Monday, 30 December 2013

Reading list for 2014

As 2013 draws to its inevitable close bookish bloggers are listing their literary conquests and "best of" for the past twelve months. As an alternative, here's my lists of books to read in 2014.

General Fiction
  1. The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. Winner of this year's Man Booker Prize and set in 1860s New Zealand.
  2. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Sebastian Faulks. A new addition to the P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves canon.
  3. The Tournament. Matthew Reilly. A tale told through the eyes of the future Queen Elizabeth I. Happily, a short prequel (Roger Ascham and the King's Lost Girl) is available as a free Kindle download for those who might like to sample the writer's style first. I was an instant convert after the first couple of pages.
Theology and Biblical Studies
  1. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report. Edited by Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson. A series of essays to accompany the text of Acts, following the Jesus Seminar methodology, examining the historical probabilities of the narrative. 
  2. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented the Story of Martyrdom. Candida Moss. With positive reviews from quarters as varied as Desmond Tutu, Diarmaid MacCulloch, and James Carroll.
  3. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Bart Ehrman. To be released in March.
  1. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. John Hattie. A leading educator who is widely cited by those advocating change in schools. As a teacher I know that while you might not always agree with him, you can't ignore his work. This is his most recent book aimed at a wide readership.
  2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Susan Cain. At last, someone who understands!
  3. How to Hear Classical Music. Davinia Caddy. Because great music doesn't have to be surrounded by pretentiousness.
Science Fiction/Fantasy
  1. The Many Coloured Land. Julian May. Reissued in Kindle format after being long out of print. Part of a series I devoured years ago, and can't wait to revisit and find out whether it was really as good as I remember.
  2. Lord Foul's Bane. Stephen Donaldson. Another reissue from days gone by. Donaldson has written recent follow-ups to the original Thomas Covenant series (of which this is the first).
All of the above are available on Kindle, and I have to admit that I have several of them already downloaded and ready for action. Depending on life, work, and the way the wind bloweth, some might end up with reviews here in due course. 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Wrights and Wrongs

A possibly rhetorical question from James McGrath on the apologetic thrust of Evangelical guru/scholar/bishop N. T. Wright in his War & Peace-length Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
Is Wright trying to get as close as he can to traditional Christological language without being thoroughly anachronistic?
I doubt one has to fight one's way through all 1700 pages to reach a simple answer to that question, based on Wright's track record. James, who blogs at Exploring Our Matrix on Patheos, indicates that he will blog his impressions of this two-tome treatise as time permits.

Berliner Rundfunk 91.4

Something a bit different. This German station makes no. 3 on my Summer listening list. The spoken component on this 70s/80s FM broadcaster is, as you'd expect, Deutsch. But that's no great worry - even to someone with only a smattering of Hogan's Heroes German - because close to 100% of the music played is in English. Go figure.

To sample the fare, you can access the website direct (click on livestream at the top right), through Tune In, or through an Apple or Android app.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

After Ellen - Women SDA pastors emerge

Sandra Roberts - Southeastern Conference president
Women's ordination is becoming the norm in many churches. Holdouts include the Seventh-day Adventist church, despite the fact that they boast a female "prophetess" as founder of the movement.

That may be soon to change, with a groundswell of support for women preachers.

Christian Century has a recent update on the way the wind is now blowing.
First, three U.S. regional groups of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted in 2012 for women to be ordained.
Then, the church’s Southeastern California Conference elected its first female president, a historic move for the global church.
Now, four of the church’s 13 worldwide divisions have approved theological reviews suggesting that women’s ordination should be widely accepted; one has said it should not.
Progress of this kind is hard to imagine in a denomination that still vigorously upholds an antediluvian position on creationism and bizarre, anti-Catholic readings of apocalyptic scriptures in Daniel and Revelation. Current president Ted Wilson intervened unsuccessfully to in an attempt to derail Sandra Roberts' election to the Southeastern leadership (her position is not recognised by the world church.) But it may be too late to hold back the tide.
In the U.S., 19 female pastors have been ordained or had their credentials updated in the SDA’s mid-Atlantic Columbia Union Conference since that regional group approved women’s ordination in July 2012. The Pacific Union Conference estimates it has 25 to 30 ordained women.
The SDA’s Nebraska-based Mid-America Union Conference also approved women’s ordination in 2012, but no women in its nine-state territory have been recommended for ordination.
And so it seems they could well get there before such troglodyte mainline poseurs as the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Good on 'em. As the CC article notes, there could be a flow-on effect on other fundamentalist sects.

However, if those new women pastors are just going to parrot the same old, tired fundamentalist bumf, you've got to wonder why they'd bother.

Karl Barth, the Monty Python of Theologians

Karl Barth had a sense of humour. No, really.
Karl Barth has an undeserved reputation in some circles as a misanthropic stick-in-the-mud, based on an equally undeserved caricature of Barth as the anachronistic opponent of all things good and beautiful. References to his sly sense of humor are therefore often met with puzzled stutters. His work is read “with a Teutonic lack of humour,” T. F. Torrance observes, in spite of “the silver thread of sheer fun that runs throughout his account of the theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” While Barth once complained about Calvin’s seeming inability to laugh, this is certainly not a problem one encounters with Barth himself, who devoted eight full pages of the Church Dogmatics to a facetious book review of the 1740 Insecto-Theologia and an analysis of eighteenth-century hymns that portray God as, in Barth’s words, “the supreme Giver of so much cheese.”
This surprising quote comes from the introduction to an article by Jessica DeCou in the Spring 2012 issue of Word and World (downloadable here).

I'm not sure this makes me feel any more kindly about Barth, but I suppose it does provide possible evidence that he had his redeeming features. Then again, one might suspect that his entire Church Dogmatics was designed as a sophisticated joke...

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Discern - another online COG flagship

The Good News, Tomorrow's World, Vision, The Philadelphia Trumpet... flagships of their respective Church of God (COG) bodies. If it's one thing the splintered sects of Armstrongism have traditionally done well, it's publish nice looking magazines. Content? Well, that's not so hot, but layout and design are invariably impressive.

But magazine evangelism isn't what it used to be back in the days of The Plain Truth. Glossy publications of all sorts now saturate the marketplace, and the cost effectiveness of churning out and posting them - especially without charging a subscription - is increasingly prohibitive. Even subscription-based periodicals in mainline churches are having a hard time.

Grace Communion International has ceased cutting down trees to produce its PT replacement, Christian Odyssey. CO is now a download-only publication. This could be a brilliant, forward thinking strategy, or it could just be cheap. Now the schismatic UCG breakaway, CoGWA (love those acronyms!) has launched its own online-only faux-glossy: Discern. Forgive me if I'm somewhat restrained in my excitement.

Clyde attempts a disarming smile
The CoGWA lads aren't keen to make access to Discern open slather though. If you want to look at a copy on your laptop or tablet you're going to have to "subscribe", which means hand over your email address first. Considering the level of paranoia in the COG diaspora, this probably isn't the smartest strategy possible.

A friendly reader forwarded their first PDF issue of Discern. It's a nice looking little number, as expected. Clyde Kilough gets credit as editor but, and I mean this kindly Clyde, your page 3 photograph is more Lex Luthor than Clark Kent.

If you're feeling bold enough to try subscribing you can sign up here. Who knows, there has to be somebody out there suffering deprivation from David Treybig and Ralph Levy's journalistic genius...

For anyone who really wants to know, CoGWA stands for Church of God, a Worldwide Association. Now, take an aspirin and lie down till similar urges go away completely.

James Tabor on Paul

James Tabor has some interesting views on Paul, and he now appears in a 30 minute interview on John Shuck's Religion for Life podcast. Dr. Tabor, who began his academic journey at Herbert Armstrong's Ambassador College in Pasadena, opines that Paul is the most influential human being in history.

The Shuck/Tabor pairing is interesting too. While Tabor blends a certain unique kind of quasi-Noahide literalism with his scholarship, Shuck is a liberal, progressive Presbyterian pastor. Both agree that Paul is a dubious character, but they're coming from very different places.

Tabor took on the mantle of Ernest Martin's Bible translation project some years ago, but that seems to have been quietly dropped. Readers of his books, including Paul and Jesus, may yet detect an occasional whiff of Armstrongism in his writing style.

This is one of a series John Shuck is doing on Paul. Earlier he featured that celebrated writer of long, evangelical tomes, N. T. Wright. A list of downloadable Religion for Life podcasts - and there's some great stuff available - is available at

How to Spell in Strine

Spelling isn't usually a political concern for Prime Ministers.

Unless, of course, there's political capital in a spot of teacher-bashing to stir up the hoi polloi in an election year. Bring back the 'three R's!'

But then, there's this story out of Oz.

No, not Frank Baum's Oz: Australia.

"PM comes out fighting over linguistic carnage." Dear lord, what can it all mean?

It's all over how the Ockers should spell programme. Not as in computer program, where we all agree to drop the -me, but as in "get with the programme".

The Macquarie Complete Australian Dictionary, published earlier this year, doesn't even have a separate entry for programme, providing only program. Not as complete as they thought! There is this smug little note at the end though.
Usage: until recently, programme was widely considered the British spelling, and program the American. There are those who like to retain the former spelling, particularly in relation to a list of musical items at a concert, but many people have adopted the spelling program in all cases.
Apparently they haven't convinced Tony Abbott, and another great reason to use the Oxford.

I knew there had to be some valid reason he was elected over Kevin Rudd.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Three not-so-wise Magi?

Magi appear in Matthew's birth narrative of Jesus (Mt. 2: 1-12), but they're not the only example of that caste in the New Testament: think Simon Magus. One magus, plural magi. "Kings of Orient"? Nope. The implication is that these guys, from "the East", were among other things astrologers.

Astrologers? Holy horoscopes!

Actually, everywhere else magi are mentioned in the NT they're not exactly flavour of the month. There's Simon of course (Acts 8), but also the Cypriot magus of Acts 13. There are hefty hints that these characters, rather than being "wise men", were practitioners of the dark arts. And in an early Christian document known as the Didache (early enough to be contemporary with some of the later NT writings) believers are exhorted: "do not practice magic, do not use enchanted potions..." (2:2)

Enchanted potions? Incense and myrrh were used, according to Greek magical papyri, as aids in incantations. No I'm not making this stuff up or cribbing from some pulp atheist text. One of the best sources to untangle the Christmas stories is none other than Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah).

But maybe the Xmas Magi were the exception, repentant magicians, more like Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione than disciples of Voldemort, tearfully turning from their wicked Babylonian hocus pocus to worship the true saviour? A nice bit of revisionism, but that doesn't seem particularly likely given that the text itself indicates no such thing (but then again, when needs must the apologists can wax creative regardless of lack of any evidence.)

So, what are we to do with the magi? Were there even three of them? (Matthew says nothing about the number. In Eastern tradition there were supposed to have been twelve!) Who were they? (Again, no information, though later western tradition helpfully invented names for them: Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar; though Larry, Curly and Moe, would do just as well.)

And what are these dubious foreigners doing in the Nativity narrative anyway? Perhaps just adding a bit of exotic imaginative colour to Matthew's tale in those few years before humourless, wooden-minded theological types could purge out the material that didn't measure up to their thin-lipped standard of earnestness. And, truth to tell, I'm kind of glad the magical magi squeaked through to make the final cut, or we wouldn't have Menotti's marvellous one-act opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Menotti, of course, took liberties with the Matthean text. But then it seems Matthew was no stranger to embellishment either.

And on that note, on this Christmas Eve of 2013, a very Merry Xmas.

Deborah Armstrong interview - Dwight's Daughter

An amazing hour-long interview with Herbert Armstrong's niece, Deborah, conducted by Troy Fitzgerald, author of Cults and Closets. Here's an excerpt from the blurb.
Hymn composer Dwight Armstrong
Deborah is the niece of the founder of the cult the Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong; and her father, Dwight, was the composer of the church’s hymnal...
Deborah shares about her abusive childhood, troubled relationship with her parents, impressions of her uncle Herbert, and her non-typical experience growing up in the church under the shadow of Armstrong. She also shares about her time attending the church’s Ambassador College, employment as a writer for the church’s The World Tomorrow telecast, and time spent in Russia on behalf of the church’s educational and cultural foundation working in television, which is where her doubts about the church and religion were solidified.
Upon her return from Russia, she left the church, and after further exploration and research, became an atheist and secular humanist. She shares her opinions — and the views of several in her family — about Herbert and allegations that he committed incest with his own daughter, her views on religion and society in general, as well as her recommendations for those who are having doubts about their own faith.
This is an absolutely fascinating conversation for those who "did time" in the old WCG. Riveting listening.

Troy has a number of other interviews with refugees from various high demand religious movements - LDS, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a former Gay member of PCG, all at

Monday, 23 December 2013

While Santa Watched His Sacks By Night...

According to a report in The Telegraph, one in ten Britons aged 25 to 34 think that Father Christmas is a character in the Gospel nativity stories.

All those crusty Puritan worthies, along with the Wesley brothers and assorted purple-clad archbishops of Canterbury, must be turning in their graves.

Kind of makes all those discussions about deep theological subtleties seem somehow irrelevant really.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Radio from the Valleys

Some time in the late 19th century one of my forebears escaped from the valleys of Wales and made his way across half a world to New Zealand. That's where I get my surname from, and why I back Wales in every international rugby game they play - except, of course, those against the All Blacks.

So the second radio station on my list for Summer is not exactly summery. In Cardiff its Winter, but what the heck. BBC Radio Wales is a great listen with intelligent programming, and you've got to love the accent.

Currently available for your delectation, Terry Jones' (of Monty Python fame) Fairy Tales for Christmas.

Adam and Eve were REAL, dammit!

There are times you've got to shake your head in amazement at what some more wooden-minded folk believe. And we're not necessarily talking about uneducated, backwoods types either. Simply place a reasonably intelligent, sincere and likeable person in a narrow and oppressive sect, and then give them a job and a salary to defend. Lo, wine is turned into hogwash, and impossibly silly things are exalted as dogma.

The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod is, in my view anyway, a sect, despite looking a lot like a legitimate Lutheran body (like the ELCA).

And here's exhibit A. Paul McCain writing on the necessity of believing that Adam and Eve were literal people.
"I've been following debates/arguments/discussions/conversations about the historicity of Adam and Eve. For our Lord Christ, the fact of the creation of Adam and Eve by God, and their union to one another, ordained by God, is the very foundation of marriage and all human sexuality. Precisely because the Lord taught this, this has an enormous impact on how the Church and the faithful, should—no not should, that’s way too soft a word—absolutely must—affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve."
Absolutely must. So there! And just look at the nice artwork Pastor McCain provides. What a fine Nordic Eve. In fact neither of these progenitors seems to have come "out of Africa". Fancy that.

In the event of inconsiderate facts clashing with received dogma - no matter how dopey - guess which wins hands down.

A UCG Xmas Testimony - with a difference

There are some Christian folk who don't observe Christmas. What's that like for a kid growing up in such a faith? 
For many kids growing up in New York City, it's not uncommon to have a kid in your class who goes to church on Saturday and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. That kid is usually Jewish. Unless, of course, you were in my class, in which case that kid would actually be Christian -- and that child would be me.
I grew up with parents who were members of the Worldwide Church of God... which more resembles Judaism in its holy days and practices.
The foundation of the church’s doctrine rests on British Israelism, the idea that people of Western European descent are the direct ancestors of the ancient Israelites to whom God gave His law. Under this belief, the church concluded that the modern British Royal Family are direct descendants of King David. This theory has since been disproved with the help of genetics and common sense, but that didn’t stop [the WCG] from teaching it.
Worldwide broke up into smaller splinter groups back in the ‘90s after church officials decided on a series of doctrinal changes which were more in line with modern evangelical Christianity. My parents left Worldwide for one of these smaller groups, the United Church of God, who continued to teach what they believe to be the truth.

You can read the whole thing here.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Two Men on the Mount of Olives

(An earlier version of this post appeared back in 2010.)

Matthew tells the story of the night Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (Mt. 26: 36-46). The Master talks to his companions about the coming betrayal before inviting his closest disciples to share the moment with him. They, of course, famously fall asleep instead. Jesus prays fervently alone, pleading with the Father. Finally, resolved to go through with whatever must come to pass, he rises only to be confronted with arrest.

Was this the way it all happened, or is Matthew indulging in a spot of "creative writing"? After all, he wasn't there, and more to the point nor were Peter or John. So how did he - or anyone - know what happened and what Jesus said in private prayer?

"Now brethren," as certain preachers of my past acquaintance were wont to say, "if you'd keep your finger in Matthew, turn back to 2 Samuel 15."

Here we find a despairing, weeping David on the Mount of Olives, fleeing for his life from Absalom (2 Sam. 15: 30). Here David prayed, according to tradition, the words of Psalm 3:2-3. It appears that Matthew was very familiar with both the psalm and 2 Samuel when he composed the arrest account. Skip ahead to 2 Sam. 15:26 which expresses David's acceptance of whatever might follow: "let him do to me what seems good to him."

The parallels are fascinating, and it would be difficult to deny that, while there are also obvious differences, one does not foreshadow the other. An ancient tradition is retreaded for a new audience

I'm indebted for these insights to Thomas L. Thompson's The Bible in History (1999):
On the night before [Jesus] dies, he fills David's role as pietism's everyman on the Mount of Olives... Like David, Jesus is abandoned by his followers. He suffers despair, and is without hope. He goes to his mountain to pray, paraphrasing David's words in the voice of tradition: 'not my will but yours be done.' ... This is reiterated history...
Reiteration is a theme Thompson returns to again and again. There is, he states, not a lot of originality in the scriptures. Their purpose is theological, not historical.

It's a point that seems hard to argue with, except we all tend to "take it as read" anyway, even when we know better. Naïvely citing texts as "Jesus' words" is as common among progressive Christians as fundagelicals, the only difference usually being the texts selected. Yet stories are often recycled, like episodes in various series of the Star Trek corpus. Klingons morph into Cardassians, but the storyline is the recognizably the same.

What this actually means for the contemporary reader is left up in the air. If the Gethsemane account is in fact "historical fiction", does it matter? What about the Christmas narratives? The miracle stories? The Resurrection account? How far down does this onion peel?

There are wonderful progressively minded believers who are more than happy to find the "facts" irrelevant, and thus liberated cut their faith free from such historical embarrassment. A decaffeinated - dehistoricized - faith that looks like the original product but lacks the pungency and kick.

But, to follow the analogy, real coffee drinkers might well ask, what's the point?

Friday, 20 December 2013

Radio Dunny Din

With a little time on my hands over the Summer Break I thought I'd share some of the radio stations that help create my Summer experience. Yep, I realise this has all the appeal of train spotting for those poor, pallid creatures who have been seduced by their ipods, pads, phones and paraphernalia to thinking radio is totally past it. I beg to differ, with countless stations from all over the planet available on high quality Internet digital radios.

Or even via Tune In, on those self same i-devices and streamed to a decent bluetooth speaker.

First stop, Dunedin, New Zealand and the oldest radio station in the Commonwealth. Formerly known as 4XD, Radio Dunedin hit the airwaves ahead of the BBC in 1922. For many years it was the only privately owned station in the country. These days the format is - gotta admit it - Oldies, but hey, if the cap fits...

I haven't spent a lot of time in Dunedin, mainly passing through on my way to and from Invercargill in a past life, but the city has it's charms including the world's steepest street and a fine university. Not quite as far South as Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, nor quite as chilly, but you'd have to concede nonetheless that the climate is fairly 'bracing'.

The Historical Jesus - a discussion

Spotted on Jim West's blog. It's almost two hours long... but if you're interested in who the historical Jesus might really have been - or whether there even was such a guy - this might be of interest. Four speakers on stage at the University of Michigan - Dearborn include Gabriele Boccaccini (with cool Italian accent), Saeed Ahmed Khan (with an Islamic perspective), Charles Mabee (with a more traditional faith-based view) and Bob Price... Of course the speakers are scholars and not carefully coiffed, air-headed motivational apologists, so don't expect things to be dummied down.

I found Mabee to be of least value as he politely rambled on, but maybe that's my subjective bias showing through. Even though Boccaccini whacks Bob Price around his whiskery chops (metaphorically!), Bob is the most interesting and provocative on the panel.

If you want to avoid the moderator's intro, begin around 8.30.

Listzen Up

"Truth is a great flirt."

Franz Liszt

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Scoffers score again

A Camping billboard: "The Bible Guarantees It"
Harold Camping has gone to meet his Maker. Proof (if we needed any) that conviction and sincerity are not necessarily the handmaidens of truth.

Camping, lest we forget, predicted the End of World not once, but twice in 2011. Predicted it with unassailable certainty on billboards from Oakland to Auckland.

You and I are living proof that he got it terribly, horribly wrong.

First of all, note this: in the last days there will come scoffers who live self-indulgent lives; they will mock you and say: 'What has happened to his promised coming? Our fathers have been laid to rest, but still everything goes on exactly as it always has done since the world began.' (2 Peter 3:3-4)

You can bet Camping had that verse well memorised. But alas, it's the scoffers who keep getting it right!

Eschatology is a minefield for the uninformed. You can't just add up numbers in various passages of Daniel and Revelation, regardless of what Uriah Smith thought. The track record of ten thousand 'prophets' has been a massive fail, with not a single exception. Hal Lindsey, Herbert Armstrong, Judge Rutherford, William Miller and a numberless legion of lesser lights.

Did Camping go to his grave a broken man? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But he was surely a disappointed one, with all his meticulously crafted chronologies shattered. How many of his followers now rue the day they first heard his message?

Whether he can be accused of being among those he himself would have accused as having "self-indulgent lives", as in the passage above, I don't know. Self-indulgent lies might be more to the point.

Thank God for the scoffers.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Just What Do You Mean - Boyne Again?

The latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God is out and available for download.

Norm Edwards is still battling on at Port Austin. Give the guy points for tenacity. In this issue he's rattling his keyboard about church organisations - presumably like the ones he's led - placing themselves "directly under God." Norm, Norm; someone really needs to explain this stuff to you...

Ian Boyne - posing for the cover of an earlier book
Meanwhile Ian Boyne is once again preening on the front page. Boyne is, without doubt, a remarkable fellow and a thoughtful journalist, as I can testify from previous correspondence with the man. Never slow to stir up a bit of PR, he is well known in Jamaica (the article calls him a celebrity) for his media profile in print, radio and television. When not hobnobbing with the Governor General at the launch of his new book (the GG contributed the foreword to an earlier volume!), he's pastor of the original Garner Ted Armstrong breakaway, the Church of God International, in that country. Last I heard, CGI was the biggest of the Sabbath-keeping COGs in that part of the Caribbean. However, whether it could survive his loss - if for example Ian suddenly followed in Wade Fransson's wake and converted to the Baha'i Faith - is a moot point.

(Speaking of which, I still intend to get around to some further comments on Fransson's The People of the Sign.)

There's apparently been a big reaction to an article in the previous Journal issue that dealt with homosexuality. It seems fire and brimstone has been raining down, along with KJV proof texts, ever since. Reg Killingley attempts to bring some sanity to the discussion.

As always, if you feel the need to keep abreast with developments in the fiefdoms and gulags of what some still call "Armstrongism", then The Journal remains your indispensable guide. Dixon Cartwright does a great job - in fact he deserves a medal for perseverance. The Connections ad section pays the bills, but be warned, unlike most of the editorial content, that stuff should - with the exception of the word search - carry a mental health warning.


Saturday, 30 November 2013

Two Rotten Apples

Catching up with the latest issues of The Good News and Tomorrow's World magazines is the next best thing to a do-it-yourself lobotomy.

The current GN, for example, includes colourful attacks on something it calls 'Darwinian Evolution.'

First up to the plate is dear old 'Super-Mario' Seiglie with a bilious article called The Rotten Apples that are Corrupting Society. Seiglie identifies five nasties in all; the other four being 'Marxist Communism', 'Freudian Psychology', the Sexual Revolution and - believe it or not - 'The Banning of God and Prayer'. It's hard to imagine exactly why he has a beef with the last one, given the tradition (which the GN still presumably upholds) of rejecting public prayer outside of their approved church services.

But wait, there's more. Noel Hornor continues the theme with Charles Darwin's Deadly Secret. According to Hornor Darwin is responsible for both World Wars, Pol Pot, and the Holocaust.

Meanwhile the leading opposition rag, Tomorrow's World, delivers yet another homophobic editorial rant by Roderick 'Spanky' Meredith, who seems to have an obsessive affinity with this subject. The old fellow then launches out into an impassioned denunciation of Protestantism (whatever that word means in the twenty-first century), citing that 20-watt luminary Alexander Hislop (The Two Babylons) to prove his points, referring to "his remarkable book", and "this most enlightening work."

Yes, all in all it's a time trip back to a simpler world. A world in which a poisonous anti-Catholic tract written in the 1850s can be regarded as a credible authority instead of a dilettantish embarrassment. A world in which science can become the scapegoat for human misery.

Two magazines doomed to irrelevance: but not without providing some unintentional humour in their death throes.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The True Lutheran

"The true Lutheran does not wish to be defended by Luther's writings but by Luther's spirit; and Luther's spirit absolutely requires that no person may be prevented from advancing in the knowledge of the truth according to their own judgement."

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729 - 1781), writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the German Enlightenment, the Aufklärung.

Monday, 25 November 2013


I thought I was pretty much up on pointless theological jargon, but Paul "Mugger" McCain of the Missouri Synod has just pushed me further up the learning curve with isagogics. Isagogics is, apparently, what comes before exegesis.

In the case of Missouri Synod I suspect it more properly refers to the pabulum in-house apologists feed the more uppity pew potatoes to prevent them from hurting their poor wee heads by thinking outside the prescribed limits. This may appear an uncharitable assessment, by consider Pastor McCain's choice of words.
This new isagogics textbook examines and explores each book of the Old Testament, preparing students of the Bible to read Israel’s texts with understanding and insight. It helps answer questions such as “What is helpful and what is detrimental to evangelical faith?” and “How do conservative scholars respond to critical views of the Old Testament?” The book interacts with scholars in a respectful way while providing evangelical assessments that foster historical and theological confidence in the Old Testament.
What does this mean? Beats me. But consider this gem, from page 46.
 Moses must have written Genesis, since he was responsible for the rest of the Torah...

Brilliant, nicht wahr? Buy up big.

Jim West, Gideon and Maxwell Smart

"And loving it!"
It has been 'a long time between drinks', as the saying goes. In this case, a long time between postings. Life has been busy, and even a tad stressful, as is often the case at this time of year, and I frankly haven't felt much motivated to rattle the keyboard beyond what has been absolutely necessary for work commitments.

But Summer is here - almost - with apologies to Northern Hemisphere readers who are regrettably stuck in a seasonal mirror universe. I know I'm starting to unwind because this past weekend a sinfully sizeable chunk of personal down-time was spent watching old episodes of The Wild Wild West and Get Smart.

"And", as Agent 86 was wont to say, "loving it!" The Sixties might have been dire, but I was just a kid, and the television was great!

Be that as it may, "Gideon", whoever he (or she) might be, has been on my case with relentless submissions about someone else's comments on another website altogether. Painful but true, if you get my gist (let the reader understandeth). If I had a buck for every comment he's fired off I could probably retire early. Alas, only one has squeaked through. Sorry Gid, but I can't find the material you keep endlessly complaining about, and not once have you bothered to supply a link. Ah well...

Returning to The Wild Wild West, a parenthetical thought. Isn't there something Garner Ted-ish in the Jim West character (as portrayed by a young Robert Conrad)? The piercing eyes, the nonchalant poses, the dapper good looks, and let's not forget the womanising. I wonder if GTA was a fan of the show?

Anyhow, as the paperwork begins to slowly subside, and the countdown to the Summer break edges ever closer (currently 32,562 minutes away, but who's counting?) it is increasingly possible that some activity might return to this blog, though I confess to having thoroughly enjoyed the break from theological conniptions and the wacko WCG in its scattered bits and pieces.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Sheila Graham on WCG

A woman's perspective was always a difficult thing to find in the old Worldwide Church of God.

Long years, and I suspect entire decades would fly past without a woman's name appearing as a byline in such church publications as The Plain Truth, The Good News or Tomorrow's World.

Even when the topic being addressed was women, it was invariably a member of the male gender who was commissioned to write the piece - and often prime examples of aging misogyny.

I once stumbled on an early, rare exception in what was probably a 1950s issue of The Good News. The writer was Isabel Hoeh, wife of evangelist Herman, and her contribution consisted of - and how predictable was this - recipes for the Days of Unleavened Bread.

But even in the the most repressive, role-stereotypical sect, there are usually remarkable and influential women to be found, even if only a handful, who wield great influence. Studies in Mormonism demonstrate the power of an undeclared matriarchy that, even in polygamous times, exerted unexpected influence over high status males.

What was notable in WCG however was how very few 'strong women' were apparent. Who would you nominate, apart from Loma Armstrong and Ramona Martin, the wives of Herbert W. Armstrong?

The announced purpose of Sheila Graham's recently released book, From Fear to Faith, is to provide a window on women's experiences in this unique sectarian movement.

Mrs. Graham is well qualified to do this as a longstanding, well-connected member, familiar with many of the leading lights in the WCG over many years. She has actively attempted to elicit stories and personal experiences from women in the church, both those who like her stayed through the transition to Grace Communion International, and others who moved on or out.

I've never met Sheila Graham, but have always admired her obvious tenacity. Once on the old Ambassador Watch site I suggested, somewhat tongue in cheek, that she'd have made an excellent replacement for Pastor General Joe Jr., if only he could be prised from his well-padded throne. Not that there was the faintest chance of that happening, but one can always dream. On reflection I think she would have been ideal for the task as a person capable of empathy and humility, qualities that are not exactly a strong suit among church leaders.

Whether Mrs. Graham has entirely succeeded in producing the book she intended, I'm not quite sure. Despite an energetic campaign to bring on board a variety of women's voices, far fewer seem to have stepped up to the mark than might have been hoped for. But this is a minor quibble. Why?

Well, this is the first book by a significant female figure in the movement's history. If I'm any judge, it's a carefully balanced account that strives to be both objective and respectful to all concerned. At times this means that it lacks a certain sharp edge, but I'm not complaining. A lack of cutting invective makes a refreshing change - and I've been known for a bit of unnecessarily cutting invective myself from time to time.

The book is all the stronger for Sheila Graham's own personal anecdotes of life as a single mother in a body that paid little attention to women in general, let alone those it deemed marginal. That Mrs. Graham has chosen to remain in GCI shouldn't be an issue for those of us who chose differently; what is important is that she has chosen, as we all have, and done so with integrity and honesty. The destination, as they say, is not as important as the journey.

From Fear to Faith is available only as an ebook. This ensures that it can be downloaded for next to nothing (0.99c).

And download it you probably should. Even though its target market is women (I mean, with that cover could it imply anything else!?) blokes could well profit from a sneaky read as well. Sheila Graham's perspective is a long overdue one that everyone with a WCG background, both women and men, should be willing to hear and to learn from.

From Fear to Faith (Kindle edition)

Beginning of the End

The previous post about the book with the above title has been withdrawn until it can be rewritten. It seems there's more than one Michael Snyder out there, and I had incorrectly identified the author of this bit of trash as the UCG's eminently more reasonable writer of the same name. My apologies over the confusion.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Truth beyond beliefs

Recently I've exchanged correspondence with a American gentleman who was an early, active and constructive force in the transition process within our shared sectarian heritage. Neither of us have remained there, but his current understanding tends toward a more traditional appreciation of Christian belief. He noted:

To be direct:  I think we are coming at events from different world views these days (I largely view secular humanism and methodological naturalism as both shallow and self-refuting)...

My response:

I ... remain convinced that purpose and directionality are basic to the universe, but find the Bible descriptive in a bottom-up sense rather than prescriptive in a top-down sense.

That's a pretty darn clumsy way to say whatever it was that I was trying to say, so my correspondent thought he might help me out:

You mention purpose and directionality, and I wonder if you are a theist at all.  Perhaps agnosticism would be an alternative.

So here I am, pondering a further response. I don't like labels. Labels are, as the saying goes, disabling. And once you've attached one it's also a devil of a job to remove it when it's outlived its usefulness. I certainly have my doubts about theism, but so surely does any sane individual, at least part of the time. Theism is as much about Zeus or Odin as it is about Yahweh. In fact theism raises a whole lot more questions than it solves. Agnosticism is a relatively modern term (1869) that often reflects lazy thinking. We're all agnostic about some things, but on others we are all likewise prepared to take a leap of faith. We simply differ in which things we put in which categories.

Then I ran across these words quite by accident... or perhaps serendipity:

Humble in the face of a spiritual reality whose essence we cannot 'know', we speak in metaphors. Our 'truth' is a truth of the heart no less than of the mind. The 'facts' we assert are those of the hopeful spirit.

These wise words are found in the introduction to the Reform Jewish prayer book, Gates of Prayer.

Humility, metaphor and the hopeful spirit. That about says it in any tradition.

Perhaps those of us who are Christians struggling under the garrulous burden of propositional dogma, might wish to whisper a quiet 'amen' of our own.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Wading In

A preliminary mention of Wade Fransson's book People of the Sign. Fransson is one of the many ex-WCG ministers out there, still blinking in the sunlight after losing their income stream in the breakup of the church. His book is largely autobiographical, but where he now stands on matters of belief is a bit of a mystery, as he is being deliberately coy prior to the release of a second book that continues to chart his journey after walking away in the mid-90s. In fact, it may be that there's ultimately a trilogy here.

Unlikely as it seems, the first book has apparently been more successful than anticipated. Fransson has been doing the rounds on radio talk shows in the States, Bob Thiel style, for months (though judging from the podcast I heard, not exactly NPR quality.) However the fact that Henry Sturcke was willing to write a brief complimentery foreward has to be something of a recommendation.

No I haven't read it yet, but it's on the "to do" list, so it's likely I'll be pounding the keyboard on this again. All I can say at the moment is that the publicity is slick, Wade sounds glib in his interviews (didn't Spokesman Clubs do wonders!), and I'm hopeful, if not yet convinced, that he falls into the minority of ex-WCG ministers who have become genuine, decent, non-manipulative people.

People of the Sign - Kindle edition
People of the Sign - paperback edition

Galatians through Adventist Eyes

I recently ran across that most unusual of texts, a treatment of Galatians by an Adventist scholar. Galatians is, of course, the famously "law free" epistle in the New Testament and Adventists are, well, famously pro-law.

The author Carl Cosaert, is a man of some apparent erudition holding, as he does, "his doctoral degree in New Testament and Early Christianity." Moreover Dr. Cosaert is currently a professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University. The book, Galatians: A Fiery Response to a Struggling Church, is published by Review and Herald, which makes it as close to an officially endorsed volume as you can get. Surely this has to be, I mused, more than the usual thin gruel of Adventist apologetic, right?

So, how does a good Seventh-day Adventist with academic 'cred' make sense of this troublesome epistle?

And the devil sat on my shoulder and whispered, "let's find out!"

So, here is the first in a short series of observations on Cosaert's book as the adventure (yeah, I know, I have a truly sad concept of what constitutes an adventure) proceeds.


To begin with the good doctor sets out "to spend a little time considering the man behind the letter." (p.8) The first thing that struck me, right there on the very first page, is that he credits all 13 of the letters attributed to Paul as genuine.
"... inspiring him to write at least 13 letters that today make up almost half of the books in the New Testament." (p.8)

At least??

Later he writes:
"While some of Paul's letters have vanished (cf. Col. 4:16), 13 survive in the New Testament." (p.20)

I expect the irony of quoting the Deutero-Pauline book of Colossians as a proof text source on this subject wouldn't have occured to Dr. Cosaert, but interestingly, only a page later he writes of "each of the letters attributed to him" (emphasis added), so one suspects he wasn't sleeping through all of the 100-level New Testament papers he took. Of course fundamentalists continue to insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Paul wrote the Pastoral letters, Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians. By then again, they would, wouldn't they. Any hope that Dr. Cosaert might stand tall on this issue is dashed at the outset.

Another interesting quote about the faith of the earliest followers of Jesus.
"They claimed not only that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the true center of the Jewish faith, but also that He was God incarnate..." (p.13)

Now that's news. Paul in his pre-conversion fulminations was upset by a suitably proto-Nicean high Christology?

The other big issue for Cosaert is the nasty suggestion that the book of Acts might not be a reliable source for a reconstruction of Paul's life, and so he engages in a fairly weak-kneed defence.  His argumentation seems completely unclouded by the work of Knox (Chapters in a Life of Paul) or any of those who have followed him with meticulous analysis. At most he is willing to concede that putting together a chronology from Acts and the Pauline letters (all 13 of them!) is a tad difficult (p.11).

Much of the second chapter is given over to a homiletic word study around the terms "grace and peace" used in the Pauline introduction. I guess it helps pad out a few pages, but so far it's all pretty underwhelming. But who knows what wonders lie in chapter 3 and beyond... stay tuned.

Galatians (Cosaert) - Kindle edition 
Galatians (Cosaert) - Paperback edition

Monday, 7 October 2013

Cheshire Cats and Churches

`All right,' said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

`Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice; `but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!'

Fading away. That seems the reality for traditional churches in the secular West.

America is a bit different. But even in the land of high octane televangelism the trend is undeniable. What to do, what to do...

Over at John Petty's Progressive Involvement blog there's a piece about decline among ELCA Lutherans (and I guess, by extension, among other Protestant bodies). It's an intriguing piece in that John isn't panicking. In fact, despite the stats, John maintains that things are not too bad.

The reasons highlighted for the drop in numbers are:
  • lower birthrates among affluent Protestants.
  • the flow on effect from 9/11 and the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church.
  • reaction against the religious right.
And that's got to be part of the deal, particularly in the US.

But down here at the bottom of the Pacific the decline of mainline denominations is even more pronounced. Here the vile religious right has never had the undue influence it has had in America. Here we didn't experience 9/11 as a direct attack on our very identity.

Lower birthrates are certainly a factor in Australia and New Zealand, but I reflect that, of those fine young folk who posed with shining faces for their confirmation class photo in the year I officially became a member at St. Matthew's in Hamilton, there are - to the best of my knowledge - no 'survivors'. Not a one. 

Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians - dropping (demographically) like flies! Some few may cross over into the happy-clappy fringe churches, but most quietly adjust to life with a relaxed Sunday brunch and no frenzied rush to warm a pew.

John concludes: "We are in decline numerically, and for a host of understandable reasons.  We are not in decline as a body of Christians involved in mission.  In fact, on that score, you could argue that we are better than ever."

That's optimistic, but I'm not sure it's realistic, but whatever your view it's an excellent piece of writing. Read the post for yourself and see if you're convinced.

(Apologies for the bad link in the final paragraph, now fixed!)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Cults and Closets

As time has gone on, a number of first person accounts have appeared written by well-placed former members of the religious 'empire' once ruled over by ad-man turned apostle, Herbert W. Armstrong.

Two fairly recent examples have been John Morgan's Flying Free and Ben Mitchell's The Last Great Day. Ben Mitchell is the son of an Australian minister while John Morgan's brother, Rex, continues to this very day (as far as I know) to manage what remains of the Worldwide Church of God in New Zealand.

Now there's a new autobiographical account by Troy Fitzgerald, son of a former US-based WCG minister. Like the others, this is a fascinating account for those of us who have 'done time' in the gulag. Fascinating in this case, not because it brings any new information to light about the church, but because it details a raw and brutally honest personal perspective. It's far from an academic treatment (for that you can't go past David Barrett's Fragmenation of a Sect), nor is there much pretense of objectivity. This is one man's story, looking back over his life, and dealing with religion, sexuality and business. But if you have problems with the thought of a gay man, formerly married with kids, baring his soul, then be warned in advance.

In general the book follows a threefold pattern; Troy's early years under the grip of a demanding religion, the growing awareness of his sexual identity as he came of age and the subsequent choices made, and finally the attempt to find a viable vocation in the economically turbulent period we currently live in. The three themes are, however, also intertwined throughout the book.

Coming of age is rarely easy in the best of circumstances, but particularly fraught for those with same sex attractions. Add to this the overwhelming pressure to conform as a pastor's kid in a rigid, monolithic and repressive church, and the conundrums simply multiply. Troy attempts to shift much of the blame on to the "sociopathic" staff at Ambassador College and their influence, but this seems a simplistic evasion of the responsibility those students had who willingly knuckled under in order to achieve ministerial rank.

Two ex-WCG websites have already recommended Cults and Closets, but I must admit to having some apprehension before downloading the Kindle edition. Overall I needn't have worried.

There isn't a book yet written that wouldn't benefit from the skills of a professional editor, and this one is definitely no exception. While the book rings true, there are simple proof reading errors, and Fitzgerald lapses into self indulgence on more than one occasion, notably when discussing his childhood relationship with his father, and falls for the temptation to preachiness, free advice and aphorisms, particularly in the last chapters.

The author seems genuinely intent on forgiving and forgetting the past, and yet he also seems unable to let go. In this he certainly wouldn't be alone, and hopefully writing this book has both helped him and will help others who have had (or know others who have had) a similar journey.

Cults and Closets - paperback edition
Cults and Closets - Kindle edition

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Weetbix Evangelism

In the mailbox today, an eight page tabloid promotional from "Discovery News" trumpeting a series of free presentations down the road in the town hall - all about the Bible.

And it's big news brethren! The real Mount Sinai has been found. Not only that, those sulphurous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have been identified!

But wait, there's more. Careful analysis has revealed the remains of a Roman seal on the tomb of Joseph of Aramathea. But the really big story is that Pharaohs' chariots have been found encased in coral at the bottom of the Red Sea.

Are we all excited yet?

Nowhere on the advertising material does it say just who is sponsoring this nonsense, but it does name the presenters. Ross Patterson "has been involved in freelance Middle Eastern research... since 1999." And Greg Timmins is "an international speaker" from our area (the Franklin district in Auckland's south). Hoo boy, talk about qualified!

Now it took no longer than a split second to deduce that the Seventh-day Adventists were behind this, given the kitschy artwork and articles titled "Bible Prophecy: Evidence that God Knows the Future", and "Decoding the Apocalypse."

There's a lot to like about the SDAs. Weetbix for example. And anti-smoking programmes (do they still run those?) But when it comes to insightful understanding of the Bible, well, this is a denomination that still seems firmly stuck back in the nineteenth century, caught in a loop with issues that have long since faded into well-deserved obscurity.

Just to be sure I had the measure of the junk mail, I checked out the web address on the masthead. Yup, SDA. And guess whose work they're using to aid and abet them in their dramatic claims.

Pseudoarchaeologist and fellow SDA Ron Wyatt.

I had a GP once who graduated from Loma Linda (it said so on the framed certificate on the wall of his consulting room), and he seemed both personable and competent. But medical qualifications are one thing and biblical scholarship is another.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ross Patterson is an enthusiastic apologetics buff, an amateur hobbyist and not in any sense a qualified archaeologist. He is, I suspect, a nice guy, totally sincere, who stands in the venerable "Bible in one hand, spade in the other" tradition. And Greg is probably a local SDA pastor.

And that's nice. But it hardly adds credibility to these outrageous claims. Credibility comes when you cite sources, something the tabloid fails utterly to do. Credibility comes with peer reviewed research. A couple of glib but gloriously underqualified motivational speakers trawling for credulous converts hardly counts.

Especially when the name Ron Wyatt crops up on their website.

Sorry lads, epic fail.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Dumb Bible Translations

The news from the nice people at Christian Today (not a typo for the better-known Christianity Today) is that the Bible readers market continues to be dominated by the worst translations on offer.
According to the CBA, whose rankings are based on sales at member Christian retail stores in the U.S. through Aug. 3, 2013, the top Bible translations are: (1) New International Version; (2) King James Version; (3) New King James Version; (4) English Standard Version; (5) New Living Translation; (6) Holman Christian Standard Bible; (7) New American Standard; (8) Common English Bible; (9) New International Readers Version; (10) Reina Valera 1960.

The ECPA's list, compiled using adult book sales data from Christian retail stores across the U.S., includes: (1) New International Version; (2) King James Version; (3) New King James Version; (4) New Living Translation; (5) English Standard Version; (6) Reina Valera; (7) New American Standard Bible; (8) New International Reader's Version; (9) The Message; (10) Christian Standard Bible.

Sales charts from the ECPA going back all the way to January show that the NIV, NLV, KJV and NKJV have consistently wrestled for the top spot among buyers.
No sign at all of the NRSV or any of the excellent Catholic alternatives. Perhaps not surprisingly, the people who buy Bibles tend to choose comfortable (and deeply flawed) options. The only half-decent offering appearing on the lists - at CBA's no.8 - is the Common English Bible.

Daniel Wallace of (teeth gritted) Dallas Theological Seminary is quoted as saying that the venerable KJV remains his top pick, citing its "elegance and its cadence and the beauty of its language."

"But it's not the most accurate anymore," he added. "So it's elegant, it's easy to memorize out of even though the language is archaic, but it's not always real clear and it's not always real accurate."

Ya think?!

Then there's this telling comment:
Despite the number of translations available and the Bible being the world's most printed and widely distributed book, surveys have consistently showed that many Christians rarely read the Bibles they own.
Nope. Best to stick to those handy dandy proof texts, and not to wander too far off the beaten path. After all, that could lead to dangerous pitfalls like having to think for oneself!

Presumably all this says something about the demographic of the Bible-shoppers who patronise these two sources. Sadly it also says a great deal about the state of the general Christian demographic in the US, and to be frank, other English speaking countries won't be a lot different.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Latest news from The Journal

The latest issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God has been released, and can be downloaded without charge, courtesy of editor Dixon Cartwright, in PDF format.

And in the news:

Bob “Continuing” Thiel has released a new hymnal for his micro-sect. Only one guess allowed for what he’s called it. Hint: the first word is Bible and the second is Hymnal.

Don Billingsley is convinced he’s the only one “who continues to uphold all the doctrinal teachings, including the true government of God, that Jesus Christ used Mr. Armstrong to restore within His church.”

Art Mokarow has bought three pages to inform us all about God’s Wife. Astarte I hear you ask? Nope. The church? Apparently not. “The Wife of God [capitalisation in the original], as Scripture proves, is the Holy Spirit of God.” Wow, what amazing new truth - thanks Art, you da man.

Somewhere in something called the “Illinois Republic” (zip code exempt) there’s another something boasting the rather grand title Church of God, The Most High God. Your generous donation is unfortunately not tax deductible.

If you’re ancient enough to remember 1974, Ken Westby reminisces about the “rebellion” among ministers in that year, in which he played a significant role.

In the letters section Robert Engelhart of Zion, Ill. wonders why COG folk wouldn’t be stocking up for “cyclical solar flares, comet-mass ejections, electromagnetic storms this summer, fall and spring?” (Frankly Robert, I’m more worried at the distant prospect in San Francisco of Oracle clawing back the America’s Cup from the Team New Zealand challenger. A comet-mass ejection barely competes with that prospect.)

Adding to the mix is a re-edit of the multi-part review of David Barrett’s Fragmentation of a Sect that originally appeared right here on Otagosh.

And that’s only a selection.

One thing is certain. If you want to understand something of the diversity that characterises the post-Armstrong tribes calling themselves the Churches of God, and you have a robust sense of humour, you can’t much improve on The Journal as a window on this rapidly evolving (or perhaps devolving) movement.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Rūtana Rumblings

It's not often I sound off about the faith community of my early years, the Lutheran Church of New Zealand, so it's not surprising that I'm a bit behind the times. Although I haven't darkened the door of a Lutheran church in years, I still have an admiration for the progressive strands within that tradition as well a residual sense of loyalty.

The church's greatest assets include the indisputable fact that it has a built-in resistance to the wackiness that afflicts so many Anglo denominations. So I was intrigued (and somewhat gobsmacked) to discover a couple of changes in the way the wind is now blowing in this small denomination.

The first is a local initiative, bearing in mind the the LCNZ is an outlying district of the much larger Aussie body. The second is obviously driven from the distant holy city of Adelaide, headquarters of the Lutheran Church of Australia.

The New Zealand church last year adopted an alternative Māori name: Te Hāhi Rūtana o Aotearoa (Rūtana is apparently a transliteration of Lutheran, it's certainly not found in any of the Māori dictionaries). Perhaps it's the last of the country's mainline denominations to do so, but it still comes as a bit of a shock. Whether current church president Mark Whitfield is responsible for the initiative, or whether there is any substantive grassroots support for the move, I'm not certain. Frankly, I'm all for it. It marks a long overdue commitment to a twenty-first century Kiwi identity.

The second change is also one of nomenclature. Until about five minutes ago (small exaggeration - more like April this year) the highest elected officials in the church were referred to as "presidents". This reflects in part the strong historic ties with the neo-fundamentalist US-based Missouri Synod. Then suddenly the various district presidents along with the overall denominational president in Adelaide were made-over into bishops. Bishops! Gott im Himmel!

Actually, I think this is kind of overdue too. Lutherans aren't Presbyterians or Methodists, praise the Lord, and they share a great deal with Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions in terms of liturgy and ethos. Which is why traditionalists are, on average, less loopy than the happy-clappy types who now dominate the increasingly dumbed-down Christian marketplace. It also brings the Antipodean church into line with most overseas Lutheran bodies.

All positive. Except.

Except, unless I've missed it, the Ocker-Loos still exclude women from the pastorate. The official statement on the matter, dated 2001, reads like something from the 1950s. 
"The rule of the apostles excludes the possibility of women acting as pastors and shepherds of congregations."
 Not so much a "priesthood of all believers" as "under half the believers." It's that kind of ingrained discrimination that's holding the LCA and it's Kiwi outpost in a sociological Stone Age.

The name changes may shuffle the deck chairs but, sadly, really meaningful change is yet to come. Without it, you just have to suspect it doesn't amount to much more than window dressing.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Of Spy Narratives and Toyota Manuals

With a title like Manufacturing Judean Myth: The Spy Narrative in Numbers 13-14 as Rewritten Tradition, you might suspect some dense argumentation akin to an untranslated Japanese car manual.

(The allusion is a painful one, having just acquired a vehicle with just such a manual. Thank heavens for the little cartoon diagrams.)

But back to Judean Myth. Deane Galbraith is a bloke I respect, both for his scholarship and his wicked sense of humour. The tome referred to above is his doctoral dissertation at the University of Otago, and the abstract is available here. Alas, I suspect it won't make easy bedtime reading, and I doubt Deane has provided helpful manga-style drawings.

But fear not, everyone's favourite Southern Baptist blogger, the inimitable Jim West, has done us all the favour of interviewing Deane about his work. One benefit of this is that it allows Deane to break free from the academic language and let rip a little.

I think that the term ‘minimalist’ is largely meaningless, a term of  polemic employed only by uptight and defensive reactionaries, providing about the same level of semantic value as a child who puts her hand over her ears and shouts ‘la la la la la la’ at the world.

You can access the text of the interview on Zwingli Redivivus.

Monday, 19 August 2013

From church to shrine

On Sunday I took a drive out to Waiuku.

Now I suspect not too many readers know about Waiuku, and to be frank, there's no reason you should. It's a small town on the edge of Auckland, famous for not a lot, other than being a fairly pleasant small town, and boasting New Zealand's oldest pub, established in 1853, The Kentish.

I parked the car and took a stroll down the main street, as one does, to see the sights. In Waiuku this takes all of ten minutes at a slow clip.

Which is when I saw this.

Clearly this is a church building with a history. I forget which denomination it used to represent... something fairly staid like Anglican or Presbyterian I think.

But even in sleepy Waiuku the winds of change are blowing. The board outside the former church declares this stately old wooden house of worship to now be a Shinto shrine.

I read it twice, three times. A Shinto shrine. In Waiuku?

New Zealand is a rapidly secularising society, and the traditional Protestant churches are in terminal decline. But who'd have expected that this prominent edifice, set prominently on a hill in the main street, would be transferred to an alternative world faith.

Please don't misunderstand. I don't have anything against Shinto shrines. Or mosques, Sikh temples or whatever. All communities have a right to establish centres for fellowship, affirmation and worship. Brilliant!

But what does this say about the state of those predominantly Anglo religious bodies, the Anglican church and its various derivatives, which once dominated in the English-speaking world. It seems they're greying out of existence.

So down the gurgler of irrelevance they go, rapidly; disappearing without any great trauma before our very eyes.

And I'm reminded of the adage, variously attributed; "better a live heresy than a dead orthodoxy."

Now if they turn The Kentish into a sushi bar... then there'd be cause to get really upset.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Dragonses in Revelationses

Scott Bailey makes a basic point on his excellent blog about the last book in the Christian Bible, sometimes known as The Apocalypse.

You can always tell whether a commentator on this book has even the most basic knowledge of their subject by what they call it. The correct title is Revelation, most definitely in the singular. Drooling poseurs invariably call it Revelations, in the plural.

It might seem to be a small point, but let's face it, if some nincompoop dilettante can't even get the name right, what are the chances they've got anything else right?

Which is exactly the point Scott makes. (The particular egg he refers to believes that dragons are real, and the Bible proves it!)

Of course, just because somebody can get the title right doesn't mean they have a clue about the book itself either, but at least they're approaching base one.

There was a certain philandering televangelist of fond memory who used to contest the full name as given in the KJV: The Revelation of St. John the Divine. His point was that John would never have called himself divine, or assumed such undue honours. Poor Ted (oops, gave that away...) simply didn't understand the difference between an adjective - which he took it for - and a noun - which was the translators' intent. Back in the 1600s divine was simply a synonym for theologian - presumably reflecting the superhuman seer-like characteristics needed for torturing significance out of those recalcitrant texts!

Monday, 12 August 2013

A Whale of a Tale

What do we do with the Old Testament book of Jonah? Even the mighty Luther was perplexed, saying that it was stranger than any poet's fable. "If it were not in the Bible," quoth he, "I would take it for a lie." Whales, it seems, are not famous for swallowing persons whole and then regurgitating them intact, and what could survive three days and nights in any cetacean's gullet?

But Wot ho! as Bertie Wooster was famous for saying, there has to be a faith-enhancing explanation, and to the rescue came none other than the world's most astute Bible interpreter, the inimitable Ferrar Fenton. In his turn of the last century translation, which has the distinction of being the first in modern English, he set his formidable mind to the problem and lo, came forth with the obvious solution (obvious to him anyway). Here's his footnote to Jonah 2:1.
"Great Fish" was the name of the ship mistranslated "Whale" in the version of the Greek translators whose blunder has been repeated by all subsequent translators, in all languages, to the perplexity of their readers, until I decided to go back to the original statement of the prophet in his own Hebrew.
So it seems - and which of us could doubt Mr Fenton's judgment - that Jonah was rescued by a nearby wooden tub splendidly christened The Great Fish.

As you might have guessed, Fenton was not exactly under-endowed with a belief in his own abilities, despite being an amateur in the field (he was a wealthy businessman and Bible hobbyist). I warmly recommend perusing his less than humble introduction and explanatory note to the work. Truly, a more competent scholar never walked the earth!

This is also a great example of trying to rationalise away a problem. The Jonah story is a tall tale with a message and a moral, told in an age when the open sea was a perilous but necessary method of travel, filled with little-understood dangers of the unknown. Dear old F.F. was however tin-eared when it came to subtleties of genre, so it seemed clear to him that a handy-dandy bit of clarification was needed. Didn't he do well!

These days the Fenton translation is prized by a few mad collectors of obscure English bibles (such as myself), and by the deeply racist Christian Identity movement in the US which has appropriated his jingoistic British-Israelite textual preferences to serve their own vile intents. It's a sad postscript to a pioneering version of the scriptures.