Monday, 31 January 2011

Stark choices (8)

So how do we deal with the "texts of terror" in the Bible, or even just the terminally embarrassing ones?

Thom Stark begins (in chapter 9) by outlining three widely used reading strategies, each of which he judges to be problematic and inadequate.

1. Allegory: I first remember hearing the allegory strategy being trotted out from the pulpit of my highly fundamentalist church many years ago. The context was the liquidation of the people of Canaan by the tribes of Israel. Bob Morton fiddled with his glasses and explained in his faux American accent (he was a Kiwi) that the text was a difficult one and far too complex to explain fully in the sermon, but that we needed to think of it in terms of rooting out the spiritual "Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites" in our own lives. Even then I thought it was a pretty lame approach.

Stark notes - correctly in my view - that this kind of allegorization is "an evasion of the truth; it is just one more way to doom ourselves to repeating history." These readings "do not directly confront the text; they simply discard the text's meaning." Equally important, "such readings are profoundly disrespectful to the actual victims of genocide, and to their survivors and descendants... In effect it makes us the equivalent of Holocaust deniers."

2. Canonical Readings: These, Stark explains "seek to discover the macro-narrative that underlies the minutiae. The important thing is the forest, not the trees." Anyone who has followed recent posts here knows my position on macro/meta/grand narrative claims already, but Stark puts it more lucidly: "the diverse voices of scripture are lost, and the problematic texts are swept under the rug... Problematic texts are immunized by appeal to some supposed grand narrative that recasts their significance." Again, "the reader does not seek to be faithful to the individual text; rather, the individual text is remade to be faithful to the reader's own conception of a broader canonical message."

3. Subversive Readings: This critique took me by surprise, as I assumed that this was what Stark was leading up to. But no. The example used is of the subversion of Roman imperial language (e.g. son of God, saviour, lord) by the early followers of Christ. This seems a brilliant strategy at first blush, but consider its down side. Stark writes: "If Jesus' language was a subversion of the official transcript, the reality is that his language has only been subject to counter-subversion by the ruling elites ever since." Who could deny that? The persecuted became the persecutors. The categories remain intact, lying in wait to pounce on future generations.

Well, what alternatives remain? That's the concern of the tenth and final chapter, and the concluding post in this series.

Not nice

For anyone who feels miffed that a comment hasn't been approved to appear on Otagosh, you might take solace from this. Now that's what I call "going ballistic."

Of course there's got to be a back-story, just like the epic histories you hear when you pull two brawling kids apart in the playground.

It seems someone needs a nice cup of tea and a lie down.

(No comments on this post, I can't handle the "he did... did not..." routine.)

Sunday, 30 January 2011

CGWA Soda - flat and tepid?

Is it my imagination, or has the fizz gone from the CGWA soda can? CGWA? That's the anointed acronym for Kilough and assorted hangers-on.

I'm old enough (sigh) to remember the buzz that surrounded other schisms in the past, with excited talk of "new beginnings" and an avalanche of supporting material hitting letter boxes quick smart. In contrast this breakaway group seems to elicit little more than a reluctant grunt. The website is completely uninspiring, and those who do run their own sites - Ken Treybig springs to mind - seem to have to little energy to update them. There are indications that some of the ministers who got caught up in the split are now ruing their decision. Let's face it, most of these blokes are too old for this sort of drama, happy to belly-ache, averse to innovate. History can only repeat itself so many times before ennui sets in.

So is CGWA viable? Probably, at least in the short term, but not as a significant player. As we used to say in less culturally sensitive times, "too many chiefs and not enough Indians." Some of these guys have egos as big as Texas, and I suspect the rest have substantial personality disorders... except for those who qualify for both.

Meanwhile the parent body seems to have staunched the hemorrhaging for now, and are pretending everything is rosy. They've even got their "literature" appearing on the Barnes and Noble website as e-book downloads. Uh, okay...

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Stark choices (7)

Child sacrifice - faithful Abraham? (R. Crumb)
I intended to structure the Stark choices series as a review of The Human Faces of God, but that's clearly not the way it's working out. Thom Stark just has so many worthwhile things to say it's tempting to just précis some of that material. That's a compliment to Thom, but cause for a bit of self-inflicted wrist slapping on my part. Truth to tell, the sting in this series comes at the end, with the two final chapters, and I'm longing to get to that point. But, hey, there's just so much good stuff leading up to there, so maybe it's time to scan through chapters 4 through 8.

Ch. 4. Yahweh's Ascendancy: Whither Thou Goest, Polytheism?

Ch. 5. Making Yahweh Happy: Human Sacrifice in Ancient Israel.

Ch. 6. Blessing the Nations: Yahweh's Genocides and Their Justifications.

Ch. 7. The Shepherd and the Giant: Government Propaganda.

Ch. 8. Jesus Was Wrong: or, It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine.

There's enough here to keep us going till next Xmas. This is quite a tour de force, but any further summarising on my part won't do justice to the book itself. If I had to pick the chapters that most had me riveted, they'd probably be the ones dealing with human sacrifice in the Old Testament (hide your firstborn!) and the following one on the genocidal dictates of an angry deity. I'd thoroughly recommend this book, though, on the basis of any one of the above chapters.

Along the way Stark deals to the arguments presented by such apologetic luminaries as Walter Kaiser, William Lane Craig, Gleason Archer, Christopher Wright, R. A. Torrey, Eugene Merrill, Eric Seibert and Paul Copan. Even N. T. Wright doesn't escape.

Okay. Decks cleared. Next time we'll move into chapters 9 and 10.

Stark choices (6)

The story of Jonah in the great fish's belly must be true,
Because Jesus speaks of it,
And Jesus was God's Son,
Incapable of any kind of error.
If he was wrong about Jonah,
He could have been wrong about everything else,
So he wasn't,
Case closed.

That's the way the argument goes among many apologists who assume the Bible has to be without error - inerrant. Thom Stark begs to differ, but unlike most of us isn't content to just harrumph and move on without tackling the logic head on.
Jesus never taught that David wrote Psalm 110, or that Daniel wrote the book of Daniel, or that the book of Jonah is historically accurate. At the very most, he assumed these things. But not even this is guaranteed. (p.53)
According to the logic of fundamentalism, if Jesus assumed traditions that were wrong, then Jesus himself would have been wrong - and the whole religion (apparently) collapses in on itself. (p.54)

This is also the logic of the more simple-minded atheistic rejections of Christianity, and fundamentalists have no one but themselves to blame for setting up such a stupid argument in the first place. Stark however is no atheist. His response is that Jesus must have learned like the rest of us as a child, correcting faulty assumptions as he grew, so "why can we not grant that there were still some lingering faulty assumptions into his adulthood?" To think otherwise is to get netted in the heresy of docetism, which denies Jesus' humanity.
If Jesus believed the world was flat, and that Daniel wrote Daniel, it is not because he was an inferior or imperfect being; it's because he was fully a human being.

Just because Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as assuming a first century worldview doesn't mean we need to. No need to sweat the tale of the big-bellied fish, shonky predictions made after the fact in the book of Daniel, or the belief that demons caused epilepsy for that matter.

Works for me.

To be continued.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Jeremiah was no bullfrog

Tim Bulkeley has had some interesting things to say about Jeremiah recently, and specifically those sections described as the laments. In his latest post he notes:
... whatever else the book... of Jeremiah is about it is concerned with the tempestuous and troubled relationship of God and prophet.
Coincidentally I've been rereading Jeremiah over the last couple of weeks, and a pleasant diversion it is not. Jeremiah strikes me - and this is far from an original thought - as first and foremost a political agitator, and the God-talk, which serves as a framework for his agenda, serves those ends. The book is written against a time of horrific political developments, and the prophet - a partisan for the Babylonian superpower ("my servant Nebuchadnezzar") - attempts to make sense of it all through the time-honoured method of blaming the victim (the people of Judah) while stewing in his own self pity. He would have made a great conservative radio talk-back host! Here's a brief outline of just some of the textual evidence (bearing in mind that all we have is Jeremiah's side of the story.)

Jeremiah is accused of being a 'Tokyo Rose' Babylonian collaborator. Jer. 38:4-6
Jeremiah is arrested as a deserter and imprisoned as a political prisoner. Jer. 37:11-21
Jeremiah is rewarded by the invading Babylonians for his helpful role. Jer. 39:11-14, Jer. 40:2-6
Jeremiah uses Glenn Beck-style political invective against the enemy (pharaoh.) Jer. 46:17
And, not entirely unrelated:
Jeremiah describes his own encounter with Yahweh in terms of a rape. Jer. 20:7 (see Tim's comments on this verse, and my earlier comments.)

Jeremiah's God is a bloodthirsty and pitiless monster (Jer. 48:10). Even some of the ameliorating texts included in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Jer. 49:6) are probably later editorial additions, and are absent from the LXX. Issues of justice and expressions of compassion are remarkably absent. Yahweh and Yahweh's prophet seem to be, unsurprisingly, on the same page on matters like these.

Yes, there are a few nice passages and a handful of usable but decontextualised proof texts. But after trudging through all fifty-two chapters, with the blood and bile up to the tops of my gumboots, I have to wonder whether Marcion's instincts weren't spot on after all.

(Thom Stark suggests a way through such dilemmas, but that's another post.)

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Stark choices (5)

[Continuing a review of The Human Faces of God by Thom Stark]

The next section, Just Deserts or Just Desserts, contrasts varying understandings of the meaning of suffering. Do the bad guys get their cosmic comeuppance in the end, and good folk receive a belated reward? Or is it a case of enjoying life in the here and now, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes maintains. The final part of chapter one briefly touches on the history of Old Testament canonisation with some plain talking.
... the process by which these disparate books were collected together into a single curriculum was undertaken in large part in order to contribute to the consolidation of political power - as a way to safeguard religious identity and group cohesion ... it  was only after the texts had been brought together for these purposes that it even began to make sense to think about them as a singular "Word" from God. (p.14)

Chapter 2, Inerrantists Do Not Exist, calls the bluff of those who claim they believe everything in the Bible.
If you were to ask an inerrantist if she agrees with Ezek. 18:20, she would certainly answer in the affirmative. Of course she concurs that children should not be made to suffer for the sins of their parents! But ask her if she agrees with Isa. 13:16, where Yahweh's idea of justice is to punish parents by dashing their infants' heads against large rocks. Ask her if she concurs with Lev. 26:29, or Ezek. 5:9, or Jer. 19:9 ... Is the inerrantist still an inerrantist? (p.16)
From here the discussion moves on to hermeneutics and the many "inspired revisionist readings" of the Bible that occur in the Bible itself, followed by methods Christian leaders have used in both the early church and modern fundamentalist communities. In broad terms Stark is cogent and convincing, though I have a few quibbles on details when he touches on the figure of Marcion (but more on that later.) Along the way he swats at the expected throw-away lines that inerrantists toss out, the caricatures of 'hostile liberals,' and the idea that 'scripture interprets scripture.'

The discussion is to the point without the usual pussy-footing around that one invariably encounters from cautious ecclesiastical functionaries, and that is a breath (or maybe a blast) of fresh air.

To be continued.

Journal charts UCG split

The latest issue of The Journal is out, and carries a number of features relating to the recent UCG split, including an interview with one of UCG's founding elders, Ray Wooten. Spare a thought for members of the Big Sandy, Texas UCG, most of whom have defected to the new organisation, leaving their church building in the control of their former affiliation. (UCG congregations rarely own or meet in church buildings; Big Sandy was one of the few exceptions.) Of course almost everyone is willing to rattle their tonsils with an opinion, and a previous Otagosh post occasioned by the turmoil appears on page 3 (the original can be found here.) The Dave Havir piece is worth reading for a little objective insight on the people behind the splinter sect.

One other item I can't help but mention. A group that calls itself the Church of Christian Commandment Keepers has created a website called - wait for it - Herman is described there as "a spiritual successor to Herbert W. Armstrong," and I guess we're expected to believe that this little band are now Herman's spiritual successors. Sadly there are no downloads of the famous Compendium of World History, just a collection of Her-manic sermons.

A sampler of the current Journal is available as a free PDF (pages 1, 3, 5 and 32), but if you're into the COG scene, now would probably be the time to get a full subscription.

Stark choices (4)

Forget the people - save my tree.
[Continuing a review of The Human Faces of God by Thom Stark]

Chapter 1 is called The Argument: In the Beginning Was the Words. Apart from wanting, due to force of habit, to take a red pen and cross out 'was' (surely it should be 'were,' regardless of intended biblical allusions), it's an impressive beginning.

Section 1 contrasts the tendencies to universalism and xenophobic nationalism that yell at each other throughout the biblical narrative. The exemplar offered is one I'd never noticed before, the relative value of human life and woody plants.

No, really. The passages in question are in Deuteronomy and Jonah. Here's the former.

But in the cities which Yahweh gives you as an inheritance, you shall not leave anything that lives. You must destroy them all according to the law of anathema - the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites - as Yahweh, your God, has commanded you, that they may not teach you all those evil things which they have done to honor their gods, for by imitating them you shall sin against Yahweh, your God. If, on attacking a city, you have to lay siege to it for a long time before capturing it, you shall not destroy the fruit trees around it nor cut them with your axe, that you may eat their fruit. Do not cut them, then. Are the trees of the field men that they should also be stricken? (Deut. 20: 16-19)

People can be butchered freely, but for heaven's sake don't touch the fruit trees!

But then, the word of the Lord also came to Jonah, who found shade under a castor oil bush (gourd, KJV) after preaching to the city of Nineveh. The citizens unexpectedly repented and were spared, but Jonah was less than pleased. Yahweh then killed off the shady plant...

When the sun rose, God sent a scorching east wind; the sun blazed down upon Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. His death wish returned and he said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” Then God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the castor-oil plant?” Jonah answered, “I am right to be angry enough to wish to die.” Yahweh said, “You are concerned about a plant which cost you no labor to make it grow. Overnight it sprang up, and overnight it perished. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish right from left and they have many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned for such a great city?” (Jonah 4: 8-11)

Stark notes: "According to the Yahweh worshipped by the architects of the Canaanite conquest narrative, Yahweh cares more about trees than he does about human beings. According to the Yahweh worshipped by the author of the book of Jonah, Yahweh cares more about human beings than he does about trees. It's an interesting argument." (p.6)

The point being that in scripture there is a conversation going on - a heated conversation that stretches across generations. When we read scripture we're caught up in a debate - a whole series of debates - and not a tidy set of coherent theological positions with handy proof texts. "To put it bluntly: the Bible is an argument - with itself." (p.1) That's not a weakness, in Stark's view, but a strength.

To be continued. Scripture quotations from the Christian Community Bible.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Stark choices (3.5)

Before launching into Thom Stark's book in earnest, a quick dive across the Atlantic to press an ear to Don Cupitt's door at Cambridge. The relevance of this droll quote from A New Great Story will be apparent to anyone who is already familiar with The Human Faces of God.

... much or most of the entire history of religions can be found in the Hebrew Bible - including some startlingly-archaic ideas of God (coupled with indignant denials by God of his own past) ... There are relics of a time when God commanded and accepted human sacrifice, including child sacrifice, together with God's later attempts to distance himself from this very unfortunate fact about his past history. (p.33)

I certainly don't agree with Cupitt on everything, but I admire anyone who can skilfully eviscerate a Calvinist construct before you even notice that he's unsheathed the knife.

Stark choices (3)

Today, in the public mind at least, fundamentalists and their pastel-shaded evangelical brethren, rule the roost. Talk about Christianity to most folk under forty and they think, not of Presbyterians, Christening ceremonies and 'Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,' but rock-style praise choruses, arm-waving, and motivational pastors in smart casual duds. When they think of the Bible they think of a collection of proof texts and motivational anecdotes designed to elicit an audible 'amen' from the folk in the 'auditorium.' Mention JEPD or Q and everyone looks confused, not only the outside observers (and understandably so), but more particularly those seated with Holman Christian Study Bibles on their laps. Indeed, there's a whiff of sulphur on the breeze when you even hint at a critical approach to the scriptures.

But was it thus always so?
The problem is not just that honest, well-meaning Christians believe Evangelical authorities when the claim is made that this kind of fundamentalism is the only proper way to be a Christian; non-Christians tend to believe them too. But the fact is that fundamentalism as it exists in the Western world today is a relatively new phenomenon and there are many ways to be Christian, some of them much more ancient and developed. Because of the volume at which leading Evangelicals tend to speak, however, this fact is well disguised from the view of many.
Thom Stark writing in the preface to The Human Faces of God.
Enough of the preliminaries. Next time we'll engage with the first chapter.

Stark choices (2)

John Collins
"... biblical scholars, especially those of a more theological bent, have engaged incessantly in an enterprise of apologetics, to try to explain away apparent mistakes or to justify ethical attitudes that we now find unacceptable in the modern world.
"Human sacrifice and genocide are atrocities, whether we find them in the Bible or not. Attempts to save Jesus from apocalyptic delusion are unpersuasive. Those who strive to evade that conclusion only become "enablers," who are complicit in the negative effects of these texts on modern communities."

John J. Collins in the foreword to The Human Faces of God.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Stark choices (1)

Once in a great while most of us encounter a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, that changes the way we view our world. Something 'clicks' as we read the text, and the lights are turned up.

Thom Stark's book The Human Faces of God is for me that sort of book. So much so that I intend to comment on it in a series of postings, each dealing with a chapter. The get the ball rolling, a few general observations.

The foreword is written by John Collins, a biblical scholar with an international reputation (I studied Old Testament at Otago with his weighty textbook as a constant companion.) The book carries endorsements by Dale Allison, Tony Campolo, James McGrath, Edward Babinski, Frank Schaeffer and John Loftus (among others.) That's an unlikely combination, and testimony in itself to the author's abilities.

Stark is a young scholar with fire in his belly. He writes from within the fold as a committed - but far from uncritical - Christian. In his sights is the concept of inerrancy of the Bible, and related assumptions that do far more harm than good. This is not a book intended to bring solace for conservative, Bible-believing Christians of whatever persuasion. More likely it'll deliver a kick in the solar plexus. But, no pain, no gain. For Stark there is no hiding away from the problematic texts in the Bible, whether on genocide, slavery, child sacrifice, the polytheistic roots of Yahwism or Jesus' misplaced conviction that the world was to end in the lifetime of his followers.

Needless to say, the apologists won't be happy. But if you're interested in approaching the Bible with integrity and honesty, and suspicious that the apologists are whistling in the wind anyway, then this may be one of the most important books you read this year. I has certainly been for me.

To be continued.

Potter vs. Abanes' cant

Never tell a lie. Even if the Nazis were to come pounding on your door, demanding to know the whereabouts of the family hiding in your basement, you should never tell a lie.

Heard that one before? There are "theologians" who hold that position. Hew to the truth, and consequences be damned, because who can second-guess God? That old ratbag Kant held a similar view. A less sophisticated exponent is Richard Abanes. The idea is that consequences (the death of a family, for example) are irrelevant to the rightness of the deed.

Even poor young Harry Potter had Abanes all in a lather because he's been a very naughty boy.

I wonder if Abanes who is, among other things, an outspoken evangelical apologist, has ever actually read the Bible. Take Jeremiah 38 for example. The king of Judah, a vacillating character called Zedekiah, summons the prophet to a secret meeting. Things are looking bad, the Babylonians are at the door. Jeremiah appeals to the king to turn himself over to the invader for clemency, but Zedekiah is capable of little more than hand-wringing. The meeting concluded, Zedekiah asks the prophet to lie.

Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know about this conversation lest you will die. If the officials hear that I have spoken with you and if they come to you and ask you what I spoke of to you, even though they threaten you, you will say to them: I only made a petition to the king not to send me back to the house of Jonathan to die.”

It seems a fairly straight forward situation for any 'divine command ethics' exponent. You'd think Jeremiah, of all people, would know a 'divine command' imperative when he saw one. Be staunch! Fess up at the first opportunity! But Jeremiah seems to be closer to Potter than Abanes.

All the officials came to Jeremiah and questioned him. He replied just as the king had instructed him, and they said no more since no one had overheard the conversation.
Which perhaps goes to show that you can't always swallow Kant's cant...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

God in the genes?

Can genes explain religion?


Enough to make you cry...

A recent Pew Forum poll continues to cause heads to shake in wonderment.

Fewer than half of Americans can name the four New Testament gospels.

More than half do not recognize that Judaism is a religion.

An early poll showed one in 10 believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Another one in five believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.

Out of a possible score of 32, lazy mainliners (Catholic and Protestant) averaged a dismal 16. Evangelicals were only marginally more competent, racking up a dim 17. Ouch!

Mormons, Jews, Agnostics and Atheists trounced them, with averages between 20 and 21. That's gotta be embarrassing. I once knew a Mormon guy who thought Saint James wrote the KJV!

Yet despite this wall of ignorance, two out of three Americans believe the Bible has the answer to all of life's important questions. How is that even possible? Many obviously don't believe the Bible, just believe in believing the Bible, then steer well clear of the book itself lest they learn something they won't like.

Academic and writer Stephen Prothero worries that American Christianity is increasingly governed by sentimentalism ( "All that matters is I love Jesus") and super-charged moralism.

The above comments are largely culled from a recent piece in the Vancouver Sun. Columnist Douglas Todd then goes on to wonder about Canadian religious literacy. I would guess that the same survey administered in New Zealand would reveal even more eye-wateringly depressing results. A 15 question sampler from the original survey is available online to try - for those who dare.

Todd wonders what has happened to the Christian emphasis on intellect.

Uh, what emphasis was that? A simpler and more pertinent question is what happened to the basic reading skills that the Jehovah's Witness who knocks on your door still has? Not much intellect needed there, just commitment. And these days no one has to be put off by archaic language. Put on a pair of hygienic latex gloves and cautiously pick up a copy of the CEV Bible, a translation deliberately dumbed down so small children and particularly thick adults can read it. Bible reading isn't rocket science. How difficult can it be?

(Not that dumbed down, easy-read Bibles are good for kids. Ten year olds who can power through volumes of Harry Potter deserve much more credit than that.)

I'm not sure about Canadians, but compared to these results, Kiwis, Aussies, Brits... almost any other national group in the Western world, at least have a great excuse. Our societies are much more secular. Religious profession is far less an aspect of our national character.

Apparently there's little disadvantage in that fact.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Tolkien Bible?

Little known fact: J.R.R. Tolkien was a principal collaborator in the process of translation and literary revision on the Jerusalem Bible.

Thursday, 20 January 2011


Deane Galbraith has a new blog, Remnants of Giants, which deals with the curious tales of giants in the Bible, including those Nephilim who were the offspring of the 'sons of God' and the ladies of the land. Assuming these 'sons of God' were angelic beings, how did they, um, accomplish it, considering that - in the New Testament - angels, being sexless creatures, "neither marry nor are given in marriage." That's a question touched on by Thom Stark in The Human Faces of God (p. 42-43, cf. 77-78). I don't think he's losing any sleep over it though; the various accounts don't seem to hang together particularly well.

Richard Elliot Friedman might disagree though. In a comment on Genesis 6 he connects the dots between the various giant stories scattered through the Tanakh.
We can read each of these stories without noticing that they are a connected account, building to a climactic scene, but obviously we miss something that way. Such widely distributed stories are there because the Bible is not a loose collection of stories. It is an intricate, elegant, exquisite, long work with continuity and coherence. (Friedman, Commentary on the Torah.)
Then again, coherence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and a pinch of Grand Narrative certainly always helps out with the continuity. The trick is in deciding which metanarrative to pick.

The primary focus of Remnants of Giants seems to be the influence of these tales "in contemporary culture," reflecting the concerns of that mysterious beast called reception history. Different! It promises to be an intriguing addition to the biblioblogosphere.

The Unexpected Virgin

Can somebody please explain the possible justification for translating Isaiah 7:14 as "Behold, the virgin shall conceive..." (ESV) when the Hebrew says no such thing?

Matthew in his gospel (1:22-23) translates it that way when citing the verse, but Matthew is either taking liberties with the Greek Septuagint (parthenos), being extremely creative with his messianic proof texting, or both. The Hebrew word, as all biblical students should know, is almah, meaning young woman, corresponding to alem, young man. If 'virgin' had been intended, there was a perfectly good word available, betulah. Isaiah doesn't use it.

Then there's the context of Isaiah 7. A prophecy? Well yes, but a very short term one. Reading on from v.14 through to v.17 the context makes it crystal clear that there's nothing here about a coming messiah. Interpretation of scripture in the first century was apparently a seat of the pants affair which most of us would scarcely recognise, whether for the early Christians or the sectarians of Qumran, so we can probably cut them some slack. But what excuse do the latter-day translators of the English Standard Version and the New International Version have?

Even the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible reads "young woman."
Digression: So does the NRSV, Revised English Bible, Good News Bible, New English Bible, Inclusive Bible, Moffatt, JPS. The Jerusalem Bible reads 'maiden.' Virgin is retained in the NAB, NASB, NLT, TNIV, CEV and Christian Community Bible.
The passage in Matthew is legitimately rendered as 'virgin,' but any modern translation that reverts to 'virgin' in Isaiah is deliberately playing fast and loose with the Hebrew text. The ESV doesn't appear to translate almah at all, it just provides a face-saving apologetic substitution. Why pick on the ESV? Well, it's a particularly blatant example. The ESV is a revision of the 1952 Revised Standard Version, presumably updating and improving that text. Yet the RSV also reads "young woman."

It seems to be another example of "direct rectilinear messianic prophecy", cleaning up the older texts so the newer texts seem more accurate. If Isaiah won't say what we need him to say, why we'll change what he says, then stick out our chins and claim we're providing a more faithful translation!

It's comforting to find that there are committed Christian scholars who are willing to blow the whistle on this sleight of hand. Mention of Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God is relevant here. He calls this kind of thing "a conspicuous hermeneutic of convenience." Some time next week, all going well, there'll be a short review posted here, but for now the bottom line is, you really shouldn't have to perform a DIY lobotomy to be a good Christian (at least a non-fundamentalist Christian.)

But if you claim to provide an accurate translation, surely you do have to actually translate accurately.

Irritating Blog Habits

When it comes to following other people's blogs, I have a few pet peeves. One has to be those blogs, thankfully few in number, that consist of links - and little else - to other blogs and web pages. The worst of these send the reader down a whole series of rabbit holes (links to links to links) before delivering - if you're lucky - the expected content. I mean, why bother?

Then there are the bloggers who post long items, but provide only a teaser on the main page. You have to click "read more" to get the full posting. Blogging is the art of writing concisely. Those of you crazy enough to read Otagosh regularly want short items with a clear main point. At least that's the assumption I work under. Essays belong on web pages, not blogs. When casual readers see that "read more" link the standard reaction is... nah.

But brethren, yesterday that all changed. First someone explained to me the secret of putting that "read more" thing on Blogger posts. Then an angel sat on my shoulder (a red one with horns, tail and a pitchfork) and saith unto me, "Repent! Thou knowest that thou lusteth to trieth this out."

And I wept sorely for it was so.

Thus, was I led astray and, probably for the first and last time,

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The One True Chart of Church History

Okay, no way I can beat this. Definitely the last word on the subject.

From Zwinglius Redivivus.

Pulling the Panda's Thumb

A good journalist has the gift of telling a story so that non-specialists (which usually means you and I) can get to grips with complex issues. If the issue is the clash between Intelligent Design (ID) and science, there's a lot of room for clarification.

Gordy Slack has the gift. He tells the story of the Dover trial, not so much a battle between science and religion as a battle between science and delusion. His retelling of the testimonies in the courtroom, brought about by a school board in Pennsylvania trying to bring ID into the curriculum (using Of Pandas and People as a textbook), amounts to a crash course in the debate between evolution and ID.

Take the difference between methodological materialism (MM) and philosophical materialism (PM). Never heard of it? Neither had I before reading The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything. It sounds incredibly daunting, but the distinction is important, and over a short chapter even a dolt like myself is brought up to speed with no difficulty whatsoever. Slack cuts to the quick effortlessly, retelling the evidence presented in court in a thoroughly approachable way.

It's doubtful that many ID lobbiests will find this book to their taste, but it's worth noting that many of those who rallied to prevent a beachhead in Dover for ID are people of faith, though obviously not the binary mindset of creationism - the wolf underneath the ID fleece. At least one, John Haught, is a theologian, and has authored God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Hawkins, Harris, and Hitchens; hardly a godless villain!

And it's reassuring to know that in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, good sense was to ultimately prevail.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The wearing of the veil

In our myopic, modern Western culture we almost exclusively associate women in veils with Islam, but like so many other customs we have a cultural amnesia about our own history.

Remnants of a centuries-old Christian practice still remain among Exclusive Brethren, Hutterites and Amish, and are tracked back through that super-misogynist Tertullian to none other than Paul himself. At least that's the position taken by an Anabaptist site with a discussion of 1 Cor. 11:1-16 and an overkill of historical images to prove the point.

Tree of Strife II

Click to enlarge
Look what happens when you have way too much time on your hands. Here's another version of the tree... well, more of a bush really.

This version, created using Gliffy, will need further fine tuning yet, and it has been weighted to address the relevant demographic on Otagosh a bit more closely.

Like the original, I've ignored a great many groups  for the sake of simplicity, though they could be fitted in. Some groups like GCI defy their origins by aping other traditions (in CGI's case, judging by current teachings, it superficially looks a lot like a church in the Reformed tradition.)

Monday, 17 January 2011

Tree of Strife

Click to enlarge
I kinda like this 'family tree' diagram, shamelessly lifted from here. It really helps identify the heretics, nicht wahr? All those deviant groups spawned by the dear old Church of England, for example, and that's not to mention the ratbag Reformed factions (though how exactly do that motley lot seem to emerge, according to this tree, prior to the Lutheran Reformation? Go figure.)

Actually I suspect that the Moravians are the only ones to get it sort of right, which may explain why there are so few of them around...

Now for a compulsory test question for those of you with a WCG background. Given this diagram, where would you attach a box labelled Grace Communion International?

Alternatives to Evangelical Bible translations

I've been thinning out the bookshelves. Weeding is long overdue, and now the academic study is over - at least for the next twelve months - there's no need to keep some of the less worthy tomes that did little more than clutter. Two big bags worth have gone down to Evermore Books, and I'll probably take more in next week.

The thing about second hand bookshops is that you tend to leave with more stuff than you take in. Resistance wasn't entirely futile this time around, but a tidy copy of the Jerusalem Bible winked at me on my way out, and in the moment of hesitation my self-control was lost.

The JB was released way back in 1966, and has since been replaced with the New Jerusalem Bible. Both are Catholic translations, and good ones too. Not that you're likely to find the NJB at the local Christian bookseller. Their shelves are usually crammed with an alphabet soup of evangelical versions: NIV, TNIV, ESV, Message, NKJB, KJV, NASB, NLT, Amplified, GNT, CEV, NCV... all of which come in variety of editions: for women, for men, for teens, children, left-handed people...

Okay, so I made up the one about left handers, but it's probably being released later in the year. Look hard enough and if you're lucky you might find a NRSV hidden on a bottom shelf. As for other non-evangelical translations, tough luck! At least that seems to be the case at most of the Manna bookstores.

Alternatives? In my highly biased opinion the NRSV is the best overall, and there are lots of editions to choose from (I use the HarperCollins Study Bible and the Fortress Press Lutheran Study Bible), though it's a bit traditional for some tastes. The Revised English Bible (an update of the 1970 New English Bible) is a personal favorite, but not always easy to find. The JPS Tanakh should sit on every preacher's bookshelf as a reminder that Christians share the bulk of their scriptures with the people whose intellectual property they appropriated. The progressive Catholic Inclusive Bible is excellent to irritate fundamentalists with, then there are more Catholic options worth considering; the New American Bible (not the same as the NASB) and the Christian Community Bible.

And if you haven't already, race in while you can to download a free PDF copy of the entire Christian Community Bible, including those extra books missing from standard Protestant versions. If nothing else, it has a fresh feeling for those of us raised in the RSV generation.

How Not to Read the Bible

"We believe that Scripture is rightly interpreted in the light of the answer to a key theological question:Who is Jesus?; Scripture answers that Jesus is fully God (the doctrine of the Trinity) and fully human (the doctrine of the Incarnation). Through his representative - substitutionary (vicarious) life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has united all humanity to God (the doctrine of the Atonement). Accurate understanding of any passage of Scripture occurs as we prayerfully conform our thinking to this revelation of the person and work of Jesus."

From The Surprising God Blog

Sunday, 16 January 2011

25 Years today since...

Armstrong and first wife Loma
... the death of Herbert W. Armstrong, who departed this life on January 16, 1986, aged 93. After trying his luck in the advertising industry he converted to the Church of God (Seventh Day) before launching out with his own prophecy-based ministry, originally known as the Radio Church of God, later the Worldwide Church of God. His church published The Plain Truth magazine and a radio/television program called The World Tomorrow, which was fronted for many years by his son Garner Ted, who died in 2003. Controversy surrounded the self-designated 'apostle' in his final years over allegations of incest and alcoholism. Armstrong's church has since moved into mainstream evangelicalism and has rebranded as Grace Communion International, though it retains a similar top-down structure. Armstrong's unique teachings, including British Israelism, and Sabbath and Holy Day observance, are continued in a number of schismatic bodies.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Dan Maguire on Ethics

I suffered through two courses on 'Christian' ethics over the last several years, and frankly they were a low point in the study program. The selection of writers drawn on were overwhelmingly, stiflingly, of the Reformed persuasion, loaded down with all the assumptions and baggage that go with it. The absence of modern Catholic moral theology - actually any alternative to the dominant Anglo-Reformed paradigm - was remarkable. In the end I threw my hands in the air, shoved the assigned readings to one side, and went hunting for material that was free of contamination. That's when I came across Daniel Maguire.

Maguire comes out of the tradition of Catholic moral theology, but like many others he has fallen afoul of the magisterium. Thankfully that hasn't stopped him. Conservative Christians will find much of what he says challenging, his is an unapologetically 'progressive' view, but what's life without challenge? And unlike the dominees of Reformed ethics, Maguire is readable by any reasonably educated layperson. The clip below is an introduction to his latest book, Ethics: A Complete Method for Moral Choice.

Friday, 14 January 2011

A snake in the grass

From Robert Crumb's 'Book of Genesis'
I came upon a new term recently: "direct rectilinear messianic prophecy." It's a beauty, and describes the much-loved strategy of finding prophecies of Christ in unlikely places in the Old Testament. A week ago on this blog there was a piece about Genesis 3: 14-15 as an etiological story about snakes, why they have no legs and why humans are repelled by them. Take off the deliberately distorting lenses of metanarrative and even a cursory reading of the passage shows no sign of it being a prophecy of Christ.

In response Steve wrote: even though the reading is foreign to the text itself apocalyptic reading of this passage is bolstered if not implied within the canon itself (when taken together as an authoritative corpus): in Romans 16.20, "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" evokes Genesis 3 imagery, and Revelation refers to Satan as "that ancient serpent".

Which is fair enough, as long as it's clear that any "apocalyptic reading" is an interpretation. Paul in Romans is crafting what seems to be an intertextual reference back to Genesis 3, and the author of Revelation may have the same imagery in mind. Granted; but does that then determine the meaning of the verses in Genesis? There are New Testament passages that clearly refer back to apocryphal literature too (compare the ascension of Raphael in Tobit 12:15-22 with the subsequent reports of Christ's ascension), but few are those who are much bothered with that.

At best we can say that Paul found this meaning in such-and-such a passage, or that the writer of the Apocalypse attributed a particular significance in this-or-that phrase. That's what interpreters do, but it doesn't determine the meaning of the text itself. Steve almost gets it right when he hauls out the qualification "when taken together as an authoritative corpus." He needs to add something about "internally consistent" though. Unfortunately the canon (whether we're talking Jewish, Catholic or Protestant) is anything but consistent. Quoting Revelation 12:9 (as the commenter suffering under the nom de plume "Puritan" does) establishes nothing about the text under discussion, unless you want to argue for - wait for it - "direct rectilinear messianic prophecy." Even then the verse is allusion, not exegesis.

There is a famous example of this problem in Paul's writing, which I'll get to next time, though I suspect Dennis and others are way ahead of me. But to stay with Gen. 3 for the moment, here's what Richard Elliot Friedman has to say in his Commentary on the Torah.
Stories in Genesis frequently develop etiologies - explanations of the origins of names and practices - but none comes close to the number of origins accounted for in Genesis 3. Namely:
1. It is the story of why snakes do not have legs... 2. The story is the etiology of what was perceived to be the natural enmity between humans and snakes...  .
He then goes on to list another eight examples that follow on in this one chapter. None of which have anything to do with predicting the life or death of the Messiah.

Unless you want to read it back into the text 'rectilinearly', and consider that a legitimate exegetical practice. But why would anyone want to bolster their beliefs with bad arguments?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Missouri Schism and UCG

I was still but a pup when the Missouri Synod exploded under the leadership of the loathsome "Chairman Jao" (J.A.O. Preus II, son of a former Republican Governor of Minnesota.) The "civil war" saw the moderates leave and the hardline fundamentalists remain firmly in control of a depleted denomination which, despite the bally-hoo and bravado, then slowly headed into a period of irreversible decline. Anything to learn here? Well yes, if the preface from James Burkee's new study is anything to go by. It's not so much about religious beliefs as about political worldview.

Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity is about to be published by Fortress Press. In the preface he relates a tour of Lutheran churches in Milwaukee prior to the 2004 election. Two speakers each presented a Christian perspective on supporting one of the two main parties. In Missouri Synod churches the Democrat presenter was treated abysmally, while in ELCA congregations the Republican advocate got a hard time. Politics and religion are intertwined, even by those who loudly call for their separation. And of course, you don't have to vote to have a political worldview.

The current situation in the Armstrong enclaves seems a world away, but I suggest the same political dynamics are a factor. I know of a few "closet Democrats" in the UCG/independent factions, but it's hard to imagine that any could survive for long in the more fascist factions (thinking of Pack and Flurry.) As for the latest eruption, it's no coincidence that the tactics of the departing been compared to those of the Tea Party. There has always been a right-leaning Republican skew to the Churches of God, but all things are relative, and the newly formed sect will clearly be more 'conservative' - doctrine has always been a side issue.

The split in UCG, like that in the Missouri Synod long ago, is as much about the culture wars in the surrounding society as anything else.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Whirled Wide

The Louisville lads have decided to confirm the name Church of God, a Worldwide Association. My question: A worldwide association of what?

Not congregations, after all there are no local boards - are there?

Not Christians, as the lay members have no representation, do they?

As far as I understand it, it's an association of ministers. But does an association of ministers make a church?

Of course, the same could be asked of the United Church of God, an International Association. No representation, just a bunch of elders - most hugely underqualified for the task - operating as a hierarchic-structured oligarchy.

Lads, lads, it's not the way of the future.

But these guys think in binary terms. Black/white, right/wrong, hierarchy/anarchy, episcopal/congregational.

Now that most of the control freaks have gone, maybe UCG can revisit their structure. Why not offer two levels of association, centralised and local? Why can't congregations like the Big Sandy church, for example, exist within the fold instead of having to peel off? You want to manage your own finances, fine! You want to elect your own board, great! Everyone has a code of ethics to adhere to, common management policies and a commitment to an agreed doctrinal statement. Fabulous, now go away and make yourselves useful! Maybe those congregations managed from the center would reap some advantages of their own too, especially those which don't have the financial grunt or people-skills needed. Everyone gets together every year or so at a fully representative conference, elders and lay people.

Who would choose which model to operate under? Who would choose their representatives? Why the local people themselves!

How hard could that be? Frankly, it's not rocket science. A couple of semi-intelligent COE members could draft something workable on the back of an envelope over a coffee inside thirty minutes - if they had the will to do so.

Maybe it's time for those remaining with UCG to take the lemons and make lemonade.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The name of the Beast

"Covenant Church of God," "Church of God, Ambassadors for Christ," "Church of God, a Worldwide Association," "Faithful Church of God" and "Church of God, a Christian Association."

Those are the five choices from which the name of new Armstrong sect will be selected according to the latest update from the lads in Louisville (and available here.) Are we all feeling inspired? As far as I can tell, though, there's been no discussion of a church motto yet, so in the spirit of Christian helpfulness I'd like to suggest a few, and invite readers to add to the list.
  • Our ministers know best
  • Shut up and just do what you're told
  • Accredited by God to take your money
  • Home of the 65 minute sermon
  • We micro-manage your faith
  • Lucre not Luker
  • Preaching British Israelism, Preparing our Paychecks
 More suggestions?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Did Jesus Exist?

British scholar Mark Goodacre tackles the mythicist position with a good deal of generosity and aplomb in his latest podcast, moving beyond the usual posturing that characterises the debate to make some important points. Thomas Verenna draws attention to it on his blog (I'll have some thoughts about his book Of Men and Muses later in the month), and Mark Goodacre's originating blog post can be found here.

Inspiration or Manipulation

As usual Gary Leonard's Banned by HWA blog is on top of things on the UCG/xUCG front, carrying a press release from the lads in Louisville regarding the opening service at their conference of ambitious malcontents.

I tuned in to the webcast near the end to hear Arnold Hampton exhorting the troops and playing the victim card. Arnold is a fine speaker with a feel for the dramatic. He knows how to pace his words, one of those few who can really motivate an audience, the Jesse Jackson of the rebellion.

Inspiration or manipulation? As the Hampster trotted out the well-worn catch-cries and war-horse proof texts I wondered at the level of credulity and naivete that would be necessary to sit in the congregation nodding and lapping it all up. Surely it would require a suspension of both prior experience and critical faculties. These people were being massaged and manipulated.

Then again, they were allowing themselves to be massaged and manipulated. Some of these folk have been associated with Armstrongism for decades. They were there in 1972, 1974, 1978 and on and on. They witnessed the rise and fall (and rise and fall) of Garner Ted Armstrong, the ministerial 'rebellion', the receivership crisis, the flip-flops on healing, divorce and makeup, the revelations of John Trechak, the death of the 'apostle' they idolised. Do they honestly think this is anything different?

From frying pan to fire; and now straight down the waste disposal.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me thirty five times plus, and I clearly need someone to tie my shoe laces.

Addendum (via Dennis Diehl)

Just spoke with Dixon [Cartwight of The Journal] and he has been told he is not welcome to be in the meetings in Louisville.

That sound you just heard is the new sect shooting itself in the foot. These guys really don't have a clue!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

UCG crisis hits the Philippines

The Philippines is the latest region to be ripped apart by the ongoing schism in the United Church of God with a pastor and local elder resigning. The list of departing elders on the UCG Current Crisis site is now just one below the 150 mark . An interesting visual representation of the divided sect, which is being updated regularly, is available on Stan Gardner's site using Google maps.

Saturday, 8 January 2011


I decided to treat myself to something utterly frivolous to mark graduating with a degree in theology, especially seeing I wasn't able to travel down to Dunedin for the capping ceremony. Today I found the ideal thing, a facsimile edition of the 1611 King James Bible published by Oxford University Press to mark the 2011 Quatercentenary of the grand old dame of English literature.

It's a beautiful book, full of curiosities, and quite different in parts from the text of the KJV used today. To "dig in" one has to peel each of the gold-edged pages apart, a pleasure I'd long forgotten. The next surprise was the genealogy charts. Who cares who begat who? Apparently they cared a good deal back in the seventeenth century. If you ever need to nut out exactly how David is related to Jesus, it's all there in dubious detail, spread over two pages, with pages more in the introductory section charting the descendants of other worthies, such as Ephraim and Manasseh, and going as far as the text allows.

There are a few puzzlers for the twenty-first century reader, especially in the page headings and chapter descriptions. "Afke, feek, knocke" wasn't too hard (ask, seek, knock), but what on earth does "The harueft great" mean? Okay, you got there long before me: the harvest great. Alright, I can cope, but I've been teaching and proof reading too long not to be taken aback by the absence of the possessive apostrophe. Four hundred years later the irony is that there are those who want to take it out again.

The strangeness of the English adds more than charm, it demands close reading and slows one down, the very opposite of the trashy 'easy-read' versions like The Message. Maybe it also conveys something of the distance that lies between us and the Greek and Hebrew documents. The original spelling edition of Tyndale's New Testament conveys that same feeling, and both are clearly meant to be read aloud rather than silently skimmed. The convention of printing the following word at the bottom of each page must have made the parson's job easier as he turned the leaf over without needing to pause.

Another feature is the inclusion of the Apocrypha. There, in the 1611 Bible, are the books that later disappeared from Protestant versions, including the KJV.

There are obviously more accurate translations available today, informed by current scholarship and better manuscripts, but arguably there are also a few that are worse (did I mention The Message?) But if you take pleasure in the sound and 'feel' of English, then "the 1611" is a pleasure unto itself, regardless of one's religious views or lack thereof.

The lads are gathering...

... in Louisville. Preliminaries are already underway.
January 6, 2010 – Ministers and their wives began arriving at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky, yesterday in preparation for an organizing conference for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association that will be held here January 9-11.
A pre-conference planning team co-chaired by Mike Blackwell and Mark Winner in conjunction with the temporary leadership team will use today (Thursday) and tomorrow to finalize the conference agenda. Other committees will also meet prior to the conference to discuss governmental structure and to ensure the continuity of important church programs.
Today, the interim governance committee, the long-term governance committee, and the administration committee will convene to work on how to structure the new organization. Festival coordinators, camp directors and youth corps administrators will meet on Friday.
Good luck fellas. Considering just who will be turning up, don't expect a smooth ride. More predictable is bull roaring, deal making and back room grandstanding.

Who won't be turning up are the common garden variety members. Except... the hoi polloi have been graciously permitted attendance at the church service.
Members are welcome to attend the Sabbath service that will be held at the Galt House in connection with the conference. Arnold Hampton and Richard Pinelli will deliver split sermons that will be webcast to newly formed congregations around the world. 
 The hoi oligoi in the Armstrong tradition have always had a robust sense of their own entitlement, and it seems that will continue in the new body, with a few extra bells and whistles thrown in. It seems that lay members of this church will certainly be expected to know their place.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Head and heel: "prophecy" in Gen. 3:14-15

Then God said to the serpent, "Because you were used as a tool of Satan, I cannot continue to let you be the most beautiful creature in the garden. You will now be lower than any of the animals and will crawl on the ground eating its dust. Also, I will place a hatred of sin in the heart of the woman and her descendants. This hatred of sin will find its ultimate expression in One of her offspring. Satan, like a striking serpent, will try to kill Him, but as a man crushes the head of a poisonous snake with his bare heel to save his children - knowing he will die - so the Savior will sacrifice His own life to save those who love Him, and He will utterly crush the serpent's head.
That's Genesis 3: 14-15, probably as few have read it (or into it) before. The credit for this fulsome paraphrase goes to Jack Blanco in The Clear Word, a version of the Bible popular among Seventh-day Adventists.

Blanco is hardly the first Christian writer to find in these verses a prophecy of Christ. I first came across this bit of exegesis as a kid, when I should have been doing something really useful like reading Superman comics. Being just a kid I was puzzled. Exactly how does this verse refer to Christ? I guess it would have been clearer to me if The Clear Word had been around back then, but it wasn't, and I decided that this whole interpretation trip was obviously far too deep for someone like myself.

Here are those same two verses in the JPS:
Then the LORD God said to the serpent,
"Because you did this,
More cursed shall you be
Than all cattle
And all the wild beasts:
On your belly shall you crawl
And dirt shall you eat
All the days of your life.
I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers;
They shall strike at your head,
And you shall strike at their heel."
So where's Satan? Where's the One? Where's the prophecy? Not there. They're not in the text. It's an etiological account of why snakes get around without legs and cause most humans to react with fear and revulsion. Is there more significance to it than that? Maybe, but if so it's certainly not evident in the text itself. Anything more is pure speculation. The Oxford Bible Commentary states it succinctly:
The various punishments imposed by God on the guilty (3:14-19) all have aetiological bases: serpents have no legs and are thought to 'eat dust', and bite human beings but are killed by them...
So why does the New Berkeley Version - a Reformed translation popular when I was growing up - provide this interesting footnote to those verses: "First promise of the Redeemer, Victor over sin and Satan." A more recent and egregious example comes from the footnotes of the God's Word translation.
The snake was Satan, the devil... Satan bruised Jesus' heel in the crucifixion, but Jesus crushed Satan's head by defeating the power of sin in the world through that very same crucifixion. 
Yeah? Says who? To find that in these verses you have to read it back into the text. It's not even an intertextual reference. How could you make an intertextual reference to something that hadn't been written about yet?

Beats me.

It's not fashionable in certain circles to use the term eisegesis any longer, but if you wanted a clear example of the phenomenon, this could be it. To read these verses as prophecy, first you need to put on your metanarrative blinkers.

Metanarrative. The idea is that there is a grand narrative, a saga, a big story that gives sense to the world, "an overarching story that defines your reality and who you are within it." There are, according to the theorists, competing metanarratives, but the Christian metanarrative is the true story about sin, death, saviour and salvation. Metanarrative is especially significant as a concept, according to Don Cupitt, in Reformed theology.
John Calvin in particular stuck so close to Augustine and was so Grand-Narrative-minded that preachers in his tradition (variously called Reformed, Calvinist, Presbyterian or puritan) long tended to maintain that the entire story, the Plan of Salvation, was implicit in every verse of Scripture...
And so it's deemed okay, even necessary, to go on a treasure hunt through Genesis, trying to find ways to tie it in to a theology that only emerged long after. The problem is not only that the Old Testament is pillaged for dubious proof texts, but that the standard metanarrative has gaping holes in it anyway. Is it worth rescuing? Death and suffering long predate the rise of human beings on this planet. Nature has always been red in tooth and claw. We didn't do it!

Apart from that obvious objection, there is no undisputed metanarrative in the Bible, only in the minds of certain of its interpreters. You have to mutilate the scriptures to make them "fit" into a metanarrative. Which is, in my opinion, what Jack Blanco has done. The pack of cards doesn't stack up, so you flick the Jokers off to the side and replace them with some more convenient cards from an entirely different deck. Creative writing for Blanco, creative exegesis for conservative scholars.

This prophecy exists only in the eye of the beholder.

Pravda redivivus

The January issue of United News is out, and in colour. Readers are treated to a roundup of stories which largely ignore the big news that continues to break across the embattled denomination; its ongoing breakup. Any readers who had been living in a cave for the last month or so would be hard pressed to emerge, United News in hand, much the wiser. There is a carefully massaged report on the December COE meeting, and the resignations of three members of the council get a passing mention, but for substantial reporting we'll all have to wait for the upcoming issue of The Journal.

Spare a thought though for Journal editor Dixon Cartwright who must have redesigned the front page numerous times over the last week or two trying to get on top of the flood of developments. The Church of God, America rises, gives a two-fingered salute, then disappears as it is subsumed in the new Church of God, a Worldwide Association. Splinter congregations surface, complete with their own boards, only to be pushed under again as the new hierarchy-in-waiting demands that they kowtow to the recycled mullahs. The moment The Journal hits the presses it's likely to already be out of date. Will the Elders of the Exodus permit Cartwright to cover their founding conference? Will the Imperious Leaders condescend to grant interviews? Time will tell.

But back to United where, perhaps without any intention to irony, the January-February issue of the Good News has also been released with a cover asking "Do You Understand the Signs of the Times?"

How very appropriate.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Suggested comments and hymn choice for elders introducing UCG services

(Tap, tap, tap...)

Ah, good afternoon brethren, welcome to services today. As many of you may be aware, this has been something of a rough week for those of us in God's church. Well, maybe more of a rough month (chuckle), but even so, here we all are again, well those of us who are here anyway, and our prayers brethren, and I'm sure you'll all agree, are that those who are no longer with us will realise that the door is always open for their, uh, return.

This afternoon I regret to announce that your pastor, who resigned last Sabbath, has been joined by both of the local elders who are, as I'm sure you know, both fine men, but Satan goes about as a roaring lion, brethren, as I'm sure you also know, and now we all need to be focused on the great future God has in store for us rather than looking behind which, as you'll remember, is what Lot's wife did. (Clears throat.)

So last night Home Office contacted me and asked if I'd come down here today and lead services, which, of course, it was my privilege to do, despite the four hour drive. I bring you warm greetings from everyone at Home Office, and in particular those who are still with us. Let's not let Satan distract us from the great Work we have in front of us, or cause us to lose our salvation by being caught up in rumor and a root of bitterness. As I'll explain in some detail in today's sermon, brethren, there is truly good news in the midst of all that has happened: Despite any appearances and rumors to the contrary, as Mr. Armstrong used to say, God is still on His throne!

[Pause to allow for scattered applause]

Now before we ask Mr., ah, one of the deacons, um, do we have any deacons left? Oh yes. Before the opening prayer, let's open our hymnals and turn to number 76... Now I believe our pianist is now meeting elsewhere, and of course we harbor no ill will toward her, but I don't think it matters as we can do a magnificent job of this unaccompanied. All together now...
Un-less the Lord shall build the house, the wea-ry build-ers toil in vain;
Un-less the Lord the cit-y shields, the guards main-tain a use-less watch.
In vain your rise ere morn-ing break, and late your night-ly vig-ils keep,
And bread of anx-ious care par-take; God gives to His be-lov-ed sleep.

A nod of acknowledgement to the Shadows of WCG blog and its post which quotes the first line of this Dwight Armstrong hymn - number 96 in the old purple hymnal, no.76 in the UCG hymnal.

Another chunk of Cupitt

"In dogmatic religion of the ecclesiastical kind, religious language undergoes a steady decline. It slowly turns into a series of stock slogans that are used as passwords in order to demonstrate one's own loyal membership of the group and to check other people's credentials. Eventually these slogans become so meaningless and irritating as to be quite unusuable by anyone who cares about language ... the hideous old obsession with using Christian vocabulary to police the frontiers of the community, to divide us from them, and to confirm hierarchies of spiritual power."

From "Theology's Strange Return."

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Will Matt be Mad?

Philosophy of Religion? What's that?

Whatever it is, it's associated with Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. It's also a hobby horse much ridden, whip flailing, on the MandM blog, New Zealand's most widely read biblioblog - number 6 on the latest Top 50 ranking - co-authored by Matthew and Madeleine Flannagan.

With names like Plantinga (see my earlier rant) and Craig associated with the discipline you'd have to be a tad leery of what the field was offering anyway. No surprise then that there are those who note "a general tension over the legitimacy of philosophy of religion in philosophy as a whole." The line that divides it from apologetics, for example, seem to range from hazy to non-existent. Now a challenge arises from within the bosom of the beast, so to speak. Keith Parsons has blown the whistle.

Keeping an eye on the truth was also a matter of practical importance for Parsons, who was alarmed by the support for Intelligent Design creationism among philosophy of religion’s most influential names. These include Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen, who led the subfield’s resurgence in the 1970s and ’80s, and William Lane Craig, an Evangelical who popularizes the subfield’s arguments for God in widely-attended public debates. “One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion,” Parsons said.

Whether or not you agree with Parsons' rejection of theism, he makes a good deal of sense on specific issues. If we're going to talk meaningfully about Christianity, it can't help to have a non-discipline loudly interjecting implausible pretensions into the discourse.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Prophets as Political Agitators

Those of us who have come out of a fundamentalist background usually by default associate the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and others, with prediction. In certain circles those predictions are not only infallible, but aimed at our own times which must be therefore, not surprisingly, the End Times. Prophecy, we were told, comes alive in today's world news.

To illustrate this bit of myopia, here's a quote that illustrates this perspective.
An exciting, pulsating, vital third of all the Bible is devoted to PROPHECY! And approximately 90 percent of all prophecy pertains to OUR TIME, now,...
I'd don't know where the author pulled his stats from, though an anatomical explanation may be the most apt. This particular 'expert' then goes on to shoot himself in the foot by adding;
... in this latter half of the twentieth century!

Oops. Quick check of copyright date: 1967.

In more enlightened circles this is all old hat. Of course the prophets weren't talking about today, they were forthtelling, not foretelling, and so on.

The trouble is, those circles of enlightenment are set on 40 watt narrow beam, and they've yet to pierce the darkness down the road at the neighbourhood storefront church. The failure of modern biblical studies is the almost complete lack of "trickle down" to the pews.

So what were the prophets on about? It's not saying anything original to suggest that they were more often than not the political activists of their day. Many of the soaring passages in Isaiah are not only reminiscent of political rhetoric, they are political rhetoric. Did Jeremiah have a political agenda? You bet! You don't have to read very far into the prophets without this reality leaping out at you.

Unless you've been overdosing on popular 'prophecy' material like the book quoted above, in which case it might well be a totally new thought.

Ronald Clements, a fairly conservative scholar, writes:
From the very beginning of modern study of these figures it was evident that their messages had a strongly political content.

Well Ronald, evident to you maybe, but not so evident to the folk who trawl through the shelves at the local Christian bookstore where every unclean and foul fowl finds a roosting place.
In the course of this engagement with a specific set of political judgments and policies they [the prophets] clearly intended to influence the policies adopted and thereby the outcome of events.

Clearly? Does this man not watch Sunday morning television? Well, no, of course he doesn't, which is probably why all this is clear to him.

Ever wonder why the powers-that-be, in most cases the royalty and priesthood of Israel and Judah, were so thoroughly hacked off with the prophets? (One memorable example is Jeremiah 36, the story of King Jehoiakim burning Jeremiah's scroll.) Was it because they were predicting events yet to unfold in the far distant future? Where, in practical terms, was the threat in that?

Of course there is poetry and theology in the Prophets. They wrote in a world where there was little separation between secular and sacred, no concept of democracy and no political parties. If you wanted to beat the king over the head for his questionable alliance with Egypt, for example, which is after all a very political thing to do, you picked up the club of prophecy, gathered your mantle about yourself, and whacked him with the word of the Lord... as you understood it.

Naturally there is apocalyptic writing as well, which does present itself as peering through the mists of time (usually with the advantage of hindsight!) If someone wants to delve into Daniel or Revelation it'd be really helpful to get a grip on the genre of apocalyptic first, before making an egg of oneself.

The incredible thing is that so many Christians, invariably good people with fine motives and an unquestionable commitment to their faith, are still being led down the garden path by the manipulations of modern prophecy merchants with their silly calculations and lurid fantasies about what will happen sometime very soon.

Back to the source of that first 1967 quote. Boldly, boldly, thus did the man of God proclaim:
Events of the next five years may prove this to be the most significant book of this century.

A staggering turn in world events is due to erupt in the next four to seven years.

By God's direction and authority, I have laid the TRUTH before you! To neglect it will be tragic beyond imagination!

Buzz, buzz, BUZZ...

But he did get the last sentence right.
The decision is now YOURS!


Armstrong, Herbert W. The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy. Pasadena, Ambassador College Press, 1967 [The same points could easily be made with Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth.]

Clements, Ronald E. Old Testament Prophecy: From Oracles to Canon. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.