Thursday, 30 December 2010

Four Quotes from Cupitt

'Fundamentalist' religion, which is so counter-cultural, so hysterically anti-intellectual and of such poor quality... scarcely deserves the name of 'religion' at all.

We begin to see that historical ecclesiastical Christianity was from the first constituted by a great repression of something bigger and better that lies behind it.

Virtually the whole of the received 'life of Christ' is little better than pious midrash.

Only when we stop believing, and dismantle the old religious language, do we begin to see clearly just how clear and radical Jesus' ethical message was. So new, that it could be assimilated and presented only in mythologized, pietized, mystified form.

Don Cupitt, in the introduction to Theology's Strange Return, SCM, 2010

Monday, 27 December 2010

Trinitarian musings

Castle Perichoresis
What a load of rubbish some people write about the Trinity. Daniel Migliore is among the more lucid. It's all about, according to these sages, interpenetration and relationship. Chuck in a few more syrupy synonyms - mutuality, communion and perichoresis (to trot out a really big one to impress the plebs) and the cake is baked (or perhaps more accurately, half baked.)

The word perichoresis means "mutual indwelling" or "being-in-one-another." What does that actually mean? That God is "up himself"? The model theologians of this ilk offer could just as easily be used to proclaim that the Trinitarian God is not so much generous and self-giving, but congenitally self-absorbed.
The three of the Trinity "indwell" and pervade each other; they "encircle" each other, being united in an exquisite divine dance...
That's nice as poetry and metaphor, and on that level most Christians would have no problem with it, but the key question is whether it describes anything real outside Migliore's head?

The thing is, the perichoresis brigade are, almost always, convinced that this is a matter of revelation and does describe God's actual nature and essence. This in turn makes it attractive - though certainly not exclusively - to the intellectual wing of the Reformed tradition, as championed by their Chief Priests; Torrance, Kruger, and of course...
The notion of a cosmic perichoresis implicit in the writings of recent trinitarian theologians, and articulated more precisely in Colin Gunton’s 1992 Bampton Lectures, represents the culmination of more than half a century of trinitarian reflection and debate since Karl Barth re-opened the door in his biblically-based [cough, splutter] presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Thus, on this dubious bit of dogma are many shining, multi-turreted castles-in-the-air built. And do note, the version of perichoresis hawked around today is to the understanding of the Church Fathers what refined sugar is to molasses. What would those crusty old bishops at Nicea have made of it all?

Catholic writers like Leonardo Boff at least have the good sense to see perichoresis as having a functional political value. "The mutual relationships among three coequal persons within the Godhead have been argued to provide a model  both for human relationships within communities and for Christian political and social theorizing."

Uh oh, I think he just lost most of the Kruger crowd.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Merry Kitschmas

Bah, humbug! Now that the day has passed, it's time to reflect on the true significance of Christmas...


"Each year, Christmas time reminds us of the ‘holy’ power of kitsch."

Quotable words from Egyptian journo Ati Metwaly, writing on ahramonline.

Having never been to Egypt, I had no idea the Christmas season was a big deal there, but apparently so, and Metwaly has it pretty much sussed.

"Year after year, anything that could carry any artistic or aesthetic value is slowly but surely replaced by worthless plastic, sponge and glitter, glued to paper."

Then there's this neat quote from Austrian novelist Herman Broch:

“The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil.”

Preach it brother!

So how would you create a kitsch-free family Christmas tradition? Would Christmas even be Christmas without kitsch? The Coca Cola Santa Claus would obviously have to go, not to mention those schmaltzy (not to mention inaccurate) cards with snowy nativity scenes and shepherds hobnobbing with Wise Men. Rudolf and Dasher, Donner and Blitzen would be redeployed to the venison industry. And I'm all for anyone even humming "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (shudder) being thrown in the slammer till the New Year.

I'm partial to a dose of Handel's Messiah personally, then again, the libretto is unquestionably a pastiche, and I haven't been able to convince too many others of its benefit, whether or not they're big on pastiches.

Too late to purge the tinsel this year, but it's not too early to start planning, there are only 364 days till the next one!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Suffering fools gladly

Richard Dawkins debunks the Noah's Ark tale in the video below (he cuts to the chase at around 4:15.) Gee, thanks Richard, but y'know what? I'd rather hear this from a prophetic voice within the Christian community. Why is it that among Christians who know better, so few (with honorable exceptions like Michael Dowd) are willing to stand up and call a myth a myth, an etiological tale an etiological tale, and slap around - for their own good - the morons who preach it literally?

The time has long passed when Christians should suffer fools gladly. Yet blowhard fundamentalists of the Ken Ham variety are largely left unchallenged by their more urbane brethren, as if it isn't proper form to notice their existence, let alone laugh out loud at their outrageous claims.

Dawkins effectively douses the Noachian nonsense with science, which is all well and good, but the people who embrace literalism aren't usually up to speed with that sort of thing (anyone can get a crash course by reading New Scientist for six months though!) Yet creationism isn't only appalling science, it's also appalling theology. Surely it makes sense to tackle these issues directly by addressing them unequivocally rather than politely coughing and hoping the whole embarrassing fiasco will go away.

So why don't they? Church leaders of the milquetoast persuasion seem to fear alienating a significant portion of their support base. Poor old Mrs Smith just wouldn't be able to handle it, so they choose carefully worded ambiguity, dancing around the the gaping maw of the fundamentalist pit on tiptoe, deliberately confounding metaphor with the real world. That's an abdication of responsibility and probably pretty shaky on ethical grounds as well. Has it worked? Looking at the ongoing decline in attendance, it seems fair to say that the strategy hasn't exactly been wildly successful. The approach which keeps Mrs Smith uneasily sedated has probably driven away both her children and grandchildren. The two-faced paternalism that in effect consciously misleads the "dumb sheep" lest they be offended is not only failing, it's also unworthy and dishonest.

While that situation exists, we should probably thank Dawkins for shouldering a task that most of us are unwilling to do ourselves.

(A nod in the direction of John Loftus' blog, where I found the clip featured.)

Western Wisdom

So far as importance for Christian theology is concerned, Emil Brunner is to Karl Barth what Huldrych Zwingli is to Britney Spears

Jim West on Zwinglius Redivivus

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Missing Priesthood

The priesthood of all believers was a central issue at the time of the Reformation, and maybe it needs to be a central issue today, particularly in those churches which emphasise an imaginary gulf between ministers and lay Christians. When all the power is effectively placed in the hands of local pastors, with little or no accountability either above or below, it's a sure recipe for grief.

At the time of the Reformation, the Western Catholic church was characterised by hierarchy. A pyramid of clergy, from the bishop of Rome on down, ruled the roost while the lay members were regarded as inferior and properly passive. This view harked back to "Saint" Thomas Aquinas, and was subjected to rigorous criticism by the Reformers, beginning with Luther, who took 1 Peter 2:9 as their rallying cry.

A priest is simply someone who has a right to intercede directly with God. If all believers are priests, then they all function in a priestly way. They are each directly accountable to God. The role of ministers then had to be thought about carefully, they were there as guides, not a privileged caste. They were there because the community of believers put them there to ensure that things were carried out in an orderly way, but the community - not heaven - was the source of their authority. It became a "bottom-up" model.

And it's a priesthood of all believers, men and women, not a priesthood of half the believers. How does that work? Take the issue of how much you give to your church: you decide, that's your perogative and responsibility. Your pastor may have an opinion, but that's his or her informed (hopefully!) opinion which you have the liberty to take or not.

Hierarchic churches ignore the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Officials of Grace Communion International, for example, will talk about the ministry of all believers, but that's not the same thing. Any church where the pastor (or church administrators) conduct their business without the explicit endorsement and approval of the membership - through structures such as conferences and synods which have elected lay representation - simply don't "get it."

Does this mean a denomination shouldn't have structure; a president, board members, maybe even bishops? That's completely beside the point. In fact, having accountability structures above the level of the local congregation is probably a very good thing. There's nothing uglier than a strutting prima donna pastor with an exalted sense of their own importance. But it does imply that those structures themselves, at national, regional and local levels, must be accountable back to the people in the pews. And it does mean that ministers are not authorised to take a heavy-handed approach with the membership, or assume they can micro-manage the lives of those who choose to attend.

When that does happen it's time for the members to remind their pastors about the biblical limits to their job description.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Ephesians 4 Smokescreen

Even as I write this, a cabal of ministers recently departed from a minor American denomination are organising themselves into a schismatic body. They're making a lot of Ephesians 4 as the charter for their new organisation's structure. Here's the relevant passage.
11 As for his gifts, to some he gave to be apostles, to others prophets, or even evangelists, or pastors and teachers. 12 So he prepared those who belong to him for the ministry, in order to build up the Body of Christ, 13 until we are all united in the same faith and knowledge of the Son of God.
At first blush it sounds good, but...

But the writer of Ephesians wasn't writing into a vacuum. He had particular issues in mind. For example, he would have had a specific understanding of the role of an apostle and an evangelist. You can be sure that the pouting pastors have a quite different understanding, conditioned by their own distinctive doctrines and history. The embarrassing truth is that an apostle isn't a jet-setting tithe-farmer, and ordination as an evangelist isn't the equivalent of elevation to Britain's House of Lords. Slapping these verses onto the current situation is a bit like prescribing Aspirin for someone who's been electrocuted and is still twitching.

Then there's the unavoidable fact that these geezers aren't claiming to have an apostle or a prophet in their midst. They do have a dead apostle of living memory, but he's not a lot of practical use, other than as a pretext.

Nor do these confused clergy seem to grasp the fact that Ephesians is a less-than "100% proof" source for proof texts. Internal evidence strongly indicates that it was written by someone other than Paul. It isn't regarded as one of his genuine letters.

So why all the ballyhoo over Ephesians 4?

It can be used to justify hierarchy.

Now let's think: no apostles, no prophets, the prospect of a couple of retreaded evangelists from the previous administration (all title, no power)... now what does that leave them with?

Pastors and teachers. And the practice in these circles is to conflate the two into one.

What about garden-variety lay members. Well, what have they got to do with anything? Ephesians 4 doesn't even mention them, right?

(In fact the book of Ephesians is addressed to them: "to the saints in Ephesus, to you who share Christian faith." It's right there in 1:1. Lay engagement and empowerment is assumed throughout, or the writer - who wasn't Paul, but may have been a protégé - would have simply written directly to the pastor.)

Now my dear Watson, the game is afoot!  It would appear that the point of the exercise is to create a comfortable sinecure for a bunch of disgruntled ministers who couldn't handle being accountable to a governing structure which they themselves elected. Decapitate the denominational officers and you have a two-level hierarchy, them and us, dumb sheep and pastors. As they themselves say: "We encourage one another to follow the Ephesians 4 template for the pastor, members, and congregation."

Any provision for checks and balances, for restraints on pastoral authority? None that leap out at you. The new body appears to be a loose association of loose cannons. At the congregational level it's just "pray and pay" members with limited rights (or none at all) and underqualified pastors who hold unaccountable authority.

The potential for abuse is enormous.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Marginal Nuts

Apparently there's something called The Common Man's Reference Bible (with apologies to all women, common or otherwise) consisting of the good ol' KJV with added comments by some bloke called David Hoffman. The sample photograph (click to enlarge) comes from the Unreasonable Faith site. Just take a look at what the Hoff has to say about Santa! And all because of the KJV "ho, ho" in Zech. 2:6?

I wonder if this guy would be interested in a job teaching at Spanky Meredith's Living University?

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christmas isn't pagan after all...

... or at least that's the position taken by a Seventh-day Adventist writer. It sounds unlikely, most of us know about Mithras and Sol Invictus, Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice, but if Andrew Willis is to be believed that's all either a coincidence or a series of red herrings.

Willis tracks the Christian observance of December 25 to the Donatists, a bunch of hard-liners if ever there was one. They make, Willis suggests, an unlikely group to introduce a pagan custom into their high demand community.
After much research, the church in the West and Africa settled on March 25 as the date of Jesus' crucifixion. This was important in determining the date of Jesus' birth because in Jewish tradition it was thought that prophets died on the same day as they were born. This idea may seem strange to us, but was understood and accepted by the early church. Jesus was different from the prophets, however -- his life didn't start at his birth, rather it began when the angel spoke to Mary. This is why early Christians celebrated the annunciation (or announcement to Mary that she was carrying the child) on March 25. Add nine months of pregnancy and you arrive at a birth date of December 25... we should understand that it is not a pagan festival "borrowed" by Christians. Rather, it is a very early Christian memorial.


Search the Web and Save the Planet

Forestle seems like a good alternative when searching the Web. Those annoying sponsored links are finally put to productive use, helping save the rainforest. As of November 20 this year about 9,250,000 square meters have been saved on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Forestle, based in Germany, uses the Yahoo engine to bring up results. The site has been around since 2008, but seems to have a surprisingly low profile. There's an article on Wikipedia that provides some interesting details. It's nice to think that you can actually make a small difference each time you punch in a search - and the cost is nothing more than a mouse click.

Misery Synod Meddling

The president of the fundamentalist Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has made an urgent appeal to the membership of that body.

The Rev. Matthew Harrison is concerned about the morale and esprit de corps of the US armed services. Why? The "don't ask, don't tell" policy affecting gay people in the military is under threat. Quick as a flash Harrison is rallying his own troops to petition senators and representatives in Washington. Verily, saith Harrison, "The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a clear biblical position on this important issue."

Yup, in the LCMS discrimination is considered God's way.

Moreover: "Military chaplains striving to carry out their responsibilities for preaching, counseling, and consoling will find themselves under the strain of having to question whether to obey God or men (Acts 5:29)."

Since when did military chaplains "find themselves under the strain of having to question whether to obey God or men"? Military chaplains are there to salve the consciences of those who carry out orders that often conflict with the moral and ethical imperatives of Christianity; that's their function. What does Harrison think the military chaplains of the Third Reich did? Or the military chaplains of Her Britannic Majesty when the General Belgrano was sunk off the Falkland Islands? Is the man completely naive?

One of the enduring issues in Lutheranism - historically conditioned by the need to seek the protection of the German princes in its early years - is its willingness to hop into bed with any despot, excusing itself with nonsense about "the two kingdoms" (an adaptation of Augustine's mindless "two cities" doctrine) and the "left hand of God." There are not many advantages Anglo Protestantism has over the Lutheran tradition in my opinion, but one certainly is an identifiable backbone when it comes to speaking truth to those in power.

Harrison would be well advised to deal with the beam before he attempts to poke around with splinters. Hopefully those legislators who will address the issue of "don't ask, don't tell" will tell Harrison - and I'm choosing my words carefully - to bugger off.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Leibnizian Supralapsarianism

Adam and Eve, Augustine and Calvin. As Sir Walter Scott almost said, Oh the tangled web we contrive when first we try to theologise. The temptation - more a compulsion for most thinking folk - is to simply cut the Gordian knot with one slashing "snock" of the skeptics light sabre.

But more subtle solutions are out there. Some work, some don't. The trouble is, which category each falls in is impossible to nail down - beware the dark forces of apologetics! Take the Original Sin problem, for example. Along came dippy old Father Adam and screwed up the divine masterplan by following a woman's advice...

But wait, can a human actually do that? No, surely it was all part of the grand design all along...

Uh, hang on, let's take a reality check before we go any further. Adam? Eve? No such people, people!

Michael Ruse tries to untangle the knot, which is a commendable but possibly insane undertaking for a man who describes himself as a non-believer. Ruse however is a philosopher, so Calvinist conundrums are probably to him what Sudoku puzzles are to the rest of us. In the process he finds a kind word for John Schneider, a theologian at Calvin College who has fallen afoul of the dominees and predikants of that august institution.

So, a spot of subtle unpicking or the light sabre solution? I guess that the Calvin College retort would be "neither."

Which is where the problem arises in the first place.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The reason for the season

In my little corner of the multiverse there isn't much controversy over seasonal greetings. Nobody objects when you say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays." In fact, I can't recollect anyone saying "Happy Holidays" at all. That debate is apparently significant mainly in the United States.

I'm on the negative side of ambivalent about this whole Christmas thing. On the grounds of good taste alone there should be a Royal Commission into the whole business. (What's the equivalent of a Royal Commission in the Rebel Colonies - a Congressional Committee?)

Having a somewhat sectarian detour in my earlier years, I learned to be scornful of the whole Yuletide celebration anyway. Christmas has a prehistory that has nothing to do with the Christian veneer that's been plastered over it. And as a Southern Hempisphere resident, it always strikes me as peculiar to drag out images of snow in the sweltering heat of Summer.

Which is why I found James McGrath's posting on Christmas refreshing. Christmas, McGrath reminds us, is something Christians knicked from the pagans. There is an irony in the fact that some Christians complain bitterly that the Christian content has been stripped out of the festival.
"So to those in the English-speaking world who consider themselves Christians, my recommendation is this: stop complaining about the "de-Christianization" of a holiday that we ourselves stole (sorry, borrowed) from others and successfully hijacked for more than a thousand years. And instead delight in the fact that, even in our changed and changing context,  you can express your Christian faith, and have at least as much of an opportunity to take already-existing holidays and customs and fill them with distinctively Christian values - for yourself and as an opportunity to share your faith with others - as Christians in bygone eras did."
Excellent advice.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

This one is for you, Seamus

A nod in the direction of Jason Goroncy, who has probably just demonstrated the reality of total depravity with an anti-feline posting on his blog which, in the usual course of events, is full of that knotty variety of Hard Knox Calvinism that flourishes in the chilly sub-Antarctic climes of Dunedin. I beg you, gentle readers, to take his cat recipes with a grain (or several measured teaspoonsful) of salt. But do gather up the family pooch and give this charming little number a listen.

Constantine condensed - what a guy!

Why spend unnecessary hours hacking your way through a bookish biography of Constantine, the first emperor of Christendom, when you can pick up the essentials in under four and a half toe-tapping minutes. Some months ago I read Paul Stephenson's Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor. To think, all I really needed was the good services of YouTube! "Oh," as Dr. Smith was wont to say on Lost in Space, "the pain, the pain!"

Okay, so there's not much critical content, but then again, the Eastern church turned this pustule into a saint so, hey, who cares? And once you've absorbed the info on Con, you could even try your luck with Martin Luther.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Emperor's New Grand Narrative

Presbyterian systematic theologian and Barthian authority Daniel Migliore writes:

As long as the church remains faithful to the self-communication of the triune God, it will acknowledge the priority and authority of the scriptural witness in its life and mission. At the same time, the real humanity of the biblical witnesses will also be recognized without apology or embarrassment. It is not a weakness but a strength of the Christian understanding of revelation that its original witnesses are unmistakably historically conditioned and remarkably diverse human beings. That we have the treasure of the gospel in clay jars (2 Cor 4:7) is as true of Scripture as it is of all subsequent Christian witness based on Scripture. Hence not everything found in the Bible is to be taken as a direct word of God to us. Some texts of the Bible may stand in utmost tension with the revelation of the character and purpose of God as identified by the grand narrative of Scripture. ...Scripture witnesses to revelation but is not identical with it. Even Calvin acknowledge[d] this, although not as boldly as Luther. Today it is essential that a Christian doctrine of revelation distinguish clearly between Scripture's witness to the personal self-disclosure of God definitively in Jesus Christ and the historical contingencies and ambiguities of this witness (Faith Seeking Understanding, pp. 40-41, as cited by Ted Johnson).

What does this actually mean? Here's a helpful "translation."

Oh shoot, this thing is all over the place. But hey, lets suck it in and turn lemons into lemonade. Let's see now... if people find bits of the Bible unpalatable we'll say "it doesn't matter." The ambrosia comes in a damaged cardboard tetrapak, and the date on the top might be past its use-by too, but... "it doesn't matter."

Clay pots. What's pot and what's not? What's Word and what's turd? The grand narrative determines it! Who determines what's grand narrative and what's not, what's in and what's out? Well your majesty, it's blindingly obvious isn't it, just like this suit of invisible clothes. See the fine workmanship? Just like the grand narrative. You have to be thick as a brick not to see these fabulous garments I'm holding up, and likewise your highness, you'd have to be a depraved, carnal pleb (or a Jew, or even worse a Unitarian) - totally bereft of the Holy Spirit - not to perceive the grand narrative in all its Trinitarian grandness, don't you agree?

And now your magnificence, if you'd kindly strip off and don our non-existent incredibly beautiful attire, we'll send you off on a lap of the palace gardens so the common folk can admire your, um, superbly regal presence. Talk about a revelation! Now that'll give 'em a really grand narrative to tell their grandchildren about!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Theology - queen of sciences or the study of nothing?

Neil Godfrey, bless his evil Ocker heart, has a few things to say on the study of theology in public universities. Among the comments is this quote from some bloke - significant in American history I believe...

“The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”

–Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

Ouch! What a pain(e)! It's worth rememembering that theology was once described as the queen of the sciences. Mind you, the same honorific was also applied to astrology. In a varsity essay I wrote a couple of years back I quoted Richard Tarnas (The Passion of the Western Mind) who uses it with reference to astrology, only to get a snooty note back from the marker that I should have specified that I meant theology!

Anyway, may I say, as someone who has just completed a course of study in the queen of sciences (here I do mean theology) at a public university, and state with some passion, that I thoroughly...

Ack! Ggnnn! (sound of throttling)

[Normal service will be resumed shortly]

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Why go to church?

Why indeed! Chaeyoon Lim has the answer in a study published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review. It makes you happy! Professor Lim seems to have some valid data to back up the findings. (He obviously hasn't, however, surveyed some of the less than bliss-filled churches I've been involved with over the years.)

One thing does ring true though. The good folk who troop through the doors each week are usually there for one main reason, and it's got nothing to do with pure doctrine, felicitous sermons or tightly knotted theology (let alone fluffy, vacuous thoughts of 'thankfullness' and 'worship.') Those are more often than not pretexts or acceptable justifications. The real reason?

"Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction... the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there.

"The report said the findings were applicable to the three main Christian traditions and found 'similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size."

That might be true down at St. Joseph's Catholic or St Aidan's Anglican, but does this apply to sectarian communities too? They seem to me to score on the " belongingness" continuum, giving members a sense of personal significance ("Why were you born?") rather than social connectedness. After all, to join a marginal community, or high-demand group, you generally have to sacrifice friends and family in order to embrace "fictive kin." Take it from me, in certain sects life isn't a beach, it's a piranha tank!

And why, with all this supposed churchly happiness, are people leaving in droves. It would be interesting to see if Lim's study could be repeated outside the United States where Christian decline is more acute. And is it possible to get the same benefits by joining a weekly gardening circle or hiking club?

Then again, why bother asking. The message seems to be "don't worry, be happy." Who can argue with that?

Now, where did I hide that hymn book?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Lions and Lambs

The Peaceable Kingdom is a powerful millennialist image. It graced the seals of two church bodies that I'm aware of, the one I hardly dare mention following a recent pigeon-hole post on Jim West's blog, the other is the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS church.) A print of Edward Hick's artwork - he painted around sixty versions on the theme - hangs on a wall in my home, a reminder of times past. Hick's paintings testify to his Quaker faith, and hope for colonial America as a blessed land. They are light years removed from the awful kitsch that has since sprung up in its wake.

Over at Scott Bailey's blog is this sweet picture. Sweet as in saccharine loaded. But could it perhaps be thought to depict something other than what the artist consciously intended? Gives a whole new angle to the expression "dumb sheep" doesn't it... somehow appropriate in view of how it was used in that certain church referred to above (not the RLDS/COC - they're basically a very decent bunch.)

Actually, I feel a caption contest coming on. The trick is to create something that is both apt, and readable by your grandmother with little more than an arched eyebrow. Submissions must meet both criteria.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Concordia-style credibility?

The Missouri Synod's Concordia Publishing House has some truly different titles on offer, and is now - progressive little beavers that they are - pushing them as Kindle editions. How 'bout this little gem called The Discovery of Genesis?

This linguistic analysis of the Chinese language suggests the ancient Chinese were well aware of the God of Abraham. Readers will discover the possibility that the Chinese were a remnant of the Tower of Babel dispersion. The authors start with the observance of some astonishing points of correspondence between certain characters in the Chinese language and elements of the Genesis account of man's early beginnings. They go on to analyze dozens of the ideographic pictures that make up words in the Chinese language. The evidence they compile supports the thesis that the ancient picture writing of the Chinese language embodies memories of man's earliest days. The characters when broken down into component parts, reflect elements of the story of God and man recorded in the early chapters of Genesis. Man and woman, the garden, the institution of marriage, the temptaton and fall, death, Noah's flood, the tower of Babel - they are all there in the tiny drawings and strokes that make up the Chinese characters. 

Well, there you go! The brilliant authors are C. H. Kong and Ethel Nelson, and this outstanding text first saw the light back in 1979. 1979! Mind you, Concordia's recycling programme can dig even deeper into history; it still publishes The Flood by Alfred Rehwinkel. That one tracks back to 1957, and the first edition earlier yet. I had that one on my shelf as a teenager back in (mumble, mumble.)

So, which imprints do you most trust and distrust? When I'm cruising the shelves at Church Stores in Ellerslie, the first thing I usually look for isn't the title but the publisher. IVP, Fortress, WJK, Baker, Eerdmans, Paulist, Polebridge, Thomas Nelson, SPCK... Some leap off the shelf into my hands, others I wouldn't touch with the proverbial barge-pole.

Concordia titles are pretty rare at Church Stores, which is a mercy. But I always flick through them anyway. Laughter is, as the nice people at Readers' Digest have always insisted, the best medicine.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Noah's Big Day Out

It's been a few years since the flood. Not any old flood you understand, but THE Flood with a capital F, a.k.a. the Deluge. Most Christians wouldn't particularly want to set aside a day dedicated to the mythical character of Noah or his jealously genocidal god. Missouri Synod Lutherans are a bit different though. Yesterday, November 29, is listed on their calendar as Noah's special day. The liturgical colour - if anyone cares - is red. Red for the blood of the drowned children maybe. (As far as I know it's pretty-much unique to the Missouri Synod, ELCA Lutherans mercifully have no such tradition.)

I come at this thing from a non-fundamentalist position. Noah (known as Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh)  is a great character in a memorable story, a story that was obviously meaningful in the society that gave it birth, but did such a man actually live - along with his immediate family - through a global catastrophe that wiped out all life on the planet (except the lucky specimens floating on his boat)? Of course not! The Noah story is a rewrite of more ancient "ancient mariner" tales that were common in that part of the world. He's a fictional character in a tall story - an etiological tale about rainbows. Attempts to turn it into a cutesy kiddies' story with cuddly cartoon animals are simply perverse.

And can we learn anything about the nature of God from the Flood story? Originally it was probably meant to reassure folk that Yahweh had given up on the mass murder of hapless humans, but these days we're less likely to be impressed given the fact that He did the deed in the first place.

Of course, the deed itself is fictive, which should be obvious to anyone living in the twenty-first century. But millions of fundamentalists work hard to convince themselves otherwise. Here's the good word from a Missouri Synod church bulletin:

Yeah, well, that's the story. But once again,  it's just that, a story, and not a particularly edifying one. It didn't happen. When folk today retell these biblical tales, they have a moral responsibility to point that out; to flag the stories for what they are, not pretend they're what they're not. Good stories last forever (think Evan Almighty), but they can cause havoc when they're mistaken for history. Any clues about that here? Not a one.

November 29 Commemoration of Noah? OK, it's a gripping story, if somewhat lacking in its portrayal of an ethically-challenged Yahweh. But tales of Hercules are gripping too, but we know where to draw the line there. Why not here? Beats me. You'll have to go ask a Missouri Synod member.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Manna Merchants

'Christianity' is a marvelously fluid term. Who's in and who's out? Insiders love to play the 'real Christian' game which seems to have two overriding rules:
  • If you believe like I do, then you're a real Christian, but...
  • If you do something I don't approve of, you can't be a real Christian
The problem here is that no two professing Christians seem to agree on much. Creedal sorts may recite the same formulas - Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian for example - but just ask them what it means and you're right back to square one. So how could you possibly "take the temperature" of Christianity in your community? Where would you find a representative sampling of what the word actually means?

Easy. Take a trip down to your local Christian bookshop - if you dare.

These businesses, which survive by catering to the Christian community, obviously stock what sells. They're the manna merchants, and in the spirit of "you are what you eat," it's not too difficult to pull down a profile after a bit of discrete browsing.

It's not a pretty picture. They're scary places by and large, intellectual deserts specialising in custom crafted mirages. Bible resources are dumbed-down, devotional and apologetic; creationist texts rub up against feel-good prosperity-gospel material. Shelves are lined with dishonest, decadent, fluffy literary confections designed to shore up the faltering faithful.

Quoting Bible verses isn't normally my thing, but it's hard not to connect with the words of Isaiah 30:10. To the seers they say, "See not," and to the prophets, "Do not prophesy the truth. Just tell us pleasant things; see illusions and prophesy deceits.

The trouble with bad manna is that it breeds worms and becomes foul (Ex. 17:20).

Sometimes Christian scholars give non-Christian critics a hard time for not being theologically literate enough. That may be the case, but it's a hard line to sell when most of the folk who sit in the pews know even less, and those who are supposedly supplying the resources for growth are dishing up junk food that's long past its use by date.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Pike River Reflections

The Pike River Mine disaster continues to dominate news in New Zealand as the outlook for the twenty-nine miners becomes grimmer by the hour. Among those caught below ground is seventeen year old Joseph Dunbar who was proudly beginning his first day at work. He was due to start on Monday, but leapt at the chance to begin early, last Friday, the day of the blast. This tragedy has struck hard in the small, tight-knit communities of the South Island's West Coast.

What has been striking from the beginning has been the constant repitition of the mantra about "the thoughts and prayers" of so many for the miners and their families. Caught in the limbo of unknowing - the frustrating lack of information about whether any or all of the men are alive or dead - it seems to be one of the few things that can be said. What is remarkable is that this expression comes so freely from the lips of individuals who are famously agnostic and non-religious. What they mean by 'prayers' seems to be 'deep concern,' 'empathy.' Even as I type this a prominent television journalist has just repeated the phrase in concluding an interview. Is Mark Sainsbury really the praying type? Is Prime Minister John Key?

Driving in on the morning commute, I listened to a radio interview with the local Anglican Archdeacon at Holy Trinity church in Greymouth. He opined that it would take a miracle - supernatural intervention - for the miners to be rescued, something he nevertheless was sure was entirely possible. He then swiftly covered his tracks by saying that God was not, of course, obliged to do any such thing.

I don't want to sound critical. The situation remains painfully unresolved and uncertain as people cling to hope, and local churches have deployed to provide much needed support for the community. The Salvation Army is, as always, a very present help in times of need. But I do wonder whether times like these are appropriate for "men of the cloth" to indulge in pious platitudes and dodgy attempts at theodicy. Miners, to quote the Archdeacon again, are practical people, not inclined to place spirituality at the "top of the pops." In the end it's about dedicated rescue teams, international cooperation and human judgment informed by technology and experience. The rest of us are powerless observers; deep concern and empathy are our only possible contribution, but that's not quite the same thing as entreaties and petitions to a seemingly fickle higher power.

What's God got to do with it? Where do supernaturalism and miracles fit? Is talk of such things a comfort or an obscenity?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Houlden on the Bible

Following on from the previous post, Leslie Houlden presents a vastly different take on the unity of the Bible to Alvin Plantinga in The Strange Story of the Gospels (SPCK, 2002) where he makes a number of important points.

Since the second century it has been usual to see the four gospels as "broadly of a single mind." Houlden notes that this position still has its powerful advocates - among whom we can doubtless number Plantinga (who would want us to see all scripture, gospels, letters, prophets and Torah, as of a single mind.)

Houlden contends that, in fact, the Gospels themselves "are the result of profound disagreements."
"[T]he last persons that we know of to have understood Mark's intended message were Matthew and Luke, who wrote to counter and supplant him. They wrote to this end chiefly because they disagreed with his theology." (p.111)
Harmonising visions, like Plantinga's, are not dissimilar to "the well-known phenomenon, the so-called Whig interpretation of history: that is to say, the past viewed simply as leading up to the present desirable state of affairs." (p.106)

For 'desirable' read 'orthodox.'

Using the Bible in this way "meant devout quarrying in the text." Proof texting.

Adopting the 'single mind' approach may be comfortably unchallenging, but there is a cost.
"The weakness of this eirenic proposal is that it may be necessary for us to make choices. Some of the issues on which the evangelists differ... are still with us today." (p.108)
Houlden uses a musical metaphor to explore the diversity and contradictory elements in scripture, suggesting that we "welcome the necessary fact that the variations proliferate, while the theme itself eludes us, almost heard but never trapped." (p.119)

It's not a suggestion likely to appeal to fundamentalists or desperately deluded apologists any more than to Whigs. Subtlety and nuance may have limited attraction to the self-appointed defenders of the faith, but that won't make the facts go away.

Plantinga on the Bible

Just You, me and Calvin, Lord!
Two quotes from Reformed apologist Alvin Plantinga - cited by Matthew Flannagan in his PowerPoint presentation that attempts to rescue Yahweh from charges of genocide against the Canaanites.
“An assumption of the enterprise is that the principal author of the Bible—the entire Bible—is God himself (according to Calvin, God the Holy Spirit). Of course each of the books of the Bible has a human author or authors as well; still, the principal author is God. This impels us to treat the whole more like a unified communication than a miscellany of ancient books. Scripture isn’t so much a library of independent books as itself a book with many subdivisions but a central theme: the message of the gospel…”
Cute quote huh? Isn't it nice to see that, when the ancient texts are put through the theological sausage machine, they come out with "a central theme: the message of the gospel." Well, that should be obvious, and I trust you're as suitably "impelled" as I am. Too bad Jews don't see it that way - they obviously don't like sausages! And too bad various Christian denominations have differing understandings of what exactly "the gospel message" is.

But wait, there's more...
“By virtue of this unity, furthermore (by virtue of the fact that there is just one principal author), it is possible to “interpret Scripture with Scripture.” If a given passage from one of Paul’s epistles is puzzling, it is perfectly proper to try to come to clarity as to what God’s teaching is in this passage by appealing not only to what Paul himself says elsewhere in other epistles but also to what is taught elsewhere in Scripture.”
So you see, gentle reader, that proof texting is OK after all. Cut 'n paste to your heart's content, it's "perfectly proper," indeed it's the Reformed thing to do.

Let's recap. Assert a unity that clearly doesn't exist and anchor it in Calvinism. Then - on the basis of this fantasy - pillage the Good Book for handy proof texts to back up your preformed Reformed dogma. Very neat.

Plantinga is described as an analytic philosopher, but I'm not sure what analytic means given these examples, other than speculating that the root word might be anal.
He is known for his work in philosophy of religion, epistemology, metaphysics, and Christian apologetics. Plantinga is a Christian and known for applying the methods of analytic philosophy to defend orthodox Christian beliefs. (source)
I haven't read the Plantinga tome Flannagan mined his quotes from, but assuming they're representative they do less than nothing to make me want to delve into anything else the man has written. Never trust an apologist, no matter how many honorary degrees and published works they boast. Ever.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Buy a NIV Bible and support pornography

It's a laugh a minute in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Not intentional humor, mind you. In recent times, for example, the LCMS has moved to dump the awful New International Version as its Bible of choice and adopt the even more horrible English Standard Version (ESV). Of course, church apparatchiks are not content to simply make a dignified change - they've got to justify it, especially as the NIV is much loved among conservative Christians.

Enter LCMS publishing guru-in-a-dog-collar Paul McCain, armed with a bucket of natural fertiliser and a large, bristly pasting brush.

I have said this often, but it always catches people by surprise when they find out that Zondervan is owned by Harper-Collins, which in turn, is part of the Ruppert (sic) Murdoch media empire. It is important for Christians to realize that supporting the NIV contributes to the support of Murdoch’s corporation, which is one of the world’s largest providers of pornography. Something to think about.

Yup, you read that right. Buy a NIV Bible and your dollars are funding the icon of Australian ick, Rupert Murdoch, and putting righteous Christian bucks at the disposal of pornographers! Oh wow, who'd have thunked it?

Murdoch may or may not be a sleezeball, but consider for a moment that the so-called Christians who owned Zondervan willingly sold out for a truck-load of mammon. Under its current owners Zondervan continues to operate as a conservative Christian imprint. Okay, I'm proud to say that you could count Zondervan titles on my bookshelves with the fingers on one hand, but that's because they're usually complete rubbish. Murdoch, as McCain also helpfully points out, also owns HarperCollins, which is one of the great imprints with a significant list of popular titles by some tremendous writers in the field of biblical studies and theology.

If I was Paul I'd be more concerned with the quality of product that carries his Concordia imprint. Concordia doubtless has lily white hands when it comes to porn, but spiritual porn and crappy pseudo-science is another matter. Take Erich von Fange's In Search of the Genesis World for example, which I reviewed in four parts here.

A case of beams and splinters.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Abominanable Bibles and Anonymous Sickos

I thought it was a joke when I read about it on John Petty's blog, but a quick Google search proved me wrong; unlike the mischievous Chuck Norris promo below, there actually is something called The American Patriot's Bible.

Why not, I wondered, a Russian Patriot's Bible? Some of those newly Orthodox folk are really up to their eyeballs in the 'holy' bit of Holy Mother Russia. Why not an Irish Patriot's Bible (in orange and green editions)?

Don't get me wrong, I'm proud to be a New Zealander, but I'd picket any publisher who tried to bring out a Kiwi Patriot's Bible. "My country, right or wrong" just doesn't seem to gel with any of the teachings of Jesus as far as I can tell.

Nazi Christians (if you'll forgive the blatant oxymoron) tried to bring out a German Patriot's Bible in 1940 - Die Botschaft Gottes - a New Testament which cleaned up all those embarrassing Jewish references. It's not exactly a sterling precedent.

No surprise that the American Patriot's Bible, which was released in 2009, is published by the evil trolls at Thomas Nelson, that its editor is a Southern Baptist pastor from Georgia, and that it uses the NKJV text.

Has there ever been a time in history when Christians snuggled up to myopic nationalism - parading as patriotism - and innocent people didn't suffer? If you're going to be a Christian you should be a good citizen, but surely not an uncritical one.

From one abomination to another. Anonymous comments are no longer accepted here. Why?
"May death fall on you quickly, there is no power you have to stop it, all your miserable life is worth is a hole in the ground. The sooner you reach that destination the world will be at peace."
The gutless toad who sheltered behind anonymity in an attempt to post that comment isn't unique, but he definitely piled on the final straw. I'm not sure whether the sentiments were directed to me or a previous commenter on the thread, but either way this guy is a creep. Okay, people say harsh things when they feel threatened - been there, done that. But on my worst day I'd never have crawled that low, nor would any decent person. Sorry to anyone who'll be inconvenienced by the restriction, but if a comment is worth making it's worth owning.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Avalos article

Hector Avalos is an interesting fellow, as an article in the Iowa State Daily demonstrates. Avalos is professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State, a former child evangelist and a Harvard graduate. He's also the bete noir of many who find it hard to believe that you can be involved in fields like biblical studies without being a committed church member. Such a view was recently expressed by Jim West on his influential blog while commenting on something written by an obscure, minor figure in the Reformed tradition whose name escapes me.

The idea that (to quote Jim) "only those who have faith can explain faith" is one I first encountered a couple of years ago in a course at Otago University. It seemed a peculiar stance at the time, flying in the face of both reason and reality. I believe I countered that some of the best current biblical scholars came from Jewish backgrounds (Geza Vermes, Amy-Jill Levine and Mark Nanos spring immediately to mind), but it was lost in the Presbyterian fog.

My own Christian narrative has always been as an outsider to the mainstream, whether as a Lutheran in a country where Anglo Reformed churches dominate, as a misguided sectarian biblicist Christian, or as a post-Enlightenment progressive Christian. From where I sit Barth's insistence that only Christians can handle theological questions adequately seems like towering arrogance. The outsiders - and that certainly includes Jews and agnostics - may have a far clearer view than those who are closer to the torpid centre. Could it be that we can actually learn from people like Hector Avalos (which doesn't mean we always have to agree with him of course), if only we peel away the clinging apologetic goo that so easily binds us.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Congratulations Lester

Jim West posted an item earlier today about former Ambassador College professor Lester Grabbe, who has just turned 65.

Grabbe left AC, if memory serves, shortly after the putsch of 1978 when anyone with active brain cells, integrity and intellect was purged in the wake of Garner Ted Armstrong's final ouster. He has gone on to carve out a formidable academic reputation in the field of biblical studies.

While I doubt Grabbe would be pleased to be reminded of the "Ambassador years," his example has certainly been an inspiration for others. Many happy returns Professor!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Wisdom from Big Sandy

Quote from Reg Killingley (in the latest Journal):

"Churches should not be in the business of micromanaging members’ lives."

Preach it, brother!

Friday, 5 November 2010

Babies bushwack Barth

At the risk of oversimplifying, Karl Barth and his disciples maintained that humankind is basically bad to the bone. Admittedly Barth was writing at a dark time in history, but his pessimistic assessment of humanity has hardly improved matters, then or now.

Neo-orthodoxy holds than [humanity] is self-centered and therefore tyrannical, bent on destroying others, even at the risk of self-destruction. [Humanity] is evil.
Mayer, The Religious Bodies of America, 1961.

This cold, Calvinist creed is convivial to those who view the human enterprise with a jaundiced eye, but how would you demonstrate that it is horribly flawed? Isn't it just a matter of perspective or opinion? The Barthians would say no, it's a matter of 'revelation.' Which is a convenient ruse, for it puts the whole question safely outside the realm of rational debate.

And naturally, 'revelation' - "supranatural truth" - takes on a distinctly Reformed flavour for Reformed writers. If the logic isn't circular, then it's certainly curved in on itself.

Enter Paul Bloom, a developmental psychologist who has been studying how small children judge right and wrong. His article, That warm fuzzy feeling, appeared in the October 15 edition of New Scientist.

When babies hear crying, they cry, and if they see someone suffer, even silently, they become distressed. As soon as they can move, babies will try to help. They'll stroke the person, or hand over a toy or bottle.

Bloom investigated further using a set of short plays with puppets.

In one, a character would struggle to get up a hill. One puppet would help him; another would push him down. We then presented each baby with the two puppets. Even those as young as 6 months old tended to reach for the "good guy", suggesting that this is who they prefer. We also created plays in which one puppet does neither good nor bad, and we found that babies reach for a good guy over a neutral guy, but would rather reach for a neutral than a bad guy.

The kindness of babies suggests that we as a species are not bad to the bone after all, whatever Augustine, Calvin or Barth might have thought. Most of us knew that anyway. Evil does exist, people can behave selfishly and maliciously, humans are indeed corruptable, but this is hardly our essential nature.

Barbarian horde swoops down from Copenhagen

Oh my goodness, who let the minimalists out? Thompson, Lemche and Boer. Boer! Quick Abigail, pack up the emergency provisions, we're heading for the hills.

What, they're coming in from the other side too? Price, Crossley and - oh surely not - not Grabbe! Forget the bags Abigail, run for your life!

Eek, too late: that's Jim West, menacingly clutching Zwingli's blood-stained rapier and already standing at the door and knocking. [Camera's fade out.]

Yes, I might have to remortgage the house to afford it, but Equinox Publishing is scheduled to unleash a volume entitled Is this not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus, edited by Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna.

Thompson is the guy who was hounded out of the field of biblical studies and into the wilderness as a house painter because he refused to bow to the gods of the status quo (thankfully to later return and smite the Amalekites from Copenhagen.) Price apparently has a similar story, but with a less satisfying ending. Boer is recently famous for his socialist sausage sizzles, Crossley is the biblical studies equivalent of Damien in Omen II according to some of his critics, Grabbe once taught at a certain college in Pasadena which some of us are acquainted with - before finding much better things to put on his CV. West is the skinny Southern Baptist dude who is undisputed shock-jock Archblogger of Biblioholics.

All this in less than 250 pages? C'est incroyable!

With this lot as contributors, there's bound to be a wide range of opinions offered, as there was in the The Historical Jesus: Five Views, to which Price also contributed. Sadly, this new volume is the more expensive of the two by a long way.

Is this not the Carpenter is to be released in December next year, and therefore hasn't hit the radar at Amazon yet, but I'm willing to speculate that when the time comes both James McGrath and Neil Godfrey will be tucking copies under their respective pillows.

Tug of the forelock to aforementioned Jim West

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

666 - are you conCERNed?

Dr. Bob Thiel, who holds a ThD from a mail-order degree mill in India, and has self-published a book on 2012 in prophecy, has made a startling observation: "the logo of CERN is basically composed of what some consider to be 3 sixes."

Further, according to Dr. Bob, "there is potential that something developed from the CERN Large Hadron Collider could help the coming European Beast power fulfill biblical prophecies such as Revelation 13:3-4."

In the Thiel belief system, there's a "United States of Europe" in the offing which will take the English-speaking nations into captivity. What's that you say? Great Britain is part of Europe? Well, Bob has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a choice bit of eisegesis.

"The European empire is rising up. And it has many indications of being the final Beast power of Revelation. The CERN logo of itself is not significant, yet it is one more item to consider, as I still believe that CERN and/or its Large Hadron Collider are likely to develop a unique military capability for the Europeans."

You have all been warned!

The Apostle of Slick Apologetics

Yup, we're talking William Lane Craig. I've never understood why thinking evangelicals (yes, there are a few of them) could possibly take this guy seriously. He has the chutzpah of an insurance salesman and a voracious capacity for memorising 'cue-card' responses to any objection he's likely to encounter. Put him up against someone who, unlike himself, is in contact with reality, and he puts on quite a performance.

Performance is the key word. There are true believers in the audience and an apologist has to score points early and often in order to cover up the fact that he's way out on a limb. Get 'em laughing, get 'em nodding, pull in some applause and then ride the wave of "stuff the details you'se smart-arse heathens, I'm in denial and ya can't get me!" If all else fails, muddy the waters and get them to think, "hey, wow, this guy is so smart I have no idea what he's talking about!"

Slick Willie appears all over the place. Dear lord, I believe the guy was even in New Zealand a while back. An upcoming engagement will find him in Atlanta at a conference sponsored by something called the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Also present will be current number four on the biblioblogger hit parade, Matthew Flannagan. Flannagan, a Kiwi who writes for the local right-wing monthly magazine Investigate, displays less showmanship but greater substance, but the tune is inevitably the same. At the end of the day all apologetics amounts to the same hill of beans, though it's wise to especially avoid those that have been contaminated with Reformed ketchup. At least Slick Willie can be mildly entertaining... the more cerebral Calvinista are just plain scary.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Dummies Guide to the Apocalypse

David Hulme - doctor David Hulme - is the genius who edits the journal Vision. Never heard of Vision? No surprise there, it has a miniscule circulation, but is lavishly produced to promote the views of Hulme's sect, of which he is Glorious Leader. Vision has over recent years managed to obtain interviews with a number of those best described as "the good and the great" in the field of biblical studies, and the High and Hulmerous One himself has been published in obscure tomes, giving the impression of seasoned scholarship.

Those mighty accomplishments notwithstanding, Doc Hulme is a former cult televangelist who, after bailing out of that faith community, then being dumped from the presidency of a splinter group, now struts his stuff for a tiny, secretive fringe group.

All of which is by way of background to these statements from Hulme in the current issue of Vision. Subject: the book of Revelation.

The apostle John's final written work, the book of Revelation, concludes the collection we call the New Testament... There are many who question the book's authorship. But conservative scholars, basing their opinion on the earliest traditions, believe Revelation to be an authentic work by the apostle John.

This is clearly Hulme's position too, as the article is the nineteenth (!) in a series called The Apostles.

Hulme is absolutely correct when he notes that there are many who question the authorship of the Apocalypse. In fact most not only question, but totally reject the idea that the writer of the other Johannine literature is responsible for it. As for "conservative scholars," it's hard to know who he has in mind. Most mainstream 'evangelical' scholars would want to distinguish the apostle from the author (sometimes referred to as John of Patmos, or John the Elder) who penned Revelation. Bear in mind that nowhere does the author claim to be the disciple who Jesus loved. There is no internal evidence to support Hulme's position.

That the second century church fathers - specifically Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian and Justin - considered 'St. John' to be the author isn't in dispute, but Hulme hardly stands in a tradition that attaches much value to the 'church fathers'; in fact he'd probably run a mile rather than give them any credibility at all when it comes to other matters of history and doctrine. It has to be conceded that they could indeed be wonderfully inventive when the cause of righteousness required an apologetic flourish. There were other voices though: among those in the early church who questioned the authorship of Revelation was Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (see below).

There are some really good reasons why the writer of Revelation is highly unlikely to have been one in the same as the disciple/apostle, but Hulme seems to have conveniently forgotten to list them. Why? Given the fact that he seems to go out of his way to rub shoulders with genuine scholars, it's hard to believe that he isn't acquainted with these reasons. For those unfamiliar with them, here's a "Readers' Digest" overview of some.
  • Differences between the style of Revelation and the other material ascribed to John. These are too great to be explained away by the use of different scribes. Dionysius mentions these as early as the third century, noting of Revelation that, where the Gospel of John and Johannine letters are skilful compositions, "in neither language nor style does [the author of Revelation] write accurate Greek. He makes use of barbaric expressions and is sometimes guilty even of grammatical error."
  • The author of Revelation refers to the other apostles as past founders - with no indication that he is of their number (Rev. 21:14)
  • John was one of the most common Jewish names of the era.
  • While the Gospel of John shows little concern for the end of the age, certainly less than the synoptic Gospel writers, there is a complete contrast in the single-minded apocalypticism of Revelation.
Perhaps the premier one-volume 'conservative' commentary currently on the market is Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. In fact it would be remarkable if Doc Hulme didn't have a copy of his own, doubtless gathering dust at this very moment. Therein we read: 'the precise identity of "John" remains unknown.' Hardly a ringing endorsement of Hulme's view.

Of course, there are many other churches which promote an uncritical reading of the Bible, but Hulme is a little different, he appears to play on scholarship. Which leads one to wonder why he can't bring himself to fess up about the uncertain authorship of the Apocalypse. Could it be that a sect like his makes huge use of this book in particular to fuel lurid prophetic speculation, speculation that lies at the heart of their sense of uniqueness and identity, and that consequently any doubt cast on the traditional authorship would seriously undermine the nonsense that undergirds such an approach?

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Low Torrance Tolerance

It may be a terrible personal failing, but I have an extremely low tolerance for the work of a certain gentleman who is currently much admired and fawned over in church circles I once moved in. No, not Karl Barth - although that would be equally true. I sinfully smiled when reading the following anecdote in Don Cupitt's 2000 book, Philosophy's Own Religion, published by SCM.

Twenty years ago the Scottish dogmatic theologian T. F. Torrance read a paper in Cambridge setting out the whole gospel of the dogmatist. In the discussion that followed I asked him how he accounted for the widespread and intractable disagreements that plague theology. 'Sin,' he answered shortly (and doubtless with people like me in mind), and that was that.

Later Cupitt deals to Barth as well, writing of "the followers of Karl Barth, who are the last remaining people who still think of attempting systematic theology." How true.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Apostolic nutburgers - the Dominionators

2003 was the year Brian Tamaki received a message from his god. Eddie Long, the Atlanta "bishop" was there too, and endorsed the precious word of truth. Five years, and Brian and his buddies would be ruling New Zealand.

2003 plus five equals 2008. The hallelujah train appears to have been derailed. Perhaps Brian didn't shout loud enough. Maybe his god was busy all during 2008, or was off on vacation in the Maldives. Maybe the mighty Tamaki deity was just snoring off a hangover and missed the engagement completely - all of which were Elijah's helpful suggestions when the prophets of Baal failed a fire-lighting exercise (1 Kings 18: 27-29)

The video, along with reports of Tamaki's inspired miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile prophecy, appear on the Talk to Action website. A two part piece on dominionist churches in the so-called 'apostolic' tradition (by Rachel Tabachnick) appear here and here, while another article sums up the issues here. Some quotes:

American media treatment of religion is typically a mile wide and an inch deep...

The strongly anti-democratic nature of dominionism comes out perhaps most strikingly in the doctrine of “spiritual fatherhood” that’s now in mainstream media parlance especially due to the fact that Eddie Long has been accused of coercing sex from his “spiritual sons.”

Leaving its coercive spiritual aspects aside, the Discipleship and Shepherding movement established the sort of pyramidal hierarchies of authority one would typically find in a military structure – “shepherds” could disciple “sheep”, or serve as “spiritual fathers” to “spiritual sons” but such “sheep” or “sons” could in turn take roles as shepherds or spiritual fathers to other Christians presumably lower in the spiritual pecking order. And so on down the line.

Tamaki prophesied a church-based takeover of New Zealand would occur within five years and Eddie Long, whom Brian Tamaki has described as a “spiritual father,” lustily endorsed Tamaki’s theocratic vision...

So, has Tamaki's prophecy at least edged closer to fulfilment?

This is a prophecy which failed to be fulfilled despite Tamaki's launching of a political party. Tamaki is quite prominent and in the nation’s Reader’s Digest Poll has topped the list as the least trusted person in New Zealand. Canada's Benediction Blogs On notes that after the 700 men swore oaths of allegiance to Tamaki, New Zealand’s cult watch listed Destiny Church as being in the "danger level." Earlier this year a number of members walked out of a service at the network's Brisbane church.

Lord Baal just doesn't seem to deliver the goods, not in Elijah's time, and not today.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Calvin was a Hobbit

Sonimax. Is there a hobbit inside?
According to a report on, Google searches for images of actor John Callin who is to play Oin in the forthcoming Hobbit movie, "brings up a number of pictures of John Calvin, the leader of the Protestant reformation."

A couple of points: 1. Exactly who voted to make Calvin "the leader" of the Reformation. The leader of the deviant Geneva pseudo-reformation I'll grant you...

2. Could it be that Calvin was in fact a hobbit? An evil, twisted hobbit of course, and perhaps half-hobbit, half-human? That might explain his tortured, humourless soul somewhat. Though hobbits are usually regarded as convivial types, Calvin clearly suffered from deep identity issues and has long been regarded as lacking in the more human/humane attributes.

The clincher is that Callin - the hobbit actor who currently "channels" Calvin - is the voice of Sonimax in Power Rangers Jungle Fury. Coincidence?

In fact, when you think about it, John Knox was probably an orc. Even if he wasn't, I'm pretty sure Sydney Archbishop Peter Jensen is...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Christianity's Future

Cherie Blair, wife of the more famous Tony, hosts the final episode of Christianity: A History. Blair is a smart cookie in her own right, asking the question 'why is Christianity in decline in the West?' First she dismisses the idea that two world wars were the critical factor, then lights on the phenomena of the 1960s as the real culprit. Convinced?

The programme begins with a strong Catholic flavour. Blair was raised in Catholic Liverpool where these days churches are being closed as the faithless faithful stay away in droves. The lights have gone out since holy mother church took fright and rolled back the initiatives launched by Vatican II. Having sampled the despondent nature of mainline Christianity in Europe, the scene shifts to the United States and a celebrity lineup of talking heads: Laura Bush, Jesse Jackson and Harvey Cox. Blair seems entranced by the 'vibrant' nature of what passes from Christianity in the US, and seems awed by the operation at the Willow Creek franchise. She is impressed by the greater involvement of women - something unlikely to happen anytime soon in Catholicism - and sees the Willow Creek-type model as a template for what needs to happen back in Britain.

Which is, when you stop to think about it, a remarkable conclusion. Bill Hybels burbles on at length, and Blair decides that a radical overhaul is needed on the other side of the Atlantic. That goes without saying, but mainline churches are in decline in the US too, and Blair shows little awareness of the negatives associated with mega-churches.

I'm not sure she nailed the question, but it was still fascinating viewing.

Saving Dietrich

It's a terrible shame. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's story is such a good one - brave pastor defies Naziism and ends up a martryr. But oh dear, he wrote some hard to understand things that make my bonce ache. Of course, he must have been a nice Evangelical deep down; certainly not a nasty liberal. If he was alive today he'd certainly be one of us, tooting the trumpet for Intelligent Design and sticking it to those depraved Episcopalians and heretical ELCA Lutherans. I know, what we need is a book that reclaims Dietrich for us good guys! Bonhoeffer rebaptised! Then we could get a righteous company like Thomas Nelson to publish it.

Well, as luck has it, such a book exists. Bob Cornwall blogs about it over at Ponderings. When all else fails, it's a time honoured strategy to cherry-pick the facts and ignore the stuff that doesn't fit. It's the godly thing to do. It pains me to say that Bob doesn't seem to realise this.

The problem of course is that most true Christians - people with lots of Thomas Nelson titles on their otherwise sparsely covered bookshelves - have never heard of Bonhoeffer, after all he was hardly in the same league as Billy Graham or Charles Stanley. And those that have wouldn't bother to read his work, and probably shouldn't because it needs someone like Brother Metaxas to explain it all safely. After all, we don't want anyone confusing what was with what should have been, now do we?

Bless you Eric Metaxas. Now, where did I put that Derek Prince tape...

Friday, 15 October 2010

God and Science

Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience and a non-believer, hosts God and the Scientists, the penultimate episode of Christianity: A History. From Oxford to Dayton, Tennessee; from the Kentucky Creation Museum to the Large Hadron Collider, this is quite a romp. What seems like a rather sedate science-history doco at the outset - Copernicus and Galileo - morphs slowly into an impressive "curates egg."

Richard Dawkins puts in a very brief appearance, but I was more interested in the contributions by Ron Numbers, the former Seventh-day Adventist who has exposed the dubious history of creationism, and David Paterson, an Anglican priest who expounds the view taken by the "Sea of Faith" movement, which draws on the work of philosopher and renegade theologian Don Cupitt. Paterson makes the statement - profound or incomprehensible depending on your point of view - that there is no real difference between theism and atheism except the terminology.

Blakemore is clearly unimpressed by the persistence of religion, despite the best efforts of an affable Vatican astronomer, and given his later interview with Jason Lisle, a resident scientist at the Creation Museum, it's hard not to have some sympathy with his frustrations. Like many with similar views, reason stands firmly at Blakemore's back, but alas, there is not a lot of poetry evident in his soul. At the end of the day, religious belief is all about poetry and metaphor; how else could it be? Which is probably why wooden-headed fundamentalism of whatever persuasion is such a "fundamentally" stupid idea.

An atheist producing an episode in a series on the history of Christianity? Somehow I can't imagine one of the big American networks taking that kind of risk. Too bad.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Dark Continents

Kwame Kwei-Armah fronts the sixth programme in the series Christianity: A History. The theme: Christianity, colonialism, and the emergence of a new Christendom with its centre outside Europe and North America.

Five hundred years ago there were few Christians outside Europe and the Middle East. Then the Spanish and Portuguese embarked on colonial adventures in the Americas with the overt blessing of Rome. Mass conversions were attempted at the barrel of a gun. The indigenous culture fought back in the only way it could, by melding ancient traditions with the new Catholic faith. This is where the programme begins, and we find a modern Catholic priest who doubles as a Mayan shaman with no apparent qualms of conscience. Truth to tell, Christianity - and Judaism before it - have always been deeply syncretistic (just think of the impact of Zoroastrianism with its dualism and resurrections), so it seems a little hypocritical to throw one's hands up in holy horror because it happened once again in the New World.

The focus next shifts to Africa, and Ghana in particular, with a walk through Cape Coast Castle, the former centre of the British slave trade with dungeons below and an "Uncle Tom" Anglican chapel above. I recollect being told once that the British were thoroughly decent colonisers - much nicer than the wicked, cruel French, Germans and others. Theirs was "the gentle yoke of Ephraim." Don't believe a word of it!

A change of location to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, established long before Constantine's rape of the Western church. Here is a very different expression of Christianity, sharing unique links to Judaism and the Jerusalem Temple cult. Perhaps it's a measure of our lazy indifference that we know so little - and care even less - about this ancient tradition of which we are (and I certainly include myself in this) so woefully and pitifully ignorant.

While the Ethiopian church preserves a history and dignity that deserves the attention and respect of Christians in other traditions, the new and growing independent churches that have sprung up on the continent are something else again. The programme suggests that here is the future of Christendom, in the intellectual desert of Pentecostalism, complete with exorcisms, biblical literalism and faith healing. Unlike the Ethiopian church, the new churches are invariably the schismatic offspring of Western missions. What can't be doubted is that they are both fervent and growing. It is probably true, as the film suggests, that Africa today is much closer culturally to the world of first century Palestine than the effete and bloodless post-Enlightenment churches of the West, but is that really a good thing, and do we realistically expect it to stay that way?

That ultimately is a question for African Christians to answer. Dark Continents presents a sympathetic perspective that certainly deserves to be heard.