Thursday 24 March 2016

The tea towel has been hung out to dry

And the winner is...
There'll be a few Aussies in mourning tonight. Our cousins across the Tasman, at least those among them with a sense of independent nationhood, were hoping New Zealand would adopt a new flag and thereby kick-start a similar debate in the Lucky Country.

In fact, we tossed out the uppity tea towel and kept the old design.

It's not that we don't need a new flag, a flag that dumps the anachronistic Union Jack. Times have changed. The Brits haven't qualified as "the old country" for many decades. But the Kyle Lockwood-designed pretender just wasn't up to the job.

And our brilliant Prime Minister didn't help things along. His partisanship for change helped form a stronger anti-vote. Every time he opened his cake-hole the tea towel lost support.

Nor did it help that know-it-all radio, television and newspaper non-journalist Mike Hosking tried to tell the country to vote for change. If Hosking is in favour then the rule of thumb is that anyone with active brain cells should oppose.

And oppose we did.

The Lockwood pretender
New Zealanders have never been particularly flag-conscious, unlike our American brethren. We don't salute the thing or have our kids recite pledges of allegiance. But the flag debate has stirred up a bit of the primal, and flags have been flying in front yards up and down the country in a way that's unprecedented. The received flag much, much more than the Lockwood tea towel.

We'll need to take another crack at it when we become a republic in the hopefully not too distant future. Once Elizabeth passes from the scene it'll be hard to transfer loyalty to Good King Chuckie. But then, with a bit of luck, we'll have a flag that Kiwis can genuinely embrace.

And I daresay we'll still beat the Ockers to the punch.

Wednesday 23 March 2016


It must be Easter.

I saw the movie Risen today. Jesus is a Kiwi.

No, really. Actor Cliff Curtis, star of Fear of the Walking Dead (how appropriate is that!) has moved from zombies to the Lord of Life. As a proud New Zealander, I don't want to say his portrayal is a bit vacuous, but...

It's Joseph Fiennes who adds the character with long, intense, meaningful looks; though it's doubtful that this will rank as his finest performance. He portrays Clavius, a Roman tribune who is present at the crucifixion and is given the job of finding the missing body.

Pilate is portrayed as a bit of an egg who was pressured by the Sanhedrin into doing the deed. Yup, all that modern scholarship to the contrary, the Jews are responsible. And then the shroud of Turin gets chucked in for good measure. Oh yeah, the disciples have all the edginess of the Seven Dwarves on happy pills.

As a biblical epic, this one doesn't really achieve lift off. As a swords and sandals costume drama it's not completely terrible.

Sunday 20 March 2016

The Easter Panacea

The Jehovah's Witnesses dropped their Passover brochure on the front doorstep last week. They're doing their annual Lord's Supper service on Wednesday night. As I understand it, almost nobody actually takes a sip of wine or eats the wafer/matzo/bread. That's reserved for the 144,000 who must now be extremely thin on the ground. I guess they just display the elements, listen to a message, read some verses and sing a bit. The leaflet says, "You will hear an explanation of how his death can benefit you and your family."

Come grab the benefit!

Later came the letterbox drop from the mainline Hope Project, a fat little 34-page mini-booklet. It's supported by a wide range of churches, but the tone is heavily evangelical. We'll come back to that.

Yesterday it was the turn of UCKG.

UCKG is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a South American sect. They're promoting their Easter services. The front cover illustration could have come straight out of Mel Gibson's splatter-epic The Passion of the Christ. Their slogan of choice: "Was It In Vain?"

UCKG gets a (deservedly?) bad press; but put your doubts aside. If you attend on Good Friday you'll get a free gift.
There's a nice Bible verse - this time not in caps lock - to follow: "... who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness - by whose stripes you were healed."

Healed. Thus saith the brochure:
Let's think together, it doesn't make any sense for Him to have conquered good health for you and yet you struggle with health issues; love and unity in relationships, but yours is falling apart; a rich and successful life only for you to lack the basic necessities; inner peace, but your mind is constantly tormented. It doesn't make sense! This is why for us, Good Friday is not a day of mourning - it's a day to stand up and claim the benefits of faith in God. We believe that there is nothing in this world that's too strong for Him; no addiction, financial problem, faily feud, health issue, love triangle or tragedy that an active faith in God cannot solve.
"Let's think together", just what kind of person is this targeted toward? Isn't this just manipulating people who are having a hard time in their lives? Bear in mind that other than healing, UCKG is very big on tithing.

Bring out the snake oil. Or, in this case, the holy hankies.

The thing is, while the UCKG advertising is crass and obvious in its appeal, the Hope booklet isn't really all that far removed, just more subtle and nuanced. The blood has been mopped up and things are a good deal nicer all round. But it's still the Jesus panacea. Is this really what Christianity is all about? It's hard not to wince when you come across a section titled "The ultimate insurance" (p.25).

The Easter story (or Christian Passover account if you prefer) has got to be about more than this, surely?

Saturday 19 March 2016

Mythicists put their case

Raphael Lataster
Raphael Lataster (University of Sydney) engages with Richard Carrier on the issue of the Jesus myth theory, recorded recently and sponsored by Mythicist Milwaukee. The audio is available here. This is a long presentation, 97 minutes, but probably worth the time investment if you're interested in the subject.

Lataster calls himself a 'Jesus agnostic', so this isn't a debate from both extremes. Something here to offend everybody behind the apologetic barriers. James McGrath gets a bit of a drubbing, so I expect he'll have something to say in due course.

Friday 18 March 2016

Religion - a fairly comprehensive guide

When Issac Asimov wanted to get the gist of a subject that was new to him, so the story goes, he headed for the children's section of his local library. If you're writing for kids you have to pare back the verbiage and express your ideas clearly. Kids aren't impressed by pretentious writing. Too bad we grow out of that. Asimov was onto something.

Now, just released this month, there's a DK title in the Penguin Random House stable that proves the point once again. It's called All About Religion, and it's a class act.

This illustrated large-format paperback isn't just about the Abrahamic faiths. Nor is there a whiff of apologetics. Atheism gets a fair treatment, and the approach taken is to open up the reader's thinking to the diversity that's out there. Given that it's under 100 pages and not text-dense, it does an amazing job of covering a lot of bases. Sikhs, Baha'i, Ninian Smart, the Nicene Creed, Sunni and Shia, yoga, Theravada and Mahayana, Mary Baker Eddy, Falun Gong, Feng shui, Humanism, Rationalism, Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, the hijab, Rastafarian dietary laws, Dawkins, Laozi... all get at least an introduction.

Aled Jones gets credit on the cover, but he actually just wrote the foreword. Jones first reached international fame as a boy soprano (his 1986 recording of Faure's Requiem with the Royal Philharmonic under Richard Hickox is still one of the best available) and went on to survive his stint as a child prodigy to pursue a career in British television and radio. We can all be grateful that Aled was in on the project and not N. T. Wright.

Being a kid's title - geared to smart 12-year-olds or thereabouts - it's not particularly expensive, and for most of us adults this is a great Religion 101, minus all the puffery.

Asimov would, I think, approve.

Link: the DK website.

Thursday 17 March 2016

A new Tanakh

The Israel Bible is a new online resource for reading the Hebrew Bible. You can listen to the Hebrew version of the text and read along in English or Hebrew.

The focus of this translation is on the real estate in Palestine.
The Land of Israel is the most central aspect of the Bible with references to the land appearing on nearly every page... The Israel Bible is the world’s first Bible to highlight the Land of Israel, the People of Israel, and the unique relationship between them. The Israel Bible provides an original commentary which seeks to explain God’s focus on the Land of Israel.  In doing so, our commentary features comments pertaining to the Land of Israel, the People of Israel and the language of Israel.
So there's an agenda, one that might give readers pause in light of the illegal settlements issue and the legitimate concerns raised by BDS advocates. The endorsements so far aren't exactly stellar either, and one of the scholars responsible for the Israel Bible speaks of "his vision for honoring and nurturing evangelical Christian support for Jews and the Jewish homeland".

With those qualifications, it's still an interesting resource. How it is received as more people become aware of it and it is critiqued by a broader range of scholars is a significant question for the future.

(HT to Charles Savelle.)

Tuesday 15 March 2016

A Presbyterian Xmas, 1943

(Excerpt from Lloyd Geering's 2015 book On Me Bike: Cycling round New Zealand 80 years ago.)

December 1943
"Three days before Christmas Day I went down to the Kurow railway station and consigned our bikes to Picton. That year Christmas Day fell on a Monday, and as it was my first Christmas as a parish minister I decided to conduct a service in the Kurow Church on Christmas Day. In those days this was something of a novelty in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, because our denomination had long followed the tradition of the Church of Scotland in abandoning the observance of Christmas, Lent, Easter, and all the saints' days as Romish practices for which there was no biblical warrant. The observance of what is known as the Christian Year was only just emerging in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand when I was a student, having been introduced by the 'high-church' ministers whose lead I had decided to follow.
"An illustration of how strongly some people felt about this innovation comes from my own experience that very year. Nancy and I had two recently married friends, Rod and Olwyn Stockwell, to holiday with us over Christmas. Olwyn was the daughter of a staid Presbyterian minister and, on finding that I was conducting worship on Christmas Day, flatly refused to accompany us to church or allow her Anglican husband to do so, even though they were guests in our home. Nancy and I took no offence, but did allow ourselves to be quietly amused by it all." (p.100-101)

Thursday 10 March 2016

Trump doesn't like losers

Donald Trump excites a lot of attention well beyond the borders of the USA. I still haven't met a Kiwi of whatever political persuasion who can believe that this man could actually become president of the most powerful country on earth.

The billboard shown is now on display outside St Luke's Presbyterian Church in Auckland.

Minister Glynn Cardy commented:
"For those of us at St Luke's, the cross is about politics. Jesus was killed - violently, publicly and shamefully - because he spoke truth to power and confronted the leaders of his day about their treatment of the outcasts. 
"To the Trumps of his day, and to those who see winners as having money and power, the Jesus of the Bible was a loser who associated with those rejected by society. And he died broke. 
"Jesus had an alternative vision of reality, however. He was a person who sided with minorities and those who were most vulnerable, and it was this that got him killed."
You can read the story in today's NZ Herald here.

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Esther - what's going on here?

Esther is one of the books that's found in all modern versions of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic. But when was the last time you saw it used to furnish a proof text? Esther is a ripping yarn, but even Deuteronomy gets more exposure.

The likely reason, as David Lamb recently pointed out, is that God is conspicuously absent in Esther. The Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible spells out the background.
Esther purports to be recounting real events, but it is historicized fiction... The most remarked-upon characteristic of the book of Esther is its failure  to mention God even once; this lack of overt religiosity caused the book to have difficulty obtaining canonical status in Christianity... the book contains no prayers or hymns, and the heroine Queen Esther is married to a Gentile, does not observe the dietary laws, and to all appearances leads a completely secular life. (Crawford, "Esther").
 Crawford suggests that Esther was written to provide an etiology (explanation) for how the festival of Purim came to be.
The origins of Purim are cloudy; it first appears in the postexilic period, but its antecedents may lie in a pagan festival, either a Persian or Babylonian spring festival... The genre of the book of Esther is a novella or short story...
It gets even more curious. There are three different versions of Esther. Jews and Protestants use the Masoretic edition in their Bibles. Catholics and Orthodox use the longer Septuagint version (which does mention God and add a layer of piety). A third Greek version is similar, but not identical, to the LXX.

So what's going on? David Lamb, who teaches at Biblical Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, writes:
The problem with Esther, as many Bible readers already know, is that God is never mentioned in the book.  Neither of the most common terms for God appear (elohim, YHWH) any where in the book. Unlike the book of Daniel, the book of Esther never records anyone praying, receiving a vision or a dream, or meeting with an angelic being.
When Christians talk about the book of Esther, it can feel a bit like we’re playing Where’s Waldo?  We search diligently as we read each verse, running our finger over the text looking for God until we reach a point and yell out, “There he is!”
I’m trying to avoid a “Where’s Waldo?” approach to finding God in the pages of Esther, but perhaps that’s inevitable.  The divinely inspired biblical authors felt the need to record Esther’s amazing story, and then include in the canon of Scripture, so I’m sure they had a good reason to do so.
David's bemusement is understandable if we assume that the "divinely inspired biblical authors felt the need to record Esther's amazing story, and then to include [it] in the canon of scripture". I'm a bit confused here, though. Is  he actually saying, as he seems to be, that the authors canonized the text? (I have this mental image of Moses, three guys named Isaiah, David and Daniel sitting around in the heavenly boardroom and Jeremiah calling for a show of hands: "Esther, in or out?") Is he implying that "Esther's amazing story" is historical? If so, then I guess that Esther's inclusion in the canon must have "had a good reason" behind it.

Then again, what if we simply follow where the evidence points and concede that Esther is historicized fiction, an intriguing etiological novella that was part of an emerging national literature in ancient Israel? It's in the Bible because people other than the "inspired authors" put it there. What if we give ourselves permission, along with the early Christians, to wonder at its relevance and legitimacy as scripture? Is that such a scary question? Isn't this a better approach than playing "Where's Waldo", when "Waldo" is clearly nowhere in the picture to begin with?

To attempt to shoehorn God into the Esther story - unless you're willing to accept the primacy of the LXX version - seems to me more eisegesis than an exercise in exegesis.

Sunday 6 March 2016

Three traditional Catholic Bibles online

HT to Catholic Bibles which has posted a link to Catholic Bible Online, where you can find the text of the Knox translation alongside the Douay-Rheims and the Latin Vulgate. The Knox translation, based on the Vulgate, was released in 1950, the work of Msgr. Ronald Knox.
The style of the translation is in idiomatic English and much freer in renderings of passages than the Douay version. With the Deuterocanonical books, the interpretation of the passages was brought closer to the Septuagint. When the Latin appeared to be doubtful, the translation of the text was based on other languages, with the Latin translation placed in the footnote. (Wikipedia entry)
If Douay-Rheims has an equivalence to the KJV, Knox was something of a Catholic Moffatt. It's nice to see it available again in the Internet age.

Saturday 5 March 2016

Journal updates now on Ambassador Watch

Just a reminder that information about and links to The Journal: News of the Churches of God now appears on Ambassador Watch. The latest (featuring issue 181) has now been posted there. As a rule, all COG-related content will now be available on AW, with more general postings here on Otagosh.

Valerie Tarico on the Evangelical brand

The Evangelical “brand” has gone from being an asset to a liability, and it is helpful to understand the transition in precisely those terms.

Valerie Tarico

Read it here.

Was Hitler a Christian?

The question is worth asking. Even Whoopi Goldberg has an opinion. Her logic, speaking on The View, wasn't exactly impeccable, but there's certainly an argument to be made in favour of the proposition.

Hitler was raised Catholic and remained a member all through his life.

He was never excommunicated and his opus, Mein Kamf, was never put on the church's index of banned books.

Hitler even claimed on a number of occasions to be a Christian. "My Christian feeling directs me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter...As a Christian I do not have the duty to allow the wool to be pulled over my eyes, but I have the duty to be a fighter for the truth and for what is right...As a Christian I also have a duty toward my own people."

It's hard not to draw a parallel with Donald Trump, a man many regard as the antithesis of Christianity and yet is a member in good standing in the Presbyterian church.

Which leads me back to Anthony Le Donne's post on Trump at The Jesus Blog. Here's the opening paragraph, substituting Hitler for Trump and changing the tense.
Adolf Hitler was a Catholic. He may well have been the most famous Catholic in the world at the time. Does this make Hitler a Christian? Well, I suppose, sort of…. yeah. As a Catholic myself, I would like to make a distinction between identity and representation. In other words, someone can be a Christian (e.g. many Nazis were) and not represent Christianity.
Does that work for you? Or how about this adaptation...
If someone claims a label—especially when that label represents an ideology—it is difficult to prove otherwise. But few will doubt that Hitler’s emphasis of his Christianity was political expediency... We should not commit the sin that American xenophobes did in claiming that Obama is not really a Christian... Rather we should acknowledge that there are Christians who do not, by their words or actions, represent Christianity.
Some may object to drawing a comparison between Trump and Hitler, but the issue is still relevant; what to think about someone who claims to be something when they fail, in your view, to meet essential criteria. That 'someone' could be a politician, an End Times televangelist, or just the guy next door who yells at his kids. (Of course, there are fundamentalists who would deny that Catholics could possibly be true Christians anyway. These are likely to be the very same people who respond most enthusiastically to Trump-like rhetoric).

Hitler was opposed in Germany by many Catholic organisations and public figures.
In the Spring of 1931, a Catholic Reichstag representative, Karl Trossman, published a best-selling book entitled Hitler and Rome, in which he described the National Socialists as a "brutal party that would do away with all the rights of the people"... Not long after, the Catholic author Alfons Wild... proclaimed that "Hitler's view of the world is not Christianity but the message of race, a message that does not proclaim peace and justice but rather violence and hate. (Cornwell, Hitler's Pope, p.110)
Similar warnings are being sounded today among thoughtful Christians, though the 'rank and file', as in Hitler's day, doesn't seem to be especially paying attention.

So does the "distinction between identity and representation" work for either (or both) men?

Le Donne concludes:
Is Trump a Christian? Yes. Does he represent my Christianity? No.
So is it fair to say, "Was Hitler a Christian? Yes. Did he represent my Christianity? No."?

Wednesday 2 March 2016

The Tobit story: fish therapy and a friendly dog

You won't find it in a standard Protestant Bible, but it's one of the treasures of the Septuagint, and included in Catholic Bibles. The book of Tobit (or Tobias) may well be my favourite deuterocanonical confection. It's a tall tale, part romance novel, that has inspired great art, novels and music down the centuries (along with a few attempts to use fish pastes in medical treatments.) Among those in modern times who've improvised on the narrative have been priest and novelist Andrew Greeley (in Angel Light), who transposed the characters into a computer-driven love story that moves from America to Ireland. It's an imaginative retelling well worth hunting down.

The composer Handel, the man behind The Messiah, is also credited with an oratorio on the book of Tobit... sort of. It's actually a recycling of Handel's earlier works, re-crafted to fit the Tobit narrative. It first saw the light in 1764, five years after the composer's death. While the libretto comes from another hand, the music is the master's own. Naxos has an affordable 2 CD recording.

Not at all imaginative is a prosaic essay I wrote on Tobit a few years back. Those of us raised on the "de-deuterated" 66-book canon often find ourselves at a loss when some wiseacre tosses in a reference to Sirach or Judith, so this was one way of bringing myself up to speed. Whatever else Tobit is or isn't, it's quite a yarn: a sort of (and yes, I'm stretching things a bit here) Tintin novella from the ancient world (and believe it or not - for anyone familiar with the Tintin series - an ancient precursor of 'Snowy' turns up in 6:2 and 11:4. How many other friendly dogs can you think of in the Good Book?)

Worth exploring in a modern translation. The best I could find online is from the New American Bible, Revised Edition.

(For more on Tobit's dog, follow this link.)

Off topic: a fascinating interview on Parkinson's

Broadcast on RNZ National this morning and available to listen and download.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Ninety-eight and still outpedalling the pack

Murray Rae was one of the fine people whose classes I took during my time working on a theology degree at Otago. Otago's most famous son, theologically speaking, is Sir Lloyd Geering. During my studies, however, his name was verboten, which seemed a tad strange. Idiot savants from Dallas Seminary might be counted among course readings, and you had to chuckle when we were served a prophylactic chapter from Bart Ehrman's New Testament text (the least controversial that could possibly be found), but Geering? The invisible scholar. You definitely got the impression that the 'management' didn't approve.

So it is with some delight I discovered this recent exchange in the Otago Daily Times. Round 1: Journalist Ian Harris ponders the God question.
Many things that are real in human experience can never be subjected to mathematical formulae, laboratory testing or microscopic analysis - whether you love your husband or wife, for example, your response to a movie or concerto, a war or a disaster. 
Those responses flow from your thought-world and the values you live by, not science.
Would anyone argue they're not real? 
That is the order of reality to which God-talk belongs. 
As English novelist Iris Murdoch neatly sums up: "God does not and cannot exist'' (that is, as a separate, objective being). 
"But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. What we need is a theology that can continue without God'' (again, as a separate, objective being). 
In other words, God happens in our heads (or not, as the case may be).
Provocative stuff, I guess. What will the people in pews make of it? But fear not; in due course cometh Round 2. Murray rides to the rescue.
He says that "ideas of God'' are generated by human thought.
I take him to mean, and I may be mistaken, that God has no reality apart from these ideas.
If that is what Mr Harris means, then he fails, after all, to uphold the principle with which he began, the principle of God's ontological otherness.
Mr Harris' "God'' belongs to the same order of being as worldly reality, in this case the reality of human thought.
Here he parts company with the Christian tradition.
So there! I hope that's all sorted now. You can tell Murray is a theology professor by his deft use of the expression "ontological otherness." Try dropping it into the conversion next time the nice folk from The Watchtower come knocking.

Lest you think this was a knockout, Round 3 goes to Lloyd Geering.
Ian Harris serves your readers well by drawing their attention to what is happening at the leading edge of changing religious thought.
It is surprising, therefore, that he has been taken to task by Murray Rae (ODT, 19.2.16) for suggesting that all talk of God should be taken "out of the world of the human sciences and into the world of human thought''.
Even more astonishing is Prof Rae's appeal to the traditional understanding of God "as the Creator of all things'', without acknowledging that this idea is not a scientific one but one found only in the very world of human thought referred to by Mr Harris.
However much it may continue to be expounded by professors of theology in the great universities, as Prof Rae claims, the fact remains that whatever explanatory value the idea may have had in the pre-scientific past has simply vanished with the advent of the scientific discovery of the evolutionary process that now explains the universe.
Not that I'm taking sides, oh gosh, golly no. But Geering, along with Don Cupitt, are two 'radical theologians' that are well worth listening to. Geering, at age 98 - we should all be so lucky - is still able to run rings around lesser mortals. His latest book is called On Me Bike: Cycling Around New Zealand 80 Years ago, a nice counterbalance to his many books on religion.

Why do I loathe John Piper? Let me count the ways...


John Piper is worried about all those Catholics and Lutherans in Minnesota. To make his exclusionary fanaticism more acceptable, he adds in a comment about Baptists too (he's a Baptist preacher), but we know what he means. Here's part of his wonderful advice on Desiring God.
I live in Minnesota and to be Minnesotan is almost to be Lutheran or Catholic. And those churches just as much as any Baptist church in the Bible Belt are shot through with people who think they are Christians when they are not.
Contrast this with an article by Anthony Le Donne on The Jesus Blog. Le Donne asks a question many of us have been wondering about; is Donald Trump a Christian?
We should not commit the sin that American xenophobes did in claiming that Obama is not really a Christian (such thinking is still prominent among Trump’s following). Rather we should acknowledge that there are Christians who do not, by their words or actions, represent Christianity.
Which is a generous and nuanced position.

My question: is John Piper a Christian?