Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Why you shouldn't attend (or teach at) an Evangelical college

Is there Intentional Fiction in the Bible? (Part 2)

[Back in 2012 I wrote a piece called 2 Peter - A cuckoo in the nest. It has since continued to crop up on Google searches on a fairly regular basis, and at the time attracted some interesting comments. I want to revisit that discussion in the next (3rd) posting in this series, but for now here's that original post to provide the context for what follows.]

The New Testament book of 2 Peter is almost universally regarded by scholars as pseudonymous.  In other words, it wasn't written by Peter but by someone else and much later.  This comes as news to many biblicists who are convinced otherwise based on little more than wishful thinking.

Richard Bauckham writes in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary:

2 Peter belongs not only to the literary genre of the letter, but also to that of "testament"... In Jewish usage the testament was a fictional genre... It is therefore likely that 2 Peter is also a pseudonymous work, attributed to Peter after his death... These literary considerations and the probable date of 2 Peter... make authorship by Peter himself very improbable.
Scot McKnight, writing in the Eerdmans Commentary notes that 2 Peter

was probably composed within two decades after his death. No book in the Bible had more difficulty establishing itself in the canon. As late as Eusebius (d. 371) some did not consider 2 Peter to be from the Apostle or part of the canon... doubts continued for centuries (e.g., Calvin and Luther)
McKnight adds:

There is clear evidence that 2 Peter is either dependent on Jude or on a later revision of a tradition used by the author of Jude and then by the author of 2 Peter... The letter probably emerges from a Hellenistic Jewish context, probably in Asia.
Neither Bauckham nor McKnight can be regarded as skeptics, both are firmly within the conservative Christian tent.  Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, isn't. He notes that
 whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter the disciple of Jesus. Unlike 1 Peter, the letter of 2 Peter was not widely accepted, or even known, in the early church. The first time any author makes a definite reference to the book is around 220 CE, that is 150 years after it was allegedly written. It was finally admitted into the canon somewhat grudgingly, as church leaders of the later third and fourth centuries came to believe that it was written by Peter himself. But it almost certainly was not... As scholars have long recognized, much of the invective is borrowed, virtually wholesale, from another book that found its way into the New Testament, the epistle of Jude. This is one of the reasons for dating the letter itself somewhat later... it is dependent on another letter that appears to have been written near the end of the first century.
Sadly, none of this prevents idiots from playing fast and loose with the text.  Elsewhere I've noted the suggestion by a magazine writer that 2 Peter 1:12-15 proved ol' Pete himself was a prime mover in the creation of the canon!  Even worse are these downright deceptive notes provided in a copy of the awful ESV Bible.
Peter probably wrote this letter from a Roman prison about A.D. 67-68, shortly before his death... Recalling his firsthand experience of Christ's glory at the Transfiguration (1:17-18), Peter explains the "more sure" truth of the gospel as an antidote to heresy. (ESV, NT book introductions, 2 Peter.)
Total rubbish.  "Peter probably" did no such thing. This is whistling in the dark, hoping the peons in the pews won't dig beyond shallow reassurances. Ignorance is bliss.  Way back in 1981 James Barr wrote:
[I]t can be said, and should and must be said, that in some at least of the new 'evangelical' translations the Bible itself has been doctored to make it say the sort of thing that modern revivalist fundamentalists say...
[F]undamentalism is not basically concerned with the Bible and what it says, but with the achievement of dominance for the evangelical tradition of religion and way of life. (1981 foreword to "Fundamentalism".)
 It's not that there was merely an innocent misidentification of 2 Peter's authorship, the forger deliberately misrepresented himself as Peter.  How do we know this?
16 We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.
To put no too fine a point on it, the author is telling blatant, in-your-face porkies.  He witnessed nothing with his own eyes, heard no voice from heaven and was not with Jesus on any holy mountain.  Bob Price pulls no punches:
2 Peter is thus a double fraud: it is not a Petrine writing, and its author is baldly lying about being an eyewitness to the Transfiguration.
So what do we do with 2 Peter?  Can it even be scripture in any meaningful sense of that word?  And if it can be, why not the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Thomas or the Book of Mormon?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Reply to Ryan

Somebody identifying himself only as 'Ryan' has taken me to task over a sentence in my previous post. The offending part:
Wallace is on the staff at fundamentalist Dallas Seminary and received his 'education' both there and at the equally dubious Biola.
According to Ryan I'm implying here - and none too subtly it seems - "that Wallace is stupid". He has four objections to make.
  1. He doesn't like my description of Wallace as "on the staff" at Dallas (DTS). He'd rather I acknowledge his status as a professor.
  2. He objects to my describing DTS as fundamentalist. This, he feels, is a synonym for stupid.
  3. He doesn't like the "scare quotes" around 'education'. Again, I'm apparently implying that Wallace is stupid because of an inferior education.
  4. He makes the same point regarding the use of 'dubious' to describe Biola.
Ryan then goes on - quite correctly - to state that Wallace is a well known scholar. He feels my statement constitutes an ad hominem attack.

I don't mind criticism, and normally I wouldn't bother to respond. Ryan however has offered a thoughtful critique, so seeing he has detailed his objections in some detail I've decided to make an exception.

To respond to Ryan's points in order:

Monday, 29 December 2014

Naughty Wicked Newsweek

In case you missed it Newsweek has a cover story on biblical ignorance: The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin.

The screams, wails and gibbering of those charged with the aforementioned ignorance can be heard far and wide. Bloggers, conservative theologians, the usual suspects. Apologist Daniel B. Wallace, for example, is in overdrive. No big surprise there, Wallace is on the staff at fundamentalist Dallas Seminary and received his 'education' both there and at the equally dubious Biola.

More surprising is that Überbiblioblogger Jim West has joined in the chorus of "ain't it awful".

The offending article is actually quite good. Okay, it paints with a broad brush but, let's get real, this is intended as popular journalism, not a theological treatise. If it was a theological treatise, nobody would read it. Newsweek has committed the ultimate heresy: talking over the heads of the 'experts' - particularly those with church-funded sinecures - and addressing the hoi polloi, the laity, directly. Has no-one told writer Kurt Eichenwald that this is supposed to be a closed discussion? No riff-raff allowed!

You could challenge a few of the details in Eichenwald's article, but that would largely be nit-picking. Overall it's a pretty decent introduction to a very important discussion. A discussion Christians should be embracing, not making excuses about.

John Morgan's new book - naming names

I'd like to acknowledge the receipt of a review copy of John Morgan's controversial new account of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. This is a fuller treatment than his earlier Paris-London Connection, weighing in at 800 pages including bibliography, index and notes. It is an abridgement of the six volumes of John's previous work. And yes, it names names.

John, who has also written on his years growing up in the Worldwide Church of God (Flying Free), has entitled this new book How They Murdered Princess Diana: The Shocking Truth. Here's the publicity information released earlier this month.
A bombshell new book published this week names the MI6 officer who headed the operation team that carried out the assassination of Princess Diana in Paris in late-August 1997.
The book entitled How They Murdered Princess Diana: The Shocking Truth is the most complete evidence-based account yet published on the car crash in the Alma Tunnel that took the lives of Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed.
Written by Australian author John Morgan – who has been researching the deaths for the past nine years – this book exposes Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as the head of the assassination operation that orchestrated the car crash. Also revealed is substantial detail on how the murder was carried out – the naming of MI6 agents employed on the job and particulars about their respective roles.
The book reveals that Princess Diana was effectively murdered by deliberate mistreatment in her ambulance by people who were supposed to be saving her life. The author shows that this was a back-up plan which was automatically triggered after it became clear that Diana had survived the crash. 
Morgan has spent years studying and assessing the huge amount of evidence pertaining to the Paris crash – including over 8,000 pages of inquest transcripts and official police investigative reports. He also analysed and published over 500 documents that were secretly supplied to him in 2010. The explosive material – which included the official post-mortem reports for both Diana and Dodi – came from within the Scotland Yard Paget investigation, but all 500 plus documents had been fraudulently withheld from the inquest jury in London.
How They Murdered Princess Diana covers the entire story of what occurred, including the massive post-crash cover-up conducted by British authorities. The book exposes the official 2007-8 inquest into the deaths as one of the most corrupt court investigations in England’s judicial history.
This is the first time the complete story has been addressed in such chilling detail – a true account using the witnesses own words that will at times leave the reader shocked, aghast and breathless.
A leading UK QC, Michael Mansfield, who served throughout the six months of the London inquest has stated:  “I have no doubt that the volumes written by John Morgan will come to be regarded as the ‘Magnum Opus’ on the crash ... that resulted in the unlawful killing of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed and the cover-up that followed.”
Speaking from his home in Brisbane Morgan – who features in a London play titled Truth Lies Diana starting in Charing Cross Theatre in January 2015 – says that the time is approaching when the parties who carried out the assassination must be brought to justice. He said that “the Paris crash was one of the most highly-coordinated inter-governmental operations ever carried out – and the ensuing cover-up over many years has been just as coordinated and just as sinister”. Morgan continued: “Many in the public now know that an assassination occurred on that night in Paris and are hopeful that there will be some justice and the perpetrators will be called to account, sooner rather than later”.
How They Murdered Princess Diana: The Shocking Truth is available at Amazon US:
At Amazon UK:
John Morgan’s 2012 book Paris-London Connection has recently been translated and published in the German language by publisher Kopp Verlag.
More information is available on John's website. You can also listen to an earlier interview with John Morgan on YouTube.

Is there Intentional Fiction in the Bible? (Part 1)

Not much doubt in North Carolina
Could there be - heavens forbid - parts of the Bible, whole books maybe, that are best described as fictional?

Well, we know what those wicked, hell-bound "militant atheists" think already. As far as they're concerned the whole thing is a series of improbable tall tales designed to keep us in intellectual servitude. Then there are fundamentalist sects where the very idea is anathema. However let's put both extremes to one side for the moment and consider a more nuanced approach. Could it be that certain books of the Bible were intended to be read as fiction by their writers - indeed, crafted as fiction? And, following the logic along, could it be that their contemporary readers (more likely hearers) were very well aware that they weren't intended to be taken literally?

Some Old Testament content has been widely considered as intentionally fictive for a long time. The book of Jonah for example presents a strong case. You could drive an ox cart pulling the Ark of the Covenant through the historical improbabilities in that one.

But of course that doesn't mean it is valueless. Jonah is ultimately a tale of mercy and common humanity, and that is clearly no bad thing. Focus on the historical bloopers and you miss the point entirely. Fiction, as any keen reader knows, can be edifying, inspirational and thought provoking. But there's a 'but' there. That judgement is a modern one, derived from an age of near universal literacy and the development of sophisticated genres of fiction. Those particular factors weren't around when Jonah first browsed the leaflet stand at the Nineveh Tourist Bureau.

Regardless, it seems likely that most of us will have no problem assigning some form of novel-like status to Jonah. The Bible is, I'd want to argue, much the better for its inclusion. Some of us might extend the same courtesy to large sections of the 'historical' books as well. Could there have been an exodus from Egypt in any traditionally accepted sense? The rocks of the Sinai cry out to the contrary. With Exodus it's a little more - actually a lot more - difficult to accept that the whole thing was intended to be anything other than a historical record, not merely a made up national narrative with an openly political agenda.

Yet the exodus story has inspired many in the quest for human freedom. "Let my people go!" has sounded down the centuries. Fiction maybe, but that doesn't necessarily disqualify it as scripture.

Or does it? It depends of course on your definition of scripture.

If we're comfortable with assigning fictive status to parts of the Hebrew Bible, how about parts of the New Testament? Let's set a high bar and set aside the gospels, miracle stories and all. In part two we'll focus on the most dubious of the epistles.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Why the Churches are Failing

There's an interesting article - actually a chapter excerpted from the book Living the Secular Life - currently up on that seeks to explain the ongoing secularisation of American society. Phil Zuckerman identifies identifies three major influences and two supporting factors. The 'big three' are:

1. Reaction against the Religious Right. "The rise of irreligion has been partially related to the fact that lots of people who had weak or limited attachments to religion and were either moderate or liberal politically found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian right and thus reacted by severing their already somewhat weak attachment to religion."

2. Catholicism's pedophile priest scandals. "Not only were the actual sexual crimes themselves morally abhorrent, but the degree to which those in positions of power sought to cover up these crimes and allow them to continue was truly shocking. The result has been clear: a lot of Catholics have become ex-Catholics."

3. The dramatic increase in women in the paid work force. "[W]hen more and more women work outside the home, their religious involvement—as well as that of their families— tends to diminish."

The first of the two further factors Zuckerman identifies is greater understanding and tolerance toward gay people ("The fact that Americans today between the ages of eighteen and thirty are the generation most accepting of homosexuality in the nation’s history, and are simultaneously those least interested in being religious—and the fact that the states that have legalized gay marriage tend to be among the most secular—might be coincidental, but I highly doubt it.")

And then there's the influence of the Internet. No longer can voices of dissent be stifled, and no longer can religious communities insulate themselves intellectually from what is happening out in the wider world.

There's a lot here that rings true for other Western nations also.

(Tip of the cheese cutter to Allen Dexter who posted the link on FB).

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Anonymous Gospels

Some further thoughts on the anonymity of the gospels, this time from Bart Ehrman. First some quotes from his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
[N]one of the gospels claim to be written by an eyewitness. Take Matthew, for example. Even though someone named Matthew is mentioned in Matthew 9:9, there’s nothing in that verse to indicate that he’s actually the person writing the account (read it and see!). Furthermore, nowhere in the entire gospel does the author indicate that he was personally involved in the events that are described. He never says, for instance, ‘one time Jesus and I went up to Jerusalem, and while we were there…’ Instead, he always writes in the third person-even about the disciple Matthew! - describing what other people were doing.
[T]he New Testament Gospels were written anonymously. 
It appears that the earliest readers of the Gospels agreed, that is, that they weren't overly concerned with who wrote these books. In fact, for half a century after the books were first put into circulation, nobody who quotes them, or even alludes to them, ever mentions their author's names. (all quotes from p.42)
The whole third chapter (How did the Gospels get to be this way?) is an excellent primer on these issues. Sticking with Ehrman, just last month he wrote a blog piece entitled Why Are The Gospels Anonymous? which is definitely worth checking out.

Many other scholars have written - sometimes ponderously - on this matter, but few say it better than Ehrman.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The latest HJ/Mythicist Stoush

Nothing quite stirs the waters among New Testament scholars as the suggestion that Jesus may not have existed. Raphael Lataster's piece in the Washington Post has led one of his former professors to come out swinging. You can read John Dickson's fulminations on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting) site.

G.S. Neil, racing to Lataster's defence, has crafted a response to the Dickson piece. I'll append it in full below. Do read both the Lataster and Dickson articles first though, or it won't make much sense.

What struck me about Dickson's rant is that in some key areas he doesn't actually seem to know all that much about the state of New Testament studies. He writes, for example:
[T]here are numerous idiosyncratic statements throughout Lataster's article which he passes off as accepted insights of historical study. For example, the claim that the Gospels are all "anonymous" is no more accurate than insisting that a modern biography is anonymous on the grounds that the biographer's name appears only on the front and back cover of the book not in the body of the work. Of course, the Gospel writers did not begin by writing, "I, Mark, now want to write about Jesus of Nazareth ..." But wherever we have a surviving front or back page of a Gospel manuscript, we find a superscript indicating the biographer's name, and there is absolute uniformity of that name: euaggelion kata Markon, euaggelion kata Lukan and so on.
Uh. Does the good prof. believe that the superscriptions indicate actual authorship? If so he's out on an academic limb himself. That's not "idiosyncratic" but thoroughly mainstream.

Then there are the misrepresentations about Lataster's argument which Neil points out. Add to that the nonsense comparing mythicism with "the anti-vaccination crowd"! It's never a good idea to write a rebuttal in the heat of the moment (unless it's a blog piece of course, which is a different kettle of fish entirely).

I don't think an intemperate piece like Dickson's will do his cause much good. Whatever relevant objections he might have made have been drowned in his own bile. Not a good look.

To read G.S. Neil's rejoiner... click!

Ryan Bell story in the LA Times

Ryan Bell isn't your average Seventh-day Adventist minister with a mid-life crisis. The December 22 issue of the LA Times features his year-long project to take "time out" from God and religion. In fact it made the front page.

Apparently Bell is planning to go public shortly on "where to from here" once the year is over. The SDAs, one suspects, won't want him back and, if Bell has any sense at all, he wouldn't want to anyway. Some form of re-commitment to a broader form of Christianity perhaps? Or will Bell out himself as a born again atheist?

Actually I don't much care what Ryan Bell has decided. Life is often more about struggling with the questions than reaching an end point. Too many times we hide from the uncertainties and whistle bravely to ourselves in the dark. If arch-apologist William Lane Craig is able to pontificate that "This is madness, spiritually speaking", then I'm pretty sure that Bell has done the right thing and need have no regrets. In the end it's about integrity, and there's a certain wisdom in simply respecting another person's journey, regardless of whether they end up in the same place you are.

My only questions: will there be a book? (98% probability) and when will it come out?

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Beyond The Good News?

Many have been those who have wryly noted that The Good News, published by the United Church of God, is anything but a conveyor of good news. The lads in Milford may have had that in mind when they decided on a re-branding exercise which takes effect in 2015. More likely though, they're unhappy about low circulation (currently claimed to be 201,000). So out with The Good News and in with Beyond Today magazine. Will it make any difference? Unlikely.

Meantime the January edition, which will be one of the last issues under the current name, is available to download. You might call it the Islamophobia issue, but in case that's not depressing enough there's a feature on Ebola as well! (Subhead: Increasing pandemics prophesied). I'm sure Scott Ashley will take exception if I'm wrong, but all this stuff is written by staff writers - dare one say hacks? - not anyone with real world knowledge of any of these subjects. This means the GN has an awful lot in common with The Watchtower.

Lads, here's a tip. Stop trying to mimic a badly written current affairs magazine with pretensions of "inside knowledge" based on a horribly uninformed understanding of "prophecy". Just sayin'.

But never let it be said that the GN (soon to be BT) doesn't tackle the really big questions. Randy Stiver, the Einstein (perhaps closer to one of the bagel brothers than Albert) of UCG has another piece entitled - wait for it - Who Is God? Whoa! He begins in a positive vein: "There are several ways you can start getting to really know God."

I stopped reading at that point and ran out of the room screaming.

Aw shucks

I'm used to getting battered around the lugs here at Otagosh, so it's always a bit of a surprise to find that someone appreciates my occasional ravings. The someone who I'm specifically referring to is Neil Godfrey, a.k.a. Vridar ( Neil posted some flattering comments recently which you'll find here. Please, nobody tell James McGrath!

Truth to tell I haven't posted a great deal lately. The last month or so have been, um, difficult on a number of fronts, and blogging has of necessity dropped to the bottom of the priority pile. But hey, Summer is here (eat your hearts out all you Northern Hemisphere types) and a much needed vacation started last Thursday. I expect the activity here on Otagosh will step up a notch as a result. Sometime next year I intend to throw away my whiteboard markers and take early retirement, so who knows what that will mean. I'm one of those tragic souls that entered school at age five and never managed to leave, other than changing which side of the big desk I sit at.

Meantime my most demanding holiday project is to watch every single episode of the 60s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea which has recently been released here on DVD. Holiday reading includes Gordon McLaughlan's highly entertaining Great Tales from New Zealand History and political journo Steve Braunias' Madmen: Inside the Weirdest Election Campaign Ever. The latter is worth it just for the cover which depicts prime minister John Key as one suspects he really is, stripped of the Teflon PR mask.

Theological material? Hmm. I'll think about it, but not too seriously.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Papa Joe pontificates on Jesus Mythicism

James McGrath has a new chum who has joined the anti-mythicism chorus, none other than GCI 'Pastor General for Life' Joe Tkach Jr. Now I respect (though I don't always agree with) James' opinion on this subject, after all he has the 'cred' to speak out on the topic. But Joe?

In any case you can read the PG/President's thoughts for yourself on El Presidente's weekly missive. The mighty theologian drags out quotes from Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius, all of which were written long after Jesus' death and are somewhat dubious anyway. Nothing new there. Joe also chucks in brief references to F.F. Bruce, C.S.Lewis and I. Howard Marshall just so we all know he's firmly in the evangelical mainstream (as if that's a good thing!) More surprisingly he calls in a quote from Bishop Spong to bolster his argument.

Any mythicist worth their weight can easily debunk Joe on the points he raises, this is territory that has been visited and revisited ad nauseam. Not that I'm nailing my flag to the mythicist position. Hey, who really knows? Jesus' existence as "the man from Nazareth" and the "stranger from Galilee" is based on probability rather than any rock solid evidence. Despite what you may have heard from blowhards like Joe, the gospels are anything but eyewitness accounts.

To read the article that in all likelihood set Joe frantically pounding his Word Processor - or perhaps his ghost writer did the hard yards - then click across to the December 18 Washington Post article by Raphael Lataster. This guy at least knows the parameters of the discussion. An excerpt.
All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased. Little can be gleaned from the few non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, with only Roman scholar Josephus and historian Tacitus having any reasonable claim to be writing about Jesus within 100 years of his life. And even those sparse accounts are shrouded in controversy, with disagreements over what parts have obviously been changed by Christian scribes (the manuscripts were preserved by Christians), the fact that both these authors were born after Jesus died (they would thus have probably received this information from Christians), and the oddity that centuries go by before Christian apologists start referencing them.
Sorry Joe. Again, the evidence is thin on the ground and humility is called for. I rather think on balance that there is an historical core to the Jesus accounts, but it's best to keep a finger grip on such conclusions.

You don't of course need to be a literalist to appreciate the depths of Christmas story - in fact wooden literalism probably just gets in the way. But false assurances and blatant apologetics are less than helpful. So no, I'm not in favour of 'retiring' Christmas because of the imaginative elements (something you don't need to be a mythicist to concede).

But I do think unelected President for Life Tkach should retire. Should have done so years (decades!) ago. He's way out of his depth.

Happy holidays to all!

Go Francis Go!

Dear lord, a reforming pope.

A certain popular Southern Baptist biblioblogger has recently labelled Pope Francis as the "hippie pope." But since when has anyone outside the Bible Belt paid the slightest attention to a ranting Southern Baptist preacher? Come the third resurrection the majority of those toasting their noodles in the flames of gehenna - apart from those screaming "Allahu Akbar" - will doubtless be clutching KJV Bibles and frantically humming The Old Rugged Cross.

The fact is that for many both inside and outside the Roman fold Francis is a breath of fresh air.

And just look at what His Wholesomeness has just said about the mafioso curia and assorted Vatican bureaucrats.

Spiritual Alzheimers
Existential Schizophrenia

Shades of Luther and popes of more recent times who one suspects were swiftly silenced before they could threaten the mafioso priestocrats that traditionally hold real power in Mother Church; John XXIII and John Paul I.

Conservative Catholics will be joining hands with fundamentalist Protestants in cries of horror, if for different reasons. The prophecy panders in Charlotte and Edmond will be having conniptions as they try to shoehorn all this into their cramped preconceptions based on fantastical misinterpretations of the Bible.

Music to the ears of those with ears to hear.

Imagine someone with a fraction of the integrity of Francis taking over the mantle of a smaller pseudo-Protestant body - let's say for the sake of argument one based in Glendora, California (formerly in Pasadena).

Reform doesn't begin with dogma. That trots along in the wake. It begins with structural change, systemic change. It begins by throwing open the windows and letting in clean air. Not so easy in a church with a tradition as firmly embedded as Catholicism. What other institution has weathered the centuries as it has? Compared to his last two predecessors Francis has moved with lightning speed.

That not-so hypothetical Glendora sect put the doctrinal wagon in front of the organisational horse. They painted the wagon, re-padded the seat and oiled the wheels, then shot the horse and sent it to the taxidermist! The credit for this strangely stupid strategy ultimately lies with their own pope (Joe II) and his curia of that time.

The BBC notes "There was silence at the end of the Pope's speech."

I'd say he scored a direct hit. If he survives the backlash (and one can only pray that he will) it will be interesting to see what follows.

Tip of the cheese cutter to Reg Killingley who provided this link to the official Vatican statement. Unless you read Italian you'll need to click on the 'translate this' option.

Monday, 22 December 2014

British Israelism, Racism and the WCG

[Not to be reposted or published in print form without prior consent]

For those readers who, like myself, have a history in the late, unlamented Worldwide Church of God, I have a question.

What was the one key teaching - doctrine if you will - that you would identify as foundational during your sojourn in that body?

There's certainly a wide choice to ponder. The church offered a smorgasbord of distinctive beliefs. Sabbath, Holy Days, tithing, dietary requirements, conscientious objection to military service, the God Family (or alternately a form of binitarianism), 'begotten' rather than 'born again', the millennium on earth, three resurrections, the apostleship of Herbert Armstrong.

A follow-up question for extra credit. Which one of the WCG's teachings - if any - do you feel still "stacks up" in the wake of the break-up of this once monolithic organisation?

My suspicion is that the answer to both would in many, many cases be "none of the above". The real draw-card for countless brethren was clearly "Bible prophecy".

Prophecy was hardly the sole prerogative of Armstrong. Dallas dispensationalists, Seventh-day Adventists and others were going hard at it too (remember The Late Great Planet Earth?)  But in the WCG the unique key to prophecy was British Israelism, the arcane idea that the white Anglo nations are descendants of the patriarch Joseph. Britain and the white Commonwealth were identified as Ephraim while the United States was Manasseh.

I'm not aware, even today, of any major splinter group that doesn't affirm "BI" very much as Armstrong taught it.

I confess that my own views on BI were always sceptical from the get-go. On most of the other doctrines I was easily convinced (c'est la vie), but I remember reading the Armstrong opus on that subject as a teenager and wondering if there was something wrong with my intelligence given the fact that the logic of it seemed so obviously shonky. At age 21 I came across Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright by J.H. Allen and it was apparent, without anyone needing to point it out, that Armstrong had plagiarised the earlier work.

But for most members, Armstrong's teachings on BI and prophecy were revelatory and quickly embraced. Why?

Perhaps it's no coincidence that a reactionary doctrine like BI took on a new lease of life at the time of the Civil Rights movement. Did we even have the word "racism" in our everyday vocabulary back then?

BI, for many folk, and especially for white folk, was an affirmation of their specialness. It reinforced their prejudice, provided an apologetic and justification for a conveniently rose coloured view of history. Just when Blacks in South Africa and the US, Maori in New Zealand and indigenous groups in many other countries were challenging the status quo. And if you think that's all ancient history now, check out what some of the dimmer candles in the ruins of the WCG still spout on the subject. For these people - people of real sincerity and conviction no doubt - it still might as well be 1964.

Why am I rambling on about this? In case you missed it there have been some perceptive comments to the previous post. Among them 'Neo' has contributed the following thoughts on the subject. I think he hits the nail on the head.
Armstrongism could fairly well be described as a system for classifying people as to worth. In an Armstrongite congregation everyone knows who is important and who is not. To properly situate everyone at the correct place in the social hierarchy, some assessment of human worth is necessary. I knew back in those days that the wealthy business owner who always talked to the minister on Saturday was worth more than me and he would likely be first a deacon and then a local church elder. Most people in Armstrongite congregations are unimportant to the leadership except for tithe support. The unimportant derive their esteem not from their participation in the congregation but from being a British-Israelite, one of the chosen. Once you are classified, this has finality. I was on the lowest rung in the hierarchy at Big Sandy. Years later, I would meet people from AC who treated me as if that were still my estate. 
How is this system to respond to a Black President? By deriding what he is. Via the media, putting him in his God-ordained place of subservience. Ex-Armstrongites recognize this principle at work. People inside Armstrongism would never notice anything being out of place or unusual about [the cartoon in The Journal]. My guess is that [the editor] received no protests concerning the cartoon from within the loyal Armstrongite ranks. 
That rings true to my experience too, even though it was half a world away. The WCG was - let's not mince words - not only a hotbed of petty congregational game playing (Yertle the Turtle stuff, mirroring the toxic situation in Pasadena and with the ministry as a whole), but racist in its teachings to the core. Groups like Rod Meredith's Living Church of God still are. You only have to read the content in the retreaded "prophecy" articles they endlessly pump out for Tomorrow's World. You can't affirm BI without embracing a racist world view. It goes with the territory. Their God is indeed, despite the standard obligatory denials, "a respecter of persons".

And perhaps, as Neo suggests, that goes more than half way to explain the overwhelming loathing of the Obama presidency in the remaining ghettoes of Armstrongism today.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

New Issue of The Journal

I'm not sure I should even try to offer any comment or opinion on the latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God lest I unwittingly end up again in the Letters to the Editor section. Anyway the link is above so, if you are interested in the shards of COGdom, you can click across.

Monday, 1 December 2014

No Mo?

Moses more myth than man.

An article from this morning's NZ Herald (sourced from the Observer) that's worth a read.
There is no historical figure of Moses, and no reason from archaeology or history to suppose any of the exodus story is true.
[T]he absence of evidence outside the Bible story is potentially embarrassing, says Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who leads Reform Judaism in Britain. "You have to distinguish between truth and historicity," she said.
Truth and historicity? Hmm.
"Moses himself has about as much historic reality as King Arthur," archaeologist Philip Davies famously concluded. A more moderate conclusion comes from the historian Tom Holland: "The likelihood that the biblical story records an actual event is fairly small."
Oh dear, can't you just hear the choking sounds from the fundagelical fringe?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Don't hold back Bob!

What does Bob Price have in common with Martin Luther?

They both got more crotchety as they aged.

Luther wasn't one to hold back the venom when it came to political dissidents and Jewish culture. As he got older he became thoroughly splenetic. The churches that bear his name have long since apologised for his acerbic polemic.

"What?" you might cry. "Are you accusing Bob of the similitude of Luther's afflictions?"

Well, thou mayest judge for thine own self. Bob has a new blog entry up on Islam entitled (with brilliant word play) I Slam Islam.

Truth to tell, most of us walk on eggshells when it comes to Islam. We refrain from plain talking criticism (the sort we might freely offer if talking about any of the sects of Christendom) because it reeks of narrow intolerance.

So here cometh the prophet Bob to disturb our sanguinity.

As you might already suspect, I'm I big fan of Bob (Dr. Robert M. Price). Not of his politics, I hasten to add, but of his honesty, directness and humour in his chosen field of biblical studies. Again, not that I agree with him on everything, but his 'take' on the Bible and religion is always worth considering. He's not called "the Bible Geek" for nothing.

My favourite line in I Slam Islam is his description of Martin E. Marty as "the very poster-boy for namby-pamby, “standing for nothing, offending no one” liberal Protestantism".

And there's much more polemic where that comes from.

Bob is of course a thorough conservative when it comes to politics, somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun, which bizarrely puts him at the other end of the spectrum to most of his admirers in the world of atheistic biblical study.

Here's an excerpt.
Today, when Multiculturalist apologists (excuse-makers) for Islam hurl accusations of “Islamophobia” against anyone who dares to criticize Islam, they try to discount Islamic savagery as some kind of distortion of “true Islam” (as witness our theologian-in-chief: “ISIS is not Islamic.”). No, they say, “real” Muslims are gentle folk quietly running falafel stands on your local street corner. This is of course itself an essentialist argument. Consistent essentialists say there simply is no “true Islam,” but this is really saying the same thing: that you can’t condemn “Islam” since there is no such thing. Sure, there are mass-murdering rapists who carry a pocket edition of the Koran in their ammunition belt, but that’s pretty much a coincidence. You wouldn’t want to “profile” Muslims as terrorists—or terrorists as Muslims!
What gives the lie to this nonsense is the dynamic of assimilation-and-reaction. Religions moderate by virtue of assimilation and accommodation. In other words, jettisoning their original principles, no longer being true to themselves. That’s the whole point of it!
Moderate Muslims in America (like the innocuous, head scarf wearing teenager in the i-phone commercial, or smiling giant Shaquille O’Neill hawking Gold Bond, whatever the hell that is) are good Americans precisely insofar as they take Islam less seriously. Just read the damn Koran. Look at Islamic origins and history. When mealy-mouthed “moderate Muslims” tell us that jihad has nothing to do with killing infidels but refers only to the pious individual’s spiritual struggle, we are hearing either disingenuous spin (cynical PR worthy of Josh Ernest and Jay Carney) or hopelessly naïve ignorance.
Luther, one suspects, would have applauded.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

So very sad

A disturbing story with a COG connection appeared on the New Zealand Herald website today. The named individual was a prominent member of the Worldwide Church of God in Auckland, often playing the piano to accompany hymns at services and presenting "special music". In recent times he has been Fred Coulter's representative in the country.

It is with some hesitation that I post this link. My first reaction is simply how very sad this all is. I took into account that at least one family member of this individual has already reposted the item and obviously wishes this information to be known. Please be advised that any comments on this item will be heavily moderated.

Addendum: Gary Leonard has just posted on this matter and linked to a version of the same story appearing on the Daily Mail website in the UK.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Journal Bites Back

Back in September I vented about a cartoon that appeared in The Journal. Much to my surprise it appears again - with top billing! - as a letter to the editor on page 2 of the latest issue.

My piece was entitled The World as it seems in Texas. In its latest incarnation it has been rechristened The World as it seems in New Zealand.


Now I probably deserve to be soundly whacked across the chops on this one. It was a cheeky piece. Clearly I stomped over someone's toes in the process.

And, viewing the toon on the iPad it seems I misread the artist's cognomen as Clayton rather than Cayton which, mea culpa, was just plain sloppy.

The editorial comment beneath my now retreaded blog piece notes that Mr Cayton hails from San Francisco, not Texas. Well, OK, but my unkind and intemperate reference to the Lone Star State was related to The Journal itself, which is published in Big Sandy.

It's also inferred that I suffer from a surfeit of "political correctness" in finding Mr Cayton's humor inappropriate - if not downright offensive - in this context.


Now I don't want to bring down the ire of the proud citizens of a great state. And for the record, I'm very fond of older renditions of "The Yellow Rose of Texas".

But there's a question of political impartiality in any publication that seeks to credibly inform a broad readership.

Please don't misunderstand. As I've said a number of times in the past (and been roundly derided by some readers for doing so) I actually quite like The Journal. Many of its lead articles over the years have been textbook examples of balanced journalism, studiously respectful to all parties. Much of the credit for that goes to Dixon Cartwright who treads the path between the various factions with great aplomb.

But the point made is still relevant. Wingnut political vitriol of this sort is a nasty business best left to Fox, WND and prophecy panders.

Having got that off my chest, you can download the full PDF for yourself from The Journal website. Among other worthwhile features there's an interesting article on the Hammer family's history in regard to the WCG, and a tribute to the late Shirley Armstrong, widow of Garner Ted.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Of Pumpkins and Castle Doors

Yesterday was Halloween, the one evening of the year when the front door gets barricaded against marauding bands of munchkins on a demonic sugar fix.

And it's also Reformation Day, commemorating the day in 1517 that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. It is a public holiday in 5 of the German states, Slovenia and - go figure - Chile.

Gene Veith is a conservative Lutheran of the LCMS persuasion. An excerpt from his commentary, posted on the Cranach blog, is "nailed up" below.

Luther's theology played second fiddle to the sense of moral outrage he tapped into. Luther is one of those fascinating characters full of self-contradictions. The bombastic peasant, German nationalist, beer connoisseur, scatological humorist, gifted translator, biblical scholar and change-agent with an unshakeable commitment to the oppressive political power structures of his day. Perhaps it's those very human contradictions that enabled him to break the monolithic Western church apart where others (think Jan Hus) had failed.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Grinch puts his case

As all Dr Seuss fans, past and present, know; it was the Grinch who stole Christmas.

But there have always been oddball Christians, usually inheritors of thin-lipped, bloodless Puritanism, who have condemned the seasonal frivolities. Then there are literal-minded folk for whom Christmas is not so much frivolous in the Scrooge sense, but just plain pagan to the core.

Amongst these sects, the various Sabbath-keeping Churches of God stand out. Unlike Jehovah's Witnesses these bodies (there are a plethora of feuding variations) have substituted faux Old Testament Holy Days - radically re-engineered from their Hebrew roots - for the traditional liturgical calendar that includes Easter (pagan!), Lent (pagan!) and, of course, Christmas.

Selling an anti-Xmas message is no easy thing. It's a bit like making nasty comments about "Mom and apple pie". But it does serve a very real social function in putting real kinship ties under pressure (yup, that's 'Mom' and the extended family outside the faith community) and shoring up the fictive kinship bonds among insiders -  'the brethren'. No more exchanging gifts or taking the kids around to the grandparent's place on Xmas Day. No special Christmas meals, coloured lights, Secret Santa, decorations or greeting cards. Pagan!

(And considering today is October 31, let's not even get started on what these folk make of Halloween!)

So how do you put a positive spin on something like that? The current issue of Discern - published by one of the more hardline COG sects - tackles the task manfully.

Other competing COG ministries will very soon be joining in the yowling Grinch-like chorus if past years are anything to go by.

Of course much of the commercial Christmas experience is kitschy, and there's no doubt that a lot of people get sucked into a debt vortex by unnecessary seasonal expenses. And, at the risk of sounding like a Discern article, a lot of the religious trappings aren't much better. 

Kilough and Jones will make those same points, but that's not their chief beef with Xmas. They're against it in principle because they read the Bible like Auntie Ruby reads the assembly instructions for Ikea furniture. 

The thing is, those so-called 'biblical festivals' which Clyde and Erik champion have their roots in Near Eastern agricultural fertility festivals that pre-date the oldest parts of the Bible. They were adapted into Second Temple Judaism in the same way similarly colourful European customs were later reinvented as Christian celebrations.

And so, you've got to ask, why not eggnog? What's the difference?

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Marcion and the gnotty problem of Gnosticism

Marcion is one of the truly under appreciated (and I would argue most misrepresented) characters in early Christian history. Good news, Daniel Gullotta (Australian Catholic University) has just posted his Masters' project - Marcion, a Gnostic without Gnosis - on

If that sounds daunting, it's just 37 pages long, and written without an oversupply of technical verbiage, which definitely makes it worth a look despite an occasional typo.

There's more available from the writer's WordPress page.

Trotter on the Noah movie

Did you see the movie Noah? I for one found it a let down. I mean, oh brother, get a load of those bizarro 'watchers'! And I'm still confused about the exact nature of Ham's unforgivable indiscretion after the ark grounded on Ararat. As for the acting, well, Russell Crowe has been more convincing.

But I didn't expect a leading political commentator to take aim at the not-so Epic. Chris Trotter is a chap of considerable insight who usually concerns himself with what is happening on the left of New Zealand politics. But this week he's moved his beady focus to Noah instead. I was prepared to be let down. Political pundits of whatever stripe should, as a rule of thumb, steer well clear of religious posturing. Invariably they end up saying really dumb things.

But, hallelujah, Trotter indeed proves to know something about his subject. His focus is on why the Bible-belt Right failed to endorse the movie.
As it is, the screenplay of Noah is neither fish nor fowl. It’s certainly not a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but neither is it a work of science fiction like Stargate. Instead, Noah is that rarest of things in this irreligious age, a heretical work. 
Sensing that the biblical version of the Great Flood is but a fragment of a much older and more finely textured myth, Aronofsky and Handel have attempted to construct from its ill-fitting remnants a story about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That they failed, producing a film so filled with gross failures of logic, motivation, and theology that not even the participation of Russell Crowe, Emma Watson and Sir Anthony Hopkins could save it, is not to be wondered at. Myths are the work of many literary hands, constructed over centuries. It’s takes a scholar of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stature to make a believable myth from the contents of a single mind.
I vote it the best review of Noah I've seen yet! You can read it in full over at The Daily Blog.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Turin Shroud Under a Cloud

You'd have to be a couple of communion wafers short of a requiem mass to think the famous shroud of Turin was anything other than a fake, but plenty of folk with a desperate need to believe unlikely things do in fact assert it's legitimacy. Of course it helps to be Catholic. Not too many Baptists or Mormons seem overly convinced.

Now there's a claim from Charles Freeman, reported in The Guardian, that the shroud originated as a stage prop for medieval Easter pageants.

It has the ring of truth.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Understanding Fundamentalism

There is a lot of heated rhetoric about fundamentalism. We know we're against it, and we may even have been 'burned' by it in the past... but do we understand it?

Then there's the sick irony of Christian fundamentalists engaging in a frenzy of verbal lapidation when it comes to Islam.

If you want to move beyond the usual game of "ain't it awful" and understand some of the issues involved in the various forms of fundamentalism, you could do worse than track down a copy of the eminently readable Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven, just one of many titles in Oxford's simply brilliant 'Short Introduction' series.

If you just want a spleen-venting 'feel good' tirade, Ruthven isn't your man. In this slim volume he pushes us well up the learning curve. At the end you might not feel any more kindly toward the phenomena - I know I didn't - but you will have a deeper grasp of what motivates otherwise rational people to embrace these dire views.

You might think recommending a book on fundamentalism to a group of largely ex-fundamentalist readers is a bit like teaching your Granny to suck eggs; after all, many of us have seen the beast from the inside. But sometimes folk can be too close to something like this, or too emotionally involved, to see what would otherwise be blindingly obvious.

Ruthven covers Protestant fundamentalism well, but takes a broader brush, including related tendencies in other religions. I picked up a lot of incidental information, for example, on Islam.

And, wouldn't you know it, Fundamentalism is available free on ISSUU. If you've got an iPad or tablet, the app is well worth downloading.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Bob Brinsmead in the NYT

Bob Brinsmead was a huge influence in my own journey from sectarian Christianity to the place I am today. Bob, a former hardline Adventist, came to be a thorn in the side of his former denomination, advocating a radical "gospel plus nothing" theology and publishing an influential magazine, Verdict, that led many - including many outside Adventism - to abandon Sabbatarianism and rethink their concept of God.

That was a long time ago; Verdict ceased publication in the 1980s, and Bob moved on to other things. So it comes as a surprise to see his name appearing in the October 10 New York Times in a feature on Edward Fudge and "conditional immortality". Somewhere I still have a copy of the first edition of The Fire That Consumes, mentioned in the article.

The following statement currently appears on Bob's website.
Robert D. Brinsmead’s theological interest has inspired most of his books and papers. Bob will tell you that being a theologian doesn’t mean that one can pretend to have an extensive knowledge of God. After a lifetime of thinking in this field, he readily admits, “All that I know about God could be written on a postage stamp with a large piece of chalk.” He concurs with Alexander Pope’s poetic line, “Cease from God to scan / the proper study of mankind is man.” So Bob says that good theology is thinking about the mystery of human consciousness, the mystery of love, the nature of the human spirit, the ground of being, the quest for meaning, and the great story of the human exodus to freedom, to an ever improving human condition and a human potential that in the words of Freeman Dyson “is infinite in all directions.” His scholarly interest has covered history, apocalyptic, myth, and literary criticism in the age of science. He describes his thought as being spiritual rather than religious. Unlike some ideologues who start out with a paradigm (system of thought or worldview) and then spend the rest of their lives defending it like a patch of turf, Bob’s ideas have always been evolving and developing. He is more like a man on a journey who doesn’t have to defend any patch of turf.
Definitely quotable!

Feast of Tabernacles 2014

Merry Tabernacles brethren!

Yup, it's that time of year when devotees of what is often called 'Armstrongism' pack up their bags, the kids and their hard-earned "second tithe" and head off to a designated festival site for the Feast of Tabernacles.

A week of sermons, hymns, social events and those all-important special offerings.

For some reason - hard to imagine what it is - Mormons tend to be curious about other fringe Christian groups. No wonder then that the Deseret News is covering the phenomena.

But, digging slightly deeper, isn't that a familiar by-line? Mark Kellner. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Mark a former AC graduate? Last time I heard, Mark had decamped to the Seventh-day Adventist Church where he has a position in church media.

Kellner mainly focuses on spokesperson Paul Eddington and the UCG (United Church of God) splinter, but also mentions Rod Meredith and the LCG (Living Church of God) along with a couple of more mainstream groups.

It's a positive, respectful piece, so there's no real critique. Gary Leonard, however, reminds us of the tribalism of the various FOT-observing sects.
Two of the COG's most loyal and faithful churches claim to be the final repository of all things correctly biblical and believe they alone are God's most beloved church organization in this dispensation, are showing to the rest of the COG's how much they are NOT brotherly in their deeds and actions.  Two different Church of God's are meeting in the same location in the Philippines. Then add to that mess a third non-COG group that is also meeting there for their version of the Feast of Tabernacles.   It could get any more messy than this! Both of these splinter personality cults are meeting in the Philippines in the SAME complex, but in different rooms.  They have been encouraging to NOT attend with the other group...
Several other cities around the world will be hosting simultaneous COG Feast sites. None of these will gather in fellowship or even picnic together because of their shared heritage.  Bitterness, intrigue and a false facade of superiority is the preferred route of presenting their public face.  When truth only resides in the particular group it would be spiritual damaging and dangerous to let members make up their own minds as to whom they fellowship with.
I have some fond memories of the FOT in days gone by, and wish those observing the 2014 festival an enjoyable time. Just remember not to check in your brain as you enter services.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Calvin's Ghetto

Spotted today in the suburbs. The local Reformed Church proudly proclaims its ignorance of science.

Reformed Christians come in two main varieties. Presbyterians  are the most common in these parts, their Calvinism being strained through a Scottish sieve. Generally these folk are relatively innocuous, though the New Zealand church is increasingly taking on a more conservative position as those with 'get up and go' get up and go. Recent reversals on social issues indicate an ageing membership corralled by Rotarians and National Party electorate committee members.

The Reformed Churches of NZ seem to provide a safe haven for strict Calvinists, home-schoolers, and members of the white South African diaspora.

Though the word 'debate' is used on the sign, I doubt whether there'll be anyone there to defend a non-creationist perspective. Notable too is that there is no speaker's name provided. I guess they'll dredge up one of the regular guys on the apologetics circuit. Whoever it is will be preaching to the choir; it's hard to imagine anyone other than the already convinced turning up. This is one battle that is well and truly lost.

Except in intellectual ghettoes like this.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Fear Religion

Following up from an earlier post, it's no surprise that the second part of Creationist or Evolutionist appears in this week's Waiuku Post. It's a rambling affair that concludes with one of those dark threats fanatics make when their arguments are weak.
"Every man and woman in the world is either a creationist or an evolutionist."
Oh really?
"Evolution is infidelity; it is death. Creation; is fidelity, Christianity; this is real life. Choose Creation, Christianity, and Life, that you may live."
No pressure...

Sophisticated readers (anyone capable of seeing shades of grey) who find this way over the top may object but, alas, this caricature is what is too often promoted - and accepted - as the Christian consensus. And it's not as though anyone with a more balanced perspective is speaking out. No wonder the churches are dying. Recently Waiuku's only Anglican church closed its doors, selling off the fixtures (I watched as pews were loaded onto the back of a truck). On the opposite side of the road a historic Methodist church has been rebranded as a Shinto shrine. I doubt too many of those congregants would have agreed with dogmatic fundamentalist statements like those quoted, but stupidity sticks by association.

The problem is that nobody speaks for Christianity. No pope or bishop, evangelist, elder or moderator represents any agreed position. So, in effect, everybody speaks for Christianity, and the result is a confused cacophony where the loudest, dopiest voices attract the most attention.

This same issue of the Post features a letter from a local atheist taking the earlier Maranatha ad to task. Fair enough I guess. But what would be really helpful - a letter from a Christian strongly expressing a dissenting view from the Maranatha one - is of course absent. 

And therein lies half the problem.

Waiuku is of course a small town that most people have never heard of, but the issues there are a microcosm of those being fought over in many places in many nations. In the Christian camp the idiots are winning, and the consequent slide into irrelevance now seems unstoppable.

Monday, 6 October 2014

A Bible for all Seasons and Reasons

I wandered through the local Christian book store this morning and paused - as I usually do in that establishment - to see what Bible translations and editions they had in stock. One caught my eye called the "Poverty and Justice Bible." It uses they dubious CEB translation but, thought I to myself, at least it seems to be have a more worthwhile focus than the usual gaggle of self-indulgently themed Bibles.

A quick flick through revealed that someone - presumably several someones - had gone through the text with a red highlighter in the pre-publishing stage. If it said something commendable it got the treatment.

I respect the intent of the editors who, to give them the benefit of the doubt, surely see this as more than another cynical marketing ploy to get a bigger slice of the lucrative Bible-buying market. If you are going to buy a Bible, why not get one pre-marked with meritorious admonitions to do good unto others. You could certainly do far worse.

Then again, you could go through the Good Book armed with a highlighter and far less praiseworthy intentions. Is a "Genocide and Violence Bible" conceivable? Sadly, yes. In fact it would be no great effort to do so. In this vast collection of ancient texts you can always cherry pick your way to show almost anything. For too many preachers the Bible functions as a smorgasbord of potential proof texts. The effect is that the scriptures merely function as a kind of sophisticated sock puppet.

So I left the book on the shelf. I hope whoever ends up buying it will indeed be inspired in the pursuit for justice and compassion. But the quest for a fairer, better world for all needs little validation from the Bible. As history shows us in distressing detail, it is Bible-readers who all too often simply get in the way.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Shuck and Jive

John Shuck is again blogging on Shuck and Jive. That's great. Moreover his Religion for Life podcast - available free on iTunes - has some stimulating recent interviews: Joseph Tyson and Dennis Smith both appeared in July, for example, on their paradigm challenging book Acts and Christian Beginnings.

John is a progressive Presbyterian minister in Tennessee. Back in July he posted a brief teaser on Sir Lloyd Geering's new book Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic, which is due out shortly. This promises to be a great read, and there's a free PDF sample available here. I confess to being a huge fan of Geering, a sentiment not much shared by conservative Christians. Read his books and you'll understand why!

Available on Amazon: Reimagining God

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Paul: The Measure of the Man

There has been an awful lot of rubbish written about Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Apologists wax eloquent about his theological genius and depth of insight into the human condition. Augustine, Luther and other worthies have cast their own mantle over his shoulders in order to convince lesser mortals that it is in fact Paul's mantle that covers theirs. Countless tomes have been written, gallons of ink spilled, in a thousand attempts to make sense of the great man's letters.

Spiritual depth and genius, however, are perhaps not the most obvious explanations for Paul's "impenetrability". After all, as it's clear from his own writings, the apostle was a cantankerous old coot. Perhaps he was just incoherent, much like a fickle politician on the hustings, making up policy according to whim. It certainly has been suggested.

Or perhaps there was method in his madness, though not of a particularly flattering variety. Enter Gerd Lüdemann.

Gerd Lüdemann
Lüdemann has, I think, got the measure of Paul, and he's not at all intimidated. Being a German professor, he's written some typically dense studies on the apostle that don't exactly make for light reading, especially for the non-specialist. But in his latest slim volume for Polebridge Press, The Earliest Christian Text, he gets straight to the point.
We encounter in Paul a tremendous degree of self-consciousness and self-importance; his emphatic statement that he was superior to many of his contemporaries in observing the law is not only a reflection of his Pharisaic sense of superiority, but also has a basis in his character...
It comes as no surprise that Paul dominated his communities by insisting on his wishes and authority and requiring the compliance of others. His claims of apostolic authority reinforced his sense of infallibility and often led him to bully any who disagreed. As one would expect, he thus gained devoted followers among docile members but also repelled many who were not easily swayed.

More comments on The Earliest Christian Text later.

Available on Amazon: The Earliest Christian Text

Concentrated Ignorance in Print

Each week the Waiuku Post arrives in the mailbox. It's a free community newspaper with the usual features you'd expect in a give-away tabloid. And every week there's a large ad from a group promoting the website.

This week there's a tiresomely long article called "Creationist or Evolutionist, Part 1." Even a quick skim through would raise the hackles of many. Concentrated ignorance in print. Just look at the first paragraph.

We are going to cover the subject of evolution. First of all, I will read to you what evolution is; then as we follow along, you can see whether or not you are an evolutionist. These statements are all copied from a treatise on evolution written by one of the chief evolutionists; therefore, they are all correct, so far as they go, as definitions.
First, I don't know anyone who actually calls themselves an "evolutionist." It's usually just a pejorative label used by fundamentalists. There are lots of people who accept the concept of evolution, just like there are lots of people who accept the idea that the earth goes around the sun, but nobody goes around proclaiming themselves a "heliocentrist."

Second, what the heck is a "chief evolutionist"? Is there some kind of masonic hierarchy?

Third, who is this "chief evolutionist" being quoted? No name, no bibliography, just an anonymous quote. Sloppy.

Finally, just what kind of qualifications does the writer hold in order to lecture readers of the Post? None are provided. In other words... a dilettante.

Anyway, I decided to check out their website to see who exactly these turkeys are. All you find there is two paragraphs of blather. The links page however has lots of Seventh-day Adventist referrals (,, and more), a messianic link and - number 4 on the list... wait for it...

It figures.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Tunnel Vision

The latest issue of David Hulme's magazine, Vision, features a satellite image of my home patch, Auckland. Exactly why isn't immediately clear, but hey, does anyone care? Hulme is leader of the now somewhat downsized Church of God - an International Community, a secretive spin-off from the Worldwide Church of God that recently witnessed a significant exodus of ministers and members.

Inside Vision writer Gina Stepp focuses on the theme of bullying, and there's an interview with a developmental psychologist. It's an interesting choice given the appalling history various COG groups have over their own ministerial authoritarianism and spiritual bullying, and the 'Hulmerous' church is hardly exceptional. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the report Gary Leonard is carrying on his blog over an upcoming United Church of God seminar in which John Cafourek will be pontificating on "How to Recover from the Ravages of Abuse".

It seems to me that many Church of God groups have an issue implementing what educationalists call "reflective practice". They simply can't see how any of this stuff applies to them. They're far too busy pouting and pointing to the splinter in someone else's eye to recognise the beam that is projecting out of their own eye sockets.

Should you feel so motivated, the relevant issue of Vision is available online.