Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Gingernuts by the Dead Sea

Many people primarily associate the Dead Sea with a dodgy line of cosmetics hawked in shopping malls up and down the country. Apparently they're not as 'kosher' as they appear, as this report suggests.

But for those with an interest in all things biblical, the Dead Sea means the DSS. Greg Doudna, an Ambassador College graduate who subsequently moved on to more credible academic studies (he is currently on the faculty of Columbia College, Everett, WA), is among those now seeking to shake the established paradigm. Jim West points to one of two essays by Greg appearing at Bible & Interpretation. With the forbidding title "The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE: Toward a New Framework for Understanding" (surely enough in itself to make your eyes water), part one is found here and part two here.

You'd have to say this is no light and diverting read on the sofa with a cup of green tea and a gingernut, indeed I'd estimate a whole packet of gingernuts and a tea urn would be required, but it is guaranteed to push most of us up the learning curve.

And yes, this is the author of Showdown at Big Sandy, which I reviewed a few years back.

(Access to further papers by Greg Doudna available here. An earlier Otagosh article featuring his work can be found here.)

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

How the Bible Became Holy

This is just a brief 'heads-up' about a new book - released earlier this month - from Yale University Press, and available in both hardback and Kindle editions.

Michael Satlow is Professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies at Brown University, with a PhD in Ancient Judaism from Jewish Theological Seminary. In "How the Bible Became Holy" he systematically sweeps aside much of the pious nonsense about the origins of the Bible. "Drawing on cutting-edge historical and archaeological research, he traces the story of how, when, and why Jews and Christians gradually granted authority to texts that had long lay dormant in a dusty temple archive. The Bible, Satlow maintains, was not the consecrated book it is now until quite late in its history."

A few quotes from the Introduction and first chapter.
I will argue here that Jews and Christians gave to the texts that constitute our Bible only very limited and specific kinds of authority until well into the third century CE and beyond. The "peoples of the book" did not know their book very well. (p.3, emphasis in original).
[F]or most Jews and Christians in antiquity the Bible had very little normative authority. Until the first century CE, most Jews, particularly in the land of Israel, had only a very fuzzy knowledge of scripture and certainly would not have turned to it for practical guidance. (p.4)
Jesus himself, growing up in Galilee, had very limited knowledge of scripture. (p.6)
The problem with using the Bible as a historical source is that it isn't one. (p.6)
[T]he picture of Israel that continues to emerge is very different than the one found in the Bible. (p.15)
There'll probably be more to say as I progress through the book, but this is one volume that deserves wide exposure. While many bloggers are focussed on Bart Ehrman's newest book, it would be a shame to see this one slip under the radar.

Here's the Amazon link:
How the Bible Became Holy

Sunday, 27 April 2014

New Zealand Lutherans

The second part of the 'Lutheran Tradition' programme aired tonight on RNZ National. The bishop, Mark Whitfield, talked (at times it sounded like a bit like a lecture) on the history of the denomination in New Zealand and its German roots. It's not exactly a success story; Whitfield's total flock numbers around only 800 souls today.

Pastor & Mrs Te Punga, 1941
The historical information included some details I was unaware of, but it was surely a major oversight not to mention the church's only Māori pastor, Hamuera Te Punga, who left these shores circa 1912 to study in St. Louis, Missouri, married a German-American woman, and then returned to serve the sturdy Teutonic farmers of the Rangitikei and raise a family of remarkable high achievers, including the late Roi.

When asked about the effect of anti-German sentiment in World War I, Whitfield confirmed the stories I've heard and read myself.

The audio can be accessed here.

From Kindergarten to Stalag

I don't always agree with PZ Myers - does anybody? - but in this case I have to echo an amen. It seems a New York Elementary school has cancelled it's annual Kindergarten art show because Performance-Led-Outcomes Nazis have determined otherwise. The school writes:
Dear Kindergarten parents and guardians:
We hope this letter serves to help you better understand how the demands of the 21st century are changing schools and, more specifically, to clarify misconceptions about the Kindergarten show. It is most important to keep in mind that this issue is not unique to Elwood. Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.
The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
What a steaming pile of bulldust! Myers' comments say it all.

Protestant - a disappearing category

The word "Protestant" is in decline, and it's probably a good thing. I mean, what did it actually mean anyway? Inevitably it became a catch-all for anyone not Roman Catholic, apparently even confusing poor old Mr. Webster. Methodists and Presbyterians fit the original description without much challenge, but what about Anglicans, many of which - at the chinless, bells and smells high church end - sniff at the very thought.

How about Adventists? And what do we do with those pesky folk who defy the categorical duopoly completely? Orthodox, Copts, Mormons and, dare one even suggest it, the various sects of Armstrongism? And at the other end of the spectrum are those who opine that, with their traditional liturgy, Lutherans (who you'd think would be the 'gold standard') aren't Protestant enough.

You can now, unless perhaps if you live in the North of Ireland, get through months on end, even when regularly dealing with Christian literature, without tripping over the "P" word. The world is no longer split along a myopic Reformation divide, something that follows from the increasing diversity in Western societies.

So is the word, or even the concept of Protestantism, useful any longer?

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Suspicious Sixteen

It seemed a terrible oversight that the editors of Tomorrow's World should provide us with a rogues gallery of untruth tellers on the cover of their latest issue, and yet not bother to identify by name those unlucky enough to be nominated.

But of course, they did. In very small print at the bottom of page 4.

So here is the full list...

Top row: John Lennon, Alfred Kinsey, Che Guevara, Alfred North Whitehead. 

Second row: Marx, Nietzsche, Mao and Darwin. 

Third row: Stalin, Ingersoll, Ghandi and Richard Dawkins.

Bottom row: Bill Nye, Kurt Gödel, Lenin and Freud.

Bill Nye must be flattered to be up there with Charles Darwin and Ghandi. I dare say he's already framed the cover to hang in his study.

Thanks to Corky who, with more patience and skill than I'm capable of, captured those hiding on the top row underneath the magazine logo. I guess you could say he uncorked them!

And special thanks to the lads at TW. Great entertainment value. Mad magazine couldn't have done better.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Untruth Tellers

The current issue of Tomorrow's World has an interesting line-up on its cover. Mug shots of men (no women made the cut) the editors regard as very naughty indeed. People who provide false trails in the search for truth. (The editors, of course, have the inside track here, tightly clinging as they do to the coat-tails of Spanky Meredith).

There are the usual suspects of course: Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin... Hitler is missing, but poor old Dawkins gets the nod.

Then there are a few more subtle choices: Ghandi anyone?

But, egad, what did Bill Nye the Science Guy do to get elevated to this status? Oh yeah, that debate with Ken Ham. Still...

Then there are a few I can't place. Che Guevara is the only fellow in the top row I recognise. Anyone able to identify the others - partly obscured by the masthead?

All of which leads me to wonder whose ugly mugs you'd have put on the cover? (My nominations might include Ayn Rand, Ken Ham, Rush Limbaugh, Herb Armstrong, Milton Friedman, and John Calvin. Karl Barth is an outside possibility. I'd keep Stalin, and maybe Nietzsche.)

The Great Missouri Synod Deceiver

Sorry to harp on about things Lutheran, but what the heck, this time the devil did make me do it, if only in a roundabout way.

As most Americans already know, there are two main Lutheran bodies in the US; the ELCA, which is sane and mainstream, and the Missouri Synod.

The Missouri Synod is, IMHO, a fringe sect parading as mainline. These folk - and there are a couple of million of them - are young earth creationists and biblicists, hate the very mention of 'ecumenical' and, in common with like-minded fundamentalist groups, believe in a literal devil.

Satan, the Adversary, the Great Deceiver.

The Missouri Synod produces The Lutheran Hour, which sponsors a "men's network" for Bible study (apparently the little ladies stay at home and knit as women clearly aren't up to serious blokey study without coming over all female).

Anyway, one such study is called The Great Deceiver. You can view the 13 minute video that accompanies the first session below.

And, hey, there's even an app (Apple and Android) to guide the chaps through the demonic deeps as they grapple with the Prince of Darkness.

The guy who fronts it seems as scary as his subject. Imagine listening to him preach every Sunday! Even Grace Communion International would be an improvement.

And I'm wondering; do these folk really live in the twenty-first century along with the rest of us? And how is it possible to draw on the "expertise" of not one but two professors (Concordia Seminary's Joel Biermann and John Pless) who are so totally uncritical in their approach?

Anyway, grab your popcorn and a pillow to hug before pressing 'play'.

The Great Deceiver Session 1 from Lutheran Hour Ministries on Vimeo.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Underwhelming Lutheran Interview

Radio New Zealand National featured Lutheranism on its Sunday evening Spiritual Outlook programme this week.

Being brought up Lutheran, and having been tipped off that the show was airing earlier in the day (thanks Rols) I decided to tune in.

First some background. Lutherans in NZ, unlike Australia and the US, are only a tiny percentage of the Christian population. Like other mainline churches they're also in irreversible decline. Two of the three churches I once attended (New Plymouth and Lower Hutt) have subsequently closed their doors, as presumably have others. Pastors are usually imported from Australia as the NZ church is an outpost of the Aussie General Synod.
Jim Pietsch

RNZ, apparently after some importuning, decided to focus on this largely unknown faith community, despatching their intrepid interviewer Mike Gourley out to St. Paul's, the capital's only Lutheran church, to interview pastor Jim Pietsch, and even scheduling it for nationwide broadcast on Easter Sunday.

It was supposed to be a pleasant chat, and Gourley certainly did his best with gently probing questions. An easy ride? Not really. Pietsch over-thought his responses and came across as a somewhat stolid PR spokesman, distant and pedantic. As he tip-toed his way through the questions I wondered whether ministers receive any media training in their holy city of Adelaide. Perhaps they do, but it certainly didn't show this time.

It was, in my view, a wasted opportunity for all concerned. Pietsch didn't manage to connect with either interviewer or audience, and RNZ's man with the mic failed to ask any questions worth asking. The references to the composer Bach were almost gratuitous.

Next week they're airing part 2, this time featuring District President latterly turned Bishop, Mark Whitfield. It'll be interesting to see whether he managed to do anything more than go through the motions.

(You can access the audio for this programme here.)

Good News Blues

I know, I shouldn't have done it.

But, you know how it is, the devil hops up on your shoulder and says "why not?"

So in a moment of premature dementia I opened up a copy of the latest Good News magazine.

You know, The Good News, published by the not-so aptly named United Church of God.

As usual it's a slick little number; nice design, layout, artwork. Other churches could learn a lot from the lads who produce this loud and glossy bi-monthly.

Content? Well, that's another matter.

For example, in this issue there's an article entitled "Do Prophecies About Jesus Prove He Was the Messiah?" I got mildly excited. Could it be that they were going to finally dump the rear-vision proof-texting argument?

The first thing I noticed when I flicked through to page 11 was the teaser.
"The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled hundreds of prophecies. Every one came to pass with incredible accuracy. Such fulfilled prophecy serves as proof that the Bible is true - and that God's plan for your future will come to pass."
Well, that answers that question straight away. No need to read further.

Then there's the crass "Current Events & Trends" section for all those dutiful types trying to read their newspapers (or more likely World Net Daily) in the light of their wide-margin NKJV. "Symptoms of America's Cultural Darkness", "A World in Turmoil", "Israel: A Nation in Dire Peril".

Don't expect an item headed "Palestine: A Nation in Dire Peril" any time soon.

Another article asks "Christianity or Capitalism: Do They Go Together?" That's in response to a statement by Pope Francis on the matter. The result is, as with everything else in the mag, totally predictable.

But it was all worth the wading through the verbiage by Bill Bradford, Noel Hornor, Mario Seiglie et al to finally reach the back cover and find the illustration tying the Bible together with Easter. Be sure to read verse 2.

Well done blokes, all is forgiven.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Bad Boy Bart vs the Barbarians

Southern Baptists engaging in respectful dialogue
Bart Ehrman has a new book out entitled How Jesus Became God, and James McGrath has been channelling some of the reactions on his excellent blog.

One such comment caught my eye. Craig Evans opines:
At work in Ehrman’s books is an unrelenting attack directed against the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. Ehrman is not attacking a straw man, for the object of his attacks does indeed exist. But his books address fundamentalist readings, not mainstream understandings of the Bible and the stories it tells.
At first blush it might seem a legitimate point, but is it? Fundamentalist readings are the mainstream among committed Christians, and that's been the case for some time. Just check out the garbage being sold at your local Christian book store. The old, tired mainstream has moved to the fringe as mainline denominations continue to grey and contract, drawn slowly yet relentlessly into irrelevance.

Which is why Ehrman's voice needs to be heard, as others sit placidly on the bleachers and mumble hopeful nonsense to reassure themselves that the Biblicist barbarians are not at the gate.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Hogwartz, Frankfurters and the original Robbie Burns

Deane Galbraith is a fine chap, but he suffers from occasional bouts of delusion... one being that Otagosh is frequented by folks who might be interested in the kind of seminar described below. But I'm passing it on anyway, if only to ruffle a few feathers. And let's face it, when you've had your fill of post-Marxism, post-structuralism and ecocriticism, there's always the beer and (being Dunedin) a wee dram!

As for me, I'm all for frankfurters... but the Frankfurter Schule? Nein, not so much.


Deadline for proposals: 31 August 2014

Im nächsten Jahr bei Hogwartz!
The Seminar calls for papers at the intersection of critical theory and the Bible. We interpret “critical theory” broadly to include not only the seminal work of the Frankfurt School, but also approaches such as Marxism, post-Marxism, post-structuralism, feminism, queer studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, human-animal studies, ideological criticism, Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, ecocriticism, cultural materialism, new historicism, alternative economics, etc. Likewise, we interpret “the Bible” broadly, to include the various Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures and related ancient literature, including their history of reception, use, and effect.

Please send paper proposals of 150-200 words to:
Roland Boer: Roland.Boer(at) and
Deane Galbraith:


Dates for Seminar: 10-11 December 2014

Venue: The Original Robert Burns Pub (“The Robbie”), 374 George Street, Dunedin, New Zealand

The Bible and Critical Theory Seminar returns to Dunedin in what is the tenth year of publication of the Bible and Critical Theory Journal and the seventeenth year in which the Seminar has been held. We will meet in the Poetry Corner at the Robbie Burns Pub, which we will have to ourselves until joined by regular patrons in the late afternoon. We will also make our way to Eric Repphun’s new venture, the Governor’s Cafe, for a delicious lunch.

Please also note that the BCT Seminar will follow the annual meeting of the Aotearoa-New Zealand Association of Biblical Studies (ANZABS), also to be held in Dunedin, at the University of Otago, on 8-9 December 2014.


While there is no official accommodation and a range of options around the city, for those comrades who appreciate the conviviality of low-cost communal living, I (Deane) recommend Hogwartz Backpackers, a short ten-minute walk to the Seminar venue and, from 1872 until 1999, residence of the Roman Catholic bishop. Prices start from NZ$29 for a shared room with 4 to 6 beds, and it is approximately NZ$63 for a single room (

Monday, 14 April 2014

Nisan - not a Japanese Car

Gary Leonard has a not-so starry-eyed recollection of the Church of God celebration of Passover up on his blog. To which I would only want to add that it was remarkable how many ministers in that movement managed to so determinedly ignore the very advice and counsel they passed on to others at that season...

Meantime, are these the worst Christianized Passover hymn lyrics ever? Hint: they weren't written by Dwight Armstrong.

The Lord's Evening Meal 
Jehovah, our father in heaven,
Oh, this is a most sacred night!
It was Nisan fourteen when your glory was seen,
Your love, justice, wisdom, and might.
The Passover lamb was then eaten,
And Israel's tribes went forth free.
Cen-t'ries later our Lord his own life blood out-poured
To ful-fill this divine prophecy.

There's another verse, but I'll spare you. The writer is anonymous, but you'll find it in the Watchtower publication "Songs of Jehovah". Thanks to Sam for passing it on. The purple hymnal has nothing like it. Does anyone know if there's anything similar in the Church of God (Seventh Day) hymnal?

Theology and Popular Religion

Further thoughts from Robert McCauley (Emory University), writing in The Big Questions - a New Scientist special edition.
Theologians try to make intellectual sense of the enigmatic claims of popular religion. They reflect, debate and sometimes generate abstract formulations that [authorities] decide to label as doctrines... Unlike popular religion, theology routinely makes abstract and radically counterintuitive statements that are conceptually complex and difficult to understand... This is why religious people must often make an effort to memorise them and why religious leaders adopt a variety of measures to indoctrinate and police "theological correctness". 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Faith Tweaking Understanding

What is theology? When I took the 101 course the nice lecturer seemed perfectly happy citing the old (really old... eleventh century!) chestnut, "faith seeking understanding." The problem is this doesn't allow for the sceptical enquirer. In the mind of the teacher, however, this didn't seem much of a problem: only people of faith could understand theology... faith (of the suitably patented Christian variety) was a prerequisite.

Very convenient. Could a non-Christian really come to grips with this field of thought? The lecturer thought not.

This response came as a surprise to me, especially given that we were studying in a well-regarded secular university, not some two-bit, tithe-funded Bible college. I countered by offering examples of Jewish scholars who contribute greatly to the field; but no, the point wasn't conceded.

This whole approach is, of course, nonsense, regardless of what crotchety old Anselm of Canterbury might have thought "back in the day." It's akin to shutting yourself in to a deadlocked room, tossing the key out of the window, and then blubbering about how free you are.

But back to the question: what is theology? "Faith seeking understanding" might cut it for those poor wretches who describe themselves as apologists, and expend their energies whitewashing crumbling sepulchres, but that's about it.

To the rescue comes Robert McCauley writing in the New Scientist publication The Big Questions.
"Deliberate, conscious reflection about the meaning and truth of religious claims is called theology."
Amen brother - high five! A useful, inclusive definition at last.

McCauley continues, making some further insightful comments, some of which I hope to cover in a follow-up posting.

Passover and Easter

On Sunday night the good folk in the various Sabbatarian Churches of God celebrate their version of a Christian Passover, beginning with a footwashing ceremony and then proceeding to the symbols of bread (unleavened, usually matzos) and wine. This "Lords Supper" only occurs once a year, and is therefore a notable and significant event on the calendar.

On Monday night the Jehovah's Witnesses hold their annual commemoration. Although bread and wine are laid out, my understanding is that almost nobody actually partakes. This is reserved for those who are able to identify themselves as one of the 144,000, and given that millions of Witnesses will be attending, and that most of those blessed with the certainty of their election have long since died, it must take a good deal of chutzpah to step up to the table.

For the Jewish faithful, Passover - the genuine item - also begins on Monday night, minus the syncretism of the Christian sects and Messianics.

On Thursday, for reasons not immediately apparent, the nice people at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church (WELS), Milwaukie, Oregon will be attempting their own 'take' on the Passover. Their programme might puzzle those familiar with the eucharistic versions. Some other Christian communities will also be nodding in this direction at varied times over the coming week.

Of course, Friday is "Good Friday" in all mainline Christian churches, including Amazing Grace, and Sunday marks that remarkable event known as the Resurrection. Sadly, the mass prostitution of these days to commercialism has robbed them of depth and significance for most of us, whether we regard the original events as historical or metaphorical.

Whatever you might be doing, or not doing, have a great week.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Bob Thiel exports sect to Kenya

Pity the poor folk in Kenya who think Bob Thiel, the accidentally ordained prophet, is an expert in clarifying "true from false leaders in East Africa" and competent to "teach the teachers" so that they can better teach others.

Yup Bob - with his mysteriously obtained ThD - has been promoting his hobby sect, the Continuing Church of God, in Africa. That's according to a front page story in The Journal. As if East Africa doesn't already have more than its fair share of problems.

Maybe it was a slow month for news as Don Billingsley also features on page 1 of the just released March 31 issue.

Now I like The Journal, as has been oft stated here in the past. But, with all due respect to editor Dixon Cartwright, this issue is a bit of a head-banger, and I recommend you avoid brick walls for at least twenty minutes after reading it.

You can download your copy here.

A Hotbed of Atheism on the Bailiwick

I was listening in, as one does, to a morning programme on one of the BBC's regional stations via Tune In bluetoothed (which, if it isn't a verb, should be) from my iPad to a decent speaker. I believe it was BBC Radio Guernsey. This is not something one might often do, unless one was living on Guernsey. Guernsey is the answer to one of those improbable questions educational researchers ask unfortunate eleven year-olds in order to prove how little the kids know these days. Nonetheless it's a station with a good deal of warmth and character, and I take some pleasure in knowing I'm probably the only person within a 500 kilometre radius who has as much as bothered to sample the Guernsey broadcast breakfast fare. More-so given that breakfast in Guernsey corresponds to mid-evening in New Zealand.

The funny thing about British (and Irish) public radio is that they still run programmes of a type that have long since disappeared from their counterparts in the Antipodes. I grew up with the theme from The Archers dutifully rebroadcast daily here in Her Majesty's farthest Dominion, morning and evening church services live on Sundays, and the awful, horrible "God Spot", wherein some craven, witless Anglican prelate; earnest Methodist preacher, or ratty Presbyterian cleric, would intone sagely on some navel gazing topic of the day. Thank heaven they've all disappeared from the local airwaves... with the exception of The Archers which, though long lost to Kiwi listeners, is available as a podcast, and which I confess to following still, causing a good deal of unjustified mirth in some quarters.

But back to the deadly God Spot. BBC Guernsey still has this bit of fluff scheduled for the edification of the good folk of the Bailiwick. I expect it's more usually an outlet for reverend gentlemen and gentlewomen of the cloth, ruminating on the spiritual significance of garden weeds over Easter. But on this particular morning - and I gather the old boy had been at it all week - they'd given the slot over to a local atheist. Who would have thought they'd even had atheists on Guernsey? This guy was no subtle, nuanced atheist, gracious and erudite - at least not to my ears - but your typical village atheist, with a wit about as sharp as a mallet.

Nonetheless, you've got to concede that, as the sixties folk song goes, the times they are a changin'.

Even on Guernsey.

Friday, 11 April 2014


With tohu and bohu breaking out in David Hulme's micro-sect, there arose the possibility that flagship journal Vision might have seen its final issue. But, fear not little flock, the Spring 2014 issue has emerged nonetheless, albeit with a smaller body of writer-talent to draw upon. If you didn't know better - and many readers of this blog do - you'd think it was business as usual; at least until you noticed the purge evident in the staff box.

How much longer can the Dear Leader continue to fund his glossy quarterly publication in the wake of such a substantial gut-ripping exodus? That's the $64 tithe-cheque question. Meantime Dave, maybe the title could be extended a smidgen... by prefixing the letters "di" to reflect the new reality.