Saturday, 29 September 2007

Sukkoth Thoughts

Yes it's Sukkoth (sue-coat), a.k.a. the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. Not that anyone in the post-WCG tradition constructs booths from branches, or even sets up a bunk bed in the garden shed, but that's another issue.

This afternoon I listened to a stimulating address which included some provocative references to Tabernacles/Sukkoth. Lest anyone fear that I've de-apostasized (to perhaps coin a new term) and am presently holed up in a motel, attending some obscure COG sect services, hanging on every precious word, I hasten to add that I was sitting in a pew at the very Anglican neo-Gothic St Matthew-in-the-City in central Auckland.

Again, please don't leap to conclusions. Anglicanism is a far stranger fish, in my opinion, than anything that came out of the COG tradition. Stained glass, brass eagles, silly clothes... each to their own. I was there to listen to retired American bishop John Shelby Spong talk about the Jewish Jesus.

Spong is the embodiment of evil to many fundamentalists, which constitutes a glowing recommendation in my opinion. He also has the unnerving gift of talking in everyday language, which is a rare skill among conformist clergypersons.

Among other things today, the bishop put the case for rethinking the time of Jesus death in Jerusalem. The gospels all agree that it was at the Passover, but then again, maybe not.

For one thing there is that "Palm Sunday" procession. Wrong time of year for leafy branches. There was however just such a tradition associated with - you guessed it - the Feast of Tabernacles (Psalm 118:27, Bind the festal procession with branches...) Indeed, you can read the famous phrase used in the New Testament (Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Lord - John 12:13) right there in that same psalm (118), which was read at Sukkoth (verse 26).

Psalm 118 is a Tabernacles psalm? Somehow I don't remember that bit of information coming out when I did the Feast of non-Booths thing with WCG.

Then there's the fig tree that was cursed. There are no figs on the trees in the Passover season, but Jesus in a fit of pique curses the plant anyway, and we get the impression that he was a jerk. The tree was just doing what fig trees do (or don't do) around March.

Figs are on the trees at Tabernacles.

To catch the full discussion you can read it in chapter 14 of Jesus for the Non-Religious. It's part of a wider discussion that is well worth reading.

Creationism? Good Grief!

Recently someone asked whether an article I wrote some years ago on creationism is still available online somewhere. Here's the intro and a link.
One of the first things that initially attracted me about the Worldwide Church of God was its strong, clear, no-compromise position on creationism. There were regular articles in The Plain Truth that dealt with the issue, complete with colourful diagrams and photographs. And you could send for brochures with titles like “A Whale of a Tale” and “Our Awesome Universe.” The way the church presented it, evolution was a theory shot full of holes. Garner Ted Armstrong, at that time the voice of The World Tomorrow, did a nice little number on evolution too. The way Ted told it, those evolutionists were just plain dishonest with the evidence. I believed him.

Read the complete article (PDF file)

Monday, 24 September 2007

Link Update and Dead Sea Scrolls

The Web is a fluid place, and sites blink in and out of existence all the time. If you haven't caught up yet, two significant COG-related blogs have moved to new URLs, while another has been mothballed.

Felix Taylor's Life After WCG blog has moved over to WordPress: the new address is

Stan Gardner's Ambassador Reports blog (with a name inspired by, and intended as a tribute to the late John Trechak's Ambassador Report) has had a minor change in URL spelling:

Finally (and sadly) Gary Scott has brought his XCG blog to a close.

Unrelated to the above, I've just uploaded a recently submitted essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls and their significance for the New Testament writings. It's not particularly readable, and riddled with footnotes, but for what it's worth you can find it here.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Cover Up

John Morgan is the former WCG member who wrote Flying Free, an account of his life in the world of Armstrongism. Now John has completed a new project, this time with a wider audience in mind, an investigation of the death of Diana.

The PR material for the book reads:

Cover-up of a Royal Murder
is a thorough investigation of the British inquiry – the Paget report – into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed. It uses eye-witness, documentary and other evidence to prove that the conclusions drawn in the Paget report are fundamentally flawed -- yet it is the Paget report that is set to form the basis for the upcoming British inquest. This is the book that proves beyond reasonable doubt that Princess Diana was murdered and that there is a lot more to the Paris crash than the French and British investigations have revealed. "Cover-up" provides credibility to the lingering doubts of a large section of the British and international public -- doubts that remain even 10 years after the crash. This book lays down a huge challenge to those who believe the death of Diana Princess of Wales was just a tragic accident. Cover-up of a Royal Murder exposes one of the greatest cover-ups of our time.

Judging from the meticulous work John did on Flying Free, this should be an enlightening read for anyone interested in the British royals. More information can be found here.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Pathetic Penmanship?

Bear with me on this one...

I have a friend from WCG days, a foundation member of the church here in New Zealand, now retired, whose anonymity I'll respect (though I know many NZ readers will know exactly who he is.) Let's call him Bill. Always a quick wit, Bill writes humorous verse. He's had his work published in local newspapers and read on air by appreciative radio hosts. His interests are political (no great fan of "political correctness"!) and he does a fine job in gently poking the borax at the troubled events unfolding in the Churches of God.

I've been blessed with poetic missives from this source for several years now, as have many others who know the writer from a shared past. Having a pre-Tabernacles poem arrive on your fax machine, or in the post (Bill usually avoids email) is a rare pleasure. Some of his contributions even featured on the old AW site. That said, he's far more traditional than most readers here when it comes to theology, retaining a lively interest in British-Israel. Usually he signs his work with a nom-de-plume, but everyone knows who it comes from: this Kiwi COGster is definitely in a class of his own.

Okay, so there's the scene set. Now the tale.

Some time back Mr Kinnear Penman, representative of the Living Church of God in NZ, contacted a friend of Bill - another longtime member who has since moved on - to discuss a reunion of folk who were members of the Auckland congregation from the beginning. Bill's email address was passed on to Mr Penman on the assumption that an invitation would be issued.

Nice, huh? Despite the parting of ways, Church of God people can still talk over old times and renew friendships.

Now it turns out that Mr Penman has been on Bill's mailing list too. Mr Penman is not, however, famous for his self-deprecating sense of humor.

In any case, true to his word, the LCG minister did contact Bill.

Now what, might you imagine, would he say?

Dear Bill

I hope you don't mind me contacting you with this email address. Jim kindly passed it on so I could give you advance notice of a forthcoming reunion of church members from the old days. I'll pass on details just as soon as they come to hand.

Thank you for sending me the occasional poetic opus. Life is pretty busy at the moment, and I don't often get the chance to read them through, but there's no mistaking your style! Perhaps in the meantime you could drop me off your list and save postage. I know you'll understand where I'm coming from.

In any event, I'm looking forward to renewing acquaintance at the get-together, and hope you can make it. It should be great to catch up with so many from years past.

With warm Christian greetings
Kinnear Penman

Well, he could have written something like that.

But instead he wrote this.

Bill (or [nom-de-plume])

We are getting sick of receiving your pathetic doggerel. We have absolutely no interest in it. Please desist. Haven't you got something better to do with your time? I guess not.

If you were proud of your miserable efforts at poetic commentary why did you go to such lengths to try, unsuccessfully, to hide your identity? A rhetorical question - no answer expected or wanted.

Go away.

Kinnear Penman

And the title of that email? Surprise!!

Any further comment on my part would be superfluous. Anyone willing to put $5 down on a wager that Mr Penman will get over his outburst and follow up with a fulsome apology?

No, thought not.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Transparent English Bible

Dr James Tabor has released a sample from the forthcoming Transparent English Bible, a longstanding project that dates back to a proposal by Ernest Martin. If you fancy literal translations, this may appeal to you. The first few chapters of Genesis are available as a PDF document.

Tabor expresses his preference for literal translations in a blog entry, even recommending the long-forgotten 1901 ASV, and opting for the 1950s RSV over the NRSV. To each their own.

What you can say is that the proposed TEB is different. With the proliferation of dumbed-down "easy to understand" versions (which distort the not-so-easy-to-understand realities of the manuscripts) this version will certainly stand out. This is a long, long way from the feel-good babblings of the Good News Bible or the CEV.

A couple of "buts". The TEB has reached this stage of development before, with substantial excerpts pre-published online (including the first chapters of Genesis, if memory serves.) For whatever reason the project was then rebooted and the initial work apparently withdrawn.

Second, if an important quality of a good English translation involves being able to be read aloud, then this may be the TEB's Achilles heel. Scripture has only been the object of personal, silent reading in relatively recent times. In synagogue and church the Bible has always been read aloud, reflecting the reality of our largely illiterate forebears. Arguably these books were written to be read aloud rather than pored over by individuals - that's how it was supposed to happen when they were first set down. By this criteria TEB looks shaky. Try rolling this text off the tongue:

These are the bringings-forth of the skies and the land in their being created. In the day of the making of YHVH ELOHIM, land and skies, and no shrub of the field was before that on the land, and no plant of the field had before that sprouted - for YHVH ELOHIM had not made rain on the land, and there was no soil-man to service the soil (2: 4-5)

This may be true to the Hebrew, but it's not the way lucid English works. That said, the Tabor Bible may - assuming it finally reaches completion - fill an important void in the market, perhaps supplanting the simply awful NASB and kindred travesties. It's certainly a project worth following, and I'd wager a thousand percent more worthy than the KJVish Coulter translation, due for release (both Old and New Testaments) very shortly.

Meantime I'll be sticking to the NRSV.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Cracked lamps

I like The Journal. It has the ability to treat important issues that affect the Churches of God with fairness and depth. That's an important counter-balance to the less than objective sources online - whether the various sect websites, Bob Thiel's blog, or - yes, it's true - even the one-eyed rants that crop up here on AW.

But along with the good stuff, there are features in The Journal that would drive the sanest person nuts. Take this month's cover story on a new ministry called "Lamp Fire" for example.

Lamp Fire is the brainchild of a troika that includes high-profile BI apologist Steven Collins. Their calling is to spread the good word "to inform the nations of the modern house of Israel about their heritage and warm them [sic] about the prophecies affecting them" via video.

Frankly, I'm not sure what if any relevant qualifications Mr Collins brings to this task. I know he's written a number of obscure books which gather dust on the shelves of the BI bookshop in Auckland. I also believe Fred Coulter is impressed by his research, though that is probably very faint praise.

But more seriously, Lamp Fire has "invited JOURNAL readers and others to consider making tax-deductible (in the U.S.A.) donations to help kick off the project."

Uh huh? The Gospel of fictive racial origins? My money? Yeah, right!

Then there's a long article by the aforesaid Mr Collins on the inside pages where he defends the idea of a "6,000-year period in prophetic calculations." It contains statements like "Until they [Adam and Eve] sinned, the entire physical world was perfect..."

Oh really? Nature has been "red in tooth and claw" since well before the first mammals (let alone humans) appeared on the face of Planet Earth. The food chain involves pain and suffering, and it always has. ADAM DIDN'T DO IT! In fact, Adam couldn't do it.

Perfect? No ice ages before Adam? No volcanoes erupting? No extinction of species? No predation by carnivores? Maybe somebody should take this up with the Discovery Channel!

But Mr Collins has a well-stocked battery of inerrant proof-texts, all to be taken literally, and who can argue against that when all you have at hand is facts? I guess if you can believe that, then it's no great stretch to imagine that the citizens of Milwaukee are Manassehites.

As to when it'll all end, Mr Collins reassures us: "At this juncture I’ll state that I agree with Mr. Nelte that Christ’s return should not be expected before 2010. We are already in 2007, and the prophesied 3 1⁄2-year ministry of the two witnesses (Revelation 11:3) has not yet begun, so it appears that the end of this age will not occur until 2011 or later."

Let me go on record here. Christ isn't returning in 2010. Or 2011. How about 2012? Nope. In fact, there's about as much chance of Christ returning in my lifetime or yours as Portugal has of winning this year's Rugby World Cup. Of course Mr Collins has given himself wiggle room by saying "or later." This is the famous "Dankenbring maneuver" (or have I got that confused with the more popular "Meredith maneuver"?)

Wise fellow.

You can read the Lamp Fire item, and peruse the front and back pages of the latest Journal issue here.

Return of the Zombie College

Forget Six-pack's "Armstrong College"

Forget Spanky's "Living University"

As for "Ambassador Bible Center": why bother?

"Ambassador College of Christian Ministry"? Not even a starter!

Not when there's AMBASSADOR COLLEGE itself.

Located in the furthest reaches of Tennessee, Ambassador College liveth yet, apostles provided!

And, from what is available on its website, I'm guessing that it will provide similar, unique standards of academic instruction as its deceased namesake in Pasadena. But do you reckon Joe's legal beagles might object... or has the glorious Pastor General been reduced to selling the name now that the silverware has long gone?

And how come Gerry, Rod, the UCG Sanhedrin et al didn't think of it first?

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Stir Away!

Dear John Halford

Your Christian Odyssey editorial, Stirred but not Shaken, gave me pause for thought. You wrote:

These are stirring times to be a Christian. Critics are having a field day, questioning, undermining and ridiculing every aspect of our beliefs. Nothing, it seems, is sacred.

This struck me as a remarkable observation from a longtime WCG functionary. After all, "questioning, undermining and ridiculing" was the evangelistic strategy of choice in the old WCG. The nightly World Tomorrow monologues by Garner Ted Armstrong (imitated in the pulpit by the humblest local elder) raised ridicule to a near art form.

The whole idea of God is a delusion, argues the enthusiastic atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins... What are we poor ordinary Christians to make of all this?
Perhaps you'll bear with me for a moment John, but I'm old enough to recollect Plain Truth articles where science was attacked mercilessly and evolutionists were clearly portrayed as blind fools. Now John, fair is fair: what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If I'm not mistaken, you were around back then too - and in more elevated circles than the common herd. Surely you haven't forgotten!

But you can be sure that there are capable men and women out there who are more than able to defend the Christian turf. They have education and experience, and they are not intimidated by clever arguments. When given the opportunity, they can more than hold their own, and show that the opposition has not really done its homework.

In your footnotes you reference prominent Anglican evangelical Alister McGrath. I enjoyed McGrath's discussion of the King James Bible, and am currently wading my way through his tome on Christian Theology (not by choice, it's "required reading" for a course.) McGrath is a gifted writer, but let's be honest, he's an apologist, though an eminently scholarly one, and whether or nor he does a convincing job in defending the ramparts of conservative orthodoxy, ultimately he's a refined version of GTA in a roman collar.

If any branch of the Christian church has less legitimate cause to get its knickers in a knot over issues like these, it's the Worldwide Church of God. Not only because of the contemptuous treatment it doled out to others in years gone by, but also because that same contempt was poured out upon its own people during its so-called reformation.

You know, John, you could do worse than actually reading Dawkins. He has some important points to make, even if you don't go the full way with his argument (as I don't.) And you could do worse than tackling some of the material on documents like the Gospel of Thomas - which you also seem to find threatening - with an open mind (Marvin Meyer is a great place to start.) Why not leave the pre-Copernican apologetics to the nice people over at the Good News: Mario Seiglie has it well covered.

Nothing, it seems, is sacred.

I guess they said that in Rome during the Reformation, but there are no questions that shouldn't be asked. It's by grappling with the tough questions that we grow. Trying to shield the "poor ordinary Christians" from that responsibility is just plain presumptuous. Given the opportunity, some of those folk could be extraordinary instead!

In the post-modern world a gentle stir may not be enough. Sometimes the foundations need a decent shake-up. It's tragic when Christian leaders counsel their flock to avoid the opportunities - and the insight - by circling the wagons and bleating about how awful things are.

Stirring times indeed!

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

King James triumphant

According to the last poll, which pulled a respectable 121 responses, nearly half of us still prefer to use either the King James Version or the New KJV. None of us is bothered with the trendy Message paraphrase, almost as many of us have given up on the Bible thing entirely as use the scholarly NRSV, and a bare five percent have been convinced by the evangelically-minded to change to the NIV or TNIV.

Confused? I sure am.

Even more interesting, nearly a quarter of us prefer another translation to the ones listed.

So, if you voted "other," what do you use and why?

Ego and the Empire of Puddles

If anyone was under the illusion that life is invariably better under the umbrella of "independent COGs" rather than "orgs", the name Port Austin should serve as a massive wake-up call. After trawling through some of the comments about the previous entry, I made a solemn promise never to open up that can of worms to public comment again.

It's all reminiscent of Dr. Seuss' tale of Yertle the Turtle. It may be a small pond, but there's always an ego ready to fill it. One Yertle per pond: all other pretenders will need to find their own puddles to exercise sovereignty over. The pre-Yertle generation called the phenomena "Lord Muck of Muck Manor" (and several less salubrious variations which are inappropriate to share here.)

The passions of the parish pump are almost always more intense than those of national bodies. Just because a church calls itself independent is no guarantee of sweetness and light. Hurt feelings, hurled accusations: so much more intense when there's a personal history behind it.

Yet there are good independent congregations. I'm willing to bet that, in every case, those churches operate apart from a single resident guru. Successful churches recognize the need to listen, to consult, to involve, to find consensus and to compromise around a shared center of belief and commitment.

Compromise isn't a bad word, it's a life skill. You want to watch the big game, I want to catch the news. The solution doesn't need to involve partitioning the house or racing to be the first to grab the all-powerful remote. That's Yertle stuff.

If it's an independent church, ask how do they really run things. Is one person seen as the undisputed chief honcho (regardless of whether there's a paper board)? Does one person write all the literature, preside over all the important decisions, claim a higher level of enlightenment than the sheeple? Are members - the people who attend services and provide financial support - able to reach important decisions by meeting and discussing the issues without a Yertle pulling rank?

If it's a national body, the same principles apply. Who puts the leader(s) in charge? (And no, it sure isn't God!) What are the checks and balances? Is it effectively a one man band? If there's an elected structure, who gets to do the electing? The Church of God (Seventh Day) is a good example of how things can work. Is everybody happy? No, but everybody gets a chance to be heard and be taken seriously. Those who find that objectionable are probably budding Yertles, and like Herbert Armstrong, are better off fouling another puddle.

I'm sure there are some good people involved in the various Port Austin factions. But can you imagine trying to live a compassionate, Christian life while you're dealing with that kind of baggage? Even PCG might be preferable: there may be just as much toxin in their pond, but it's big enough to at least dilute it down a bit.

Yertles both great and small abound in COG history, and they all seem to collect tithes. But the real hero of that story is the "plain little turtle whose name was just Mack," the long-suffering little guy at the bottom of the heap who finally wises up and walks away.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Matchmaker, matchmaker...

Norman Edwards is one of the more interesting characters to be found on the fringes of the Church of God. These days Norm appears to be keeping company with the Church of God (Seventh Day), while promoting his own Port Austin Bible Campus. The history of this latter institution reads a little like a soap opera all in itself, with a bitter parting of the ways between Norm and others involved in PABC's set-up. Among those on the other side of the fence, Homer Kizer and his Port Austin Bible Center (PABC2?)

Never mind, Norm has relaunched his once quite influential publication Servants' News, and you can download a PDF copy here. There's a lot that's noteworthy, but the following comments caught my eye.

Many of the young people there want to follow in the footsteps of their parents. They want to obey God and keep the Sabbath. They love to come there [the COG7 convention] and be among friends. But seven days is not long enough to make life-long close friends. It certainly is not long enough to decide whether or not one wants to consider marriage.

With small churches spread throughout the country, how do young people keep their relationship with God, prepare for a job, get a job and find someone of like belief to marry? One solution with which I have had personal experience: Caring Christians in areas where there are many young believers find a place to live and a suitable job for a young person from a sparse area. This allows the young person to remain in a Christian environment and get to know many other young people. I think this is a wonderful idea and I encourage other Christians to do this as they are able.

But most young people do not have this option available to them. That is why we hope to add PABC to their list of options.

Yes, Norm is concerned about the courting prospects of the young folk! How very old fashioned of him. If I'm not mistaken, Norm has expressed his desire for the "yoof" to go forth and multiply in intra-Sabbatarian style on other occasions. COG in-breeding? Certainly sends a shudder down my spine...

My advice to any young people out there is run like the wind! Whatever else may happen, never let yourself fall under the influence of anyone who seeks to limit your legitimate life-options and shrink your horizons. Beware those who crave control over others - regardless of pretext or "good intentions." The reason the Churches of God are full of gray heads, and failing to get traction with the youth demographic, is simple: they've got nothing to offer. Even if Norm manages to attract a few poor souls to shelter under PABC's wings, a quick perusal of this latest issue of Servants' News will quickly demonstrate whether what's on offer is out of touch and intellectually dubious.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Holy Trinities, Batman!

I am grumbling my way through an essay on the Trinity as part of a university paper called "Doing Theology." I say "grumbling" because the paper is a compulsory one in the BTheol program, and because - despite long disassociation from Armstrongism - I'm a thorough-going skeptic over full-blown trinitarianism.

Later I want to expand on this subject, but for the moment I'd like to share some of the surprises that have cropped up in my reading.

* Catholic theologians cheerfully concede that there is no explicit doctrine of the Trinity in either Old or New Testaments. I've dug through Richard McBrien's excellent Catholicism before making this statement.

[W]e cannot read back into the New Testament, much less into the Old Testament, the trinitarian theology and doctrine which slowly and often unevenly developed over the course of some fifteen centuries.

* Evangelical theologians cheerfully concede that there is no explicit doctrine of the Trinity in either Old or New Testaments. I call British Anglican evangelical poster-boy Alister McGrath (Christian Theology, 2007 edition) to the witness box to demonstrate the veracity of that statement.

[N]either the developed trinitarian vocabulary or the specific concepts developed by Christian theologians to express the Christian vision of God are explicitly stated in the New Testament.

* The first person to use the term Trinity was the Montanist convert Tertullian. Tertullian abandoned Catholic Christianity to adopt the beliefs of a Holy Spirit obsessed sect. Remarkably then, the first "trinitarian" to self-identify under that label was a heretic.

Tertullian's Montanism helped him to insights by which the church eventually transcended this formula and developed a more consistent doctrine of the Trinity.
(Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), 105.)

* Popular conservative theologian Larry Hurtado consistently describes the position of the early church as "binatarian."

The arguments used by orthodox theologians are sometimes creative, occasionally profound, and invariably subjective. Catholics have the easiest path through because they can fall back on the authority of tradition, something most of us feel more jaundiced about. But why let the facts get in the way? My favorite quote comes from Robert Jenson who, despite being Lutheran is a devotee of Reformed dogmatician Karl Barth.

Genesis' teaching about creation can only be accounted for by a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity.
(Jenson, "Creation as a Triune Act," Word & World 2/1 (1982), 39)

Yeah right: try convincing a rabbi. This is supercessionism gone crazy.

In any case, the subject, and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the dogmatic bias from certain mainline sectarian hacks, has set me thinking. Of course, finding problems with the Trinity doesn't mean that COG7-style binatarianism is thereby a better option, or Ken Westby-style "One God" unitarianism, and I'd want to make that go double for the near polytheism of the Armstrong/Mormon "God Family" teaching. Making sense of the God question in 2007 calls for something more radical and "out of the box" than squabbling over proof-texts and obscure philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

More on this at a later time.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Painful Truth passes first decade online

Ten years of The Painful Truth. Quite an accomplishment. Here's the announcement over at
That's right, folks -- the Painful Truth has been on the web for ten years! For a full decade now hundreds, perhaps thousands, have visited these pages seeking information about Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God. Scores have contributed articles and emails, and hundreds have written to thank us for providing the information.
It hasn't all been roses. We've been thrown off the web twice, been threatened with lawsuits and even death, but as the Bible says..."The [painful] truth shall set you free"!
To celebrate this small anniversary, a few loyal readers have contributed articles for your enjoyment. More articles are anticipated (and you are free to submit your own). To begin reading, follow this link.
Among the contributors are M.A.M., who'll be known to those who frequented the pre-blog AW, the Most Rev. KScribe, the indomitable Douglas Becker and some dude with a name very similar to mine with the exception of an errant vowel.

The PT began through the vision of Ed Mentell Sr., and after a brief period under Mike Minton passed into the stewardship of John B. It's been attached to a variety of URLs over the years, so if you lost track, maybe it'd be wise to bookmark it. I can think of few other websites of this kind that have lasted the distance. All the best John.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Wie habe ich dein Gesetze so lieb!

That's "O how love I thy law!" in German, specifically Heinrich Schutz's Opus ultimum, the Schwanengesang, a rendition of the tediously long Psalm 119. Performance of Schwanengesang takes more than 70 minutes, faithfully following Luther's translation, and the version I have is split between two CDs. Surprisingly, it's a joy to listen to.

Schutz was born in 1585, and this is his last major composition. It's light years removed from Dwight Armstrong's various attempts to harness the text of Psalm 119. The elder Armstrong brother took at least four bites at the task, and you can find them on pages 90 through 93 of the old purple hymnal. The music of the 1600s was something else again, difficult to describe, but, once you adjust to the style, strangely beautiful. The irony is that this particular work was only recovered in its entirety in 1970, and then performed in 1981. That may in fact have also been its premiere, for Schutz's patron, Georg II, had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, and his musical tastes then took a decidedly Italian turn.

Psalm 119, which is a paean of praise to the Torah, seems an unlikely project for a German composer living in the shadow of the Reformation, and Luther's Old Testament an unlikely text, but stranger things have happened.

I can only say that even the least promising of the biblical texts can be transformed into something remarkable at the hands of a great artist. Whether you'll find the polyphonic pleasures of the seventeenth century to your taste (you'll listen in vain for a tune to hum!) may be judged by listening to the samples available on Amazon.

Sorry, no comments on this post. Back to normal next time ;-)