Sunday 31 May 2015

United Church of God or United Church of Bacon?

Most readers of this blog know about the United Church of God. It's a name that can be easily confused with a number of other denominations: the United Church of Canada, the United Church of Christ, and even something called the United Church of God in Christ. And now there's another contender; the United Church of Bacon. Founder John Whiteside states: "We enjoy people mocking us. We mock ourselves."

Which set me to thinking. Self deprecating humour isn't something you come across too often in rigorous Bible-based churches. Catholics can usually laugh at themselves (unless they're ultra-conservatives), but high-demand sects? Not.

In fact any kind of implied self-criticism, humorous or otherwise, is usually strictly verboten. Their ministers preen and strut, expecting every gracious word that drops from their lips to be accorded unquestioned respect. Leaders' opinions are quickly transubstantiated into authoritarian rulings in a way that would make a Roman bishop blush. That's especially true of Pentecostal and fundamentalist bodies, but is also rife in many so-called evangelical churches. Of course you can poke the borax at other Christians, but woe betide any belittling of your own brand. Being able to laugh at yourself goes hand in glove with a healthy dose of humility.

The UCG is far from the worst offender in this world of preacher/prophet narcissists. Think instead of David Pack, Gerald Flurry, Roderick Meredith and a host of low-wattage also-rans. Can these leaders handle criticism - constructive or otherwise? Or do they take themselves, their personal opinions and self-entitlements with deadly seriousness?

Where there is no capacity to stand back and smile at your own eccentricities, to be willing to sit down with the critics, engage in dialogue, and actually make changes, there is little likelihood of finding a healthy community.

Narcissistic leaders are quick to stifle dissent by casting people out. It's not a great strategy. Within the community a degree of polite respect can be maintained as people invest in a process of conversation. Once the critics are beyond the walls they have little choice but raise their voices very loudly.

So while I won't be signing up with the United Church of Bacon anytime soon, I have to admit that I've seen worse. Much worse.

Saturday 30 May 2015

Gerry Flurry - buying credibility

A friend who is far more observant than I am pointed out that Gerry Flurry, Grand High Poobah of the Philadelphia Church of God, has bought a full page ad in the current BAR.

Back in 2012 I mentioned Flurry's effort to curry favour with the archaeological community in Israel, and in particular Eilat Mazar. The specific issue centred around the "seals of Jeremiah's captors" (see Excuse me Ms Mazar, are you nuts?) and coverage in the selfsame BAR. Here's an excerpt from that post:
Does Ms. Mazar, or the BAR, know anything about Armstrong Auditorium or Herbert W. Armstrong College?  Do they know about the separated families, their policy on medical intervention, that the college is unaccredited?
Do they know that both are controlled by the Philadelphia Church of God, led by Gerald Flurry, who claims to be "That Prophet" (John 1:21 KJV).  A man who writes: "God's ministers must... lead God's people to magnify my office -- which is really God's office." (Royal Vision, July-Aug. 2000, p. 30).
Does Ms. Mazar know that Flurry, a British- Israelite, teaches that Anglos are the "true Israelites", not Jews. 
Does she, or the BAR, know or care how Flurry's ministers operate?  Even down to telling their tithe-paying members how to make an approved cup of coffee?
Now the seals have come back to haunt us yet again as Gerry continues to do what we all knew he would, attempt to gain maximum credibility by association with his mates in Israel. If you throw money at a convenient cause you hope to get something back in return, and indeed that's what has happened. In a propaganda coup (see exhibit A, the YouTube video) for what is widely regarded as one of the more unpleasant schisms of Armstrongism, the seals have been on exhibit at the Flurry cult HQ in Edmond, Oklahoma - apparently since 2012 (though somehow I doubt tens of thousands of folk have been on a pilgrimage to Edmond just to view the them.)

The current ad is a "last call" to see the exhibit before it presumably wings its way back to Israel.

Apparently the Israeli authorities haven't "wised-up" yet to the nature of their good friend Gerry and his chequebook strategy for being taken seriously. Or perhaps they just don't want to know.

Unfortunately for Ms Mazar it's a two-edged sword: as the old saying goes, "if you sleep with dogs, you'll wake up with fleas." Ms Mazar's academic credibility is not helped by cuddling up with the PCG in return for favours sought.

Friday 29 May 2015

More from LU President Michael Germano

Give Michael Germano some credit, he doesn't mince words.

But is that a good idea on a Facebook account in which he identifies himself as president of Living University?

Some more quotes from LCG's leading scholar and accreditation expert. Read closely, consider deeply, and be ye edified brethren.
Multiculturalism, a brain child of the left is wholly Un-American, anti-Christian and a disaster. 
So, if the female-dominated public schools continue to feminize our children left wing liberals (so called progressives--what an oxymoron joke, progressives?) will have plenthy [sic] of effeminate pantywaists to keep them in power. Poor sick America. 
The other screen shots available on request
After that lefty town hall held by Linked-In I cancelled my account. Some lefty stooge formerly with Google wants his taxes raised. He can donate to the feds if he wants but apparently he has no job thanks to Obama. The true liberal--wants to give the shirt off your back. I pay enough already. Facebook keeps changing things for the worse. What do we have, Silicone [sic] Valley postponed adolescents who have to be different everyday to feel good? Tomorrow I am shutting my account down on this insane site as well. All the best to you and yours.
It's enough to make a Fox News host blush. And my personal favourite...
Why is Obama populating the government with lantern-jawed women? Is he making some point about "Ugly Americans?
Doesn't like non-Anglo cultures, doesn't like women teachers, doesn't like public schools, comes across as a paranoid homophobe, objects to paying taxes, doesn't seem to like young people much, and rails against women who don't fit his ideal physical stereotype...

Nice guy! Pity the poor students who have to study (if that's the right word for what they do at LU) under this man's antediluvian authority.

NOTE: Gary Leonard has blogged some further information about Dr Germano's puzzling inconsistencies over the years. You'll find it here.

Michael Germano - the mask slips

Michael Germano is known as the architect of Ambassador University's accreditation - which was a short lived accomplishment with AU being disestablished soon afterward.

Following a period in the wilderness he then reappeared on the Living Church of God payroll with the job of heading up Living University, a back-room operation with pretensions to gaining its own accreditation. Germano's expertise in the accreditation process was clearly a huge factor from LCG's perspective, and Germano appears to have dutifully followed the new party line ever since.

Fair enough. The position is clearly well paid, and its not easy getting a plum position at a proper institution. But what does Dr Germano really think about education at a tertiary level? In what regard does he hold higher education in general? If you were under the impression that he was a thoughtful academic with a commitment to growing young minds and encouraging students to think for themselves, well, you may need to think again. Here's his unvarnished rant on these matters.

Would you accredit Living University after reading this? And why, if this is how he feels, is he working toward LU's inclusion in this "evil" system?

Perhaps somebody might like to pass this on to the accreditation authorities for their consideration and perusal. I'm sure they'd be impressed.

Thursday 28 May 2015

Checklist for Legalists

Gary Leonard over at his excellent post-WCG blog links to a column by Stephen Smith which helpfully provides a checklist so you can determine whether you're a Christian legalist or not.

It's an interesting list, but a couple of notes of caution.

First Stephen is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, an uncompromisingly rigid institution which delights in giving comfort and succour to every foul and unclean bird that roosts in the boughs of brain-dead fundamentalism.

Whew, it feels good to get that off my chest first!

Second, it seems somewhat counter-intuitive to create a checklist to measure - of all things - legalism. I mean, it's legalists themselves who practice yardstick religion.

With those qualifications, here's Stephen's list:
1. I am continually scandalized by the driving habits of others. Yes or No.
2. I believe that God loves me more when I behave. Yes or No.
3. When I write a check to my church, I tithe to the penny. Yes or No.
4. I entirely avoid alcohol, makeup, or jewelry out of fear of contamination. Yes or No.
5. I usually stand out from the crowd because of my formal or conservative attire. Yes or No.
6. When I encounter another professing Christian, I find myself judging their appearance. Yes or No.
7. My good friends are all from one church or denomination. Yes or No.
8. When I miss a Sunday service, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
9. When I miss any church activity, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
10. There are only a few Bible teachers who truly teach God’s Word. Yes or No.
11. When I sin, I feel guilty even after I ask God to forgive me. Yes or No.
12. I believe that small children should behave like miniature adults. Yes or No.
13. In a snow-covered parking lot, I feel anxious because I can’t see the parking lines. Yes or No.
14. When someone gives me a gift or does something kind for me, I feel unsettled until I can reciprocate. Yes or No.
15. I always clean my house thoroughly before anyone visits—even if they’re just popping by. Yes or No.
16. I want my children to avoid contact with sinful people. Yes or No.
17. I prefer to do things myself rather than accept help from people who are sloppy or less conscientious than I am. Yes or No.
18. There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Yes or No.
19. I believe that God is most glorified through my preferred style of music. Yes or No.
20. I believe that all scripture is equally applicable to my life. Yes or No.
21. I have had several conversion experiences but still doubt my salvation. Yes or No.
22. I have a sneaking suspicion that if Jesus returned while I was sinning, I would go to hell. Yes or No.
23. I take pleasure in reporting or punishing people who commit minor infractions. Yes or No.
24. I like to make an example out of wrongdoers. Yes or No.
25. I feel guilty when I exceed the speed limit by even a few miles per hour. Yes or No.
26. I avoid certain behaviors primarily because they are wrong, rather than because they are harmful. Yes or No.
27. I feel morally obligated to finish every book I start. Yes or No.
28. Others could describe me as bitter and depressed rather than joyful and kind. Yes or No.
29. I feel unlucky or cursed if I skip Bible reading or prayer. Yes or No.
30. I believe that God is more like a policeman and less like a fireman. Yes or No.
Honestly, if your Yes score is greater than five, I'd suggest you seek therapy. My score was just one (living in a temperate climate I couldn't really identify with #13, but suspect I'd lean to Yes). Some didn't make too much sense, though they might if - God forbid - I was living in the American Midwest - or had studied for a Th.M from DTS. Overall I think this list measures something other than 'legalism' (maybe neuroticism) but, hey, what do I know?

So what's your score out of thirty?

Monday 25 May 2015

How to read (and not read) the Bible

John Shuck interviews Harvey Cox in his latest Religion for Life podcast (follow the link or search on iTunes). Cox is a former Harvard professor and a leading progressive theologian who first made his mark with the ground-breaking 1965 book The Secular City. He retired in 2009. His latest publication is titled How to Read the Bible.

The programme is just under the half hour, and it's well worth the investment of time for anyone interested in the question of the continuing relevance of the Bible in an age when the old "fundamentals" have fallen.

Sunday 24 May 2015

Missing comments

Apologies to Miller Jones, Dennis and a couple of others whose comments seem to have missed my inbox over recent weeks. On checking the "awaiting moderation" folder on the Blogger site I came across a number that evaded my radar completely... not sure why, but this has happened before and is frustrating for all concerned. Those comments have now - belatedly - been included under the various threads. Am going to have to double check more often!

Saturday 23 May 2015

Biblical Cherry Picking as a Virtue

A brilliant post from Valerie Tarico suggests "cherry picking" Bible texts isn't such a bad idea, indeed it's "precisely the right approach." A couple of quotes.
Today many Christians assert that the Bible is the literally perfect Word of God, timeless and complete—exempt from addition, deletion, or revision. Many Muslims make the same claim for the Quran, according it such high status that either defacing a copy of the book or denying its divine provenance is a crime worthy of death. In other words, they attribute to the Bible and Quran the qualities of divinity, and they treat offenses against the book as if they were offenses against a god. They behave toward the Bible and Quran precisely like their ancestors did toward the wood and stone carvings that represented the divine for pre-literate people.
In an age of widespread literacy, what better golden calf than a ‘golden’ book?
Rather than being used as an epithet, perhaps cherry picker should be a compliment, an acknowledgment of discernment, wisdom, judgment, and responsibility. In actual fact, all religious believers (and nonbelievers) cherry pick their sacred texts or cultural traditions, even fundamentalists, even those who deny doing so. A book like the Bible or Quran contains passages that contradict each other, or that demand a level of perfection (or cruelty) that is simply unattainable for most believers. Whether we are Christian or Muslim or post-Abrahamic freethinkers or practitioners of some other spiritual tradition, the question isn’t whether we cherry pick, it is whether we do so wisely and well, based on some higher principle that tells us which passages are spiritually nourishing and which should be discarded.
You can probably hear the screams from fifteen million Southern Baptists, but then we'd almost certainly be worried if they all started agreeing. Read the whole article for yourself here.

Monday 18 May 2015

The Ever Present Joe Jr

Is GCI (Grace Communion International) a mature evangelical denomination or a sect? You can only follow the indicators. One such indicator is the prevalence of a sect leader's image and by-line in denominational publications and publicity.

Here's a round-up. Let's start with the British magazine Because (March). Joe Tkach's visage and by-line are spread across the back page where one of his "Speaking of Life" messages is plastered. Things are apparently tough for the survivors of the WCG in the UK as this publication - just eight pages long - is only issued annually.

Across to Australia where GCI produces something called GCI Today on a quarterly basis. The back page promotes "Speaking of Life" with a Buddha-in-an-armchair portrait of Joe. The staff box ("The Team") leads off with everyone's favourite Pastor General. Who'd have thought that Joe condescended to run Team Australia!

In New Zealand Inside Life features one of Joe's "Speaking of Life" transcripts. One small mercy, there's no photo.

GCI in Canada is the exception. There is no mention of Joe at all in its latest Northern Light Digest. Mind you, it's only four (4) pages long. What a big effort it must be to produce this four times a year.

Then of course there's Christian Odyssey in the States. Tammy Tkach has a regular column - who knows why - and there's the "Buddha Joe" ad on the back page (you'll be pleased to know that "Speaking of Life" is now available on iTunes.) The current issue dates back to Summer 2014.

So what do we learn? Speaking of Life - a cheaply produced podcast - is now the chief media vehicle of GCI and Joe, hardly its most accomplished presenter, is the front man. The once slick publications ministry is dying on the vine.

Could these two factors be somehow related?

So what role does Joe play in GCI? Administrator? Theologian? Evangelist? The answer seems to be 'yes' to all three. It would take a hugely talented individual to fulfil all of these functions competently. So which of these roles does he actually perform well? Umm. To whom is he accountable? Umm.

Denomination or sect? The evidence seems pretty clear.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Genesis: Saga of the Groundlings

At the start Elohim created the skies and the earth
- the earth was tohu-bohu
darkness on the face of the deep
and the breath of Elohim
hovering on the face of the waters -

So begins the book called Genesis in the 1992 translation by Mary Phil Korsak. Here's her rendition of 2:7.

YHWH Elohim formed the groundling, soil of the ground
He blew into its nostrils the blast of life
and the groundling became a living soul

In a world filled with bad English translations of the Bible, Korsak's Genesis (At the Start: Genesis Made New, published by Doubleday) stands apart. I confess that I'd never heard of it till very recently, stumbling across a copy in a second-hand book store in Hamilton. The translator describes herself as "a feminist scholar who has spent many years with the Hebrew text of Genesis in an attempt to produce a faithful word-for-word rendering in English."

My initial impressions are positive. Translating adam as 'groundling', for example, seems (if you'll forgive the term) inspired. I also liked some of the comments by A. D. Moody (York University) in the foreward:
In English [Genesis]... has become little more than a label and a handle: a means of referring to the book, not a way into it. It can be used as unthinkingly as the collective title, The Bible. When did it become simply The Book, as if there could be no other book in question, no other history? How did Genesis come to be read as a record of the origin of the human race, rather than of the Jewish nation? ... The English tradition of translation, which is of course also a tradition of Christian interpretation, has appropriated this book of YHWH's people and made it all too familiar, while effacing much of its distinctive character.
Genesis is the product of another age, one very foreign to modern readers. Moody reminds us that "there are no abstractions" in the Hebrew and that "this is a text rooted in oral performance". Translations that try to simplify the text, or present it as propositions rather than poetry, do little justice to it. Conveying those differences in modern English is obviously no easy task. Korsak's Genesis seems to be a step in the right direction.

Friday 15 May 2015

"God likes sex" or "Two Men and a Bird"

Tim Bulkeley, Kiwi blogger and Baptist scholar, is beginning a series on God and sex. The first posting sets the parameters by maintaining that sex is "God's good idea." Tim has a sub-head "God likes sex". Indeed sex "is modeled [or modelled - if you prefer the British spelling] on the godhead".

I'm interested in where this goes, but (and I'm sure Tim won't be in the least surprised by this) remain deeply sceptical (or skeptical - if you prefer the American version).

Tim brings trinitarian theology into his argument.
“Since I am love,” God said, “I want creatures who can love me.”
“We want creatures who can love each other, just like we do.” Said each of the Trinity to each other, “and love us the same way too.” They added. 
That was how sex and marriage got built into creation from the start: difference and reproduction and love. Sex is modeled on the godhead (Gen 1:27)
Which is poetic but highly problematic. Is Tim drawing a line from human sexual intimacy through to the interpenetration (believe it or not a theological term!) of the members of the Trinity? Does this mean that God is continually, well, um; no, wait, I don't really want to go there.

Two men and a bird
And when it comes down to it, can you declare that the nature of the Trinity (assuming that there is any coherence in that concept to begin with) teaches any such thing when it portrays God as "two men and a bird"?

Christianity has a problem in that its founder was an unmarried man who was, moreover, born of a virgin. Its "second founder" (Paul) made some rather strange statements indicating that marriage was at best a second-rate option. And then the subsequent generation of believers moved in a direction very different from the one pro-family evangelicals promote today. Christianity was birthed in asceticism. It is entirely possible to "proof-text" a guilt-saturated Catholic position as easily as it is a guilt-in-denial-saturated Baptist one. The record indicates that the Christian religion has always been somewhat sex-averse.

At least, that's how I read the history. How you read the scriptures is more a matter of biblical topiary.

That isn't true of Judaism, but then Judaism doesn't have Paul to contend with.

But I'm happy to be convinced otherwise. You can follow Tim at Sansblogue.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Atheism: Responding to Dennis Gordon

Grace Communion International's New Zealand operation has produced few notable thinkers, neither in its cultic WCG days nor now under the Tkach imperium. Dennis Gordon is the exception that proves the rule. Dennis was there in the not-so-good old days, and successfully made the transition to the new theology. He is a respected scientist who also ministers to the GCI congregation in Wellington.

I want to be generous in my comments on the article, but it's hard not to pick up on the invective. Dennis seems to be venting, and I'm not sure he does justice to the questions raised. Fair enough, this is an apologetic piece (what else could it be in a church magazine of this kind), but even so the tone is at times somewhat strident and defensive, though Dennis Gordon also writes: "Surely grace must prevail, especially in wrestling with contrary views."

There are a lot of statements in the article that I'd want to take issue with - simply as a (hopefully) progressively minded person with some fairly deep Christian roots of his own - but for now I'll limit myself to this one.
Jesus himself reminded us that 'God is spirit', to be 'worshipped in spirit'. This is made possible by the indwelling Spirit of God, who makes God known relationally, but how can an atheist understand or accept this?
Which appears to take the issue out of the domain of rational discourse. I'm not sure how Dennis would unpack or explain the concept of God only being "known relationally". Certainly the Bible (or even just to consider the New Testament) is anything but univocal on that matter. If an atheist can't understand this, can a Hindu?

Let's be honest; there's a certain amount of bull-roaring on this blog when it comes to atheistic positions. So my challenge is for those with clear views to offer some invective-free observations and analysis of Dennis' position (both pro and con are welcome). Insults and venting won't get past the moderation process. Sarcasm settings are also on low, and it's a prerequisite to have actually read the article first! It would be fantastic to have an adult discussion that puts reason and courtesy above point scoring - at least this once.

Any takers?

Monday 11 May 2015

Return to Sodom

Paul over at Is That In The Bible has written a highly accessible column on those quintessential twin cities of ill repute, Sodom and Gomorrah. Here you'll find a good deal of information - as opposed to the kind of disinformation that's widely assumed - distilled in one place. Read this and you'll know an awful lot more than the tonsil rattlers in a thousand pulpits. I'd offer a précis, but frankly I wouldn't do it justice.

Paul also introduced me to a new term, one I'm going to have to road test myself in a future blog entry: odium theologicum. Chambers defines the phrase as "the hatred of theologians for each other's errors (or each other)." Boy, now there's a term to conjure with!

Saturday 9 May 2015

Journal - 172nd issue

The latest Journal takes readers on a time trip back to 1995 when In Transition published a critique of the drive for doctrinal change in the then Worldwide Church of God. Twenty years later it has been updated slightly. For those of us who were out of the loop at that time it promises to throw additional light on the period of turmoil that saw the dissolution of one of the twentieth century's more fascinating sectarian movements.

Elsewhere Mac Overton reprises a 1979 episode of the TV series Lou Grant which featured a thinly disguised version of the WCG in its plot. Already faithful adherents of the various Churches of God are planning for the "Fall Festival" (actually a Spring festival here in the Southern Hemisphere) we know as the Feast of Tabernacles, and The Journal has begun listing the sites. It also reports that some enthusiastic souls want to introduce an expanded version of the Days of Unleavened Bread as a kind of FOT parallel.

Graeme Marshall, the original Regional Director for the WCG in New Zealand, is listed in the obituaries section. I remember Marshall for a visit to my parents' home in Hamilton when, as a teenager, I was just a "prospective member" considering baptism. Marshall was well regarded by many Kiwi brethren. He died April 26.

You can access a PDF of this issue online.

Google vs Closeted Faiths

Hemant Mehta raises the issue of "digital transparency" and its effect on churches.
[It's] possible to fact-check your pastor with your smartphone while he’s giving a sermon. It’s possible to know when you’re being lied to because your church is no longer the ultimate source of information. And while church leaders might tell you to “just have faith” when you ask tough questions, Google won’t run away from your line of inquiry.
He's discussing an interview with Daniel Dennett at Religion Dispatches. Dennett is one of those bothersome atheists who says things that upset the more churchly among us. The trouble is, he's often both insightful and disturbingly accurate.

Funnily enough, there is a form of "fact checking" in certain biblicist sects. The brethren take along their bibles and turn up the preacher's texts to read along. Of course, that's playing with loaded dice. The minister has selected and cropped the passages ahead of time.

Dennett observes: It takes twenty years to grow a Baptist, and twenty minutes to lose one.

There's a certain truth to that, though some of us are obviously very slow learners. I count my disengagement from bad religion in long years, not minutes.

Dennett again:
Institutions—not just religions but also universities, armies, corporations—are now faced with how to change their fundamental structure and methods to deal with the fact that everybody’s living in a glass house now. 
Protecting your inner workings is becoming very difficult; it’s very hard to keep secrets. Religions have thrived in part because they were able to keep secrets. They were able to keep secrets about other religions from their parishioners, who were largely ignorant of what other people in the world believed, and also keep secrets about their own inner workings and their own histories, so that it was easy to have a sort of controlled message that went out to people. Those days are over. You can go on the Internet and access to all kinds of information. This is going to change everything.
What do you think?

Friday 8 May 2015

PT now an eight page rag

Once upon a time there was a magazine called The Plain Truth.

It was a substantial free monthly publication with state of the art layout, design, photography. The content was rubbish, but it still had a massive international circulation (paid for by the tithe-paying members of the church behind it).

Today it's largely forgotten. Deservedly so. From the 32 page glossy some of us fondly (or not so fondly) remember it now looks more like an advertising mailer for a department store. Only eight pages, issued bi-monthly.

And Greg Albrecht, current publisher, owner, editor... or whatever, wants you to pay for it.

Even those high impact covers have gone.

The one thing that has remained constant is the quality of the content: it's still rubbish. Admittedly not exactly the same sort of rubbish. Fringe fundamentalism has been replaced with fringe evangelicalism.

Meanwhile GCI's official post-PT publication, Christian Odyssey (affectionately known by some as Oddity) seems to have stalled completely. The last issue is dated Summer 2014.

Oh dear, how sad, never mind! The world is probably better off without either.

How are the mighty fallen. Ironic too that the much maligned Bible Advocate is still going strong. Also fringe fundamentalism I suppose, but of a more benign variety - and with a staying power that has left the PT in the dust.

Happiness Is...

What makes us happy?

The question "what is happiness?" was asked of people living in Bolton, England... in 1938. These were days of the Great Depression.

The exercise was repeated again last year. A copy of the survey questions is online. Too late to submit your views - even if you live in Bolton - but the exercise itself is a thought-provoking activity.

Both similarities and differences between the two are enlightening.

More information on the outcome is available on PsyBlog.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Cultural Christians

Thanks to Reg Killingley for drawing attention to this article in the Washington Post.

In days gone by I would have viewed "cultural Christians" with a highly jaundiced eye. Indeed the very term would have seemed an oxymoron. To take Christianity seriously meant being very serious indeed. Serious about the Bible, moral issues (always personal moral concerns rather than systemic issues in the wider society) and those all important boundary markers (such as dietary and calendar issues) that separated one out from the great unwashed.

These days I'm not so sure. Alana Massey's op piece resonates with me in many ways, enough so that I don't so much want to take up stones to throw, but offer a quiet 'amen' to some of her statements.
Marquette University professor Daniel Maguire, a theologian and former Catholic priest, makes the case in his book “Christianity Without God” for reclaiming the Bible’s epic moral narrative and leaving behind its theistic elements in order to combat neoliberal economics and environmental destruction. “When believers and nonbelievers are working together, the God thing doesn't matter a bit,” he told me. “It is just a backdrop to the issues in the real world.” Cultural Christianity has already emerged in practice, even before it’s become a self-professed identity.
But why should cultural Christians bother trying to reconcile with churches? “People very understandably associate religious institutions with very real harm and danger,” Stedman says. “But institutions are also places where people share ideas and where they organize, and heal, and hold each other accountable.”
As Maguire points out, the biblical metaphor for society is a household, not an institution but a dwelling place for a family. Though families will quarrel over what they don’t have in common, they are meant to come together for what they do: an ancient story of a new family formed in a place most of us will never go and a call to peace in the world that none of us can ever entirely live up to. And that is worth keeping alive for its radical, enduring and miraculous love.
It's not a line that will go done well with literalistic Christians, and atheists of the monochromatic variety will simply dismiss it as a weak-kneed option. Maybe so.

But then again, maybe not. Here's how Maguire sets out his intentions in his latest book.

I think I feel another 'amen' coming on.

Monday 4 May 2015

Bob Price on "The Isis Cult"

Bob Price has an insightful blog post on the attraction of ISIS to young Muslims living in the West. He draws parallels with the appeal of various cults to Western youth in the 1970s.
I believe the late fundamentalist Presbyterian Francis A. Schaeffer hit the bull’s eye in his 1972 booklet The New Super-Spirituality. He was discussing the earlier hyper-fundamentalist Christian groups like the Alamos and the Children of God. These groups made no secret of their contempt for mainstream evangelical churches and ministries. The COG, for example, would send into Sunday morning church services their own members clad in sackcloth and ashes, stamping wooden staves on the sanctuary floor, chanting verses of judgment and doom. It was a classic case of a repeating historical pattern described by sociologist Max Weber: sects begin by rejecting “worldly” religious institutions which have betrayed their founders’ radical, counter-cultural vision. But in a generation or so, as these Young Turks have children and assimilate to the societal norms they once repudiated, the sect becomes a church, and after a while the whole thing begins again.
Schaeffer was sectarian in one sense: at some of his lectures (I heard one of them at Princeton University chapel), he would stamp his feet and shout “We are the true Bolsheviks!” But in The New Super-Spirituality, he theorized that a new generation of Christian youth, raised on Sunday bombast about taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, were disillusioned by the complacent piety of their pew-potato parents and decided to chuck the affluent American lifestyle and put their money where their mouths were. They sought out Christian communes (I visited some of them: Reba Place Fellowship, Sojourners, Jesus People USA, Christian World Liberation Front), pooled possessions, took Bible names, and spent hours each day witnessing, praying, and reading scripture. All in the advancing shadow of the Second Coming.
I think we are witnessing pretty much the same thing with young Muslims leaving the West and heading for the Islamic State. You have to understand that the whole Jihad movement is a reaction against centuries of theologically devastating Islamic humiliation. In the early centuries Islam ruled an empire larger than the Roman Empire was at its height. This success could not but be experienced by Muslims as living confirmation of their belief that they were pioneers and inheritors of the Kingdom of Allah on earth. Thus when their empire began to fade, to fragment, and ultimately to face defeat, even domination, by Christian and secular powers, it was Allah’s own reputation that was impeached. It was no mere frustration; it was an existential threat to the religion: “then your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14)... 
What they heard in their mosques about Muhammad and the past glories of Islam sounded antithetical to the pluralism and secularism of the society around them. Pluralism inevitably dissolves any master narrative that may once have given a more monolithic society its identity and sense of direction. For Muslims, their very existence as one more plant in a larger garden seems to contradict the ostensible raison d’être of Islam. The blandishments of radical Islam offer what a secular, pluralistic society cannot give: a jihad to conquer anomie.
The whole piece is well worth reading.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Biblical Topiary

"Finding one's own understanding of the Bible invariably involves creating biblical topiary. I used to live near the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland where remarkable objects are sculpted out of shrubbery, including a fox hunt with dogs, horse and rider leaping a fence, and, of course, the fox. Although creating topiary is a complex art, it ultimately comes down to pruning away what is not wanted to leave only the desired object. And that is what people often do when they read the Bible. They select just what they want. But unlike topiary gardeners with their shears, practitioners of biblical topiary are often oblivious to what they are leaving out. And some of them become extremely hostile to anyone who calls their attention to parts of the Bible that they are ignoring to make its message fit their beliefs."

Richard Hagenston
Fabricating Faith: How Christianity Became a Religion Jesus Would Have Rejected
Polebridge Press, 2014