Sunday, 27 February 2011

A Literary Bible

"A breathtaking translation of the Hebrew Bible..." That's part of the blurb on the back cover of David Rosenberg's A Literary Bible. But the reality is that, if you're looking for a copy of the Tanakh, this isn't what you'll want. It's not a Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and it's barely a translation in any consistent or meaningful sense. Another blurb on the inside flap informs us that this "artful translation restores... the essence of imaginative creation of the Bible." That description might be more to the point - imaginative it surely is - if anyone knew what the sentence actually meant.

Rosenberg is a former chief editor at JPS (the Jewish Publication Society) and co-author of a provocative book, along with Harold Bloom, that suggests that the J source which underlies the Torah is the work of a woman (Bloom now wants to identify her as Bathsheba!) I'm not qualified to pass judgment on his poetic abilities, though we will come back to that issue, but potential readers should note that, despite claims and appearances, this is not a translation of the Hebrew Bible. Whole books are missing - perhaps they weren't literary enough. Deuteronomy and all the historical books (except 2 Samuel) have been omitted, along with much more, and of those that do appear, most have been gutted. Rosenberg's Genesis has no chapter 1, his Psalms is a short selection, and so it goes. To muddy the waters even more, Rosenberg has included his version of the apocryphal book of Judith.

So why has Rosenberg published his Literary Bible. "I never found [the Bible's] literary depth adequately conveyed to the secular reader." (xi) This is a volume aimed not at the "average" reader, as so many dull contemporary translations are, but the "secular" reader, whoever she or he might be.

"[I]t's critical to grasp the failures in modern Bible translation." (xii) "I did not seek to embellish or alter the originals." (xiii)

Say what?! The prose sections have all the flow and beauty of the NASB (i.e. none you'd notice), while the poetic sections embellish and alter the originals with gusto.

While delivering his elite literary opus, Rosenberg is not above taking an uncharitable sideswipe at his peers. James Kugel is described as a "conventional" scholar with a "tin ear", while Robert Alter stands "consumed by his own writing style."

You might hack your way through the attempts at prose translation with some success, but when it comes to the rest, you may need a further translation. Euphemistic descriptions from the dust jacket include "re-speaking," "a deeply mediated translation," an "audacious work of art," and "genre-bending."  A sampler from Psalms:

Psalm 1: "he steps from his place at the glib café"
Psalm 6: "let all my enemies shiver / on the stage of their self consciousness"
Psalm 58: "Lord, cramp their fingers / till the arms hang limp like sausage"
Psalm 73: "material cars of pride / and suits of status", "cynical megaphones"
Psalm 137: "to an orchestra of trees / we lent our harps / silently leaning"

Over in Job you'll find "plastic children," "a tie in a railroad track," "Western Union boys," "cold as a camera," "the supermarket," "Leningrad," "yesterday's newspaper," "Stalin's house," "Martin Bormann," "Mercedes-Benz," "repossessed cars".

Art? Very probably. A radical paraphrase for The Hamptons set? Quite possibly. A case study of living Reception History? Who knows...

I'm reminded of Leslie Brandt's Psalms Now. Brandt didn't pretend to translate, but to restate. That seems to be a completely legitimate thing to do, as long as everyone is clear on what is happening.I don't recollect Brandt hawking his book as a 'translation' though.

If you plan to acquire A Literary Bible, you may want to find a place for it next to the poetry and post-modern literature, and far, far away from your NRSV.

A literary Bible probably deserves a literary critic, and that I ain't, so there's a review by Frank Kermode online at the New York Times for those interested.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Ron Fraser on Christchurch

Dimwitted morons who are keen to find cause for disasters are two a penny, but apocalyptic control freaks have to be at the very bottom of the barrel. The Christchurch earthquake has continued to dominate news in New Zealand as the confirmed death toll rises. Bodies are still being pulled from the rubble, but the Bible-quoting carrion birds are already busy at work.

Meet Ron Fraser, a hack writer from an obscure high-demand sect known as the Philadelphia Church of God. On the sect's web site Ron relates the Christchurch tragedy to the PCG's idiotic doctrine of British Israelism and the lavish hagiography this group has built around a drunkard and moral reprobate called Herbert Armstrong.
It is not by dint of pure circumstance that Australia and New Zealand have been subject to great catastrophe over recent months. It is by design! Believe it or not! It is by the specific design of Almighty God... as our heavenly Father, He knows how to deal with His children!
Ron's god is a divine child abuser, and he knows how to bash and maim his offspring...
He inspired one of the basic laws of effective child rearing to be embedded in Scripture: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself brings his mother shame” (Proverbs 29:15). That same principle applies to the way the Creator of humankind deals with His offspring (Genesis 1:27) when they go astray.
Yes, Ron's PCG god is also a real bastard.
God declares of the Anglo-Saxon nations that we are like sheep that have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). Out of an overwhelming love for these people, the Eternal God simply reproves them by increasing the punishment on them for breaking His law. Much of that punishment comes in the form of so-called natural catastrophes. God will continue to bring such penalties on His people simply to draw their attention to the reality that they are out of step with His will. And He will do this till repentance occurs and they turn to their God for His help.
Ron's god is obviously pretty thick. All this punishment meted out to draw our attention to how we're out of step with his will hasn't exactly been successful. You'd think the old boy would attempt a more effective strategy. But no, he seems completely unable to progress beyond being a violent thug.
Why this succession of calamities on Anglo-Saxon nations? To gain the attention of the people — that they might question whether their own selfish way of life may be the reason for such catastrophes befalling them.
"Anglo-Saxon nations." That's the clue that clueless clots think their god is, like themselves, a respecter of persons; a heavenly child-beater who takes especial delight in knocking the stuffing out of his racial favorites.

I've got news for Ron, New Zealand isn't much of an "Anglo-Saxon" nation. I've yet to meet either Angles or Saxons walking down the main street in any New Zealand city - including Christchurch. Ron would passionately deny that his sect is racist, oh goodness gracious no! - but the proof-texted excuses simply don't wash. The PCG god is anything but color-blind.

But whenever has fact got in the way of a self-serving fantasy? Ron's god is a monstrous, petulant, nasty, brattish brute with acute anger management problems. Knock down some buildings, kill some babies, all in a righteous day's work. Just as well 'he' doesn't exist. Ron's god is an evil impostor, a rip-off for the spiritually, ethically and intellectually challenged.

Just like British Israelism itself. A nonsensical, jingoistic doctrine that largely died out decades ago, but still clings on in bacteria-infested puddles of not-so-true believers. Harmless you say? After reading Ron Fraser I beg to differ.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


There's a sense of shock throughout New Zealand this afternoon at news of yet another huge quake that has hit the South Island city of Christchurch, just six months after the previous devastation. This time it appears there are multiple fatalities.

The human dimension is the part that grips one with live feed of traumatised people and locals phoning in to talk radio stations. Australians sometimes refer to this country as "the Shaky Isles," but truth to tell we tend to pay little attention to the earth's intermittent rumbling. Living in Wellington over a decade ago I got used to the occasional shake. Wellington was always high risk, but no one considered Christchurch in the same league.

Moments like these put our daily worries and preoccupations into perspective. A sobering day that will enter the history books of this nation.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Re-creating a nicer Yahweh

Tim Bulkeley is attempting to get to grips with Deut. 7:2. Tim quotes the verse in a range of translations - NRSV, NIV, NLT, KJV and the notorious Young's Literal. Just to be different, here it is in the Revised English Bible:
... and when the LORD your God delivers them into your power for you to defeat, you must exterminate them. You must not make an alliance with them or spare them.
Seems pretty clear. Tim at first seems to agree.
God told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, the argument goes, so God is not loving and forgiving but a genocidal maniac  like Slobodan Milošević only worse because God should have known better. Deuteronomy 7:2 is a prime example, and it hardly matters which translation you read, they are all as bad as each other...
The expression "the argument goes" is, however, a flashing red light that indicates that Tim wants to slip out of the obvious but uncomfortable implication of the text. The problem is, the verse is anything but ambiguous. What to do, what to do... It can't mean what it clearly means, can it? And so Tim grabs his apologetic glasses and sets out to redeem Yahweh from all evil. the verse we can see something strange is happening… God apparently says “Exterminate the Canaanites [the verse before helpfully specifies several different nations that are to be specifically included] and while you are at it, make sure you do NOT make treaties with them. Either one part or both parts of this verse are not intended to be taken literally... (At least) one of the two things God says in this verse is not to be taken literally. It is difficult to see how “do not make a treaty with them” could be understood any other way, so perhaps it’s “Exterminate them!” that is non-literal. In fact such expressions are common among sports fans, and even in talking about the more aggressive board games, in our world should alert us to the possibility that this language is not literal.
Something strange? Not nearly as strange as this explanation. My response was a comment referring Tim to the story of the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. Here you have the threat of extermination and the prospect of a treaty together, and there's nothing non-literal in either. The people of Gibeon are understandably reluctant to be murdered ('ethnically cleansed' if you prefer) by Yahweh's servants, so they send a delegation to Joshua in order to make a treaty. In doing so they present themselves as coming from far off, well outside the extermination zone. Joshua enters into an agreement with them only to discover shortly thereafter that they're not from a distant land after all, and he has been tricked.

If you're anything like me you send up a silent cheer for the Gibeonites. Okay, it's probably not history, but perhaps an etiology explaining why the Gibeonites were able to coexist within the dominant Yahwist culture of a later time. This much is certain though, the Gibeonites in this narrative didn't regard the threat of genocide as merely a little boastful sports banter, an aggressive game of checkers, or harmless metaphor.

Wise Gibeonites!

Tim responds:
You choose to read suspiciously, I choose not to. Except where the text provides clues or directions why should I read Deut 7:2 as a response to Josh 9?
I suppose, if it was worth replying, I could note that Tim reads naïvely with an agenda of his own, but as I recollect he's previously accused me of doing that (yup, I'm suspicious and naïve: no wonder I'm confused!) I could also note that I was suggesting that Joshua 9 illustrates the thrust of the verse in Deuteronomy. I certainly wasn't suggesting the latter was a direct response to the former, just an exemplar (though a pretty darn good one!)

Special pleading won't make the problem of a genocidal Yahweh go away. The only honest way through, in my opinion, is to front up to the evil of these passages in a way not dissimilar to Thom Stark's proposal. Yahweh cannot - and should not - be rescued by the Bible College cavalry.
[T]he archetypal liberation story is also an archetypal liquidation story, that of a divinely inspired fanaticism which commands ethnic cleansing, extermination and genocide. What is happening in the "Holy Land" today, as I write, looks like an enactment of the mythical commandment of Yahweh in Deuteronomy 7...
 Even before the entry into the promised land, Yahweh's servant Moses orders the extermination of the Midianites and is furious when only the Midianite men are killed and the women and children are kept as booty. Moses orders the killing of all except 32,000 virgins, who are to be retained as sex slaves, and the married women and boys follow their menfolk to the death camps. Such stories are told without qualms.
That final quote comes not from an atheist or anti-Christian, but from British Quaker David Boulton (The Trouble With God, p.96-97). Elsewhere he can even refer to "The monster tribal god Yahweh-Elohim" (p.164). Is Boulton just reading naïvely from a hermeneutic of suspicion, or is he a braver soul by far than those quivering evangelicals who want to remake Yahweh in their own image.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Rapture ruptured

Jim West posted this clip featuring the marvellous Barbara Rossing speaking on the Rapture, providing the sage counsel to those who expect to be whisked away that they "really seriously need to watch this."

Jim is right, as he is about just about everything (excepting those things which he's wrong about... the extensive list of which is expected to be published in three expensive leather-bound volumes by a specialist publisher with offices in Leiden, sometime in 2013).

It's good to hear the responsibility for this dippy doctrine being sheeted home to its creator, the mad Irishman John Nelson Darby, and to be reminded about its negative effect on kids and feeble-minded politicians. It's easy to ignore this stuff, or regard it with distant contempt, but that overlooks the danger this nonsense poses and its uncritical acceptance by so many people who deserve to know better.

The Denominational Hit Parade 2011

I have spent the night wailing and entreating Providence on behalf of that last bulwark of orthodoxy, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, with the news that this elect body of doctrinal purity has slid, slipped, sloughed down, arse over teakettle, from America's tenth largest denomination, to end up, face in the St Louis sludge, at number thirteen.

The Catholics are numero uno, followed by the Southern Baptists, Methodists, Mormons and something called "The Church of God in Christ".

Kicking in a number six is the National Baptist Convention, followed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), another body also calling itself the National Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterians.

The Missouriites might take comfort that, off the top ten list and languishing at unlucky thirteen, they're at least ahead of the Anglicans/Episcopalians, who barely retain two million members against the LCMS' 2.3 million.

Of course, now that Matthew Harrison has ascended to the presidency of the Synod, fortified by old-time confessionalism and the certitudes of a conservatism far beyond that of his predecessor, we're doubtless going to see the Synod rebound, hammering on the gates of hell and sweeping all before it. Just hold your breath and click your heels three times...

Thursday, 17 February 2011

An orchard in Edem

After mentioning Nicholas King's translation of the Septuagint earlier this week, I thought I'd share some gems from his LXX, all from the first three chapters of Genesis.

The Genesis world - click to enlarge
"Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters." (1:6). King notes of 'firmament': this strange word comes to us from Latin, as a direct translation of the Greek word, which means something like 'firmness', 'strength', or 'solidity', referring to the solid dome of the sky, the bit between earth and heaven, or the solid bit that separates the lower waters from the upper waters. In Genesis, humankind literally lives under a solid dome.

"And God said, 'Let the waters bring forth creepy-crawlies...' " (1:20)

"And the heaven and the earth were completed, and all their array." (2:1). Says King of 'array', this is an attempt to capture one of the meanings of... kosmos, which in the New Testament often means 'world', but also 'beauty' and 'adornment' and 'ornament'... There is of course a connection with 'cosmetics'.

"And the Lord God planted an orchard in Edem in the East..." (2:8). No, not Eden and not a garden. (The NETS is virtually identical.)

"And God threw a trance on Adam..." (2:21). (NETS: cast a trance.) King comments, the Greek means, literally, 'ecstacy'...

"And Adam called his wife 'Life'..." (3:20). King notes: The Greek for 'life' is the lovely name Zoë..." Adam and Zoë? Now there's a fresh thought. (NETS also names the woman 'Life', but without the cool footnote.)

King's LXX is a delight, and with the additional notes included is much more fun to read than the worthy but stolid NETS version. Unfortunately it's not available through Amazon, I had to order my copy through the UK publisher, but it was worth the bother.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

When I was a child, I spoke as a child...

"The trouble with the God of my childhood was that he refused to grow up, and I refused not to grow up."

David Boulton, British broadcaster and Quaker, in The Trouble with God.

Never in human history...

"To coin (or rather, purloin) a phrase, 
never in human history has so much knowledge been available and accessible, and yet so little curiosity or effort been expended by so many in response to it."

Rob Nugent, "The Decline of Reading in an Age of Ignorance," Quadrant, Jan-Feb 2011.

LXX Day: Ack... I missed it!

February 8 was International Septuagint Day, and I missed it. I'd put it in my diary for next year, except I haven't yet got a diary for next year. Dang!

This signficant commemoration only began in 2008 when the IOSCS (International Organisation for Septuagint and Cognate Studies) set aside the date "to promote the discipline." The IOSCS is the body that publishes the very useful NETS (New English Translation of the Septuagint) which is available online. For those profligates like myself who hastily invested in a hard copy of the 2007 edition, the news that there is now a second edition ("including corrections and emendations") need not drive us to complete despair as the online edition (free!) is the revised second edition.

All of which might sound frightfully arcane, but it was the Septuagint (LXX) which was the Bible of the early Christians. That super-pharisee Paul, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, quoted the Greek LXX instead of the Hebrew text, which has always seemed a remarkable thing to do. If Gamaliel was grading his epistles he'd likely be bumped down to a C minus on the strength of that alone.

Apart from NETS, you can pick up an English LXX in the form of the Orthodox Study Bible (with the unlikely publisher Thomas Nelson) as it still remains the official text of the Old Testament in the Eastern church. But if you really want a groundbreaking LXX, definitely consider Nicholas King's translation, which is being published in installments by Kevin Mayhew.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Jesus Mythicism - decaff or extra shot?

I view the ongoing dialogue (or perhaps "exchange of fire") between Neil Godfrey and James McGrath as a sideline spectator who really doesn't know who to cheer for. My heart pulls me one way, my head the other. Neil takes a hardline mythicist position while James cautions "just hold on there cobber." James has a nuanced position, but such niceties are often lost in this sort of debate. So when someone like Thomas Verenna enters the discussion, it's helpful to see the issues from a third-party perspective.

If James chooses decaff and Neil takes his dark roast with an extra shot, I suspect Thomas prefers his espresso mild roast, double shot. I enjoyed his book Of Men and Muses very much (hopefully the second edition will purge the distracting typos.) Over on his Musings blog he responds to some of James' reservations with (what seems to me) some well made points.

On a loosely-related topic specifically for those Ocker readers out there, I'd be interested in your comments about Mike Adler's article The Religious Impulse of Richard Dawkins in the current issue of Quadrant, should you have read it.

Joel, Joel, tell us it ain't so!

Meekeravelli and members of CGWA?
Joel "Machiavelli" Meeker? Perhaps so. I don't know Joel... never met him. But his reputation has long gone before him, and it isn't exactly unalloyed good. Remember (if you're a UCG watcher) the petulant tirade that followed Aaron Dean's election to the Council of Elders? And now Tom Robinson has revealed what seem to be machinations on Joel's part to tear the French church away from the UCG while still accepting a paycheck from that organisation.

Does this strike anyone as unethical?

HT to Gary over at BBHWA.

A tendency to mythomania

"Do we not know that tradition always exaggerates and that a tendency to mythomania seems to be a part of human nature? How can anyone with a good education wholeheartedly believe that Jesus walked on water, that he fed five thousand with a few food scraps, or that he restored the dead to the land of the living? Such incredible things seem opposed to ordinary human experience. Similar things do, however, often appear in archaic tales that everybody knows to be fictional... It is no mystery why Reimarus, Strauss, and Bultmann regarded the miracle stories of the Gospels as pious fictions. They were just being reasonable - and treating the Gospels the same way that the rest of us treat the fantastic fables of the Greek gods.

"We need also to keep firmly before our minds that it was a habit of the early Christians to score theological points by inventing fantastic, picturesque stories... [Such stories] are the products of theological fancy in which the history is of homeopathic proportions."

Dale Allison in The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

John Shuck on "Standing with Egypt"

A couple of days ago I vented on a posting by a comfortable Western conservative Christian who found the idea of democracy not to his taste. His problem - based on Calvinist ideology - was, and is, with human freedom. People simply can't be trusted. The iron grip of authoritarian regimes is, for those who hold this mindset, safer than empowering men and women to have a hand in determining their own destinies. Autocracy is their response to a sense of self-loathing writ large.

Who, you might ask, has the right to deprive the citizens of Egypt or Tunisia of self determination? Democracy in the world of realpolitik might not live up to the ideals it proclaims, but it's preferable to any other system, and infinitely better than those where presbyters, preachers and mullahs arrogate unto themselves the determination of right and wrong. Calvin's Geneva was a pig-pen of human oppression, as were the temple states of antiquity and a thousand variations on that theme down through the ages. Today in the secular West Christians too have been liberated as much as anyone else from the tyranny of Christendom. May it never return.

John Shuck (a man who uses his real name, unlike the previous commentator) also stands in the Reformed tradition, though not in the shadow of its dark side. Having linked to that earlier item, this one provides a welcome counterbalance.

Rocks remain rocks

"Remarkably, many pew-sitters are happily oblivious of what has been going on in the thinking world for two and a half centuries... maybe [their pastors] worried that curiosity might kill the Christian... I do not long for that old-time religion... but, as quaint as this may sound to some, I want to know the truth, even if I cannot cheer it.

"Of two things only do I feel assured. The first is that, as unchanging things do not grow - rocks remain rocks - informed changes of mind should be welcomed, not feared. The second is this: the unexamined Christ is not worth having."

 Dale Allison in The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus

Bach - "the whole package"

John Petty describes himself as a "Bach Lutheran" in a posting on his blog. For those with a love of good music it's bound to be memorable for a lot of reasons, one of which would have to be the description of Mozart as a "little twerp."

My nomination for blog post of the month.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Pseudo-Tertullian the Calvinofascist

Tertullian, or Calvin in drag?
Recently a pseudonymous writer on the Flannagans' blog posted some thoughts on democracy, both in Egypt and in Western nations.  This individual, using the pen name 'John Tertullian', rails against democracy. Egyptian democracy would be a nasty thing because those Egyptians don't look at the world through Western glasses. But then, even Western democracy is a bad thing for 'John.' Here are some choice quotes (the full tirade can be found on the Matt and Mad blog.)
In the West, under the aegis of its established religion of secular humanism, democracy... has become the West’s established gospel of choice.

Democracy is that form of government which does respectful obeisance to man–it is the system of government which seems to accord most closely with the idea that man is his own self-saviour. If man is his own self-saviour, then democracy is the form of government which brings man into a position of institutional supremacy in society. The will of the people is the voice of our god.

Democracy facilitates man taking control of his own destiny...

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who come proclaiming the gospel of democracy. What a tingle goes up the spine when our high priests in the West proclaim our secular liturgical chants.

Democracy as gospel is a complete fraud. It is embarrassing that it ever came to be a prevailing Western gospel. How confused and stupid and self-righteously arrogant the West has become.

No doubt some would resort to Winston Churchill’s apologia for democracy: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” Maybe. Tell that to the Athenians who suffered under the tyranny of the 51 percent.

Now nobody enjoys a good rant as much as me, and I've been guilty of penning a few myself, but why does this guy need to conceal his identity? How come he's not willing to stick his head above the parapet and own his own words? This may seem irrelevant to the argument he presents, but bear with me a bit longer. 

I know I shouldn't have done it, but the devil made me, and I wrote a short response.
So John, what are you suggesting as an alternative for the people of Egypt. Calvinofascism doesn’t seem quite the model to use in that part of the world, and I’m pretty sure you’d be leery of Sharia law. Easy to knock the idea of democracy but how about naming a better system, hmm?

And presumably you’d want to make a few adjustments in the democracy of New Zealand. Somehow I don’t see Wellington ever becoming the Geneva of the South. For a start most of us like to stay up after 8PM, and would be reluctant to burn Unitarians. So what exactly are you suggesting… or is this just empty spleen-venting rhetoric?
 It wasn't Pseudo-Tertullian the Calvinofascist who responded, but Matt. Twice.
Gavin, I don’t recall John advocating Calvinofacism [sic], or anything like that, what he does do is point out some facts about the kind of democracy that would exist in Egypt if the will of the people were implemented. Is your position that its OK to kill jewish [sic], and Christian converts and stone them because the alternative is not democratic?
Actually the article went well beyond a commentary on the kind of democracy that Egypt might embrace, as the quotes above (and the full linked text) demonstrate. But if Matt wants a response to his straw man question, let me state it clearly and explicitly: No!

So there, I'm happy to answer Matt's question, but Matt steers well clear of tackling the question I asked. What's the alternative, both for Egypt and for countries like New Zealand. "Pseudo-Tertullian" attacks not just a potential democracy in Egypt, but the whole concept as it is embraced in the West. Okay, fair enough, show us something better. That's apparently a big "no can do." The only sound I hear is silence.

Let's see now. Ignore a pertinent question, run for cover to the nearest straw man and scatter red herrings on the path as you go. And in 'John's' case, hide your head in a brown paper bag so nobody can challenge you to your face.

Apologetics; gotta love it.

But Matt's not over yet.
Gavin, I am wondering on what basis you condemn “calvinofacism” [sic] (a made up term) and not condemn a democratic Islamic republic where strict understandings of Shariah law are in play? What would make the latter is better than the former.
Wonder away Matt. First point, all the words in the dictionary trace back to something 'made up.' Every year new 'made up' words enter the English language. I'd have thought someone with a PhD in something called "Analytic Theology" would have known that. Somehow I doubt that if I'd used the term 'Islamofascism' you would have blinked an eyelid.

Second, my brief comments weren't about Sharia law, but on the attack "John Tertullian" made on the concept of democracy in the West as much as in the Middle East. Clearly he (and perhaps you) think there's something better on offer. Why so shy? time to share! Please put away your bucket of red herrings and just answer the question: what are you suggesting as an acceptable alternative - preferably an improvement - to democracy?

I know you think such an answer exists, because you write: "there are alternatives to the kind of majoritarian democracy that JohnT talks about, other than, calvinofacism (which is a made up word)."

(There's that hangup Matt has about 'made up words' again. I refer Matt to John Ayto, 20th Century Words: The Story of the New Words in English over the last Hundred Years, Oxford, 1999.)

Funnily enough Matt fails to list any of these alleged alternatives, but instead launches into a defense of calvinofascism!
And my question still stands suppose the alternative to an Islamic state is calvinofascism, why is the former preferable to the latter.
All that analytic theology at Otago has left Matt confused. The alternative, considering the pseudonymous posturing of his guest blogger, isn't between an Islamic state and Calvinofascism, but Calvinofascism and democracy. Who would Matt and 'John' like to run the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Britain? Maybe when these two ideologues of the Calvinist Right (or is that "Calvinist Reich"?) answer those questions, there could be meaningful engagement on the issue of other countries and cultures.

But I won't be holding my breath.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

After the Dust Settles

It's one of those Life of Brian moments in the United Church of God. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if they added Always look on the bright side of life to the next printing of their hymnal.

The lads are already accentuating the positive by talking about "new beginnings." It is a measure of just how dysfunctional things must have been that everyone who remains seems to be fairly gushing about the church's future prospects. Vic Kubik seems genuinely upbeat about the pounding UCG has taken.

What a wonderful and energized conference we just held in Cincinnati! Several of you commented about our new beginning, energy and enthusiasm to preach the gospel, as well as to serve the churches... The focus of the conference was not only on ministerial service in the churches but also continuing the momentum we’ve achieved in publicly proclaiming the gospel. Our media services department has come through this crisis virtually intact... We were heartened by the optimistic spirit of moving on. We have come through a serious separation, yet we are optimistic for a strong recovery...

For your information, in early 2010, there were 492 credentialed elders in the United Church of God, an International Association. Of that number, 323 (66%) are still with UCG. Of that total, we have retained 62 of 131 salaried field ministers (47%); 15 of 20 elders salaried by the home office (75%); 9 of 14 retired elders (64%); and 237 of 327 non-salaried elders (73%). In the United States, we have retained 250 of 382 elders (65%). Of that total, we have retained 46 of 100 salaried field ministers and 180 of 248 non-salaried elders (73%).

Obviously I need to take the same brand of happy-pills that Dennis Luker is prescribing, because I just don't see those stats as in the least encouraging. A bit like the bloke who has fallen off a ladder and tells concerned onlookers, as he lies there unable to move, "I'm fine, don't fuss, it's all good."

If UCG survives, the more thoughtful approach taken by the current administration seems certain to become entrenched (let's face it, the not-so-loyal opposition have tossed their toys out of the playpen and then all crawled off.) The best of the US ministry have stayed put - though of course that's a generalisation with exceptions to prove the rule. No more need to "kick against the pricks" (to steal a marvellous King James expression) because Joel and his bad-tempered buddies have headed off into the wilderness. But is relentless optimism and a sunny disposition enough to arrest the very real demographic decline that has been evident in UCG from long before the current blowout?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Stark choices: the final instalment

The last chapter in Thom Stark's book is called Through the Looking Glass. After a pitiless exposé of the problematic nature of scripture, and the dark passages that appall people of goodwill, the time has come for the author to show his hand on "these damnable texts."
...they must be retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts. Their status as condemned is exactly their scriptural value... The texts themselves depict God as a genocidal dictator, as a craver of blood. But we must condemn them in our engagement with them... That they stand as condemned is what they mean for us as scripture.
So, what does that actually mean?
Rather than ask whether a text is revealed... it is better to ask whether a text is revelatory, whether we learn something from it about human nature or about the way the world works.
Still unsure where this is going?
Our scriptures have trained us to reason like war criminals.
Now that's quotable. Damnable texts force us, in Stark's view, into moral choices. We have to make a stand, not just utter platitudes. And we already do this on a limited scale.
The church has long used flawed biblical characters in this way... [David's adultery and Abraham's lying are cited]... This is not a new way to make problematic texts useful as scripture.
[W]e need these texts to remind us of the kind of monstrous people we always have the potential to become in the name of some land, some ideology, or some god.
Here's a salient point that is well made:
The truth is we do not depend upon the Bible for our knowledge of what is moral. If we did, we would be paralyzed in a world vastly different from the biblical worlds. Moreover, if we did depend upon the Bible for our morality, we would not be able to mount moral arguments against the institution of slavery, or against patriarchal polygamy, among other things. Everything the Bible tells us about these institutions is that they are morally permissible...
That should be self-evident, but the reality is otherwise. For every sane, considered voice there are a thousand others, fueled by biblicism of every stripe, armored with apologetic illogic, exhorting us to do otherwise. Therein lies the problem.

A tremendous book full of straight talking. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Happy Birthday King James

This is the year that the King James Bible turns 400. Nobody seems quite sure when the first copy actually churned off the presses, but May 2 has been chosen by some to mark the event. The Canadian Globe and Mail has a decent article about the anniversary, and many more are bound to follow.

The G&M piece points out that the KJV "is the only literary masterpiece produced by a committee," an incredible achievement in its own right. And who knew that the Queen still holds the copyright? (How does that work? I mean, 1611!) The misuse made of the Grand Old Lady by dimwitted "KJV-only" fundamentalists can't obsure the fact that all English speakers today owe the seventeenth-century translators a huge literary debt.

Those folk of my generation still remember the KJV as the standard Bible of our childhoods. Moffatt and Fenton, the ASV (huh?) and Knox, Williams and Beck, Goodspeed and Phillips; short-lived challengers and now long-faded memories to all but the most determined Bible collectors. God speed the day when Eugene Peterson's The Message and the CEV likewise pass into obscurity.

The KJV, because of its almost universal use, was also a wonderful repository of inane proof texts and sickly memory verses. And who could forget those charming phrases from long ago such as "him that pisseth against the wall." Despite that it was, and is, a true cultural artifact. From an age in which literature was crafted to be read aloud to text messages and 'tweets.' Evolution in reverse?
[H]istorical theologian Ephraim Radner of the University of Toronto's Anglican Wycliffe College speak[s] of the 400th anniversary as something of a funeral notation for biblical literary culture – a culture that only four decades ago shaped the soaring oratory and cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. but now is passing rapidly from the collective memory of an English-speaking world with no knowledge of the bonds of its rhetoric, metaphors and sublime rhythms.
Amen brother!

I feel a series on obscure Bible translations coming on...

Rebellion in the Fatherland

Even under the iron rule of Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, the voices of reform continue to be heard in the Catholic church. Particularly so in the pontiff's homeland of Germany and other German speaking nations.
More than a third of the 400 Catholic theologians of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland signed a manifesto, published in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, calling for radical changes in the Catholic Church. Calling for the ordination of women, the 144 signatories also called for popular election of bishops and an end to celibacy for priests. Back in 1989, 220 such theologians signed the so-called ‘Cologne Declaration’ that criticized Pope John Paul II. (Full story link.)
Mainline Protestantism charged off down its current dead-end path in the wake of the Second World War with the ascendancy of Karl Barth. Catholicism turned aside from its opportunity for change following the death of John XXIII and the gradual undermining of Vatican II. And yet...

And yet.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Stark raving mad?

Rodney Stark's latest book, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, stared up at me from the display table at Dymocks yesterday. Stark is the acclaimed author of The Rise of Christianity, a tremendous little book that turns the lens of sociology on the early years of Christianity with intriguing results.

But his more recent books have teetered into the field of apologetics. (A couple of years ago I made some brief comments about Discovering God, which I've since purged from my bookshelves.) Before shelling out the bucks for Battalions - life is too short to read garbage, and dollars too hard to come by to waste - I decided to check it out first. The Crusades is an interesting topic, but should Stark be trusted to deal with it either competently or honestly?

The reviewer in Christian Century appears to think not: "In God’s Battalions, Stark provides an account of the Crusades perfectly fitted for the Fox News audience."

If that sounds like a cheap shot, take a look at the very detailed response by Tim O'Neil. An excerpt from the conclusion.
The few things that Stark manages to get right do not outweigh the fact that his central thesis is nonsense and that his whole argument is contrived, oversimplified and, in places, plain stupid and riddled with basic errors of fact.  Stark is not a historian and in this book it really shows.  He had some success with his first major book on the history of Christianity, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. At least in that book he stuck more or less to his discipline, sociology, and actually provided some useful insights for real historians from that perspective.  In more recent years, however, ...his books have become more popularist and, in the process, have veered into pseudo historical apologetics... In summary, this book is, despite a few valid points, largely tendentious crap.  Its author is a poor researcher who starts with his ideologically-driven conclusion and then cherry picks the evidence to back it up.  It is a polemical exercise in apologetics dressed up as a scholarly revision of myths and it deserves little but scorn.  Avoid it if you can, or read it with its biases firmly in mind if you must.  But take nothing it says at face value.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Those dippy British Israelites

If you ever thought BI advocates (yes, they do still exist) were the cautious and considered types when it comes to evaluating evidence, take a look at this. Wishful thinking and apologetics - and there isn't much difference between the two - mixed together in a powerful cocktail of credulity.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Month that Was

January grinds to a halt. It's been an interesting month on Otagosh. A new page design, a flood of hits on the 24th (at one stage topping 1000 an hour), and a record for the number posts appearing here - 49 in one month! I daresay that'll not happen again anytime soon.

The flood of hits I have to credit to "Captain Haddock" who placed the Enough to make you cry post on a link-sharing network where, after rising briefly to the top of the 'Christianity' category it was cross-posted on 'Atheism,' causing an avalanche of traffic for the best part of a day. It's probably safe to say that this is now the most read posting on this blog.

The January blog rankings have just been released. On the Biblioblog Top 50 it stands at 28 (up 1), while on Open Parachute, a New Zealand blog list, it's risen to number 13 (up from 25.)

In February I'm back in routine (i.e. at the chalk face), and there will be considerably less time to pound the keyboard - probably a mercy for all concerned. Guess I'll have to concentrate on quality rather than quantity...