Sunday, 31 January 2016

Keeping It Simple

The design team here at Otagosh - well, that's just me actually - inadvertently put the blog through the washing machine, and out popped this bleached 'no frills' version. The content is unchanged, but the visuals have been toned down a bit. Some (who shall remain nameless) might say it's too bad the prose is still overblown, but then nobody's perfect - except of course for Rod "never committed a serious sin" Meredith. I always thought Pride was one of the Deadly Seven, but I guess Rod never found that one listed in Exodus 20.

But back to overblown prose. Example: In the previous post I was determined to use the word 'empretzeled' after tripping over it in an op-ed piece in Time. You know the principle, 'use it or lose it'. The Time reference was, I believe, to Hillary Clinton ("she empretzeled herself"). Apparently it's been around since at least 2009, but was a revelation to me - not to mention the spell checker. English is like that, a new word hiding around each corner, lying in wait and ready to pounce. I love it.

So does the idea of being empretzeled by proof texts work? Well, I thought it was a colorful analogy at the time...

To return to blog layout. Is simple better? I'm open to persuasion to the contrary, but in any case this iteration will probably remain in place for a while. If you don't favour vanilla, there are certainly no end of Rocky Road alternatives in the COG webiverse.

Now if I could only think of a sentence combining webiverse with empretzeled. To be honest, it shouldn't be too difficult...


[This is an expanded version of a post that appeared here in 2013.]

As we all know, good Christians tithe.

And really good Christians tithe on their gross.

Which is interesting, in that tithing was prescribed for an agrarian society where they primarily tithed on animals and crops.

Of course, you had to tithe to the Lord's accredited representatives, which meant the priesthood and the temple.

How all this translates across to cheques, automatic bank deductions, ATMs in church foyers and non-levitical preachers with their manicured hands stretched out to garner the Lord's increase is a bit of a mystery. I mean, where do they get the authority to do that?

And could somebody please explain to me why Jews today - in the absence of a central temple and priesthood - don't tithe?  Oh, hang on, no temple or priesthood... yeah, I get it.

Then, there's also the uncomfortable fact that, even when the Jerusalem temple was standing, Jews in the diaspora didn't tithe. There was no point. How were they supposed to get all that perishable produce back to Jerusalem? Instead there was a custom called the 'temple tax' (based on Exodus 30:13).

Monetary tithing 21st century style? Didn't happen.

Somehow this simple logic seems to have escaped the prosperity preachers who happily get prosperous by laying a non-biblical tithing burden on their credulous flocks. They, naturally, don't want ten percent of the potatoes in your back yard garden.  They want currency!

To be brutally frank, the tithing merchants target vulnerable, often poorly educated people, high on aspiration but low on worldly nous. That's not a put down; after all I once bought into that whole empretzeled proof text method too.

This reality was brought home to me just this Sunday morning as I drove past the local UCKG 'Help Centre' (an incongruous name if ever there was one) as worshipers were leaving. UCKG is a Brazilian-based tithing sect, and the good folk emerging from the building were clearly not at the top end of the socioeconomic demographic. On their website it states: "The tithe is ten percent (10%) of all income, and it belongs to God. This is a very ancient practice followed by God-fearing people everywhere."

Well, actually not.

I have the late Ernest L. Martin to thank for first exploding the tithing myth for me.  Martin was a professor of theology at Ambassador College, Pasadena. He walked from there in the 1970s, setting up his own ministry and publishing, among other things, an influential rebuttal of tithing as a Christian practice. A version of his booklet is still available online.

The problem was that Martin was still at heart an apologist with a pre-critical understanding of the Bible. That was no bad thing when communicating with like-minded folk, like myself, who shared that approach.  But the years have rolled by, and hopefully those of us who were alive and kicking back then have all grown and matured a bit. The old biblicist assumptions no longer hold sway over many of us now, so, what about the tithing question once we've stripped away the fundamentalist mind set?

All of which is a lead-in to a posting by Scott Bailey on his Scotteriology blog. It sets the scene in the province of Yehud in the days Malachi, and of Persian imperial policy.  There's a lengthy background (a bit tedious but necessary) in setting out the political realities of Malachi's time (and that oft quoted verse in Malachi 3:10). If you don't feel up to the detail we can skip all the way to the conclusion:
...these texts come from a certain socio-historical and cultural context. To try and take them and make them normative for today doesn’t just misunderstand the original context and intent of the text, it misuses it for alternative purposes.
Which just about says it all.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

James Dobson and the flight from autonomy

I found this graphic on my FB feed. It seems innocuous but it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Cooperative, friendly kids are a joy, but do you really want them to submit to you without question? The word submission implies coercion. Isn't it one of the great rewards of parenting (and later grand-parenting) to see them, as they get older, start to think things through for themselves and reach outward to their own authentic perspective on life?

The graphic clearly draws a heavy line between submission to parents and obedience to a coercive God. The idea being that for kids their parents stand in the place of God until such time as they graduate into adulthood and God takes over the role, a parent-figure writ large; the Sky Father. God is reduced to a projection, a heavenly father figure, complete with demands for unconditional obedience.

The message here then is one of dependence versus autonomy, and dependence is the favored option.

But even in the Bible there are exemplars that run counter to this cravenness. One time we find Abraham ready to cut his son's throat at "divine command", yet at another we find him arguing with God over the fate of Sodom. Which do you think was his finer moment?

People who find this graphic appealing will be, I expect, big fans of authority; God in his heaven and nasty human beings each in their designated place in the great unalterable scheme of things. Independent, creative people are a threat; and how terrible is it when their kids start asserting some independence and initiative that runs counter to their own precious take on life. In the same way higher education is often viewed with suspicion lest their offspring acquire ideas that clash with their parents' beliefs.

James Dobson sees God - if this graphic is anything to go by - in a way that can only be described as 'legalistic'. Is this anything close to good Christian theology? Does God just want dull-eyed obedience and conformity? Yes, the gospels say something about becoming as little children (Matthew 18:3), but that doesn't have to imply bowing submissively to the whims of a capricious deity (or, more likely, the capricious whims of someone who represents themselves as the authorized representative of Deity). But think about it, kids are curious - if they're not there's something wrong. They ask questions. And they have the potential to adapt and move beyond those of us set in our ways. Surely that's a better way of understanding this verse.

Are your views on things like ethnicity, race and sexuality exactly the same as your parents? Have you inherited all of their political views; their religious affiliation? Do you restrict your vision to their horizons? Do you expect your kids to do that? Part of growing up as a healthy individual is to learn to assert yourself and move out from under the parental shadow. Part of growing up spiritually is dealing with the tough questions about belief, not just shutting your eyes and deferring to the apologists.

Growing into maturity necessarily means growing into independence. Any meaningful relationship to the Otherness which we call God involves questioning and challenge, not passivity. If we get in the way when young people reach this stage, no big surprise if we reap the whirlwind. How many damaged kids come from authority-focused homes?

Naturally it'd be surprising if the next generation didn't adopt many of the values they grew up with, and if they do so with their eyes wide open, that's brilliant. And if not? If they've battled their way through to an authentic place where Mum and Dad never ventured? Then surely that's worth celebrating... their folks have obviously done a great job of real parenting!

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Nod of the noggin to Jim West who posted this on his Zwinglius Redivivus blog. Note the position of the bookcase!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Passing of Ron Dart

Ronald Dart's death has been noted in several places, including Gary Leonard's blog. The following message from Ken Swiger was reposted on Pam Dewey's Facebook page.
I learned this morning of the passing of an old friend, a brother in the faith, teacher, preacher, and a man I consider a mentor. 
Mr. Ronald L. Dart passed away peacefully in the early morning hours on this Sabbath day following a multi-year battle against cutaneous T-Cell lymphoma. 
God has richly blessed the Church of God movement to have allowed us to have Ron Dart in our lives for so many years. So many of us can look back at what we have learned from Mr. Dart's ministry and give thanks for this Godly man and his work. Please join me in praying for Mrs. [Allie] Dart... We are saddened by our loss, but we know that our brother Ron has completed his race...
For some of us - and I include myself - Dart was, for a time, a powerful influence in coming to grips with a post-WCG life. Ron Dart was, as has been often noted, a gifted speaker, and one of the few in WCG who encouraged people to actually do some of their own thinking, so pushing us along on our journey. One piece of his advice I remember clearly, and have striven to apply since; we grasp truth with a finger grip. Time will require that we take on board new information, new factors. In the meantime we proclaim the best as we understand it. Truth is not to be clung to with a death grip, for truth is always understood imperfectly. Ron Dart was 82 years of age.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Joe Tkach - the Final Curtain?

A fascinating post over at Gary Leonard's blog suggests that the Last Days might have arrived for Joe Tkach's Grace Communion International. Word is out that the sect is dumping its employment pension plan, along with rumors that the various congregations are set to be cut loose from the Glendora office.

If true, what once was the Worldwide Church of God, a highly centralized, monolithic body, will disintegrate with nary a whimper.

The church has, as I understand it, stayed afloat in part thanks to bequests accrued down through the decades under Herbert W. Armstrong, providing an ongoing baseline income. Enough to fund the downsized operation, and Joe in the big boy's chair. Now the speculation is that Pastor General Joe wants to lay down the crown leaving the remaining stalwarts to fend for themselves. Gary suggests Joey doesn't trust anyone else to take on his faux-"episcopal" role, and so will destroy what's left of the sect he inherited from dear old dad.

Needless to say, if this is the case, the plebs in the pews are unlikely to get a say. All the bullgeschichte about "reform" hasn't meant empowerment for the members. Despite the elaborate window dressing GCI is still run like North Korea when it comes to issues that count. Apparently Joe gets to call the shots and everyone else be damned.

It goes without saying that, if this turns out to be correct, many past and present stakeholders will be highly focused on what might follow.

We eagerly await denials from Glendora HQ.

Monday, 18 January 2016

2 Peter - forgery and fiction

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

Richard Bauckham writes in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary:

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

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

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

Given these issues, what are we left with?

2 Peter is pseudonymous.  Whoever wrote it, it wasn't Peter.  The fingerprints of forgery and/or fiction are all over it.

2 Peter was admitted to the canon with difficulty.  The problem was recognized long ago, but conveniently sidelined and ultimately ignored.  The 2008 edition of the evangelical NIV Study Bible, no friend of biblical criticism, notes that "it was not ascribed to Peter until Origen's time (185-253), and he seems to reflect some doubt concerning it.  Eusebius (265-340) placed it among the questioned books, though he admits that most accept it as from Peter." 

2 Peter claims to be written by Peter.  The writer explicitly says so: "1 From Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ."  And a few verses later he claims to have been tweeting at the Transfiguration (chapter 1: 16-18, quoted above).

2 Peter is still claimed for Peter by many commentators and 'authorities'. Evangelical sources generally nod toward the difficulties, and then airbrush them away with comforting coos of reassurance.  No dear reader, worry not your silly little head about such things for we can indeed explain it away at a stretch, given a large enough rubber band.  Thus the NIV Study Bible, the awful NLT Study Bible, the Orthodox Study Bible...  In fact 2 Peter makes a great litmus test when you're thinking of acquiring a Study Bible. 

2 Peter as a creative piece of canonical fiction is modern construct.  This seems to be the view of moderate commentators, those who shun fundamentalism, but still want to assert a kind of canonical exceptionalism.  Yes, 2 Peter is fictive, but that's okay.  All we need to do is grasp the subtleties of genre and the problem disappears.
Many scholars believe the letter was written some years after Peter's death, by someone who wrote in his name.  This was an accepted practice in ancient timesThe references to Peter... would have been understood by the original readers as literary devices used in this type of writing. (Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible.)
Convinced?  Not really.  Who exactly were "the original readers"?  In a largely pre-literate society I'd suggest the best term would be "original hearers", and that by and large they were sucked right in.  It's a tad easier to buy the genre defence with Jonah, for example, and even the apocalypticism of Daniel.  Fair enough.  But the Epistles?
If the people who forged the New Testament letters of, say, Peter and Paul had "no intention to decieve" and did "not in fact" deceive anyone, we again are left with the problem of why everyone (for many, many centuries) was in fact deceived.  Bart Ehrman, Forged, p.126.
And where is the evidence that the early church indeed regarded 2 Peter as a trendy piece of inspired fiction?  Such did exist - the much loved Shepherd of Hermas for example, and the marvelously inventive Acts of Paul (and Thecla).  But did either make the canonical cut?  And was it really "an accepted practice in ancient times"? 

2 Peter is a forgery, and forgeries were condemned in the ancient world.  Bart Ehrman devotes a full chapter in his book Forged to all the various excuses that have been hauled out to justify or explain away pseudonymous writings.  One of the slickest is called, with an appropriate nod to academic jargon, "reactualizing the tradition", the brainchild of David Meade.  Ehrman's response is well worth reading in full.  Bald claims like those in the Lutheran Study Bible are quickly put to the sword; there is little or no evidence to back up such sweeping assertions.
They state it as a fact.  And why do they think it's a fact?  For most New Testament scholars it is thought to be a fact because, well, so many New Testament scholars have said so!  But ask someone who makes this claim what her ancient source of information is or what ancient philosopher actually states that this was a common practice.  More often than not you'll be met with a blank stare.  Bart Ehrman, Forged, p.130.
There is another problem here too.  If 2 Peter is pseudonymous and fictive, but it says what we need it to say, then it's all hunky dory.  If the Acts of Paul and Thecla is pseudonymous and fictive, but it says things we don't like (perhaps a strong female character portrayed in the strapping Thecla), then it's another matter entirely. Where's the justification in that?

There's a useful summary in Ehrman's The New Testament: An Historical Introduction.  Forgery was commonplace in the ancient world, and it did have a legitimate place, but only as a classroom exercise in rhetorics.  There were lots of attempts to lard up the canon with such documents (3 Corinthians anyone?)  Some, like 2 Peter, got through anyway.  Despite the pious finessing of the apologists, forgery was almost universally condemned at the time.  And why is it that those scholars who would sooner wash their mouths out with soap and water than talk about forgeries in the New Testament, usually have no such compunction when it comes to so labelling documents outside the New Testament.

Frankly, even with truckloads of both sophistication and sophistry, it's a mess.

So, what do we do with 2 Peter. I suppose there are more than three options, but let's assume that we regard the scriptures as authoritative in our heritage, and that we wish to deal honestly with them. One option is to do a Luther. The reformer consigned Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to the fringes of the canon - a sort of appendix to the New Testament - on theological grounds (one can only wish Revelation, in particular, had stayed there), so the precedent definitely exists. The problem would be, I guess, once you started down this road - where would one stop? 2 Peter might be the most egregious example, but there are others not far behind (see Luther's list just for starters!)

A second option is, as we've already seen, to concede the problem but then boldly declare that it doesn't matter. "So there are fictitious accounts in the New Testament? So what? We just need a more sophisticated reading." Sophisticated and sophistry come from the same root. This will hardly convince the fundamentalists, nor most evangelicals. Liberal non-Catholics (we used to call them Protestants) might be comfortable with this stratagem but it's hard to see bright-eyed, bushy-tailed missionaries heading off to convert the heathen when they have to admit that the source of their enthusiasm for the Water of Life is a such a muddied puddle. So yes, I think it does matter when we have cuckoos in the nest like 2 Peter and no, there is unlikely to be any amount of clever sophistry that will provide a palliative.

Option three is to accept the New Testament for what it is, and yes it matters. The Bible is authoritative in the same limited sense that a denomination's confessional documents are (for example the Westminster and Augsburg confessions). It marks the way along which we came and a shared history. It's a rough and weedy path and we've stumbled more than a few times, cursing the potholes and thorns. But it's only a means to an end, our eyes are on a more distant horizon. The Bible has a functional value. Pilgrims don't worship the ground they walk on en route (at least most don't), they strive to reach toward something that always lies beyond. This option shares many of the same problems as the second, but at least affirms that 'honesty is the best policy'.

None of these options are likely satisfy true believers, but there's no going back. 2 Peter is a junk epistle, worthless for proof texting, dubious for devotional purposes, our own little Book of Mormon within the Good Book. Strong words maybe, but again, it was Luther who called James "an epistle of straw". Are we dealing with intentional fiction? That's surely flattering the situation. You can say that about some biblical books, Jonah for example, but they are obviously a very different genre of literature, and unlikely to have been written with duplicitous intent. It's hard to be as forgiving when we get to 2 Peter. We may be stuck with it, but we don't have to like it, lie about it or deny that a problem exists.

Originally posted in 2 parts here in 2012, with a later follow-up. The text has been edited slightly.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Reading to spice up your 2016 perspective

Due out on 1 March is Bart Ehrman's latest book, sure to provoke controversy, Jesus Before the Gospels. From the publisher's website:
"Many believe that the Gospel stories of Jesus are based on eyewitness testimony and are therefore historically reliable. Now, for the first time, a scholar of the New Testament, New York Times bestselling author Bart D. Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus; and Jesus, Interrupted), surveys research from the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology to explore how oral traditions and group memories really work and questions how reliable the Gospels can be."
The Kindle version is just under US$10.

And while we're talking about books Rod Meredith will never read, that troublesome Episcopal bishop emeritus, John Shelby Spong, is preparing to launch a new book of his own with the intriguing title Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.
"Using the Gospel of Matthew as a guide, Spong explores the Bible’s literary and liturgical roots—its grounding in Jewish culture, symbols, icons, and storytelling tradition—to explain how the events of Jesus’ life, including the virgin birth, the miracles, the details of the passion story, and the resurrection and ascension, would have been understood by both the Jewish authors of the various gospels and by the Jewish audiences for which they were originally written. Spong makes clear that it was only after the church became fully Gentile that readers of the Gospels took these stories to be factual, distorting their original meaning."
The release date is mid-February.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

William Arnal rocks!

The Gospel of Mark, the not-so Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and Josephus. William Arnal joins the dots in a seminar presented at the Leibniz Universität Hannover. In English, I hasten to add. Professor Arnal is head of Religious Studies at the University of Regina, but this isn't a dry presentation by any means. Arnal contends that the real message of Mark is about, well, take a punt:

A. The crucifixion
B. The resurrection
C. The temple's destruction
D. The end times

Nope, not going to tell you. Suffice to say it's a different perspective, and the title is "Just how 'Christian' were the first Christians?" Check it out if you're up for a little grappling with some really intriguing thoughts. A nod of the noggin to the excellent Biblical Studies Online blog which featured it recently (and where you can also access the whole presentation).

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Secret Diary of a former WCG Minister


Things going belly up. Have to find a real job, but my Ambassador degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Hoping my studies to become accredited (licentiate in theology) by the Anglicans and Methodists will throw me a lifeline. From "mister" to "reverend", imagine it!


More bad news, the lifeline just snapped. One of the "dog collars" found out about my history as a WCG pastor and the word is out. On top of that my brain hurts when I have to read that theological stuff with all those big words. No job prospects there!


Opened LinkedIn account. That should open some doors.


A job offer at last! One of the sillier WCG splinters, and let's face it, this Dear Leader isn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, even by COG standards. But hey, beggars can't be choosers. Gotta keep the wolf from the door.


Working on that LinkedIn account. Keeping the options open. Won't specify the church's name as my current employer - just put up the alphabet soup initials instead. Nobody outside Dear Leader's group will know what it means anyway.


Dear Leader's sabbath. I thought I was well over this Sabbath stuff but, well, when in Rome... Turns out the last guy they employed in this role is now "doing time". I'm off to preach to a congregation of five.


Still working on that LinkedIn entry. Educational qualifications? What to do, what to do? I have this worthless BA from the Bricket Wood campus. Took the best part of five years; what a waste. If I write in "Ambassador College" the game will be up.


And then there's my ministerial certificate from Pasadena AC. Ministerial Certificate - what a joke. Why do you think I wanted that damn licentiate!  Two years more - wasted on re-indoctrination after the post-GTA bloodletting. Mind you, the money was good in the field ministry while it lasted; on the pig's back really. How was I to know the whole church would soon go into free-fall and I'd end up face down on the junk heap. All that sucking up, and in the end, for what?


Got it! I'll obfuscate the old school on my LinkedIn account. Something kind of ambiguously true if you stretch the details far enough and cross your fingers. Definitely not Ambassador College, that name is rat poison and any idiot teenager can google it and end up knowing way too much. Will ponder further. However, I have already worked out my job title. Nothing like minister, pastor, elder. No "cred" in that. Am going to say I'm a "communicator" and "information communicator". Too cool! Now what about past employers? Nah. Let's pretend I've just been with Dear Leader from the get-go. That'd be upward of 45 years and 25 years respectively. Sounds better than "5 minutes", right? God, I love making this stuff up.


Am I good, or am I good? AC becomes Armstrong University. Here's the thing; anyone googling that will come up with either Armstrong University Online (which has precious little information) or Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. Neither is exactly Yale, but it's still better than AC. Gerald Flurry calls his compound Herbert W. Armstrong College, so I think that's just different enough not to give the game away. Thing is, Savannah is a long way from Pasadena, let alone Bricket Wood. Oh hey, how likely is it that anyone will fact check, huh. Now, how to phrase it...


Added Armstrong University and the details to my profile and its up now. The Armstrong University thing links automatically to some joint which is definitely not AC. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Here's how the education listing works out. I'll flesh out more of the details after dinner.
Armstrong University
Pasadena, CA: ... Graduated with Ministerial Certificae [oops, typo. Never said I majored in proof reading]
Armstrong University
Bachelor of Arts U.K. (B.A.)...
Perfect! And I mean, what are the chances anyone will call me out over it! Certainly not those dumb bloggers; I'm way beneath their radar. Doubt my long-suffering fellow alumni will be impressed though, the sort who turn up all teary-eyed for reunions to reminisce about their battle scars. What the heck, a man has got to earn a crust, right? Anyone gets snotty and I can always plead another typo. Just hope nobody takes a screen shot!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

An Atheist Minister? The Case of Greta Vosper

The United Church of Canada, the country's largest Protestant body representing a fusion of Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and others, is fraying at the edges. This 'liberal' denomination is trying to deal with the reality of an articulate minister who is also openly atheistic.

This is, naturally, like a red rag to a bull for outsiders (some COG sects, for example, have taken delight in reporting these developments) eager to prove that 'mainline' churches have lost the plot. Then there are those within the UCC itself who feel threatened by someone with pastoral responsibility who can no longer affirm what they regard as the essentials of Christian belief.

CBC's The Current provides an insightful backgrounder that gives a voice to both sides of the debate, and has just aired on CBC Radio 1.

Many have walked the same path as Greta Vosper. Some have simply abandoned their church as a result; others - many others - have learnt to just shut up, go through the motions and pretend in front of their congregations. A very few like Greta Vosper have taken what must be a tough decision to remain and be honest about their position.

But is her position either defensible or credible? Have a listen (the programme is 22 minutes long) and decide for yourself.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Mythmaker: The Trial

Maccoby's reconstruction of the events surrounding Paul's trial in Jerusalem is quite breathtaking in its scope. This is the stuff of movies, with machinations and intrigue to keep everyone guessing to the very end.

According to Acts Jews from Asia Minor blew the whistle on Paul. Maccoby asserts that these were most likely Jewish Christians who had previously crossed swords with Paul in Galatia and other cities, some of whom would have been at the zealot end of the spectrum.
Such zealots... would be particularly likely to resort to violence against someone like Paul, who was reported to have given up Jewish patriotism as well as reverence for the Torah.
Maccoby seeks to weed out the disinformation from the credible history in Acts, an undertaking not to be taken lightly. Among his suggestions "the possibility that Paul acquired his Roman citizenship only shortly before he travelled to Jerusalem. This was a time in his life when he had a large amount of money at his disposal."

That large amount of money, of course, would be his collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Maccoby believes it not unlikely that some of those funds were spent in buying citizenship as insurance against things going badly. He also suggests that Paul kept a slush fund in case bribery was needed.
It may well be that Paul did in fact give Felix a bribe, and so was enabled to live unmolested in Caesarea until the governorship of Felix ended two years later.
But, but, but... what about Paul's own assertion that, unlike the commandant in Acts 22 (25-29), he was a citizen by birth.
It is as if the author of Acts is going out of his way to tell us that Paul did not purchase his Roman citizenship, a possibility which might not otherwise have occurred to us.
Paul's own testimony (at least as it is recounted in Acts 23:1-10) falls a fair way short of the gold standard of honesty as Maccoby sees it.
Most commentators seem to gloss over Paul's duplicity on this occasion. His claim to still be a Pharisee was simply a lie, and if his real views had been known, the Pharisees would certainly not have supported him.
It seems that, for a while at least, the peripatetic apostle is going to slip the net entirely.
Paul had succeeded in escaping from the Jewish Christians, from the Sanhedrin, and from the Romans. He still had one enemy to reckon with, the most deadly of all, the High Priest...
Paul had previously been a creature of the High Priest and "the bureaucratic memory is not short, and Paul would certainly be remembered as the high-ranking police officer who fouled up the Damascus operation so spectacularly and actually defected to the dissidents."

And so Paul is eventually sent off to Rome and martyrdom. Or perhaps not. "We have to admit that Paul was no martyr and was not even notably truthful; he was first and foremost a survivor."
According to Church legend, Paul was martyred in Rome, but no reliance can be placed on this story. It is quite possible that he lived on to a ripe old age...
Chapter 14 goes into more detailed speculation than can be outlined here and, at the very least, is a ripping good yarn. Is it believable? Well, it's just as believable as the upliftingly sanitized version that Acts presents. That doesn't make it true, but it does make it... interesting.

(This is the latest part of a overview of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. The views of the reviewer do not necessarily coincide with those of the author.)

The Journal - 179th issue

The December 31 Journal has been released and can be accessed in full PDF form online. The Journal chronicles the ongoing saga of individuals and fellowships that have a past history with the now defunct Worldwide Church of God. A brief precis:

- Jim O'Brien, former UCG minister and now the public face of the independent Church of God Cincinnati, is best known for the Winter Family Weekend he organizes. Obviously still a well attended occasion judging from the front and back page coverage. Over 600 attended a Sabbath service during the event.

- An effort to reboot Ray Wooten's group under the new name United Christian Church of God. Wooten died in 2014 and his organization, United Christian Ministries, was 'discontinued'. Wooten was apparently regarded as a congregationalist rather than having the usual hierarchic fixation. With due respect toward the UCCG foundation members, a group of this size seems to fall well below the critical mass for medium to long-term survival.

- In case it escaped your notice the Flurry cult (PCG) has been with us now for 26 long, disturbing years, and the anniversary was celebrated by devotees at spots across the US and Sydney, Australia on December 7. Did Gerry think his 'work' would last this long? Will it endure another quarter century? One thing is certain, Gerry won't.

- This issue also features more reminisces from the late WCG evangelist David Jon Hill.

- In the obituaries section the passing of John Morgan is noted. John was a good guy and a fellow WCG survivor. I'm sure many who knew John during his "Kiwi years" and beyond will wish to extend their condolences to Lana and the wider family.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Mythmaker: the duplicitous apostle

Chapter 13 of Mythmaker focuses on the tensions between Paul's ministry and the Jerusalem Church. The action centers around Acts 15 and the so-called Jerusalem conference. Maccoby's contention (and he makes a good case) is that James' ruling was firmly based on the concept of Noahide law. Righteous Gentiles were never expected to keep all the Jewish laws, but only those which were supposedly given to Noah after the Flood. This was nothing groundbreaking: "the drawing up of a basic moral code for Gentiles was one of the preoccupations of the Pharisaic rabbis, and the Jerusalem Council was by no means making a pioneering effort in this regard."

So James' decision in fact assumed the continuing relevance of the Torah. Gentile converts, however, were not required to convert to Judaism, but to keep the less rigorous Noahide laws. Paul had other ideas. For him the distinction between Jew and Gentile was rendered irrelevant. He gave lip service to the Jerusalem decree, but under the principle of 'give him an inch and he'll take a mile' pushed the boundaries out much further.

Maccoby next examines the famous passage in Galatians where Paul, spinning the story from his own perspective, confronts Peter over table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He finds the account incoherent in parts; after all, Gentile Christians were free under James' ruling to eat the meat of animals forbidden to Jews, so what was the issue?
Information had reached James that Paul was not adhering to the Jerusalem decision, but was allowing Gentile converts to eat anything without restriction, including food offered to idols (see 1 Corinthians 8... )
If this was the case Peter's withdrawal from table fellowship was drawing a line in the sand. "It marked the rejection by Peter of Paul's new doctrines, which demolished the whole distinction between Jews and Gentiles within the movement."

But of course the story does not end here. Paul saw real advantages in continuing to operate under the aegis of James and Jerusalem, despite his frequent protestations of independence. All of which sets the scene for his last visit to Jerusalem where, outfoxed by the Jerusalem leaders, he seems willing to engage in some remarkable acts of toadying, sponsoring a group undergoing the ritual of purification (Acts 21). "He was forced to capitulate and to agree to a public humiliation and retraction." How so?
[Paul] had proclaimed in his Epistles that the Torah was dead, that circumcision was no more than a mutilation, and that observance of the Torah was of no effect... [Yet] he consented meekly to an action that reinstated the Torah...
But if Paul hoped that this backtracking would result in preserving the status quo he was to be disappointed, for in short order he was to be arrested. That's the subject Maccoby deals with in chapter 14.

(This is the latest part of a overview of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. The views of the reviewer do not necessarily coincide with those of the author.)

Appy New Year

It's an app world. The age of the desktop computer has joined the Penny Farthing as a period relic, beloved by few. Today the laptop also teeters on the edge of irrelevance as iPads, Android tablets and smart phones become our first port of call in accessing the web.

So no surprise that the tithe farmers are eager to up their game with apps that deliver their content, and that includes Greg Albrecht's twin ministries, CWR (Christianity Without the Religion) and PTM (Plain Truth Ministries).
This FREE App proclaims authentic Christianity without the religion. Our work is Christ-centered, based on God's amazing grace, giving hope to those burned out by legalistic religion. When you download this app you will have access to the daily and weekly audio and video messages of Greg Albrecht. Plus access to Christianity Without the Religion magazine and our CWR Video magazine. Our weekly Bible Survey and Blog are also available.
Apart from the total nonsense of a bastardized Barthism that maintains the apologetic delusion that Christianity is in a totally different category than 'religion' - note that of all the goodies Brother Greg dangles in front of his readers, one in particular is conspicuous by its absence. The Plain Truth.

But fear not little flock, the PT - the supermarket brochure of post-WCG magazines - is indeed available once you download the app. There's a mercy.

Oh gosh golly Greg, did you have a brain fade when you wrote that promo? No mention of the PT? How can that be? Something to do with a poisonous brand name perhaps?

And, oh my, what a lot of permissions Greg wants when you download his app!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Deutschland 83 and the Tsars

For those outside the UK who are nonetheless able to view free-to-air British television via live HD streaming - amid much gleeful thumbing of noses at local Pay TV services (clearly Sky is not the limit) - here are some of the options I've highlighted through till Friday.

Deutschland 83 on Channel 4
Drama. First of eight episodes and the first German-language series to air on a US network (Sundance). This is its UK premiere. A tale of Cold War espionage with excellent reviews. (Sadly it clashes with the first episode of the new costume drama War and Peace on BBC1.)
NZST: 10 AM Monday [GMT: 9 PM Sunday]

The Lusitania's 100-Year Secret on BBC News (on "Our World")
Doco. What happened on the fateful voyage where more than 1300 people drowned.
NZST: 10.30 AM Monday [GMT: 9.30 PM Sunday]

The Story of Wales on Yesterday
Doco. Season 1/01. (The Makings of Wales). 2012.
Presented by Huw Edwards. The series continues during the week.
NZST: 7.30 PM Monday [GMT: 6.30 AM Monday]

Crusades on BBC4
Season 1/01. 1995.
The Terry Jones series (episode Pilgrims in Arms).
NZST: 11 AM Wednesday [GMT: 10 PM Tuesday]

Carry on Dick on Film4.
Movie. 1974. The Dick in question is Dick Turpin, and this is another outing by the Carry On crew. Sid James, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Bernard Bresslaw. They don't make 'em like this any more.
NZST: midnight Wednesday. [GMT: 11 AM Wednesday]

Empire of the Tsars on BBC4
Doco. Season 1/01
The beginning of the Romanovs' 300-year reign and the story of Peter the Great.
NZST: 4 PM Thursday [GMT 9 PM Wednesday, 3 AM Thursday]

Countdown on Channel 4
Game Show. At last! Back to its usual early daily morning repeat slot in the UK, which is just as well as the afternoon time corresponds to the wee hours in this part of the world.
NZST: 7 PM (Monday - Friday) [originally screening GMT:3.10 PM, then 6 AM ]

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Where's Woderwick?

Woderwick was, if you recollect, a character in The Life of Brian. Aficionados will recall the sterling cry, "Welease Woderwick!"

More to the point, as we enter 2016, where's Woderwick? It appears the aging Presiding Evangelist of the Living Church of God is on a relentless slow fade from church responsibilities.

It wasn't that long ago - a couple of months in fact - that the official lineup on the Tomorrow's World telecast looked like this. That's Wally Smith, Dick Ames, the Boss and Rod King. Let's count; one, two, three, four. What a happy bunch.

Then, big news, a new heir apparent (reported here), Gerry Weston, waiting in the wings.

Now let's look at the new TW lineup.

And then there were three. Who do you see, and who don't you see? Both "Rod Prime" and Rod the Lesser have gone. Dick and Wally (great names, and so deeply descriptive!) remain. The old boy on the left? That would be? Lemme guess... Gerry?

The last TW magazine editorial by Rod Meredith was back in the July-August issue.

A prediction for 2016. The Great Helmsman is already below decks, and there are squalls on the horizon.

Split Sentiments

Ryan Henson (who I'm assuming is related to COGWA Pittsburgh pastor Don Henson) has a novel in progress with the working title 1995 in Prophecy. Ryan writes:
As a former minister's kid, I experienced the [WCG]-UCG split at the age of 17. I didn't realize the full impact on my life until at least 12 years later. My friends from other denominations  experienced similar events and my book is an attempt to widen the Armstrong narrative to include their lives as well. 
A teaser, along with a chance to subscribe to updates, is available at