Friday 31 July 2015

The LXX and the New Testament

I really like this chart from Yuriy and Inna's blog. It demonstrates the dependence of New Testament writings on, not the Hebrew Bible and the much trumpeted Masoretic Text, but the Greek Septuagint (LXX).

Yuriy's series of posts, Why I Don't Trust The Bible, is worth checking out. He describes himself as a recovering Pentecostal fundamentalist.

(HT to James McGrath for the link on Twitter.)

Wednesday 29 July 2015

A Not-so German Requiem

Classical music lovers - of which I count myself one of the lesser in sophistication - tend to have a "personal canon" of composers and compositions which press their buttons. Amongst my own "top 100" I've a special place for Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem. Until recently however, I'd not heard it sung in English.

Wandering through Marbecks in Queen's Arcade - which every Aucklander should do once in a while - I stumbled on a 1999 recording on the Telarc label, an adaptation by the late Robert Shaw. It was on the 'specials' table, so being a fan (and always fond of a bargain) I was led astray.

There's an argument that Ein deutsches Requiem should only be sung in German, just like Italian opera is only supposed to be authentic in Italian. It's a position that can certainly be argued. The reviewer at Classics Today notes; "There’s no great English substitute for the sheer phonetic power of “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” in the context of Brahms’ setting; and how do you compare the hair-raising force of “zu der Zeit der letzten Posaune” with “at the sound, the sound of the trumpet”?

Fair enough. I wouldn't trade in my German recordings, but to hear it in English - without the need to mentally translate (or consult the liner notes) - certainly gives it a new focus.

Brahms' Requiem sets aside the traditional, and somewhat depressing, Catholic formula for texts from Luther's Bible and (in a couple of places) the Deuterocanonicals. Not exactly the ideal Lutheran - Brahms was more of a humanist - he created a masterpiece that not only defied the conventions of his age, but touched on the theme of death with subtexts that affirmed rather than awed.

The Shaw version uses the King James texts in place of "the inspired German" - no mean feat. This recording harnesses the forces of the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The notes in the booklet are pretty naive, but that doesn't affect the impact of the performance.

In an age in which we don't much like to consider the transitory nature of our existence, Brahms' Requiem speaks a word of challenge. How do you manage to crack the consumer-driven veneer to do that? Ancient writings are a terrible (or, to use the Kiwi vernacular, "bloody awful") source for dogma and doctrine, but they nonetheless are capable of capturing some pretty basic human insights, something the non-religious Brahms well understood. The words (text) are one thing, the tone of the work is another. Perhaps having had my own little "health adventure" in recent days has fine tuned my appreciation of such things.
Behold, all flesh is as the grass,
and all the glory of mankind is as the flower of grass.
For lo, the grass withers, and the flower thereof is fallen.
(1 Peter 1:24) 
Lord, make me to know the measure of my days on earth,
that my life is but frailty, and I must perish.
(Psalm 39:4)
It sounds like a downer, but it's not. This requiem, like the very different work by Gabriel Faure, is a work of ultimate assurance and confidence. What's not to like?

Friday 24 July 2015

Oh the Irony!

Demolishing a dream - farewell to Ambassador College's Hall of Administration.
As part of a planned multi-year redevelopment of the former Ambassador College campus, the Hall of Administration is scheduled for controlled demolition between July and September, 2015.  During preparation and throughout the demolition process, requests to film at this 4-story office building will be entertained on a case-by-case basis.  This is a unique opportunity for production companies to film scenes which might require such scripted elements as: explosive pyrotechnics, controlled burns, interior simulated gunfire, vehicle crashes, demolition and/or other types of sfx and stunt sequences.

Fireworks as the WCG's Vatican goes up in an apocalyptic B-grade movie end worthy of a Basil Wolverton scenario.

Gary Leonard, who knows whereof he speaks, details the colourful unofficial history of the building.
From adulterous romps in department head's offices to in flagrante delicto in the Pastor General's office, this building has seen it all.  From masturbating ministers listening to coeds tell their secrets to stolen gropes and kisses in the elevators.  From gay romps in the AICF offices to the State of California coming in and changing locks kicking church officials out.  From protests and sit-in's to exhibits of the terracotta soldiers from China to exquisite gold and silver crafts from Thailand.  Kings and Queens walked its marble floors.
Rather than a Bible passage in tribute, perhaps a reference to Shelley's Ozymandias poem is not inappropriate...
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Here endeth the lesson.

(Thanks to Gary and Reg for the heads up).

Queen of the Sciences

Theology was once described as the queen of the sciences.

But so was astrology.

Both of their majesties seem to have known better days.

An opinion piece in The Guardian raises some interesting issues. Andrew Brown comments on a speech by Richard Burridge of Kings College London ("a clergyman in a brightly coloured shirt") on Global Warming. The good clergyperson's motives were doubtless good, but he made the mistake of bringing the Bible (Leviticus 18 and 25 in particular) into the discussion.
... by the rules of theological debate, it seemed quite approved to twist his disapproval through 180 degrees, so to say. The speech left me wondering, for the umpteenth time, whether there is substance at all to theology, or why it is that highly intelligent and well-educated people of unquestioned benevolence talk as if there is. 
The nearest I can come to an answer is to suppose that it is the very dislocation of meaning that makes theology so unattractive to the rational mind, which simultaneously makes it useful to the practitioners. A theological image, or a story, is not anchored to the historical world in any fixed way.
Read the whole piece if you've got the time. Brown has identified the Achilles heel of much of the theological enterprise.

Monday 20 July 2015

Functions of Religion

The pseudonymous but very perceptive 'Sabio Lantz' has enumerated nine functions he feels that religious affiliation provides believers. It's summed up in one a graphic which you can view here.
On the list are:

  1. Morality signal
  2. Behaviour control
  3. Identity support
  4. Community resources
  5. Entertainment
  6. Family/Tribal bonding
  7. Happiness, peace, comfort
  8. Magical hope (healing, money, safety)
  9. Fear alleviator
There are other possible lists, but I think this one provides a pretty fair analysis. Different people would rank the relative importance of each factor differently, and that ranking would probably also change with age - identity support seems a natural fit for younger people seeking to make their way in a challenging world, for example.

You can read the original post over at Triangulations. Here's an excerpt.
People use religion to signal to others that “I am safe”, “I am moral”, “I am an upright citizen” and more ...  Not only do they use religion to signal to others that they are moral, but they also use it to comfort themselves, to signal their other selves. 
Whether you're a person of faith or not, the list provides an interesting mirror to our religious impulses. I'd tick off 5 of the nine as highly significant during my youthful sojourn in a certain sectarian body.

How about you?

Sunday 19 July 2015

"For the advanced believer..."

Every week The Post, a local weekly newspaper, runs a column from a religious group with ties to the Adventist church. In the July 7 edition it begins with the words "For the advanced believer..."

Advanced believer? What does that mean?

Well, reading through the column it's pretty clear "advanced believers" should be wary of coercive governments and a coming "instant total Dictatorial vice grip control of everything."

Says who? The Bible proof texts give it away. The anonymous writer has been mainlining Daniel and Revelation, with an occasional puff on Matthew 24.

So "advanced believer" basically means you're plugged into the apocalyptic speculations of Uriah Smith and the SDA church. Not belief informed by compassion, or belief informed by education. No, it's belief informed by 19th century proof texting.

Lord save us from advanced belief!

Apparently there are at least three grades of believer in this gentleman's mind. First there are the simple believers. These dummies don't understand about the 2300 days of Daniel 8, and consequently the poor suckers are likely to lose their tenuous hold on salvation when the Pope makes Sunday worship compulsory - which is due any day now.

Then there are the advanced believers who read Adventist literature (such as his column and Smith's Daniel and the Revelation) naively.

Finally there are the super-duper genius believers - who are out there loudly muttering about the Third Angel's Message and ready to tell the Pope where to stick his communion wafers. Their overwhelming confidence is based on the work of 19th century dilettantes like good ol' Uriah.

Now I know there are some smart Adventists out there; people who would be genuinely embarrassed by this sort of moronic drivel. But you have to wonder all the same. While Uriah Smith may have some few detractors within the fold, he's still the Big Cheese over at
Written more than a century ago, this classic book has had an unrivaled influence on the understanding of prophecy. Originally distributed as a series of articles, and then as separate books about Daniel and Revelation, these writings were combined into one book in the late 19th century and sold door-to-door. Remarkably, Uriah Smith's interpretation of prophecy has borne the test of time and is as highly regarded and relevant today as it was years ago. With wisdom and clarity Smith explores the symbols, meaning, and significance of the biblical prophecies and causes readers to trust the sure Word of God. Join the long line of believers who have studied this work, discovered God's leading in earth's story, and look forward to the triumphant finale of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation.

Thursday 16 July 2015

This is Good News?

Apocalyptic fundamentalists just love being relentlessly negative. It all goes back - at least in the Church of God DNA - to our Adventist roots. No need to work to build a better world for the next generation or reform unjust, oppressive structures in society. It's all useless. The only hope is to give up, dive beneath the covers of the Bible, and pretend Jesus is coming again in three to five years or so.

Trouble is, it was three to five years away back in the 1950s too, then the sixties, then... well, you get the idea.

And between the "ain't it awful" now and the magic make-believe millennium then lies the Great Tribulation. War, the Four Horsemen of Revelation. You have been warned!

Which explains why outsiders reading The Good News, flagship publication of the United Church of God, have often been puzzled by its title. Here's an article featured in the latest issue. Good news? Not likely.

Yes, dear old Tom Robinson is beating the drum again. How does he know this stuff? In a word, prophecy. The same mistaken approach to prophecy that fed all those incredibly wrong expectations in the 1970s when the Worldwide Church of God assured everyone it was all going to happen "in your lifetime." 19-year time cycles, gun laps, 1972, Petra, 1975.


The track record - along a well worn rut that Tom and the GN crew still jog zombie-like each month - obviously isn't good. The loudest of the prophecy buffoons of a half-century past have gone to their graves, along with their predecessors in the Millerite movement (1844 anyone?) We're now just waiting for Rod to succumb to the way of all flesh. That could be in three to five years, but possibly earlier!

Whatever else the prophetic parts of the Bible are, they're not predictive. Have any of these clowns actually bothered to do some serious reading on the nature of ancient apocalyptic literature?

Apparently not.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

I wish I'd said that

(In the context of "bit players" who are suddenly thrust into the limelight...)

"... the spotlight is drawn to characters who in the normal course of events would barely rate a mention in their own autobiographies."

Bevan Rapson writing in the politics column of North & South, August issue

LCG apologises (sort of) for offensive cover

The May-June issue of Tomorrow's World, published by Roderick Meredith's Living Church of God, raised more than a few eyebrows. Fighters for ISIL (ISIS) were pictured with prisoners in a context that implied imminent execution.

Apocalyptic sects like LCG have exploited bad news for decades in an attempt to shoehorn current world events into their fantasy scenario, the return of Jesus Christ "very soon" to solve all our problems. In short it's about the "True Believer and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Age" (with apologies to Judith Viorst.)

This time they scored a stronger reaction than they anticipated, leading to a statement of regret in the current issue.
Editor’s Note:  A number of readers have commented on the cover of our May-June 2015 issue. Some ... objected to it, for a variety of reasons. Some told us that the cover showed a staged provocation by antiAmerican terrorists, which because it was staged should not have been publicized.  Others took for granted that the cover showed an authentic event, but said they did not want the Tomorrow’s World magazine to make them think about the gruesome events that likely followed in the moments after the cover image.
Well, the first question relates to whether the photograph was staged or authentic. The attribution on page 31 reads "Cover: News Pictures / Polaris/Newscom". Whether "staged" or not, the picture indeed seems authentic. Real terrorists, real prisoners. How many of these victims do you think are still alive today? Now comes the justification.
One cannot read Scripture carefully and avoid the unpleasant subject of beheadings; Revelation 20:4 indicates that some Christians will be beheaded for their testimony, and Scripture documents the beheadings of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:51) and John the Baptist (Matthew 14:10). 
Ancient literature is full of inhuman acts with little sense of outrage (unless, of course, it's happening to the group suffering the violence). There was no modern sense of human rights or dignity of the individual. This seems a poor justification. The statement concludes:
Even so, the purpose of this magazine is not to shock readers for shock’s sake. Rather, we strive to analyze world events plainly and honestly in light of Bible prophecy. As such, we certainly regret any upset or offense our May-June 2015 cover may have caused some readers.
Which just goes to show that movements like LCG really do have to take public opinion into account, especially when readers and viewers might react by cutting off financial support in response to an ill-judged decision. Tomorrow's World is not a news magazine. It's purpose is not to report but to exploit; to promote it's fear-ridden eschatology.

And this time it took a major pratfall.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Journal - 174th issue

The June 30 edition of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is now out and downloadable.

For those not so familiar with the publication, it is an independent newspaper that covers news and opinions of those who have past and present associations with the former Worldwide Church of God and derivative bodies.

So what's covered this time. Here's my selection.

A further reprise by the editor of events in the 1990s that saw the WCG attempt to move into the evangelical mainstream aided by a motley bunch that included Hank Hanegraaff.

Ian Boyne promoting the work of his Church of God International operation in Jamaica. The Jamaican CGI seems to revolve around the larger-than-life Mr Boyne, who has a prominent media profile on the island nation, and has recently brought across members of a non-holy day keeping COG to the cause. Boyne, according to his own press release, has been hitting the books, and even cites this writer in the process.
I have critically examined the doctrines of justification by faith, Calvinism, Molinism, replacement theology and heaven-going, drawing on the latest scholarship, including the work of N. T. Wright ...
I myself continue to read widely in theology and philosophy and to keep abreast of what our critics are saying on the anti-Church of God (anti-"Armstrongism") blogs.
As a pastor, I listen keenly to prolific critics of our movement like Byker Bob and Gavin Rumney, both of which I find particularly perceptive and insightful.
I think I'm flattered, even if my days as a "prolific critic" largely expired when I pulled the plug on Ambassador Watch. As for Bob, he is indeed a perceptive and insightful commentator, and moreover preserves a sense of fairness and balance which are, alas, all too rare in most COG discourse - whether pro or anti.

Sub-orbital loopiness?
On a different note altogether there's the Connections section which features an ad written by Pallant Ramsundar. He claims to have solved "the mystery of Joshua's long day and Hezekiah's sundial going back ten degrees". The "abstract" states:
An orbital sub-loop of the earth can produce Joshua's Long Day without any deleterious effects to earth's environment. Such an event will be hardly noticeable to earth's inhabitants except for the increased length of the day to some, and the night to others.
And yes, be still my beating heart, there's a cool diagram! (Credible? Well, I believe the last time Earth entered a sub-orbital loop was as recently as the late 1970s when I heard Gerald Waterhouse preach. I'm sure time passed a lot more slowly than usual on that occasion.) In any case Ramsundar has some kind of doctorate and is "a graduate of the University of Cambridge in Rapid Manufacturing". Rapid Manufacturing? He has also authored something called The Harmonized Gospel Apocalyptic Version and has "a Church of God background". Hmm.

Then there's a full page ad complete with an amazing headline. Here's the PDF screenshot. Note the harmonious use of colour.

Pretty classy, huh. This subtle and considered piece of advertising copy comes from the Omak, Washington Obedient Church of God. Dyspepsia in print. It ends:
Burn in hell with your ratchet jaw sinister as a disobedient BRAT. For all "UN"believers of God's Bible Words go to the Lake of Fire. This is Life and Death. Do "NOT" ignore God's 7 Bible Commands. Tell your minister to OBEY.
So, there you have it. Just thought you'd like to know.

Pope Francis v. Tkach, Meredith and the Wannabes

It's something Otagosh (and before that The Missing Dimension and Ambassador Watch) has been consistently advocating since day 1.

Accountability for church leaders - and in particular the one man "gummint of god" model used in the post-Armstrong Churches of God.

As recently as January this issue was reprised in a post called Groundhog Day in Grace Communion International.

Who would have thought that a Bishop of Rome would have clued in before the various Pastors General, Presiding Evangelists, and other impressively self-titled sole-leaders in the scrapping COGs.
"The Roman Catholic Church should not have "leaders for life" in its ranks, otherwise it would risk being like a country under dictatorship, Pope Francis said on Friday." 
"'There should be a time limit to positions (in the Church), which in reality are positions of service," he said in an address that was in part prepared and in part extemporaneous.' 
'"It is convenient that all (positions) in the Church should have a time limit. There are no leaders for life in the Church. This occurs in some countries where a dictatorship exists."'
And there was more.
'The Pope has issued a strong warning against those tempted by personal charisma to be authoritarian leaders in the Church, describing such leaders as "servants of the devil" ... He warned against the temptation for leaders to believe themselves essential to all tasks and described such leaders as "peacocks"... Such people would be drawn by this temptation into considering themselves irreplaceable, and would draw power and domination over others to themselves.' 
"He compared such abuse of leadership in the church to dictatorships. 
"He asked the crowd present: "Who is the only irreplaceable in the Church?" They responded en mass: "The Holy Spirit!" He repeated the chant: "And who is the one Lord?" They replied: "Jesus!"'
(Christian Today Australia
Would you hear that from Rod Meredith?

Meredith is just such a "peacock" (albeit an arthritic one), and so is Joe Tkach who has promised much but delivered next to nothing in meaningful systemic reform (check out the post linked above if you're in any doubt). That's without mentioning the countless wannabes who reign in pocket-handkerchief-sized splinters.

It also applies to countless fundamentalist, Pentecostal and evangelical sects that are seen as "mainstream", from Hillsong's Brian Houston to Franklin Graham.

After statements like these it's hard to imagine that Catholicism can easily return to the old ways. Francis seems to have shut that door and turned the key in the lock.

Those involved in fellowships like GCI and LCG can hardly applaud - even if they're not distracted by the inane prophetic sideshows that portray Catholicism as evil - while they allow their own papal pretenders to rule unchecked over them.

(Thanks to Reg K. for drawing attention to these statements.)

Friday 10 July 2015

I agree with Jim West - almost

Jim West is the Grumpy Old Man of bibliobloggers, no contest (and I say that as a qualified grump myself). He doesn't like so many things; emergent Christianity, N. T. Wright, accredited universities, Universalists, 'Pentebabblists', marriage equality, dissenters from an every-Sunday-pew-potato role, Texas... the list goes on and on.

And of course he's wright - oops, I mean right - about some of these things (on the above sample list I score him 3/8). More often than not these days, though, he simply seems to be venting like the bar flies who sit around at the pub pontifically grizzling about the sad state of life in general.

But today I found myself uttering an 'amen', sort of, to one of his latest posts.
It’s time to abandon it [the term evangelical] as an utterly meaningless Rorschach / Chameleon like word which only takes on the appearance of its surroundings.  It CERTAINLY no longer means what Luther meant when he called himself and other protesters ‘Evangelische’.  There are virtually no Evangelische among American ‘Evangelicals’ because rather than protesting against heresy and embracing the Gospel, they have abandoned the Gospel and embraced the world.
He had me all the way through to the word 'because', when he went all Southern Baptist.

I've commented before on the misuse of the word 'evangelical'  - rampant throughout the English-speaking world. It's a battle the ELCA (which does know what the word means) joined - without notable effect - when it included the word in it's name.

To see it now as the assumed sole possession of the fruitcake fringe is terribly sad.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Twittering and the Time Rich

Brendan O'Neill, writing in The Australian, lets rip with a somewhat loopy libertarian rant against those who would, as he sees it, curtail freedom of speech on Twitter. Frankly, I don't think he has much of a case to make. But toward the end of his broadside he did say something which is worth repeating.
The Twittermob phenomenon reveals what kind of people dominate the Twitterati. To be a super-frequent tweeter, you must be time-rich and hands-free. That excludes bus drivers, coalminers, nurses … normal people too busy to tweet every three minutes. The most active bits of Twitter are the domain of the cultural and media elites, celebs, think-tankers, people with oodles of time. 
Which is, despite the petty polemic, pretty much undeniable. You've got to wonder, though, if this bloke owns a mirror. Then again, he apparently delights in being, as The Guardian sagely observes, an "obnoxious intellectual wind-up merchant."

But, let's be honest, he does have a point. Twitter is an ideal vehicle for the time rich. Not that I'm anti-Twitter. In recent weeks, having become becoming a tad more (ahem) "time rich" - Glory Be! - I've finally got around to entering the 'twitterverse' myself. Not, I hasten to add, "every three minutes", and in all modesty it'd be an epic stretch of narcissistic self-delusion to consider myself part of any cultural and media elites, celebs, or think-tankers.

Unlike Brendan perhaps?

And yes, it was through a Twitter link that I discovered O'Neil's wee diatribe (thanks Ed).

Bit of irony there.

Friday 3 July 2015

Bridge-building with an Emergent God?

John Shuck provides these six ideas that describe the "emergent God" thesis.
  • God is an emergent reality.
  • God did not exist before human beings existed.   
  • God emerged from the human mind and cultural evolution
  • New realities emerge from simpler components.  "No atom of my body is alive yet I am alive."
  • God is the emergent reality of humankind's aspirations to be something more than we are.
  • Thus God is real.  (As real as you and me, the economy and democracy). 
I've highlighted the propositions that I think are most provocative. These are not exactly new ideas, but they've certainly not had much of an airing in general debate. Of the six, numbers 2 and 3 wouldn't get a lot of argument from most atheists. The more monochrome among them (i.e. those more combative and uncompromising) may however bridle at this sort of redefinition, but in essence these ideas have the potential to form a kind of bridge that embraces spiritual values (on one bank of the river) with a thoroughly secular world-view (on the other bank). God is, according to this perspective, a human construct, but one that can direct us in positive directions.

The six points are drawn from a book by Nancy Ellen Abrams who has recently been interviewed on John's podcast Religion for Life. It's worth a listen.