Tuesday, 25 October 2011

By George!

The Handbook of Denominations in the United States has gone through thirteen editions, the latest appearing just last year. Unlike so much fluff available on different religious traditions, the Handbook has always attempted to provide "just the facts, ma'am," an objective look at the incredibly diverse communities of faith that both flourish and feud in modern-day America. 

I picked up a second hand copy of the 9th edition (1990) a couple of years ago, and found it intriguing. When I discovered that the 2010 edition was available on Kindle, it seemed a no-brainer to update.

You might not be too surprised to learn that the first entry I checked out was Grace Communion International. It's a very fair overview, and one I'd definitely recommend for impartiality and accuracy. So far so good.

The only GCI splinters that get a dedicated entry in the Handbook are the Philadelphia Church of God and the United Church of God. From what I can gather, only bodies with in excess of 5,000 members qualify for a listing, so that's tough luck for Pack and the other minor league wannabes, though I'm not sure why Rod Meredith's group didn't qualify.

But let me quote a bit from the UCG entry.
The United Church of God... was founded by several leaders in the Philadelphia Church of God in 1995 who objected to the leadership of George Flurry.
George Flurry? UCG is a PCG schism?

Well, whatayaknow! Live and learn!

The PCG entry just compounds the same errors. Both were clearly written by the same person who, it seems, didn't know much about the subject and wasn't too bothered to check the facts.

In reality, this seems incredibly sloppy research which has been further compromised by poor editing. Craig Atwood, the current editor, needs to pull his act together if the Handbook is to retain its hard earned credibility, certainly before the 14th edition hits the presses. The publisher, Abingdon, also needs to take a long, hard look at its internal processes. In short: not a good look.

But, on the humorous side of things, you'd have to reflect on the power of the old adage: Say what you like, just spell my name right. Or, in Gerry Flurry's case: If you can't spell my name right, at least choose a near approximation. Who knows, based on the influence of this esteemed volume, future generations of researchers into fringe American sects may be convinced that UCG fits under PCG on the family tree, and that the Flurry cult was founded by some otherwise unknown geezer named George.

Poor old Gerry.

Monday, 24 October 2011

A Klingon Christ?

What means this Nicene Creed, P'tahk?
It's a question that has surely bothered many of us.  How many sleepless nights have you spent worrying whether Jesus died to save all sentient species, or just the human population of planet Terra.

What about Klingons, Romulans and Vulcans?  Is Mr. Spock able to enter the pearly gates? Has God incarnated himself separately in gigs on all possible worlds - a kind of universal road show?

Okay, so Spock and co. are fictional creations, but the multiverse is - it seems - a pretty big place, and ETs are likely to be out there somewhere, right?

It's nice to see a heavyweight theologian tackle the big question.  Professor Christian Weidemann is on the case. May the Force be with him.

It makes a nice change from the usual stuff German theologians concern themselves with.  Read about it yourself in Britain's Daily Mail.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Spanky's 83 minute Swansong?

Gary over on his blog has recently pointed out that Roderick C. Meredith, "Presiding Evangelist" over the Living Church of God, has produced an in-house doco about... himself, to be aired at his church's annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration.  Shades of Colonel Gaddafi?

To put this in context, Meredith is a schismatic senior minister from Herbert Armstrong's failed movement.  He once boasted being number three in the divine chain of command ("the government of God"), but then formed his own sect and became number one.

The trouble was that his tame ministers knew his foibles only too well and tried to set up a more collaborative structure. Meredith went ballistic, blamed Satan for the attempt, screamed about disloyalty, abandoned his own newly created sect (the now defunct Global Church of God) and restarted. The result was the Living Church of God (LCG), and this time, you may be sure, there was no doubt about everyone knowing their proper place. Meredith constantly harps on about 'top-down church government'. Any concept of voting is anathema in his sect. Nevertheless Meredith portrays himself (with, you have to say, some pride) as a humble man - and it seems he has much to be humble about!

Gary asks some pertinent questions about the Meredith PR film.
I wonder if it talked about how Meredith claims he has never committed a major sin since baptism. Or how he made the membership and ministers' lives miserable when he was over the ministry.  Did they include Meredith standing up in Tuscon [and publicly] bad mouthing Leona McNair [former wife of fellow evangelist Raymond McNair] causing him and the WCG to get sued?  Did it include film of Rod screaming and throwing a fit in the Auditorium during the receivership [including a public shoving match with fellow evangelist Wayne Cole that was reported in the Los Angeles Times]?  Did it include film of HWA removing him from office and banishing him from Pasadena for a year?  Did they include film of him planning to form a splinter cult while the WCG was defending him in court for his loud mouth [over the McNair case]?  Did they include film when he refused to reimburse hundreds of thousands of dollars that  members loaned him to start Global Church of God after he jumped ship to form Living Church of God?  Did they include film of Raymond and Eve McNair on their knees in front of him asking for forgiveness "with trembling lips?"
Well, having tied myself to a chair and viewed the whole 83 minutes, I can confirm all of Gary's doubts. Nor did they include the story of how, at a time the Armstrong movement shunned medical intervention, Rod was given special dispensation to undergo eye surgery because he was just too important not to. Others, of less exalted stature, simply died as a result of the 'healing doctrine'.

I get the feeling that this whole, long monologue of self-justification (introduced by Rod's brother-in-law and anointed heir Dick Ames) is more than just an embarrasing "auto-hagiography".  Meredith, as he comes to the close, confirms Ames as his worthy successor, and warns against rival pretenders. The passing on of the torch may not be too far distant.

You'll need a great deal of patience to watch this entire film. If you're in to the history of Armstrongism you may enjoy the photographs that have been pulled out of the Meredith/Ames shoe boxes from long years past, but be prepared for long, rambling reminisces that retell history to show Rod in the best possible light. Garner Ted Armstrong gets three passing references, the receivership crisis one, Flurry one, and Stan Rader none. Joe Jr. is referred to only obliquely as "the bearded one."

Those with time on their hands, and an appreciation for unintended humour, can view the whole sheebang here:
Living Church of God: Sermon - Feast of Tabernacles 2011: Behind the Work

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Bibliolatry backfire

Long after breaking free from a particular high demand form of fundamentalism, many people still carry around the associated baggage of assumptions. One of the most toxic sets is about the Bible.

Some people are led straight back into another brand of straight-jacketed faith. Dr Pepper is simply substituted for Pepsi. That's the obvious danger.

But what about passionately rejecting the Bible, as if the fundamentalist position was the only way the Bible could be read meaningfully? When that particular ship goes down, so does any residual regard for the book it abused.

No, the Bible isn't an instruction manual, infallible, inerrant, or even uniformly ethical. It certainly isn't possible to read it literally as history, whether in Exodus or Acts. Yes, it's dangerous in the hands of idiots and televangelists. But, quite apart from those very real considerations, at minimum it's an indispensable link to our past, our culture and language. So little survives from the ancient world's literature, the links preserved in the Bible are precious.

But only precious if the fallibility and limitations of the texts are recognised.  And how dopey is it to ignore the various conventions of genre that make up the Bible? We don't have much trouble acknowledging this with Homer or Herodotus, yet - and can't you just feel the vapours rising - Jonah, Genesis and Revelation can't possibly be treated with the same detachment, can they?

The problem is that nobody anchors their ethics on Homer, or seeks counsel from the Gilgamesh Epic before making a significant life-changing decision. The Bible is however a fund of stories which bears that burden, and read critically and honestly, can effectively confront us with a critique on life and values and perhaps even an encounter with the Ultimate. For Christians it's important that these are shared stories, part of a common fund that all can draw on, unlike something on the New York Times bestseller list or the latest episode of Downton Abbey. Sometimes the text rings true from the outset; think of many of the parables. At other times any sane reader couldn't help but recoil in horror as they enter into the text - texts, for example, that glorify Bronze Age tribalism and xenophobia, wrapped in the obscene language of divine authorisation. If you're going to read the Bible profitably, you've got to know the difference. Our response cannot and must not default to a prayerful, passive acceptance, but sometimes a screamed 'No!'

Where to begin?  For those who are 'over' the Bible, perhaps their ship has already well and truly left port. If the path of personal liberation requires that, fair enough and godspeed. But for those still attached, maybe a first step is to retire their familiar fundamentalist Bible, the "faith enhancing" translation with the slavish marginalia. Substituting a HarperCollins Study Bible or New Oxford Annotated Bible wouldn't be bad places to begin. Anyone with a Life Application Study Bible is swimming in swill, and something like the ESV Study Bible is no better (and arguably worse). The King James Version can be appreciated for its literary aesthetics, but not much else. Obsequious notes and dishonest translation choices (e.g. virgin for young woman in Isaiah 7:14) are a sure indication that the reader is still soaking their head in those fundamentalist assumptions.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Quintessential Concise

If you write for a blog, even a scrappy little pretender like Otagosh, you need a decent dictionary.  Spell checkers alone just don't cut it, as many of us have discovered to our cost when typing to instead of too.  Nothing advertises the fact that you're an amateur (Jim West would say dilettante) as much as a glaring typo in the midst of a piece of serious writing.

I mention this because, as well as being the 400th anniversary of ye olde King James Version this year, its also the 100th anniversary of the quintessential decent dictionary, the Concise Oxford.

To mark the occasion, Oxford have released the twelfth edition of the Concise, along with a reprint of the 1911 first edition.  While this may elicit a chorus of yawns from the back pews, I for one am thoroughly intrigued.  Intrigued enough to spend good money acquiring copies of both.  The former tome that sat next to the desk-top computer, the 2000 New Penguin English Dictionary, can now be retired to classroom use, and the battered, coffee-stained copy of the 1980s COD that I've been persevering with there can finally be put out of its misery.

The 1911 Concise is a fascinating study in how words change.  It's not so much in the words that have been added to the language since 1911, but those that have dropped out completely.  No longer may a blobber-lipped Boanerges create bobbery by counseling a beaverteen-coated benedick after services at the Beulah.  The discretely worded definitions of certain less elevated terms, designed to cause minimum offence, are a period-piece in themselves also.

Equally intriguing is the fact that, chucked in free and gratis with a Kindle, is the full Oxford Dictionary of English (along with the New Oxford American Dictionary) from which the twelfth Concise is derived.  Dictionaries are going to be with us forever, but a scant century after the Fowler brothers produced the first Concise, the momentum is gathering to move from dead trees to e-readers.  The days of the door-stop dictionary are seemingly numbered.

Which is kind of sad.

While on the topic, look out for Stephen Fry's brilliant Planet Word, a BBC series telling "the story of language from the earliest grunts to Twitter and beyond."  It'll take a while before it's screened in this part of Her Majesty's Dominions, but the book of the series is already out (in New Zealand, but not apparently in the US where you'll have to settle for the e-book version in the meantime.) 

Link to 1911 Oxford Concise Dictionary on Amazon.
Link to Amazon's Kindle version of Planet Word.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Spare the Rod

Samuel Martin draws attention to an IVP title, Corporal Punishment in the Bible by William J. Webb.  This is the sort of book that needs to circulate wherever people attempt to apply biblical texts to everyday life.  Let's face it, Christians still form a sizable rump of corporal punishment advocates and, seeking to justify it, appeal to the Bible.

Martin, son of former Ambassador College professor Ernest L. Martin, has long championed an alternative perspective.  Those who still find corporal punishment acceptable include not just biblical literalists but, incredibly, Australian Presbyterians.  Webb's book has the endorsement of a variety of leading figures within the evangelical fold including I. Howard Marshall (who wrote the foreward) and Darrell Bock.  Jim West has posted a brief review online.

Webb challenges parents to "dare to read the Bible differently."  All power to him.

Details on 'Corporal Punishment in the Bible' at Amazon

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Before the Apocalypse

Captain Ritchie McCaw contemplating a dish of Wallaby Stew
Today is the 16th, and I'll admit to being nervous.  Tonight New Zealand's finest go forth to face the ancient foe on the sacred grounds of Eden Park.  The fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Last night the gallant Welsh were put to the sword by the French.  The French!  Unbelievable.  I've sworn off French Toast for the rest of the month!

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I'm talking about Rugby; real football.  Not (shudder) Aussie Rules or that effete deviation common in the United States (the one with helmets and shoulder pads).  And tonight New Zealand meets Australia in the second World Cup semi-final.

In the wake of Wales' tragic defeat, and the clock relentlessly ticking down to tonight's struggle between the forces of evil and the black-clad Sons of Light, it was a choice, this morning, between prayer and fasting, or retail therapy. I opted for the latter.

But I'm not sure it's worked.  

And imagine - if such a ghastly thing can be imagined - if the Australians did, by some miracle (a demonic miracle) did beat the All Blacks and went on to play France in the finals...

I mean, who could you even consider cheering for?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Ben Mitchell story online

A nod to Felix, who discovered the link to the Ben Mitchell story reported on here some time ago.  Ben tells his story of life growing up in the dysfunctional Worldwide Church of God as a kid. The clip is from Australia's A Current Affair.  It may not be online forever, so see it while you can.

I'm about 16 chapters into Ben's semi-autobiographical novel, The Last Great Day, at the moment, and will post some comments in a few days time.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Historical bottom lines

Thomas Verenna passes on the question: What events recorded in scripture must be historical for you to affirm the truthfulness of Christianity?

The source of this puzzler is Brian LePort's blog. It's a great question. Can there even be a coherent theology without some kind of historical base, or does it just all turn to custard? Can the assertion that the moon is made of Swiss Cheese be factually inaccurate while still being deeply meaningful and revelatory?

Cutting edge philosopher/theologians like Don Cupitt long ago cut loose from the Grand Narrative. Perhaps that's why their perspective no longer looks distinctly Christian any more.

At the other end of the spectrum are the fundamentalists (Tom cites the United Church of God as his example!) who want you to believe absolutely everything. Somewhere in the middle, unctuously impaled on the fence, are the poster boys of ponderous prevarication (N. T. Wright anyone?)

Maybe we could break Brian's question down into some representative 'True or False' bite-size chunks.

  • Adam and Eve were literally the progenitors of humanity.
  • Satan is a fallen archangel in rebellion against God.
  • There was a worldwide flood that wiped all life off the face of the earth in the time of Noah.
  • God made the sun stand still so Joshua could wipe out his enemies thoroughly.
  • God commanded bloody genocide against the Canaanites in the Old Testament.
  • Daniel knew what was going to happen hundreds of years into the future.
  • Key events in Jesus' life were accurately predicted in Isaiah, Psalms etc.
  • Mary was a virgin when she fell pregnant.
  • Jesus turned water into wine.
  • Jesus rose from the dead in bodily form three days after the crucifixion.

Score ten for each which you feel are true (i.e. definitely historical), five for those you think might be historical but equally might not, and zero for those you think are patently false (i.e. pious inventions).

If you score 85-100, do you consider yourself a fundamentalist? If not, why not?

If you score 0, do you necessarily consider yourself a non-Christian? If not, why not?

Cult of Denial

Some demented "pastor" joker recently called Mormonism a cult, and given that the next president of the US could well be a Latter-day Saint, the outrage has been swift. Even some evangelicals - evangelicals - have been crying foul.

Now I wouldn't describe the LDS church as a cult. Nor the SDAs, JWs, or a hundred other sects that defy in some way the brain-dead conventions of orthodoxy. The sad truth is that I kinda admire some, in a jaundiced, skeptical, raising-of-an-eyebrow fashion. And, yep, the use of the word 'cult', especially when used as a theological club, is extremely poor form.

But I still use it to describe high demand religious movements that micromanage the lives of adherents, especially intellectually, and impose punitive measures on those who don't conform to the letter of their legislation. It becomes even more problematic when those in charge have no line of accountability, ruling by fear and authority, without the slightest mandate.

Okay, we could use the term "high demand religious movement" instead, but let's face it, it doesn't even begin to convey the malice against the human spirit - evil even - that these groups can perpetrate. No, the LDS church isn't like that now, and hasn't been that way for a very long time, but can you say that about the FLDS sect?

It just doesn't cut it to merely call groups like these 'New Religious Movements', as if they're just promoting a new Tupperware product.

I am a former member of a high demand NRM. Was it a cult? Or more to the point, did it deserve the opprobrium of being labelled as a 'cult'? It depended on when you asked; NRMs tend to be unstable entities, evolving rapidly. There were times it scored low on the cult continuum (the late 1970s for example), despite the impassioned shrieks of the cult busters like Salem Kirban and his ilk. There were others when the groups' dynamic turned from mildly toxic to downright lethal. People actually died because of church doctrine and discipline. Groups like these aren't about what people believe in their heads - doctrinal purity is an illusion. They're about control, and they're about the people who are manipulated by those who are supposed to 'serve' as leaders.

'Cult' therefore remains in my vocabulary, though I think voters should be more concerned about Mitt Romney's policies rather than his faith commitment..

From Tech to Toaster

I hate it when the Internet goes down. Specifically, when the ISP, in this case the usually dependable Slingshot, has a hernia and service drops out for what seems hours on end. Not that it happens often, it doesn't. But on those rare occasions when it does, boy do you know it!

Tonight was such a night. Not only did Firefox spit at me, the Kindle conked and my smart phone morphed from android to toaster.

Isn't it amazing just how dependant we've become on the technology. I can't imagine living without globe-girdling communication, and it's a creature of but yesterday.

Douglas Adams categorised "technology" under three headings.

There's the stuff that was already here when you were born, which we find completely normal and take for granted - toasters, telephones, cake mixers, TV and radios.

There's the technology that comes on the scene during your lifetime, but before you turn thirty. This is regarded as the cool stuff: video tapes, desktop computers, FM radio (you'll need to adapt the list to suit your own age group).

Anything after the brain cells atrophy at thirty is completely pointless and probably threatening. I mean, do we need to text shopping lists, and won't it stunt teenagers' brains and destroy their ability to spell and use punctuation? Think back to your parents' puzzlement at the innovations you loved.

And don't you just hate it when technology that still blows your mind is simply blasé to the kids?

I'm reminded of a conversation with a colleague a week or so back. She hit thirty some thirty years ago, and was complaining about being unable to pick up Maori Television for the free-to-air coverage of Rugby World Cup pool games. When I sensitively and solicitously suggested that she was almost definitely the last New Zealander standing who hadn't migrated from analogue across to either Sky or Freeview the dear lady was unimpressed, suggesting I had a fixation on 'boys toys'. Well, quite possibly... but what's her point?

As for tonight's outage outrage, Slingshot has picked up its pebbles and is back in action. Phew!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Teflon Apostle

Some of the hard questions we're unwilling to ask about Jesus, we may be prepared to ask about Paul, the man who, in those early years following the crucifixion, picked up the ball that the original disciples were fumbling with, and ran off with it.

Yet most of us don't. Paul's writings, in fact, are often used to “overrule” the sayings attributed to Jesus.

In New Zealand Jim Veitch is a well known figure in field of religious studies.  A professor at Victoria University in Wellington and a member of the Jesus Seminar, he is an advocate for an unvarnished portrait of the apostle to the nations.
“In one sense the problem we have with Saint Paul is similar to that which we have with Jesus. Both are elusive figures of history who have become hidden in the folds of human piety and devotion, and encased in doctrine and belief...”
In the third chapter of Rediscovering the Apostle Paul Veitch calls for a quest for the historical Paul, over the objections of all those who have smoked one too many theological joints.
“The church is probably no more interested in a truly historical Paul than in an authentically historical Jesus. To discover the truth about either – let alone declare a no holds-barred, uncensored version of it – threatens and intimidates the church and its congregations.”
“Theologically, Pauline scholarship is at the center of the church's search for identity...” 
Reason, perhaps for “the persistence in trying to resolve these matters theologically and not historically.”

Veitch briefly surveys the great and the good who have already passed this way; Baur (who “tried to penetrate behind the smokescreen of the sainthood of Paul to the real individual”), Schweitzer, Bultmann, W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders. What is needed now, Veitch writes, is “an open and honest search for the Paul of history.”

The theologically-minded will scream, pound their fists and pout at a suggestion like this. Either, like Veitch, you're hard-wired to want an objective vantage point on matters like these, or you're hard-wired to run off into the sacred wilderness where the imagination can take full flight, spawning demons and dogma, and where “the full armour of God” is coated in reality-repelling Teflon.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Paul: Profound or Confused

Heikki Raisanen's contribution to Rediscovering the Apostle Paul is entitled "A Controversial Jew".  Among the insights he brings to his subject is the apparent difficulty we have in making much coherent sense out of Paul's writings.  What is his position on the observance of the Torah for Jews?  Are Jews saved in the same manner as Gentiles, or is the Gentile gospel a special arrangement - a limited time offer, if you will - in view of the 'fact' that Jesus is returning awfully soon?  "I think", writes Raisanen, "that Paul's relation to his Jewish heritage was ambiguous at best... Paul picked and chose what he would and would not observe from the Torah."
"Could it not be that there are conflicting tendencies in Paul's own mind?"
Well, no Heikki, just ask any of those nice systematic theologians that plague the Reformed tradition.

Why did the confusion arise anyway?  Raisanen suggests the development of Christianity as a separate, detached faith from Judaism was marked by the need for ad hoc decisions from its inception: "As so often, practice probably preceded theory... new experiences seem to have triggered a bold reinterpretation of Jewish tradition... [Paul] is desperately trying to solve a problem which proves to be too difficult."
"Paul first became a missionary sponsored by the congregation of Antioch, the home-base of the Hellenists.  But when his views grew more radical, the Antiochians broke with him, and he had to continue his work independently."
 "Paul is struggling to make sense of a strong tension between his inherited values and his new convictions."
No wonder we have so much difficulty trying to put the pieces back together again today.  Humpty Dumpty is, perhaps, beyond the systematising ministrations of the interpreters.  Does God, for example, predestine hapless mortals to glory or destruction?  Read some of Paul's arguments, and it certainly seems so.  But read on and he seems to drop the whole idea.  "Future generations of Christians would have been spared a great deal of anxiety and despair, if Paul had not tried it at all."

It's not as though we can just play one book off against another, claiming that Paul's "mature" view is the one to follow.
"... some scholars assume that Paul's theology underwent a substantial development between Galatians and Romans.  But the thesis presented at the end of Romans 11 is also quite different from the thesis argued a couple of pages earlier in chapter 9."
Darn.  Was Paul making it up on the hoof?  Isn't it clear that, if not completely incoherent in places, the Apostle was at least embarrassingly inconsistent?
"Paul is found consistent only if the interpreter knows how to tell the coherent kernel from the unimportant husk."
And therein lies the trick.  A fibre-free gospel?  Just ask the All Bran brigade about the pitfalls of that strategy.
"Do not the attempts to find in Paul coherence at all costs betray a kind of docetism?"
Docetism, maybe.  Or just plain dishonesty and special pleading?

Raisanen concludes with the plea that, instead of deferring to Paul as an authority, a know-it-all to whom (if we can only work out what he's actually saying) we must kow-tow, we should embrace him as a discussion partner.  A somewhat befuddled discussion partner it seems.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Plain talking about Paul

Gerd Ludemann is something of an authority on Paul.  That's Saint Paul if you're a traditional Christian, or the Apostle Paul if you're sane, sectarian or semi-secular.  Ludemann has written a number of dense tomes on his subject which, while enlightening, are hardly light reading.  Then again, he's German, and since when has any German theologian or biblical scholar been easy reading?

So it's refreshing to find a short Ludemann article on the Man from (maybe) Tarsus appearing as the opening chapter in the Polebridge volume Rediscovering the Apostle Paul (edited by Bernard Brandon Scott).  The essay is a highly condensed précis of his book Paul: The Founder of Christianity.

In the essay, entitled Paul - an Obituary, Ludemann observes that this remarkable man was, at once, "a Jew, Roman, and a Christian," and that whether in his own words or those of others, "he stands at the center of a third of the New Testament."  So far, so Dallas Theological Seminary.  But Ludemann is no ecclesiastical yes-man, reminding us that only now "is the history of exegesis becoming an independent discipline and producing many new insights."  Not just new insights, but a freedom to crack the shell of hallowed piety that surrounds Paul and re-envision him on realistic terms.
"In a bold leap of thought he combined the Jewish ideal of the Messiah with Isaiah's Suffering Servant...  Remembering that the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had claimed divine election, Paul applied this directly to himself (cf. Gal 1:15f.) and fantasized that like the two great prophets of the past he had been divinely ordained from his mother's womb to be a preacher."
And the fruit of this endeavour? "A new movement was called to life by a man who had never known Jesus personally."

For Ludemann Paul is, absolutely no question, the real founder of Christianity.  Even though he is the big kahuna behind it all, the apostle's theology is disturbingly ambiguous.  Romans 1-8, for example, seems to say one thing, but "in Romans 9 - 11 [Paul] partly takes back everything that he has written previously."
"Paul's theology of the Law was anything but clear...  Paul had become a Gentile to the Gentiles, a Jew to the Jews, and thus in effect neither a Gentile nor a Jew."
Even worse, the much trumpeted genius of the early church just didn't cut it when it came to doing battle with the big guns.
"The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers showed him his limits...  Despite his repeated (though sometimes deceptive) advocacy of reason, his religion, grounded in mystical experiences, was not up to the intellectual challenge of Greece.  That he founded no community in Athens speaks volumes."
In fact Paul's approach, Ludemann maintains, "calls for uncritical surrender to authority and to divine guidance: the norm is not the intellect but the emotions."  Paul an the importer of orientalism into the West.  "Hellenism marked the maturity of the ancient world; orientalism its downfall."

(This line of argument isn't new, can be highly controversial, and deserves a discussion in itself. )

But...  Gerd, Gerd, what are you saying?  Quit beating around the mulberry bush and tell us what you actually mean.
"We may almost ask whether it would not have been better had Paul never lived."
"... the view that his letters represent God's word is a crime against reason and humanity... he summons [unbelievers] to obedience only to escape damnation.  His monotheism is totalitarian..."
Overstated?  Maybe.  But we do, whether we're grass-roots Christians or tendentious authors of weighty green and black-covered commentaries on Romans 1 -8, tend to hear and read Paul the same way we lap up the rhetoric from a political figure we intend to vote for, uncritically with lashings of 'benefit of the doubt'.  And for that reason alone Ludemann is worth engaging with.

Don't have a cow, man!

Religious rivalry leads to rustling in Zambia!  A  report from Vic Kubik...

So long lads, we've decided to convert to the other herd
The church’s home office was recently advised that some seven head of cattle have been tragically and wrongfully taken from members of United Church of God in remote areas of Zambia...  These stolen cattle were for the most part offspring of heifers that were given to these members years ago as part of a LifeNets International program... patterned after the Heifer Project International headquartered in the United States with an office in Lusaka, Zambia...  the loss of these oxen will dramatically affect the members’ ability to plant their next crop. For them, this act of thievery could not have come at a worse time. 
The unhappy report that we received and verified related that these cattle were forcibly taken away by former friends or acquaintances of these victim-farmers. These former friends now belong to a Church of God fellowship largely comprised of former members and former ministers of the UCG. It is also our understanding from this report that the leader(s) of that fellowship refuse to intervene to stop the theft of these cattle by their members, nor have they condemned the actions that their members are taking.
The original Heifer Project sounds like an excellent scheme.  LifeNets (a UCG-affiliated charity) certainly appears to have meant well.  But the debacle shows, if there was any doubt, why small faith-based initiatives can stumble on the rocks of sectarianism and party spirit.

At least it makes a change to the more usual (if metaphorical) "sheep stealing".

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Biblioblogging Dunedin-style

What do you think of when you think of Dunedin?  The world's steepest street?  Scarfies and burning sofas?  The descendants of dour Scots misguidedly attempting to create 'the Edinburgh of the South'?  Speight's beer?  Cheese rolls?

Now think theology.  Misdirected brainiacs caught up in obscure textual minutiae?  Earnest souls, clones of  Karl Barth, pale skinned, thin-lipped and almost certainly teetotal?

Well, of course, almost all of the above rings true.  Marry the two up, though, and a rather grumpy, unkempt spectre emerges; a stereotype that looks and sounds a lot like the shade of a somewhat tipsy William Barclay, rolling his (most definitely a 'him' wearing a loosely knotted tie and tartan socks) r's...

Nah, not really.  Not if the newly relaunched Dunedin School blog (after a six eighteen month hiatus) is anything to go by.  Mind you, I'm not sure, but I suspect the tortured genius behind the venture, Deane Galbraith, may in fact be an exiled North Islander and, perish the thought, even hail from north of the Bombay hills; but you know me, never one to spread vicious rumour...  And we North Islanders have, in fact, been known to occasionally favour a Speight's Old Dark, even in the darkest pits of Babylon (a.k.a. Howick and Pakuranga).

Apologies to American and other overseas readers if none of this makes much sense.  In any case, the Dunedin School has, how shall we say, a certain flair.  Earnest admirers of William Barclay should probably not go there.  Ever.  You have been warned.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Surviving the Empire

It apparently took a day to film, but the edited item on A Current Affair lasted just five minutes.  Ben Mitchell - briefly- had the chance to tell the story of what it means to be raised in a sect like the Worldwide Church of God.  Of particular note were the consequences of Herbert Armstrong's hypocritical doctrine on healing, which claimed the lives of several members of Ben's family, an aunt and two infant nephews.  Consequences too for Mitchell who, post-WCG, went "off the rails" with drugs in the midst of a promising career in television.

The piece was salted with clips from Called to be Free, the PR DVD that advertises the church's "transformation".  Herb shook his jowls on screen once again, and the smug mug of Mike Feazell briefly graced prime-time screens across Australia.

There are those who say "get over it!"  In my experience, those who say that are the ones who haven't followed their own advice, or they wouldn't be, in effect, protecting the church, or failing to share their experience so others could avoid the pitfalls.  My only criticism of the ACA item was that it was so short, and didn't provide much if any depth.  But if the publicity means more people read Mitchell's book ("based on a true story") then it won't have been in vain.

To check out The Last Great Day on Amazon (Kindle ebook), click...
The Last Great Day

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Watch 'A Current Affair' Monday

Calling all Aussies.  Channel 9's A Current Affair is featuring Benjamin Grant Mitchell's account of life in the Worldwide Church of God this coming Monday night at 6.30.  Mitchell is well known to Australian TV audiences through his appearances on shows like Neighbours.  He recently 'blew the whistle' on his former faith community in the book The Last Great Day.  The trailers are already airing for Monday's show, which labels WCG as "a doomsday cult," and a review of the programme, hot off the satellite, will be available here shortly afterwards.

Mitchell, whose father was a minister in the church, apparently melds fiction with autobiography in his book, which was the number one bestseller in July at Dymocks bookstores in Oz.  For those beyond the shores of Australia, the easiest way to procure a copy is probably as an ebook from Amazon, selling for US$10.

And yes, chances are good that there'll be a review of that here too in due course.