obviously not rocket science, but this is the level of biblical illiteracy nonetheless. Yep, there's actually no requirement to peruse fruit loop sources like WND and Fox News each day to spot 'prophecy' being fulfilled. Mind you, I wouldn't want to be the one to tell Tom Robinson and his cobbers at the soon-to-be-renamed Good News.

(You can download The Journal to access the full issue.)

Saturday 7 February 2015

Old Scratch

Paul Davidson has a devilishly well researched article up on his blog about the Prince of Darkness, a.k.a. Satan.
Most Christians assume that the qualities commonly attributed to Satan are derived from clear and straightforward readings of the Bible, but are they really?
If you ever wondered about Lucifer, and whether he emerged fully formed from the great prehistoric angelic rebellion that John Milton waxed so eloquently about in Paradise Lost, or whether the concept evolved somewhat more slowly inside human heads down the benighted millennia, this is a great introduction.

(I vividly remember a certain evangelist - let's just say his initials were GTA - claiming that our expanding universe with its galaxies flying apart was a direct consequence of the 'war in heaven'. Apparently God hasn't seen fit to send in the angelic engineering corps to fix the damage yet.)

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Pete Seeger on Religion

I feel most spiritual when I'm out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it's all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I'm not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I'm looking at God. Whenever I'm listening to something I'm listening to God,