Thursday, 31 March 2011

Sheila the Ship? A whale of a tale.

Thomas the Tank for Bible readers? Turn up the book of Jonah. Tim Bulkeley has a short but fascinating suggestion on the "whale of a tale." We all knew that Jonah is a favourite for retelling to children, but Tim wants us to think of it as a children's story from the get-go.

I'm not entirely convinced, but I love the idea anyway, being something of an aficionado of children's literature. The ship has a personality, and the word 'big' keeps on cropping up.

Tim's comments on 'big' are interesting in their own right. In verse four of Jonah 1 a literal reading gives us something like: The Lord hurled a BIG wind upon the sea, and such a BIG wind came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up (Tim's rendition). English translators feel the need to improve upon this rather simple prose by rifling through a thick thesaurus. 'Big' and 'big' become 'great' and 'mighty', or 'powerful' and 'violent.' The Hebrew is apparently more pedestrian by far, it's been polished and taken upmarket for modern readers. Note too that the ship is the character (?) who (?) threatens to break up! It's not the violent storm that threatens to break up the ship, says Tim, but the ship herself.

Tim lays out his position in a 7-minute podcast that is definitely worth a listen.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

A tragic story

Where some confused soul in the Reformed tradition might describe this story as an illustration of "total depravity," the better word is surely just "tragedy." A woman attempts to kill her own children by - horrible to even think about - slitting their throats. She then turns the knife on herself.

Thank God - or Providence - or sheer dumb luck - she failed.

Her stated motivation: she wanted to spare her daughters from the coming Great Tribulation.

I could weep over this report, for the woman concerned once belonged to the same faith community I did. A major emphasis in this "denomination" was... the Great Tribulation. We were saturated with it in sermons, with articles promoting insane scenarios built around Daniel and Revelation, and even in the artwork of Basil Wolverton. Recent events in Japan apparently convinced Lyn that time was almost up.

The story has been widely commented on by others who have had the misfortune to have lived with this twisted biblicism. Lyn was well known from her days as a vivacious young woman studying at "the West Point of God's Work": Ambassador College. I assume she graduated with a BTh, as most students did back in the 1980s. A lot of good it did her...

I gather Lyn later moved on, as did ninety percent of those of us once involved in the "fear religion" of those times. Most, please God, moved onto better, saner things. Lyn, it seems, never made that transition, bogging down instead in the Pentecostal fold.

Of course there must be other factors. Humans are complex creatures and only a fool would lay the blame fully at the doorstep of Armstrongism. Nothing is that simple.

But prophetic trash-religion must nevertheless bear a good deal of the blame. A culture of fear-fueled anxiety about the End Times is not calculated to do much for anyone's mental health.

It is a sobering reminder that preachers have responsibility for their words, and evil words can have evil consequences. Perhaps it's hopelessly naive, but one can only pray that Roderick Meredith, Dennis Luker and others will be paying close attention - and learning from this terrible event.

Thanks to Reg and Bill for drawing attention to this story.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Beyond the Sky Father

All talk of God is picture language; it cannot be literal. “No one has seen God,” as the Bible puts it. God the maker of universes is so far beyond the capacity of human experience and language that only metaphor and analogy can provide ways of talking about “him”.

Tim Bulkeley, in a brief piece on why God-language needs to broaden out beyond traditional maleness.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Bad Boy Bart

It's interesting to see the apologetics that gush forth when someone like Bart Ehrman publicises the pseudepigraphy of much of the New Testament, as in his latest book, Forged. Ehrman is never one to mince his words.
[G]ood Christian scholars of the Bible, including the top Protestant and Catholic scholars of America, will tell you that the Bible is full of lies, even if they refuse to use the term. And here is the truth: Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied about their identity, claiming to be a famous apostle -- Peter, Paul or James -- knowing full well they were someone else. In modern parlance, that is a lie, and a book written by someone who lies about his identity is a forgery.
Now that's not exactly tactful, nor is it particularly charitable to the childlike sensibilities of those many people who have built their faith on the sands of fundamentalism. The relevant question, however, is: is Ehrman correct.

But, hang on, pseudepigraphy was OK back then, right?
Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere -- except for our friends among the fundamentalists -- will tell you that there is no way on God's green earth that Peter wrote the book. Someone else wrote it claiming to be Peter. Scholars may also tell you that it was an acceptable practice in the ancient world for someone to write a book in the name of someone else. But that is where they are wrong. If you look at what ancient people actually said about the practice, you'll see that they invariably called it lying and condemned it as a deceitful practice.
Now, I confess that I'm looking forward to Ehrman's discussion of this point. If he's correct - that writing as if you were someone else with the intention of being mistaken as that person was regarded as deceitful - then there's little else we can do than call those compositions fraudulent.

But naturally the defenders of the faith are already girding their loins and pounding their word processors. John Hobbins, responding to Ehrman, accuses him of "reverse fundamentalism."

I'm not sure what that means. Hobbins apparently wants a more nuanced method of judging the merits of pseudonymous literature. Good luck, I say, but be sure to apply the same generous standard to other works without fear or favour. 1 Enoch, for instance. 4 Maccabees, 3 Corinthians, the Shepherd of Hermas. Indeed, why not the Book of Mormon? A spot of name calling (reverse fundamentalist!) is, however, not a persuasive argument in itself.

Hobbins wants to draw a comparison to the attribution of various fables to Aesop. The logic of that evades me. If you tell your kids that the rhyme you've just recited comes from Mother Goose, that seems to be of an entirely different order to a religious authority figure informing the laity that Paul wrote 2 Timothy, that it's inspired, possibly inerrant, and you'd better study it on your knees.

And let's be honest for a moment, isn't that exactly what many of these "authorities" do? And not just the fundamentalists. The notes at the back of my copy of the ESV (which touts itself as a scholarly translation) clearly attribute the book to Paul ("This was the final letter written by Paul (A.D. 64-68) as he awaited execution in a Roman jail.")

A pseudonymous letter supported by a lying commentary. Shouldn't Hobbins be assailing the ESV editors instead of Ehrman?

Ehrman writes:
Why are there no women priests in the Catholic Church? Why are women not allowed to preach in conservative evangelical churches? Why are there churches today that do not allow women even to speak? In no small measure it is because Paul allegedly taught that women had to be silent, submissive and pregnant. Except that the person who taught this was not Paul, but someone lying about his identity so that his readers would think he was Paul.
That's a fair point if 1 Timothy is, as everyone knows, Deutero-Pauline, i.e. a pious forgery. John Hobbins' response:
Ehrman’s argument depends on the specious assumption that the historical Paul was a feminist ante litteram who pushed against a society in which women were not expected to intervene in some public circumstances and could intervene in others; were expected to defer to their husbands in matters the culture thought of as male responsibilities; and were expected to bear children if they were able. Then a disciple of Paul’s came along and turned Paul on his head.
No, Ehrman's argument - at least that part of it in his column - is not dependent on any such thing. These verses have undeniably been used to relegate women to second-class status in the church, yet Hobbins' unjustified expansion of that fact is setting up a straw man by attributing to Ehrman a position which he does not argue.

Isn't it time to approach this issue honestly, minus wishful thinking, confessionalist posturing and apologetic obfuscation?

Goofy lectures and the joy of cricket

Righto West - Howzat!
Jim West links to a series of lectures by one Professor Greg Beale of Westminster Theological Seminary. Beale is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Tyndale Fellowship, and his style in reminiscent of a hyperactive used-car salesman trying to offload a Lada at a Tea Party convention. Talk about a steaming pile of Philippians 3:8! This is almost as big a faux pas on Jim's part as his evil and demon-inspired rant on cricket. Cricket, Jim, is what you Yanks missed out on by rebelling against God's ordained monarch (Rom. 13), good - if slightly mad - King George III, and thereby separating yourselves from the British Empire. And what did you get in return? An incomprehensible form of football that nobody cares about outside the US - good lord it's even worse than Aussie Rules! - and baseball. Baseball!

I have no explanation for Jim's lapses in judgement, other than perhaps to chalk it up to a Zwinglian infusion of Total Depravity.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

'Parodios' - many a truth spoken in jest

Paul preparing to 'throw the book' at Parodios?
Originating on the blog of fundagelical Justin Taylor is a "recently discovered first-century letter, apparently authentic, written to the Apostle Paul himself." Who'd have thought our more wooden-minded brethren could be such creative writers? The 'letter', "buried in a cave on the island of Satiricus", has been doing the rounds to a chorus of chortles from Taylor's fellow-travellers. Some are a bit too cloth-eared to work out that it's satire, fueled by contempt for emergent-style ministries. Example:
How many times though, do we as “spokesperson(s) for the faith” run into the same issue? Being called out as unwisely harsh when speaking out against heresy, or that which distracts people from living missionally. I completely agree that to question these words, in the case of Paul, is to question God, as this was certainly divinely inspired through the Holy Spirit. It does provide some comfort though to know that even Paul was met with the same objections that many of us receive today. Just because people are defensive about the tone, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the wrong one.
Just remind me not to attend a Bible study with that guy.

What intrigues me is that I can say a hearty 'amen' to most of the points that are just meant to evoke gleeful giggles, and sniggering comparisons to Rob Bell and Marcus Borg. But "Parodios", quite simply, strikes me as a much more Christlike character than Paul! Many a truth spoken in jest?  Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The spanking god

Some of us are used to "Christian" leaders finding the punitive hand of God in natural disasters. God is angry with us. We have been very naughty. We are getting grief because our sins have grieved God.

It's pretty childish - literally. Small children often blame themselves for bad things that happen in their lives. Adults reassure them, "this wasn't your fault."

Then along come spiritual retards like Pat Robertson and Rod Meredith who proclaim, "yes, yes indeed, it is all your fault."

Strangely enough, this isn't just a Christian problem. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and the resulting nuclear crisis, the same old guilt trip is being laid on the victims there: 'decrees from heaven meted out to a people whose Confucian morality had become corrupt or simply lax; or the Mahayana Buddhist version of the traditional “end times” scenario. Mappo, the “Age of Decline,” was thought to have occurred because the dharma—the teachings of the Buddha—had been allowed to languish and grow stale.'

It sounds sickeningly familiar.

"[T]he most widely publicized religious response to the nation’s worst disaster since the Second World War comes from within Japan itself—a series of comments made by 79-year-old Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara... On March 14, just three days into the crisis, Ishihara told reporters that he saw the tsunami as “divine punishment,” or tenbatsu, a term usually employed in Japanese to describe a righteous and inevitable punishment of the wicked. For Ishihara, the tsunami produced by Japan’s largest-ever recorded earthquake was a means of washing away the “egoism” (gayoku in Japanese) afflicting the Japanese people."

The quotes come from two separate articles at Religion Dispatches, here and here.

Perhaps it's not surprising that, confronted with tragedy on a scale that makes a mockery of all our puny plans and skills, we are thrown back on childhood dependence and a need to find an adequate cause - a personal or corporate flaw - to make sense of our suffering. Ishihara's comments can at least be understood in that light. Less so the manipulators, control freaks and pedlars who seek to exploit our fears as a permanent fulcrum for their apocalyptic theology, an inhuman and juvenile interpretative device to understand the world - even in everyday existence.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Saccharine moralism - crunching Numbers

Ouch! Deane Galbraith lands one on the theological nose. The treatment children's writers give the stories about Joshua - pulling faith rabbits out of a battered steel helmet - is just as profound as...

No, you really should read this post for yourself. The title is instructive in itself: How Genocide can Provide a Good Moral Example for Children. Even Martin Noth gets nobbled. It's a short piece that packs a punch.
"You’d think, by looking at the level of critical analysis [of Numbers 13-14]... that the authors of academic biblical commentaries get all their ideas from reading children’s story books."
All the effort by the tribe of apologists to make the problem go away by sleight of hand and academic façade can't stand up to the scrutiny you'd give a childrens picture book? Let's say it again: ouch!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The thread that runs through scripture

It's a problem. What do we do when different bits of the Bible contradict each other.

When I was a young bloke, it seemed all too clear. The Bible didn't contradict itself. If it seemed that way, it was because the Bible was God's jigsaw puzzle, and the wrong piece had been wodged in where it ought not be. So how should you interpret scripture so the pieces fit? I well recollect a be-three-piece-suited preacher eyeballing me and carefully stating, "we do not interpret the Bible, the Bible interprets itself."


Not that I said that at the time of course, but even a moron in a hurry knows that any act of reading requires interpretation. The preacher went on to intone that the difficult verses are interpreted in light of the clear ones.

Bollocks again. I mean, who decides which are the clear scriptures. The whole meaning of Romans, for example, changes depending on which verses concerning the law are 'clear.' Let's call a Royal Commission (or a Congressional Committee). Who to invite? A Latin American liberation theologian, some guy from Dallas Seminary, my old minister from Hawera Baptist church (hi Paul!), an Orthodox priest, Walter Brueggemann and Creflo Dollar. Now that'd be quite a discussion!

A variation on the theme popular among Lutherans, and popularised among Adventists by Bob Brinsmead (before he became a 'Christian Atheist'), has everything being "judged by the Gospel." This at least has the advantage of stepping away from bibliolatry, but raises the question: what exactly is the gospel. I think we'll need another committee...

Again, it comes back to how you perceive the Bible. Do we join the Calvinista in finding a grand narrative that wires the sixty-six books tightly together, an inspired thread of number eight fencing wire that binds Genesis to Revelation with everything sandwiched harmoniously in between? Or do we read each book as a document (or a compendium of documents like Isaiah, or a shuffled deck of cards like 2 Corinthians), a discrete entity with its own integrity, audience and assumptions? Holy hermeneutics! Do later books retrospectively interpret the earlier ones? Can a Jewish reader understand Leviticus without the aid of the helpful literature produced by the Banner of Truth Trust? What on earth is Amy-Jill Levine even thinking when she writes about the New Testament?

And which Bible do we mean by the Bible? There's a strong case to be made that the Septuagint is primary Christian scripture, not the Hebrew Bible (it was apparently good enough for Paul.) What about the Apocrypha? 1 Enoch? As for the New Testament, it must have been a confusing time before the not-so-saintly Athanasius tossed out his festal letter in 367.

367! Let's think about that for a moment. If the day of Pentecost had "fully come" back in 1970 instead of 30CE, we'd all be dead and gone before there was anything like a New Testament canon available. It's somewhat doubtful any of us will be here in 2307. That's a powerful-long wait.

I think I'm getting a headache.

Christians read the New Testament in the context of what John Henson (in Good as New) refers to as "the old books." Fair enough. We all build on earlier foundations. But does that mean those foundations are reinvented, redefined and recreated in the image of the superstructure? What if someone else (maybe several someone elses) has had the temerity to build on that same foundation?

I'm skeptical (or even sceptical, depending on your dictionary) about that disfiguring thread that some people want to ram through the pages of scripture. If it's there, maybe we should be reaching for a pair of wire cutters and setting the prisoners free.

Geese and ganders

"You're kidding? An N. T. Wright book!"
I try not to agree with John Loftus. But, dang it, every now and again he hits the proverbial nail on the head.
It's claimed that people like Dawkins, or Hitchens, or Harris don't know enough to reject Christianity. How much should a person know about a religion or the various branches of it in order to reject it? Really. I'd like to know. These very Christians do not know much about other branches of their own religion, so how can they reject them? And they do not know much about the various other religions around the world or the branches within them, so how can they reject them? Most Christians do not know enough about their own religion! All a person has to do to reject their own inherited religion is to subject it to the same level of skepticism they use when rejecting all other religions.
That's just so true. The criticisms of the New Atheists apparently aren't to be taken seriously because they haven't paddled in the shallows of Barth's reflecting pool, or engaged with the corpus of John Piper's reactionary work? Dear Lord, who in their right mind would want to? What arrogance! On the principle of "what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" surely it's only fair to demand that religious folk keep their mouths tightly shut on the subject of life's origin unless they've read the work of leading anthropologists and paleontologists. Is that likely to happen? Yeah, right! It would be amazing if some of these turkeys would just pick up a copy of New Scientist occasionally.

There's a sense in which Dawkins and others are prophets speaking to Christians from outside the walls. Prophets are not comfortable companions, but they have an essential role. We should be grateful they're there to keep us honest. To throw our hands up in holy horror at their unfamiliarity with the so-called Great Theologians is sheer hypocrisy, and fools no one. Christianity traces its origins back to fishermen, carpenters, illiterate peasants, retired shady ladies, subsistence farmers (and one very confused LXX-quoting diaspora Pharisee.) A dose of Bultmann or Tillich might be stimulating for some, but it's hardly essential. A draught of Barth is, of course, to be avoided at all costs by all people at all times, New Atheists and committed Christians alike.

And if the New Atheists were well informed in the fields of theology and biblical studies, would their critique then be taken seriously by their opponents? That's an easy question. Think about the reception given to Bart Ehrman and Robert Price.

So exactly what reading list would the critics like to expose Dawkins to? It'd be a fascinating catalogue. But then we'd have to ask how many of those self-same worthy titles someone like Franklin Graham had cracked the covers of.

Sorry, but sadly Loftus is right.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Another Apologist Mops Up the Blood

Another day, another apologist trying to save Yahweh from himself. This time it's Douglas Earl riding in to the rescue on a nag entitled The Joshua Delusion.

Thom Stark, who reviews the book on Religion at the Margins, puts Earl's work in the context of earlier attempts by Paul Copan and New Zealand's very own Matthew Flannagan. In a lengthy but tightly argued piece he (forgive the metaphor) puts it to the sword.

Why do people insist on excusing the inexcusable? What possible motivation has anyone got to sweep the texts of terror under a rug of exculpation?

There's a lot worth saying in Stark's review, despite its somewhat intimidating length. Maybe it's appropriate to put in another plug here for Thom's The Human Faces of God which I count as one of the best (and most honest) discussions of these issues in print. But if you're even faintly interested in the horror passages of the Bible, and how they relate to an informed and compassionate Christian worldview, for heaven's sake steer well clear of the Lord's "bush lawyers."

Saturday, 19 March 2011

No joshing...

Neil Godfrey had best retire his blog immediately, and James McGrath will have to send in an engineer to shore up his matrix. Thomas Verenna may need to change his career pathway entirely. And that's just bloggers... pity poor Bob Price, who will need to move to Belize, change his identity, dye his hair and shave off the beard.
Josh McDowell, bestselling author and one of the most recognized Christian apologists, teams up with researcher Bill Wilson in this classic apologetics book, now with a new title, new cover, and new opportunity to connect with readers.

This accessible resource explores historical evidence about Jesus so seekers, skeptics, and Christians can understand more about Christ, His claims, His impact, and the evidence for His life. Revealing material includes:

    * surprising information from ancient secular writings about Jesus
    * insights and errors from the post-apostolic writers
    * how to test the New Testament evidence and material outside of the gospels
    * details of the geography, culture, ...
Yup, it's all been settled; sorry guys. And by no less a genius than Josh McDowell. End of story. What's that you say, it's just a rehash of He Walked Among Us, something Josh and his buddy put together in the eighties, fiddled with in the nineties, and have now wheeled out with a new cover? How rude! Please note, this volume is issued as part of the very impressive sounding McDowell Apologetics Library. Moreover, just look at the publisher: Harvest House of Eugene, Oregon. Credibility like that just can't be gainsaid. Pardon me? Did you say this is the 1993 edition, unrevised but reprinted in tarted up form? What are you talking about?! It's got a new cover and title for heaven's sake!

And who needs pointy-headed scholars anyway when you've got God-fearin', Bible-believin' apologists like Josh on the case. Quick, order in multiple copies while we await Neil's tearful repentance.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Mrs. God

Asherah receiving a very poor divorce settlement
Tim Bulkeley has some interesting podcasts about... Mrs. God. Across on his alternate blog 5 Minute Bible, Tim confirms that Yahweh was joined at the hip - historically speaking - with the nubile Asherah. I hadn't listened to Tim's stuff before, but whoa, this chap has a fantastic voice; professional, deliberate, paced, authoritative. Not a Kiwi accent you understand, but British (but then, hey, nobody's perfect.)

But wait, there's more: He's promising to tackle the issue of those unfortunate Canaanites sometime soon too. I do hope he stays away from the slop bucket Copan and Flannagan drink from; that would be horrendously disappointing given the build up.

Anyway, the first in the series is online - Why do you read? Or: Was God Married? I'm a bit worried about the distinction Tim makes between a historically married god and a theological entity who wasn't, but it'll be interesting to see where it all leads. Do give it a listen and see what you think.

Addendum: Tim has responded to this posting with a further podcast. I appreciate his taking the time to clarify. I might make some further comments downstream, but for now... thanks Tim!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Taking a Punt on Rob Bell

The Rob Bell story hasn't had much coverage in this neck of the woods, but it has certainly cranked up the cranks in the upper hemisphere. I'm a tad puzzled why.

The thing is, a card-carrying Calvinist like Neal Punt can promote "Biblical Universalism," and nobody bats an eyelid. His book "Unconditional Good News" has been out for donkeys' years. F. F. Bruce, Edward Fudge, Richard Mouw and others wrote nice things about it. Problem, what problem? The reaction: "Oh that's interesting. I do have some serious reservations, but Neal Punt has certainly raised some important issues and shouldn't be ignored."

Then along comes Rob Bell and "all hell breaks loose."

Chewing that over, I was reminded of the reception "soul sleep" has traditionally had in fundagelical circles; i.e. total rejection. A Seventh-day Adventist opines that it's a much more holistic approach than the standard heaven/hell nonsense (which it is, given biblicist assumptions) and outraged shrieks of 'heresy' can be heard (accompanied by foaming at the mouth) from the cheap seats. Along comes a toffee-voiced Anglican bishop with evangelical tendencies, and the response moderates immediately. "Oh that's interesting. I do have some serious reservations, but Tom Wright has certainly raised some important issues and shouldn't be ignored."

Say what?

The inconsolable wailing by certain bloggers over the Bell book is not unlike a fumbling thirteen-year-old who drops her new i-Pod down the toilet bowl. Can we all say tragic?

So why the difference in reception between Punt and Bell? I suspect it has something to do with the intended audience. Like Wright, Punt was writing principally for the cadre of clergy and other over-educated church clients. It was a limited audience of refined sensibilities, a comfortable and discerning elite. Say what they like, the self-elected insiders can afford to concede a point or three with a gracious wave of the hand, and then go back to the default settings, congratulating themselves on such broad-mindedness and superior knowledge.

No such luck for those class-traitors who insist on addressing the plebeians directly! The Great Unwashed, the simple people, the commoners, pew-potatoes and serfs of Christendom; in other words (and let's drag out the most offensive term we can think of) the laity!

The motto seems to be: keep 'em dumb!

Would Bart Ehrman be a bête noire of apologists if he only wrote for academia? Would the Jesus Seminar be infamous if they met in an ivory-tower and published in obscure journals? Would Rob Bell raise hell if he restricted himself to a Puntian rehash?

"Serious" scholars occasionally diss the populists. I thank God for them. For mercy sake, the first followers of Jesus were fishermen! No, these über-dudes, whether in the academy or the pulpit, are (with honorable exceptions) defending lucrative territory. Knowledge is power, and if the dumb laity are allowed to catch on, the game could well be up.

I expect they'll continue to pee on Rob Bell for some time to come.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

McLaren on The Voice

More on The Voice New Testament. Brian McLaren provides his 'take' on the book.

First impressions are that The Voice is a bit like the kid in Mother Goose: Where it's good it's very, very good and where it's bad it's 'orrid.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Küng - untamed at 82

Hans Küng was one of the architects of Vatican II, and has remained a potent symbol of the path not taken by Catholicism. Now an octogenarian, he's still speaking as a prophet to his church.

"Controversial Swiss-born Catholic theologian Hans Kueng on Wednesday launched a new book attacking papal authority and calling on rank-and-file Catholics to seize control of the church from its clerical masters.

"The book Can the Church Still Be Saved? was set to go on sale in Germany Thursday, coinciding with the worldwide release of a book by Pope Benedict XVI titled Jesus of Nazareth - Part II.

"[T]he 82-year-old said Jesus Christ would not like today's Catholic Church... He charged that the curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, had come up with a long series of rulings over the centuries that opposed the teachings laid down in the Christian New Testament.

"In the book, he argues that resistance to church doctrines that are 'obviously against the Gospels' is a duty... He said the church could only saved by the faithful taking over responsibility for their church."

In an alternate universe somewhere, surely this man, not Ratzinger, sits on the throne of Peter.

The Beeb and the Bible

Here's a BBC doco I really want to see. Nod of the noggin to Deane Galbraith on Giants.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Lamingtons of Jeremiah

A passing reference to the Lamentations of Jeremiah the other day brought a quizzical enquiry from a youngster who was listening in on the conversation: "What are the lamingtons of Jeremiah?"

It's an understandable mistake for people in this part of the world, though I'm not sure whether these treats are as well known in the Northern Hemisphere. If you're curious, here's a recipe.

The lamentable conversation came about because I had earlier been waylaid by a recording of Lassus' The Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah which winked at me from the shelves at Marbecks. It is a simply beautiful piece of music for five unaccompanied voices, a memorable recording, and - for those so inclined - highly appropriate for Lent (when Lamentations is liturgically significant).

Which was how the subject of lamingtons came up a few days later. I suppose, if you were looking for something to give up for forty days, lamingtons wouldn't be a bad place to start...

The Voice

I'm currently test-driving a New Testament translation called The Voice. It's apparently a product of the 'emergent' movement. I'm frankly confused by the whole emergent thing. Where do these folk sit on the continuum between fundagelicism and sanity? Read Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence and you might be forgiven for thinking the latter, but I'm not so sure.

The Voice is published by Thomas Nelson, so that's minus 10 points before you even crack open the cover. Next, take the temperature with two key texts in that most incoherent of Pauline letters, Romans.

Romans 3:22 (along with texts like Galatians 2:16) can be translated two ways, and there's a wide theological gulf between them. Before the beginning of the twentieth century the text was rendered "faith of Christ," as in the KJV (and before that Tyndale, the Geneva and Bishop's Bible.) The ratbags who produced the American Standard Version (1901) changed it to "faith in Christ," and it's been downhill ever since. "Faith in Christ" leads to sawdust trails and Chick tracts. Faith (or faithfulness) of Christ puts the emphasis back on Jesus and away from propositional righteousness. The Greek lends itself to of more than in, but oh dear, there goes a handy-dandy proof text.

The Voice does the right thing: "This redeeming justice comes through the faithfulness of Jesus..." Ten points.

Romans 16:7 is the Junia text which has already been mentioned here. Here The Voice gives poor Junia a gender reassignment, and she pops up as Junias (a totally unwarranted male name.) Minus ten points.

The Voice has a distinctive (one might even say 'cool') layout, and there's the promise of a full translation, that includes the Old Testament, somewhere downstream. The notes are designed to promote a devotional (yuck, ick, has anyone got mouthwash?) reading: minus twenty points. Scholars who contributed include Darrell Bock of Dallas Seminary (minus 50 points), but Brian McLaren's influence shouldn't be understated (plus 10 points), and Phyllis Tickle is involved in the Old Testament part of the project (plus 5 points.)

What The Voice does with the sense of Romans as a whole I'm about to discover. Not that I'm sure Romans is capable of making good sense given Paul's overindulgence in complex rhetoric. Let's face it, if Barth stuffed up so badly, what chance have a bunch of middle-class emergents got? If Luther only succeeded in muddying the waters, isn't it likely that Bock will produce pure schlock?

I'll get back on that one...

If anyone is interested in the pros and cons of Romans 3:22, and is prepared to deal with some fairly technical exegesis around Pistis Christou, Bird and Sprinkle's The Faith of Jesus Christ will tell you far more than you need to know.

Two Peas in a Pod?

I hadn't seen this graphic before it appeared on Ben Mitchell's blog, but it's worth sharing. Mitchell is the author of an upcoming "autobiographical account" of his family's involvement in Herb Armstrong's religious empire.

I especially enjoyed his earlier post entitled "Mad magazine artist co-founded The Worldwide Church of God." To clarify, it wasn't that Basil Wolverton (the magazine artist) was mad, but that he produced his finest work for "Alfred E. Neuman" (the magazine 'Mad').
Mad magazine illustrator and comic artist Basil Wolverton co-founded The Worldwide Church of God, when in 1946, as an Elder for the fledgling cult, he signed the Californian corporation papers for the then named ‘Radio Church of God’. In 1956, Wolverton illustrated the horror of the End Time in a booklet produced by Herbert W. Armstrong called 1975 in Prophecy, in which Armstrong wrote of the coming apocalypse.
Not Herbert Armstrong!
I've never heard Basil described as a co-founder before, but I guess the description is fair enough. Mad magazine and The Plain Truth? Well, honestly there wasn't all that much difference. Tomorrow's World and Cracked!  The more I think about it...

A confession: I loved Wolverton's artwork, including the blood-curdling 'End Time' scenes. Then again, many (most?) of those who spent the tender years of childhood with Basil's bizarre fear-inducing artwork have a justifiably less appreciative perspective.

HT to Gary on the Banned blog.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Tobit revisited

The book of Tobit may well be my favourite deuterocanonical confection. It's a tale that has inspired great art, novels and music. Among those who've improvised on the narrative have been the multi-talented Andrew Greeley (Angel Light), who transposes the characters into a computer-driven love story that moves from America to Ireland. It's an imaginative retelling well worth hunting down. What I hadn't realised was that Handel, the man behind The Messiah, is also credited with an oratorio on the book of Tobit... sort of.

It's actually a pastiche (pasticcio, to use the correct term) using Handel's other works, and re-crafting them to fit the Tobit narrative. The compiler was one J. C. Smith, and it first saw the light in 1764, five years after Handel's death. The libretto is from another hand, but the music is the master's own. Naxos has an affordable 2 CD recording.

Not at all imaginative is a prosaic essay I wrote on Tobit a few years back. Those of us raised on the "de-deuteroed" 66-book canon often find ourselves at a loss when some wiseacre tosses in a reference to Sirach or Judith, so this was one way of bringing myself up to speed. Whatever else Tobit is or isn't, it's quite a yarn: a sort of (and yes, I'm stretching things a bit here) Tintin novella from the ancient world (believe it or not, 'Snowy' turns up.)

If you're into Handel, this is a recording to consider.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Japan Quake & Tsunami

While the Christchurch earthquake has been off the international news radar for many days, in New Zealand it has continued to dominate news as the shattered city struggles to recover and the country as a whole counts the cost. Tonight the news of the extensive Japanese quake and tsunami, with live coverage from NHK, has hit a raw nerve. One headline announces that it has been the seventh largest earthquake in recorded history. Destruction in Japan - and potentially in neighbouring coastal nations like the Philippines - will dwarf the tragedies that have preoccupied our attention over the last weeks. The dramatic pictures tonight only hint at the human cost which will continue long after the aftershocks have abated.

What can one say that isn't facile? Much of the "God talk" after Christchurch was little more than platitudes. The raw power of nature forces us - even in our smug, sophisticated, technological age - into stunned silence.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Rising from the Ashes

I continue to be fascinated by the different pathways to healing and growth that former brethren have taken in the wake of the collapse of credibility within our erstwhile faith community. We form a distinctive diaspora, and a bundle of contradictions. Sometimes I'm caught up in admiration for the strength and integrity of individuals who have moved on, even when I know that I simply don't have the capacity to move in that same direction.

Gary is, to say the least, an interesting case in point. Like myself he's travelled from the iconoclasm and wooden literalism of fringe fundamentalism. Now he's found a meaningful place within the traditions of Anglicanism. In his latest blog posting he reflects on the significance of Lent, a season on the liturgical calendar that I'm every bit as jaundiced about as Jim West. Yet for Gary there's almost a sense of transcendence in the observance.
If someone had told me twenty years ago that I would be smearing ashes on the foreheads of people tonight I would never have believed them.  Tonight was Ash Wednesday at the church I attend.  A night that signifies the start of forty days of self examination.  An examination of our fallibility, our mortality, our participation in oppression and injustice to others.  At this time we are particularly drawn to Jesus' call for justice: freedom for the oppressed, release of the captives, good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind.  It's about confronting the power of death in all its forms, terror and tyranny, corruption and greed, disregard for creation and all the forces that prevent people from living life in it's fullest.

May the Force be with you brother.

Did Orwell read Reformed Theology?

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Cross-pollination: The Community of Christ and Grace Communion International

(I was recently reminded of an article I wrote for the old Ambassador Watch website, written from an ex-WCG perspective. Here it is again, with some minor editing to bring it up to date.)

In the 1970s there was a church that proudly displayed a seal bearing the image of a small child, a lamb and a lion. A church that had built an extravagant auditorium to both hold services in, and to serve as a cultural center for the surrounding community. This same church ran its own liberal arts college. And it was moving in new directions theologically, raising accusations of "liberalism".

Old postcard of the Independence Auditorium
That body was the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But it also described the Worldwide Church of God.

The RLDS church, headquartered in Independence, Missouri, and now known as The Community of Christ, is the second largest Mormon denomination after the Utah-based LDS church. It has a membership worldwide of some 250,000.

Setting the Scene.

The Worldwide Church of God (also since renamed; now known as Grace Communion International) was a member of the Adventist family of religious groups, separating in the 1930s from the Church of God (Seventh Day). Originally known as the Radio Church of God it quickly became a distinct sect in its own right. The founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, was happy to adopt "truth" from a variety of sources. Is it possible that his borrowings included some from the "Restoration movement" established nearly a century before by Joseph Smith Jr.? And is it possible that there might have been substantial interchange between certain Mormon sects and the Church of God (Seventh Day) prior to Armstrong's separation?

[A clarification: The term "Mormon" as it is used here does not refer exclusively, or even primarily, to the church headquartered in Salt Lake City. The "restoration movement" has a number of strands, and it is among some of the smaller bodies that interesting convergences with the WCG appear.]

WCG pre-history: The Mid-West Connection.

The roots of the WCG lie not in California, but in the American Mid-West. In the 1930s the Church of God (Seventh Day) was headquartered in Missouri. It was here that independent Adventist congregations had rejected the authority of Ellen White (Seventh-day Adventism's prophetess) and coalesced into a denomination. It was also here that another American prophet, Joseph Smith, discovered his "Zion", designating the town of Independence as the "Center Place." Smith believed that the original site of the Garden of Eden was to be found in Missouri, and prophesied that when Christ returned, it would be to a temple standing on the Temple Lot in the town of Independence.

Joseph Smith III
Long after Brigham Young led the great trek to Utah, the Mid-West was to continue as the heartland for a less extreme version of Mormonism. Those that rejected Young's iron rule forged a new body, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It was to this group that Joseph Smith's immediate family rallied, including his widow Emma and sons. In due course Smith's eldest son, Joseph III, ascended to the church presidency. The younger Smith distanced the church from the controversial Utah body, denouncing polygamy and rejecting the temple rituals practiced in the larger sect.

A much smaller schism formed among the early Latter Day Saints when a number of believers fell under the influence of James Strang. It is among the Strangites and RLDS that some surprising WCG connections may be found.

Before Adventism coalesced around (or in opposition to) Ellen White, it had already swept through America in the revivals associated with William Miller. The "Millerites" were enthusiasts drawn from the various churches by the expectation of Christ's imminent return. Grant Underwood, writing from a Mormon perspective, notes: "...the Saints were more a part of that community [Millerite] than has usually been assumed. They understood the issues and could dialogue with the best of the prophecy hunters." ('Apocalyptic Adversaries: Mormonism meets Millerism.' The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Volume 7 1987)

The Church Organization Debate.

Those familiar with Herbert Armstrong's autobiography will recollect that the parent body of the Church of God (Seventh Day) split apart over the issue of the correct form of church organization. A dissident group, led by the colorful Andrew Dugger, promulgated a "Bible organization" plan with Apostles (of which there were to be twelve) at the top of a ministerial hierarchy. This presumably would follow New Testament precedent.

What few have noticed is how closely the Dugger doctrine resembled that of the various Mormon sects active at that time, and working the same territory in direct competition with the Church of God. These were times of public debates between different Christian groups. A favorite subject was the Sabbath question, and the meetings were a form of entertainment in a time before TV chat shows or talk radio. It was an essential principle of the "Restoration" that the apostolic offices were to be re-established, and that this constituted proof of Mormonism's legitimacy. Both the Utah and Independence bodies have 12 Apostles and lesser offices such as "seventies". Dugger duplicated this.  It would be surprising if there was not interaction, debate and exchange of beliefs between these two very American religious movements, both of which were vigorously promoting themselves. So it seems highly plausible that the Dugger faction lifted the concept of "Bible organization" directly from one of the Restoration sects (probably the RLDS.)  And, as we shall see shortly, the Strangites may have borrowed heavily from an Adventist body such as the Church of God.

Armstrong himself later rejected the Dugger innovation (twelve apostles was apparently eleven too many!)  However the system of "evangelists" that he later set up continued to mimic the Mormon system.

The Sabbath and the Strangites

Herbert Armstrong borrowed from a wide variety of sources as he cobbled together the unique blend of doctrines and customs that once characterized the Worldwide Church of God. Any uniqueness was however in the blending, and not in the constituent parts, each of which had precedents. For example his key work, The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy, was a plagiarized rehash of Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright by J. H. Allen, a British-Israel advocate from the early 1900s.

Armstrong was not alone in his promiscuous use of other people's pet theories. James Strang, an early schismatic Mormon leader, was similarly disposed. Falling out with both Brigham Young and the Reorganization, Strang founded a Seventh Day Mormon sect after becoming convinced that the Sabbatarians (the independent Adventists of the Church of God?) had it right.

A recent statement from these innovative Latter Day Saints reads:
'We believe in the Ten Commandments, including the commandment to "Remember the Sabbath day ... the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God," which God gave as a "perpetual" memorial. James J. Strang restored that commandment in 1850 as part of the "Restoration" of all things.'
Strang also speculated on the Old Testament sacrificial system, and the Old Testament law. While it seems unlikely that Armstrong borrowed directly from the Strangites (who now prefer to be known as Great Lakes Mormons) he would certainly have known of them. This takes on added significance when the origins of the God Family doctrine are considered; a teaching that has much in common with the Mormon understanding of the Godhead. Could Armstrong have filched his "anthropomorphic" doctrine (that God has a spiritual body, complete with body parts) from James Strang? And what about the now abandoned teaching that "the incredible human potential" is to "become God as God is God."  Both resonate with Joseph Smith's doctrines. 

(The RLDS/Community of Christ tradition abandoned the plurality of God teachings long before the WCG did so, and moved on to a trinitarian position, also in advance of the WCG/GCI.)

Later Cross Pollination.

Former RLDS church seal
For those who were members of the WCG during the 1970s and 80s the church was characterized by more than just distinctive doctrines. We shunned the use of the cross as a symbol (as did the Mormon sects.) Instead there was wide use of "The Peaceable Kingdom" motif from Isaiah: a lion, a lamb and a small child (as with the RLDS.) These symbols were adopted on the church's seal (as with the RLDS.) There was an extravagant auditorium that served as a focus for the church (as with the RLDS.) Then there was the church's Ambassador College, supposedly a liberal arts institution (and yes, the RLDS had one of those too, Graceland College, so named long before Elvis strummed his first guitar chord.)

Even the period of WCG "liberalism" - a brief Indian Summer of relative sanity in the late seventies (often associated with the Systematic Theology Project) - was prefigured in a reform movement within the RLDS church that began in the sixties. By the seventies the Reorganized Church had already made a transition from the far fringes of Christianity toward the moderate mainstream.

The RLDS transition, although painful to many members and leading to some decline in numbers, was less frenzied and destructive than the reforms that later shattered the WCG under the Tkach administration. The RLDS church was careful to pace its reforms, and retain key elements of its distinctive history and culture.

It is interesting to note that the late Garner Ted Armstrong, WCG's vice-president and son of the 'apostle,' was personally acquainted with the Reorganization. He has related how, in the early years of his ministry he had RLDS neighbors which he "compared notes" with. One of his closest ministerial hunting buddies (Bill McDowell?) was raised in the RLDS church before converting to Armstrongism.

Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. Could it be that the Reorganization copied Worldwide rather than the reverse? No. The RLDS seal dates back well before the WCG's adoption of the symbols - it has undergone many redesigns over the decades, but all recognizably based on the Peaceable Kingdom. The RLDS auditorium was envisioned in the 1920s and completed in the 1950s. Graceland College (now Graceland University) has been around since 1895. In every case it was the WCG which seems to have appropriated the older church's distinctive traits. It seems as though the Reorganization may have served as some kind of template for the WCG at certain times in its history. Perhaps a past generation of WCG leaders saw the Reorganization as a successful example of a sect making the transition to respectability and stability.


No man is an island. Nor, apparently, is a sect. It seems that the Mormon and Church of God traditions have been influencing one another in the American Mid-West for a very long time. And it may also be that, at certain critical stages in the WCG's history, there was (conscious?) modeling based on the Reorganized Church. It seems somehow fitting that, with the crumbling of Armstrongism under Joseph Tkach Jr. and the rapid shedding of its former distinctives, that the Community of Christ seems to be now left in sole possession of those things that were originally theirs.

For many years the presidency of the RLDS Church/Community of Christ was reserved for direct descendants of Joseph Smith. Its recent presidents have had no such lineage. The Book of Mormon has been de-emphasized, and many church members regard it as "inspired" only in the most general sense. The church ordains women and in its Lord's Supper observance practices open communion. Like Grace Communion International it is a fascinating study in the sociology of religion.

Note: Community of Christ scholar Wayne Ham, in an essay discussing the more obscure Mormon schisms, recounts one example of late twentieth-century "contamination" between Mormonism and the Church of God:
"Then there's Doug Boyd, a self-proclaimed prophet, who was reared on a diet of Worldwide Church of God ideas, so he celebrates all of the Jewish holy days. He comes to town [i.e. Independence, Missouri] for every major Jewish festival to stand on the Temple Lot and proclaim his prophecies." (Wayne Ham. "Center Place Saints." In Restoration Studies III, Herald House 1986)

Revised July 2005 and March 2011

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Mistaken Virgin

It's a big year for Bible aficionados, and here's the opening salvo. The American Catholic translation, the New American Bible, has been tweaked. Originally issued in 1970, the New Testament was revised in 1986 and the Psalms in 1991. Now it's the Old Testament - including Psalms - that gets a thorough going over. Outdated terms have been replaced with ones commonly in use ('holocaust' becomes 'burnt offering,' 'booty' becomes 'plunder'), and some inaccurate translation choices have been improved. This revised edition of the NAB will be referred to as the NABRE.

Nothing exciting there, you say? Not so. There's a tempest blowing because, with great integrity, the translators have changed Isaiah 7:14 to read "young woman" (Hebrew: almah) rather than "virgin." Back in January there was a rant on this very issue right here. It's encouraging to see the NABRE join with that other great Catholic translation, the New Jerusalem Bible, in putting accuracy above dogma.

But you don't mess with tradition without cost. A woman on Facebook protests "no, you don't change the Bible." I'd have thought that was the whole point, not to change almah (young woman) to virgin. While Jim West in generous in his praise of the NABRE, what do we make of the logic employed by Baptist pastor Peter Copeland? Pete seems to be concerned that the hoi polloi will forget that Isaiah 7 is a prophecy of Christ (which of course, it originally wasn't!) It's an interesting turn-about; a Baptist arguing that church tradition should trump the biblical text, while the Catholic bishops favour fidelity to scripture over tradition.

I guess even the Catholic bishops can't win them all...

Friday, 4 March 2011

Biola - fighting or fomenting Biblical Illiteracy?

Biola University's Talbot School of Theology has set out to bring biblical literacy to the masses with something called The Good Book Blog. In fact they're promoting it as "free education to the public." The Christian Post has an article that fairly gushes at the news.
"At a time when biblical literacy is at an all time low and there are so many muddled, uninformed views of the Bible, something like The Good Book Blog is such a breath of fresh air," said author of Hipster Christianity and blogger Brett McCracken.
Hipster Christianity???

What then should we expect?
Ken Berding, associate professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, recently wrote a brief post warning Christians about the significant risk when they bow for prayer but don't actually pray.
Uh, this is "free education to the public"?

Gotta be honest, the stuff appearing at this moment in time looks like homiletic and devotional slush. But judge for yourself.
McCracken applauded the project, commenting, "For a seminary to take its vast academic resources and put it online for the world's benefit is not only to be lauded, but it's to be modeled. More schools should be doing things like this."
It might be worth joining in the applause if Biola's "theologians" were doing something with greater substance than this. But this is, after all, a place where you can get an MA in apologetics.

Vast academic resources? Where, where?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Last Great Day

Tip of the fedora to Gary, who draws attention to an upcoming novel (by a former pastor's kid) called The Last Great Day. Benjamin Grant Mitchell is the son of a WCG minister, and there's probably enough disconcerting real history built into the plot to rattle more than a few cages.
The author of THE LAST GREAT DAY, Benjamin Grant Mitchell, was born into a cult who believed the world was going to end sometime in the nineteen-seventies. Throughout his childhood his father was a minister in The Worldwide Church of God, an American based religion started by Herbert W. Armstrong, a former Oregon advertising man. The cult followed a mixture of religious beliefs including viewing medical assistance as unholy. As a result Benjamin’s Aunty and baby twin brothers died in otherwise preventable circumstances.

When prophecies for the End Time repeatedly failed, the Mitchell family moved to church headquarters in Pasadena, California, discovering rumours of sexual and financial corruption were well founded. Despite having no savings or home to return to (the cult paid rent and minimal wages), and knowing his family would be isolated from friends and extended family, Minister Mitchell resigned. On the way back to Australia, Benjamin turned ten in Hawaii, and although the cult banned celebrating birthdays, it was a notable milestone for the Mitchell’s, who began life for the first time free of the influence of a deluded megalomaniac.

THE LAST GREAT DAY is based on actual events including ex-members and friends of church leaders reporting child abuse at the highest ranks. It is set during the most tumultuous period of the cult’s existence, culminating when hundreds of thousands of members from around the world learned (via a 60 Minutes USA exposé), the Californian government was investigating the church for fraud. This turned out to be the beginning of the end —  not of the world, as Armstrong had falsely predicted for years —  but for his cult. (source)
I can't find much in the way of detail - it seems to be self published - but will link to further info as it becomes available. Release date is some time in April. Fans of Aussie soaps may be interested to know that - according to Wikipedia - Ben has starred as a regular on the TV series Neighbours.

Litmus texts - The Apostle Junia

There is a curious text in Romans 16 (verse 7) that names a woman, Junia, among the apostles. It inspired Rena Pederson to write The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia. Unfortunately it seems to be out of print, but is still available in a Kindle edition. It's a good, sound, non-academic read. Bottom line: the text indicates that Junia (indisputably a woman's name) was, along with a bloke named Andronicus, "prominent among the apostles."

This of course is a problem for many of our more conservative brethren who wouldn't dream of ordaining a mere woman to the lowliest office of ministry, let alone as an apostle. Obviously there's been a mistake. Junia has accordingly been downgraded to a male by translations like the New Jerusalem Bible and the NIV, which re-brand her as "Junias", a male moniker. This is a textually dodgy move, so the evil English Standard Version (along with the NET Bible) performs surgery on the text to put the little lady in her rightful place. Now Junia keeps her gender but is merely "well known to the apostles."

Suzanne McCarthy has some interesting comments on the Junia passage on her blog, particularly on the attempt to suggest that the guys who were blessed with apostolic status were simply on first name basis with the good woman, presumably as she was serving them tea and cookies after all the important stuff was over. She concludes:
There is no chance that the apostles were only those to whom Andronicus and Junia were well-known, because there is no word which is parallel to "well-known" in the Greek. Ah well.

Romans 16:7 is a great "litmus text" to indicate whether the translation you're using is worth the paper it's printed on.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

500 years since the Reformation

2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, but in the German-speaking world the big date is October 31, 2017, marking 500 years since the Augustinian monk and university lecturer posted 95 propositions on a door in Wittenberg.

In the secular heartlands of Europe this is as much a tourism opportunity as an anniversary, but neither the historical nor the theological significance of that date should be understated. The course of history changed on the last day of October in 1517, for both ill and good.

Luther is one of those larger than life characters. On one hand we have the tarted-up portrait in the hagiographical film starring Joseph Fiennes, and the man who unified the German language through his translation of the Bible; on the other the earthy remarks of a man who railed against Judaism, and turned on the peasants who were demanding basic rights. Complex man, complex times.

My favourite Luther anecdote (other than a hilarious aside about "Italian nuptials") is the pungent tale of the castle long drop (best told with suitable sound effects). It could be apocryphal, but deserves to be true regardless. After a bout of acute constipation, an affliction that impacted negatively on his temperament as he got older, Luther experienced a blessed release after ceasing from straining. Only Luther, one suspects, could have found in this a revelatory experience of the grace of God! Cease from works and lo, salvation gushes forth.

Now, I ask you, what bloodless Calvin stories can compete with that?