Friday 30 October 2015

Normal service will be resumed...

Both the Otagosh laptops have choked in recent days. Till at least one is operational again updates will be constrained by the fact that posting via smart phone or iPad is less than ideal. Hopefully things will be back to normal - or what passes for normal around here - by early next week.

Monday 26 October 2015

End Times - Islamic style

Another BBC radio podcast that's well worth taking the time to listen to concerns the Islamic understanding of prophecy and the Last Days.

Bizarre End Times scenarios are by no means restricted to Christian millennialist sects. Islam swallowed a heady draught of apocalyptic in its formative years, courtesy of early Christian chiliasm, and brought forth its own bespoke eschatology. Most of us outside the borders of Islam have very little awareness of what these beliefs involve.

The BBC's Beyond Belief programme recently brought together representatives from both Sunni and Shia backgrounds in Britain to discuss the End Times and Islamic belief. The parallels to fundamentalist and Adventist teachings are quite remarkable. The return of Jesus, the hidden Mahdi, the anti-Christ; even the significance of a black flag in Muslim prophecy.

The podcast is half an hour in length, and an easy way to be pushed up the learning curve when it comes to understanding the influence of apocalyptic on Islam, and its contrasts and convergences with the more familiar Christian variety. More so because the information is coming directly from Muslims rather than outsiders.

Rugby and Religion - Bread of Heaven

For New Zealanders there's not much of a relationship between rugby and religion, although more than a few wags have suggested that Rugby itself (the capital letter is intentional) is the one true Kiwi faith.

In Wales it's very different. They sing hymns at matches! The Welsh association is now largely historical (see the article in The Independent), but even those cynical about Christianity will concede that there's nothing quite like a rousing chorus of "Bread of Heaven" rocking the stands.  BBC Radio Wales digs deeper, appropriate listening for the current Rugby World Cup. Worth a listen if only to enjoy the wonderful Welsh accents. Be quick though, it's only available for a couple of weeks.

And of course, the final showdown will be an all Antipodean affair - the All Blacks versus the ancient enemy from across the ditch (name escapes me for the moment). No hymns are expected, but a few prayers of a non-standard variety will doubtless be offered up if the score turns on a knife point. Not that it worked for the Welsh who got knocked out in the quarter-finals.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Graven Images?

Fascinating interview with Vatican based lay scholar Dr Christopher Longhurst on, among other things, why "graven images" are okay in Western Christianity, in contrast to Islam and Judaism.

RNZ's Kim Hill presses the issue, but Longhurst is up to it. It's a perspective that isn't often heard outside of Catholicism. No need to rush out and buy a crucifix for wall art, but perhaps those of us with iconoclastic tendencies might feel a little more able to chill out when we see the next Madonna and child artwork

Also covered is the often raised issue of all that amazing art work owned by the Vatican, and why it shouldn't be sold off to alleviate poverty.

Friday 23 October 2015

Why do theologians write like that?

It's probably a rhetorical question, but let's put it up there anyway.

Why do so many theologians express themselves with opaque language?

You have to hand it to the conservative evangelicals, at least we know what they mean. Which is something of an Achilles' Heel I suspect. You know exactly what they're trying to say and, all too often, it's rubbish. But at least they know how to use plain English, and the reader can critique it - for better or for worse.

Not so the more philosophically minded theologians of the old school. They all too often finesse their language to the point of incoherence, so keen are they to draw out every meaningless nuance in their tortured argument. In the quest for profundity they crucify the language in the hope nobody will call their bluff.

Not everyone engaged in the more rarefied domains of the theological enterprise does this of course, but it's probably a sizable majority. To be clear, we're not talking about a concern for accuracy and integrity; those are non-negotiables in any field of enquiry. Nor are we talking about genuine biblical studies that set aside the waffle in the cause of actually understanding the ancient texts.

It's reminiscent of those stereotypical Anglican vicars who tend to that excruciating sing-song liturgical mode of speaking that exudes paternalism and privilege. It's not so much what they say (which turns out to be nothing much actually) as how they say it. Churchly theologians are somewhat different; it's more what they say (which turns out to be nothing much actually) in order to sound deeply knowledgeable.

And lo, the contempt of the entitled theologian when confronted with that most abominable of things, a popular treatment of their area of expertise. A sudden intake of breath, snooters raised upward... three, two, one... sniff.

The lads (and only very occasionally a laddette) are not so much interested in engaging with the common herd as those in their circle of equally obscurantist peers. In the absence of anything solid to nail their deep and convoluted insights to, it all collapses over into philosophic confectionery - much as Shakespeare put it: it is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

It's all too often a game of self-delusion, of castles built on clouds. A gathering of theologians to present papers to each other has all the relevance (but none of the panache) of a Star Trek convention - without the cool Vulcan ears and makeup.

Good theology is surely something else. Consider the parable.

Theology was once considered the queen of the sciences. So was astrology. The two are perhaps not unrelated. And perhaps the former is now going the way of the latter.

If so, these worthy individuals (with some honorable exceptions) have no-one to blame other than themselves.

Ethics, Morality and Theism

In the last few days the following issue was raised in the comments section.
Evil is the violation of the moral code expressed in the New Testament. Since atheist have no such source, I am assuming that they base their morality on whim. Or for those atheists who are more systematic and see themselves at their highest state as simply a functionary of Nature, they might try to map evolutionary theory into their moral behavior. Or maybe it is just a mystery. (Neo, October 22)
Theists have a foundation for their morality that has to do with (a) god. Atheists have a foundation that is essentially whim. .. The type of theist, whether Christian or Muslim or whatever, has nothing to do with this. Whether or not the god of the theists is credible does not have anything to do with this. Whether this or that sacred writing can be believed or not has nothing to do with this. The question is... how do atheist(s) figure out what is evil? (Neo, October 23)
Usually I prefer not to "have a dog in this fight" between sincere Christians and equally genuine atheists. Much heat, little light, and nobody comes away convinced otherwise. But maybe a couple of points could be made.

1. "Evil is the violation of the moral code expressed in the New Testament." There are problems with this formulation. How exactly do you distill a moral code from the various injunctions in the Bible? Does the moral code preclude slavery? The status of women? Does Paul trump Jesus, the acknowledged letters of Paul the Pastorals? Where are the textual markers that spell this out?

The devil isn't so much in the detail as in the interpretation. Mennonite scholar Willard Swartley's Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women is a classic text on this issue. All too often when it comes to building just societies it is Christians who have been left in the embarrassing position of having to run to catch up with their secular peers.

Then there's the issue of the possibility of morality in places beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Could you have lived a moral life in Persia, India, China or Angkor Wat? It seems outrageous to even ask.

2. The subsequent comment broadens things out and detaches the New Testament in favour of a more amorphous theism. Your god (of whatever stripe) is your lodestone. Again, problems. Non-theistic religions exist such as certain strands of Buddhism. Are Buddhists - by and large - moral people? What about the followers of Confucius?

"Atheists have a foundation that is essentially whim." I don't pretend to speak for atheists, but I've certainly known a few who are happy to adopt that badge. I haven't met any sociopaths among them yet. Most tend to humanism, and are every bit as compassionate as their theistic neighbours. The focus of their concern tends to be a little different, not so obsessed with issues of individual guilt as with the welfare of communities, but this is also the position of liberal and progressive Christians, both Protestant and Catholic.

The bigger question is whether morality can be externally validated. Does the fact that Jesus taught non-violence (assuming that he did) therefore make non-violence right; or is non-violence the preferable path regardless, and the fact that Jesus taught it simply an indicator that he was teaching something true? (How do you know it's true? If you have to ask then you probably haven't started thinking about what morality really is.)

Ethics is a fascinating field, and exists outside Christian discourse (or any other theistic community). Specifically Christian ethics are ethics informed by Christian discourse. A good example of this can be found in Daniel Maguire's A Moral Creed for All Christians. That certainly doesn't mean though that everything beyond the boundaries of Christianity - or one of the other theistic faiths - is based on whim, or that love, mercy and compassion are restricted to believers.

I appreciate the comments that have been provided. In engaging with them we all should be challenged to clarify our own thinking, whether we end up agreeing or not. As is invariably the case though, the easy solutions are generally the most dubious.


Thursday 22 October 2015

"Terror" Nova?

I'm suspicious of all controlling social movements, whether conservative (fundamentalist sects for example) or liberal (new age communes in this case).

As a kid I remember news coverage of Bert Potter's Centrepoint commune. There's a Wikipedia entry on it that gives a fair overview. Key points:
The commune was created in the model of the therapeutic encounter groups popularised in the 1960s in California... sexual relations with children as young as 10 had occurred with regularity, with parents either neglecting to protect their children from the assaults, or actively abetting them.
The Centrepoint community was highly educated. They relished freedom of sexuality. They were "enlightened".

Or not. The childhood survivors of Centrepoint might have another opinion.

It was the first thing I thought of when listening to John Shuck's latest Religion for Life podcast. Martin Winiecki scored free publicity for Dieter Duhm's Institute for Global Peace Work in Tamera, Portugal; largely run by German nationals.
Martin is on a nationwide tour to promote this vision of holistic “system change – environmental stewardship; establishing new paradigms for love, sexuality, and partnership; inner peace work; and global peace work”... (RFL notes)
The work on the issue of sex-love-partnership is at the center of the project.  Since the beginning we wanted to create a societal environment in which a solution for this issue could arise.  The principle of free sexuality is part of the ethical and social foundation of Tamera.  This is why many people come to Tamera; they want to get out of the old bondages and make up for what they have missed out on so far. (Tamera website)
I've a lot of respect for John Shuck's progressive approach to Christianity, but this would have to be the exception that proves the rule. The Tamera initiative gives the impression of being grounded in psychobabble, with an apocalyptic recruitment edge.
We live in apocalyptic times. We see the miracles of technology, the high gloss of urban façades, the wealth of the elites; and we see the beaten and starving human beings, the destroyed nature and the war machine that has gotten out of control. (Duhm)
The closest John got to asking any hard questions of Winiecki was an enquiry about decision making in the commune. The answer given ("a consent model") was anything but reassuring, amounting to, if I understood Winiecki correctly, something between oligarchy and peer pressure. Winiecki is part of the twelve "core group" members under founding gurus Duhm and his wife.

The statement on children and youth on the Tamera website shows no awareness of the need to protect children from sexual manipulation or exploitation.

Fundamentalist cults are one thing, New Age cults another, but both share common characteristics such as top down leadership models, no matter how much the latter groups might ballyhoo about 'autonomy'. Tamera may not be another version of Centrepoint, nor Dr Dieter Duhm a cult leader in the mold of Bert Potter, but given the Winiecki interview, neither could you discount that possibility.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Ben Carson and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Sabbath Prophecy

Seventh-day Adventism has a lot of baggage, but shush, it's impolite to mention it in the same breath as SDA and Republican hopeful Dr Ben Carson. The Sabbath persecution complex is a prime example. The time is a'coming when the nasty Catholic church will enforce Sunday observance. Lo, the Mark of the Beast. That's what SDA prophetess Ellen White taught, and apparently what Carson believes.
... Carson might fairly be asked about his penchant to believe in extreme conspiracies and whether he truly fears a plot to criminalize Saturday worship and use state force to round up Seventh-day Adventists and others who don't wait until Sunday to commemorate the Sabbath. Carson, who has said present-day America "is very much like Nazi Germany," has forthrightly stated that he believes Satan has pushed the theory of evolution and embraced the notion that commies have secretly infested the schools, media, and government of the United States. If his dark vision of the world extends further, he probably ought to share it with the voters.
Would you vote for a bloke who believed this stuff?

The Kleist & Lilly New Testament

This is the sixth in a series on obscure Bible translations. I've restricted the candidates to those I've been able to personally acquire and examine.

James A. Kleist SJ and Joseph L. Lilly CM. The New Testament: Rendered from the Original Greek with Explanatory Notes. Bruce Publishing, 1954.

Catholic Bible translations are invariably more interesting than those of the run-of-the-mill kind. For a start they usually sound good when read aloud. This is, after all, the way they were received in ancient times when the common folk who gathered in synagogue or Christian assembly were largely illiterate. Many modern translations are tone deaf to this reality. Those traditions which retain formal lectionary readings are more authentic to this original practice.

And then, with an occasional hiccup in deference to dogma, Catholic translations tend to be more scholarly than the more popular offerings dominating the evangelical marketplace. Vatican II had something to do with that.

But there are also the pioneering Catholic translators like Ronald Knox, producing brilliant work well in advance of the impetus from Vatican II. Among these hardy souls were James Kleist and Joseph Lilly whose New Testament first saw the light in the early 1950's. Kleist was responsible for the gospels, Lilly for everything else.

Sample passages; John 1: 1-3
When time began, the Word was there,
      and the Word was face to face with God,
      and the Word was God.
This Word, when time began,
      was face to face with God.
All things came into being through him,
      and without him there came to be
      not one thing that has come to be.
John 7: 14-17
By the time the feast was half over, Jesus went up to the temple to teach. The Jews were puzzled, "How is it," they said, "that this man is able to read? He has had no regular schooling!" In explanation, therefore, Jesus said to them: "My teaching is not my own invention. It is his whose ambassador I am. Anyone in earnest about doing his will can form a judgment of my teaching, to decide whether it originates with God, or whether I speak my own mind.
It's a good, clear translation that still reads well sixty years later, though long since superseded by more ambitious projects like the New American Bible.

Earlier entries in this series:
The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction by Norman A. Beck (Fairway, 2001)
The New Testament in the Language of Today by William F. Beck (Concordia, 1963)
God's New Covenant: A New Testament Translation by Heinz W. Cassirer (Eerdmans, 1989)
The Translator's New Testament (The British & Foreign Bible Society, 1973)
An Expanded Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul by F. F. Bruce (Paternoster, 1965)

Saturday 17 October 2015

Nigerian Pastor exposes tithing hypocrisy

Many readers of this blog would be loath to take advice from a Nigerian pastor on the subject of tithing.

But Femi Aribisala may make you think again.

This gentleman "is currently an iconoclastic church pastor in Lagos." He has a Ph.D in International Relations from St Catherine's College, Oxford.

When it comes to the practice of tithing he pulls no punches. Check out his article "Every Pastor Who Collects Tithes is a Thief." Here's how he concludes his piece.
Tithing was only applicable to Jews and to the land of Israel. When large populations of Jews lived in Babylon, Ammon, Moab, Egypt, and Syria, these lands became tithe-able lands. However, tithes were not acceptable from strictly Gentile lands. So you need to ask your pastor how come he is collecting tithes in Nigeria. 
Servants or slaves who worked on the land did not tithe because the land did not belong to them. Since only agricultural and animal resources were included, a fisherman gave no tithe of his fisheries. Neither did a miner or a carpenter pay tithes, nor anyone from the various professional occupations. So if you are not a farmer or a keeper of livestock, tell your ... pastor tithing is biblically inapplicable to you. 
Moreover, the only people authorized to receive tithes were the Levites. (Hebrews 7:5). So if your Pastor is a “tithe-collector,” ask him if he happens to be a Jew. Remind him that, even though a Jew, Jesus could not receive the tithe because he was not from the tribe of Levi but from that of Judah. 
The trick, of course, is for pastors today to claim we are “Levites.” If your pastor is one such dissembler, ask him if he lives as a Levite. Remind him that Levites had no land and did not have private property. Ask him also how he knows he is from the tribe of Levi, which happens to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. Point out to him that even Jewish rabbis don’t claim to be Levites today because all Jewish genealogical records were lost with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, ensuring that it is no longer possible to ascertain the true identity of Levites. 
Therefore, if Jews no longer tithe because the Levites are a lost tribe, how can Christian pastors collect tithes when we are not even Jewish, how much more Levites? If Jewish rabbis, whose terms of reference remain the Old Testament no longer collect tithes, then pastors who insist Christians are under a New Testament have no business doing so. 
The conclusion then is inescapable. Every pastor who collects tithes is nothing but “a thief and a robber.” (John 10:1). 
The last time I read anything as direct and unflinching as this it was Ernie Martins "Tithing Fallacy" booklet.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Dutch Israelites?

Many of us are familiar with the theory of British Israelism, the idea that the "ten lost tribes" - particularly Ephraim and Manasseh - ended up in English-speaking countries. But have you heard of the Dutch Israelites? It seems the Dutch were first Europeans off the block in claiming for themselves a biblical lineage.

The genius behind this claim (and he actually was a clever bloke when he wasn't trying to expound on the Bible) was Johannes Goropius Becanus, born in 1519. This polymath believed the Garden of Eden was located in Antwerp, and that the language of Eden was Dutch (specifically the Antwerp dialect).

Proof was abundant if you studied etymology. "According to Becanus, Adam apparently derived from the Dutch compound Haat-Dam (Dam-Against-Hate) and Eve is Eeuw-Vat (The-Eternal-Barrel)."
According to Dutch Israelites, the Dutch were one of the lost tribes of Israel, namely the Zebulun. After all, one of the children of Zebulun was called Helon, who gave his name to Holland. Some outlying Dutch fundamentalists still believe this...
This identification of Zebulun with the Netherlands was later carried over into the British version. The Dutch could be graciously conceded their identity as the tribe of Zebulun as long as Anglo-Saxons could appropriate the more important tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) unto themselves. The Brits however only came to this amazing discovery after the Dutch, given that John Sadler, Oliver Cromwell's private secretary, was the first to indulge the fantasy. Sadler was born in 1615.

An Anglican scholar named C. T. Dimont summed it all up in 1933 - around the time a certain Herbert Armstrong uncritically adopted the whole kit and kaboodle - with the words, "It must be said quite clearly that British-Israel turns the Bible into a handbook of national megalomania".

All of which seems very quaint today, except for the fact that a number of apocalyptic sects that venerate Armstrong still actively promote British Israelism, albeit often tied in with a rabid American exceptionalism. National megalomania still accompanies the teaching.

I'm indebted for much of this information to the article by Khaled Diab, "Did Adam and Eve Speak Dutch", featured in Haaretz.

But still, I'm tempted to add, it's all Dutch to me.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

I hate typos!

As a former teacher I'm used to proof reading. Without false humility I'm tempted to say I'm pretty good at it, without being overly pedantic in the awful Fowler's Modern English Usage sense. Provided it's someone else's text I'm checking; my own is another story.

The problem, as any writer, great or small, will tell you, is that one tends to read over one's own mistakes. The eye simply glides past, assuming that what you actually wrote is exactly what you meant in your head.

The best method of self-checking is to let a piece lie for a while, to the point where you've almost forgotten what you wrote. You come back to it fresh, and those stupid typos fairly leap off the screen (or the paper, if you're into ancient technologies) at you. Unfortunately the nature of blogging is about hitting the publish button right now - if not sooner.

Thankfully most blog readers are indulgent when it comes to this sort of thing. "Poor old Gavin," they think, "maybe he's been hitting the hooch again." Alas not, I'm too much of a self-control freak not to know my limits.

I'm comforted by the terrible faux pas that pass scrutiny in the online edition of Auckland's pretentious morning newspaper ('Granny Herald' to the initiated), let alone other amateur blogs where passionate citizen journalism overwhelms mere spelling and grammar concerns.

Misery loves company.

Unlike tweets, blog posts can, of course, be corrected. It's a rare thing that the first version of an Otagosh piece remains unaltered. Usually it gets finessed over the next hour - no so much corrected but re-edited. If you're picking this up as v.1.0 on something like Feedly, chances are v.3.9 is already up on the website.

Slight exaggeration, but not by much.

As you've probably guessed, this post is inspired by my latest typo, now scrubbed.

I guess, in the immortal words of somebody called Jarod Kintz, “There are two typos of people in this world: those who can edit and those who can’t.”

Armstrongism's Zionist Voice

Chloe Valdary's name isn't one I'd heard of till recently. A young black women, she is a vigorous pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian activist: "a hardcore advocate of what she calls a “Jewish one-state solution” -- of total Jewish dominion over all of historic Palestine, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea", and a collaborator with right wing extremist David Horowitz. Max Blumenthal has described Valdery as “beyond sickening” and “irrationally hateful” — and a “non-Jew” who represents “the future of Zionism.”
In a video produced by the right-wing Jewish radio jock Dennis Prager, Valdary proclaimed that the black protesters at  Ferguson and their white progressive allies are a greater threat to the United States than the Ku Klux Klan.
 Valdary has been profiled in The Times of Israel.

Perhaps of interest to many readers of this blog, she is also a member of the late Garner Ted Armstrong's Intercontinental Church of God. Her father, Max Valdary, is a minister in the sect. " At last year's Feast of Tabernacles Valdary delivered a sermon "praising Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom slave character as a model Christian."

Given the level of political invective spouted forth by Mark Armstrong that's probably not surprising.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Missouri Synod Misery

If your pastor says unpleasant things about you to others in your church, do you have any redress? What if you end up excommunicated (disfellowshipped)? Must you just "take it on the chin"?

It seems these issues will get tested in Minnesota after an elderly couple were excommunicated from their Missouri Synod congregation. The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to hear LaVonne Pfeil’s argument that judges should have a role in sorting out what’s said in church if it damages someone’s reputation far beyond the congregation.
“I lost my church, I lost my husband, lost my reputation, lost a lot of money,” said Pfeil, who’s 79 years old. “I can go to a grocery store. If people see me, they turn around with their cart. I used to know everybody. Now I have no friends.”
Some of us might be reminded of parallels in other religious organisations.

Predictably the LCMS isn't backing down.
That prospect would be a “terrible and dangerous decision,” according to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which filed an amicus brief in the case: “Courts should not pry into the mind of a pastor with respect to his judgment that a member of his congregation sinned.
"Terrible and dangerous"? Perhaps not nearly as bad as a ministerial entitlement to ruin people's lives.

Meanwhile the LCMS hierarchy has launched "what various members consider the equivalent of a modern-day heresy trial" against Matthew Becker, a pastor and academic.
Becker is a theology professor at Valparaiso University, an independent Lutheran institution in Valparaiso, Ind., about an hour’s drive from Chicago. Becker has raised questions about the church’s stance against the ordination of women, as well as its teaching of creationism, or the literal reading of the biblical book of Genesis. 
Becker’s insistence on talking about such issues has led certain members of the church to file charges against him to the synod, triggering several investigations. 
To the disappointment of some, including [LCMS President Matthew] Harrison, church panels handling the investigations have consistently cleared Becker, allowing him to remain in the church. 
Yet, Becker, 52, was officially ousted last week, suddenly no longer a member of the church in which he was raised, though he remains on faculty at Valparaiso University.
Can't you just feel the love!

Monday 12 October 2015

Glynn Washington on growing up in the Worldwide Church of God

Glynn Washington, host of NPR's Snap Judgement, grew up in the Worldwide Church of God. In a recent interview he talks about its influence in his life (if you're following the interview link scroll down to the "full interview" - at just over 34 minutes - rather than the shorter edited version.)

It's a fascinating and insightful account (though he manages to relocate Petra from Jordan to Syria.) He talks about the end times predictions, a personal incident concerning the healing doctrine and its impact on others, what it's like being Black in a church that teaches British Israelism, along with what he misses about being a part of the WCG.

He also clearly labels WCG, as it existed then, as a cult, and justifies his opinion by several credible criteria... no argument here!  His tipping point in the decision to leave was the discovery that the Bible has far more complex origins than those the church assumed.

Following the interview the host read out a statement from the Tkach GCI that amounted to a mea culpa - but insisted that things had changed. Interestingly they described Washington not as a former member but "associate" of the church. Perhaps that's the new term to describe their members - people who still have little or no rights or representation in the sect.

These days he's a high profile story-teller, and he credits the WCG for the inspiration - though definitely not in a way that flatters the organisation.

One of the best ex-member interviews. Compulsory listening if you've "done time" in the original church, Grace Communion International, or any of the spin-offs.

Sunday 11 October 2015

America: The Time is Now! (Again)

America Listen!

Oops. Wrong title.

The United Church of God keeps pulling the same ratty old rabbit out the hat hoping each time it'll impress somebody.

The lads are on the road again, heading to San Antonio (and beyond), hoping to ride the wave of conservative angst in the lead-up to next year's election. Predictably they're going to hit the hot-buttons that resonate with Republican voters.
We have a vital message to help you make sense of the monumental changes in today’s world. The United States Supreme Court has just ruled that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. What will this mean to the next generations? For those of us with children and grandchildren, we may well ask: What kind of world will our children inherit? Beyond this one ruling we see many other signs of cultural change that makes us wonder what the future holds. Will there be a world to inherit? 
Then there is increasing and dangerous political unrest. The Middle East is in crisis. Europe is increasing its role as a world power to counter what is happening in the Middle East and from Russia. At the same time, America, the world’s leading power and long-standing bastion of liberty and freedom, is losing share in global leadership. 
Sounds like a promo for a presidential hopeful, but no, the boys are selling the usual prophetic snake oil.
This is a sobering time! But God has a message for you to help you understand, cope and survive these times. We need to seriously consider what God has to say. 
God is not absent from this world. He is the God of history. He directs great events that will culminate in His purpose and plan for humankind. God has a purpose  for your life , and you can understand what that great purpose is.
I'm old enough to remember the America Listen! campaign of the early seventies - as, I hasten to add, a scrawny teenage co-worker. Perhaps it had some impact on church growth, but not as much as the media scandal around its presenter (Garner Ted Armstrong) shortly thereafter. Oops.

Sanctimonious bigot Franklin Graham is off on down the same rat-hole with his Decision America Tour, though he's more explicit in his intentions. He doesn't just want to ride the wave, he wants to make the waves.

But there's a problem. Those "signs of cultural change that makes us wonder what the future holds" are increasingly seen in a positive light, not as scary, by a growing section of the demographic, especially younger adults. UCG is stuck in a generational Ground-hog Day loop. The old fellows at the wheel are increasingly out of step with the changing times.

The folk who turn out in San Antonio are unlikely to be a particularly diverse bunch. Mainly white, mainly old, mainly Republican-leaning. They'll find it unimaginable that same-sex marriage might be okay. Cultural change for them will be threat not promise. They'll be pessimistic about the future and paranoid about international affairs. They'll be fans of Fox News and few of them will have ventured beyond the borders of the US.

Which is pretty much a description of the current membership. Like attracts like.

America: The Time is Now! is just another knee-jerk.

And it's not a strategy for growth.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Another Beck New Testament

This is the fifth in a series on obscure Bible translations. I've restricted the candidates to those I've been able to personally acquire and examine.

Norman A. Beck. The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction. Fairway Press, 2001.

Where William Beck translated the NT from a conservative Missouri Synod perspective in the 1960s (see the previous entry in this series), Norman Beck did the same thing in 2001 from a progressive ELCA background. Both might be Lutheran pastors, but they achieved very different things.

Beck is a professor at Texas Lutheran with a Ph.D from Princeton. His is a "functional equivalence translation" that attempts to depreciate anti-Jewish polemic along with whatever relegates women to a subordinate status. "Therefore, the most viciously anti-Jewish and the most blatantly sexist segments are printed in small-print form in this translation." (p.4)

The books of the NT have also been put in chronological order, though that obviously involves a degree of guesswork. First up is 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Peter takes the caboose position.

Beck also provides an alternate four year lectionary for those churches that have a regular cycle of readings.
When we moved from one year lectionaries to three year lectionaries, we added many texts that are defamatory to Jews. This Four Year Lectionary avoids the use of such texts... At the same time, this new Four Year Lectionary incorporates a significantly larger amount of biblical material... (p.623)
This then is a NT that stands out in a crowd.

My first observation is that Beck isn't afraid to acknowledge the racism and sexism within the NT rather than tie himself in knots with an apologetic of denial. That's a good thing. Beck's main strategy has been to reduce the impact of these texts by reducing font size and encouraging us to read over them. While this may leave many conservatives spluttering, it isn't unprecedented. Even the Bible Society has been known to do just this, but using the criteria of relevance (with the "boring bits".) Most of the OT book of Numbers, for example, gets this exact treatment in various editions of the RSV and New English Bible, though they didn't venture to try it in the NT.

But the proof of any translation is in the prose. How does it stack up?

A sample from 1 Timothy 2: 8-12 (the second section follows Beck's decision to place verses he finds objectionable in very small print.)
Therefore I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up their consecrated hands without anger or dispute. Likewise, I want the women to adorn themselves in respectable clothing, with modesty and decency, not in braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive garments, but to express themselves through good works, which is proper for women expressing reverence for God.
It is my personal opinion that a woman should learn in silence, with respect for the authority of others. I personally do not permit a woman to teach a man nor to exercise authority over a man. I want a woman to express reverence for God in silence.
If you're looking for a literal translation, avoid this one like the plague. If you're looking for a translation that takes account of twenty first century Western sensibilities, this may be just the thing.

There are, needless to say, a lot of passages in John's gospel that have been relegated to small size due to unflattering references to Jews, the two longest being John 8: 37-59 and 19: 4-16.

Unfortunately the book suffers from poor choices in design, layout and font, essential factors in readability. It's these factors, rather than the laudable attempt to redress issues of polemic, that limit its appeal for me. A professional publisher would have done a far better job, giving it a longer life in print. Currently only available second hand.

Earlier entries in this series:

Whatever happened to The Plain Truth?

What a great job Greg Albrecht has done with The Plain Truth.

Remember The Plain Truth? It used to be a magazine. Now it's more like a supermarket mailer, a mere eight pages long, and only six issues a year. Maybe Greg has guilty nightmares about retaining that name as PTM (Plain Truth Ministries) seems to have starved The Plain Truth in favour of a new quarterly "flagship magazine" with the engaging title CWR Magazine.

In the current PT Greg announces yet another "great leap backwards".
Last month we stopped airing audio broadcasts of Christianity Without Religion on several radio stations in the United States. We continue to broadcast on several other radio stations, and we have added a new station in Northern Ireland. We were able to use the funds we used to pay for airtime on the cancelled radio stations to accept an offer for our sermons as well as other resources to appear on OnePlace hosts a wide variety of Christian ministries, enabling people around the world to find and listen to many radio and web sermons and messages. We are encouraged by the number of new readers/listeners/visitors we have received thus far from OnePlace.
Great spin, but there's a stunning lack of detail... "several radio stations", "several other". No listing of stations anywhere on the site either. What it all seems to mean is "cost cutting time".

So now Greg is sandwiched in with Dobson, MacArthur, Swindoll, Ham, Jeremiah, Warren, Ankerberg, Hanegraaf, and those inimitable banana boys Kirk Cameron & Ray Comfort, among others. In short, every foul and unclean bird in the evangelical aviary. Ironic then that Greg proclaims in his October partner (i.e. co-worker) letter: "AS CHRIST-FOLLOWERS, WE ARE VOLUNTEER CHANGE-MAKERS, JOINING TOGETHER TO OPPOSE CHRIST-LESS, BIG BUSINESS RELIGION."

And yes, the upper case yelling is in the original. Clearly you can take the evangelist out of the WCG, but not the WCG out of the evangelist. Check it out - if only to keep your disgust fresh.

Nice though (and a tad ironic) that he has another former Worldwide Church of God evangelist for company over at OnePlace; Ron Dart (Born to Win), where it seems they're not all that choosy about whose cheques they bank.

Friday 9 October 2015

Winds of Change at CoG7

Jason Overman and Calvin Burrell, current and past BA editors
If anything is a "mother church" to the squabbling sects that remain from the dissolution of the Worldwide Church of God, it has to be CoG7, the Denver-based Church of God (Seventh Day).

CoG7 (or CG7, whichever acronym you prefer) is an enduring remnant of the movement that also produced the Seventh-day Adventist church. The SDAs went forth to become the multi-million member denomination that brought us corn flakes and Ben Carson. CoG7 settled for a more modest trajectory.

CoG7 has had its own issues over the years, but it would be fair to say that they've been settled without a fraction of the melodrama that characterises its bickering daughter churches. Today, just as they did during Herbert Armstrong's early ministry, they still publish The Bible Advocate magazine.

The church is now seeing new leadership emerge. Loren Stacey is the new president of the General Conference following the retirement of Whaid Rose, and Jason Overman has become editor of the BA after Calvin Burrell's many years at the helm. A smooth and peaceful transition? Imagine that!

CoG7 is a fundamentalist Sabbatarian body, it's true, and I expect that would be reason enough for many of us to not take it seriously. But it also demonstrates an openness and accountability that stands in marked contrast to similar and related groups many readers of this blog will be more familiar with. Without an authoritarian top-down structure it provided what could have been a benign and unifying model for the re-structuring of the post-Armstrong WCG. That the Tkach cabal chose to ignore that option and instead pretend to have some kind of "episcopal" form of government is perhaps the most damning indictment of the so-called reforms that eventually led to its re-branding as Grace Communion International.

In his "State of the Church Address" at the recent General Conference, outgoing president Whaid Rose reflected back on the denomination as it was in 1998 (he was appointed in '97).
I assured the membership that there are no plans to throw out the Sabbath and Ten Commandments. There are no plans to bring about organizational ties with the Worldwide Church of God.
Rose's retirement should, one would hope, not go unnoticed by Joe Tkach, who should have stepped aside years ago. One doubts he will take the hint though, and there's little indication that he has put in place a workable transition plan.

There have been times in the past when CoG7 must have felt upstaged by its precocious offspring. In the end however it has demonstrated the staying power that has eluded its desperately troubled daughters and granddaughters.

The Beck New Testament - the original

This is the fourth in a series on obscure Bible translations. I've restricted the candidates to those I've been able to personally acquire and examine.

William F. Beck. The New Testament in the Language of Today (also known as An American Translation). Concordia, 1963.

I grew up with William F. Beck's The New Testament in the Language of Today. In fact it was the first modern language translation to take a place alongside the KJV in the family home. The reason was simple; Beck was a Missouri Synod pastor and his New Testament bore the hallowed Concordia imprint. Reason enough for it to be promoted in our Lutheran congregation.

These days I regard the Missouri Synod with jaundiced eyes, and view anything published by Concordia with deepest suspicion. But these were the 1960s, and the Seminex crisis was still on a distant horizon.

The thing is, Beck came up with something quite fresh and straightforward. It is certainly conservative, like its creator, but both simple and contemporary in language. It leans (sometimes heavily) toward a Lutheran understanding of key passages, but doesn't wear that bias on its sleeve.

A sample from Galatians 3: 19-20:
Why, then, was the Law given? It was added to arouse transgressions until the Descendant would come to whom the promise was made. And it was given through angels in the hands of a mediator. A mediator deals with more than one, but God is one.
Beck's NT was expanded to include the Old Testament in 1976, noted for its "Christocentric" treatment of passages thought to be prophecies of Christ. Published posthumously, it was later to morph into the God's Word Translation, in the process shedding its identification with the Missouri Synod and Concordia and moving into the larger evangelical marketplace. In my view it suffered through a ham-fisted attempt at improvement.

Against my better judgement I'm still fond of the original Beck's NT. But to complicate matters there's another even more obscure Beck NT, and one that's very different from this one. That'll be next up in this series.

Earlier entries in this series:

Spanky Speaketh

Another issue of Tomorrow's World, another rant by Roderick "Spanky" Meredith. This time the old boy is laying into (you might even say spanking) "all Protestants".
As a former Protestant with many family members still Protestant, I feel compelled to warn you of a soon-coming disaster! Most of the Protestant churches will not even exist a decade or two from right now!
Wow, talk about qualified to comment! Just look at that first sentence. Half the readers of this blog share those credentials. And look, a wee prophecy: most Protestant churches will be gone in twenty years. How come?
Millions of Protestant church members are voting with their feet and getting out. They are becoming Roman Catholics.
Millions? Really? It gets dumber as it goes on.
On the other hand, the Roman Catholic church appears to "stand" for a few things! And millions of confused people out there "searching for something"—anything of real substance—are slowly but surely beginning to look at the original "mother church" of Protestantism as a place of religious safety. Many observers realize that the perceived stability of Roman Catholicism is making it more and more attractive to former Protestants, who have grown tired of their own denominations "waffling" on so many issues. Students of Bible prophecy will not be surprised to see hundreds of thousands and even millions returning to their "mother church" in the next few years!
Poor old Rod, he seems to have missed all the news about Pope Francis. Hardly the hard-line pontiff needed to match up with the blood soaked Great Whore of Revelation.
My friends, millions more in this horribly confused world will soon turn to the Roman Catholic church.
Yup, there are those millions again, though I have to say there isn't yet much sign of my neighbours suddenly charging off to mass on Sunday morning. But Spanky knows this because he's got it all worked out based on a miraculous misunderstanding of the apocalyptic genre - and a bone-headed nineteenth-century exegesis of Matthew 24, Daniel and Revelation. Rod explains it thus.
They simply do not study their Bible with the care and attention they would apply to a book on history, mathematics or quantum physics.
Now there's your problem Roderick. The Bible is multi-genre ancient literature, and you'd have to be a complete moron to think you could read it like a text on history (!), mathematics (!!) or quantum physics (!!!)

Rod Meredith, noted authority on almost everything

On a bilious roll, Spanky drags out his authorities to impress us; Alexander Hislop's Two Babylons and "noted Protestant theologian" William Chillingworth.

Earth to Rod; Hislop's Two Babylons - first published in 1853 - has been thoroughly debunked. All you had to do was check out the Wikipedia entry if a bit of your own investigation was too much to ask.
Scholar Lester L. Grabbe has highlighted the picture presented by Hislop, that Nimrod is equated with Ninus is based on a misunderstanding of historical Babylon and its religion, however his book remains popular among some fundamentalist Protestant Christians and among Jehovah's Witnesses, with The Watchtower frequently publishing excerpts from Hislop until the 1980s. 
The book's thesis has also featured prominently in the conspiracy theories of racist groups such as The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord and other conspiracy theorists. [Wikipedia]
Rod should recognise Lester Grabbe's name. Lester began his academic career at Ambassador College, in the years since acquiring an international reputation in the field. Lester well knows what Rod refuses to see. Rod however would apparently prefer to hold hands with the nice people at The Watchtower and assorted conspiracy nuts.

If you thought Hislop was a bit on the dated side even for Meredith's reading list, William Chillingworth is even more antique. And not so "noted" really, as nobody much has heard about him for several centuries; he died in 1644!

Is it just me, or is there a whiff of irony in ballyhooing a "wake up call" to Protestants when you're relying on scholarship that hasn't been current for up to 350 years?

Rod is as welcome to an opinion on other churches as anyone else, and there's no doubt that he's splendidly accomplished at spotting splinters in other people's eyes, but perhaps he should beware of the boomerang-like properties of careless predictions. For all Francis' popularity, he will be doing well to simply shore up current Catholic membership in Western nations. And even given a growing irrelevance in the eyes of many, those pesky Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans are likely to be around for a very long time. Much longer one suspects than Mr Meredith's own tiny group, the Living Church of God. And would it be terribly cruel to point out that the original Meredith sect, the Global Church of God, imploded only a few years after it was founded?

None of which will stop similar tonsil-rattling rants by Presiding Evangelist Rod in upcoming issues of Tomorrow's World, which given the mouldering quality of his library resources might more properly be called Yesterday's World.

Thursday 8 October 2015

The Invisible Feast

The annual Feast of Tabernacles - celebrated by thousands in the various spin-offs from the Worldwide Church of God - is now over, and brethren are resuming their regular lives after eight days in attendance at hundreds of feast sites around the world.

What's fascinating this year, for the first time, is the almost complete lack of interest from local media. Usually you could count on at least a couple of stories appearing in the religion pages of newspapers, especially those close to where the feast was being hosted. After all, lots of people arriving in town for a major convention - and one with a funny name at that - is bound to arouse a little curiosity. Or not. Last year was sparse, but the nice folk at the Deseret News at least noticed. This year... almost nothing.

If anyone can provide a link to a story that bucks that trend, please send it in. Could it be that the Churches of God have now finally slipped into terminal irrelevance as far as the rest of the planet is concerned? If so, what does this say about the effectiveness of the media promotions - print, television and web - that the larger splinters throw bucketfuls of tithe dollars at?

UCG Feast site, Last Great Day in Sevierville, TN: did anybody notice?

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Revealing Paul's Gospel

"If revealed religions have revealed anything it is that they are usually wrong."
Francis Crick

Paul en route to the 3rd heaven: "Is one of you blokes called Moroni?"
James McGrath has a short but intriguing post up about Paul and his gospel. An excerpt:
It is interesting to reflect on something that Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. He emphasized that his message, his gospel, is not of human origin.
What is his gospel? He doesn't tell us in so many words, and although we may be able to deduce what it is from his letters, I think this is worth noting, and not considered often enough.
His gospel, the message he proclaimed, is something he says emphatically was of divine origin. And that is something he never had written down.
Whatever Jesus might have meant by "gospel of the kingdom", it's clear Paul's understanding is, to use the mildest of descriptions, somewhat expanded. Not only that, but uniquely his.

In fact, the consistent message Paul gives is, follow me, me, me.
Paul an apostle - sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father... Gal 1:1a
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Gal 1:11-12 
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 1 Cor. 11:1 
But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we have proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! Gal 1:8
And yet, despite making grandiose claims for himself and his gospel, Paul - as McGrath notes - never actually gets down to spelling it out in his letters. An oversight or a strategy? At best, to put things as positively as we can, it's implicit rather than explicit.

Grandiose personal claims you say? Surely not humble old Paul?
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ [a round about way to refer to himself] who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows - was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 2 Cor 12:2-4
How's that for a claim for legitimation via revelation. But, sorry folks, y'all don't have sufficient clearance to hear the details, but take it from me, I know stuff you poor schmucks have no idea about - and I ain't telling.

This gospel, says Paul, didn't come down the chain of authority from the other apostles, the guys who knew Jesus up close and personal. No, it came by revelation. To Paul. Just Paul. Specifically Paul.

Just as Joseph Smith had things revealed to him, and the prophet Muhammed. Ellen White had the gift of prophecy bestowed on her. I once chatted with an elderly lady in the Dugger faction of the Church of God who confided, with all due humility, that God revealed "wonderful things" to her. Indeed, she'd been permitted to actually behold the sea of glass mentioned in Revelation 15:2.

It's not hard to be sceptical about Joseph Smith's claims (unless you're a Mormon), or any of the others. But Paul? Surely not Paul?

Then again, why not?

James McGrath writes: "And so what we have from Paul are his own writings, and what he insisted was not merely his own creation he did not write down."

Now there's a conundrum.

Thursday 1 October 2015

"Old Earth Creationism"

Tim Widowfield has a provocative entry up on Vridar about "Old Earth Creationism", with special mention of James McGrath.

McGrath is seen as the bête noire of the kind of mythicism-friendly perspective that's promoted on Vridar, and with good reason. Dr McGrath is anything but tolerant of Jesus mythicism, comparing it (unjustifiably in my opinion) to Young Earth Creationism and any number of other regressive fringe movements. The tone of debate has been acerbic from the get-go... arguably with both sides equally short tempered.

Putting aside the mythicist/historicist conflict for a moment, maybe it's useful to take a few deep breaths before a further stouch is ignited over "Old Earth Creationism".

The first point I'd want to make - at the risk of oversimplifying a complex set of developments - is the difference between European Protestant Christian thought on evolution and belief, and the American experience. American fundamentalism was a reactionary movement that took fright at the rational approach that was emerging in European Christianity at the turn of the last century. The enemy wasn't, at least directly, science; it was the spectre of fellow Christians accommodating the post- Enlightenment knowledge then emerging about our world. This process was already well underway in mainline denominations.

The second point is that while this European tradition retained great influence even after the First World War, following World War II there was a huge shift. German theologians in particular were seen as dubious and discredited - it's easy to understand why - and the progressive momentum that had been built up was swept aside. Into the vacuum came the neo-orthodox theologians. Bultmann was ditched for the thin gruel of Karl Barth and his disciples who firmly rejected what they called "liberal theology". While they were certainly not fundamentalists themselves, their theology served to facilitate a return to the kind of myopic Bible-first mindset which then abandoned the field - especially among lay people - to the bottom feeders. Southern Baptist hell-fire and guilt evangelist Billy Graham, for example, was welcomed as a respected voice of Christianity well beyond the borders of the United States.

This reactionary form of Christianity was now exported on an unprecedented scale to other parts of the world, infected with fundamentalist presuppositions; witness the rise of Pentecostalism and the "prosperity gospel". In Europe, where the established churches had understandably lost credibility due to their pathetic response - or lack thereof - to the rise of fascism, the new populist memes quickly gained ground, appropriating terms like 'evangelical' to themselves.

It follows then that it's not quite correct to say that Christians of a liberal, progressive or radical persuasion today are just trying to backtrack, or indulge in devious apologetic moves. Nor is it exactly fair to lump those who fully accept evolution in with Genesis gap theorists of the Scofield Reference Bible variety - they are very different things. A label like "Old Earth Creationism" confuses categories horribly.

Which isn't to say that Tim hasn't made some telling points. The BioLogos statement he quotes, for example, seems facile and compromising. Progressive Christianity of the Sea of Faith variety, for example, is very different from that kind of dogma.

To be clear, I'm absolutely not trying to be an apologist for any kind of theism, or atheism for that matter. But theologies, like philosophies, can be subtle beasts. It doesn't hurt to acknowledge that.