Monday, 22 August 2016

The Death-throes of Armstrongism

It's not every day - or even every decade - that an entire religious movement goes belly-up, but that's what happened to the Worldwide Church of God. It happened so long ago that whole generations have now arisen that have no idea who Herbert or Ted Armstrong were, and no knowledge of former brand names like The Plain Truth or The World Tomorrow. Those of us who still do are tracking up well beyond middle age into - I say it with deep regret - old fart territory.

Those with get up 'n go long since got up and went. Some, clinging to nostalgia and really bad Bible misinformation answered the siren calls of the tithe farmers who set up parasitical ministries.

There are at least two sorts of these derivative groups, let's call them the blands and the loonies. In the bland category are the UCG, CGI and COGWA. In their favor they're not one-man-bands, and there are some minimal checks and balances to keep Mussolini-like egos tied down. Unfortunately (for them) they're caught in a time warp several decades out of step with the real world, desperately trying to breathe life into a idealized version of the past before women became uppity, gay people began to be regarded as fully human, and evolution was a satanic delusion. The incongruity lies in the rapid adoption by these groups of new technology to promote this kind of intellectual deadwood. By and large these groups are congenitally incapable of connecting with anyone under forty, and the demographic collapse proves it.

Having said that, there are some good people in these groups trying to do the right thing the best way they know how. No future here though.

Then there are the loonies beginning with Meredith's LCG at the less extreme end of the spectrum (though, personally, I've always regarded Rod as certifiable) and going all the way to the flat-out nut jobs like Weinland at the furthest fringe. Slot in Pack, Flurry, Thiel and the others where you best think they fit on the sanity continuum.

These guys are legends in their own lunchtimes, one-megalomaniac operations. LCG is an interesting case in that it is being forced into some kind of ham-fisted transition due to Rod's increasing incapacity. It's no sure thing, though, that it'll survive that process. Any sane person sees these franchises for what they are - a joke. More-so, sadly, because the insiders are generally too thick to appreciate the humor, which is clearly at their expense. Few of these tin-pot sects will survive the passing of their pompous tithe-lords.

So are there any real victims in all of this considering that those who remain actively choose to remain and submit, which is their perfect right. As the decades have rolled by the corruption, manipulation and hypocrisy have become impossible for any honest person to deny. Knowing that, it's hard to feel much sympathy for the hangers-on.

The exception would be the kids in groups like PCG who are being raised within the walls of these pigpens of human oppression. The reality is that most of them will walk away in disgust when they can. Armstrongism has always had a problem retaining its young.

What, if anything will be left by mid-century?

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Life at AC

As we all know, life at Ambassador College was a foretaste of the World Tomorrow.

Well, actually not.

Gary recently linked to a HuffPost article by Wendy Keller, also doing the rounds on Facebook. It's essential reading for anyone with any remaining illusions about how great that place was. I guess there are legal reasons Wendy doesn't name the minister she "counseled" with. She clearly wasn't the first - or the last - to be treated in this abysmal way either. Some of the ministers simply got off on this sort of thing - fantasizing about real and imagined sexual behaviors of the young people they were supposed to support and guide. 

Wendy was an intelligent and resilient young woman who rose above her "Ambassador experience". I wonder about the more vulnerable souls who were crushed by the hierarchic, abusive system, some just broken and confused, others - tragically - co-opted into the organization with its perverse values.

Compulsory reading IMHO.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Tired, old Horizons

Obscurity, thy name is New Horizons. Or perhaps Really Old Horizons.

New Horizons is published six times a year by Church of God Outreach Ministries (COGM). It's old time Armstrongism somewhat toned down. While the postal address is in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the leading light in the movement seems to be James McBride, based in the UK. James was associated with Garner Ted's CGI way back in the early days, and serves as editor - obviously at distance.

This publication will win no awards for layout or design. Whoever is in charge of that needs to up-skill badly. Perhaps, to be generous, the small size of COGM should be taken into account. The ministry is supported - apparently - by only a handful of local churches and McBride's COG-UK. You'd think though that there'd be a teenager somewhere in those groups that could give the old fellas a clue as to swishing up the presentation.

Content-wise, it's not as awful as some of the slicker COG publications (which is pretty-much every other COG mag), but you get the strong sense of "same old, same old".

Hence the title of this piece. New horizons? Where, where? These old boys haven't seen anything new on a horizon for decades.

Available to download.

Friday, 12 August 2016

The Journal - 186th issue

The latest issue of the independent Church of God newspaper The Journal is out, dated July 31. This issue features something of a valedictory sermon by Wayne Cole delivered to the CGI congregation in Tyler. Also featured is a tribute to Pam Kurr who passed away in July following a hemorrhagic stroke.

There are 227 Feast sites listed for later this year. Included in that particular alphabet soup: CGI, ICG, LCG, CCG, UCG, CGMI, CGWA. There are also some minor groups such as Legacy Institute and more obscure sects with names like Discipleship Church of God and House of David Fellowship. Don't forget to pack those generous holy day offerings!

The issue is available for download.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Spanky: worse than a murderer/molester

“causing church division is worse than murder or child molestation”
Roderick "Spanky" Meredith

Dear old Spanky. In depositions to the Scarborough case, the Presiding Evangelist (semi-retired) of the Living Church of God came out with the above wee gem (read Elizabeth Scarborough's account in full over at Gary's blog.)

Mrs Scarborough is restrained in her comment: "Ironic since he’s formed two churches through division himself ..."

Yes Spanky, tell us again how you simply had to cause division by incorporating the Global Church of God? How you actively encouraged WCG members to join up and transfer their tithes. How did that work? Did the angel Moroni appear to you perhaps? Where's the authorization for such a radical departure from your own "loyalty" teaching over long decades? And who placed you, other than you yourself - the self-crowned pretender - in charge?

To restate the problem, how did the necessary transfer of power, legitimacy, authority and tithes come about to make your inflated claims even slightly credible?

It all happened in your head.

How convenient.

Then again, when concerned office holders in your new GCG church - the one you thought should be your personal fiefdom - sought to reign your ego in and establish some much needed checks and balances, what did you do?

Cause division. Ruin reputations. Cause financial loss for many good, decent people. All because you were obsessed with your own delusions of entitlement and authority.

In fact, you scuppered the ship and established another more compliant entity to serve your needs, the Living Church of God, and stacked it with spineless yes-men. To hell with the collateral damage.

Spanky, your middle name could be "division".

God didn't raise up the Global Church of God - you did. You did it by deliberately, strategically, preying on confused and vulnerable brethren. You could have, if your conscience (do you have one of those Spanky?) so required fallen in with an already existing group like the UCG. But no, you were far too important to play second fiddle to anybody else.

God didn't raise up the Living Church of God - you did to satiate your own ego and sense of self importance and destiny as the "leading minister". Division? You're a past master.

And that makes you - according to none other than you yourself - worse than a murderer or child molester.

In this case I'm not going to argue with you.

Drought's broken

Long time, no posts.

Without going into self-indulgent details I've had other priorities in recent weeks with little energy left to invest in blogging. Happily, things now seem to be moving out from under the cloud cover, so I'm about to at least attempt to make up for lost time.

One of the silver linings has been that, in the absence of other grist for the mill, the previous post (26 July) has attracted a lot of really thoughtful comments. Back in the day, conversations like these all too often ended in folk yelling at each other. The truth is, I suspect, we're all trying to make some sense of past commitments and decisions. At the risk of sounding trite, maybe the journey really is more important than the destination.

I apologize in advance for the tone of the posting on Rod Meredith ("Spanky") which will soon be uploaded. Not much makes me angry these days... so much water under the bridge... but this spiritually diseased old man, the wannabe Emperor Palpatine of the Churches of God, is the exception that proves the rule. The man seems to reach new depths in unreflective shallowness every time he opens his mouth. If you're wondering what sparked this observation, check out Elizabeth Scarborough's letter over on the Banned blog.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Sentimental Christianty

There's an interesting discussion occurring off-blog about Lonnie Hendrix's recent "God and Jane Fonda" posting. Here's a couple of excerpts from that post.
I have been saying for several years now that Christianity is NOT an intellectual experience. True Christianity is not found in a set of doctrines or teachings. Like God, it cannot be fully or adequately explained by ANY book or pamphlet. Paul wrote in many places that Christianity cannot be explained or understood using man's words and wisdom - that it is OUTSIDE of that realm. Christianity must be experienced on an emotional level - in the gut. I'm not saying that you have to experience Christianity in the same way (or using the same words) that Fonda did, but I am saying that you can't be a TRUE Christian by comprehending and/or adopting a set of beliefs as your own. Choose your own words, but you must be "begotten again" or "reborn."

Try to forget the literalist and fundamentalist baloney. Abandon the apologetics. You're never going to get there on that road... It turns out that the HEART and SENTIMENTALITY are what it's all about! You've got to FEEL it on the inside. Wipe that smug, self-righteous smirk off of your face and let God and Christ into your heart.
Do read the entire piece.

I guess I know where Lonnie is coming from. I certainly agree strongly with many of these statements, but I still did a double take. I'm not so sure that something called Christianity can be primarily "experienced on a emotional level - in the gut." That's where values come from, the still, small voice, the conviction that something is right - or wrong. But Christianity has no exclusive market on that. Isn't that the whole point of Romans 1:19-20?

And I'm not sure that the heart and sentimentality are what it's all about either. It took more than sentimentality to motivate the reformers and abolitionists who fought the slave trade, who campaigned for women's suffrage, who work today for a just society worth handing on to future generations. There were few more "sentimental" varieties of Christianity in the years leading up to World War One than German Protestantism, especially in its Pietistic form, but that seemed to matter not at all as nationalism swept across the face of Europe, and the pastors fell in behind the Kaiser in whipping up unquestioning patriotic fervor.

My point, I guess, is that to identify good feelings and sentiments with Christianity creates a category error. And to focus on good feelings and intentions can lead to quietism and withdrawal from the great issues which should command our attention and passionate advocacy. Christianity, under any positive definition I'd be comfortable with, is as much about the hand as the heart.

Christianity, Lonnie contends, comes to us from outside the realm of human words and wisdom. Again, I know what he means, but can anything beyond instinct and lower animal behaviour really be conveyed outside the realm of language? Even if that was true, which I personally doubt, there is no other place that it - or anything good - can be expressed other than in this messy realm with all its uncomfortable paradoxes.

Doctrine, apologetics... on these I agree wholeheartedly with Lonnie. But if you strip them away, I wonder if what you're left with is best described as something other than Christianity. And, in my view, intellectual rigor, engaging the mind, at least at a basic level, is a non-negotiable element in negotiating one's way through life - and that includes faith commitments of whatever stripe.

As Lonnie often says, what do you think?

Monday, 25 July 2016

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum

If you were ever a member of the old Worldwide Church of God (or one of its offshoots) you know about the Christmas tree passage in Jeremiah 10. I certainly had it underlined and highlighted in my wide-margin KJV from that era.

"For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (Jeremiah 10:3-4)

Clearly a precursor to the tinsel-decorated Christmas tree. As verse 2 thunders, "Learn not the way of the heathen".

How clear could it be? Well, maybe not as clear as we thought. The Remythologized blog has an entry called "No, Jeremiah 10 isn't a Christmas Tree." The writer finds textual reasons to show that the word 'workman' (he translates it as 'craftsman') refers to an idol maker. The passage is about a wooden idol, not a decorated tree.

The argument goes further than this though.

"Does it really make sense to argue that Christians should not make use of symbols with pagan origins or associations when Christians are either: a) totally unaware of a symbol’s history, or b) using the symbol with no pagan (or completely different) intentions? My problem with the Hebrew roots movement [he could have sad Churches of God] is that the standard of purity it uses to beat up Christian holidays and symbols cannot even be applied to the Bible. I’ll give you some examples:

"John uses a snake as a symbol for Jesus (John 3:14); it is well known that many of the Biblical proverbs have Egyptian origins and influences (If you don’t believe this you simply haven’t ever picked up an academic commentary on Proverbs.); Psalm 104 is very reminiscent of an earlier hymn to Aten; Psalm 29 seems to be modeled after Baal texts (for example); both Jesus and YHWH are given the Baal’s deity title “cloud-rider” in both testaments... or consider that the book of Revelation is crawling with Greco-Roman astrology. (Ever read Revelation 12?)

"What examples like these show is that symbols are not magically evil. John uses a snake to represent Jesus and it’s totally kosher in his mind. We talk about Jesus “riding on the clouds” and it’s not an issue that this was a title that originally belonged to Baal. The history of a symbol or its uses in pagan contexts doesn’t make it evil or unusable by Christians, it’s the intention behind the symbol that makes it good or bad."

All of which seems sage advice to me.

The demonic and the depressive (2 of 2)

I drive past the local Anglican parish church several times a week. An oppressive stone building, it sits on a main intersection in town. I've only been inside once, around age ten, when my parents drove up from Hamilton for a cousin's wedding. It seemed a fairly strange place to an out-of-town Lutheran kid, not least because of the impressive (brass?) eagle lectern which utterly fascinated my younger self. These seem to be features exclusively associated with Anglican churches and, I'm reliably informed, represent "St. John the Evangelist."

I wouldn't say this particular church is the ugliest I've seen. Churches of a similar age in Melbourne, judging from a trip there several years ago, probably trump this particular structure decisively. These buildings reflect a colonial age in which Christian worship was a rather dour, serious activity. Hushed voices, patronising ten-minute homilies, often cheerless hymnody, no room for spontaneity. The architecture was designed to put you in your lowly place. You attended because it was expected. Good people went to church in the same way good businessmen belonged to service groups like the Lions Club or Rotary. Which denomination largely depended on your family background. Scottish? Tick Presbyterian. English? Tick Anglican. Irish? Tick Catholic.

But times have changed, and the preference these days is for the bubble-gum flavoured mush that the happy-clappy charismatic, prosperity-focused churches vomit forth. The traditional churches haven't kept up. Perhaps they shouldn't even try, but the sad truth is that they're now so out of step with the surrounding culture that their demographic is rapidly sliding into senescence.

On an optimism-pessimism continuum, traditional churches tend to teeter at the depressive "op shop" end. Not that I'm against op shops, they provide a valuable service, but this is often as far as social engagement goes in the historic denominations - at least on a parish/congregational level. When your community PR and profile is mainly associated with this kind of down-in-the-mouth venture, it isn't likely that you're going to attract or retain millennials. It's worthy. It's earnest. But worthy and earnest need to be balanced with something from the joyful end of the spectrum. It makes more sense to me (but what do I know?) to have many local churches vigorously supporting a single initiative alongside other non-religious charitable groups with minimal - or no - church branding.

This whole thing is summed up for me in the audience response to a lecture at Auckland University some time ago by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is both a New Testament scholar and Jewish. She constantly used humour in her presentation, and very effectively. The attendees were the local Christian theological set. What amazed me was how the humour completely went over the heads of at least half the listeners. I was sitting a couple of seats along from a couple of what seemed to be young religious professionals. They seemed genuinely immune. Certainly they were unappreciative - not even a smile, perhaps they were just puzzled. It was a hard room to play to. The thought that these blokes were going forth into pulpits the following Sunday was genuinely worrying. It still is.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The demonic and the depressive (1 of 2)

City Impact's Mortlock
The New Zealand Herald has unmasked the worst demon-spawned sects that create havoc across the country's Christian landscape.

Of course, that's not the kind of language the august Herald chooses to use, nor that of the expert commentator they quote, but that's how I see it.

I'm using the term "demonic" and "demon-spawned" in a metaphorical sense. There are no fallen angelic entities that correspond to the literal definition many people still quaver in fear of. Demonic is still a useful descriptor, however, for high demand religious movements which mercilessly exploit gullibility through manipulation - and line the pockets of their leaders in the process.

Only one of these cults (and yes, I'm aware that in the academic realm where religious studies are pursued "cult" is a word avoided at all costs) is not a "prosperity gospel" franchise; the faux-Amish Gloriavale community. Gloriavale is however perhaps the most controlling of these entities, especially if you're a woman or someone with any kind of thirst for independent thinking.

Not surprising to find "Bishop" Brian Tamaki's Destiny Church on the list, nor City Impact Church led by Peter Mortlock. The others include C3, Victory, Life NZ, Equippers and Arise.

"Combined, the religious charities have amassed assets worth more than $214m."

That won't sound like much by American standards, but New Zealand is a small, overwhelmingly secular nation with a population of under 5 million. 

What's the appeal of groups with rubbish theologies and narcissistic leadership models? Peter Lineham of Massey University, whose background is Open Brethren, notes:

"All of these churches hold to what we call the ­prosperity ­doctrine - which argues that the sign of God's love for you will be that you become rich and that you will earn God's love by the generosity of your gifts to the church."

Frankly, you'd have to wonder how stupid someone would have to be to embrace this kind of abuse. Yet many do, and with great enthusiasm. At that point abuse also becomes self-abuse.

But where are the prophetic voices in the more mature Christian community? The voices calling out the prosperity gospel and exposing it for what it is? Where are the prominent Baptists, Presbyterians and others who are willing to decry these caricatures of churches? For God's sake, surely this calls for - at the very least - a measure of indignation.

The silence is deafening. The truth is probably that the virus has infected their denominations too, and that any attempt to effectively address the issues would have catastrophic consequences in low-energy denominations which try and project a smiling, non-threatening, irenic face to the world.

And so the "demons" go unopposed.