Saturday 27 May 2006

In their lifetimes

Fred Coulter certainly has a way with words. For those unfamiliar with the more obscure byways of COG Christianity, Fred is a former WCG minister who went out independently in the late 70s. He is a self-styled scholar, has produced his own New Testament translation, and runs his very own niche COGlet.

Here's a recent slice of Coulter text that took my eye in a full page ad appearing in the latest issue of The Journal: "Did You Know... The Apostles wrote the Gospels in their lifetimes?"

Profound, huh! I mean, if the apostles (was Mark an apostle? was Luke?) indeed wrote the Gospels that bear their names, then they would have to have written in their own lifetimes... wouldn't they? Or have I missed something?

Of course there is always posthumous publication, but I'm guessing that the actual writing usually occurs before the coffin is lowered into the grave... unless Fred is a secret devotee of psychic channelling (but that seems unlikely.)

What Fred seems to be maintaining is that Matthew wrote Matthew, Mark wrote Mark, Luke... but you get the picture. While that seems logical, there are a few pesky facts to take into account.

The Gospels circulated a long time before agreement was reached on who actually wrote them. Nowhere in these documents is there a direct statement of authorship (Hi, I'm John the apostle), and the titles ("Gospel according to...") were added later. Even the author of Luke, who tells his readers up-front that he's writing to Theophilus, keeps his identity to himself. The ascriptions we have are part tradition and part guesswork. Maybe they got it right, maybe not. For example, many early Christians were convinced that John's Gospel was the work of a heretic called Cerinthus. What is certain is that Paul's letters (the seven genuine ones) predate the Gospels, that Mark is the earliest of the four, and that the author of John was a different person to the disciple of that name (though he may have been used as a source).

In trying to defend the truth of the Bible it's all too easy to think the issue is the truth about the Bible rather than the truth which the Bible points to. To get hung up on the former is bibliolatry, and leads to ridiculous claims which in turn undermine the credibility of the Christian message.

But I'm sure Fred will disagree with that... and probably in his own lifetime.

Friday 26 May 2006

No martyrdom in Milwaukee

In March 2005 the COG community was shocked to its core by the shootings at a Sabbath service in Brookfield, Wisconsin. A small congregation of the Living Church of God catapaulted to international attention when a member, Terry Ratzmann (pictured), opened fire on the pastor, the pastor's family, and people who counted the shooter as a long-time friend. When it was all over seven people lay dead. Terry Ratzmann then turned the gun on himself.

It was a terrible event. The Living Church of God - a small splinter group from the troubled Worldwide Church of God - went into damage control mode. The LCG's autocratic leader, Roderick Meredith, initially seemed more concerned with the PR fallout than compassion, while the leader of the sect that Meredith, Ratzmann and his victims formerly belonged to, Joseph Tkach of the Worldwide Church of God, appeared unable or unwilling even to express the basic civility of condolences. It was almost surreal.

Now one of the survivors has privately published a book about those events, Martyrdom in Milwaukee. Thomas Geiger was there, and his nephew, Bart Oliver, was among the dead.

I want to say that Mr Geiger seems a genuine man, and the experience he relates, along with his son's, deserves to be treated with great respect. But let's be totally clear, the book's title is not accurate.

Martyrs are people who willingly give their lives for their faith. They stand tall against persecution and hatred from outside their community. Those people who lost their lives in Milwaukee were victims of an evil deed; good, decent people cut down in an apparently senseless act. They lost their lives to a fellow believer, not an enemy of their faith or a coercive state power. They were not martrys.

Thomas Geiger gives more than a first hand account; his is also a defense of Meredith's sect. The book's publicity includes this statement: "Learn... how this modern day derivative of the early New Testament Church functions, traces it's roots, and strives to selflessly serve humanity." You have to wonder just how much input the LCG's hierarchy had into this part of the book.

It seems unlikely that we'll ever know exactly what led to Terry Ratzmann's meltdown. What is certain, however, is that Ratzmann saw his church affiliation as pivotal in some way. While it is inappropriate to cast stones following such a horrific event, the church itself has a responsibility to ask some soul-searching questions about its ethos and its apocalyptic message. At the very least LCG (and other related groups) has to look long and hard at the way it counsels those dealing with depression (and reportedly discourages members from seeking outside help.)

There were no martrys in Brookfield that day in March, but there were victims. It will be a further tragedy if the Churches of God refuse to learn from this terrible experience. While Mr Geiger has every right to tell his story, confounding adversity with apologetics is unlikely to provide either enlightenment or a credible account.

Monday 22 May 2006

Putting the con back in Constantine

Was Constantine, the Roman emperor who legitimized Catholic Christianity, a good guy or a bad guy. The Da Vinci Code implies the latter, and there's a truckload of COG literature over the years that says much the same as Dan Brown. Constantine was, according to this analysis, either a highly savvy politician bent on manipulating the church to his own ends, or, to cite the most extreme option, a pawn of Satan who succeeded in derailing Truth.

Alastair Kee agrees. This Scottish Presbyterian theologian produced a thorough debunking of Constantine's "conversion" in a book called Constantine Versus Christ (1982). If you're interested in the subject, this is one study that's well worth digging up.

I mention this because the subject of Constantine came up in a recent church history tutorial. After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing, the lecturer closed off discussion with these words of wisdom (which I'm paraphrasing):

"If we accept that Constantine was a bad man, and his legacy to the church was negative, we have to ask whether the Holy Spirit would or could permit such a terrible thing to occur. I think not."

Driving home that night I tossed that particular thought around. I don't know this man's denominational affiliation, but I assume it's something crashingly boring and conformist. These folk - unlike most readers of this blog - will have assumed that the acceptance of Christianity by the empire was a good thing. We of course, having been inoculated with multiple strains of heresy, know better. Being part of the modern Christian fringe gives one some sympathy for the underdogs of past ages. I find myself invariably rooting for the bit players in church history: Arians, Pelagians, Marcionites, all in the spirit of the bumper sticker that says "I support two teams, New Zealand and whoever is playing against Australia."

But there's a more important point than personal prejudices here. If we say that things can't go horribly wrong because of the Holy Spirit's guidance, then nothing can go wrong. Inquisitions, pogroms, crusades - no problem! If anyone is it blame it's the Holy Spirit. Oh wait, let's not blame the Holy Spirit (Matt.12:31)! No really, everything is just fine.

If that seems a perverse position, the dodgy recourse of wicked Popes and Patriarchs, consider for a moment how some of us responded (or failed to respond) during the last days of Armstrongism. The Pasadena apostle could do as he wanted (and make us do as he wanted) with a shake of his jowls and a threat of "not making it." The flock feared for their salvation if they were unconvinced. Jump? Yes sir! How high? How different is that from regarding Constantine and his episcopal buddies as the voice and choice of God?

I'm with Kee on this, even if it means gritting my teeth and also agreeing with Meredith & Co. Constantine was a shonky con artist who knew how to both flatter and coerce as circumstances required. The church however - or at least the part of it that the emperor adopted as his pet project - was hardly an unwilling partner, and anyone who thinks that slimey symbiosis was heralded with doves and haloes has "swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all" (as Luther is reputed to have said).

But lest we feel too smug, it pays to remember the spineless subservience of the dumb sheep to Apostle Herb and his enforcers in our own lifetimes.

Sunday 21 May 2006

Just James

A few weeks ago I reviewed James Tabor's book The Jesus Dynasty. Yesterday I received a courteous email from the author expressing thanks for the effort and describing it as interesting and well done. Say what you like, the man has class! In that review which you can find here there's mention of another book, Jeffrey Butz's The Brother of Jesus.

Butz is a Lutheran minister with a couple of Masters degrees. His discussion of James, Jesus' brother, is well worth reading.

James is long overdue for serious attention in the study of Christian origins. Would Jesus' brother recognize the Messianics, Seventh-day Adventists or United Church of God members as some kind of spiritual descendants? Maybe not. Apart from a couple of surface features like Sabbath observance and dietary restrictions, these groups in their theology actually look a lot more like the churches of the Gentile mission. Despite all the talk about returning to "apostolic" Christianity that Rod Meredith and others spout, modern Sabbatarian Christians are inheritors of 2nd century Catholic theology, scriptures and traditions. James' type of Christianity would look very out of place today, even on a Saturday morning in Charlotte or Cincinnati.

It sometimes seems that the least attractive option, the stolid orthodoxy of the "Church fathers", won out due to sheer bloody-mindedness and pig-headedness rather than any particular virtues. The victors have re-written history, thrown book burning parties and adopted the perverse hangups of Augustine (the blessings of Original Sin!)

Which is why Butz is fascinating. Here is a mainline pastor asking uncomfortable and critical questions. May the Force be with him.

Saturday 20 May 2006

The Good News and Judas

When the "James ossuary" story broke three years ago, The Good News, flagship publication of the United Church of God, was quick to join the credulous throng of ecstatic apologists. The problem is that stories which seem too good to be true usually are. Although the ossuary still has its defenders, a deep suspicion has since fallen over the authenticity of the artifact.

Contrast the cries of "hosanna" at the appearance of the ancient bone box with the chilly reception the GN team has dished up for the Gospel of Judas. Where the ossuary seemed to confirm Bible believers in the historical accuracy of their faith, Judas threatens to raise impertinent questions and unpleasant facts. But never fear, the GN has it covered!

According to the May/June 2006 issue, the Gospel of Judas was written a century or two after the death of Jesus. It serves "no useful purpose for Christians," and contains "bizarre philosophies" along with "strange and antibiblical beliefs." It is, we're assured, "the product of a strange sect" (!) and "contradicts the record of the authentic gospels..."

Although the Good News report shows the cover of the book published by National Geographic, it seems unlikely any of the lads in Cincinnati have got around to actually reading it. Let's tackle the issue of the dating of Judas for example. While the codex containing Judas dates from the 300s, we know that it has been around since at least 180. That's when one of the earliest "Church fathers," Irenaeus, mentioned the existence of the Gospel. To be widely known in 180, it had to have been around for quite a while. One suggested date is 150, which would make it contemporary with the latest of the New Testament books, 2 Peter.

Of course, nobody is seriously suggesting that Judas preserves an accurate historical account of events. It's a tale told from the perspective of Christians who were ultimately excluded from the emerging Catholic faith. And what makes an "authentic" gospel authentic in the first place? The question of how the canon was formed has always been an Achilles heel for fundamentalists who find fault with church tradition, yet somehow rely on it when it comes to what they accept as scripture.

This is amply demonstrated in the very same issue of the GN, where Don Hooser tackles The Da Vinci Code. In a section called "Truthful Quotes from The Da Vinci Code," Don takes a sideswipe at "mainstream Christianity" and the emperor Constantine. But, hang on a minute Don, why is Constantine a bad guy and Athanasius (who lived at the same time, supported Constantine and brought together the New Testament canon in its current form) a good guy?

Early Christianity basically split three ways. The Jewish Christians, led by James, continued to observe the Sabbaths, circumcision and temple rites. The Catholic Christians took a more radical, inclusive course. And the Gnostic Christians, taking Paul's teachings to an extreme (or perhaps their logical conclusion) meshed their faith with the philosophies of their time and society. The Jewish church and the Gnostics lost the battle for Christian ascendency. Every existing Christian denomination today - including the Sabbath-keeping churches - is descended from the Catholic party that adopted the present canon. Most Jewish Christians rejected Paul's writings. The Gnostics had documents which they regarded as authentic, but because they were such free spirits (in contrast to the hierarchical Catholics) its difficult to generalize about which books they prefered. It's likely that the Gospel of Thomas was more popular, for example, than Judas.

But, mindful of the way "strange sects" operate, the facts are unlikely to make much difference to the editors of the Good News.

PS. My own thoughts on whether the Gnostics were really Christian can be found here

A modest return

In December 2005 I pulled the plug on a long-term project - a website called Ambassador Watch. For 5 years AW covered developments in a small (some might say bizarre) Adventist sect known as the Worldwide Church of God - along with the countless (literally!) splinter groups that have peeled away from the parent body. At the time the site closed down it was more popular than most of the "official" websites representing the beliefs of the various COGs (Churches of God.)

AW is gone. It simply required more time and energy than was possible for one person to give it. The amount of research required was huge, and there are now other fish to fry. So, for what it's worth, this will be a far more modest venture. No "mailbag," guest editorials, or scoops from insiders ... just a blog. While AW was often updated daily, its namesake will be a less obsessive venture. Twice a week... maybe.

As some readers will know (especially if you got here through a link) there is, in addition to this blog, a new website in the pipeline. The focus has, however, changed. Nothing like "son of AW": though it might qualify for third cousin twice removed. It's called Otagosh, and there'll be more about it in a later post.