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.